“a novel of the 1990s”
Copyright 1999, held by author
My brother’s mini-van turned off the Forest Avenue Exit. The overpass curved over the highway, lined with stores, strip malls and gas stations. Then we headed down the two lane suburban street of our home town. I can’t remember when I had been here last. He had some classic rock station on and this Hendrix song was playing and the cigar, these small stubby things he had taken up went out and as I watched the last wisp of smoke curl and disappear, I had this image, this memory, of him driving me around in this hippie VW micro bus he had when I was a kid.
We were my parents only offspring. He was ten years older. He was a hippie, of that generation, and I was not. Back then, the cigar was a joint and he just blithely drove and smoked, eyes going blood shot, and an eight track of Hendrix playing. The sound system now was much better of course.
I travel for my job, usually to another city like Chicago or Los Angeles. Suburbia, despite my memory of it or maybe because of it, was just so alien now. The endless two story houses, ensconced by short trees and bright green lawns, which were so familiar by association in my memories yet so distant from my day to day experience, made me feel very weird. I was a tourist in my own memories.
I hadn’t seen my brother for more than six months. It was the fifth anniversary of our mother’s death. The plan was to place flowers on her grave and then we would drive back to his Connecticut house and have dinner with his wife and seven year old son. Then I would go back via train to New York city.
This was shortly before I met Mary. I was making good money at the job, but my personal life tended towards vacuous. I had moved into a new apartment, and like my old apartment, it had been burglarized. I was single. Stephanie had moved to San Francisco. I dated this other woman for a short bit, a very short bit. She’s an account executive who works in another company in the same office building as my job. We slept together, she left in the morning and I called her that afternoon. Her cracking voice said she just didn’t feel right. Feel right?
So, now, we pass each other once in a while to and from the elevator and no sign of recognition is made. We don’t work on the same floor. I guess there is a God.
We passed a garden and landscaping store, with bird feeders, lawn statues and bushes on display outside adjacent to its gravel parking lot. Our family had shopped there. Like all suburban dads, mine took the responsibility of lawn care as seriously as his generation’s unified sense of duty that defeated the axis forces. I remember lugging these bags of fertilizer and limestone to our station wagon. I was not a big kid. I dropped one of them and it burst open . Dad hit me, fast, open-fisted then screamed. His temper was immediate with violence-prone results—I cried in the parking lot. I had been forced into being a spectacle, crying and being loudly reprimanded for everybody to see.
Out of the mini van’s window, I watched houses, all two stories, lawns pedicured and verdant, then a bank, a gas station, a delicatessen then more houses. At one light was this red brick office building. Bergen County Medical Arts read the large metal sign by the entrance. I used to ride my bicycle, this gold sting-ray thing with a banana seat to the patch of woods that used to be here. I caught salamanders. The dank crimson creatures squirmed from the light after I picked up a log, then I grabbed them. I kept them in this large jar whose bottom I carpeted with dirt and pebbles. I dropped in saw-dust sized fragments of raw meat. They never ate. In a few days, they were all shriveled up, arid and lifeless and black. My parents never let me keep real pets, dogs or cats. The salamanders were it. I didn’t feel grief, I just felt like a failure. I couldn’t even keep freaking salamanders alive.
I pointed at the brick structure, which was only a five or so stories high but still towered over the split-level aluminum sided homes surrounding it. “The town has changed,” I said.
“Oh, that’s been here a while. I think Mom got her eyes checked there.” David took out his cigar and held it between his fore and index finger, his hand keeping the steering wheel steady. “The place has always been building up. You see a lot more of these office buildings. Guess they’ve built enough malls and stores.”
“It may not be as countrified as where you live, but it is still pretty countrified.”
“Guess you’d consider this wide open spaces now that you’re a city boy. Welcome to America, Tom.”
I rolled my eyes. My brother doesn’t approve of me. I mean, sibling resentment certainly is part of it. But mostly, he just hates the city, New York city in particular, resenting me for not only living there, but actually preferring it. Maybe, also, it’s because I’m not married and don’t seem to be on the way to being married any time soon. I think being from that baby boomer generation, all that sixties long hair stuff, he’s just more inclined to conformity. He rebelled back then with everybody else and when society calmed down and everyone married and had kids, he did likewise. Since I never had to personally rebel against a war or oppressive government or engage in a social revolution I guess he thinks I just should have conformed the other way from the get go.
“Well, I’m glad I don’t live here. Everybody’s the same. All these white faces. When I was on the bus here, all the men had the same kind of blue suit on, white shirt and red tie.”
“You got a suit on. Everybody wears a suit these days.”
“It’s a lot more stylish. Look, the shirt is dark blue, the suit is olive green. It’s a good suit, you know. You need a sense of style in my business.”
“My brother, the sophisticate. Don’t worry, you look like a city-ite to me. You could pass for gay, if you were only a little better looking.”
“Driving this van, you could pass for a soccer mom.”
“Hey, I am a soccer dad. I help coach Joey’s team.”
“What do you know about sports training? You spent your high school years smoking pot and going to Allman Brother’s concerts.”
He hates it when I remind him he was not always a republican. “Welcome to the 90s, Tom. It’s all about the kids.”
We both became silent as we approached the Cemetery and passed through the immense iron gates. Grief burns things into the library of recollection. I felt an acrid and familiar loneliness, momentarily as searing as it was that day we buried my mother. I focused on a tree, parchment colored bark and branches empty of leaves, then on this rich family’s plot that had a huge Christ-on-a-cross crucifix and a woman kneeling at the foot of the cross.
David parked the van. We both remembered the location of mom’s spot. Our shoes crunched the brittle leaves on the slate path. It was late fall. The sky glowed yellowish red, the breeze made hush sounds. Across the vast lawn and head stones, interspersed with pine trees so ever green and other trees, just stark, leafless branches. On the perimeter, columns of weeping willows swayed like decrepit medusas. We came to the grave stone. Beloved brother, husband and father and beloved sister, wife and mother chiseled beneath a nimbus and cross. I brushed off dirt from the letters. David dropped the small bouquet on the grass. It was just some carnations and daises. Then he crossed himself, which surprised me. He bowed his head and murmured some stuff. By now, I was sniffling tears. He crossed himself again, then took out a lighter from his pocket and lit the stub of the cigar.
I felt his hand on my shoulder. “We better hit the road.”
“I just wish she was still around. Things would have been worse with Dad without her. I wonder if she ever knew.”
“She knew, Tom. She changed her tune with you, became more protective. Dad was a son of a bitch, you know what I mean. I had it a lot worse. The Depression, World War II made him that way. But you should be happy you had it easier.”
“You were gone by then, how do you know how I had it?”
My brother always had the last word. Not because of his insistence, it was me. I always backed away from either cursing him or shouting contrary evidence. I could never be sure if he thought that I didn’t suffer as much, or that I was so weak and sensitive that the little suffering I did endure was nothing compared to his experience.
I followed him back to the minivan, the smoke of his cigar wafting in the breeze. He opened the back hatch, took out two beers from the plastic cooler and made some joke about being prepared for the road and how the distance from New Jersey to Connecticut is nearly a six pack.
In the center of the cemetery was a tall flag pole with a huge American Flag. It had to be the biggest flag I ever saw. One of the workers began untying the ropes to lower the flag.
The sky was cobalt, getting darker. A fragment of the moon hung in the sky like chipped pottery. The can made an angry kissing sound when I opened it. The push top didn’t seem to press in right, the hole’s edge sliced the side of my thumb. A small line of blood oozed out. I sipped the beer. It was so cold it hurt my teeth. I scraped the beer residue off my mouth with the back of my hand. There was blood on the back of my hand. My mouth still felt wet. David was laughing at me. I tasted blood and with my tongue detected I had cut my lip as well. David said there was Kleenex in the car and opened the door.
“I don’t feel like driving by the house this time, do you?”
I shook my head no.
The wind had increased. I watched old glory ripple during its descent.
* * *
I didn’t fight with my brother. We never do. We seem to always fall short of verbalizing our mutual resentment. Once it surfaces, we wait in silence until it begins to fade, then dissolve it by talking about politics or the stock market or what his son is doing. Stuff like that. We don’t even talk that much about our parents or our upbringing.
His wife always treated me sweetly, made me feel more like family than he did, and the nephew liked the Sega games I brought him. But when I got back to Manhattan, back to my own life, I couldn’t shake this feeling. I guess it was inadequacy. I wasn’t living up to something. But I never wanted to be some min-van driving sort with kids and the lawn, the only issues besides the job to take up my thoughts. Yet, sometimes it seems that I should want to want that and the guilt that comes with not wanting to want makes me feel useless.
I don’t talk to my brother or his wife about my personal life. Hell, he never asks and I don’t mention. Like most women, his wife says you have a girlfriend and I make some kind of joke or something—“Not this week”—was the one I came up with I think, and she doesn’t press.
My buddy, Peter seemed to be my main confidant. He’s always easy with the opinion and advice. I was in a slump. Happens to everyone, even to me.
That’s what he said. Of course, Peter doesn’t have the same worries as I do, has a three room apartment with a great rent control lease and makes a solid six figure salary as a lawyer. He’s adapted the expert on everything attitude of most New Yorkers. He has had a lot of girlfriends too, always getting action. So, we’re not the same, but I suppose he’s smart about some things.
In terms of my love life, the slump seemed to be akin to a musket company’s sales after the introduction of the repeating rifle.
* * *
I met Peter at Victor’s art opening. Peter was with a date, Cheryl, a twenty something who I had not yet met. Blonde, thin, she worked as a paralegal in his firm. She wore a belly shirt and leather mini dress and large hoop earrings. There was a yin yang symbol tattooed on her upper arm and a rose tattoo around her pierced navel. “She’s wild,” Peter told me, whispering it out of her hearing, and I just smiled and pictured her in a conservative blue suit, playing the career oriented underling during the day and exploding in Basic Instinct in the New York night.
Victor is a drinking buddy. I go to museums and I like art and all, but the only gallery openings and art events I go to are in support of him, or one of his friends that seem to come in and out of the vague circle of people I know as regulars in the East village dives where I spent most of what passed for my night life.
He kept his hair long, fancied silver earrings, had a half dozen in each ear lobe and three in one eye brow. I never saw him dressed in anything but jeans, but there was no attitude about him. I mean, he’s just a nice guy. He didn’t have the snob thing going, and didn’t look down on me for coming from New Jersey.
I was glad he was getting some recognition for his “found art.” That was the latest trend. Most of its practitioners lived in the Lower East and the galleries were located in the East Village, or on the outskirts of SoHo or Tribeca.
Found art meant mixed materials and taking ordinary items and transforming them into art. It reminded me of primitive tribes who worship a discarded Coca-Cola bottle, or picture of Howard Stern. Funny, how simple juxtaposition or removal of context makes something art where before it was just something without meaning.
The gallery was located on some shadowy street where the buildings were old and short. The neighborhood seemed lifetimes away from the Wall Street or Midtown and even the West Village where bohemia and integrity are long deceased. I liked it though, but I just like the neighborhood or maybe I just like any neighborhood that’s relatively safe as long as it is a city neighborhood, where I don’t have to drive everywhere and there’s concrete and people of different races and cultures who leave me alone. In short, it’s different from where I grew up.
Some New York state vineyard sponsored the award. There were some runner ups, who each got a wall to display some pieces and only a thousand bucks, while Victor got five grand and an entire room, adorned with his found art. There was a naked store mannequin impaled on this large cross made with two automobile fenders, this lawn statute of the virgin Mary covered in sponges and in a bucket, this Jesus and twelve apostles sculpted, and I use the term loosely, out of what seemed to be cans and wood and wire. There were some non-religious themed pieces, but those didn’t seem so striking. They did remind me of my catholic school upbringing, although Jesus and all that stuff was rarely mentioned at home. I guess it’s good for the imagery.
Young men carrying trays were offering everybody plastic goblets of white wine. Larry, the new girlfriend, Victor and I were drinking the wine as the room got more and more crowded, real diverse too, downtown, uptown, art crowd. You had the tattered jeans types in purple crew cuts next to the Armani suit types in two hundred dollar haircuts, gallery owners, art world types and then there were different suits, pinstripes and banker blue indicating investment bankers, although junkyard apostles and weird catholic mythology formed out of consumer culture flotsam may not be the best art investment bet. Maybe they were part of the wine marketing program that included art patroonship, or maybe they were just making a scene. But it seemed to me, that despite the cross section mix of cosmopolitan types, they didn’t seemed to be fraternizing. They all came together to appreciate new art movements, but did not stray from their predetermined circles. Some lines just are not crossed.
I noticed Mary before she walked over with her then roommate. I noticed her because of her clothes. She had on black tights and a tweed jacket. She was standing next to this woman with pink streaks in her jet black hair, who wore a black mini dress and was chatting wildly—lots of gesticulation—and Mary sort of nodded. It was apparent she was not adding anything to the conversation and did not know the grungy downtown pair listening to the pink streaks.
Mary’s hair was chestnut, thick and flowing far below her shoulders, out of control enough to hint a nonchalance about her appearance. She seemed to be ignorant of how pretty she really was, like it didn’t matter to her and was indifferent to choosing whether to play it down or play it up. I was uncertain if it meant insecurity or confidence. I liked being uncertain. That attracted me.
It seemed in the span of fifteen minutes, three dozen more people had moved into the back room and the waiters were having a tough time keeping the wine glasses filled. My elbow tapped the Cheryl’s glass and as it fell to her feet it stained her blouse from cleavage to navel. She accepted my apologies, but I could tell she was pissed. Peter shook his head at me. She said let’s go.
Peter leaned over to say something only to me, and I half expected some kind of comment about my typical clumsiness. “I’m doing her butt tonight, I know it.” he whispered.
The next thing I knew, I saw the pink streaks and behind her, the long red hair and tweed jacket. Pink streaks was saying something to Victor. They knew each other. One of the waiters offered to refill my glass and I said no. Didn’t want to take any chances.
I moved closer to Victor, waited for the introduction.
I said this thing to Peter a month or so before. “I’m not good on the make. It happens when you’re not looking for it. Sure, you have to be open, aware of the signs and all that.”
“Patience is either a virtue or a an excuse for inaction,” he opined.
But now, in a brief flicker of clarity, I realized, the virtue was paying off. Pink Streaks was her roommate. Pink Streaks name was Jane.
Jane said, “And this is Mary.”
* * *
Jane was interested in chatting up Victor. I don’t think Victor’s that interested in women, but I don’t really know. For some reason, I talk to Peter about women, and with Victor, the friendship is not like that. Just bar room buddies.
Mary and I, well, we wound up talking and it was apparent that she and Jane, weren’t really friends, just roommates. I asked her the right questions, I had her talk about herself. I can do this deliberately without being deliberate about it. She was from Teaneck, which is in Bergen county and one town over from Paramus. There was instant ‘you from Jersey, I’m from Jersey,” affinity.
She had moved to Hoboken, and was a grammar school teacher, special Ed students. My fascination grew. I never met a teacher, outside of school of course. Seems most, no make that all, of the women I had been meeting since Sheila where either career track women who complained of a glass ceiling or a the graphic artist types who really want to be film directors. Mary, she just had a job, a useful job.
I was nervous and excited thinking about calling her, and even refrained from phoning Peter. I didn’t need his advice. I felt a tenderness towards her, there just seemed to be chemistry. What the hell. I had to be careful to distinguish that chemistry –the kind between two people—separate from my internal hormonal chemistry. I was in a season of need. I had a deep longing, a need for a warm body, any warm body with two breasts and three holes Not that I’m that bad, of course, but Jesus Christ, loneliness is loneliness and a man needs to put it inside a woman and that’s just the way it is a, a fact of life, the fact of life!
It’s compounded by thinking of women I’ve had relationships with, passionate intimacy, knowing that while I was alone trying to dredge up some memory that I could turn into a fantasy free of associations of despair and being let down by somebody I thought cared for me as much as I cared for her and simply masturbate, I thought of them with their new men, wondering if they were acting more uninhibited, pleasing them more than they did with me. Getting laid meant getting back at them.
Regarding Mary, I had to keep a lot of emotions in check, suppress the explosive commingling of anxieties and motivations. So, after a breeze through the Village Voice to find out what was around to do, I decided on some sort of music, instead of a movie, and dinner. See, a movie is a very adequate date, just not a good first date. Why? You don’t talk to the person for two hours plus and then you just talk about the movie. Too much a teen scene. And just dinner, there’s no distractions at all.
So, there was an interesting saxophone player who played bluesy jazz at a village club—also very important, since it was close to the PATH train, the subway that ferried folks from New Jersey beneath the river to New York City. See, jazz was a good choice, because the sets last about an hour, so it doesn’t eat up the whole night. You can talk before and after and it would also show that I knew things, jazz had a kind of intellectual clout. Art scenes, music scenes, I was a happening guy, not just some white collar slob with a roach infested overpriced shoe box in the shadows of the capital of the western world.
One last issue the jazz club solved was the timing. I wanted to see her as soon as possible after we met, but I had to make sure all the planets in my often pathetic universe were in line. Now, this also meant I had to not come off as a looser and if I asked her out for the coming weekend, and she couldn’t make it, the implication would be I had nothing to do. Which was the truth, of course. Then we would make plans for the next weekend or something and maybe the excitement would have worn off, or I would be thinking that no matter what sort of reason she gave for not being able to go on a date with me, the fact was she was on a date with somebody else. This musician, who plays in the village like every other week— naturally, she didn’t have to know this—was only playing at this particular club this particular weekend. I was sort of asking her to join me—an added benefit of making me appear cool and collected while also reducing the date pressure of this has to be a an occasion—and best of all, I didn’t come off as having nothing to do, an unfilled appointment calendar. The perfect crime, or date, whatever.
So, I deliberated through most of Monday, moving between nervous glee and subdued panic, planning the evening, and expounding on the contingencies in my mind. I decided to call her about six. I picked up the receiver, put it down again, picked it up, dialed the number, put the receiver down again. No, it had to be now because if I left the office without making the call I would think about nothing else, and it seemed to me, I had solved everything already. My shaking hands knocked into my paper clip container and the metal oblongs swarmed into my computer keyboard, which slipped from my hands when I picked it up to shake the clips from the keys. The keyboard bounced on the floor, but luckily I grabbed the monitor and stopped it from plummeting. Some keys had popped off the keyboard, the spacebar, a few letters. I sighed, dialed her number.
From the tone of her voice, she was glad to hear from me. We chatted a bit, I asked her what she thought of the opening.
“I guess it was Jane’s scene, a lot of interesting people. Victor’s a nice guy.”
“He really is, compared to most artists I know especially. I was there mostly to support him, as a friend.”
“A lot of the art was funny. Some of it was stupid.”
I chuckled an agreement. My nervousness ebbed in increments. I cleared my throat. “So, Mary, I was wondering…”
* * *
The only awkward moment of the date was when I asked why she lived in Hoboken and she talked about her divorce. “We had a house and I lived there until it was sold, so I lived with my mom for a while, and then, I hooked up with Jane.”
“You didn’t know her before you moved in?”
“It was through an ad, we’re not friends. She’s okay though.” She seemed nervous. I sensed a hint of shame, discomfort, embarrassment. She no longer owned a house, she was in some Single White Female living situation and she didn’t like admitting to a failed marriage.
It was an awkward moment, but it was only one, and it passed soon enough and for a date, a first date especially, that’s not bad, you know. It’s a good sign, basically. She asked, “have you ever been married?”
“Not yet,” I smirked. “I lived with a woman for a while, but we broke up a couple of years ago.”
“To not get married. Getting out of a marriage, it’s an ordeal. I thought it was wrong to live together. I wasn’t smart.”
“She had some substance abuse problems, we just got on different tracks.”
“I can understand different tracks. I felt I was too young to get married, but my parents got divorced and I think I formed a very naive philosophy about it, like I wanted to show them or something. I was being rebellious by being straight laced.”
“I was in love, whatever that means, but I was also pretty uncertain about my career. I wasn’t making much money and so I was, uncertain and desperate, you know. She didn’t give me any support. It’s easy to be confident when you’re in a relationship. You always have some sort of reinforcement.”
“But it’s not that real.”
“That’s what I mean, you’re like living only for another person, or through another person. Isolation is not an aspiration, that’s not what I’m saying. But confidence should be a result from what you do with your own life, how the world or society or rather, your littler piece of that world or your little piece of society receives you, seems like a more tangible confidence than the one you get from relationships. I think having that confidence, the tangible stuff… makes relationships, better.”
She smiled at me, and she had a nice one, smile that is. She didn’t show much teeth, and her face didn’t ripple with dimples. The smile was simple, a very pale lipstick, not shiny at all. Bright red would not go with her hair, or fair skin which was alabaster and lightly freckled, the kind of freckles you notice only on second glance and certainly would get darker in the sun before her skin did. Her smile was similar in its subtlety. But it was there and I had caused it and that felt good. We were eating in this tiny west village place, pan-Asian food which meant a lot of rice and steamed shrimp and as her fork poked a prawn, she said without looking up, “you know, I’m having a good time.”
I said softly, “so am I.”
“I haven’t really dated much, recently.”
I touched her hand. We were soon talking about food and restaurants and stuff like that, then we switched to our families and she told me how she worried about her mother and how her alcoholic brother lived at home. I talked about my brother a little bit. Then I explained how my father died suddenly, had a heart attack in his office while talking on the phone and how my mother died a few years later from leukemia, a long extended illness.
“That’s terrible,” she said, consoling me by grasping my hand. I pretended I still required consolation after all these years. She looked at me and I noticed the light in her eyes made them golden. The eyes, the hair, the subtle smile, she just seemed so pretty, and had an honesty, or at least, an integrity that I hadn’t sensed in a woman for a long time. Maybe never. I restrained from kissing her. It was our first date after all.
But I did hold her hand from the restaurant to the jazz club. The village buzzed, locals walking their dogs and young adults talking about where they were going or where they had been or what they should do. The bohemian promise of the village had long been prefabricated, but however momentary or dim, dreams could still glimmer here and holding the hand of a new girl in a new night seemed to freeze time and expand hope.
We waited on line at the club and I explained how this guy was an extraordinary player, sat in on famous sessions.
“I like jazz,” she said. “I like music.”
“I don’t listen to a lot of jazz at home, but I like to see it live. It’s only blues but more cerebral It’s part of America, you know. You can see the sheer talent.”
They seated us at a small table alongside a Japanese couple. In fact, except for most of the staff and the musicians, we were the only Americans there. Japanese and Europeans filled the place. Foreign accents and languages inflated the din that preceded the show. We shared a piece of pecan pie and had coffee and cognac to make the ten dollar minimum and our knees and feet kept touching. Then the group, a quartet came on, two young white guys and two old black guys and they played for about fifty minutes. She squeezed my knee. And the last song, a standard, I leaned over and kissed her. She wasn’t startled. She kissed me back. We retreated. The sax player took his solo and the riffs tickled our spines and she leaned over and her lips were soft and her tongue was in my mouth and we were still kissing while the foreigners were standing and applauding the bowing musicians.
I felt my face go flush, and hers seemed just as red. My hand knocked over a glass. Waitress were hurrying over with the checks. I settled up and we wandered out with the crowd and that’s when I began an internal debate.
One side said: Don’t go for it, it’s just the first date.
The other side countered: I cleaned my apartment earlier in the week, the bed is made with fresh sheets.
I tried to remember if the condoms in my night table drawer were still within their expiration date.
Her kiss seemed too revealing, too inviting. I was aroused. Not a difficult accomplishment, for sure. But I tried to be collected. Dating happens in stages. From my point of view. From my male perspective, I suppose. It goes like this. First date—you get to know somebody—you talk and see what is in common, register an attraction, contrive an ease with the person. Second date, there’s kissing, maybe even some petting. You sort of judge certain willingness. And, if the willingness is high, for a guy at least, you can’t think anymore, or can’t think that clearly. So, somewhere between the third and fifth dates, those are the sex dates. One of them, at least. It has to happen. Cause a guy can’t think otherwise about the other issues. Part of it is cause you’re loaded, ready for action and an erection tends to erase the ability to analyze and reflect. Part of it also is, you both seem to be getting along so well, that in order to proceed, the sexual compatibility issue must be addressed, as well as the mutual attraction question, just how attracted? That answer must be measured then verified.
Outside, we walked with our arms around each other and I turned down one of those narrow, deserted slants of village sidewalk and in the first empty doorway I stopped and pulled her closer and we made out. I had to and apparently so did she. Soon, we were indulging in second date kissing. Her thigh rubbed against my erection and I touched her breasts—preliminary petting and dry humping—we now entered the domain of third date.
So, I forgot the internal debate. The traditional timeline no longer applied. She squeezed her hand between her thigh and my groin. We heard footsteps and murmurs. Her hand went away and we just hugged real close and listened to the sounds fade into the shadows. A car went by, its headlights brushed slowly against us.
“I really feel comfortable with you Tom, I wish tonight wouldn’t end.”
I cleared my throat. In the back of my mind, I knew I should have said let’s go to a bar for a nightcap. Instead, I whispered something like we could go to my place.
Mary said okay, without a microbe of hesitation.
Her mouth was against my cheek. My face could feel her smile.
We trotted to the corner, one hand holding hers, the other furiously waving in the air hoping to be spotted by the nearest cab.
* * *
I didn’t sleep very well. I guess I wasn’t use to sharing my bed. I grinned—a warm body next to me thinking about the sounds she made, the sounds I made her make—Damn, I had missed sex and it’s true, it is like riding a bicycle. You never forget how, and it always feels good.
I liked her very much, and I knew this was a special coupling. Even with Sheila, our first time wasn’t this pleasurable. In retrospect, I don’t know how or why it happened between Mary and I that night. I could blame destiny, but destiny is always prone to practical jokes and humiliation. I try not to give it so much credence.
She later told me, she never had a one night stand and this was after we were going out for a while and I said, “well, we didn’t have a one night stand, did we.”
She was not really happy when I saw her open her eyes and I said, “I could make some coffee.”
She coughed a little and asked what time it is. I said, “early.”
“I should get going, I usually don’t do this.”
“It’s not the norm for me, believe me.” I snuggled close to her, caressed her nipple and whispered, “I enjoyed… being with you… I mean, I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.”
“I don’t feel uncomfortable.”
I began touching her other nipple. “How do you feel?’
“I feel okay,” she half coughed, half giggled, sighed. “I just haven’t been with a man, you know, since my divorce. I guess I’m not sure how to act.”
“I think you’ve done extraordinarily well.” She laughed at this, let my hand travel down her stomach. We heard traffic sounds, a bird whistle. She was wet. I softly rubbed her clitoris between my thumb and index finger.
“Tom,” she said, squirming. “I do feel comfortable with you, I just don’t want you to think.”
“I don’t think anything,” I said, pulling the sheet away and lowering my mouth to her breasts.
I called her that night. I called her the next day. She called me the day after that. I called her the morning after that day. She came into town during the week, she couldn’t stay over and instead of going to a restaurant we made love. She came in again on Friday and stayed until Sunday.
Our relationship continued to evolve. I showed her New York. We poked around book stores and shops, kissed in parks, went to museums. I remember how for several days, I wanted to tell her, I love you. I was deliberating over how, when and where without reaching any conclusion.
Then as we strolled through the Museum of Modern Art—it was after we saw the Van Gogh paintings I believe—I just whispered in her ear, “I love you.”
She didn’t comment, until maybe an hour later, when we were outside heading towards the subway.
“Tom, I love you.”
We kissed right there, in midtown, a Saturday, the city swirling around us, sidewalks jammed with tourists and shoppers, streets packed with automobiles, buses and trucks. When we continued walking, I guess I was in such a daze, that I bumped into a hot dog vendor cart. Cans and stuff fell on the sidewalk, and the guy screamed at me in Arabic and we laughed about it that night, eating Chinese food in the nude, a Truffaut film in the VCR.
Most of the time, when a relationship starts, at least one of the lovers has to break it off with somebody they are seeing. Sure, the dissolve might be evident before the new person came along. But more often than not, when love blooms, that’s the scenario. Somebody’s heart gets broken. Not with Mary and I. We were both completely single, thirsty for a relationship, new romantic experiences. I don’t know if this made it better or worse, or gave us a false kind of encouragement. I just don’t know. I do know, things just went very far, very fast.
In a booth at Ryan’s Irish pub on second avenue and tenth street, Peter traced a highlighter marker across the lines of type in today’s Wall Street Journal. His sleek black, laptop computer was on the table, alongside a pint-glass, nearly empty of lager and a thick white plate on which lay a half-eaten hamburger and a pile of ketchup covered French fries. A lit cigarette was lodged between his teeth.
He looked up as I slid on the bench across the table from him. “Am I late or something?”
“No, I got here early, couldn’t stand the office anymore.” He was stressed, puffy creases giving his face that bulldog look, his tie was off, his white shirt wrinkled, his pinstripe suit disheveled. “I’m doing all this work on mutual funds. You got to follow the fund, and follow the companies the fund invests in, and then all this new litigation that has come out about them. It’s a lot of pressure.”
“I can’t even stand to read my IRA mail.”
Lisa, the waitress came over. She was from Ireland and I listened to her brogue and I ordered a turkey sandwich and a pint and thought about smoking one of Peter’s Marlboros. Peter ordered a new pint and a shot of Bushmill as he folded the newspaper up and put it into his leather briefcase.
He said, “hey, I can get tickets to the Knicks this Friday, want to go?”
“I think I have plans with Mary.”
“Think? You have to check with her? Have a boy’s night out, be a man.”
I did the scales thing with my open palms. “Let’s see, wild sex with a woman I’m into versus watching a bunch of millionaires in their underwear chase a rubber ball around Madison Square Garden.” I moved my hands up and down. “Let me get back to you.”
“I guess it’s a no.”
“Why don’t you take that paralegal, you two seemed to be getting along pretty well.”
He grunted, “we were.”
“You going to be spilling tonight, Tommy,” said Lisa as she took the amber filled glasses from her tray and set them on the wooden table. “I want to know now if I need a fresh rags.”
I shook my head and said, “Celtic sarcasm?”
“Call me McSeinfeld,”
“You’ve been living in New York too long,’ I said.
“Haven’t we all,” said Peter, sipping his whiskey, and I noticed him watch Lisa walk away.
I drank my beer. Peter’s forehead wrinkled. I said, “How’s work.”
“Shit. I just want to stop thinking about it. All these dry details, financial crap. What a rotten deal life is, because you go to college and like, you’re away from your parents and everyone wants to get laid and there’s less head games and you’re studying all this really interesting stuff. Sociology and philosophy and shit. God, I remember just thinking about Othello.”
“Iago, the devil or your conscience.”
“Or the moor himself, how his virtues are his vices, I mean, that concept, it just blew me away when I was nineteen.” Peter stuck a fresh cigarette in his mouth, lighting it pensively, a slight tremor in his hand. He checked his watch, exhaled a stream of smoke from the side of his mouth. “I never think about big thoughts like that, important ideas to civilization, anymore. It’s just work and money.”
“You’re involved with the law. You must think about justice and rights on some level, even it’s all corporate shit. It’s got to represent something deeper.”
“I don’t think about justice so much with these contracts, just regulations and laws and when I’m not thinking about that stuff, seems I am just thinking about how to keep my mind off shit, buying new clothes, getting laid, new places to go in New York, getting drunk. I think it’s the system. You work and to forget about the work you consume”
“Like you have to learn all these skills that make you useful to the system. The more money you make, the more money you spend. No matter what we learned in college, we use those skills not to question but to perpetuate the system.”
“We still question the system, we are just too busy surviving for the answers.”
Lisa waltzed back with the turkey sandwich and asked if I needed anything else. Peter ordered another Bushmill. He continued, “we’ve always been in a precarious place, our generation.”
“Caught in between.”
“We feel resentment about having a social conscience, because it’s the older generation’s anti-Vietnam shtick, and we saw what bullshit happened with the sixties and all that, the hypocrisy and social fall out but because this social conscience thing was so big when we were growing up, such an aspiration for the civil rights people and save the whale folks. We inherited it too late, because it failed. The world war II generation failed with the older baby boomers and the older baby boomers ruined the country. We can’t think about big ideas, we can only think about ourselves. The whiz kids and gen-xers that followed us, social conscience just ain’t a real issue, it’s not a matter of questioning society for them. They have different concerns is all. For us though, no matter if we were for or against Ronald Reagan, we have guilt about the lack of social conscience.”
I chewed my sandwich slowly, prolonging the eating of it because this was my dinner, and it had to fill me up and if it did fill me up, and I didn’t require any more food, that would be good. Low fat meal, no excess calories. I was showing off my body on a weekly basis. I had the whole narcissism going.
I said, “Things just have become more prefabricated. Jerry Springer instead of introspection, a GAP and a Starbucks on every corner. And people just like it that way.”
“The world’s upside down, Tom. Gasoline’s less per gallon than bottled water.”
“What do I care, right. I’m getting laid. I’m living my life.”
“I’m living my life too.” He knocked back his second whiskey. That one went quick. “Day by fucking grueling fucking grueling day.”
Victor arrived with Stan, who was more in touch with whatever was left of the grunge thing. Stan had ring earrings in ears and eyebrow and lip, this large pewter circle hooked into his septum. I have nothing against piercing, or jewelry on men, but the fact is you look at his face, and you can’t stop looking at the metal attached to it. He also has these stars and crescent tattoos on the side of his neck. It’s hard to take him seriously. We’re not really friends. Every time I talk to him, it seems it takes a few minutes to be able to listen to what he says because I’m either trying to figure out what the pictures on his neck are supposed to signify or I’m looking at that thick nose earring and thinking, that has got to hurt.
He muttered something to Peter, and they both stood up together and headed towards the men’s room. Peter said, “If Lisa comes back, order me another Bushmill, and a beer.”
I took a few more bites of my sandwich and asked Victor, “are they getting high?”
“Stan sells coke on the side sometime. It’s no big deal.”
“I thought Peter was through with that.”
“At least he’s not doing smack,” he said.
“Like smack’s any worse for you.”
“It’s not, it’s so trendy like big soled sneakers or models smoking cigars. I’m not against drugs, I’m just against trendy.”
I finished my pint, washing down the rest of the sandwich, just in time for Lisa to come back and take my plate and accept an order for another round.
Peter and Stan returned, glazed and sort of grinning, Peter grinning more than Stan. I wanted to say something, give him a disapproving look at least. But there’s codes to follow. We never make disparaging comments, issue judgments or give advice on our personal lives. Peter and I though, we’ve done our drugs together. It was fun too. When I was with Sheila, it was coke almost once a week, lots of pot too, which I first smoked as a freshman in high school and was a long part of my life, acid, ecstasy, mushrooms.
I didn’t think of myself as a druggie. I never had weird hair. I never hit rock bottom. It was just the culture. Drugs make America a lot more fun, believe me. Especially when your America is New Jersey.
I can’t remember a day when I said, no more drugs. I never had to go cold turkey. I hardly ever took drugs alone. As holding down a job took more and more responsibility, and I started not hanging around so much with people still getting high, my interest just waned. Opportunities just dissipated.
Peter, well he’s always gone in and out, dabbled and not, and I thought like me, it was mostly out, mostly not. We had many a fun night with a gram of coke we would hang out in bars and clubs, snorting in the bathroom. The smell of urine, the dim light, snorting up a few lines then wandering out into the loud music and crowd, body and brain electrified.
Now, staying in shape and working seem to take too much of my time, depleting drugs of their attraction.
Peter knew I knew what was up. He kind of shrugged and smiled. “I’m no longer stressed or bored. Drinks, we need drinks!”
Lisa exchanged the empty glasses for filled ones and removed my empty plate. Peter had a cigarette going already, held his nostrils and sniffled. Lisa whispered something in his ear, Peter dropped the cigarette into the ashtray, then they both went downstairs to the bathroom.
Stan was pulling at the tip of his nose, metal hoop jangling with each tug. I drank the beer and for a moment, all I could smell was smoke and booze and both were quick becoming stale stenches and I was bored, very bored.
Peter came back. “She wants me.”
Lisa appeared, with a pitcher of beer and shots of Bushmill and said it was on her, and even had an extra shot glass for her. We clinked glasses in an unnamed toast and we all downed our dose. So much for my health kick. Maybe I could jog off these excess calories tomorrow before work. Not likely.
Peter filled our glasses with beer and we drank, more like guzzled. Lisa came back with another round of shots.
Victor was telling some story about guys in the village and Stan found it incredibly funny. Peter wiped the sweat from his face with a napkin. I took a cigarette from his pack. I had quit smoking, but it wasn’t so unusual to bum one while boozing with my buddies. Pete smiled as I lit the Marlboro. He knew my willpower had eroded. He finished off another pint in two, three gulps.
Another pitcher and more whiskey arrived. When Stan and Victor returned from the bathroom, Peter muttered a come on let’s go.
The bathroom was basement level, at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Lisa followed us down. Luckily there was no line for the men’s room and we just waited for the toilet to flush and the man inside to zip and leave.
‘This is so eighties,” I said, closing the door with a final glance around the landing to make sure no one else was around to see three people gathering in the single toilet facility. The restroom was surprisingly clean. Peter pushed up the sleeves of his suit jacket, squatted by the toilet seat.
“Just a little diversion Tommy boy, if it was the 80s we’d be calling this nose candy or sinus cognac or some other cockamamie name they used on Miami Vice and Lisa here would be flashing her tits.”
“It’s the 90s, so you can touch but can’t look,” said Lisa, giving her chest a sexy shake. She was a piece of ass, for sure.
“Well, that’s why the 90s are the same as the 80s for me,” I said. “Everyone else is having more fun.”
Peter dumped some coke on the black toilet seat cover and chopped it into a fine powder with the edge of his credit card, then divided it into lines. His voice got serious. “let’s do this.”
He had four lines, thick lines, rows of white powder Sometimes, like now, when I’ve had enough alcohol and felt drunk my brain cascaded with conflicting thoughts. Usually I wound up feeling guilty about something. By doing this line of coke would I be contributing to the despair and oppression and ruined lives resulting from the drug trade and addiction? Or, if I died of a heart attack right after snorting the drug, some semi-cleaned bathroom below 14th street—nice show of respect for my dead parents.
I imagined my brother would include all the details in his eulogy.
After Peter hovered up two rows, he gave the rolled up twenty to Lisa who squatted like a pro and leaned over the toilet. The way she moved down and balanced herself just made me think, she must be a great lay.
Pete expressed disappointment, “you did both lines.”
“Oh sorry,” she grinned, bending her back and pinching her nose.
“I’m not really in the mood, it’s okay.” I was lying.
Peter had the credit card out again, he wanted me to do the coke. Part nostalgia, part association to ease any guilt or whatever. Whatever! Hey, it’s been a while so I was due. Peter cut off a little extra for him, a little added desert and he sniffed it up, then it was my turn.
As I assumed the position, Mary went through my mind. She would not want to see me doing cocaine. She drank, but didn’t like to drink to get drunk and of course, if I am not going to get drunk, I tend not to drink alcohol. She didn’t go through the drug culture scene like I did. Not sure why since she grew up in New Jersey around the same time as I did. Guess we just hung out with different types. She did mention something about not wanting to lose control one night when we were talking about our pasts. It’s sort of all in the friends you choose.
I could smell faint urine traces as I placed the rolled up bill between the edge of my nostril and the illegal substance, then inhaled it into the sinus membranes. Was this a way of asserting myself, my individuality against some subtle intimacy fear I had about my growing relationship? Did I have to prove to myself there remained a part of me that belonged to me alone, that she didn’t share, that she didn’t taint? Maybe that was more to the point. The fear of the relationship was manifesting itself by me reverting to pre-Mary behavior, trying to keep alive stuff she didn’t have anything do with, since now my life was revolving almost entirely around her schedule.
I stood up slowly, feeling the numbness spread outward from behind my nose to my forehead and chin. I was about to hand the bill back to Peter but when I turned towards him, Lisa was grinding against him and his hands were outside her T-shirt, squeezing her breasts.
I coughed, swallowing a gob of cocaine and said, “I’ll go out first.”
I heard their giggling as I walked up the stairs, warm euphoria mounting in my skull like a familiar friend who had been away for a long time.
Stan flinched when I returned, quickly moving his hand from under the table to the table top. Immediately, I took another cigarette out of Peter’s pack, lit it then drank the rest of my beer and poured another glass. The pitcher quivered in my hand, but nothing was spilt.
I gave Peter back the bill when he sat down. He look around, checking to see if Lisa was watching and when he was positive she was not, held up his palm and he and I high fived. I took another cigarette, lit it off the one I just finished, told Peter I was going to have to buy him a pack.
Lisa came back with another tray of drinks, but instead of four shot glasses there were four whiskey or rock glasses, which basically held two or more shots of Ireland’s distilled best. She suddenly seemed all business, her composure mirthless in order to conceal the more chemically induced joy. She placed the pitcher and the glasses on the table and said, very quietly, “this has to go to the be the last freebie, the manager’s acting up okay.”
“Not a problem, we can even pay for this one,” said Peter, his hand touching the side of her thigh.
She winked at him. “No, no, that’s not necessary. Cheers.”
Peter leaned closer to me, “I’m taking her to the game, she’s never been to one.”
“She’s nice,” said Victor.
Stan displayed no interest.
Peter looked at his watch, cursed the fact it was after nine o’clock, reached into his attaché for the cellphone and was fingering the numbers as he stood up and walked towards the door to get a better reception.
Victor got up and followed Stan down the stairs.
I smoked and drank. The whiskey went down, then an entire pint almost as fast. The booze complemented the coke. My skin tingled and my eyes felt like pinballs connected by wires to dry sockets. I thought about something and a second later could not remember what I was thinking about.
“Where’s Stan,” said Peter as he sat down.
“With Victor, they went to the uhh, bathroom.”
“Looks like I’m going over to see Cheryl, I’m going to have to get a little more I think.”
“Peter, you’re not getting into it again.”
“With Cheryl, it’s just casual and mutual pleasure.”
“No, with the blow.”
“Just some diversion, is all. I got a lot on my mind, what am I going to do, worry about injustice?”
“It could hinder your lawyering I guess.”
He laughed much harder than necessary, swigged his whiskey. “You got that right,” then stood up. “Excuse me, I’m going to head them off at the pass. Ask Lisa for the check when you see her.”
* * *
I felt pretty inebriated walking back to my apartment, my mouth was parched and I kept licking my gums and smacking my lips and grinding my teeth. At my corner bodega I bought three liter bottles of Evian, thinking the purity of the French water would cleanse me, along with some Advil, and reluctantly a pack of Marlboros. The cigarettes I had smoked seemed to taste so good, but I justified the purchase by the fact, that if I couldn’t sleep, smoking would at least giving me something to do to wait out the chemically induced insomnia.
I opened one of the waters and by the time I reached my apartment door, I had finished the entire liter. I found an ashtray and lit a cigarette and opened another bottle of water. The message light blinked. Mary’s voice, endearingly soft, “Nothing important. Just wanted to say hi and talk, but I know you were going out. If you come home early enough, give me a call. I was… I was just th-thinking about you.” Her voice became a gradual whisper, and the last comment seemed more exhaled than actually spoken.
No wonder I was in love. No wonder, we had become so intertwined.
I pissed for a long time. I took off my clothes, swallowed some Advil, played the message a few more times. It was midnight. It was too late to call her. I tried to think of other things, but when I wasn’t thinking of Mary, and our sex, I mean, love-making, last weekend, I remembered Peter and Lisa. If he hadn’t already done her, he would soon, and tonight, that twenty something paralegal was on all fours snorting cocaine as Peter sodomized her.
Why couldn’t I be thinking about the new marketing campaign, peace in the Mideast? Something, anything else? I lit another cigarette, drank more water, fondled my erection. I wouldn’t be falling asleep for a while.
I picked up the receiver and dialed her number. I tried to believe I just wanted to leave a message. I woke her up, I could tell by her hushed voice, groggy and congested, probably worried that it would be one of those emergency calls, some kind of bad news in the middle of the night.
“Sorry, it’s just me.”
“Hi,” her yawn groaned. “Are you okay.”
“I got your message.”
“It wasn’t important.”
“I just wanted to hear your voice. I’m a little drunk. I’m sorry. I was just thinking about you. I guess I woke you. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. You had a good time?”
“Usual stuff. I wish I was with you. I like being with you. I like your body being next to mine.”
“I’m pretty tired, honey.”
My hand moved faster. My arm pits stank. Streams of sweat dribbled over my eyebrows and stung my eyes.
“Are you there.” she said.
“Yes, yes. I miss you. I just wanted to hear your voice.” Actually I wanted to hear her moan, say something dirty. My shortness of breath I hoped was coming across to her as emotion.
I couldn’t tell her I called so I wouldn’t feel so lonely jerking off. In my stoned, drunk state of mind it turned me on for her to listen to me come, maybe even encouraged it.
She said it was nice that I called, but she was really tired and she said I love you and hung up before I could beg her to stay just a few seconds longer. I dropped the phone down. I kept my hand moving. I forced myself to fantasize and when that proved ineffective, I dredged up as many sexual memories as necessary. As I got closer and closer, none were recent, none included Mary.
* * *
I wasn’t just getting laid, I had a girlfriend. I didn’t mind it either, I didn’t feel threatened or anything like that. I didn’t seem to have to do anything I didn’t want to and being considerate of her needs and feelings seem to make me what I thought was a better person.
I became worried about being so happy. I called up my therapist and made my first appointment in over a year. I didn’t want to reinstate therapy, but on some level I did miss it, the routine of it and even after it was completed, I returned for a “tune up” every once in a while.
Breaking up with Sheila happened soon after my mother’s death. I was a wreck. Willard Feinstein, clinical psychologist, listened to my whining for three years or so. He was shaped like a bean bag chair, favored denim shirts with paisley ties, corduroy pants and sneakers and his voice was nasal, like Woody Allen, complete with the hard T’s and A for R’s indicative of die-hard Manhattanites, especially if they originally hail from Brooklyn or Queens.
There was nothing medical about his office, it wasn’t a part of a medical suite. There was no receptionist. It was just a very nice apartment, either cost a fortune or Willard had a rent control deal dating back to Mayor Lindsay.
The waiting room was a comfortable living room, just a coffee table with magazines and chairs. Willard’s office was down a hall, and he would walk the finishing patient to the apartment door before coming back to the living room for the next appointment. I never saw the faces of my fellow patients.
The other room, the psychology office, contained a desk with a chair, bookshelves, a thick leather chair with ottoman next to a couch, which wasn’t that classic Freud thing but just a regular coach. There were end tables alongside the couch, a coffee table between the couch and the leather chair, and a box of Kleenex on each table. I shook Willard’s hand, and before we sat down he removed this small vase with a single rose from the coffee table and put it on a book shelf. I sat on the couch and he sat in the chair and we looked at each other in our usual pre-session pause. That’s how they always started. Him waiting for me to say something. I thought about having a staring contest sometimes. Gaze him into submission, into saying something before I did. Never did, it was my dime I guess.
I smiled. “how you been.”
“Good,” his pumpkin head bobbed. “It’s good to see you, Tom.”
“Well, look, doc (for some reason, I liked to call him doc.) I’ve been good, I have. I don’t need to go back to the weekly sessions, you know, it was real helpful and I’m grateful for that. I haven’t felt the need for it, like we achieved what we wanted to and I’ve gone on with my life.”
“No reason why you shouldn’t have, Tom. You dealt with your problems, you are not stuck anymore.”
“I’m not. I am better at my job. I just got a promotion.”
“Thanks. And you know, I went for it. I didn’t just sit back, doc. I pushed. The marketing manager left, made a lateral move and I fought the pigeonholing. I was good. I knew they were interviewing candidates from the outside. I went in to old man Thompson’s office and said I wanted this promotion and that I deserved this promotion and when he said he would consider me in his lame way, and asked me to write up some proposals and an evaluation of the marketing department, and where it could go, I handed him a complete report. I anticipated it. I razzled him then I dazzled him. He gave it to me a week later, big memo was released, he took us out to dinner and even sprang for some champagne.”
“That’s great, Tom.”
“I had a better celebration with Mary, we did a bread and breakfast thing in upstate New York, drove around to antique stores and stuff, she liked it.”
“That’s great, Tom.” I tried to read his expression, and as usual I could only see his concentration on what was saying, but no clue to his judgment. “Tell me about Mary.”
“I’m happy, things are great between us. That’s what makes me worried.”
Then a squint. “Why does being happy cause you worry?”
“That’s what you’re supposed to tell me, right doc.”
He chuckled, shifted his pudgy frame, pivoting back and forth in the leather swivel throne, waited for me to speak.
“I was happy with Sheila, for a while.”
“Do you really think this is the same kind of happiness?”
“Well, the sex is pretty good. We’re pretty intimate. I mean, okay, Sheila was a little more intense, but we were younger and she was on drugs a lot of the time. I mean, okay, one thing bothers me about Mary. Here it is. Sheila was needy.”
“She had a lot of problems, Tom. What she did wasn’t healthy. She harmed you.”
“I understand but she needed sex. She was always willing to try new things, hell half the new things we did were her idea. But you know, she would wake me up, right, this kind of embarrassing, it’s like an example, okay. With her mouth, she would wake me up. Right, she wanted to make love to me. She needed it. Mary, she is loving, but she doesn’t seem to initiate. It’s a little thing I guess. I don’t know why it bothers me, or even if it is real or just my perception.”
“Have you tried talking to her about it. Bring it up sometime… wouldn’t it be fun…”
“Well, we do seem to talk a lot, but we don’t talk about sex that much. It’s just accepted that we are going to do it when we’re together. But I am happy with her, I mean, like I like pleasing her, and I’m not talking about orgasms or that kind of stuff. Like, it was my idea to do the bed and breakfast thing. I think of things she likes to do, and we do them. Last week, we went to the Frick, it was great. She’s never been, and God, I haven’t been for years. Sheila never had the patience to look at paintings. She was more into that theater crap. We’ve even met each other’s family. I went over to her moms, in Teaneck. I impressed her mom. But I liked being there. I liked impressing her mother. She seem to remind me of my mother, cause she seemed very gentle, you know, she seemed kind of old, and old people, like when they’re in a good mood, just seem sort of sweet and well, admirable and I guess I miss my mother. I wish she could have lived longer. I wish I could have brought somebody like Mary home.”
I was out of breath. I felt the hint of tears, but they were from some distant habit. I did a lot of crying in the early sessions. The urge to now came from thinking about my mother, as well as being back here, in this place, alive in the past again. Talking to Willard. I reverted to previous behavior.
I suddenly felt it was a mistake to call, responding to anxiety by retreating to the plastic positive reinforcement of analysis. It was only useful in a certain time and place in my life. That usefulness no longer applied. With Sheila, I needed professional help to recover. Hell, I’d talk to anybody about her. Talking about Mary to a professional seemed wrong, like a jinx.
I felt like somebody who hires a maid, then cleans up before the maid arrives out of embarrassment the maid will see the actual dirt and clutter she was hired to remove. I stared at Willard’s pudgy face, but avoided eye contact. I inspected his countenance and expression, but he gave me no clue, he had no tell.
“It’s all right to be happy, Tom,” said Willard, without a trace of sarcasm, or irony.
“It’s just that sometimes doc, it’s like all new and exciting and other times, I just don’t know about it.”
“I give you permission, Tom. You should enjoy it, enjoy her, enjoy your time together. You’re allowed to. Now, it’s up to you to give yourself permission.”
I looked at the wall, the familiar degrees in the familiar frames, the hard covered books on the shelves, the picture of some famous building somewhere in Europe. The curtains were closed. It was getting dark outside. Traffic hummed. Maybe I had come to this well once too often, for it was now dry. Willard combed his mustache with his thumb.
I put my hands over my face and my elbows on my knees. “I’m less on edge, but I can’t figure it out sometimes. I mean, the sex is great, things are great, I trust her but I don’t know what she expects. I’m not interested in the white picket fence thing, being like my parents, moving to the suburbs. All of that.”
“Does she want that?”
“I’m not sure. I think she wants to move but she doesn’t talk about marriage. I think because she felt so burned by her first marriage that it’s not an issue.”
“Do you feel that being in this relationship makes you less of yourself?”
I thought about that one for a moment. I didn’t know. “What I’ve been thinking about doesn’t make sense. It has to do with being a man and with sex. With Mary, okay, there seems to be a lot of emotional stuff in there, a lot of cuddling and holding and it’s not like I don’t appreciate affection. I mean, holding each other naked and talking, it’s nice and all that. But I want to be a stud too. I want to be a machine. I want some kind of freedom, shit, I can’t explain it. I don’t think I’m interested in anybody else, I’m not saying that. But I need to know I’m a great fuck, you know, a man, in general. Sometimes I want to just be a male escort, competent and experienced, no kissing please and be trusted to please a woman, body to body. Not just a fulfillment of her personalized agenda.”
Sudden exhaustion over took me. I wanted to get out of here. I wanted to stop this reverting. I was using Yalta diplomacy for the Paris Peace Talks. It just wasn’t effective.
I leaned back into the couch, stretched out my legs and accidentally toppled the coffee table over. Willard let go of his mustache, frowning.
* * *
After a typical, nondescript day at the office, I came home, unlocked my apartment door. A draft, cold and surprising, pushed against my face. I glanced at the open window and for a moment tried to remember if I left it that way. I noticed the window gate swaying in the night. I looked at the empty television stand. I hollered loud enough for neighbors to hear. I walked around the apartment checking all the newly empty places. Stereo, computer, my cookie jars of change, Walkman, clock radio. Gone. Stolen. .
I had a studio apartment, barely 400 square feet of space, the kitchen and bathroom at one end, my bed at the other. There were two windows, both with gates. The landlord installed the second gate after last year’s burglary. Seems they were able to penetrate the second gate too.
I had apartment insurance but I just couldn’t take these violations. Even without the crime, New York life is hard enough. You got to work like a dog, pay nearly half your pay check for rent, eight cents on the dollar for everything you buy and everyone you meet is prejudiced against you for being from New Jersey or for not being rich. And, you can’t even keep a few possessions safe in your overpriced hamster cage. I visualized junky hands going through my drawers, dog feces covered soles of shoes stepping from the window ledge to my bed.
Did I really want so much? Where the fun bars and the fact that it was world famous capital of earth worth it?
That same week, Mary was in tears over her roommate. They hated each other, bickered over bills and stuff. It was real freshman year type arguments. Jane didn’t really want a roommate, but couldn’t afford the place on her salary alone, and she transferred that resentment. They were two different types. Mary, she had her life planned out, guaranteed job, responsible, set in school system career. Jane wanted to be in the arts, although had no talent as far as I could tell. I mean, she never seemed to create anything. She just hung out. She had opinions and knew people, but she didn’t write or draw or paint or take photographs or play a musical instrument. I didn’t like her because Mary didn’t like her, but still, I always feel there should be a shit or get off the pot attitude. If you are involved in the arts, you should have a craft to practice. Why just go to the party?
Their situation had devolved into post-it note communication. Mary had her own private phone installed in her bed room. When Jane was in the apartment, Mary rarely left her bedroom. She would call me just to have something to do. She was even waiting until it was absolutely unavoidable to use the bathroom.
Mary wanted to come over as much as possible, but after the burglary, I hated being home. Seeing the places where my possessions used to be just reminded me of being violated. My apartment insurance would kick in a couple of months, but I didn’t want to replace anything. I just didn’t feel safe. Mary mentioned a good thing I wasn’t home, because who knows what those maniacs would have done if I was. Maybe I would prefer to fight, to have a chance, be killed struggling rather than live with the constant feeling of violation.
So, we both were talking about moving and I can’t remember who suggested it first — why not move in together — but it seemed a logical thing to do that instead of moving to different places and extend our dating,
If I was pre-disposed towards social righteousness, and she had not been through the mill with her marriage, we would have just gotten a ring and sworn oaths in front of God and our community and that would be it. Whether or not that would have been better is anybody’s guess. Instead, it was like that old Joni Mitchell song from Blue: We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall, keeping us tried and true, no.
“I don’t think we could afford an apartment in New York where I could keep my car. I’m only licensed to teach in New Jersey.”
“I don’t care about leaving the city anymore, I just don’t want to spend half my life commuting on some train or bus, and I still want to hang out in the city. I’ll go crazy in the suburbs. I just want don’t want to be more than an hour away. Less, is better.”
So, we both were ready and willing to compromise.
We looked at places in Hoboken. They weren’t cheap. Sinatra’s birthplace had gone from blue collar to near slum to a one mile square of gentrification. Factories had closed down. People lived there because they worked in the city, so they could afford the same rents as Manhattan. All the places were walk ups too.
She had heard about Jersey City from a friend. It was going through the same stages as its neighboring city of Hoboken—and like that town it’s a ten minute PATH subway ride to and for lower Manhattan—but the upswing hadn’t been achieved, so rents had yet to escalate like Hoboken.
It’s not that we looked at hundreds of apartments, but I was pretty exhausted by the process. In New York, you have to go through that many at least, often being placed on a list so even if you decide on a place, by the time you place the phone call you’re out of luck. I just hated it, combine that with my disgust at being robbed which had expanded into a complete disgust at Manhattan—I think I blamed the entire five boroughs, hell maybe the whole empire state—and work had gotten busy. It was just a busy time, new programs being launched. I had to take several trips, and I didn’t want to spend every weekend traipsing around inspecting empty apartments for rent. I was predisposed towards almost anything. I just wanted my life to change. I wanted the next step.
I envisioned sex and companionship and sex and being a two-income household and sex.
It was a Saturday. Mary set up a few appointments in this neighborhood called Downtown Jersey City. I was to meet her at the cannery apartment complex, a few blocks from the path subway, a renovated factory into bargained priced, luxury apartments. We had made the date while I was still in Cleveland. I missed her, was working on a few hours’ sleep and jet lagged when I made my way to the subway station. My mood could have gone two ways I suppose, total disgust, dismissive of everything or the complete opposite — enthusiastic and positive because it’s the only way to take away my gloom and tension, and further my need to change.
What am I doing? went through my mind as I rode on the PATH, which had orange ceilings and was graffiti free, and considerably less crowded and grimy than New York’s subterranean railroad cars. How could I leave New York? How could I settle down, or take a step towards settling down whatever the hell that means besides conformity and complete, inescapable boredom… I was ready to hate it and re-up my lease and invest in a German shepherd.
But first, I had given myself an hour to cross the river, and I was there in less than fifteen minutes. So, I walked around a little. Towards the river there were tall, newly built office towers yet above this skyline was the World Trade Center, reminding new jersey and perhaps all of America of the power of money, the price of freedom. I walked up Newark Avenue, which features grubby bodegas and off-price stores with peeling, faded signs and reminded me of 14th or Delancy street, then I walked a few other blocks, and there were some with burnt out buildings, some suspicious teenagers wearing fancy nylon gym suits, but there was also this park with a gazebo in the center, a small but stately library, and rows of brownstones similar to Brooklyn’s landmark neighborhoods. It seemed mostly safe, relatively clean. I felt a good vibe.
The apartment building was a renovated factory. Jersey was a factory town. Immigrants right off the boat from Ellis Island found jobs, raised families, moved to the suburbs. Reagan pretty much put an end to smokestack America. Factories closed and Jersey City like Newark or Camden decayed, white flight, rising crime… now the gentrification wave had begun. Makes me feel old, living through all these changes. But like most Americans, I’m only aware of them after the fact.
Mary waited by her Toyota corolla, dressed in blue jeans and blue flannel shirt, sipping some large sized Styrofoam coffee drink and looking sexier and sexier as I approached, her hair blowing in the breeze We held hands as we went to the management office for our appointment. The guy showing us the apartments was short and slight, neatly dressed, diamond earring and red ribbon lapel pin on his crisp white T-shirt. The apartments were large, white walls and high ceilings and splitting the rent I would be paying nearly half of what I was in Manhattan. We didn’t let on our enthusiasms, but we took notes and asked questions and afterwards, I said, “I liked it.”
“So did I.”
“I like the factory it’s in, the cobblestone streets. It echoes history.”
“They were cute.”
I kissed her and said, “do you want to look at any others.”
“Not really.” We made out in the parking lot. I missed her. She said that Jane was out and we went back to her place and maybe as some sign of trust, or perhaps just at admittance that we had to alleviate anxiety generated by moving in and advancing relationship anxiety, we did it immediately, on the couch. Pleasure a secondary issue. Afterwards, she said. “It’s a big step.”
“I’m ready. I love you Mary. I know I have my problems and stuff, and I know I don’t make the most money in the world, but no matter what happens, you just have to look at your side and I will be there. Full, unquestioning support.”
Her eyes went slack, glad weepy. I said what she wanted to hear. I didn’t mention I saw it on Major Dad a few years ago, a sit-com about this Marine Corps veteran who marries this widow with two children. Instant family fantasy of honorable men and women.
Mary discussed furniture, what I had, what she had, what else we needed, discussed moving plans and filled out the forms and she called Sal on Monday. We ate some take out and watched television, she took a bath and I washed her back and we drank beer and talked, lit candles and made love again, then as she slept in my arms, my free hand aiming the remote switching from some black and white Humphrey Bogart movie to Bosnia war coverage on CNN, I just had this feeling that finally, my actual life would resemble my expectations.
“Move out of Manhattan?” Peter smirked, gestured towards the east village dive reeking of smoke and stale beer. “Leave all this?”
“Like it’s that much different,” I said. “I’m ten minutes away. It’s just a psychological thing, and you know, that’s not so bad. People who move to Brooklyn, hell, to the upper east side too, they’re further away from the village.”
“I’m not saying that Brooklyn’s better. Aren’t you worried about being part of different social circles.”
“What social circles? Look, you come from anywhere in the world, anywhere in the country besides new jersey and Manhattan’s social circles open up. I never felt that. You make a lot of money Peter, a lot more money than I do. You got the whole thing happening for you, legal circles to surround you, a nice apartment and a low, rent controlled rent. I don’t have that. You even have family in town, that cousin of yours you never see. And, you date well. I mean, you always have some snatch or two somewhere. I don’t got the rap that you do.”
“You mean all my tutelage has been wasted?” He grinned.
“It’s just like living in New York. I can hang out whenever I want. That Path runs twenty four seven. I think I have a good thing with Mary.”
“You thought you had a good thing with Sheila.”
“So, my life’s a mess and I’m stupid, that’s what you’re saying.”
“Not at all. Sheila’s a psychotic bitch. You know that, I know that, the American people know that. I’m just here to remind you that it’s not just leaving the Manhattan lifestyle, no matter how close your future lifestyle may resemble it, you are making a commitment, moving in with a woman, it’s a big step.”
“Gee, thanks, Pete. That hasn’t crossed my mind at all. I’m making a big step. Next you’re going to tell me the sky is blue.”
“Yes, the sky is blue. The sidewalk is hard and the buildings are tall. Those are things we can be certain of, you know where you stand in that universe. But the real universe is the earth and the earth is vagina and you can never be sure where you stand in a universe that bleeds from the moon and not by a wound.”
“Are you on drugs again?”
“Dude, you know I’m behind you. Maybe there’s some new bars there we can find. When’s the moving day?”
A woman came over, half her hair dyed pink the other sky blue, earrings hooked in her eyebrows, lips and nostrils. She ignored me and asked Peter if he had seen Victor or Stan.
It was almost like I wasn’t there. It was almost like I had already left.
It’s not just rebellion that makes me uneasy about suburbia. When I was in sales, and had to travel a lot more than I do now, I saw the America through the windows of rented cars. Two lane highways, fast food, gas stations, stores, mall, from sea to shining sea, the land formerly of the Indians was just a garish shopping center and I guess maybe, the founding fathers thought this would be the case, but the pilgrims would be aghast. I couldn’t wait to get back to the city as I mentally prepared myself for the clients, going over pitches, listening to sales motivational tapes in the deck.
About a year after my mother died, the house sold and wills all settled, I had arranged an extra day for this Texas trip. I had only met my Uncle Donald once, well twice, counting the old man’s funeral. The first time, he came to visit. I was young. The memory was hazy. I remember everyone seemed mad at David’s long hair. I don’t remember him too well from my father’s funeral, except that he wore a military uniform and seemed very, very old.
Uncle Donald didn’t go to my mother’s funeral. He had sent a mass card, with a return address for a V.A. hospital in Mill Creek Texas, about fifty miles outside of Houston. He was my father’s older brother, some career Army officer or something. My father talked about him, but not often and I can’t remember when he did mention him, if it was out of love or just another example of a male adult who fought in world war II, like Nixon or somebody we had to respect. He was big on respect of elders. A teacher yelled at me, I got in trouble at school, I was unquestionably at fault. The authorities, they were always in the right and the kids were always in the wrong. Just being young was wrong, of course.
I didn’t tell my brother, or Sheila, that I was going. It was like a private vision quest, a confrontation with my demons or past. Something for myself, and to talk about with Willard.
For some reason, the typical flatlands, McDonalds and gas stations and crap seemed even more oppressive under the dust filled heat of South Texas in July. The Lone Star, which seceded from Mexico and joined the U.S. so it could legally have slavery, was the wasteland capital, like post nuclear suburbia. The Hospital was this green, depression era steel cube. I brought a cactus plant. I didn’t know what to bring, and I had to bring something and it seemed that a bouquet of flowers for an old soldier was inappropriate. The nurse behind the desk seemed nearly shocked, the man had never had a visitor. She told me he had prostate cancer, Alzheimer, other ailments. “I’ve seen healthier 80 year olds,” she gravely told me.
Even though it was after July 4th, Independence Day decorations were still up—withered and faded red, white and blue crepe paper bunting draped along the wall.
“New York City?” exclaimed the nurse as she walked me with me. “I ain’t never been. Seems like there’s a lot of crime there.”
‘It’s safer than you would think,” I said.
We came to the recreation room. There was a huge TV screen. Fifty four inches at least You only see screens this size in Sports bars. A painting of the bronze Iwa Jima statute took up the entire wall. The room was enclosed in glass, well, actually the front wall was entirely glass so you could see in and what you saw were these old men, wearing hospital gowns and sitting in wheel chairs. It was like the dying senior citizen exhibit at the human zoo. There was a table of four who were playing a card game at a table, but most were just sitting in, spaced out, ailing, lost in medication and memory. They didn’t seem to care about comprehending the broadcasts.
I didn’t recognize Uncle Donald. The nurse walked me into the room. His wheel chair was positioned so he faced the big screen. She turned him around and wheeled him towards the periphery of the room. “Colonel, you have a visitor, he says he’s your nephew,” she shouted behind him.
I stumbled as I followed. I felt shocked. Completely bald, eyes dark and yellowish, and these brownish liver spots, splotches really, over his face and hair less arms, a tube running from his loins to the colostomy bag beneath his chair. I hadn’t thought of him as this old. He was one of the oldest people I’ve ever seen. A thick odor surrounded him. It was probably just human waste products, but to me it could only be death.
“Uncle Donald,” I said, trying to ease my stammer. He seemed confused, upset almost but not by my presence but by no longer seeing the Television. His unlit eyes focused. I repeated myself and his shaky hand lifted and pointed a skeletal finger and wheezed out, “Charley.”
“Yes, yes. Charley’s son.”
“He was a son of a bitch, how is he?”
“He died. Remember, you were at the funeral.” I felt frustrated. “I’m his son. His son, Tom.”
“Good thing you cut your hair.”
“I wasn’t the hippie, I was the younger son. Tom! Tom. How are you?”
He settled down. “How am I? Don’t get old, I’ll tell ya that. I once killed a German soldier with my bare hands. He had a knife and I didn’t. How do you think I feel that I can’t do that again?”
I was crouched down in front of him. His bone structure seemed as breakable as balsa wood and his skin was a translucent ivory-yellow. “I just wanted to see you again.” He didn’t hear me and I repeated it louder. It was like that Garret Morris bit on the old Saturday Night Live, the news for the hearing impaired when he’d shout, our top story tonight. “I just wanted to thank you for sending that card when my mother died.”
“It was a bad marriage from the beginning.”
“My father and mother? Is that why there was so much tension, and ten years between the sons.”
“When I saw that long hair I knew you were no good.”
“I didn’t have the long hair. I was the baby.”
“Wouldn’t let her touch him.”
“My mother? Sex you mean?”
He seemed exhausted. He wheezed. “Tommy.”
“Yes, I’m Tommy!” I shouted, my voice louder than the television noise. The card players looked over at us. “I’m Tommy, the baby. Uncle Donald.”
He smiled. He had no teeth. But the smile didn’t last. His cheek bones went slack, but they still seemed sharp enough to rip through the dingy veneer of flesh. “I killed a soldier with my bare hands and now the protesters are driving Volkswagens! I got their women though.”
I stood up, backed away knocking into another old veteran who cursed at me. I walked over to the nurse and handed her the cactus.
“I’ll put this in his room,” she assured me. “I’m sure he’s glad you came. Not a lot of people do. It’s tough to get old, especially when you spend your life as a soldier.”
“We were never close.”
“God understands,” she said.
And I laughed, suddenly, loudly. I didn’t know what I would find but I didn’t find what I wanted. As usual I didn’t know what I wanted to begin with. I drove back to the airport, spent the hours waiting for my flight in the bar, sullen, silent, smoking cigarettes and drinking scotch.
I guess I slept on the flight. I don’t know. I wasn’t upset or anything. I just needed to brood and I was just as silent when I got back to the apartment. Sheila was high on coke. She’d picked up an eight ball. I didn’t want to tell her about seeing Uncle Donald. I didn’t have much to say.
“I’m tired I guess,” when she asked me why I was so quiet.
We were sitting at the table, mirror, powder, razor blade, rolled up bill, Vodka, two glasses, bowl of ice. Cigarette butts piled in the ash tray.
“You can be so quiet sometimes, you really want to bring me down don’t you? I don’t want to be depressed okay, I’m here with you now, don’t you care?”
I rolled my eyes at her. I snorted a line. She took off her shirt and pushed her breasts together. “I want to inspire you to be happy, for me, Tom. Be happy for me because I’m here.”
We were going to get all high and hyped on coke and fuck. I needed it too, I needed to go at it, forget all about everything, job, life, past. She laughed at me. Her laughter always had a mean edge to it, a sarcasm no matter what the context. It was the laughter of lying, of knowing something I didn’t. “But you can’t touch me until you take a shower because I can smell you from here.”
* * *
The economy was good, sales soaring and the marketing department was given credit. My work. Gary, a vice president, about ten years older and as close to a mentor to me as I’ve ever known, took me to lunch. I needed a couple of days off, to move.
“No problem, “ he said.
“I’ll be checking my messages. I won’t leave things unattended.”
“I said No problem, Tom. It’s a big step.”
“Everybody says it’s a big step. I know it’s a big step. I am kind of wishing it was over with already.”
“It’s one of the three stresses,” Gary told me. “Moving. It’s right up there with changing jobs, and marriage. I guess the marriage will come.”
“It’s not a priority for either of us. She’s divorced.”
“Well, seems marriage is back in style again. Looks good too. May want to think about it at some point. Around here it’s pretty liberal, but the rest of the country isn’t. I don’t care. I just care about performance. But, as you ascend in the rat race the bigger rats will look at everything that’s not on a resume.” He shifted in his chair, twisted pasta around his fork. Gary had an obie wan quality about him, or maybe a yoda, dispensing wisdom in a non-sequitur fashion that was not for comment or further explanation. It was sort of up to you to extrapolate significance.
Peter helped me packed, actually he just hung out in my apartment drinking beer as I put my meager possessions into boxes. I had hired movers and Mary and I coordinated. Her sister Janet and her brother Harry were helping her. Sarah was single and in law school and Harry, well he was something else, the family’s only son, a failure, the last damaged vestige of the parent’s divorce. Grossly overweight, high school dropout, could never hold a job and at age forty, had never moved out of the house.
I used this Brooklyn moving company, Moishe’s and the two men that moved me were Israeli. Big muscular guys who wore yarmulkes. They put on wide weight lifting belts to unloaded my apartment of boxes and furniture and put them in the back of my truck. Peter took the day off, although there was not much for us to do except watch. We rode in the cab of the truck down Houston Street to the Holland tunnel, crossing the invisible state line somewhere mid river.
The movers spoke Hebrew to each other, but at one point one of them said to me, “Most people we move to New Jersey go to the suburbs.”
“I like concrete,” I replied.
“People come from all over the world to live in New York City. It’s strange to leave it.”
“I’m not leaving it, I’m just crossing the river.”
The other one laughed, “You cross the river in my country, you go to another country that’s stuck in the 14th century.”
“Jersey may be stuck a little further back,” said Peter.
“I can still get cable, don’t worry,” I replied.
Just as the Israeli guys finished with the loads—due to insurance considerations, Peter and I could not help—Mary and her crew pulled up. I paid off the guys and thanked them, then the five us went to work unloading her rented truck. As we struggled with the hand truck, Janet made some lawyer talk with Peter but at his mention of securities law, she stated her intention to work in a district attorney’s office and any sort of friendship between them instantly evaporated.
Harry, he wasn’t much help. Too out of shape and fat to do any of the hauling or lifting, so he mostly watched the truck while the rest of us did the work. Still, I liked this guy. To be so dysfunctional takes a special kind of determination. I didn’t know whether I liked him because pity for someone can build confidence for yourself, or maybe it was empathy. I could identify with him. If things had been different for me in Bergen County, I could have become an overweight alcoholic living in my parent’s basement into middle age. Which I would be assuming would be worse than a neurotic workaholic who thinks misery can only be alleviated by fornication.
Mary considered him an alcoholic. I didn’t see any tangible evidence of alcoholism, except that he didn’t wait until Mary’s possessions were carried off the rental truck into the apartment building to start drinking beer. Peter and I had bought a case at the corner liquor store. I wasn’t counting how many cans Harry imbibed, but he always seemed to have one going nearby him. When he didn’t, he was in the kitchen getting a new one.
Most of the furniture, the bigger boxes, Peter and I hauled in. A hand truck made the boxes easier. It took only a couple of hours. Then we sat around, having a few beers. Since I had gotten there first, my stuff was mostly in the back room, the bed room, and her stuff was in the main room, the large living room. Soon, everything would be emptied out and commingled and for that moment, it was truly a place of present because the past had ended and the future had not arrived.
I thought Peter would be his obnoxious self. He’s that way with city folk, and it was apparent that Janet and Harry were not even suburban refugees. They seemed unquestioning progeny. I anticipated his supercilious sarcasm. But I was wrong. While keeping cordial with Janet, he seemed to downright bond with Harry, talking about the Yankees, slurping on their beers. Harry, tiring easily and perspiring so much I half expected a puddle to form at his feet, seemed so unhealthily fat, even commenting on it would seem cruel. Instead, Peter, a much bigger baseball fan than I was, listened to Harry recitation of records. He knew every statistic. They discussed players, American hero multimillionaires of the present, and Harry would quip, he’s batting only 350. He has a good RBI, as well as several categories I wasn’t familiar with. Both Peter and I were amazed. . Harry may be a loser, but Harold Bloom doesn’t read Shakespeare with the devotion this guy must spend on the sports page.
Both Mary and I had the next day off to do the hard part, which was move in, decide where things go, graft a system to integrate love and lifestyle into the chaos of possessions and aspirations. Janet and Peter seemed intent on reassuring us how nice the apartment was, how safe the neighborhood seemed. Harry, when not talking baseball, sat, beer in hand, breathing as audible as activated landing gear. Gradually, after wishing us well, Peter walked to the Path, and Mary had to drive Harry and Janet back, drop off the truck. So, I was left alone to get busy. I unpacked the stereo so I would have some music and set up the bed. We decide to use my bed, it was bigger, newer—I had replaced after Sheila and I guess burglars couldn’t exchange it for crack—then I moved things into what seemed like obvious spots.
I lay down for a few seconds on the mattress and wound up falling asleep.
“Honey, I’m home,” said Mary in her best fake sit-com voice. When she saw me, her voice changed. “You’re sleeping on the bed in your dirty clothes and shoes?”
I cleared my throat. “Sorry. I just got tired.”
She sat on the edge of the bed. “I’m tired too. We have a lot to do here.”
I sat next to her, put my arm around her shoulders and kissed her. “We have time. I no longer have to walk you to the subway. We don’t have to unpack everything tonight.”
”I know, I just can’t relax with everything like this. It is a nice place though. It has potential.”
“So do we,” I said, slipping my hand under her sweatshirt.
She stood up. “I said I can’t relax in this mess.”
So, we spent a couple of hours with a lot of the basic stuff, kitchen utensils in cabinets, books in shelves, clothes in closets. We made a pretty good dent. Then I went around the corner and picked up a pizza and a bottle of wine. She made a list of things to get at the supermarket. I figured we would make love that night. It seemed like a romantic, barefoot in the park thing to do. I was feeling in love, secure, victorious. We had the television plugged in, two wine glasses, paper towels. We both had taken showers. Sex would be an affirmation of our commitment and of our love.
She fell asleep. I watched Letterman, finished off the wine. I was nagged by the feeling that our togetherness or something equally intangible should have been consummated. The first day of the rest of our lives and we should make note of it physically—isn’t that what life’s all about—Sex. What’s the alternative? Loneliness? Celibacy? Boredom? Watching pornos alone with a bottle of mineral oil and a box of tissues?
Alas, passion wasn’t the reality. This was. Making perfunctory plans for rudimentary responsibilities and comfort. Eating, television, sleeping.
I listened to the new apartment sounds. A distant creak, the faint hum of automobiles on the turnpike. Somebody shouting in the streets several blocks away. They weren’t that much different, or less noisy, than the night audible to me in the Manhattan building. Still, they were not ones with which I was familiar
We both take milk with our coffee, and even though we had coffee and filters, we had no milk. So, we brushed our teeth and dressed and walked down a brownstone lined residential street towards the Hudson.
In a few blocks, we reached the financial district, which meant newly built office buildings, which replaced the factories that used to litter the waterfront. We ate at a dingy Diner. The sign read: Flamingo Restaurant, an illuminated marquee with a palm tree and a long legged tropical bird. Inside was dingy plywood walls, ripped vinyl cushion booths, eggs and bacon for $2.95. An ashtray on every table. There was no nonsmoking section.
A block away was the river. There was a pier, and park benches, a statue of this Polish soldier with a bayonet in its back. It was in commemoration of some massacre in Poland I never heard of.
I learned later that where the statue and pier were now located, sometime in the 1600s was the scene of an Indian massacre. The Dutch sailed across the river and killed hundreds of Lenni-Lenape Indians, a peaceful tribe that lived in New Jersey. Paramus was the Lenni-Lenape word for wild turkey. The tribe lived throughout the state, but were slaughtered and driven out by the time of the Revolution. Essentially, the first white New Yorkers came to New Jersey, killed its inhabitants and took over the state, transforming it into farmlands. Centuries later, those farmlands became highways, factories, warehouses, shopping malls.
Down the river to the left, there was the Statue of Liberty. Directly in front of us,
Lower Manhattan and to the right, the rest of Manhattan, buildings and river far into the visible horizon. The river was blackish green, wide, ferries and tug boats trolling the surface. Then, a large passenger liner slowly passed. What was weird though, seeing the city was like a perception thing. I used to be in the middle of that. Now I am removed, looking from afar like Dorothy and Toto seeing the famous Oz. My new life had now begun.
Mary and I walked along the pier. There were grubby old men with fishing rods and crab traps, trying to capture polluted food from the polluted river. There are other worlds, sub cultures I know nothing and will know nothing about, ever. In the corner of the pier, an old guy, had to be over 80 or at least looked it, with a sketch pad and the vast urban island glowing with steel and glass and concrete just across the brackish currents in front of him.
I had an epiphany looking across the Hudson at Manhattan. I felt relieved I didn’t have to go there until tomorrow and when I would go there, I didn’t have to stay.
* * *
We went to the supermarket. We weren’t just buying dinner and breakfast. We were procuring long term supplies. We needed stuff like sponges and paper towels, not just food and even the food was long term. Comfort foods, sustenance. This was real life.
I had forgotten how big supermarkets could be. In Manhattan, the selection is more limited, the stores are more cramped. Here, the aisles were wide and well stocked, with sizes and brands from nationally advertised to store brands and generic brands.
“You know, I’m having a good time.” I said.
“Yes. I feel like, we’re procuring supplies, making a stand in the wilderness.”
“Well, it’s a pretty good supermarket.”
We were going through every aisle, and passed down the Spanish one, with all these Goya products. The list was just a guide, of course. I stopped and kissed her and said, “I’m just glad. This is going to be great, us, together, only good times ahead.”
She smiled at me, sort of perplexed. “We don’t need anything in this aisle.”
Resuming walking, I nudged closer to her, trying to fit the side of our waist and hips together, and she rested her head on my shoulder. “It’ll be a relief, to have all this food, the apartment all in order. I hope you’re relaxed.”
“I guess I am. I think there’s still a lot to do, plus I have some lesson plans to go over and I really should call my mother.”
We disengaged to look at the meat section, picking up some steaks and chicken breasts and a roasting chicken, since it was on sale, then we wheeled down the pasta and tomato sauce aisle and I leaned back next to her, my hand inching its way up the side of her abdomen. “Let’s smear each other with Ragu and let our tongues play garlic bread.”
She laughed, “I thought we were having steak.”
“Well, we could get whipped cream and have each other for desert.”
“Dream whip has less calories.”
The aisle was empty of other shoppers, so I suddenly moved my hand beneath her breast squeezing the portion of flesh, turned towards her and pressed against her so she could feel my penis harden against her thigh and said into her ear, “I want to lick you all over.”
I expected her to turn her head and kiss me but she shuddered and not with passion either, then moved away pushing the cart down the aisle. I turned around to follow, my hand smashing an over-stacked pile of Ronzoni boxes to the floor. I picked them up, then caught up with her in the soda section, putting my arm around her waist as she inspected the two liter sizes.
“I’m not in the mood, okay, Tom,” she whispered. “I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself.”
I clicked my tongue loudly against my teeth, “who cares.”
It seemed crazy to me, as if anybody here would be interested in anything else than getting their goods and leaving. I was having fun. I wanted to express how shopping together for the necessities of life, or at least the upcoming week, was making me feel close to her, tender to her. I was feeling so good about, I mean, it was passing through my mind that I would make love to her on the floor of the hall outside the kitchen even before we put out away the groceries, forcing our orgasms so the perishables wouldn’t spoil. It was not to be though.
“Would you go in the other aisle and pick up a box of linguini, I forgot to get pasta, we should have it on hand,” she said, not just changing the subject but ignoring my advances.
I walked away, opening and closing my hands. I ignored my temper, and by doing so, my anxieties. We didn’t make love that night, just watched television, ate dinner. My invitation to licking her all over was simply ignored and when we got home, I didn’t push. I never push it.
So, during the next few weeks, we melded our routines, got used to being around each other all the time, day and night, except for work. It was apparent that Mary’s attitude towards sex had changed. She didn’t want it all the time. I did, I always do. The sex was better when we were dating. More exciting. Sex seemed to be the main event of our time together. It enhanced everything, heightened it. I expected being together every night would mean more sex. It didn’t. And, I didn’t complain about it. Never raised the issue. We became as boring as any married couple. We split the bills, we planned meals, and sex was just a weekend activity, something to do before sleep, after we had eaten, cleaned up, and watched enough television.
I appreciated other things, her companionship, the defray of costs a living partner provides, the fact that the supermarket, only three blocks away, was cheaper, larger, with more selection, than any Dagistino or Met Food. For a while, I figured she would become as hot as a pistol. There would time to explore. The sex would be more emotional, more pleasurable, more meaningful sex than with Sheila or Stephanie, and I would forget those two.
Soon, I think I stopped figuring. I just tried to be a good companion.
We made a home together. A life together wasn’t so easy to construct.
* * *
Mary often visited her Mother after she got off of work. I came home to an empty house when I didn’t stay late at the office.
In the Living Room, with Ramones on loud, I unfolded my rowing machine and exercised. Sweat drenched my sleeveless T-shirt, gym shorts, crew socks and the bandanna around my head.
Somebody knocked on the door. It was strange to hear an unexpected knock. Most people just buzzed downstairs on the intercom, then you let them in and wait for them to reach the door. This was the first unexpected knock of the new apartment.
I had hit a good stride, so I didn’t stop rowing immediately. The polite knocking became insistent pounding.
“Coming,” I shouted, halting my arms and unhitching my feet. I grabbed a towel, wiped off my face and neck, lowered the music’s volume.
I trotted down the short hallway and before opening the door, looked into the peep-hole and through the distorting lens saw an attractive woman with brunette hair. I turned the knob.
Piece of ass. Large breasts on a thin frame, tall as me, dark hair and thick eye brows. I could almost feel her obsidian eyes as their glance traveled down from my eyes to my toes than back up again. She held an open envelope. “I’m sorry to bother you, does a M. Kelly live here?”
“Yes… we share this apartment.”
“I live in the building, and my name is Maria Kelly. I got this letter and opened it without reading the address. I’m sorry.”
I stood up straight, inhaled my stomach in, patted the sweat from my face with the towel. I was still panting from the interrupted work out. Remembering manners, I stood to the side and gestured. “Come in, please… I’m Tom.”
She stepped through the doorway. “Oh, this is looks like our apartment, but you don’t have a deck.”
I shook my head. My breathing was starting to steady. Sweat made the T-shirt stick to my pectorals and arm pits. I draped the towel around the nape of my neck.
She said, “We live in 601, and you live in 501. I guess it’s easy for the post man to get mixed up.”
“I suppose it’s better to mix up the mail than start blowing away people at the post office.”
She found the joke funny, just not that funny. “What a coincidence, not just two M. Kelly’s in the same building, but with the same last digits in the apartment number.” She paused for a moment, then added. “Must mean something.”
I nodded, stifled a cough. I felt endorphin dizzy. “I’m sorry, I need a drink of water, would you like some?”
“Water’s fine, sure.”
We walked into the kitchen, I got out the gallon jug of Deer Park from the refrigerator and filled two glasses with spring water.
Maria Kelly talked about how her husband was an investment banker and she managed a clothing boutique, that they moved to the New York area last year from Philadelphia. I thought her accent didn’t sound like New York or New Jersey.
“Maybe we could go out sometime, with you and your wife.”
I drank the water so fast I had to wipe my chin with the towel.
“Sure.” I filled the glass again, my breathing now steady. “Are there any good restaurants around here. We haven’t been here that long.”
“One or two, Jersey City’s kind of weird.”
“We’re still getting used to it.”
Then there was an awkward pause. I was damp and smelly. She wore a stylish black pantsuit. She smiled and apologized again for opening the letter.
“Seems like an easy mistake to make, our mail just started getting routed here from our two previous addresses.”
“Oh,” she said, raising her eye brow. I swear I felt those dark eyes checking me out again. “You are newlyweds?”
“We’re not married, but we just moved into together.”
Her laughter was flirtatious. “Nice.”
“It is.” I gulped water. I felt a cramp in my back and arched my spine, raised my elbows to stretch. “Don’t worry about the letter.”
She was staring at me. Then she winked. “Worked up quite a manly sweat I see.”
“Got to fight that aging process. Got to try to keep in shape.”
“I better go and let you get back to your toning. Thanks for the water. I’m sure we’ll see you around. You, you and your wife, should come by some time.’
“Okay, I’ll tell her.”
I stole an extra glance before she walked away. I closed the door and realized she knew how to walk or maybe she just walked that way without knowing. There’s a thin line sometimes. She seemed a little strange, coming on to me, flirting, who the hell knows. There’s always subconscious stuff going on, and where there’s subconscious there’s sexuality. I realized I must have been a sight, all sweaty like this, oozing and emanating testosterone. I looked down and not only was there this huge darken imprint of sweat on the front of my T-shirt, but that stain widened down to my shorts and the bulge of my unit was visibly outlined. Good thing I didn’t get a boner.
Or was it?
I dropped the envelope on the coffee cable, then stared at the rowing machine. I had lost the initiative. I took a shower and thought about Maria. Sexual fantasies entered my mind but did not linger.
I put on a pair of old, comfortable Levis and a fresh T-shirt. I got a Budweiser, turned on the television, flipped through channels as I lay on the couch. I shut my eyes for what I thought was a moment.
The sound of Mary’s keys in the lock woke me. She had picked up some take out chicken at a place near her mom’s, and she put the bags of food in the kitchen, stuffed her scarf into the sleeve of the coat and hung the coat in the closet, then went over to the couch and kissed me on the cheek.
“How was Teaneck?”
She shrugged, frowning, pushing her red hair back and replied, the same. I told her about the letter, about the woman on the floor above us with the same last name and first initial.
She picked up the envelope from the coffee table, “Makes me feel kind of creepy, somebody reading our mail.”
“Not our mail, your mail. Quite a coincidence, two M, Kellys, in one building, one floor apart.”
“Shit happens, that’s all.” She said, pulling out a letter and photograph from the torn envelope. Her sister had written a short note. Mary read it, sighed with boredom and dropped the small slip of paper on the coffee table. The picture was of Mary’s nephews—five year old twin boys—taken on Halloween. The kids wore superman costumes. Their hair was cut in matching bowl shaped styles. The snap shot was slightly out of focus and the eyes of the children glowed red from the flash. “Aren’t they cute?”
“The way their eyes are shinning red, they look like that the Kid from the omen,” I smirked.
“My sister’s no photographer.”
I growled like Beelzebub. “We do the master’s bidding.”
“Stop making fun of my family,” she slapped my chest. She was angrier than she should have been. Then her mood shifted. She became melancholy, but happy too, sentimental. “They’re cute kids, wouldn’t it be great to have kids.”
I shrugged. “Then we would have to move to the suburbs and all of that.”
“So, do you want to live in this dirty city all your life.”
“We just moved here, Mary. And at least it’s a city, and close to The City.”
This was not the first time she mentioned the issue of living in the suburbs. She wanted to recreate her childhood, right the wrongs of her parents with a new generation. After all the shit I went through with Sheila, and getting a career, and making some money, I wanted to just enjoy myself. Not just add more stress by parenthood and conformity.
She went into the bedroom to change out of her dress. I wanted her to anticipate my needs. Sheila was so sexual, yet, she would go away for weekends with this other guy, swear to me that he wasn’t interested in sex. I didn’t care whether I believed her or not. Things were calmer with Mary. That had to be better.
Intimacy deceives. Sometimes I think, we strive for intimacy because we want to know what someone is thinking. We want to be inside the other’s mind. It never happens. We can only know their body. That’s the only port of entry. We guess at the rest. What we call intimacy is inherently limited, implies more than it is.
I went into the kitchen, unwrapped the chicken, ripped off a leg and bit into cold dark meat.
Around Tax time, we had one of our worst fights. Each of our salaries increased the year before. Like every year, I used an accounting firm in Chelsea to work out the myriad of deductions possible for my job title. She went to a 20-something Rider College graduate who worked in the downtown Jersey City branch of H&R Block and he explained how we could both save thousands of dollars a year if we owned instead of rented. It became her only topic of discussion for days.
I remained calm. “Look it’s a good idea, just not right now.”
“We’re not getting any younger.”
“I know, I know. Look, I love you and I want to grow old with you, but I don’t want to grow old now. Besides, I have had to work my ass off since I got out of college, and shit, even during college. Now I’m finally making decent money. I want some time to have fun without the responsibilities of child rearing.”
She thought about this for a moment. “But wouldn’t having a nice house, with a yard and fresh air, be fun? We could have barbecues. Wouldn’t it be better not to waste the money we are on rent and taxes. We’d be so much more ahead.”
“I work in the city, and I will never be one of those dweebs who spend six hours a day commuting, coming in by nine and leaving at five. Maybe we can look at a condo or something closer to the city, but why do you want to live such a conventional existence? I don’t want to be like my parents, why do you want to be like yours?”
She began to rant about taking responsibilities and growing up, slammed the bedroom door. I listened to her cry for a few seconds. I was too angry to reconcile. I fell asleep on the couch, with the TV on.
We didn’t talk in the morning. I worked late that day, eating in the city, slept on the couch again and the next day, she left for work while I was in the shower.
I couldn’t get much work done. I couldn’t stop thinking about the tension. We never had fights like this before we moved in. Well, I decided to play peace maker, coming home from work at a normal time with a bouquet of roses, French Chardonnay, and an elaborate take-out Japanese meal—Mary adored the noodles and the sushi. I hate that crap. I only eat it on special occasions, like her birthday or Valentine’s Day.
“We basically want the same things,” I assured her. “I love you.”
“I love you,” she murmured. The argument seemed over.
In bed, she turned her back to me and said, “I’m tired, okay, Tom.”
Like everything else, it passed.
* * *
We spent Easter Sunday in Teaneck. Mom (Mrs. Kelly), her two sisters, Sarah, who worked as a receptionist in Philadelphia while going to law school and Janet, the one with the two kids and a husband, Seth, who was a computer engineer and seemed interested in only three things, the twins, new software programs and Star Trek. Of course, there was Harry—six feet and 280 pounds. His head seemed abnormally large, his eyes uneven and far apart. He barely spoke more than five word sentences at a time, but every breath he took sounded like the hiss of brakes on a city bus.
The twins were hyperactive, bickering with each other, screaming back at their parents when they were scolded, one minute laughing, the other minute crying, both outbursts equally loud. Consuming the Easter candy—chocolate rabbits, marshmallow bunnies, malted eggs and jelly beans—fueled their manic energy and they ran jabbering through the run-down, suburban split-level like ferocious squirrel monkeys.
When not chasing the children from room to room, and up and down the stairs, trying in vain to quiet them, the three sisters remained in the kitchen helping their mother with dinner. I stayed with the men, in the living room, on a worn couch with Seth, who had slipped a Star Trek movie—the one with the elderly original cast, when they went back in time to 20th century earth to capture whales—into the VCR. The kids of course were too busy with rampage to care.
Seth repeated lines, mentioned episodes, told stories about meeting actors at Star Trek Conventions. Now, I like Star Trek well enough. I grew up with it. I guess I’ve seen most of the movies and TV shows. I even have a vague recollection of watching the original series when it was first broadcast, with my brother and father. That episode where Spock has to go back to Vulcan to spawn. But it’s just another media thing. Trekkie fanaticism is pointless, and a little creepy. But I politely chatted about Federation lore with Seth, who’s basically a nice guy. I even agreed with him, that Kirk was better than Picard. I didn’t mention that it was an opinion I considered absurdly meaningless.
Harry planted himself in a sagging upholstered chair whose stuffing leaked out the numerous holes in its faded cloth covering. In between handfuls of jelly beans, Harry guzzled beer and wheezed away like an asthmatic Buddha. Periodically he lurched into the kitchen to get a fresh can of beer. Around his third or fourth, the mother, echoed by the sisters, warned, “you’ve had enough. Make this your last one.” Eventually, Harry asked me to fetch his beer, adding, “get me two, it will make it easier.”
“Sure dude,” I said. Why not? What else has the guy going for him except drinking. I went into the kitchen. The women sat around a table, talking and laughing. I surreptitiously grabbed some cans. They barely noticed me, much less acknowledged my presence.
Mary’s mother looked gaunt, ten years older than her sixty years and seemed preoccupied, but it was impossible to tell if the distraction was from tragedy or illness. She weekly visited a beautician, maintaining the curly hairstyle and brown color that she had favored since her twenties. Now, the petrified strands hung thin and limp on her skull. In a polyester flowered dress and sagging panty hose, she trembled as she walked into the living room carrying a tray of appetizers—a nut-covered cheddar cheese log surrounded by a circular arrangement of Wheat Thins and Ritz crackers..
“Oh, let me get that Mrs. Kelly,” I said as I took the tray from her hands. She had a gentleness that reminded me of my mother. “Are the girls making you do all the work.”
“Oh no, Tom, they’re helping,” she said, as if in a daze. She was not someone you would say was in good health. “You boys relax now, dinner will be ready in a bit.”
“Everything smells great.”
“We used to have such lovely Easters,” she replied as the two terror tots charged down the stairs, stampeding past the old woman into the kitchen. They were halted by Janet’s hoarse reprimand.
Dinner was served late in the afternoon—A baked ham the size of an infant, dishes of mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes, baked beans, creamed onions, oil-laden green beans, and broccoli doused in cheddar cheese—the two boys squirmed in their chairs, wired from sugar and without appetites—Sarah picked at some vegetables, explained how she didn’t eat meat and described in detail the hormone treatments used by America’s pork industry. Harry’s wheezing changed tenor midway through the meal. The family tended to ignore him and he certainly was no conversationalist. Gradually everyone noticed he was slumped in his chair, snoring. I felt bad about getting him those beers. Mary nudged him, and he woke with a gurgle sound more in common with sewer systems than human anatomy.
The entire family laughed, even the kids.
Harry staggered out of the dining room, took a few beers from the refrigerator, and retreated to his basement room, not to be heard from again.
During the ride back to Jersey City, Mary ranted about her family. Harry was an oaf taking advantage of their mother’s generosity, Sarah was a pompous snob who only said she was a vegetarian to feel superior, and Janet was a terrible mother and didn’t care that she was raising two, spoiled brats. She didn’t mention Seth, who was too dull for even her contempt. Her biggest complaint was that she was the only one who cared about their mother. She spent the most time with her, and seemed to be the only one who noticed symptoms of, if not illness, at least discomfort.
I thought about saying, after witnessing such dysfunction, you want to move back to the suburbs? Instead, I played the role of comforting mate and just let her rant. At home, she watched television while I drank Bushmills and read marketing reports for a meeting the next day.
* * *
The apartment building had a shuttle bus running in the morning and evening which transported residents to and from the PATH subway station. It was a nice perk, making my door to door commute average about forty five minutes.
One Monday, I was standing on the sidewalk in front of my apartment building—the complex consisted for four large brick buildings—reading the New York Times, which was delivered to my door.
Not having to worry about dating, always having somebody to talk to and rent movies with, living in a new place putting a fresh shine on the ordinary, a shuttle bus and newspaper, I felt taken care of, I felt good. Mary was sick of being angry at me, I guess, so we had a good weekend, taking walks, shopping, cooking, renting movies. We made love Saturday morning, and Sunday night. I guess I was so good Saturday she wanted more of me Sunday. The latter was one of those couch affairs, extra wine with dinner gave us a good mood leading to kissing and petting while watching some independent movie about an autistic kid in a trailer park. Hitting pause, listening to her moan. We watched the end of the movie then went to bed, and right to sleep. I can’t recall the movie’s plot, but I could still feel her. My body, my penis, still echoing the tactile memories.
The weather was warm, I was without an overcoat, just my wool double-breasted olive green suit and bright blue shirt and black and red tie. I rapidly skimmed the front section of the New York Times, strife in third world nations I probably will never visit.
The breeze that clicked the thin newspaper pages and caressed my freshly shaved face was filled with spring and seemed as blue as the cloudless sky.
Maria walk out of the building. She wore large, “Jackie-O” sunglasses, a red dress and a leather blazer. She lit a cigarette then walked across the street, her heels snapping on the cobble stones. She watched for the bus while tapping the heel of her right shoe against the curb.
I folded the newspaper and went over to her. “If it isn’t the upstairs Ms. Kelly. Good Morning.”
“I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on,” she smiled as I laughed. “That’s a nice suit. Armani?”
“No, just a knock off from the European section of Moe Ginsburg.”
“My husband should wear those kind of suits, but he dresses like a Republican. Wall Street.”
“I haven’t seen you on the bus before.”
“I don’t usually go in this early, but there is a lot of crap happening at the store,” she exhaled smoke in a spit-like style, then flicked the cigarette into the street. “My husband, he goes in at the crack of dawn and stays all hours. Work-aholic.”
“It’s tough to get the schedules to coincide.”
She nodded, then changed the subject. “You know, I am really sorry about opening your, uhhh, g-girlfriend’s letter.”
“No problem. It wasn’t that personal a letter anyway.” I tried to make light of it.
“We aren’t prosecuting.”
She sort of smiled, sort of nodded, twirled this crystal pendant on a silver chain around her neck.
The shuttle bus, a white vehicle that resembled a Good Humor truck, pulled up.
We sat together for the seven blocks. She said, for no reason that I could ascertain, “how long have you two been together.”
“About a year all told. Only a month or so in Co-habitation.”
“So, it’s still fresh for you two. That’s good. Thank the goddess.”
She laughed and it was then I noticed her nipples protruding against the thin fabric of her tight red dress. The top of her stockings—stockings not panty hose—were visible below her dress which was pulled up accidentally. Her thigh pressed against mine. She didn’t bother to move, so I didn’t either. A gold ankle bracelet was draped above her foot.
I forgot about wondering what she meant by the goddess.
She looked out the window. “It’s going to be a nice day.”
“Very nice,” I replied, looking in the same direction but instead of the sky, I was gazing at her nose, her ears, her sunglasses, her lovely mouth.
* * *
It was a second night in a row of working late. Quarterly planning was crazed. I barely had time to talk with Mary, who had spent time with her mother and had met Maria Kelly, but not the husband.
I had to make a frenzy of West Coast calls throughout the afternoon, then an evening brainstorming session with Gary and the some Creative staff members over Chinese food in the large conference room. I was stressed out and beat when I got home, after ten o’clock,
Mary wasn’t, as usual, watching television. Instead, a Cowboy Junkies CD played and the aroma of incense drifted through the air. I got a beer from the refrigerator and yelled a hello and she shouted back “I’m in the tub.”
I stood outside the door. “Is it all right if I come in?”
I took her silence for consent, and opened the door. I winced from the olfactory onslaught—two smoldering sticks of Sandalwood were in a can of beer on the sink; lavender, coconut and several herbal odors emanated from the greenish sudsy water in the tub. A lazy grin dominated Mary’s blissful face, and her wet hair, which clung to her neck and shoulders, shimmered with a chestnut colored tone. Her eyes were half-closed and bloodshot. Her knees were bent and her breasts seemed to float on the surface of the water. There was a glass of wine on the floor by the side of the tub.
I stood by the toilet and peed.
She said, in a halting voice. “Must you do that.”
“I had to go, I’m sorry.”
I washed my hands. I leaned down to kiss her. She moaned into my mouth.
Her hand jiggled under the water, between her thighs.
“I just got back myself, I was with Maria…Maria Kelly, from upstairs..” she sighed. “I received a piece of her junk mail, so I brought it to her. Turns out, her husband was working late too. We got to talking, ordered a pizza and drank some wine. She’s very funny.” She shifted her pelvis in the water, and her hand was softly splashing, turning the soapy bubbles around it into a lather. “She read my palm, she said I had to be careful.”
“Read your palm?”
“She’s into all that new age, Goddess shit. Astrology, that sort of stuff. She was going to read my cards, but when she looked at my palm, she decided not to. Then she burned some sage.”
“She said it was good for cleansing and luck. It’s like incense. We drank a lot wine. I’m pretty buzzed.”
I stood up, took off my tie and unbuttoned his shirt. “What are you doing under there.”
“She gave me those sticks of incense too and suggested I take a bath.” She moaned, then giggled. “I don’t know, I just wanted to do what she said. It was weird.”
“Well you look pretty nice, soaking like that.” The CD ended. I drank some more beer. “What are you doing under there.”
“Nothing,” she giggled, then groaned, slightly.
I knelt by the tub. “What are you doing?”
“She gave me something else too.” Her hand emerged from the suds and she held up a blue, phallic shaped, rubber dolphin. The sound of the water dripping from the “adult toy” echoed in the tiled chamber.
She eased the dolphin back inside her. “She says that’s it doesn’t look like a penis because it’s anti-patriarchal. She said I should have it, because I was a water sign.” She let out a soft groan.
“Want me to join you?” I knelt by the tub, grabbed the dolphin, and pushed it in her while kissing her soapy breasts.
She slapped my hands away, sighed, “You’re not doing it right.”
I squeezed her breasts and started to kiss her ears, her face. She raised her knees.
“You’re really turning me on honey,” I whispered. We deeply kissed. Then I stood up and rapidly took off my clothes.
She leaned back. “I’m kind of drunk. We drank a lot of wine.”
I stood up, slid my hand down my twitching hard on. She flung the dolphin against the wall, it bounced then splashed into the water. Because of the weight and density of the rubber, it did not float.
I clambered into the bathtub, water lapped on the floor.
She seemed upset. “I don’t know why.”
I positioned myself on top of her, guiding myself inside. “Why what?”
‘Why I listened to her, I don’t like her. Why I took that thing, why I used it.”
Water splashed out of the tub. I reached over to the faucet to release the drain. “I love it that you were using it.”
“Oh, I bet you do.”
I pushed into her, my knees slipping on the bottom of the tub. I braced my hands against the rim as she arched her torso and spread her legs.
“I do, baby. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“I know there’s nothing wrong with it.” She pushed her palms against my chest. “I’m sorry, okay. I don’t feel well.”
I pulled out and knelt as she stood up, stepped out of the tub, grabbed her terry cloth bath robe off the hook on the door and scurried out of the room.
“Are you okay?” I said, trying not to get mad.
“I’m sorry.” I heard the bedroom door close. The water drained in an extended retching sound. The dolphin lay in a small mound of lather.
I stroked and came and showered, then wrapped myself in a towel, had another beer and watched some television. I woke up in the middle of the night. I wandered to the bedroom door. It was still locked. I got out a blanket, went back to the couch.
The next morning, she woke up first. I found her in the kitchen, dressed for work. She had the big carving knife out and was slicing the blade through the dolphin.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t want this disgusting thing in my house.”
I poured myself some coffee. “It’s not that bad Mary. We could try some other toys.”
She turned around and said angrily. “I’m not interested in toys.”
“Don’t be so repressed.”
“Repressed! You think I’m frigid or something because I’m not some brainless bimbo playing with her pussy waiting for her man to come home. Grow up will you.”
The dolphin was diced into four pieces. She brushed the pieces off the counter into a paper bag.
“It’s too early for this,” I said, walking away. She left, no vocal farewell much less a kiss.
I stared into the bedroom mirror. A dab of shaving cream remained near my ear. A razor cut just above the left corner of my mouth oozed blood.
* * *
Maria Kelly came by the apartment when only Mary was home, and Mary accepted her invitation to dinner at their apartment on April 30, a Saturday.
“Sure,” I said when got home from work. “But I thought you didn’t like her.”
“I don’t really know if I do or not. She’s into all this weird stuff, but some of it is interesting. It’s nice to know your neighbors, don’t you think?”
“I never knew my neighbors in New York. It’s not really a city type of thing.”
“We don’t know anybody here.. It’s just going to be she and her husband and us. Very casual.”
“If you want to, she seemed okay I guess.”
“I like being friendly with the neighbors,” she said. “I don’t like not knowing who is living next to me.”
I looked at the ceiling. “Or above us.”
“I haven’t told you the best part. It’s a pagan party. It’s for Beltane. Ever hear of it?”
“Well, we have to bring wine and bread, and at midnight, we dance under the moon. We’re supposed to dance naked but, we agreed that just our underwear will be all right. We also burn money, only like a dollar.”
“What? Our underwear? Nude might be sexier!”
“Forget that, and don’t be having those adolescent porno images in your imagination, Tom. We’ll only be in our underwear for a few minutes. We’ll wear you know, sweat clothes, and we’ll just slip them off and prance around on their outside deck. It’s a pretty nice view. You can see the city, some bridges, the river and the Statue of Liberty.”
“I never heard of it before either. It’s like some kind of druid thing, she explained it to me. Oh, I don’t think she thinks she’s a witch or anything. It’s not Wiccan or cultish or even serious. I mean, it’s just a party to her, like toga parties in college.”
I was going to say that I heard her mention the goddess, but that would mean saying I saw her on the bus and might let it slip that I sensed signals from her. Or maybe by omitting the information meant I could retain the delusion of receiving signals.
I couldn’t dwell on that now. A new promotional campaign for a new digital product was in full swing, and the marketing department was frantic. The promotion meant I had a lot of new responsibilities. Even Gary was sniping at me. Besides, Mary’s mother was not feeling well, and Harry wasn’t working, just borrowing money from his mother, who lived on a fixed income. The party and a friendship with the exuberant upstairs Kelly could be just the thing to improve Mary’s mood.
“The downstairs Kelly’s I presume,” said Joe Kelly when he answered the door. He had a pot belly, glass of scotch in his hand, wore a Temple University sweatshirt and nylon warm up trousers. He looked a couple of years older than forty.
“Only I’m a Kelly,” said Mary.
Joe shook my hand. I held up the bag we brought. “Wine and bread. If the pagan thing doesn’t work out, we can always serve mass.”
“Well, you’d be surprised how deep the pagan influence is on Catholicism, but that’s a subject the wife will never shut up about once she’s started,” said Joe as he ushered us inside.
The apartment was similar to ours, but the hall was longer, the kitchen and living room significantly bigger. The furniture seemed ultra-modern—leather couch and easy chair, matching chrome-edged glass coffee and end tables. The couple had money. The half of the living room closest to the kitchen had a dining set—oak table and four chairs. Jazz was playing on the expensive sound system. The wide-screen TV and VCR in the corner were shut off.
The smell of Garlic filled the air. Maria was in the kitchen, cigarette dangling from her lips, flowered apron tied over a long red nightshirt. She said hello, and ordered her husband to make drinks. Mary just wanted wine, and remained in the kitchen as Maria opened one of the bottles the downstairs couple brought.
“I’ll have what you’re having,” I said.
“A scotch man, well, you have to try this single malt.” I followed him into the living room. A small cabinet was against the wall, on top of which were some glasses, a bucket of ice and decanters. It was a drinking system belonging to an older generation, ignorant of abuse issues and 12 step programs, who naively glamorized the ritual of alcohol consumption. Joe carefully removed fresh ice cubes from the bucket with small silver tongs, dropping three into a short, thick glass, poured in the tan colored liquid from one of the crystal decanters, then pressing the lever on a black bottle, added a single discharge of fresh seltzer.
“Pretty nice set up,” I said.
“We’re a regular Nick and Nora. Figure if you’re going to drink, might as well do it in style.” Joe replenished the scotch and seltzer in his glass. “The purists probably say you should drink this stuff straight, but I think that thinning it out a bit really enhances the after taste.”
We clinked our glasses. He said, “here’s to Beltane and the supernatural influence on success.”
“Supernatural influence?” I said.
“Can’t dismiss everything,” he shrugged. “I work with investments. Things can go up for no apparent reason.”
He sat down in the leather chair, I sat on the edge of the couch. “Voodoo economics?”
He chuckled. “How’s the drink?”
“It should be,” he chortled. “Cost enough.”
Joe picked up the pack of Marlboros from the glass coffee table. I declined his offer of a smoke. We could hear the women talking in the kitchen as they clattered plates and cooking apparatus. Joe reclined in the chair and put his feet on the matching ottoman.
We began talking about the building.
“Oh, I like it well enough,” said Joe. “I don’t think I wanted to be thrown into the mix of things in Manhattan. I can make good money there, but the rents are ridiculous.”
“I kind of miss all the things to do, the museums and bars and stuff,” I sipped the scotch. I didn’t like this guy, but I liked the booze and maybe I figured if I drank enough, maybe I would like him more. “But I can still go to do those places.”
“We had all those cultural things in Philadelphia. Who cares?”
I asked him about his job. It was financial, investment banker. Like everyone else, that meant the Mutual Funds business. He changed the subject pretty fast, asking about my job. I replied marketing manager.
“Marketing, sales, advertising, aye?” Joe smirked. “Hope it pays well. Marketing gives nothing to society what so ever.”
“What does investment banking do for society.”
“Greed is good. We invest in the right companies, jobs can be created, wealth can increase.” He snickered, “We all be working for the man anyhow.”
Before I had finished my drink. Joe took the glass, went over to the bar stand, made new drinks while shouting towards the kitchen, “How long before we eat, Maria?”
Her voice barked back, “Don’t hassle me, okay. Soon. You can have another drink!”
Joe dropped back into the leather chair, put a cigarette in his mouth. “You two not married.”
“Still in sin.”
“Marriage ain’t that different, except you probably have even less sex than when you’re shacking up. Just make sure you’ll stay together, because when you break up a marriage, it gets real expensive.”
“I guess so.” There was an awkward silence. We were both relieved when Maria announced that dinner was ready.
She certainly could cook. Joe would have preferred a steak or meat lasagna. He seemed to have little patience with his wife’s vegetarian tendencies, but the celebration was her province, and she got to choose the food, which was a pasta primavera variation—garlic and mascarpone sauce—and an arugula and endive salad.
“We usually slaughter a goat then a have an orgy for Beltane,” said Joe, who laughed the loudest. Half his meal was still on the plate when he went over to the bar stand and refilled his scotch. Before returning to the table, he lit a cigarette and looked out the window.
“This is great, Maria,” said Mary.
“It’s just a recipe I play around with,” Maria said, shaking her head. “We eat meat, but we never slaughter a goat or do any sort of group sex scene. That’s not what
“We know,” said Mary. “It’s just fun.”
“Like that, uuhh, toy you gave Mary,” I smiled. “Lots of fun.”
Joe stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray on the coffee table, then came back to the table.. “You gave her one of those dolphins? She had a whole box of them from a feminist meeting.”
“It wasn’t a feminist meeting, exactly. Just a body positive thing.”
“Was it related to paganism?” I asked.
Maria just laughed.
Joe pushed his plate away from him. “It’s new age lesbian stuff. It doesn’t look like a cock, that’s why the dikes use it.”
“It’s a body positive thing, women using their own sexual energy,” said Maria.
“I like the supernatural stuff more than the feminist stuff,” said Joe. “But every woman should have a toy. Why don’t you demonstrate our vibrator for our guests, honey.”
“Joe,” she snapped. “Shut up.”
Mary looked down at her plate. I made no comment.
“I just had a box of them, it’s really more of a goof than anything,” said Maria, breaking the uncomfortable lull.
Joe, growing inebriated, seemed to sense nothing. “You should read the brochure, how the fin rubs the clitoris. Did you find that, Mary?”
Maria punched her husband in the arm.
Mary acted oblivious and said, “I remember there were these women’s group meetings I went to in College, It was like folk singing and yoga and you know, positive reinforcement for women. They were interesting. I was, of course, more interested in dating boys.”
“Tonight is really about cycles,” said Maria. “The body positive thing—“
“—I just want to say that my fucking wife has a hell of a body,” Joe interjected, drained the rest of his scotch in a loud gulp, then chewed the ice cubes. “I’m among the positive about her body.”
Maria ignored him “We celebrate Christmas with trees and presents, Easter with colored eggs and candy, July 4th with fireworks and hot dogs, but Beltane is more ancient than all of that. It may have been celebrated even before there was written language. It’s against the patriarchy, but it’s really just an acknowledgment of nature and ancient, non-patriarchal spirituality. The druids, they built stone henge, they were in touch with ancient truths.”
“Well, it sounds like fun,” I said. “And for such a good meal, it’s worth it.”
“Even not eating meat tonight has a significance,” said Maria. “It shows a willingness not to kill.”
“What could be more Christian than killing,” laughed Joe.
“I believe in God, a supreme being,” said Mary. “But organized religions don’t have all the answers.”
“There’s definitely something out there,” I said. “It’s all superstition, but I don’t mean it pejoratively. Be it Jesus or astrology or simply good or bad luck. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Tarot Cards, even Druids. Whatever. All equal superstitions. But only an ignorant mind denies the power of superstition. There is obviously more to life and existence than we can know.”
“Luck’s better than God,” said Joe, who stood up again, making his way towards the scotch. “Eventually life all comes down to money.”
“That’s why we burn a little tonight. Personal freedom. Making a statement ther-e’s more than society and civilization to life,” said Maria. She poured more wine into her glass, took a long sip, wiped her mouth and winked. “I recommend making love tonight, before you sleep, for luck.”
Mary looked down, her face flushed.
I said, “There’s a superstition I can certainly support.”
Mary looked at me. I shrugged. I was trying to be friendly, keep things light.
Maria opened another bottle of wine. We talked some more. Mary and I even smoked a cigarette. Joe played CD’s, rock and roll,. I knocked over a water glass, and then helped Maria wipe it up and we cleared the table and helped her load the dishwasher. Joe stayed in the living room. The three of us then had some cognac. Joe remained devoted to his single malt.
Then all four of us carried our glasses upstairs to begin the festivities.
At the top of the stairs, a landing separated the bedroom and the study, which had some bookshelves and a black Ikea desk with a large Desktop computer system on it. We walked through the study and through a door to the outside deck.
The air was warm, more June than April. We stood on what once was the roof of a factory. There was a metal railing against a wall covered with tar paper. Gray clouds streaked across the stars and three-quarter moon. We could see the expanse of Lover Manhattan’s Skyline, the Hudson river, and, the Verrazano bridge, and the torch, arm and shoulders of the Statue of Liberty. The river shimmered like black glass. The lights on buildings flickered in time with the lights strung along the suspension cables of the Verrazano. Pairs of bright dots, the headlights of cars, moved in the distance.
I couldn’t help but feel awe. I could sense the relentless pulse of the world.
Mary kissed me on the cheek, her arm slid around my waist. I said, “seeing this you can really feel the possibilities of mankind, Western Civilization, America.”
“For each dream realized, three promises were broken,” said Joe. “From here, you would never know about the abundance of poverty and despair. We belong here, above it all, cause we can play the game and those suckers can’t.”
On the ledge was a black hibachi, it’s grill removed, filled with a heap of sticks and broken branches. Joe picked up a can of lighter fluid, sprayed the wood then dropped on a match. It belched into flames so suddenly we gasped. The wood popped and crackled. Mary stared into the flames, and leaned into my side. I felt the warmth of her body and smelt the coconut shampoo she used on her hair.
Joe poked the fire with a long barbecuing fork and a flurry of crimson sparks ascended into the night. Maria had an open packet of chrysanthemum seeds, explaining that sowing seeds on Beltane symbolized personal growth for the coming year. She poured a few into our hands and instructed us to plant them in the green planter on a wooden bench. Behind her back, Joe twirled his index finger around his ear and crossed his eyes. Mary and I didn’t laugh.
We shoved the seeds into the dirt. Maria said it was now time to hold hands and chant. We formed a circle and repeated after Maria, “Goddess of Fire. Goddess of Light. Goddess of Earth. Goddess of Night. In the unknown hour, let us grow in your power.”
Joe stopped snickering after Maria elbowed his rib cage, but even she couldn’t help laughing a little. She said, “Get out your dollars, and get out of your clothes.”
Mary wore her sports bra and white satin panties, but Maria had on a lace bra that did little to hide her rigid nipples and a cotton thong. Her entire ass was exposed. I had on low rise briefs and Joe, a pair of striped boxer shorts. The front of the waistband was covered by his hairy belly. Maria tossed her dollar into the fire and started to holler, snapping her fingers in the air and grinding like a stripper. Mary and I looked at each other and laughed, then threw our bills into the fire.
“Beltane!” shouted Maria. “Beltane.”
“Beltane!” Mary and I croaked
Joe shook like a goofy gym teacher acting cool at the prom. Mary and I sort of shimmied in a pseudo disco parody. We were both sort of wall flowers. I said, “it’s easier to dance with music.”
“Freakin neighbors complain,” said Joe. “Stupid building has stupid rules.”
“It’s cold out here,” said Mary, who put her arms around me for warmth. We swayed together. “But it feels good.”
“Doesn’t it though,” said Maria, who was backing into Joe, rubbing her back on his chest. Joe drained his drink, shimmied against her, laughing. Suddenly, in one quick gesture, he unhooked her bra and pulled up the front.
When I realized Mary wasn’t staring, I looked the other way. We were both stunned. I swear, for a moment I thought that Maria was shaking her breasts for the both of us but she turned around, screaming. “You’re a real fuckin douche bag. You don’t know how to act at all.”
“What’s the big deal,” he yelled back. “I was just having fun.”
“You don’t know how to have fun because you’re a fucking bore!” she pushed him away and put her breasts back into the lace and snapped the hook in back. “Can you believe the asshole I’m married to.”
“Oh fuck you and your pagan bullshit,” he said, then stomped inside, his footsteps echoing down the stairs.
“Are you okay,” asked Mary.
“Oh, I’m fine, I hope he didn’t embarrass you two.” Maria picked up her glass, finished her cognac with one swallow, then searched for her cigarettes. She lit the cigarette off the fire, then put on her night shirt. She leaned against the railing, staring into the night and cursing out her husband.
Mary got her clothes, excused herself to go the bathroom. I sipped drink and stared at the fire. The Rolling Stones blared up from the stereo system downstairs. Maria shouted Asshole.
I was pulling on my sweatshirt. I was blocking the door way. She pushed against me and she squeezed my unit. It was just a quick inspection, a firm albeit brief grasp of the testicles. I was startled, sort of hopped but by the time I had my arms and head through the sweatshirt, she was inside.
I quickly grabbed my sweat pants and stepped into them when I saw Mary, now dressed, coming through the study. I knew she didn’t see Maria touch me, but I also didn’t want her to see the erection that now had appeared.
She said, “We better go.”
“The sooner the better.”
She whispered, “They have some real problems.”
When we were downstairs, we shouted our good byes over the shattering decibels of Mick and Keith. Joe sat on the couch, swigging his scotch and waved. Maria was very polite, apologizing again and promising that next time they would go to a restaurant, because her husband is much better behaved in public.
“They are very weird,” I said, we walked down the stair well.
“They sure drink a lot, especially that husband. He’s an asshole. They are too unstable for me to handle for very long. I hope we don’t have to hang out with them again.”
“They give me the creeps.’
We took a shower together when we got home, laughing about how stupid that Beltane stuff was.
“I should never have taken that stupid dolphin thing from her. I wonder what she must think.”
“Must have a lot of free time to worry about the goddess. I mean, this is America. The goddess! Give me a break!”
We dried each other off, lay in bed. Mary said, “do you think they wanted to swing.”
“I don’t know, do you think Joe was coming on to you.”
“Sometimes I think that silly bitch was,” said Mary. “It really grosses me out. Two women. Group sex. I hope you’re not into that.”
“One beauty is enough for me to handle,” I said, lowering my head, then licking her.
She pulled my hair, forcing my face away. “One beauty? So, you think she’s beautiful.”
“She’s a flaky bitch, you were right.”
“I saw you looking at her.”
I laughed, my chin rested on her pubic hair, and I had two fingers inside her vagina, rubbing then against her clit. I knew what she liked by now. “You were looking at her too.”
“I wasn’t looking at her!”
“It was a joke Mary, I wasn’t implying anything.”
“I can’t believe that asshole would humiliate her like that.” She sighed, “I wouldn’t stand for it.”
“It was a pretty rotten thing to do,” I agreed, then moved my mouth down.
She soon stopped talking.
When I was inside her and feeling her orgasms I closed my eyes but instead of thinking of something that would make me hold back, I was thinking about Maria’s tits.
* * *
I had to go to Chicago, the annual Midwestern trade show. I get nervous and miserable anticipating these things. I hate business trips. I hate the planes and the hotel rooms and the waiting around. Then you have to be on all the time, talking, talking, talking. It’s so god damn irritating. You would think Mary would at least empathize or something. She knew the pressure was on. How could she not? I was brooding, spending time at home going over reports, working late at the office to get out a rush job on a new company brochure and shelf-talker. She didn’t understand, didn’t offer to drive me to or pick me up at the airport. No hot sexual farewell from her to think about while away. The night before I left, she stayed at her mother’s house, helping Harry and the sisters paint the upstairs bedrooms.
Like all business conventions, this one consisted of meetings and dinners, with the bulk of the day spent on the showroom floor. Manufacturers, with elaborate booths, exhibited their product lines. Each year, the booths became more elaborate, larger, glitzier. Buyers—retailers—placed orders, looked at the new lines. Business cards were exchanged. Business relationships born and/or revived. Our new lines had created a buzz. Since we offered marketing support—my department—the booth was packed and the accounts wanted to know about merchandising displays, shelf talkers, 800 numbers where consumers could call for stores in their area with the laser remotes. The company’s sales staff wrote an order, then called me over to see if the marketing support corresponded to what the salesperson promised. It was up to me to explain the fine points and requirements of the program without squelching the sale. That’s me: Capitalist Diplomat.
It was the second day of the three day event when Stephanie stopped by. I hadn’t seen since her she moved to San Francisco to take an editorial job with a trade magazine publishing company. She had dyed her hair blonde, and I didn’t notice her right away as she stood, under the glaring fluorescent lights in the crowded aisle, waiting for me to finish talking to a client. As the business-suited representative from a Wisconsin chain shook my hand and left, Stephanie walked up to me. “Tom.”
We kind of clasped hands. A hug in this environment would not have been appropriate.
“It’s good to see you.” I said.
“I left trade journalism. I’m a copywriter with the Smithers Ad agency, we’re handling the GE division.” She worked for the competition. We weren’t in head-to-head positions. But our companies, and the people we reported to, were. The instant all this dawned on me, I began wondering if anybody noticed me talking to her—what kind of concern it could stir. She was thinking the same thing.
“You’re staying at the Hilton?”
“Of course,” I said.
“I’ll call you later.”
She phoned after the exhibition closed and we had a few laughs about the irony. “I was just sick of writing for the trade press, so this opportunity came along, and I took it because of my experience.”
“Do you like San Francisco?”
“It’s a great town. I don’t really miss New York. God, Tom, it’s so good talking to you. Unfortunately, I have a business dinner tonight and besides, it may not be a good thing to be seen together.”
“You know how this industry is, Steph.”
“I’ll be finished by 11:00 o’clock, I could stop by your room afterwards and we can talk and catch up.”
“That sounds good.”
I went to the client dinner, which ran late. I kept thinking how much I liked Stephanie, the first woman I slept with after Sheila. Stephanie gave me back confidence. I was back in the hotel room only a short while when she knocked on the door. She wore a shiny black dress, low cut, exposing just enough cleavage to be tasteful but sexy. I could smell freshly applied Chanel. She kissed me on the lips. She held up a bottle of Remy. “We had this in our suite and I swiped it. Remember how we used to drink Remy in that place.”
“Those night caps at Nick & Eddies, how could I forget,” I said. “Let me get some glasses.”
I went to the bathroom for the glasses. She sat on the bed. “What do you think of the show?”.
“The economy must be picking up,” I said, holding the glasses in front of her. “Things are pretty busy. Good turnout.”
She poured and said. “The industry does seem more upbeat than when I left.”
“I think it is.” We clinked glasses. “Welcome back.”
“Oh, Tom. I knew I would see you. I was thinking of calling you, but you know, with the way the competition is in this racket.”
“Hey, we’re friends. We’re more than friends. Business is just business. It’s all bullshit and money anyhow. How’s life in Frisco.”
“It’s a town where you can really re-invent yourself. I’m more conventional. I even have a boyfriend.”
“Is it serious?” She laughed off my question. She finished the drink, poured herself another, freshened mine. The woman always liked her name brand booze. I said, “I met somebody too. We live together.”
“Well, that’s almost conventional. Not married yet?”
“Nah, she’s a divorcee, and well, it’s just not a priority for either of us right yet. We’re still adjusting.”
“I hope you’re happy.” I kind of nodded. She added, “Well, you look great.”
“Thanks.” I patted my stomach. “Been working out some. Feeling good. I got a promotion last year too.”
We sat together on the edge of the bed. A lull passed, then she said, “You know, it’s too bad we met through business, or that the timing wasn’t different, Tom. I picture us together in a parallel universe where things are perfect and there’s very little disappointment.”
“Who knows what fate could have had in store. I think about you,” I said. It was true. Business can be so grueling, the sales, the transactions, the petty politics, the fair-weather friendships and the glorification of the schmooze. To find somebody you can be truly friends with, discover a common shield from all the responsibilities and demands—it’s special. We had read the same books, liked the same movies. We found each other attractive. We never worried about our future together, we only enjoyed the present, always enjoyed.
She poured us more Remy. It had a golden color and was making us both warm.
“You always had such wonderful eyes. Why the blonde hair?”
“Just wanted to continue reinventing myself.”
“It looks great. I do think about you, Steph. You know, I think the world of you.”
She stared at me and that’s when it happened, when the moment turned from friendly reunion to physical revival. Her face moved closer. We both knew, that if we kissed, it would not stop there.
And it didn’t. Desire became impulse.
“I’ve thought about you,” she said, after her dress was off, and she was pulling her panty hose down her legs. Then she took a condom out of her purse. “I brought this with me, just in case I met you.”
As I removed my clothes, she commented that my new fitness program had succeeded. I was tone, muscular. I told her I missed her body. She said she missed mine. Then we got to prove exactly the amount of missing we really felt.
Guilty? Hello! Yes, I felt extremely guilty. I couldn’t tell Mary that I cheated, obviously. I knew I had to lie. The lying thing was making me sick. On the flight back, I was miserable, anguished. I went to the bathroom and threw up. Well sort of was just coughed real hard. Maybe I cried a little bit. I should have been wondering why, after barely two months living together, I was cheating. Sex is never just about sex. Instead, in that metal booth of a toilet racing high above America, I stared into the mirror at the ever aging face and felt terrible.
I reminded myself that I had not made an effort, gone out of my way, to get some on the side. Stephanie and I had had a relationship. Stephanie wanted me. Why else would she come to the room, with the Remy. I’m easily flattered. It was just one moment. I deserve my moments.
I took off my shirt and pulled my pants and underwear down below my knees and inspected myself in the mirror. There were no marks, no hickeys or light bruises or fingernail lacerations. No evidence, no proof of anything.
But I felt near overwhelming anxiety, shaky hands and palpitating heart. Even if I keeled over from a panic and guilt induced coronary, no one would know why. Maybe Stephanie, but even she could only guess. I washed my face a few times. I had to get a grip.
I deserved my moments. I had to be a man. I was a good lover. Women wanted me. That’s what was important, and now that it was in the past, I could move on. Guilt’s just another part of life. Jesus would understand. Yes, I got guilt from Catholicism, but I also understood forgiveness. In fact, the bridge between sin and absolution was guilt and I was on that bridge, heading in the right direction. Didn’t Jesus say that thing about adultery, not that it was wrong, or at least unforgivable, but that it didn’t require a physical act, something about looking at a woman in the wrong way or letting a sexual thought about a woman cross your mind, than you have already committed adultery. I get those thoughts all the time. Acting on one of them made little difference. So I told myself, I didn’t cheat and I felt better, in fact, I felt a new confidence. After what I went through with Sheila, I deserve all the loving I can get. It wasn’t like I was on the make. It happened and now move on.
I went back to my seat and asked the flight attendant for another drink and I thought about Sheila’s body, the look of happy recognition on her face when I was naked, when she touched me.
Mary was asleep when the airport taxi dropped me off. I took a shower, drank some scotch and watched some television. The infomercials started, so I went to bed. Mary’s warmth hovered between the sheets.. You get so used to being next to the same body that their heat and their aroma can be as familiar as your own pulse. She put her arms around me, snuggled close, but was still groggy. She whispered, “You smell nice.”
“I took a shower to get off the scum.” I pressed against her.
She put her leg over my side, mumbled. “I’ve missed you.”
I put my hands under her nightshirt and caressed her breasts and she made a cooing noise. I rubbed between her thighs. She was wet. Had she been dreaming about me? Her eyes were still closed, she still seemed asleep, but she squirmed. I rolled her on her back, pushed up her nightshirt, kissed her nipples. I slid down the bed, and licked her clitoris. She had an orgasm very quickly. I drank her in. Then I got on top of her. She was hot now, not just warm. Sexually feverish. She was so easy to please. She was having one after another. Mary’s like that. I don’t want to give the impression that she was frigid. Prudish maybe. But once she started—Relentless geyser. Then suddenly, as a moan lost its softness and shouted into the night, her eyes flashed opened and glistened like Christmas lights. The lingering guilt from Stephanie and the unrelated dozens of irritations ascended through my pores like steam. I panted “I love you Mary.”
My entire body felt my release. Every cell, every molecule.
She woke me up after ten o’clock, bringing me a cup of coffee and the Saturday’s New York Times, which was delivered to the door. “You looked like you really needed the sleep, but I didn’t want you to waste the whole day,”
I cleared my throat. The coffee tasted delicious. She made the best damn coffee. “I want to wake up.”
She sat on the side of her bed, put her hand on my leg and smiled at me. Mary’s fair skin and red hair seemed to have this glow. My world was good, secure, filled with subtle pleasantries. Only for a brief moment did I consider that Mary was shorter, a couple of pounds heavier than Stephanie. That garbage didn’t loiter in my mind. I know what’s right. I sat up, leaned my back against the head board. She was still in her night shirt. I glanced at the headlines above the fold. No national tragedies or emergencies. No riots or bombings. Just political uprisings in third world countries that I could care less about.
“I’m happy you’re back.”
“It’s kind of scary here alone. I’m not used to it yet. You’re like the missing piece.”
“I’m glad my absence is noticed,” I put the newspaper and the coffee on the night table and hugged her. I didn’t kiss her on her mouth. Morning breath, you know. She lay on top of me, pressing her mid-section against my arousal. “What do you want to do today.”
“I was thinking of going shopping,” she said. “There’s a sale at Macy’s.”
“Great. Maybe we could hit some Chelsea bars after.”
“Not Herald Square. I don’t want to pay eight percent sales tax. I want to go to Paramus.” I was squeezing her breasts now. I nodded, remembering not to roll my eyes. She slid to my side, pulled down the covers, then pulled them back over us as she lay next to me, her hand on my hard-on. I kissed her neck, pulled off the nightshirt, and she climbed on top of me. I sucked on her breasts as she moved up and down. I was home.
“You can stay here, if you want,” she said, after.
“No,” I said, sitting up, grabbing the mug. “I want to be with you.”
We spent the day wandering amongst the suburbanites checking out the sales in the Garden State Plaza. I even bought a shirt and a couple of compact discs. I went to every store she wanted to, waited by the dressing rooms as she tried on skirts.
“What’s the matter,” she said when we were finished shopping and heading towards the car.
“You seem sort of preoccupied.”
I thought quickly. “I guess it’s because I grew up here.”
“At the mall.” She was in a good mood.
“I’m from Paramus. Going to the malls was just about all we had to do.”
“Why don’t you give me a tour, we could go to your old house and stuff, take a look.”
“That’s okay. I’d rather not deal with that part of the past.” I put my arm around her. I thought about my mouth on Stephanie’s pussy, the pleasure of a different body and how different one body felt from a another, considering that I experienced the different bodies in a short period of time, it was pretty easy to think about. I deserved it though. My cock deserved it. My life deserved it. This was my real life, the majority but not the totality of my life, here with Mary.
Just because I had something to depend on did not mean I had to deny myself other surprises. I felt very good.
We drove to the Teaneck house. I insisted on picking up a bouquet of flowers for her mother. Harry sat with a beer in front of the television watching baseball. Her mother was still in her bathrobe. She looked pallid. Mary heated Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup for her while I talked to Harry. He seemed to get fatter every time I saw him and was always drinking beer. The house had a musty order. The furniture was run down.
Mary appreciated the fact that I spent time with her family, that I was loving and caring and did the things she wanted to without complaining, and that I came up with the idea of flowers. Her mother loved them. I turned on the charm. I was understanding and funny and listened. And at night, we had Chinese food delivered and ate it while watching some Merchant Ivory movie that she selected from the corner video rental store. While she gushed over the elaborate Victorian costumes and laughed at my British accent, which I used to mimic the lines, I forgot all about Stephanie’s mouth and breasts and pussy.
At night, I dreamt about happier times in childhood, not being dragged through the malls by my parents but running with my brother through the woods near our house. It’s a development now, but back then, there was one patch left. Other parts of the forest were torn away, replaced by houses in various stages of construction. There was a drainage ditch, and some ponds and in the summer, you could catch frogs. Some kids in the neighborhood would put firecrackers in the frogs, watch them blow up, or simply smash them against rocks. I could never do that. I would catch them or at least try. A few summers, I caught tadpoles and kept them in a bucket in a garage, of course they either grew into frogs and escaped or died while they still had their tales and before all their legs were fully formed. By the time my brother was in college and older, he didn’t come around too often. Too many arguments with dad. But sometimes he would come by and walk around the woods with me. There was still one single deer left in the woods. People said they saw it, one kid even tried to hunt it with a bow and arrow. The woods are gone. The only deer in Bergen county left are in the children’s zoo at Van Saun park. But this one time, my brother and I were walking through the woods and he stopped and pointed and whispered, “there!” Brown fur flashed in the distance. We ran and I remember I was getting older and could just about keep up with David and for a second or so I could see the fluffy tail and the hind quarters disappearing into the trees. What I saw of the deer, and the brush of the forest, appeared in my dreams that night,, interspersed with images of Victorian England, still fresh in my mind from that bloody boring flick.
* * *
I waited for Peter at the Bear in Chelsea. It was an upscale joint, the pub grub was a little fancier—Cajun burgers, arugula—they had a few specialized micro-brew beers that actually tasted pretty good, and was the last holdover of the cigar bar trend of a year or two back.
Work was hell, Mary seemed mad at me all the time again. Being out was like sanctuary. Peter arrived looking less harried than usual and we took a booth on the side wall. We ordered the pale ale and shots of Bushmill.
“See them,” said Peter, meaning this pair of blondes sitting in another booth. “I know I’ve seen the one on the left with on a billboard. Magazine ad. Some place.”
“I’m sure of it.”
“I don’t think so.”
“A model, but not a member of the justice league of America, got it. Gee, Peter, what’s the chance of seeing models in a bar in Chelsea.”
“Good point. Probably fifty fifty.” He laughed. “Well, there’s only one way to tell. When they come out of the bathroom we smell their fingers. If we detect vomit…”
“Puking means model. I guess the test for super or not is more elaborate.”
“They’re nice looking, but they don’t have super model potential. I bet they don’t even have an eating disorder.”
“I’m a sports illustrated swimsuit edition scholar, just like anyone going to NADSCAR.” Peter took out a cigar, which he claimed was Cuban, and undid the cellophane.
“Cigars,” I said. “Some people are into trends before they begin, but you like them after they’re gone.”
“Some people are trend setters,” he said as he took out a tiny pair of manicuring scissors and clipped off the cigar tip. ”I’m a trend revivalist. I just got the K-tel Grunge collection.”
The cigar was six inches long, thick as his thumb and copper colored. He stuck it in his mouth like he was boss tweed. He held the lighter to the tip, puffing it loudly until the ember was going.
Then, he coughed so fiercely that tiny spots of spittle fired off his lips and his face turned red. As I laughed he said, “Do you want one.”
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m neither trendy nor post-trendy.”
“Now that I got some Wall Street, business, I want to mix in. Cigars have always and will be always a symbol of status, on the street,” the coughing stopped. He inhaled and exhaled slowly, savoring the fumes. “I get into these things, you know, come and go. I don’t why when they re-enter.”
“Don’t say it.”
“I’m not judging you Peter.”
He tasted more whiskey, smoked. “I’m not saying you are. It’s just, I’m staying away from it, and you know, it’s easier to stay away from it when it’s not talked about or around you. Don’t say coke, okay. Don’t mention it. I don’t want it on my mind.”
“Don’t even say Pepsi.”
“You got it!”
“Is that why you wanted to meet me here, instead of Ryan’s.’
“That, and Lisa. We had a thing.”
‘That comes and goes.”
“I know what you mean.”
“You’re all domestic and shit. Next stop, marriage and kids right.”
I waved the waitress over, and ordered another round. “It’s not that, Peter.
You got to promise you won’t tell anybody.”
. He exhaled a stream of gray smoke while scrutinizing the glowing cigar tip, then assured me. “Who am I going to tell?”
I gulped some beer, then said, “ Remember that girl I used to see, Stephanie.”
“Right. You said she was hot.”
“She still is. I saw her at the convention I went to last week.”
“You saw her?”
“We slept together. I never cheated before.”
The waitress, pretty, nondescript, indifferent, brought the fresh booze.
After she left, Peter said, “Deception is always easier in concept than in practice. You’re not going to tell Mary, are you?”
“No, I just had to tell somebody. I know I love Mary. We have a life together, we’re good together most times and she has her quirks and I admit that I can’t be the easiest person to get along with either. The thing with Stephanie just sort of happened.”
“So, do you think you’ve jeopardized your situation with Mary?”
“Stephanie lives in Frisco. She’s involved with somebody. It was more her idea than mine. The only jeopardy is the lying.”
“Whatever,” he shrugged. “Then what’s the worry, besides guilt.”
I stared at my drink. “The worry is that I haven’t been faithful. With other girlfriends, I never cheated. Hell, with Sheila, who I do believe I loved the most out of any woman, I was faithful and she cheated. Or whatever the hell it was.”
“Sheila was a lying slut. Look at what good that did you, huh?”
“But now I feel that I’m bad as her. I consider myself a faithful person, but it’s not tested very often. I love Mary, but I just couldn’t say no to Stephanie and I can’t help looking and thinking about other women. There’s this woman in my building. She’s married and all, but she’s coming on to me.” Then I told him about the Beltane party, ending with her squeezing my package. I said, “She’s just flirty, you know. Who really knows what goes on in somebody else’s mind.”
“Now you want to cheat with the woman upstairs?”
“No…” I laughed, glanced over at the blondes. “I’m not like finding some moment that she and I could be alone together. But she is attracted to me, and she’s pretty cute. I don’t want to act on it, or at least, I don’t plan to act on it. I just like liking the feeling she wants me.”
“Well, you proved that with Stephanie. Other women are attracted to you.”
“I don’t want to be old and boring, give up and accept that this is all there is. Completely conventional. On the other hand, I want to be, you know, good and honorable and like happy, clear conscience..”
“Our conscience can’t be completely clear. Shit, even like confession, do penance and go and sin no more. You still remembered telling the priest the shit you did, and then you remember the shit. Deception has degrees, parameters. You and Stephanie just had a little reunion. Genitalia just happened to participate. You’re not really lying to Mary It’s an omission. There are alternative deceptions. As a lawyer, I know. Omission is the least deceptive alternative.” Peter leaned back, twirled his cigar, content with his level of insight. Then he frowned as he watched two men sit with the models in the booth. The men had dark complexions, looking vaguely south American, with gold chains and earrings and short sleeved shirts revealing well-defined biceps and triceps. He drank his whiskey, grimaced at the cigar. “Maybe you’re not happy with Mary.”
“What’s happy? It’s security. It’s there. I have to admit, we were having more fun just dating. Sometimes we argue a lot, give each other silent treatments. But it always passes. It’s not that I don’t like feeling like I’m married, but I just don’t want to be some boring suburban couple, not doing the city, raising boring, dysfunctional children like my parents. I don’t want that!”
Peter cleared his throat. “I’m happy that you’re getting all this action, jealous too. I’ve been on a dry spell.” He let the smoke float in and out of his mouth. “Look, everybody loves a lover. Sex is like luck, it arrives in streaks and disappears like that!” He snapped his fingers. “Enjoy it while it’s here and remember it when it’s gone, cause it always goes. Why do you think I keep going for it, because I keep getting it. I bang Lisa one night, Cheryl the other. It’s a double header, you know. Everybody loves a lover. It’s like a scent they pick up. You can please one of them, they figure you can please them too. Being with Mary’s given you that scent. You banged some old girlfriend behind your present girlfriend’s back. Big deal. Maybe Mary’s done the same, who knows? It’s not a bad thing. It’s not a good thing either. You shouldn’t get a noble prize. You should be happy but not proud. It’s just part of being a man.”
“No. It’s instinctual.”
“Yeah, we have to spread our seed. It’s primal. Men are more crazed by sex. We don’t give birth. Men must fuck. Why do you think we look for younger chicks instead of menopausal women. Ovulation. It’s survival, it’s the need to breed. Women have like one egg per month. Our balls are filled with jisim twenty four seven. Wait until you break a vow before you feel the real guilt.”
“It just happened.”
“These things do, Tom. You and Mary are just going through some adjustment pain because of your new living situation.”
“I think I am.”
“Forget about the infidelity. You know, Mary’s a cool chick. Things will work out.”
The blondes and the boyfriends were lighting up cigars. Peter took out his cigarettes. “Let’s order some more drinks and some food. I got to stay away from the East Village tonight.”
Mary and I didn’t talk much, a couple of weekends passed by without making love. I didn’t think much of it. I was working a lot, and she was spending more time in Teaneck. Flowers blossomed in Van Vorst Park and the leaves in the trees lining the blocks of our neighborhood turned green But the infusion of color amid the brownstones and concrete contradicted our decaying relationship. Still, we tried.
We walked to the park one early evening, holding hands. On one side of the park was a playground. Some kids played on the swing in the twilight. On the other side of the park, there were teenagers. People walked up to them, there seemed to be some form of handshaking, then they walked away. Drug dealing. In the center of the park was a gazebo, chipped paint. I could imagine immigrants fresh from Ellis Island, men working in the factories, women raising children, gathering under the gazebo in the neighborhood park on summer nights. The quality of life always seems better in the past.
“It’s nice here, don’t you think?” I said. “There are lots of trees, lots of life.”
“I always smell something industrial.”
“It’s the city smell. New York smells too. Didn’t Hoboken smell?”
“I never said I liked it. I never seemed to get used to it, either.”
I tried to change the subject by kissing her. She was never one for public affection. We could hear the children laughing. She said, “they’re cute, aren’t they.”
“Tom, don’t you ever think about being a father.”
“Not very often.”
“I want to stop using the pill, get healthier, and have kids.”
“I’m not against the idea, Mary. But I don’t want to think about it now. We just moved here. Look, I love you, I do. I had a great time with you last year, maybe the best time I ever had. We’re together now, let’s enjoy just being a couple.”
“I had a great time last year too. But what am I doing with my life?”
“You’re doing great with your life.” I put my arm around her, kissed her red hair. “Let’s order some Chinese food, eat it in the nude.”
She smirked. “We eat Chinese food all the time. Being nude won’t make it better.”
“We could rent a porno and give each other massages.”
“Oh please, Tom. I hate those videos. They’re so degrading.”
“Well, I don’t like them much either, but it would be a change.”
“So, I’m boring you.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
She folded her arms across her chest, moved away from me an inch or two. “Tom, you get so excited about sex, I swear, sometimes it’s all you think about it.”
“I’m a man. We have to release our seed.”
“I’m serious. I like sex too, of course. But it’s not as big a deal. I’m not a horny teenager. I want to feel like an adult.”
“I feel like an adult, I just don’t want to feel like I’m middle-age or a senior citizen. We have lots of time.”
We walked in the night and its tepid spring breeze. In the background, hovering above the J.C. buildings, the lower Manhattan skyline, accentuated by the twin towers of the World Trade Center Towers, cut a jagged geometry across the night sky. We passed through a vacant lot. We stepped around the broken glass and canine feces. Winston’s was a neighborhood place. We stopped in and ordered some drinks and looked at the menu. I had a grilled chicken breast on a roll and fries and Mary ordered a Caesar Salad. The waitress was working for the tip. She had big hair, brunette, piled on her head like some disheveled turban. She had a wide smile and plum-colored lipstick. She touched my biceps when she asked, “would you like the fries crispy, honey. It’s no trouble for the cook.”
“That would be fine,” I said.
“Make sure you put the dressing on the side,” said Mary.
“I heard you,” she turned and walked away. She knew how to move her ass. Mary kicked me in the shin.
“Don’t stare at that slut, you’re embarrassing me.”
“I wasn’t staring.” I don’t think I was either. I was merely taking in the environment, and the waitress was in my field of view. Maybe I wondered what she would look like nude, or how her body moved during sex, but only in borderline-subconscious flashes. Brief, incidental, mental images. Meaningless. Mary could get so touchy at times. Immaturity, disrespect, responsibility—she had this weird agenda. She stuck to it too, sometimes with Amish obsessiveness. I didn’t push it. I played some juke box music. Ordered another drink. I tried not to be so friendly to the waitress. Mary and I soon resumed small talk. We didn’t make love that night. But the void of utter silence did not re-appear.
* * *
First thing one morning, Gary unexpectedly called me into talk. I came in with coffee mug in my hand. I hadn’t even started anything yet. I sat down in the chair in front of his desk and he stood up, walked over to the door and closed it. My face lost its smile. A closed door meeting meant seriousness, meant that it was a meeting that could not be overheard or interrupted. It meant it was more than just some impromptu rap session about current programs. It meant shit was going down.
He seemed serious, yet happy. “Tom, I’m leaving.’
“Leaving?” I heard his chuckle and saw him shake his head as I spilled my coffee, staining the edge of my shirt cuff, the area of trouser covering my knee and the rug.
He handed me a napkin and nodded like a man freed, a man on the brink of a new adventure who is well equipped and well compensated to embark upon that adventure. He had worked up from lowly salesperson to junior vice president in the same company. He knew everybody. He had it made. Now, he was going to be senior vice president at a very large firm, a competitive division to us in fact. I congratulated him, and thanked him for telling me.
“I don’t know who will be my replacement, but watch your back. Everybody’s just furniture to Thompson and he’s not going to promote from the inside on this one. He probably wants a messiah.’
His voice got lower. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s some young MBA type. You got to watch out for these guys. Tom, look, you do a good job, you’re valuable. But with Messiahs, it’s the new broom syndrome.”
‘Everything’s bullshit. A messiah will bring in new people, cut the bottom line a bit. It’s just a maneuver. Hell, I might do it to.”
“Should I send you my resume?”
“No.” He folded his hands on top of his desk and looked down at them for a second, then looked at me. “Let me get set up and maybe we can talk. Tom you do good work, you can always count on me for a recommendation.”
I remember a few years back, it was at some trade show, after hours, and Gary and I were having a few drinks in the hotel bar, no clients or colleagues around. Keep that resume updated, don’t let yourself get too comfortable. When I left his office, I was thinking about how I hadn’t followed that advice. I worked like a dog assuming that people noticed. The only one who noticed was Gary, and the only value to him was my dependability. It would be more trouble loosing me than keeping me. Now, I didn’t even have that paltry attribute.
I guess life doesn’t suck if you are really rich. You don’t have to worry about being useful, care about making money or the rest of the world, sleep with the maid and siblings. Otherwise, it’s just worry after worry. You endure one disappointment after another, then worry that around the corner could be another disappointment, a bigger disappointment, one that will end in tragic calamity.
Things would change, things were unknown and now I had to think of ways to make those changes work for me and all I could think of was that Mary and I bickered constantly. I wanted to blame her, but instead I blamed me. If I wasn’t feeling guilty about Stephanie, I was worried that she suspected or even knew.
Trina was a secretary that I liked. We were friendly in the office, talked a lot. She didn’t like most of the executives, but I was always nice and since she didn’t work directly with me, our work relationship centered mainly around gossip. We either talked about our lives on a superficial level or mocked employees we didn’t like.
We were alone in the coffee room, this small kitchenette with a sink, refrigerator, microwave and of course, a coffee machine to keep the white collar world caffeinated. With my hand on the side of my mouth, I whispered, “I heard a big one today.”
“Gary, he’s leaving.”
She shrugged, “Oh yeah, I heard that last week. They’re already interviewing.”
I was out of the loop. When the secretaries knew stuff before you, your distance from the inner-circle was measured in yards, not inches. Or was that miles instead of yards?
When I got home, I went right to the computer and opened the resume file. Looking at the resume just enhanced the dread. I typed in my new title, but I couldn’t think of any clever phrasing. I needed to work on this, focus, get over this gloom and fight my way into the new capitalism. I had to convince myself that I was not just some unambitious asshole who stayed with the same company for nearly a decade, I was a valued employee who had moved up the ladder. Maybe I should go into Thompson again, just have a good talk, reaffirm my position. But even if I did, it would not be enough.
I got up. I wanted to open a beer — hell, I wanted to pour myself a Jack Daniels too, pick up a pack of cigarettes, buy a bag of coke — instead, I got out the dumbbells, did some stretches and a dozen pushups, then moved the metal up and down.
Mary came home. When I told her the Gary news, she said, “Why think about the worst. They like you there.”
“It’s not like teaching, Mary. You’re not guaranteed a position for life. I just had a feeling he was trying to tell me something without telling me.”
“You think it’s easy what I do.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Dealing with those kids every day, I don’t have it easy, I got a lot of pressure. I’m sorry what you do is so boring.”
She stamped away. I was pissed off. She had been to Teaneck again, and she was in a bad mood. She was worried about her mother, worried that her mother was worrying too much about Harry, who didn’t worry about anything. Mary called him an alcoholic leech.
But sometimes though, I have to be cared about. We were sharing our life, but my life, my problems were placed in the attic, ignored and abandoned to dust, while her needs had to be exhibited twenty four seven in the living room, kitchen, bedroom, spaces used every day.
I opened a beer, poured two fingers of bourbon, sat in front of the television, and tried not to wonder when she would come out of the bedroom or if our fight would continue.
I hate my birthday. I hate getting older, thinking about what is expected and how I am falling short of expectations and how I missed out on fun I should have had. I was turning 33, the same age as Christ died—I had already outlived Sid Viscous, Kurt Cobain, and of course, Janis, Jim and Jimi—now I was outliving GOD—and all I could think about was how my muscles ached more, and even with exercise my stomach refused to flatten, go below a 34 inch waist or form abdominal muscles squares, or that strands of gray appeared in my hair.
Work had gotten hellish. Gary, now gone, had been replaced by Trevor Dunbar—graduated Harvard, undergrad and MBA, 31 years old—a point he reminded me of with a sickening smirk when the office gave me a small cake and card for my birthday. He wanted to telegraph the message: your boss is younger than you. Paranoia was thick in the office. I hated the guy.
Mary never liked talking about my work, didn’t really understand it, and many nights I would just brood with the television on. I thought it was a sign that things had improved between us, that we were finally used to each other’s quirks and habits and able just to spend time, alone, together.
The year before, Mary had given me a silk shirt and CD, and after a romantic dinner in a Thai restaurant, back in my apartment, undressed and ready to make love, she took over the foreplay. I said, “let me put this inside you,” but she replied, “This is for you,” and her mouth didn’t let go until my ejaculation ended.
This year, it was a Saturday, and a bunch of my friends wanted me to come into New York, using the birthday as an excuse to get together, complaining that since moving to Jersey City, I rarely saw them. A new restaurant had been designated in SoHo, some Italian place with family-style service.
I spent the afternoon steeped in body image neurosis. I wanted to get my flesh tone and fit. I wanted to look like an underwear model. I wanted to deny my age so I wouldn’t feel the frustrating anxiety of avoiding responsibilities. I wanted my body to look like 23 instead of 33. Of course, since . Even when I was 23 Calvin Klein wasn’t calling me. After 45 grueling minutes on the rowing machine, I did pushups, sweat leaving my face in long drools and splattering on the hard wood floors.
Mary walked into the living room, her bathrobe tied tight around her waist, carrying a plastic bag with leather warehouse on the side. “Oh birthday boy.”
“One minute,” I grunted as I finished 50, then stood up, touched my toes a few times.
“I want to give you your birthday presents.”
“Now?” I sat on the floor, reached up and put my hands on the backs of her thighs. She had taken a shower, her hair was damp, tied back. I inhaled the fresh coconut and strawberry aromas of her natural shampoos and soaps. My head slipped between the robe; I nuzzled her knee.
She pushed me away. “We’ll start with the material gifts.”
She handed me a narrow box wrapped in silver paper. I eagerly shredded the expensive Hallmark wrapping—inside, a pair of leather driving gloves: sleek, snaps on the wrist, small air-holes on the sides of the fingers. I wiped my hands off on the towel and tried on the gloves. They were snug, looked cool.
“How do they feel.,” she said.
“Like I’m Speed Racer’s older brother, Racer X.” I kissed her, put my hand inside the robe, caressing her breast with the leather. “You tell me.”
She stepped back. “Wait… look what’s in the bag. It was too big to wrap.”
I pulled out a leather blazer. Leather jackets, whatever style, retained a constant popularity. From the young toughs to the downtown artists dressing like young toughs to the chic and to the business people dressing casual, leather outerwear was the standard. This year, especially for the older-young adults (me!), the biker and bomber styles were being eschewed for the leather blazer, narrow lapels and three button front.
“Try it on, but take off that T-shirt, and dry yourself off,” she said. “I don’t want to stain the lining.”
I followed her instructions. The jacket felt great. She nodded, pleased at her taste and ability to select fashion for me. “Look in the breast pocket.”
I took out the wallet. It had the same sheen and grain of the jacket and the gloves. She already transferred my money and credit cards. Mary considered every detail. Any one of the presents would have been sufficient. The extravagance and thought behind them touched me—she had noticed the lining in my leather jacket, now 10 years old, was shredded and the edges of my wallet had become white with wear. These were the nicest gifts any lover had given me. I embraced her and kissed her and thanked her.
“They were having a sale, I couldn’t resist,” she said, as if diminishing the emotion she placed in choosing these presents. She stepped back. “They’re a set, they’re all calfskin.”
I made fists, the new leather of the gloves creaked. I stretched my arms out and tugged at the jacket’s cuffs. It was a perfect fit. “They may have had to use more than one calf, but they were certainly from the same herd.”
“I got one more item in the set to show you.” She smiled as she held open her robe. “This is calfskin too.”
She wore a leather G-string which consisted of leather cord tied so tight around her thighs that her skin turned red, and a small upside down triangle of black leather which covered only the soft, lightly-colored curls of her pubic hair. The robe fell off. I sat on the floor, as she danced like a stripper, shaking her breasts and gyrating. I soon pulled her down, bringing my face to her vagina.
“It’s your birthday,” she said with a sultry laugh, then turned around and pulled down my sweat shorts and lowered her mouth. She didn’t last long. She grimaced, “I thought I would like the taste of your sweat, but it’s too much.”
“Don’t worry… I need you.” I took off the jacket, but kept the gloves on. I drew her on top of me. Afterwards, laughing with delight, steeped in post-orgasm glow, every cell in my body percolating from blood, I felt happy in the extreme. The stress and gloom of the week before, filled with my customary angst-ridden attitude towards aging, gone and forgotten.
She wasn’t even smiling. She got up from the floor, picked up her bathrobe and put it on, then sat on the couch and crossed her legs.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Sure.” Her voice was curt. “I’m just glad you like your presents. I need to take another shower. We better get ready if we’re going to meet… your friends.”
“Want me to join you,” I said as she walked away.
“It’ll be quicker if you don’t.”
When we got to the restaurant I realized why, despite giving me heart-felt gifts and hot sex, she remained distant. We sat at the bar, waiting for my friends. I paid for the drinks and inspected my brand new wallet. In the front flap I noticed Stephanie’s new business card. I have a special rolodex for business cards, input all my important numbers on my Casio organizer. But Stephanie’s card, which she gave me in Chicago, I kept lodged between some credit cards. I had not called Stephanie or sent her emails to the email address she wrote on the back next to a heart she doodled, but neither had I thrown it out. I just never thought about the card since.
I had told her about Stephanie—she knew her as the woman who moved to California with whom I had briefly dated before we met—Mary had put the card in the front flap for me to notice, for me to know she had seen it. I just closed my wallet and put it back in the inside pocket of my new jacket. My thoughts revolved around what I should say later—there would be no alternative but to discuss the card—but soon Pete arrived, with Cheryl, Victor and Stan.
Cheryl was dressed very conservatively, downbeat seemed more like it. Black jeans, black silk shirt, small earrings. She was wearing glass too, small black oval frames . I noticed lines under her eyes, circular and purple, like she needed sleep.
We talked and drank and Mary had become very friendly, like nothing had happened.
A few minutes later, George and Lara came into the place. They had been married for five years, and had a three old boy, lived in Montclair New Jersey, and it was a big deal now for them drive into new York, having to get a sitter and all—George is more of a friend of Pete’s than mine and my birthday was really just an excuse to get the hell out of the house and enjoy adult companionship and New York City’s cosmopolitan atmosphere.
I tried to not think about the business card, or about what Mary was thinking. I didn’t want to ruin the party. We did it up right too. Rounds of drinks at the table, anti-pasta, calamari, dried tomatoes and mozzarella, jokes about my age. Lara showed Cheryl and Mary baby pictures, she had one of these albums the size of a paperback filled with dozens of snap shots. Cheryl was polite, more interested in talking with Victor and Stan about galleries and the art business. But Mary marveled at Lara’s banal tales of colic and pre-school as she related experiences about her nephews as if Janet was super mother and the boys well-adjusted prodigies.
Pete gave me a coffee table-sized book of photos of downtown New York circa the 50s and 60s. George gave me this framed photograph of us when were kids. He had it reproduced. Boy scout summer camp. We had on back packs, wore uniforms—khaki-green short sleeve shirts, shorts and knee-socks, red neckerchiefs, those round Smokey the bear hats. I suddenly remembered Kool-Aid and 8 track players and when my parents were still alive. I became speechless, my face went flush.
Mary put her arm around me. “You were such a cute boy, Tom.”
I suppressed the tears with a joke. “Ain’t I still cute?”
“Well, you’re still a boy,” she said, which got a bigger laugh.
I had drank a couple of beers before we left the apartment, switched to whisky at the bar, and by the time the plates of pasta made the rounds, and the fourth bottle of Chianti was opened, I was pretty smashed. The conversation seemed to shift subject rapidly. At one point, I was slurring some nonsense to George, about never giving in, no matter how old I got.
George told me: “I look forward to getting older, now that we had Jasper.”
“But getting older is just getting closer to death, or being boring.”
“When I’m like close to 50 or so, Jasper will be in college. I’ll be happy seeing him graduate and stuff.”
“Hey, that’s great, man.” I didn’t mean it; his insight did not alter my attitude. But he’s a friend, and sometimes, you just don’t argue with friends.
“Everything makes sense now. Okay, maybe not everything. But a lot stuff makes sense that used to just make me anxious. I don’t feel I have to wonder about everything as much.”
“I think I’d be uncomfortable feeling so settled.”
“Believe me, you get used to peace of mind quick enough.”
“But that peace of mind, will it last when he’s in his teen years?”
George looked at me with the same seriousness and stern countenance adults displayed when I was a kid. “I’m prepared for that responsibility. I welcome it, in fact.”
George had become sensible and confident. I envied him in that moment. I thought about how I was closer to 40, and that 40 just seemed so friggin old, and I dreaded it. But that dread had left George. He’ll see his son mature, start reading and thinking and playing baseball. He’ll have the chance to be a cool dad. He’ll have something to do!
The waiter cleared the plates away, and desert was ordered, along with various cognacs and brandies. Pete insisted, that since it was my birthday, I had to have a piece of cake—for luck! The waiter brought a slice of some Italian thing with a candle, and to my happy embarrassment, everybody sang happy birthday. I blew out the candle, but forgot to make a wish.
The check was passed around to everybody but me. Pete collected money, calculated the tip and the next thing I knew we all stood outside. The lights from the cars and storefronts and street lamps splintered, the streets and buildings undulated. I asked Cheryl for one of her cigarettes. I could feel Mary’s eyes interrogating me. She knew I only smoked when really drunk.
George and Lara had to leave. She called the sitter with Peter’s cellphone to make sure everything was all right and alert her to their impending arrival. George promised me and Peter that we would get together some night soon, Mary told Lara that she and I would love to drive to their house sometime, see the baby. The suburban couple said goodbye, and I thought, they look like parents. As they walked towards their car, I pictured them driving home, through the Holland Tunnel, up the turnpike to their exit then down local roads until they reached the prefabricated placidity of lawns and aluminum siding.
Us city folk went to another bar in SoHo. Couldn’t call it a night without more fun, or at least an attempt at more fun. Pete wanted a cigar. It was some new place—models, euro-trash, fabulous clothes and snotty waitresses with killer bodies and nostril earrings. It was a lounge bar. It reminded me of a lobby of an exclusive hotel. Dark wood swirling with black grains, weird chandlers and wall lamps that seemed entirely crystalline—light enclosed by glass—and expensive living room furniture. We sat on couches, Pete and Victor lit cigars and I had another cigarette. Pete touched my shoulder, asked if I was all right, and I replied, “just a little drunk.”
I ordered a brandy and a glass of ice water, and I drank the water right away. Between the garlic and the alcohol, I was parched. The cigarette made me cough a lot. You don’t smoke for a while, you get unused to the fumes. I don’t believe I even finished the second brandy by the time Mary grabbed at me and enforced our good byes. She flagged down a cab, and told the cab driver she would give him twenty bucks plus four for the toll to take us to Jersey City and he squawked some Arabic-sounding affirmative. Sometimes these guys give you guff when you ask them to take you to New Jersey or one of the boroughs that is not Manhattan. I couldn’t deal with it tonight; Mary took charge of things. I stared out the window.
I kept thinking about my father screaming at me all the time. I could never do anything right. If I did badly in school, he hit me, grounded me and when I did well, no reward. No recognition. Not being punished was reward enough. I ran away a couple of times. I slept in this fort in the woods once for two nights. Then, when I was seventeen, the animosity getting worse and worse between us, he died, suddenly. He had a heart attack in his office in the warehouse where he was head foreman. He dropped the phone and keeled over on his desk. I hated him and I loved him and suddenly he was no longer around and I couldn’t work it out, reach some kind of revelation or at least a better understanding of what it was about me that he exactly didn’t approve of. David and I spent time with mom. She never went against my father, but she had a way of easing his temper and I know, that no matter how bad I had it, without her things would have been worse.
I straightened out, went to college. When I graduated she told me, your father would be so proud and I was never sure if he could have ever really let himself be proud of me. I was with Sheila when the leukemia hit. Mom got thinner and weaker and was in so much pain. Took about a year. There was nothing I could do, and I always felt I was never there enough for her. I was working, paying off the loans and no matter what I did, I felt guilty. Sheila helped me through it. I thought I could depend on her. Sheila was constantly high and would stay with her other boyfriend, a wealthy stage director, who didn’t know about me. I just let her, stopped fighting with her, because I didn’t want to be alone and when she was with me, she was so sexually free and uninhibited, I just made myself not care. I had little time to think about what else went on with my life.
I loved Sheila. I thought I did, knew I did. But what is love? Sometimes, it’s like just another weakness, or at least another lie. Maybe it’s the need of completion, and not being complete, that is the lie, that is the weakness.
I attended an all-boys catholic high school. It was just hard to meet girls. I didn’t know how to speak to girls, and they didn’t seem very interested in someone who didn’t play football or drive a nice car. I didn’t have a lot of dates. I don’t know, I was all upset about my father’s abusiveness, then his sudden death, and when I got to college, I thought I was the only 18 year old virgin in the world, or at least America. By mid-semester, I met this girl at a party and we went back to her dorm room. I had seen dirty movies, read dirty magazines. I thought I knew the procedure. Somehow, when she spread her legs and I was about to go in, I sort of didn’t have it quite right. She thought I was experienced and I’ll never forget her tone: “haven’t you done this before.” I lied. I have never gotten over that lie. Soon it was obvious, natural, what to do, where exactly to put it. I entered, I rode, I came, and after, before she could say another word, I was hard again and inside her again. I called her up the next day, she said she was busy and couldn’t see me. The next party, she was with some other guy. I went back to my dorm room alone.
I never told Mary about how I lied when I lost my virginity. I never detailed anything about the relationship with Sheila. I don’t know which was the more important omission.
I think about the Sheila relationship a lot, all the bitter nuances and treacheries Sex was just an excuse to distort emotions in pursuit of high intensity pleasure. I would have done anything for her. If she told me to kill myself, I wouldn’t have hesitated. I thought anything was better than being alone. Here I was, what, five, six years later? I remembered every detail. The degree of suffering totally as high—as miserable now as I was then.
That’s when I started in with Willard. Back and forth, between the distant past and the more recent past. I gazed at the ceiling, at the book cases, the framed degrees on the wall. Mostly I whined. I asked him once, did I love Sheila? He said I loved her because I felt guilty if I enjoyed myself, and since I wasn’t really enjoying myself, I associated love with pain and self-denial.
Things were supposed to be different now. I was in a new relationship. I had a career and friends and money in the bank. I thought everything was fine.
Shit always comes back. I feel helpless and stupid, a child insisting on things that will never happen.. The taxi sped towards the Jersey Side. The windows and chassis vibrated with a sound so aggravating I heard it through the fillings in my teeth. I couldn’t control my memories. I was like some disturbed Vietnam vet, forever hearing choppers and seeing flashes of Charley in my peripheral vision. No war for my generation. I just had pictures of an angry dad, a cancerous mom, failed romance and shallow erotica.
I looked at Mary and blubbered, “I know you saw that card. Sheila never meant to me what you do.”
“The name on the card was Stephanie, at least get the names of the women you sleep with straight.” She shook my hand off her shoulder, slid to the other side of the seat, far away from me, pressed her head against the window.
I was drunker now than a half hour ago. Seemed the beer, whiskey, wine and brandy had a delayed release tonight. I shouted, “I meant Stephanie. She’s just a god dam friend. She has nothing to do with us.”
‘Oh shut up, will you.”
“She was at the convention. That’s all. She just gave me her card. We both have our pasts.”
“Yeah, I have my past all right. A stupid, beer swilling frat boy who never understood commitment. We got married because we thought it was the thing to do and he cheated on me every chance, and I didn’t care about him getting his dick wet. After a couple of years, he was a bore. It was the lying Tom. I won’t take lies. I’ve already been there Tom. I know the signs.”
“I had a relationship with Stephanie before I met you.”
“That’s why she drew that stupid heart. I can imagine what goes on at those things. Business! Hah! Just a bunch of petty, greedy yuppies.”
“I got to make a fuckin living.”
“I work too. I pay half the god damn bills. It’s not about work. It’s about wanting more out of life. It’s about feeling like an adult. It’s about acting like an adult. I can’t believe I felt guilty about not making love to you, so I tried to ignore that card and do what you wanted me to. That wasn’t intimacy, it was just stupid sex. You’ve lied to me, haven’t you?”
I was crying. I had no intention of telling her I fucked Stephanie in Chicago. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I acted as badly as Sheila. It wasn’t the sin of infidelity, but the betrayal of trust I needed to deny. “You don’t understand, I just never had a lot of girls when I was younger. I feel so desperate sometimes, to make up for my regrets and disappointments.”
She clucked her tongue against her teeth, waved her hand downwards. Instead of light at the end of the tunnel, the glare became night. The driver begged for directions. Mary shouted, “Make a left at the gas station.” I watched the warehouses and the row houses and the hospital and the park and thought about how the kids on the corner were probably selling crack.
* * *
I could barely stand when I got out of the cab. I paid the guy and followed her to the door. From the parking lot we heard some distant voices, arguing. Joe and Maria Kelly. Only shadowy outlines of them were visible in the night. Maria turned around and waved her arms in the air and Joe just cursed up a streak. Mary didn’t wait for me to catch up with her. She went into the building and charged up the stars. My face was covered with perspiration and my legs had become rubberized. I pressed the elevator button. I leaned against the wall, waited. I had definitely drank too much. The floor undulated. Sweat dampened my clothes. It wasn’t just booze sweat. It was vertigo sweat, it was I’m going to vomit sweat. I felt my knees bend and I used the support of the wall to keep myself from toppling.
As the elevator descended, the building door opened. Maria Kelly appeared, dressed in black and face red with anger, somewhat out of breath from running ahead of her husband. The door was almost completely closed behind her when Joe grabbed the edge and pulled it open.
“Hey!” he said upon seeing me, the greeting circumventing the argument with his wife.
I mumbled something.
“We haven’t you seen you two in while,” said Maria, quietly, wiping her eyes. “How’s Mary?”
The Elevator tolled and the doors opened.
“Just Great,” I said, pressing the fifth floor. “Just great.”
I’m sure my words slurred. I’m sure my breath had a distillery stench.
Joe said something and I must have mumbled politely, but I was more intent on leaning on the wall and holding down the nausea.
When the doors finally opened, I said a good night and stumbled out. I actually fell, well sort of, like my knees hit the floor but not flat on my face, and was still able to stand again and head towards the apartment. Joe was back to shouting at his wife before the elevator doors had completely closed again.
I went inside, and right to the bathroom. Booze and Italian food came up by the bucket. Mary must have heard me, because an hour or so later, when I was able to stand, outside the bathroom was a pillow and a blanket. I made my way to the couch.
* * *
In the morning the phone rang and things changed. Can’t sleep very well when I’m boozed. My sad reverie inflicted disturbing dreams. Just more memories, mostly dad this time, yelling and hitting, and mom, with the tubes in her nose and arms and her face as thin and white as some grinning skull on a grateful dead album cover. And I can’t remember if I was awake when the phone rang or if the noise shook me from the humiliating nightmare, but somehow, I had this premonition that it wasn’t good news.
It was six AM on a Sunday morning. My head throbbed with hangover, my stomach lining felt bruised from the spewing, my mouth tasted like a turd, my bloodshot eyes made everything blurry. I rasped a hello.
I heard Harry sob. “She’s dead, Mary. She’s dead.”
“It’s Tom, Harry.” He told me some details, about her mother collapsing, an ambulance being called. Harry was making the phone calls to the other sisters. “We’ll be right over.”
I pounded on the bedroom door. She groaned at me to go away. “It’s your mother.”
When she opened the door, I said, “Honey. Nothing matters right now. Nothing else is important. Harry said your mother is dead. Let’s go to Teaneck now. I’ll drive.”
She stared at me for a minute. Then I held her as she howled and drenched my shoulder with tears and I told her everything Harry had told to me. She called him as I washed my face and brushed my teeth. As she dressed, I grabbed clean underwear, a fresh shirt and socks and we left.
Harry sat on the front porch with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in his hand. The doctor said it was a stroke. Harry had come up from the basement at about 3:00 AM, and his mother was sitting in the kitchen. She said she wasn’t feeling well, and fell down when she tried to stand. Harry called an ambulance, rode with her to the hospital. She died within the hour.
Harry and Mary hugged each other for a very long time. They mutated into scared children, their anguished grief echoing across the lawns.
“The doctors told me to go home,” said Harry. “She’s still there… the body.”
I patted Harry’s shoulder, “You did good, Harry.”
Mary trembled as if a convulsion was starting. She fell to her knees, hollering, “mommy.”
I crouched by her, held her shoulders and smoothed her hair as she wept. Grief. There’s only one way to deal with it. Let it happen. Wait until it eases, wait until it goes. Losing a parent, it’s horrible. You’re both grown up and kid. Suddenly, and all at once. A collision smashing any confidence you may have. Eventually you heal. But now, it’s just step by step, moment by moment.
Mary calmed down enough to go inside. The phone kept ringing, neighbors and other relatives. Janet arrived. Sarah had been contacted, she was on her way from Philadelphia. Janet called the local funeral pallor. They would pick up the body that night. The man asked if the departed had any wishes. No one knew. There had to be something. I knew these things seem to work themselves out. I just had to be there for Mary.
When my parents died, everyone brought us food. We were too distraught to think about those things. So, I drove to a local deli, picked up luncheon meat, potato salad, that kind of stuff. Mary said she wasn’t hungry. Harry guzzled down the booze, but grief kept him sober. The last one to see his mother alive, it was a terrible responsibility. He just kept squinting and sobbing and drinking, a child trapped in a chubby hulk, no longer able to postpone adulthood. We sat around the living room, on the nearly dilapidated furniture, making sandwiches and eating and talking in low tones.
I took a shower. My hangover was slow in dissipating, but I wasn’t thinking about the night before at all and, obviously, neither was Mary. At one point, Mary and I took a nap. It was a single bed, and we practically had to hold on to each other just to keep from falling off. We couldn’t sleep for very long. She became upset again. To both our surprise, we made love. She needed comfort and our bodies simply reacted to their closeness. Sex is the force of irrevocable nature within us, but so distant from us. It never seeks permission. Consoling her, to our bodies, technically was foreplay. Being alone with someone else’s grief, sharing like you share everything else, our bodies just responded, faster in fact than our intellects could understand.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” she whispered, when I was inside her. “I should be thinking about my mother.”
“Your mother knows that you love her,” I said. “Your mother will always be with you. Don’t feel guilty. I just hate to see you in so much pain. We can stop.”
She shook her head, pushed at me hard. No use not finishing now. She started to cry again. I licked away her tears. We tried to be as quiet as possible. She bit into the pillow to muffle her moans. I kept my voice quiet, and my grunts to a minimum. “I’m here for you Mary. I’m strong for you Mary. I love you, Mary.”
We were in her bedroom. She played with her Barbies here, listened to her parents fight and argue downstairs. All her posters were gone, her books and childhood knickknacks. The walls had fresh paint, the window, a new curtain. There was a framed picture of some generic beach scene—sand, ocean, seagulls—on the wall. Mary wasn’t aware of these changes now. Sadness and the past bombarded her mind. “You’re the first boy I ever had sex with in this room.”
“My mother was a strict Catholic. We never were allowed to have boys up here.”
“What about Harry.”
“He never tested the double standard. There could have been one I think, and I know my mother worried about him. He was always alone. He was never popular. Poor Harry.”
I cried when she said that. She always talked about Harry with resentment. It takes death, takes the loss of a loved one, to make us understand the true capacity of our hearts.
We went downstairs. Harry snored away on the couch. Sarah and Janet were going through photo albums and playing this old, scratchy record of Westside Story. Mrs. Kelly loved musicals, this was her favorite. The kids just wanted to think about their mother. Mary gave me a list of things she needed, clothes and such. She would stay in the house overnight. As I was leaving, I heard them laughing. Harry had woken up and was singing: “Take my hand and we’ll be halfway there.”
I went to work the next day, called Mary in the afternoon. Her voice cracked all over the place as she told me about seeing the body, the death certificate, and going to the funeral parlor. Janet talked to her mother’s lawyer. She left instructions about her funeral arrangements, set aside money for the coffin and plot, even designated a parish priest and selected the bible readings for the Mass. Everything else was in the will. One afternoon viewing, then an evening viewing, followed by the funeral mass and burial the next day. The woman was thorough.
In between bursts of sobs, Mary said, “do you think she might have known this was going happen.”
“Who knows what goes on in somebody’s mind. It’s just important to follow her wishes.”
“You’ve been so good through this Tom.”
“I love you and I want to do what I can to support you.”
I told them at work I needed the next two days off as personal days. I rarely called in sick, and besides, I would be checking messages and stuff throughout. Nobody bothered me about it.
Mary needed some things from the house, some black dresses and such, which she would wear for the services. She wanted her sunglasses—“my eyes are such a wreck, and makeup doesn’t help.”
It’s weird, but I anticipated the next few days of grief and ritual with a kind of glee. It’s amazing how good being useful can make me feel. I also thought about my parents, remembering their funerals. I’m good at funerals. Maybe I like them in some bizarre way You’re the center of attention. People care how you feel and how you’re doing. You go through the services, everyone’s nice and willing to help, you hold a little reception at the house after the burial. When the death occurs, or afterwards, when you fully realize the person is gone, that’s the terrible part, the worst. That’s the undiluted grief, and it is shared by a smaller circle. The funeral, which happens in between, is an elaborate party, a wedding in reverse. Your entire life parades by, new acquaintances and old acquaintances showing up, telling one recollection or another. Yes, very draining, but in contrast, preferable to the initial shock of the news, or the months of intense loneliness after, that feeling of loss that never quite leaves you.
Seth had come with the kids. Seth brought me aside and said, “This is going to be a tough one.”
“How’s Janet and the kids doing?”
“They got pretty upset. So was I. But I told them, she was a good woman, she lived long and prospered.”
Then he went inside to be with his sons, who were unusually quiet. They played Monopoly with Harry and an uncle of Harry’s on the living room floor. An aunt, the younger sister of Mary’s mother was there and some neighbors. There was a pan of bake Ziti, a pot of beef stew, and a baked ham. It was that kind of neighborhood. I kept thinking about how the neighbors and friends brought food to the house when my parents died. Mary made me up a plate, sat with her arm around me while I ate. Then we took a walk outside.
“How are you doing?” I said.
“Fine. Everybody’s saying that it’s harder on the family when they go quick, but easier on them.”
“As opposed to when it’s long, drawn out suffering? Like leukemia?”
“Right. That’s the idea.”
“I guess.” It made no sense to me, having experienced both alternatives with my folks. Seemed there was always suffering, and the person was always gone. But you don’t debate things at times like this.
“Harry seems to be doing better.”
“Yes. He’s really a good guy.”
Then she talked about her other relatives and the neighbors. I listened. I could sense our relationship becoming more serious. Sleeping with Stephanie didn’t matter. Yearning for the Sheila days didn’t matter. Wanting to move to the suburbs and have children didn’t matter. Being with Mary, showing that I loved her, helping her through this ordeal was the only important thing now.
People started leaving. Janet and Seth were staying with the kids at a nearby holiday inn, as was the Aunt and Uncle. Sarah talked on the phone with her boyfriend. Harry was downstairs in the basement. Mary and I had a few Vodkas. We walked into the mother’s bedroom.
“We were never allowed in here as kids,” she said. “My parents declared it off limits. And whenever they had arguments, they went in here.”
She started to cry again. I held her. Then she said, “Now, we have to go through all her stuff. Give it to goodwill, the clothing.”
This room seemed like a shrine. There was a small writing desk in the corner, two large dressers, but the only object on the wall was a crucifix, hanging above the king sized bed. Her husband left her, but here she stayed. The bed was made. She had not even gone to sleep the night she died.
Mary said, “You know, all four kids were conceived in this room.”
“There must have been a lot of love, when the marriage started.”
“All the Sixties marital bliss, perfect American Family. Then my father, that bastard, had to mess everything up.” She looked at me for a long pause, then closed and locked the door, went over to the bed and lay down. “Come here, Tom, and fuck me.”
She started to take off her jeans. I lay next to her. “I’m not sure if this right.”
“No.” She reached over, grabbed my belt, pulled me closer. “Do me here, right now, on their bed. Her bed!”
I kissed her deeply. She fumbled with my pants. “Make it quick, before I change my mind. I want this.”
She was crying again. But it didn’t last long. She caressed me erect. “Do me.”
So, we fornicated on the same bed in which she was conceived.
Then we dressed, went to the kitchen, had another drink, and went upstairs to Mary’s bedroom to sleep—the same room in which Mary first experienced dreams and nightmares.
* * *
I didn’t sleep too well, but I guess I slept better than Mary. It was as much from being in the strange, cramped bed of Mary’s childhood bedroom as from empathizing with the grief of her and her family. I know I had dreams. I was still trying to make sense of what fragments I could recall when Mary walked in wearing just a sweat shirt. She carried a tray with a cup of coffee and a plate of scrambled eggs and toast.
I cleared my throat. “Morning.” I remembered not to say good. I shifted in the bed. I had a stiffer than usual wake up erection and my underwear dangled on one ankle. I remembered going to sleep with them on. “This is so nice of you, to make me breakfast.”
“I didn’t really sleep too well.” We could hear voices from downstairs. “Neither could anybody else.”
She handed me the cup of coffee, pushed her hair from her face. Her eyes were red, the surrounding skin puffy. “What time is it?”
“Not too late. I just figured it would be a good time to get up, since the shower will be pretty busy.”
She sat next to me with the tray on her lap and scooped up some eggs on the fork and brought the fork to my mouth. After I swallowed, I said, “mighty good eggs.”
But she was back with the fork, and after that bite, held up the toast before I swallowed. I started laughing. “I’m big enough to feed myself.”
I shifted again. The sheet slipped off my hard on. She glanced down as she shoved more eggs into my chewing mouth. I blocked the fork with the coffee mug, then drank so I wouldn’t choke. She laughed again. “I want you to eat.”
Then she maneuvered herself on the bed, straddling me, her knees brushing against the sides of my waist. She pressed against my penis, but did not put it inside anything, and fed me. “You didn’t wake up last night.”
“What do you mean.”
“I came and you didn’t”.
I paused to swallow and drink some coffee. I didn’t understand.
“I couldn’t sleep. I got,” she whispered, “horny… so I took you.”
“While I slept?”
“I was surprised you didn’t wake up, to tell you the truth.”
I didn’t know how to take this news. “When did you do this?”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full. I don’t know the time, somewhere before dawn. I guess I couldn’t cry anymore. I figured I would wake you up with my mouth, but you didn’t wake up.” She scrapped some bits of egg off my chin with the toast, then as I bit the toast, she crammed the half-slice into my mouth. “You did what I needed you to do.”
She rubbed against me, rocking back and forth, then pushed herself up, held the plate with one hand and with her other hand slid me inside her. Then she straightened her back. I forced-swallowed the rest of the food in my mouth then sighed. Immediately, she fed me more egg. I almost choked. Her upper teeth concealed her bottom lip. She shoveled the remaining egg on to the triangle of toast, then folded the toast in half and tossed the plate and fork away from us.
“Only a little more left.” She aimed the food. I clamped my mouth closed. She poked the mini-sandwich against my teeth. I reached for the coffee, and took a sip.
“Now finish your breakfast.”
“Mary, I’m–” She pushed the toast and egg into my mouth until her hand was flat against my face. I nearly gagged.
Her voice was still high, but slightly firmer, a little mean. “Finish it for Mommy.”
She bucked with each syllable but she knew she shouldn’t have said the last two. Mommy echoed bitterly. And even as she moved up and down, I could see it in her face—anguish and desire—where one began and the other ended couldn’t be distinguished.
“Mary,” I whispered, mealy crumbs leaping off my lips.
“I’m sorry,” she said, tears sprinkling my chest. My hands reached under her sweatshirt. She was still crying, her groans of sadness expanding until she stopped moving and leaned down and I hugged her very close. My face became wet with her tears.
“It’s okay, calm down, it’s okay.”
“I want her here, Tom. I miss her so much. I should have done so much more.”
“I know, I know.”
Then it passed, in seconds. That’s the way it is with grief, at least it in its first stages, after the initial onslaught but before the complete acceptance. One minute you’re crying, one minute you’re laughing, one minute you’re talking normally about the weather and the next minute it’s all childhood memories and missed opportunities and a pain that must be expressed and you are incapable of doing anything more than just expressing it. She kissed me with her tongue then she leaned back, moving up and down. She pulled off her sweatshirt and I sucked her nipples and then she just didn’t break stride, even when I bit into a pillow and ejaculated inside her. She kept going.
I thought I saw Harry, slouching like a polar bear in the crack of the door that Mary had forgotten to fully shut. Then there was a knock, but it wasn’t on the door, it was on the wall right next to the door.
Harry coughed then said, “I’m taking a shower now, then it’s all yours.”
She rolled off, pulled the sheet over us both. The plate clattered to the floor.
“Thanks Har,” she said, sweetly. The sheet was damp, clinging to our bodies, conforming to our wet flesh.
* * *
Janet and Seth and the twins came from the hotel, and we all left together. We took three cars. There was much discussion about the twins—should they see the body? Where they too young? Mary’s mother wanted the complete catholic send off. She was divorced, her children had no interest in religion, the twins had been baptized but there were no plans for the other sacraments. They had to grow up sometime, and they missed their grandma and so Janet and Seth decided that Mrs. Kelly wanted the open casket wake and not bringing the children would be a sign of disrespect to her wishes
We arrived at the funeral parlor at one o’clock and stood in the parking lot, as if to procrastinate as long as possible, then we slowly marched into the large suburban home designated for the dead.
The funeral director, a gentle man in his late 50s, a somber Mr. Rogers in a banker’s suit, greeted us with polite condolences. He led us inside to a large room, where there were rows of metal folding chairs and at the other end, the coffin—shiny, ivory-colored metal, lilies engraved in the corners. The familiar profile protruded above the gilded edge of the box.
The four children walked up to her and it was like shock then wailing. I stood back at first, with Seth, the twins clutching his legs.
I thought, that now at least she looked, well peaceful. She wore a red dress, rosary beads entwined around her fingers. Her eyes glued shut, a powdery film gave her skin this parchment look. The life was gone. The blood, the heart, the soul.
Everybody was crying, very hard, just howling out the pain of loss. I walked over to Mary, she pushed me away at first. I knew not to take anything personally, that people just act odd when they grieve. A minute later, Mary was in my arms and I just held her, a sanctuary of strength where her emotions could erupt, unhindered, unjudged.
“Mommy,” shouted Harry. “I love you.”
He leaned over, to hug the body, his weight wobbling the coffin. But he didn’t expect the lifelessness, the coldness, stiffness, and for a moment the realization of corpse turned bereavement into fear, and he lumbered back in terror. Then he covered his face with his hands, fell to his knees, davening like a mental patient.
Sarah and Mary crouched and hugged him, and the three cried and cried. After a while, Janet came over to Harry and Sarah and Mary. “Pull yourself together,” Janet whispered. “People will be coming soon. We have to be strong for mom.”
“It was my fault, I should’ve known better, called 911 quicker,” Harry sobbed. I was crying, just thinking about his responsibility of being the last one to see her alive, to basically have witnessed the death. He will never forget that, never feel good about it. Then I glanced at the twins, petrified with fear and grief. They were not just dealing with the absence of a beloved grandmother, but confronting the ultimate and irrevocable fact of mortality. Sarah and Mary helped Harry stand, and they sat together on the metal folding chairs, trembling with sobs and leaning against each other like sickly refugees.
I sat down next to Mary and I couldn’t do anything to console her at the moment, so without anybody noticing, I crossed my self and murmured prayers that had been permanently implanted into my memory banks in childhood. Instead of visualizing any Santa Claus God or his Messiah son with a bleeding, swimmer’s body or Blessed Virgin decked out in blue veil and robe, I remembered my mother. But not alive, not her laugh or the way she would hug me after Dad had finished punishing me for one of my petty offenses. No. I was back to that funeral parlor eight and a half years ago. She was dead and all you could do was hope for the soul to exist, to be immortal with the only proof, a body devoid of blood and breath. Whatever was gone you needed to believe went someplace else. Someplace better.
Then we heard a man clear his throat. We turned our heads, and everyone gasped.
The ex-husband. Mr. Kelly. The father. The only child who maintained any sort of relationship with him was Janet. I think she knew he was coming. But everyone else was surprised. More like shocked, even appalled.
He looked old— permanent creases around his drooping eyelids and across his forehead. He wore a toupee and dyed his real hair light brown. Not a speck of gray. His suit was new and stylish and lacked the somber grace a sixty year old man should aspire to. He had an artificial tan. The rest of the family had alabaster skin—the guy had an Irish last name for chrissakes—but his skin had that orangish color of tanning salons and/or sleazy Caribbean vacations. I had seen pictures of him, holiday shots from previous decades. He looked basically the same, but kind of like re-animated, artificially preserved. The veneer of pre-fabricated middle age barely concealed the senior citizen beneath. Ultimately, it detracted from the dignity one expects with age.
“Martha.” He said as he walked, slow and deliberate and slightly dazed towards the coffin. Mary turned her face to my chest and shuddered.
He leaned over, kissed the cold lips of his dead ex-wife and started crying like I have never seen crying before. This from a grown man. A fuckin old grown man. It was actually frightening and somewhat grotesque. Then he just kind of folded to his knees, bumping into the casket on his way down. The metal box clanged against the stand, the body jiggled inside.
Harry, sitting in a chair in front of the casket, hollered, “Bastard. You don’t belong here.”
Janet and Sarah glared at their brother. The twin boys were truly scared, hiding behind their mother. Seth and I helped the old man up, sat him down a few seats away from Harry. The man was weaker than he looked, feebled from grief and age.
The funeral director briskly came over with a glass of water, which he gave to Mr. Kelly.
I pictured an ambulance being called and oxygen being administered.
Mr. Kelly’s shaking hand took the glass. He drank it, then just started sobbing. The funeral director took the glass and handed him a Kleenex. Mr. Kelly wiped his eyes. No one hugged him, not even Janet. They just waited for it to subside.
“Bastard,” Harry kept grunting. “Bastard.”
Janet walked over to her brother, “Harry behave yourself.”
Seth took his sons by the hands and said let’s go outside.
Tears ran in thick streams from Harry’s eyes and bubbles of saliva popped between his trembling lips. Mary pointed at Janet. “You leave him alone. Harry has every right to feel what he wants and to say what he feels.”
Sarah came to Janet’s defense. “She’s just trying to keep things under control, Mary. I’m glad Daddy’s here.”
“After what he did…” Mary shouted, then sat next to Harry and they held each other.
“I loved your mother,” said Mr. Kelly, gaining composure. “Maybe I had to leave, but I never wanted this… we got married so young. She was only nineteen. I still see her like that… so young, so beautiful, so fresh. She loved being a mother. She loved you kids. It was her whole life. We had a pretty good run. I always met my responsibilities with you kids. I’m sorry. I’m just so sorry. I’m sorry I failed you. I’ve wanted to talk to all of you, but I couldn’t .”
“You being here is inappropriate,” said Harry.
“No, Harry, it’s not,” Janet shouted back. “Mom would’ve appreciated it.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” said Mary.
Then Uncle Jimmy and Vivian, also in their 60s, came through the doors. The uncle and the father nodded at each other. He was the brother of the deceased. Personal history swirled in the air, things and events and activities that all happened before the births of the grieving off-spring but these older folks, their generation suppresses feelings for the sake of propriety. The kids had far less reserve. Anyone born after World War II is just one phone call away from letting it all hang out on an afternoon talk show.
The two men didn’t shake hands, and I could sense the conflicted emotions of the deceased brother. His former brother in law was a surprise and he resented the pain her ex-husband inflicted on his sister, yet also appreciated the possibility his presence was a show of support for the family.
The aunt and the uncle walked up to the coffin, crossed themselves and knelt at the small vestibule. Mary and Harry hugged each other and as the aunt and uncle completed their silent prayer, Mr. Kelly whispered softly to Janet, “I better go, but I’ll be back. It’s better that you kids get through this alone, right now.”
“Okay daddy,” said Janet. “I’ll walk you out.”
Sarah walked over and hugged her father like a little girl and I heard her tear-choked voice in the tiniest of murmurs: “I love you.”
Mary looked up, scowled through her tears, then patted Harry’s hand in a sign of solidarity.
Throughout the long afternoon, I remained the loyal soldier, following all orders and withstanding all adversities. I was glad to do it too, I mean it just felt good to do, the right thing! Sure, it made me feel less guilty about sleeping with Stephanie, and not that far in the back of my mind was the idea that the more support I gave to Mary, the sooner she would forget finding Stephanie’s business card with the doodled heart on back. Not that I wanted forgiveness. I just didn’t want to have to admit to it. What I’m saying is though, that stuff had no place here. My caring was genuine. I liked Mrs. Kelly. She always treated me well, and Mary had told me her mother liked me more than her ex-husband, and her approval was something Mary valued highly.
Uncle Jimmy and Vivian were soon followed by neighbors, some familiar faces I had seen when visiting the Teaneck home. Then other friends, older, from church etc. They signed the guest book, walked up to the coffin, placed white envelopes containing mass and sympathy cards on the large brass dish on a faux marble pedestal by the coffin, then knelt, stared for a moment at the body, soaked in its concrete stillness, then closed their eyes and lowered their heads, murmured a prayer and/or sniffled back some tears. Then they talked to the family members. Even Harry had gotten a grip. The four Kelly children made gracious hosts. Most of the conversation was about the suddenness of it all, how they just saw her and she seemed fine, and said if there was anything they could do please ask. Mary introduced me. There were handshakes and hugs and a lot of nodding and strangers asking me how Mary was holding up.
The funeral director walked in carrying a large wreath of lilies with a red ribbon with Aunt Mary written across. It was from some cousin who couldn’t make it. The kids agreed the last time they saw him, a wealthy lawyer somewhere in the Midwest, was at Mary’s wedding. Mary clasped my hand and whispered an I love you.
A trio of neighbor women, mothers of children who played with the Kelly kids, came in together and they dabbed their eyes, saying how just last week they saw her pruning the hedge and they talked about the forsythia. They mentioned the ambulance sirens that woke them up the night of the aneurysm. Then, after a lull, one of them told me and Mary, “They do such a nice job at this funeral, better than the one in Bergenfield. I should know too, this is the third time this month I’ve been here.”
Then a parish priest came, some young nerd with oval glasses who had probably heard the calling when he was still in the high school chess club. He was in his late 20s and gave me the creeps. I just sensed that some day he would crack and either molest an altar boy or get a rifle and head to the nearest watchtower.
He stood by the coffin, everybody went silent and he said some things about the resurrection of Christ and how the family needs our understanding at this time. He ended by reciting heart-felt Hail Marys and Our Fathers. Everyone joined in.
* * *
She had a lot of friends, and the evening viewing was even more crowded. There had to be three hundred people there. Other relatives, friends and neighbors. There were old friends of the kids too. Mary talked to somebody from high school, somebody she hadn’t seen for years who had read the death announcement in the local newspaper. She was overweight, looked in her mid-40s instead of her real age, early 30s and talked about her kids, one of whom was in junior high. Some of Mary’s friends from work came as well, but her best friend, Susan, who was her college roommate, had moved to San Francisco and was only able to send a small bouquet.
The most important development occurred when we went back to the house for dinner. A neighbor had brought over a large baked ham, mashed potatoes and creamed spinach and after talk about how well the afternoon viewing went and assorted chit chat about the funeral wound down, Janet brought up the wish of their father to attend the funeral. He had taken a room at the hotel. Seth and I took the twins into the living room and we watched Johnny Quest on the Cartoon Network until it was time to return to the funeral parlor.
Mary told me later that she and Harry agreed, as long they didn’t have to talk to him, they would accept his presence at the mass and the cemetery. But only because Janet, who had won Sarah over to her way of thinking, kept insisting that it was what they wanted. It was two against two, but Harry didn’t seem to qualify for a full vote, so Mary had no choice but to give in to her sister’s requests.
At the evening viewing, young Father Nerd made a return visit, finishing up with another prayer session after going over the final funeral plans with the three sisters. He seemed afraid of Harry. Mrs. Kelly had made the arrangements down to what bible passages would be read, and would do the readings (uncle Jimmy and a friend of hers from the parish). The parish and the funeral pallor go through this on a weekly basis. They make it easy for the family, letting them feel sorrow, but giving them enough responsibility so they truly feel they are being useful and doing something worthwhile for the deceased.
Mourners lingered on after the priest led the prayers and departed. At one point I was standing next to this husband of a woman who had grown up on the Kelly’s street, and we just talked about the stock market—he was a broker. He said things hadn’t been this solid since Reagan, and even though there are highs and lows, the lows come nowhere near 1987. I nodded, he made a mildly interesting point and we were just like two guys in business talking about serious things, but it was just small talk, something that could pass for conversation at any cocktail party or function. He was bored and he figured we were just men two there for the women in their lives. He had never even met Mrs. Kelly. His condolences were shallow and brief and he had to do something while waiting for his other half.
I walked over to Harry, patted him on the back. Although many of the neighbors spoke with him, he didn’t have any friends, new or old, show. “Hang tough, buddy.”
“I’m alone now. I don’t know what I am going to do.”
“You’ll do what you got to.”
Then, in a sudden flicker of maturity, he said. “I really appreciate you being here, especially for Mary. Things seem a lot better between you guys.”
“Well, I thought the world of your mom.” Then we both looked at the Body and he started to cry and I put my arm around him. “This is some real tough stuff, buddy.”
Sarah went to the hotel after the viewing, just to talk with her father and Janet and make some decisions about what to do with the estate. Not that there was much, but the house now belonged to the siblings, and although no one wanted to sell this memorial, they knew eventually they would have to and there was always the Harry question. He was currently unemployed, now even the handouts from his mother were gone.
Mary just wanted to go home. In the kitchen, she dropped some ice cubes into a tall glass, filled it with Absolut and drank it down like water. I never saw her drink it straight before. It seemed to have little effect. Alcohol loses it kryptonite capabilities when competing with loss. I asked her if she was okay, and she said fine, that she just wanted to lie down and be alone for a while. She went upstairs, carrying the glass, a bowl of ice, and the bottle.
I sat with Harry on the porch. We each had a beer, and took turns taking hits from a bottle of Jack Daniels. Don’t worry about the rest of your life just yet, you will have the rest of your life to worry about it, just get through tomorrow, I advised. I guess I just fell into that role.
Mary was still awake, nude on the bed, tears flowing out her eyes, wrapping around her temples. I held her until she slept, or until I did.
I had to agree with everybody else, the funeral was a lovely service. It was moving. There was the final goodbye at the funeral parlor, then the lid was sealed to the coffin, Harry and I, with some other men from the funeral parlor, acted as pall bearers, carrying wheeling the coffin out the door, then loading it into the hearse. The family rode in a limousine behind the hearse; Mr. Kelly drove alone in his Mercedes Benz.
Mary told some story about her first holy communion, about some girl who fainted on the altar. The church was another place of personal history for the family. I liked seeing the stations of the cross on the walls—I always liked the progression, the pictures, from Veronica wiping the face to the falling of three, count them, three times—and hearing the familiar liturgy from my youth. I couldn’t remember the last time I attended a mass. It all comes back to you though. It always does. We may not be able to make peace with it, but we can never escape our past.
The next door neighbor, who had been close to the Kelly’s since before LBJ escalated troop involvement in Southeast Asia, held the post-funeral reception at their house, which was much nicer. They had the money to invest in renovations, fresh paint, new furniture.
Mary just wanted to go home. So did I. Sarah would be staying at the house for a while with Harry. Mr. Kelly was staying at the hotel for a few days as well. Both Harry and Mary had finally resigned themselves to his presence.
Mr. Kelly shook my hand firmly. “Take care of my daughter.”
“I am glad to have met you sir,” I said, keeping my arm and fingers rigid. I felt the same apprehension my father inspired. But I looked him in the eye and I didn’t blink and I didn’t tremble.
Mrs. Kelley’s bedroom door remained closed for a long time after the funeral. Sarah was busy travelling back and forth from Philadelphia, trying to settle her life there before making the move back to Teaneck. Janet was busy with her kids, husband and life. Harry became intent on spending “quality” time with dear old Dad, who had moved from the hotel to the couch.
It wasn’t like the Windsors or Rockefellers. There wasn’t a lot of wealth and inventory to decide upon. Still, her personal things, like books and clothes and jewelry still had to be sorted through, divided up, dispersed with in some way. It was more than just another step in the grieving process. It was the first step in deciding what to do with the house and dealing with the other pain, one more subtle, of accepting that life goes on without her.
On the weekend, Mary went to Teaneck and I spent the day at the computer with the reports by the side, typing up notes. I was used to doing work on the weekend and it’s not that the work itself bores me. Yes, it’s certainly not as fun as being a porn actor or a rock star or baseball player or something. It’s not like some kids dream of being cowboys and others dream of analyzing demographic data to position products. But I was good at it, and being good at something does have rewards other than just a pay check.
Today though, I kept thinking about that God Dam bastard, Trevor. I was on his shit list, and because he was above me, his shit list could be lethal. He was so arrogant and self-assured, and here I was frittering away free time just to gain some in with him, or justify my value to the company. It didn’t even matter. He was a Messiah and I was the on the left side of the cross, the thief not destined for paradise.
I was between the rock and the hard place all right, and everything between was sheer tedium. I polished a few more sentences of the resume, even breezed through the want ads of the New York Times. Sooner or later, I would have to send them out, call a head hunter.
And when I wasn’t doing the data work or the resume work, I was dreading the work of the upcoming week in the office.
I was happy when Mary returned. At least acting as grief counselor distracted me.
I heard her call hello from the kitchen. She was making a drink. I got up from the desk and hugged her as she poured Absolut into a glass of ice. She wore sunglasses. We kissed some, and the edges of the frames poked my upper cheek bone, so I removed the glasses. A red and purple splotch stretched from the bottom of her eyelid to the side of her nose.
She said, “I had an argument.”
“Harry hit you?”
“We had a fight, no big deal.”
“I cut her lip.”
“You drew blood. You gave her a fat lip?”
“I guess I did,” she chuckled, raised her fists. “Better not mess with me.”
“Not with that hook. Does the shiner hurt?”
“No.” She lit a cigarette. “I hate the way it looks though.”
“I like tough chicks, don’t worry. What was the fight about.”
She took a long sip from the Absolute and club, then exhaled the smoke. “Oh, we were going through the things in mom’s bedroom, and Sarah was late and she was mad I started without her. Harry helped a little, but he didn’t last too long. He’s still easily upset. Dad knew I didn’t want him there, so he stayed away and Sarah, she was supposed to come back from Philly last night but didn’t come back until this morning, so what I was supposed to do. Then, she got mad about how I was treating Dad and we started screaming. It was actually pretty funny. Harry had to pull us apart. I think that made us stop, he got so out of breath.”
“Did you finish going through her things.”
“Not even half yet.”
“Well, it will help you remember her.”
“I don’t need any help in remembering her.”
“That’s not what I meant, Mary.”
She turned around and rested against me and I put my arms around her.
She asked, “How was your day?”
“I just did work. I’m dreading going back to that office, I know I’m going to have be on the road again.”
“You’re complaining a lot about work lately.”
“It doesn’t seem to matter anymore if business is good or bad. I think it’s because nobody knows why it is good when it is good and why it is bad when it’s bad. There’s always stress either way.”
“We all have stress. You’ve been there a long time now.”
“A lot of people have been fired. I just have to figure a better way to cope, a way to get a leg up. I can’t think about it anymore. Let’s go out.”
“Oh, I’m all sweaty and tired. I think I’ll just take a bath. I’m not in the mood to go out.”
“You know, I like Jersey City but it’s not the same as New York. I mean, we can go to a neighborhood place, but there’s not that many and that’s all there is to do here. In the city, it wasn’t such a big to-do, you could just take a walk, bang around and see the whole world, which can be Manhattan.”
“Well, you can go in.”
“Why don’t I pick up some food up at the supermarket and rent some videos. We can have a nice quite night together, forget both our stresses.”
“That’s sounds like something I would like, Tom.”
“Is there anything you want to see.”
“My head’s not really aware of movies, just get whatever you want. No pornos though. And, get some more vodka and club soda and maybe some lemons.”
“You sure are drinking a lot.”
She sighed loudly and walked across the kitchen, leaned against the counter, smoked her cigarette, sneered at me as she raised her glass to her lips. After she swallowed she frowned.
“Hey, look, I feel like a few drinks anyway tonight, believe me,” I said. “I could use them. What do you think we should eat?”
“Something easy, since you’re going to do the cooking.”
I heard the phone ring after I closed the door. I walked down to the pier, stared at the Hudson and the Manhattan skyline. The sky was clear, the weather warm, a perfect night for bar hopping and ethnic food, catch some live music somewhere and just wander home. I loved the city for that. The fact you didn’t really have to do anything, or plan to do anything, to have something hit your imagination or interest.
I guess there’s conformity, and hell, I work in the white collar world where those who don’t conform or at least, don’t appear to, get cast out quick enough.
Sure, if I was gay or an artist or a drug addict or something, I would lead a secret life outside the office. But I really don’t. I’ve even voted republican sometimes. I watch TV, follow sports. Just because I think of Suburbia as the conformity, it doesn’t mean I don’t conform. Is it just a matter of degree? We should get new meanings for these words I suppose. Maybe if they were redefined more accurately, I wouldn’t wonder if I’m kidding myself.
Saturday night at the video store meant most of the new releases, the things worth seeing that we hadn’t seen, were already rented out. I made the best choices I could. I picked up a Chardonnay at the liquor store, along with another Absolute. I decided on flank steak and asparagus and potatoes and a fat-free frozen chocolate mousse at the Shop Rite.
Walking back, past the red brick church with the statue of the Virgin Mary in front, the high school with pockmarked field, and Siperstein Paint Store with the gigantic glowing blue paint can on the roof behind which the green rimmed highway of the N.J. Turnpike ascended.
No, it wasn’t Manhattan with sky scrapers and world famous modern architecture and 24 hour bodegas and bars for every sub culture. Kerouac and Martin Scorsese and Tom Wolfe and Lou Reed and Woody Allen didn’t know from it. But it was my reality and it was beginning to make sense and at least it wasn’t filled with hype and pretension like the rotten apple. There’s nothing to hype. There’s nothing to pretend to or from. I think I was actually used to it now, appreciating it, the life. There were plenty of nights in New York where I just had to pick up food and booze and videos but now, I didn’t pass any pan handlers or loud mouths and everything was a little cheaper and best of all, the apartment was bigger and sunnier and I had a woman I trusted.
Mary was in the tub when I got home, with the music on. The Elvis Costello reissue on the CD player blared mutual nostalgia of our generation. I was putting food away in the kitchen I glanced at the answer machine, red message light blinking madly.
Sarah: Mary, I think it’s very immature the way you hung up on me. Aren’t you going to pick up. Mary? Mary?
Sarah: Mary, I’m sorry what I said about the picture. I didn’t mean to insult Tom or you. Mary? Mary?
Sarah: I don’t blame you for the fight. Mary? Come on, I know you’re there
Harry: Mary, it’s Harry (wheeze). If I can accept Dad here, you can too (wheeze). Don’t blame Sarah for already doing just that. (wheeze, muffled words to someone else in the room, then a long pause…) Let’s not fight anymore, it’s hard on us on all, okay. (chuckle) You’re going to make me start drinking again.
Harry: Mary, come on, talk to Sarah. (raspy sigh) Mary, pick up, please pick up. Harry: Mary? Mary? Mary? (wheeze and whimpering) …Just pick up.
I was still staring at the answer machine when the phone rang
“Is my daughter there.”
“Hold on, sir.” I grabbed the remote and muted the stereo, knocked on the bathroom door. “Your dad’s on the phone.”
“Tell him to eat shit and die.”
“Can’t they give me any peace. Isn’t a conversation and a fist fight enough for one day.”
I went back to the phone. “Mr. Kelly, can she call you back, she’s still in the bath tub. She’s really not available.”
“I thought you had a cordless there.”
“She’s a little upset. I think it would be better if she called you later.”
“Sarah and Harry are pretty upset too. I just want to maintain the peace, keep everybody on the same wavelength and on an even keel.”
“I guess we both have our hands filled then.”
“I don’t know what to do with these kids.”
Suddenly, Watching The Detectives blasted at full volume. I shouted into the phone, “I’ll get her to call sir when she feels better.”
I aimed the remote and lowered the sound, but Mary was in the kitchen, towel around her head, her terry cloth robe damp on her body, making another drink and mouthing the lyrics. “while they’re dragging the lake.”
She looked at me and said, “I just don’t want to deal with it any more right now.”
“I thought you said you made up with everybody.”
“I don’t understand why they feel the need to clear out the bedroom all at once, right away. You know what I think? That bastard who messed up my mother’s life and mine wants to move Harry out and move in his girlfriend.”
“That doesn’t seem to be the case to me, but you’re closer to the situation.”
She emptied the vodka into the glass. She dropped in some ice, poured in some club soda and without turning around, said, “I hope you got a fresh bottle.”
“I put it in the freezer. I got some wine too, for dinner. Your sister said something about me, on the message.”
She took a sip. “Just another stupid argument.”
Mary walked over to the tote bag she brought in and took out a frame photograph. Mary, her ex-husband and Mrs. Kelly sitting on lawn chars. They all looked happy. Mrs. Kelly looked like a healthy, older middle aged woman. Mary had longer hair, acid washed jeans, nearly 20 pounds heavier, all in her face and thighs. The ex-husband had that New Jersey scum bag look to him, gold chain around his neck, bushy mustache, paisley short sleeved shirt—very 80s. I could imagine Ronald Reagan hovering above the patio with that simpleton and satanic grin of sincerity convincing us all that the 60s never happened and we all must stay the course. Don’t worry, be happy.
“Your mom looks pleased. You’re a lot sexier now.”
She muttered something then cleared her throat. “Tom, this doesn’t bother you?”
“Why should it?”
“He sent the picture. He sent the picture with a mass card, and a personal note.” She took the pack of Merits out of her bathrobe pocket, tapped one out and stuck it between her lips and lit it up “He’s a scum bag and he knows it and I told him and he knows full well what happened and how I feel and right. It was wrong for him to send it.”
She leaned against the counter, blew smoke at the ceiling and took several swallows in a row.
“It’s just the past.”
“You’re not upset?” The cigarette bounced in her lips as she talked. “I just thought you would be.”
“We have a life together. Don’t we? Or just a semblance of one?”
“You tell me.”
“Screw you!” She reached into the freezer, opened the Vodka and began to freshen her drink.
“You mean I should be jealous. You want me be to jealous? Well, I am, I am jealous that I didn’t know you then. I’m jealous that we didn’t have more time together. But we can’t change the past, we can’t escape it, there’s nothing to be done about it. He looks like a jerk, like idiots I went to high school with. But he sent the card out of respect. I respect respect. You guys have your history together. I wasn’t there. It’s useless to be jealous about something you can’t do anything about.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t think he sent it out of respect.”
“You think he wants to get back together with you?”
“Maybe I should let him fuck me out of respect.”
I did a Peter Lorre giggle. “Can I watch?”
She smirked despite herself, drank from the glass, savored an ice cube in her mouth for a few seconds, then pushed it out between her lips with her tongue. It plopped back into the glass. She said, “I’ll just lie about it and never tell you.”
“If I don’t know, I don’t care.” She didn’t know whether to laugh or scream at me. Before she could decide, I said, “Look, I’m with you now. We have now! Stuff I’m not there for, I can’t do anything about, I don’t want to get upset about. I have enough stuff that I know about to be upset about. I love you now. Your ex sent a mass card and a photograph. Take it with a grain of salt.”
I held out my arms and she pressed against me, one arm around my waist and the other, with the cigarette, propped on my shoulder so the cigarette was behind my head. I folded my arms behind her and inhaled the fresh soap and shampoo. I said, “Besides your memories, you don’t have to have anything else to do with him.”
“It’s just that he knows how I feel about things and him, yet he sent the card anyway” I nuzzled her ear, letting her aromas and cleanliness arouse me and was hoping she noticed the arousal pressing against the front of her thigh. “Seems everybody wants me to change my feelings. Him, my father, my sisters, even Harry. You too.”
She broke away, puffed her cigarette, picked up her glass. “What about having kids, Tom. You want me to feel differently about that than how I do feel.”
“No, I don’t. I’m just not ready.”
She finished her drink. “We’re still just dating.”
“We’re sharing our life. We spend time together. We make love.”
“Bah, blah, blah. Tom. You always look at things then give them your spin. You never listen to what I’m saying.”
“I’m listening, Jesus Christ, I’m listening.”
“Oh, you are not. You’re here, you’re hearing me, but you are just thinking of your side of things, how to turn it to your way of thinking. You just want to have sex, I can feel your hard on, okay.”
I looked down at my crotch. “You gave it to me.”
“Did I? Tom, you’re fun, you’re a good lover, you have a big penis. Is that what you want me to say. If I wasn’t on my period I would want it inside me. But sometimes, I want more than a roommate I can drink vodka with and fuck, okay. I want more out of this life. You know that saying, life is not a dress rehearsal.”
“Don’t throw Oprah shit at me. Mary, it’s just a Saturday night, let’s just relax and talk about these things some other time.”
“It’s always some other time.” The cigarette was again lodged between her lips, she got the Vodka out of the freezer.
“”You want a station wagon and a lawn to take care of? You want to be like Janet, thirty pounds overweight with two screaming brats.”
“They’re not so bad.”
“It’s not like your ovaries are drying up tomorrow.” Now I needed a drink. I got out a glass from the cupboard, put in some ice, put the glass next to hers and she poured in some vodka, then some club soda.
“When though,” she said. “You don’t want any changes.”
“I got a lot on my mind okay.” I took the glass, sipped then sighed. “My job is a nightmare. People are getting fired. Things aren’t stable there. It’s not like I make a lot of money either. I don’t what to have the troubles my family had. I’m not happy with how I was raised or my father’s temperament raising me, and I have to think, a lot of his anger, and the mistakes he made with me, was because he didn’t make a lot of money either. Neither did yours. Hell, don’t you think Harry would be a lot better off if there was more money in your family.”
“No. My father made a good living. He always gave my mother money. She was able to keep the house. If they didn’t divorce, there would have been a lot more money. Harry got fucked up because of the divorce, not because my father isn’t Donald Trump.”
“Mary, the world is fucked up. Do we really want to bring somebody new into this mess.”
“Like the world hasn’t always been this way. So, lame Tom. I don’t know why I am with you sometimes.”
“My big penis?”
She faked laughed at me. “It was good to date, I don’t know about living with it. We’re just dating still, just dating.”
“So, you want to be married again?”
“Not like I was before, of course not! But I’m not stuck in my memories. I want to do something different this time, I want something more.” Her face quivered, she quickly inhaled her cigarette. ”I want to be able to change the things I can.”
“So do I.”
“Don’t agree with me just to shut me up.”
“I’m not. I want those things too. Am I so wrong not to want them tonight.”
“After all my shit with work and your shit with Teaneck is on an even keel. We can talk about it seriously and rationally.”
“Don’t start using my mother’s death as an excuse.”
“You know I’m not.”
“I don’t know anything you don’t tell me. I don’t understand you sometimes and the things I do understand scares me.”
“Mary, I lo—“
She pointed at me. “Maybe that isn’t enough. Maybe you’re sublimating how you really feel, or projecting it with sex.” She was gesticulating, and the movements of her arms loosened her robe, exposing a breast. “I don’t know if you need anything more of me, or want anything more of me, than just me being here. I don’t even know if you’re here for me or if I’m here for you. I just know we’re both here.”
I was looking at her breast. It seemed flushed, which was probably a result of the hot bath, and her nipple was stiff, aroused, but not from wanting to have sex, but from either anger, or maybe from being exposed to the air. Funny, how our bodies can react despite our brains sometimes. Her face was getting redder. She was angry, getting drunker. The skin tone change made the bruise around her eye glow. Her face, the bruise, her breast, the cross on the chain that was in her cleavage, between the exposed and covered mammary. There was so much to see. Her rib cage flexed. Her breathing got heavier as her voice got louder. She was close to having a fit. Then the knot around her waist unraveled, the robe opened. I wasn’t listening that closely. She was right about that. I was looking now at both her breasts, and her navel, and the soft auburn pubic curls, the telltale string of a tampon twisting out of the bottom of the mound. She stopped talking for a moment. I think she realized I was looking at her. The cigarette was between her fingers. It was burning down to the filter. The ember slowly contacted the skin. She didn’t react until the burn blistered into second degree status. She yelped and waved her hand wildly. The crimson tip of the smoldering butt landed on her breast, then rolled down her side. She jumped back, brushing it away. I looked at the floor, but did not see it. Then we noticed wisps of smoke from the edge of the bathrobe. The remains of the Merit was caught in a terry cloth fold. I plucked the smoldering butt from the robe and tossed it in the sink.
She had her hand in her mouth. She reached into her glass, took out a Vodka soaked ice cube and holding it between her two burned fingers, rubbed the ice on the red spot on her breast. A long drop of water slid down to her navel.
“You okay?” I said.
“I think I’ll live.”
“Want to put some ointment on? Do we have any Bactine?”
“I’ll be okay.”
“I could kiss it and make it better.” I leaned forward. She moved away, threw the ice cube at my head.
“Leave me alone.”
She was walking out of the kitchen. I said to her back, following her. “What about dinner.”
“What about whatever!” She slammed the bed room door.
“Well, don’t forget to call your father,” I said, after a minute of just looking at the wood. I wanted the fight to be over. I didn’t think I should apologize. It wasn’t a fight to apologize about. There was no resolution necessary. Or possible.
The CD finished playing. I liked the silence. I didn’t want to think about anything, but I could not stop, I could not stop thinking about everything. Even the Elvis Costello music sparked the memory of losing my virginity at college. Then I thought about licking Stephanie’s pussy, how any hesitation I had was simply overcome by a beautiful woman, a former lover who knew what I could do and wanted me to do it again. That just felt good, that just made me feel worthy. It wasn’t all about Sheila I think. I was still aroused, even while I was getting upset. When I saw Mary’s breast, I wanted to push her down the floor and stick my cock into her menstruating vagina, fuck away my rage. But she had to want me to be the animal. She had to want me. She had to want to hold desire in a higher esteem than arguing, than her fight about me not growing up. In all likely hood, her anger at me was just another symptom of her grief. She certainly wasn’t over her mother dying. Hell, I wasn’t over mine and that was a long time ago.
I looked at the empty glass. I did not remember finishing it, certainly didn’t feel drunk. I wish I did. I got out the Vodka and then went through some of the preliminary food preparations. I washed the asparagus, cut off the ends, put them in the steamer, washed, peeled and sliced the potatoes, cut up some garlic and onions, coated a pan with olive oil, then placed the potatoes, garlic and onion inside it. Then I minced some garlic, smeared it on the flank steak, lightly rubbed olive oil on the meat then doused it in some worstchire sauce.
I knocked on the bedroom door, told Mary that whenever she wanted me to cook—dinner would take about forty minutes to make—just tell me and in the meantime, I was going to take a shower. She said okay.
Mary was wrong about one thing though, we weren’t still dating. Things were better then. Maybe because with dating, you’re always on your best behavior. It’s special when you see each other, when you’re with each other and you can talk about feelings and thoughts and when it comes to the future, it’s just in the abstract. Now, the future pounded on the doors every day, like those zombies at the house in Night of The Living Dead. I can’t understand why it’s so relentless. I don’t feel older today than I did yesterday and I won’t tomorrow. I don’t even think I look older.
I am older though. I just don’t want to feel like I have to be something that I am not doing. I put all my energies into the survival. This is America and I’m not rich, so we’re free to work our asses off and then someday you die and you hope that there’s a heaven and that you will go there.
I stayed in the shower a long time. I dried off, wrapped a towel around my waist. I had half the drink left. I carried the glass into the bedroom. Mary was in sweat pants and a T-shirt, sitting by the vanity, cigarette burning in the ashtray. She had made a new drink. She was gazing into the mirror, smiling, inebriated as she brushed her thick red hair.
“You were in there a long time.”
I grunted a syllable. I took one of her cigarettes.
“You usually only smoke when you’re drunk.”
I lit the cigarette. “I’ll get drunk later and not smoke. Are you hungry yet.”
There was an extra ashtray on the bureau. I put it on the night table, lay down on the bed.
“You look depressed,” she said.
“I’ll get over it.”
“Tom, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. You have a lot to say. I thought I would be making more money, but I’m not. I would like to have a kid, I mean, it would be great to mix our genes, have a little human being that looks like us, but there seems to be so much money and time that’s required. I like being with you and I like it when we’re having fun, and it just seems that would change. I want my kid to have better chances than I had, go to better schools, be smarter, be happier. I just don’t have all the answers yet.”
“I know you don’t have all the answers. That’s why I said I’m sorry.”
“I don’t feel like fighting anymore.”
“We can still enjoy the rest of the evening.”
I inhaled cigarette smoke. Then I put the cigarette in the ashtray, put my hands behind my head and leaned back. “I think I may take a quick snooze.”
I rolled over on my side, bent my knees and folded my hands over my stomach. I wasn’t going to fall asleep. I knew that. I was feeling weak and sad. I wish I hadn’t lied to her about Stephanie. What else should I have done? I don’t regret having sex with her. Hell, I wish my father played catch with me and encouraged me to do better in school and read more books or something. I could wish for a lot of things. I could wish that life was more fair, more kind, more fun. I wish I could pray to God and actually hear an answer. I wish America was the ideal utopia promised in the constitution and declaration of independence. But there was history proving otherwise. There were slaves, native American genocide, class divisions, Vietnam..
There was Paramus.
“What about dinner,” she said.
“It’s all ready to go. Are you hungry? Do you want to watch a video?”
“Not at all.” She lay down next to me, facing my back. After a few minutes, she said, “Don’t be mad at me.”
“Don’t be depressed then.”
I didn’t say anything. There was more silence. Then, her hand slid over my thighs and under the towel and she gently cradled my testicles. She squeezed my cock. It got hard. She squeezed it more, moved her hand. Her face was against my ear. “Don’t be depressed.”
I felt her tongue against my ear, then my neck. I rolled on my back. She unwrapped the towel. I closed my eyes and felt her warm mouth kissing my cock, then she licked it, then she sucked it, first softly, then more forcefully, her mouth taking as much of it in as she could, then sliding up until only the tip was behind her lips. Then she licked the sides, the circumcised edge, then put my balls in her mouth and stroked my shaft.
She pulled off her T-shirt, then pressed my cock between her breasts. She pushed her breasts together and moved her torso up and down.
I looked down. She had moved for better leverage. She was smiling at my erection, which was red and twitching. She pumped it with her hand. Then she kissed it again.
“Don’t be depressed,” she whispered, then put her mouth over it and sucked.
I felt like I was going to come. I was wondering if I should say something. I was beginning to groan. Maybe she wanted me to come in her mouth. Maybe she wanted to suck every drop out.
“That feels so good, baby.” I said and felt her mouth suck harder, her head moving faster up and down.
The phone rang. At the end of the second ring, my eyes still closed, I felt a draft cooling the layer of salvia coating my cock.
“Call them back,” I pleaded.
She already had the phone in her hand. “I know dad called, Harry.”
Her smiled faded. She said, “Because I didn’t want to.”
She looked at me, at my cock, and smiled again, put her free hand on it. She leaned over, kissed it while listening. Then she said something to Harry, straightened her back, but she kept her hand there as she talked. The motion was like washing dishes or some other menial chore, an absentminded gesture.
I had a quick memory. This one time with Sheila. It was at her place. She was kneeling, her chest was on the bed. I was inside her, from behind. The phone rang and she was laughing when she picked it up. I knew it was the other boyfriend by the way she answered. She tried to squirm away. My hands held her waist. But she continued talking, suppressing her previous sounds of pleasure. There was a bottle of oil on her night table. We had been giving each other massages. I grabbed it, squirted some down the crack of her ass, then I slipped my cock out of her pussy, and pushed it into her asshole. She made a noise, then apologized into the phone that she dropped something. It was tight. It wasn’t easy going. But she liked it, she didn’t move away. She said something about being tired into the phone. I was in pretty deep. I moved in deeper as I played with her pussy. She said good bye and hung up and called me a bastard. I was laughing. She didn’t ask me to stop though. I cursed at her. She cursed back, in between very loud groans.
Mary winked at me, as she squeezed and watched my erection get redder. I could hear Harry wheeze through the receiver. Now, she was not smiling at me or looking at me, just squinting at the wall. Her grasp tightened. “Okay, put Sarah on.”
“Hey!” I shouted, pushing away her hand. She giggled, put her hand over the receiver and apologized. She was drunk. She murmured to me, “don’t go anywhere.”
Then she spoke into the phone. “I’m fine Sarah, I’m over it.”
She continued stroking me, rolling her eyes as her sister spoke.
Mary said, “I’m not going to change my opinion. What did he say?”
She leaned over, phone lodged between her shoulder and ear and licked my cock.
She put it back in her mouth. I circled my fingers around her nipple.
She slipped her mouth off, said something else into the phone, then slipped her mouth back over it. Dimples rippled as her cheeks fluctuated. I knelt on the bed. We moved together with the synchronicity of ballet dancers. I had her breasts in my hands. She suddenly gagged.
“I’m sorry,” she said into the phone. After she removed her mouth. her hand immediately grabbed my cock. “Something caught in my throat.”
She coughed into the phone, just to seem genuine. She had a big smile now. Her hand was moving really fast. I wondered if Sarah could hear the squishing sound.
“I’m sorry about the fight too…” she licked the tip again. “What do you mean I’m not dealing with it.” She winked at me, pumped her hand. I mouthed the words, don’t stop. She smiled at me, stroked harder. “Oh, I am dealing with it.
Then her expression changed. Her hand lost its tenderness, but not its momentum. “Don’t put daddy on. Sarah. Please. Not now. Sarah… Sarah… Sarah.”
I moaned loudly. Mary looked at my cock as it twitched in her hand and a thick stream of sperm jumped out, gobs landing on her breasts.
“Hi daddy,” she said as she squeezed out another thick white discharge, this time without the arc. I was out of breath. She looked at the sperm on her fingers, dribbling out of my cock, then let go and stood and picked up her towel then took the cordless into the living room.
I wiped myself off, put on some gym shorts, lit a cigarette and got my glass and found her in the living room, crying.
“I hung up on him. I hope he doesn’t call back tonight.”
I kissed her. “It was nice… what you did for me.”
“Oh that. I just wanted to put you in a good mood. Now, I’m the one in a terrible mood.”
I kissed her nipples. “I could be persuaded… to put you in a good mood.”
She put her hands between her breasts and my face. “I know you’re a stud, Mr. Service, but I’m not in the mood, and I’m on my period.”
“That’ a relief, I’m not as young as I used to be. Well, so what did everybody have to say.”
“They want to clear out my mother’s room, and they’re starting without me.” She stood, walked to the bedroom. “Can you make me a drink.”
“Sure. I can make dinner and we can watch those videos. I can open the wine if you want.”
“I could really use a Vodka.”
“Me too.” I was in a good mood. “Let’s have a cocktail hour, then I’ll put on the dinner and we can watch videos. Forget our troubles.”
She came out, T-shirt back on, cigarette lit. “Just make me a drink.”
She sat back on the couch as I went into the kitchen. I came out with new drinks. She hadn’t moved. I showed her the videos I got, some straight-to-video sex thriller and some comedy that received lukewarm reviews and played for a week in the theaters three months ago.
“These look really bad.”
“There’s not much to choose from. The comedy has a Robin William’s cameo and some people from Saturday Night Live.”
“I’m not in the mood for laughing.”
“I’ll put dinner on.”
She swallowed the rest of her drink and rattled the ice in the glass. “Make me another first, honey.”
“Sure.” I brought her out the new drink. She hadn’t moved, except for lighting another cigarette. I went back to the kitchen and turned on the oven. The potatoes take about forty minutes on 3:50, but my trick is to cook the potatoes, then put the broiler on and do the steak up and then put the potatoes on for a few minutes, making them brown and crispy.
I had that physical bliss relief thing going, as if my ejaculation dissolved ten pounds of lead from my loins. I whistled as I turned on the oven. I was ready to make the woman I love feel happy, support her, understand her, shower her with compassion and tenderness.
She was still staring at the wall, another cigarette lit, the glass again empty except for the ice cubes. No television on or music playing.
I picked up one of the videos. “Want to start with this. It got pretty good reviews, see here on the box, more erotic than basic instinct.”
“Who said that?”
“That’s a bullshit quote. It’s from some phony trade magazine, just stupid publicity for some crappy movie that went straight to video.” Her gaze swept across the room and rested on me. Her expression changed to what looked like utter contempt. “Make me another drink.”
“Okay, but dinner will be ready soon.”
“Then make it quick.”
I did as I was told. She was lighting another cigarette when I returned and handed her the glass. “Let’s watch the video, it could still be fun.”
“We’re not in some dorm room laughing between tokes on the bong at Pink Flamingos. Get out of college, Tom. Act your age!”
“They didn’t have much else to rent, Mary.” I turned on the television, slipped in the cassette and began fast forwarding through the warning and previews.
“I should have went to the store.”
“You were busy relaxing.”
She muttered something and swallowed the rest of her drink, got up carrying the glass, weaved her way towards the kitchen.
I heard her open the freezer door. I called out, “You said you didn’t want to go out.”
“I know,” she barked.
She left the pack on the table. I tapped out a cigarette. I was getting hooked again. I was feeling the nicotine. I would soon be needing the nicotine. Cigarettes can be a tasty and relaxing vice. But, after a while, the only thing that smoking them does is make you want to smoke the next one.
She wandered back, glass in hand. The movie was starting. Neither of us paid much attention.
I said, “I’m sorry if I make you unhappy or that I can’t make you happy.”
“You’re sorry about a lot of things.”
“Are we going to go through this again.”
“Of course not, Mr. Stud. I guess things would be better if I could suck you off twenty four seven.”
“Jesus Christ!” But, I recognized my temper was going so I instead of participating in another argument, I stormed into the kitchen, the cigarette trailing smoke like signals from a doomed tribe.
I muttered gibberish and made myself a stiff drink. I checked the potatoes. The oil bubbled but the potato was white and cold.
I came back after I had some booze and smoked the cigarette. She was watching the movie. A nude b-actress was tied to a brass bed board, the camera lingered on her surgically enhanced tits, and there was some beefy guy in his underwear standing by her. The scene changed, now he was tied to the bed and as the camera panned down his body, you saw one drop of blood, then two, three until we got to this puddle covering his waist and thighs. Death by castration.
“You pick out the worst movies.” Her words were all slurred. She guzzled her drink. “You’ll rent anything.”
“If you want, we could watch the comedy.”
She slammed the glass down on the coffee table. She stared for a minute. Perspiration covered her face. She stumbled into the bathroom, closing the door and vomiting. I waited outside the door, asking if she was all right. She cursed me away.
I took the potatoes out. They looked done. I went back to the bathroom. She cursed me away again. I ate some potatoes. They were mushy on the outside, cold and hard inside. I watched the movie but fell asleep before it ended.
Her fist smashing against my jaw woke me up. She was standing next to me, hair going in a dozen different directions, eyes bloodshot and wide open, howling, “How could you let me sleep on that cold tile floor, you fuckin bastard. I make you come and that’s how treat me, that’s how you think of me, that’s taking care of me? I hate you. I hate you.”
She hit me again then convulsed with tears as she ran into the bedroom, slamming the door.
I rubbed my chin. Before I thought about the pain I was about to say, want me to put on the steak and asparagus but then I glanced at the clock. It was four A.M.
I hadn’t been woken up by being struck since I was a kid and my father was mad that I hadn’t cleaned my room. That was one time that came to mind. There were others, of course.
I tripped over the coffee table, limped the rest of the way to the bathroom. It stank of puke and booze. Vomit was on the floor, the sides of the toilet. I urinated and saw that my leg was bleeding.
I got out the bucket and mop. If I cleaned up her mess maybe when she woke up she might feel bad, apologize or something. Maybe we could make it through a day without fighting.
* * *
The only light in the hotel room came from CNN. It was an inexpensive hotel airport in Chicago and I could hear air planes rumble by. I was exhausted. I had to leave from the office, a ten o’clock flight. Mary gave me no support. The unspoken reason we both knew. Mary equated business travel with infidelity. Without pointing out, this is not a trade show, this is not San Francisco, there will be no Stephanie here, I talked about how there’s nothing to do, how I have to talk with clients and sales reps and basically drive back and forth over some particular patch of Midwest. The implication I wanted to make apparent was that there would not even be an opportunity to have sex with somebody else. I wasn’t lying because I didn’t have a chance to, there was no logical reason for deception.
Mary’s relationship with her father and siblings had gotten warmer, she was no longer returning homed bruised and emotionally on edge. But towards me she got colder, or at least more indifferent. The nights I spent on the couch were not discussed or commented upon. She said I was lucky to get to travel for work, instead of having to be stuck in stinky old new jersey. I didn’t see it that way. Travel made work harder. But I didn’t argue about that. If you have a job that requires travel you know the effort and ennui that it takes, if you don’t, you don’t.
I picked up the phone and called her. She got mad at me for waking her up.
I just wanted to hear her familiar voice. I just wanted to feel less lonely out here.
Everybody I had talked to do during this trip were nice and glad to see me just like they are glad to see me at the convention, but my presence puzzled them. I had no real explanation. They all wanted to know about the new guy, Trevor. They wanted to know what was being planned. I didn’t have the answers. They wanted to know why Trevor just didn’t make the trip himself. Gary would actually still make these rounds every few years, so they wondered why Trevor wasn’t doing likewise. Instead of an answer, I just made up some stuff to kibitz about. I didn’t say, Trevor is probably interviewing my replacement and wanted me out of the office.
I didn’t say between my work and my girlfriend, my life was getting fucked and there was nothing I wanted to do to stop it.
In the hotel room, I had the drapes drawn. I could see highway lights and the ascending and descending planes. I lay in the fetal position, listening to CNN news, which I had on loud . It was still unable to drown out the sound of the jets.
I wondered if the window seat passengers could look out and see a shadow covered lonely man, lying on his bed, stranger from the east, too depressed to masturbate. I thought about making up with Mary when I got back, taking her to some exhibition or movie, a nice dinner. No pressure for sex, no opportunities for excessive drinking. Spend time together, distracted by something of value, just like the experiences we had dating.
These times I really loved Mary. I really loved having someone to think and care about. I had something else besides the nowhere hotel, the hours of work ahead, the job.
In the morning, I went down for breakfast, a fresh shirt and tie, suit I worn the day before. I bought a pack of Marlboro lights and sat in the smoking section. The habit was back. Life is acceptance.
As my eggs and bacon digested, I was smoking and drinking my third cup of coffee, reading the USA Today which was delivered free to the hotel room, when James Gordon, the sales rep with whom I would be spending this day arrived, fifteen minutes early.
“Tom, good morning, good to see ya,” he said, shaking my hand. He wore a blue suit, on his lapel was a gold crucifix. Actually, a cross, because I think a crucifix technically meant the body of Christ had to be affixed. No, only catholic icons depicted the actual death. Protestants generally prefer the unadorned cross.
He was a few years younger than me, married with two kids and was in the Army reserves. I remember a few years ago, he had to take some time off because his unit was sent to Africa or some place for some kind of conflict that didn’t become a conflict although for a few tense hours, the world anticipated war. Upper management wasn’t too happy, but it turns out that accounts in this area were accommodating beyond expectations. They appreciated the patriotic commitment. Some things sure play better here than in New York City.
Me, I didn’t like him very much. I didn’t like his crew cut, his narrow chin, his clean shaven face that seemed as white and shiny and smooth as a refrigerator. He talked with a practiced enthusiasm that never strayed from optimism.
I didn’t get to know any of the reps too much. Didn’t really want to and they didn’t show much interest in me for that matter. There’s an animosity between marketing and sales. When numbers go up, we each insist on credit. When numbers go down, we blame each other. This is capitalism, success is yours alone and failures are somebody’s else’s fault.
Stab in the back, stab in the front, stab anywhere but yourself.
You know, I know all this stuff, the rules of the game. I just don’t seem to play them very well. Seems when I recognize the opportunity to play them, that opportunity’s already gone.
He ordered a coffee, we exchanged pleasantries about the weather and such, he asked about the flight. Then he said, “So, what’s new at the New York base?”
“Always jumping James, you know that.”
“Call me Jim. They keep us on our toes, don’t they.”
“Lots of guess work.”
“Especially with Trevor, huh.” He squinted, slurping his hot coffee. He drank it black. When I didn’t respond, he continued. “I’ve only talked to him on the phone. Tom, what’s he like?”
I shrugged as I crushed the cigarette into the ashtray. “Serious. Young. Smart, I guess. Well-schooled, you know.”
“He has a lot of theories, but not a lot of experience, right? Hasn’t done the grunt work, right.”
“Those are your words, not mine. Really hard to say, James.”
“Oh, I’m not saying anything, Tom. He seems like a very nice fellow on the phone. Smart, like you said. I’m looking forward to meeting him.”
“We all just do what we’re told.”
“He made it sound like this is some kind of fact finding mission.”
“Who knows what he wants.” I sighed, annoyed but tried not to show it. “I just want to make the materials better.”
I don’t think my cheer leading act was convincing. But I did get points for making the attempt.
He cleared his throat, gave me the salesmen corporate eyes. Not a somnambulist stare, but a pro-active, go along with the bottom line, we’re all big one happy company look. It was straight at the eye, but not in the eye, not eye-to-eye. He looked at me slightly off center, so it only seemed like he was being open and honest, but his true feelings and motivations were never better concealed.
“I’m a team player Tom, a real Team Player.” I signaled the waiter. He continued. “My accounts depend on marketing and merchandising support. I believe we’re all part of the team. I’m glad to do whatever it takes.”
“Fine.” I said, opening my briefcase and looking for the itinerary we had worked up via phone and email a few days ago. I could see this day taking forever.
The car’s interior was immaculate. Except for a picture of a smiling wife and two children, all blonde with Caucasian shimmer, taped between the glove compartment and the dash board, the car could be fresh off a lot.
James was good, a good salesmen. We were to hit five accounts, and I have to admit, I was tired. So, in the car and for the first stop, I wasn’t as talkative as I should have been. He just kept going. He talked to me about different sales motivation tapes he liked, he talked about the new website, he talked about the accounts. In the store, he introduced me like a dignitary and he must have prepped the account, because every other sentence was praise for James. Fills all my needs.
We took a break at a Star Bucks. In the lot, James waited while I smoked a cigarette. I noticed a bumper sticker on Jame’s car, WWJD. Except for the bumper sticker, this car was totally anonymous. There was nothing personalized about it. A company car for a company man.
“Your favorite radio station or something,” I asked.
“No Tom, it’s the only radio station you might say.” He chuckled politely. ”I’m born again, Tom. Those letters mean What Would Jesus Do?”
“What Would Jesus Do?”
“Yes sir. Every time you have a quandary, about what to do, you say to yourself W-W-J-D. I got two kids and a wife Tom, and I love them almost as much as I love the Lord. It works for me.”
“Well, you’re numbers are up. I was raised catholic. A little religion is good.” I felt the caffeine go from my taste buds to my brain. “I guess Jesus would get the contract signed. He’s a closer”
He sort of smiled. “Still got to work. Paul said, those who don’t work, don’t eat.”
“Well he was right about that. I’m glad that it works for you. The accounts obviously like you, and most of them seem to be either Muslim or Jews. Seems a lot of Semites own electronic stores.”
“We don’t discuss religion. There’s a couple who are also saved. You know, even the Arab fellows and the Jewish fellows, they just want somebody who is dependable. Honest. I think the born again thing works for me like that. Catholics though, they are more skeptical.”
“Yeah, you see, we believe you have to be born again to be saved. If you know Jesus is the lord and you’re saved, you can do what you want to do because what you want to do will be blessed. But with Catholics, they are baptized when they’re infants. They don’t become born again. They think they are saved by not sinning, or by having their sins forgiven. God doesn’t care what religion you say you are.”
“Yeah, but there’s acts of charity, moral behavior to consider,” I said. “Actions on which you are judged.”
“They don’t matter, if you’re not saved. They won’t get you to heaven.”
I lit another cigarette, changed the subject. “Must be nice, married, kids.”
“No. I’m living in sin with my girlfriend. I guess I’m not saved.”
“I thought Catholics believe in marriage.”
“They do. I was only raised that way, James. I think for myself, you know.”
“Well, I ain’t judgmental.” He looked down the highway, judging me all the while.
The sky was bright blue, flat as the landscape. He sat in the driver’s seat. I took a few more puffs, then got in the car. I looked at my watch, then took my airplane ticket out of my brief case to check the time of my flight.
It had not changed, of course.
We listened to the radio and smoked cigarettes during the two hour drive north to Connecticut . Mary parked in My brother’s driveway behind the Minivan. My brother’s wife had to be waiting for us by the front window because Mary hadn’t even turned off the engine and she was walking out the front door. She greeted Mary with a hug and said, “I was so sorry to hear about your mother.”
Mary’s face trembled. She wasn’t going to break down, but still, she didn’t really need to hear that, again, at this moment. We came to Connecticut to get away. I wanted to stay in town, do something fun in the city but good lord, I couldn’t think of anything that hadn’t been done before and Mary just wasn’t inspired by any of the things I mentioned, which were usual stuff, museums, clubs. It was a good thing though. Staying in town would mean she would have to answer the phone and probably be urged to go to Teaneck. No healing was being done there. Don’t know if I would call it grieving, although some form of misery was being shared.
“Thank you for your very nice card,” said Mary. My brother’s wife put her arm around Mary and walked her inside.
I took our packages out of the car, a bakery cake, fancy beer for my brother and a book and a video tape for my nephew.
I hadn’t been up here in a few years, a couple of Christmas’s ago and I guess because it was the season of Christ’s birth I didn’t notice the religious objects, but this time I saw the small brass silhouette of Mary just above the light switch alongside the front door, a Christ-affixed crucifix on various walls and a framed picture of the pope on the mantel alongside various family pictures in frames, including a black and white photo of our parents, dad in a soldier uniform and mom in this billowy the plaid dress, pill box hat and earrings the size of golf balls. Before the children, before the foreman job where he slaved for decades just to pay a mortgage. The couple looked happy. I wondered where the fear was? The dread? Considering how things turned out, some prescient sense of doom should have been apparent. It wasn’t.
“Where did you get this,” I asked my brother.
“I forget, I had the picture reproduced, it’s nice don’t you think.”
“I could make you one if you want.”
“Don’t bother,” I said. “I got enough pictures in my own memory. They look a lot happier then, then they did when.”
“Gives the son a sense of history,” he replied. “Come outside, have a beer. I got some work I got to finish.”
My brother was digging a cement pond. That’s what I called it, jokingly, using a reference to the Beverly Hill Billies. Jethro called the swimming pool a cement pond. This would be a water garden, a small pool, surrounded by flowers and other plants. Inside they would keep carp, only a few. My brother’s a real tool user, a handy man, a do-it-yourself kind of guy. He wanted to show me the CD-ROM which had the plans for the project and I said maybe later. He had broken ground only a few days ago and as I sat on the grass he took off the board over the embryonic hole and got to work with the shovel.
“What’s with all the catholic stuff?”
“Catholic stuff?” He sounded annoyed. That was usual. Here, I come up to introduce my girlfriend to my family and he occupies himself with one of his projects in order to avoid spending time with me.
“In the house. The crosses and stuff. The picture of the pope.”
He smiled, “We’re thinking of putting a statute of the virgin Mary in the garden here. It was my idea but Shelly thinks it might be tacky.”
He shrugged, took one of his little cigars out of his pocket, lit it as he leaned against his shovel.
“It’s not in the front lawn so I don’t think it will look so bad. I’m more focused on getting this hole dug. Maybe next year will be the shrine.”
“Whatever gets you through the night. I just never thought of you as religious.”
“I have a spiritual side, don’t we all?” He pushed the shovel into the dirt with his foot.
“I just remember you didn’t want to receive at dad’s funeral.”
“I received at Mom’s,” he said, almost shouting, then furiously puffed the miniature stogy. He shoveled a spadesful of dirt to the side. ”It’s really for the kid.”
“Raise the kid with a religion.” He shoveled two quick spadesfuls, then looked at me and drew in smoke. “Good to have a little tradition.”
“I suppose, in retrospect, taking everything into account, catholic school and shit wasn’t so bad. High school was worse than grammar school of course. But I suppose high school always is. I believe in God, in something at least. Something else. You weren’t too interested in tradition back when your hair was long and you had the bus.”
“So what, Tom.”
“I guess ideals—“
“Screw ideals, okay. How do you know what ideals I’ve lost or kept.” He swigged his beer, then dug.
“I guess I don’t want to be like our parents.”
“ Look, do you know what happens after we die? Do you know how the world was created?”
“I guess I don’t really ask those questions.”
“Anymore! Kids do, okay. Or at least they admit they do and do you know who they ask, their parents! Shelly went to church more often than I did, and if you remember we had the kid baptized, so what the hell, you know. Why not?”
“Repression?” I liked being the smart aleck, at least I reverted to that pose like a reflex when I was with David. Partly because it was a way to combat his resentment towards me, but also it tended to empower and justify me in his presence. When I was a child, I looked up to my older brother but after the family fights and years passed he no longer earned such a pedestal. Being a smart aleck reminded me, on both a conscious and subconscious level that he had his faults, his hypocrisies. He had no right to that resentment.
“Worry about repression when you’re an adult like everybody else.” He exhaled smoke. “This way, the boy at least has a frame of reference. He’s got answers to those questions built in. He can live his life, be a child.”
“I guess so.” I lit a cigarette. “I love irony.”
“I bet you do,” he said. The shovel scraped into the dirt. His son trotted out of the house towards us and David barked, “Don’t run around the hole.”
The kid stopped, quivering. “Uncle Tommy, do you want to play catch?”
“Sure I want to play catch,” I said. “Where’s Mary and your mom.”
“Oh they’re inside.”
His nose and eyebrows wrinkled when he laughed. “They talk so much.”
“Let’s play ball then, where are the gloves?”
He ran to get them. My brother continued his excavations, teeth gripping the mini cigar. I stood up and walked towards the deck, waved to Mary who was sitting at the kitchen table with my brother’s wife. The boy came running out, carrying two baseball mitts, and a hard ball. I played little league for a summer and never played any sports in high school. I was kind of awkward and clumsy. I was never part of the jock crowd. But my nephew was young enough that my ineptness didn’t show at first. I mean, I was sort of in shape, between the dumbbells, pushups, rowing machine and in-frequent jogs around the block. He was eleven, big for his age. He had several summers working his way up in the little leagues. The first few tosses were easy, I was even throwing underhand. Then he started throwing harder. The ball slapped against the leather, a couple of them hurt my hand. He took a few steps back, throwing with the same velocity of force over an increasing distance. The pitches started getting harder, then started throwing the ball to my side or over my head and I was doing pretty good, running and jumping and snatching the ball from its motion. I tried to be more masterful throwing the ball back, but I threw like a girl, didn’t have that over the shoulder thing I remember my little league coach used to harp on and the fact of the matter was, the kid was throwing better than me or at least, throwing much better than I remembered. He wasn’t the kid anymore. It was like that old Wonder Bread Commercial, where a young boy grew into an older teenager from eating processed flour based bread. Helps build strong bodies twelve ways.
Mary and my brother’s wife moved from inside the house to the deck and at about the same moment my nephew threw a high and wild pitch that I missed and the ball landed in the pile of freshly dug dirt.
“You two jack o lanterns be careful,” shouted David and for a few seconds I just stared at him, flashbacks of my father echoing relentlessly in my skull. I suddenly saw his face morphing into my father’s visage.
“Calm down now, David,” his wife said, in a sing-song voice. Obviously, she was aware of his temper.
David threw the ball hard and fast at my head. I was quick enough to catch it, and I turned and tossed it to my nephew. I knew David threw it at me like he did out of anger. Petty, reflexive anger just like Dad. They say we become our parents. Not me, never.
“Gee, Tom, didn’t know you were such a player,” said Mary.
“Just call me fire ball,” I said. “I want this kid on my team.”
I sauntered across the lawn and my nephew moved likewise. My back wasn’t facing my hole digging brother but the vegetable garden in the further, sunnier portion of the back yard. I had shaken off the image of my father, the harshly familiar sound in my brother’s recrimination. The sun felt good, the fresh air, I was getting exercise, throwing directly into my nephew’s midsection. He caught and threw in a continuous ballet-like motion. I could hear Mary and my brother’s wife talking and laughing, the shovel pushing into earth, the leather upon leather of ball contacting mitt. I asked my nephew to throw ‘em higher. I liked jumping for them, like an outfielder taking home runs out of the sky. The sun was in my eyes. I opened them wide enough to see globs of iridescent yellow and blue, but I still caught the ball. I was giving myself more challenges. I was playing catch during the flash point of nuclear explosion. Through the self-induced glare I could see Mary watching me and I imagined her looking at me jump, looking at my arms and shoulders, thinking about me doing pushups on top of her body. She was smiling and laughing. It was a side effect of her being aroused by viewing my prowess.
And in between all this glare and laughter and my imagination flowing, the metal of that shovel chopping into the dirt came at steady intervals, accompanied by my brother’s weary grunts. I don’t think he exercises much. My back was stronger than his. I may be getting older, but I would always be younger than him. I would never be like my father.
My nephew whipped one high and wild. The ball sailed four, five feet above my head. I did the Willy Mays act, jumping high with my glove raised and I bent my head back and watched the spinning seams splinter the sunlight, out of reach. I landed on my heels and immediately stumbled backwards.
* * *
I came to as Mary and my brother lifted me into a sitting position. My brother’s wife had a cold rag wiping the blood from the back of my head. They kept repeating my name. My nephew ran out of the house, “I called dad.”
“Take it easy,” said my brother’s wife. “An ambulance is on its way.”
‘An ambulance?” I said.
“You were un-conscious,” said my brother.
“I’m fine,” I said, even though my head hurt, not just from the wound in the back but I had what felt like a terrible headache. I tried to stand and I couldn’t just get up and that surprised me, and Mary and David aided me by holding my arms and just as suddenly, my internal equilibrium short circuited and it was like everything I could see abruptly shifted out of focus and I cried out as I tried to take a step. My leg would not stay straight, pain shot up from the ankle.
“What’s the matter,” Mary shrieked.
“I can’t stand, my leg, my foot, oh Jesus.” My back felt wet. I got one arm free of David and as I leaned on Mary, I reached behind and touched my lower back. I panted in fear, “I’m bleeding. Check my back.”
“You haven’t been shot, you’re just a klutz.” laughed my brother. “You smashed into the tomatoes, jack-o-lantern.”
Then we heard the sirens. I sat on the grass, weak, confused, aching. Two young guys, paramedics, one carrying a folded stretcher and the other a medical bag, hurried behind my nephew, and following them, a handful of neighbors excited by the sudden presence of an ambulance. From my wallet I showed them my Health Insurance card, and one of the paramedics told me, after my brother explained that he called because I was unconscious, that since they were already there that I might as well take the ride to the emergency room in the ambulance. My brother stayed at home, his wife and son followed the ambulance by car and Mary rode with me, holding my hand.
But she seemed strangely quiet. “You really should be more careful.”
“It happens, Mary. I was having fun.”
She let go of my hand.
The Emergency room wasn’t too crowded, it wasn’t wild and seedy like a New York City emergency room. They took an x-ray, it wasn’t quite a hairline fracture but it was more than a bad sprain. The foot was purple, darker around the ankle. They put a nylon cast on it, which reached from the toes to the lower calf and recommended I check in with my regular doctor upon returning home. I walked with a limp, at least I could stand.
They razored hair off the back of my head, cleaned and bandage the cut, which wasn’t serious. They gave me six codeine Tylenol pills and a prescription for a dozen more. I was out of there in a few hours, we went back to the house and barbecued on the propane grill. The nephew seemed disappointed, either in my uncling abilities to competently play catch or just that instead of having fun, he had to be with his mother for a few hours in an emergency room eating candy bars from the vending machine.
We sat around the deck. I was the wounded one, so the women at least were asking me what I wanted, not allowing me to get up. My brother handled the flipping of the burgers and hot dogs and albumin foil wrapped corn.
‘He was always clumsy,” said my brother, spatula in hand, monitoring the fire and the food. He wore a long novelty apron with a picture of a lobster in a chef’s hat on the front. “I remember him breaking his arm sleigh riding. He was always spilling something.”
“Geeze, what do you expect,” I countered. “Dad was always yelling at me. He made me nervous about everything.” I looked at my brother’s wife and Mary, who were placing paper plates and Tupperware containers on the picnic table. “I’m ten years old and I spilt something and he rip me apart like I lost the family fortune. I was just a kid. I just spilt something. I was punished for it. The punishment never fit the crime. Nope.”
“You don’t think the same didn’t happen to me,” David said, from the side of his mouth, this wince of annoyance on his face, the long handled spatula tapping the grate.
“I had both them and you,” I laughed. “That’s the difference. I couldn’t do anything right.”
David stepped out of the trail of smoke ascending from the sizzling meat on the grill, reached for his beer. “It was a long time ago, Tom. Get over it.”
“I’m over it,” I said, then put my arm around Mary. “But I’m still very needy.”
“Very needy,” she said, trying to laugh but not being successful because it was obvious at least to the two of us, this wasn’t a joke.
But I didn’t want it not to be a joke. I didn’t want to face that. “Yeah I need it a lot.’
I laughed, but nobody else did and my brother’s wife looked at her son, worried. But there was no sign he understood, even paid attention. He was slouched over in a lawn chair intently staring at a hand held computer game, his thumbs quickly pressing buttons, electronic snares and trumpets signaling setbacks and scores.
‘Tom, cool it a bit,” said Mary.
David took one of the little cigars out of the pack in his shirt pocket and lit it. “Yes, Tom, cool it.’
“I forgot, you’re retro catholic.”
“Yeah, right, something like,’ he said. “Or something like growing up.’
‘I just don’t understand, your, your, your repressed ways now,” I said, feeling the codeine taking away my pain as I finished the beer. “What happened to the revolution? What happened to free love?”
“Tom, we’re not repressed,” said my brother’s wife, distinctly unamused.
“You know, it’s kind of funny, you talk about like you’re mister hip or with it, but you seem out of touch with certain facts of life,” said David. “I’m assuming you’ve heard of AIDS. People die if they’re not careful. Plus, nobody had a better idea. We grew out of revolution. All that free love and crap, it was over before the advent of aids. Why? It was sleazy. It was shallow. It’s boring to be so nihilistic year after year. Priorities change. You know, when I was a kid, we used to have drills in school, hiding under the desk. We thought Russia was going to attack us then we were going to attack them. What was that TV show? The Day After. That’s all ended. We’re the only super power, there’s no threat of annihilation on that scale.”
“Just because the nightmares change, the priorities change,” I said.
“Something like that, yeah,” he shot back. “Now, there’s more to life than just getting fucked up or fucking all the time.”
“David!” said the wife.
My nephew looked up from the computer game. My brother turned around and began flipping the burgers with the long spatula. Our discussion was over, and I stopped grinning. It was getting dark. Because of my accident, we were all eating late.
“Mary, can you get me another beer,” I asked.
‘You shouldn’t be mixing it with those pills,” she said.
“Don’t start with me, I feel okay. Am I acting that messed up?”
“No more than usual,” she snarled, getting a can out of the cooler.
We left well before noon and had been driving forty five minutes at least without a word between us, when Mary finally spoke. “Tom, I think we ought to think about things.”
“What do you mean.”
‘Us, Tom. Do you really think we’re working?”
“I think we can work it out.”
“We want different things.”
“But I love you.” That one landed like a thud. The radio was on, commercials. After a few of them, I pressed the seek button to find a different station.
She turned off the radio. “That’s not enough, you know it isn’t. All we need is love, I don’t think so.”
“Look, my brother always freaks me out. You may have noticed, but we don’t get along.”
“Duh. It’s not that. I like them. They have a nice house.”
“Do we have to talk about this now, while I’m wounded.”
“We’re going to talk about it soon, I’m not happy.”
“I understand. You’ve been through a lot. I mean, we’ve been through a lot.”
“Don’t agree with me just to shut me up because I don’t know what you’ve been through, I just know what I’ve been through. I don’t know you like I thought I did, and what I do know I don’t think I love… anymore.”
Tears ran down her cheek, but her face was still, her voice stayed steady. She was not upset. She wiped the tears off like meaningless debris. I tried to say something, but she just silenced me with a sharp murmur.
I pushed the seat back and folded my arms across my chest I looked out the window and thought about places I would rather be right now. At least a hundred came to mind.
“Tom, you lied to me.”
“I told you that I had a relationship at least a year before I met you. It was just an affair. She doesn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t sleep with her in Chicago.” I looked at her when I said this and it sounded so sincere even I was convinced.
“It’s a feeling that I get that won’t go away, Tom. Maybe if I am unwilling to believe indicates something wrong whether you are lying or not. Maybe we’re the lie. I need some time, okay.”
“Whatever!” I shouted.
I guess I settled it.
The forests and fields of lower New England and upper New Jersey gave way to the cancerous Industry that promised jobs and changed the world. I hobbled on my crutches up to the apartment alone. She headed to Teaneck. She promised to call.
* * *
Peter answered the door wearing sweat pants and a black athletic T-shirt with Knicks in peeling, faded writing across the chest. A cigar was in his mouth. He seemed a little anxious. “I didn’t think you would come first.”
I limped inside. The pain subsided, I no longer took the codeine and I was able to walk all right without crutches. I carried my brief case in one hand and six pack of beer in the other. “What do you mean?”
“I beeped Stan” said Peter.
“He’s gotten more professional.”
“Today a beeper, tomorrow a website. What happened to don’t say coke.”
He shrugged, “let’s have a beer. How’s the foot.”
“It doesn’t hurt, it’s just discomfort.”
He took the bag from me, gave me a Sam Adams, took one for himself, put the rest in the refrigerator and trotted out with a bottle opener. I looked around and was stunned. The place was a mess. For Manhattan, his one bedroom apartment was spacious. In the corner of the living room was a desk top computer and piles of paper on a folding table. Newspapers, beer and liquor bottles, food wrappers, Chinese food containers, pizza boxers and those oblong Styrofoam and thin aluminum containers that of takeout comes in. Not only had he not cooked in what seemed to be a month, he hadn’t thrown anything out either.
“Jesus, Peter, I thought you had a maid service.”
“Fifty bucks a week, screw that. I have better things to spend my money on.
I pushed some garbage off the couch and sat down. It was Friday night. I wanted to hang out, get my mind off things.
Mary was in Teaneck. Harry was going to meetings. Her father was handling finances of some sort, she wasn’t giving me the details and I didn’t care. She was coming into some money, not much, but some. That’s about all I got from her talk. There was other shit about the house and insurance and bonds or something. I didn’t pry. I didn’t want to know. I wondered though, not about that of course, but of what the discussions were. I mean, they can only go so far with memories of mom or other more childhood specifics. It’s not like the loss came at an earlier age. They’re formed. They’re all in their thirties. Responsible adults, hell, even Harry has a stable routine of alcoholic sloth. See, sooner or later their discussions had to exhaust memories and the will and property and come around to me. I figured I was a pretty good buddy to Harry, but everyone ignored him anyway and would do the same with his opinions. Sarah seemed to hate all men in general and despite her polite graciousness to me, given half a chance I was no exception to her inclusive suspicion of the penis gender. Janet had her life with Seth and the kids—to her I was incidental at best and at worst, since I wasn’t like Seth and didn’t seem prone to fatherhood and suburbia. I could only inspire suspicion and resentment in her.
Daddy? The cordial tones didn’t fool me for a nanosecond. He was a father, he had to hate me.
Hell, even if anyone of them liked me more than I thought, the way Mary was talking, she’d convince them otherwise. Her view would dominate that opinion poll..
Peter sat down, the cigar burning. “Want some whiskey? Scotch. Think I got some reefer too.”
“I’ve been smoking a bit, takes the edge off. No biggie. Just a phase, like everything else.”
“How about some music.”
“I don’t feel like getting the boom box.”
“From the bedroom.”
I looked at the empty shelves on the wall where the stereo used to be. There was still the rack of CD’s, he had over a thousand. We had similar musical tastes. There was always something I could listen to here. Half of the collection seemed to be strewn about the room. open cases on the carpet.
“What? Where’s the famed German sound system?”
“Look, it was either the stereo or the TV, and if I’m not in the office I got to check out certain stock shit and cable is still quicker than AOL. Last month was a little squeezed, Know what I’m saying?”
“You hocked it?”
‘One of the regulars at Ryan’s bought it.’
“Peter, you make me worry.”
“Yeah, and you got all the answers?” He stood up, went into the kitchen and brought out two glasses. The Johnny Walker was on the coffee table. He poured a few fingers. I got out my cigarettes. He said, “carrying your own nicotine are you boy?”
“I got problems too. Mary’s been… I don’t know…”’ I had the cigarette going, and did a quick gulp of the scotch, then leaned back after a healthy swig of brew and into the couch. “I don’t know…. how’s Cheryl by the way?”
“It’s so over, Tom. She was fun, sure, but these things, come and go. I know, around the next bend, beyond the horizon, there’s a better fuck. Got to have faith.”
“Right. Hey, is Victor coming over?”
“Didn’t you hear?. He left town.”
“He got some weird adjunct art teaching job. Ohio someplace, near his home he said. But he just had to get out of town, he told me.” He leaned his arms on his legs, the booze sweating up his skin, the cigar sodden at the end, laughing to himself from a truth he wanted to admit halfway just to make a joke but not enough to admit the full implication. “He didn’t want to get back into it.”
‘The coke. It comes back you know.”
“I see that.”
“I don’t know what the exact deal was, but he’s flown the coop. He’ll be back. I mean, he’s an artist, where else is he going to go? Martha’s Vineyard? Might work for a summer, but shit, New York is the arena. No getting around it. You know that, I know that, he knows that, the American people know that. For the time being though. He’s gone. It was the drugs.”
“They’re boring man.”
“I know… but we all got our jonses, our preoccupations. Our phases.”
“Thought we had that phase already. Aren’t you afraid of dying?”
“Of course. I just don’t want to encourage it. I don’t want to wind up with some cocaine related heart attack, it would be too embarrassing. Find the body, powder on the mirror, alone and unburied for a month or two.”
“I’m healthy.” He puffed the cigar and looked at his watch and smoke clouded him over. “That fuckin dick, Stan. He was supposed to be here an hour ago.”
“He’s never early, he’s always late,” I sang in my Lou Reed impression. “First thing you learn is that you always got to wait.”
“I don’t feel like doing it all the god damn night. You have to do it at the right hours.”
“You sound like you have a schedule or something.”
“Or something… You got to, I don’t know, maintain. I can’t be up all night. I want to enjoy it. Where is the little twit?”
“I always found him, kind of a weasel. I guess he’s a nice guy. Just never had too much in common with him I guess.”
“Fuckin art scene, they can have all the pretensions they want but can’t hide that it’s still another hustle,” he found the remote amid the clutter of crap on the coffee table and aimed it at the large screen television and proceeded to surf. “I hate sitting with my thumb up my ass.”
“You don’t have to, Peter. We could go out, get some Chinese food or see a movie or something.”
‘I’m expecting him.”
“You don’t have to get high, I mean do you?”
“I’m out. I did coke in the afternoon. My head is splitting. It’s not just that though, it’s not only getting high, it’s having it. I feel so good when I have one bag open and one bag in storage. Just having though. It’s better than the euphoria. Shit, it’s just a phase. It’s the only thing that takes my mind off corporate lawyering… Where is that douche bag, you’re right, he is a weasel.” His channel switching seemed entirely methodical. Each program he remained on for the same amount of time, ten seconds or so I guess. Not long enough for me to really understand what was happening. This is what I mean. There was a picture of a train, passenger cars and locomotive, on their sides in some woods, off the tracks, smoke in the background and rescue crews with the words Amtrak crash on the bottom of the screen. But the moment I registered that this was a news broadcast about a train wreck, his thumb advanced the station so when I was thinking news story crash, I was seeing some huge breasted bikini garbed beauty dripping wet, emerging from the waves on a beach. Was this Baywatch? A Club-Med commercial? The woman seemed familiar. I was on the verge of placing her celebrity. Then there was this Asian fellow chopping a fish in a kitchen, close up of fish pieces being tossed into bubbling oil in a frying pan on the stove. A cooking show I realized as the screen flashed into black and white Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore hugging each other. Nick-at-Night. Peter poured increments of scotch into his frown “It’s all shit. Coke could help your ankle.”
“It’s not painful, I don’t even like the codeine. It’s a lot better. I think I keep wearing this cast for the sympathy quotient… I’m feeling too depressed for blow.”
“Things with Mary. Not good.”
“You’ve been spending a lot time together. You told me she was relying on you after, after her mother died.”
“She was, but now she’s spending more time at home, at her home, in Teaneck, with her brother and father and, I don’t know… Pete, I tell you, I think we’re breaking up.”
“What about that woman upstairs?”
“What about her? I didn’t sleep with her.”
‘Just with Stephanie…” he laughed. He unscrewed the top off the scotch, sloshed some into his glass and didn’t bother to screw the cap back on, gulped the glass empty, poured some more and issued a string of curses against Stan and his mother. He noticed I wasn’t laughing. “Have you seen her?”
“Stephanie? No. I shouldn’t have done it.”
‘Well you did, why worry about it.”
“It’s messed things up with Mary. She knows. She’s got ESP or something. She found her business card and Stephanie had drawn a heart on the back next to her home number.”
“Circumstantial. She can’t prove it.”
“Unfortunately, we’re not in court. I feel like a shit for lying. Mary senses something, and she’s decided to believe in what she senses and not in what I say.”
He grunted in response, continued his timed march through the dozen of stations available from the Manhattan Cable Company. He said, as an afterthought, “I’m sure it will work out.”
“I don’t know. She’s been distant.’
“I hate it when pussy gets complicated.” He checked the time again, screamed a God Damn. “He’s over ninety minutes late. I should just buy it on the street, fucking douche.”
I was about to say something, about to express worry that he was destroying himself, that he had fetishized cocaine and that it was making him so self-involved he didn’t care that my heart was being broken, again, but at that same moment the buzzer resounded. Peter grinned like a five year old on Christmas morning and jumped out of the chair. He jogged across the rubble on the carpet towards the intercom box.
Stan’s piercings and tattoos were intact, but he was dressed better, at least in newer clothes, new black jeans and a red silk shirt and a Yankee cap, homeboy backward on his head.
Peter hugged him, a heterosexual embrace but flourished with a celebratory bravado like he was some family benefactor coming to visit after a decade. “How about a drink buddy, I got some beer, some Johnny Walker.”
Stan softly tugged at the hoop dangling between his nostrils. “Give me a quick scotch, a little ice. Sorry I’m late.”
“No big deal,” said Peter, then trotted into the kitchen. Stan came over and shook my hand and we exchanged greetings. I called out to Peter to bring me another beer.
“Looks like the maid may be slacking off a little,” said Stan surveying the mess.
“I guess the boy’s been busy,” I said.
Stan pushed some magazines and dirty clothes off the couch and sat down, took a pack of British cigarettes out of the front pocket of his silk shirt.
“Heard that Victor went to the Midwest.”
Stan was displeased at the mention of the name. “He’ll be back. The Midwest might fill his imagination some, and I think he had some family stuff but no matter how expensive and shit gets here, Manhattan’s the place, the only place, the only city.”
“The stinking capitol of the stinking world.” I picked up the remote, flipped to CNN. Baseball scores and related footage appeared. The VCR was on top of the television, and there were video cassettes stacked on the set and scattered in its vicinity. I noticed the label of one near my foot. Star Twat: First Cuntact. I picked up another. The Wadfather.
Peter came back with the drinks and his wallet, sat next to Stan and they talked purposely low enough so I wouldn’t hear the details of the drug deal. It was so silly. Did they think I was a narc or something? Did they think I didn’t know what they were doing? Was it secretive because they had a sense of embarrassment, or shame over their drug use or was it something else, some need to be cool and incognito to keep the image of a secret decadent society alive. I stood up and limped towards the television and began to look through the video’s on the VCR. Fried Green Lesbians. Alien 4 Anal Erection. Good Fellatios. All porn, all pornographic parodies of recent or famous movies. I noticed that the light on the VCR indicated a tape was inside. I pressed play. Suddenly, booming disco came out and there was some babe on all fours sucking an immense cock as another immense cock fucked her from behind.
Peter shouted, “Hey, cut the shit will you Tom.”
“Sorry,” I said, pressed stop. “I didn’t know you had become such a cineaste.”
Peter was pushing empty food containers and stuff off the coffee table, clearing a space for the framed picture. ‘I got some tapes, they’re a goof, okay.”
Stan had a bored, aloof smirk.
Peter had other interests now. The cocaine was packed in magazine paper, the glossy page of a magazine cut in half then folded into the size of a lottery ticket. Peter concentrated, carefully unfolding the paper like he was deconstructing origami, holding it over the glass surface of the framed picture in order not to waste a precious, intoxicating grain. He wasn’t talking. He had a razor blade out, scooped powder on its edge and dropped in the glass. He wasn’t offering anything. His hands and fingers moved meticulously shaping the powder into a line. The bill was rolled, he lowered his head. He sniffed. He coughed. He leaned his head back and held his nostrils closed and made a low, oinking noise, sucking the narcotic deep into his sinuses.
Stan finished his scotch, put the glass back on the coffee table. “Well, I got to make a few other stops.”
Peter stood and shook his hand warmly, soul brothers.
After he left, Peter sat down and asked me for the remote.
“Something wrong with the news?” I said as I handed it to him.
‘I have to see what else isn’t on.” Peter flipped through some channels, but a few minutes later he put the remote down and picked up the razor blade.
‘I guess you’re happy now. You got the bag and the spare bag.”
‘Like all moments of joy, this too will pass. Want a line?”
“It’s tempting, Peter. Think I’ll just get another beer.”
The weird thing though, is that after Peter did some more lines, he just got quiet, lost in being high. He just didn’t want to talk I guess, he didn’t seem to want me there. He was pleased that I wasn’t doing any of his drug, he obviously wanted as much as possible for himself. But he seemed to prefer the solitude of his euphoria, his television. I soon left, and as I waited for the elevator I could hear the muffled sound of the porno tape coming from behind the closed door.
I came home to an empty apartment. I phoned Teaneck, Harry picked up.
He said he had been sober nearly a month. I asked him for Mary. “She’s not here. She went out with Sarah. I don’t know what to tell you Tom.”
Between Midnight and dawn, Shelia once woke me up with vagina. We were at her apartment in Brooklyn. Some if not all of the rent was being paid by the other guy. I didn’t care. Our sex was so intense. I felt so alone. I was asleep and I woke up not being able to breath and the reason was she covered my nose and mouth. I had to move my head to gasp in air. This was literally sitting on my face. I licked her for a while, did the whole number. Then I had to push her off. She rolled off and picked up her vibrator. She didn’t want to tell me who gave it to her or where she got it, it just had appeared it seemed in her apartment and it became part of our love making. It was fun. It was a big one too, torpedo shaped, foot long. It was louder than a lawn mower when she turned it on,
“What time is it?’ I cleared my throat. The room was dark. I could hear only the vibrator and her moans and then I felt her warm mouth sucking me.
I pushed her off again and stood up. Her voice was harsh. “Where are you going.”
‘I got to pee.”
I had a hard on, but I still had to go. Starting seemed to take a while. I flinched when she opened the bathroom door. She hugged me from behind, licked the back of my neck. “I want you to fuck me. It’s better if you hold it in.”
‘That’s only if you’re a woman. Give me a second, will you.”
Her hand slipped down to my cock. “Let me hold it, let me feel what it feels like to piss standing up”
“I have to relax.”
She turned on the faucet in the sink. “Does that help.”
She wiggled my cock. “Come on pee pee for me.”
‘I can’t relax.”
“Does urine flowing through feel the same as jism.”
‘It’s not as pleasurable, but it is a relief.”
“Just let it go,” she whispered. ‘I’ve given you hand jobs, I want to give you this.”
‘You’re making me too hard, it’s not manipulation. It’s just aiming.’
Her grip eased. She rubbed my stomach with her other hand. But I could feel her breasts against my back. I didn’t know whether I wanted to come or to go. It seemed I had to do both, but the reality was I had to do the latter in order to proceed with the former.
‘What do you do when you can’t pee.”
“Wait until I can.”
“I’ll wait with you.”
“Why don’t you wait in the bedroom.”
“No.” She sat on the edge of the tub. “I’ll wait here.”
I couldn’t relax. My bladder felt the pressure, the water running in the sink encouraged me but it seemed the more I had to go, the harder it was to start.
I whistled a little. She watched me then she had another idea. She got a wash cloth, soaked it in the sink. She knelt by my legs, rubbed the wet cloth on thighs, testicles, anus. I shivered from the dampness.
‘You don’t touch it,’ she said. ‘Let me be your hands.’
This wasn’t like giving somebody an orgasm or somebody giving an orgasm to me. It wasn’t just dual biologies. She was feeling my, influencing my, biology. This was more than intimacy. It was physiological.
I was still hard when the trickle began. The yellow arced in the air like the stream out a water fountain.
“It smells so pungent. It seems so powerful.’
‘Like I want to engrave my name with it in the snow.”
“We’re really part of each other’s bodies, it’s so… dirty.”
“There’s no disgusting, darling, there’s only sensation, only pleasure…” She was aiming the urine stream into the bowl with one hand and with the other rubbed the wet washcloth around the edge of my asshole and when I was finished peeing, she put down the toilet seat, rinsed the washcloth in the sink, then sat on the toilet and washed my penis, then kissed and licked and when it was hard in her mouth I heard a couple of her drops splash on the surface of the water and I took a half step back, went out of her mouth and put my hands under her arm pits and pulled her up, saying, “hold it in.”
She wrapped her legs around my waist and before I put my cock inside her, I could feel sprinkles graze across my thighs.
I carried her cock in cunt into the bedroom and fucked her on the bed and afterwards I was still hard and she got up to go to the bathroom and I pulled her down and used the vibrator and my tongue on her until I felt like doing it again to her and I put my cock inside her despite her begging me to stop, that she really had to piss.
She tried to climb away, but I grabbed her. We crawled together doggy style to the bathroom and we finished in the bathtub. After I came, she lay on top of me and we kissed and I felt the warmth of her pee spread over my stomach and legs while she said how that after holding it in for so long, it felt as good as coming. I looked up at the small rectangular window and watched the glass fill with the blue light of dawn.
I love you Sheila. I said before, during and after lovemaking, over the phone, just walking around or eating dinner. You’re so beautiful, specific compliments on her hair or eyes or what she was wearing. I was so different with her than with other women.
I was such a sap.
Some weeks would go by, and the tines we were together were just regular sex things and then there were the times, usually when she and or we had some drugs, that we would experiment with new inspirations.
The peeing incident had become the final stage though, because she dumped me about a week later. One had nothing to do with the other, it was just coincidence. She had gone away to Dallas, which she did often. When she came back, I was over at her place and while we had a quiet dinner at a cheap bistro on the corner, she said, “Tom, I love you and I will always remember you but I’m leaving.”
She said this in the middle of my steak. It didn’t register right away. I kept eating for a few moments.
“(the other guy) asked me to marry him. I am going to move to Dallas. He’s gotten this major position out there and to deal with those people, you need to be married, it helps at least. I’m good at dealing with them, and it’s an opportunity for me too. He’s making me an associate producer.”
“You’re dumping me so you can get a job?”
‘It’s not like that. Look, what we have together, it’s special, but I feel like I am being pulled in two different directions, I’m going crazy. I can’t take it anymore. It’s not as easy for me to lie to him as it used to be.”
“But, you said it wasn’t sexual.”
“It’s not as sexual, Tom. He’s older. But I love him… too. I’m going to miss you. Please, Tom, don’t get upset.”
I threw some money on the table and left. I had brought an overnight bag and I was headed to her apartment to get it. My plan was to get it and leave. I had my own keys. But she followed me.
On her living room rug, I collapsed to my knees, sobbing like a penitent, imploring her not do to this.
“Marry me. We have so much love, that’s why we get so crazy making love. We can never have that with anyone else.”
“I know, but I can’t go on like this. You can’t take care of me. I have to make a choice, and what can you really offer, Tom? You’re not rich like he is, I don’t want to be working stupid temp jobs and volunteer in non-profit productions. I love you, don’t make it harder than it has to be.”
Movers were coming tomorrow to pack everything. She had told the landlord. She had a plane ticket.
“How can you do this, my mother hasn’t even been dead a year.”
“Just be strong.”
“I don’t want to live without you!”
‘You’ll get over it,” and then she asked me to calm down. She gave me a valium. She said she understood I had to leave, but she didn’t want me to go right away. She said she would worry about me, because I was so emotional. She convinced me I couldn’t walk the streets in such a condition.
So, I went to her bed and lay down. I stripped down to my underwear. I had never felt so miserable before or since. The only emotion I can compare it to was the grief experienced when my parents died.
I wasn’t sleeping when I felt her lay beside me, felt the heat from her naked body. “You kept your underwear on, too bad.”
‘Don’t touch me,” I whispered back. “How could you do this to me.”
“Tom, I love you and I will always remember you.”
“Oh, I won’t forget you, believe me. I will hate you until the day I die.”
“I’m so sorry Tom, but please understand. This is my life and I want it to go somewhere “.She hugged me, I tried to push her away, but she held me and she was weeping uncontrollably . “I just thought, if we made love one last time, we both would feel better,.”
‘You mean you want to fuck so you won’t feel shame or guilt.”
In a clear, steady voice, she said, “I don’t ever feel shame, or guilt.”
I ripped off my underwear, I had an enormous erection and I rolled her over and spread her legs and I shoved it in, she wasn’t wet at all. The sound she made was only slightly identical to the one she usually made. “You are a fucking whore, I hate you and I will always hate you, you understand that Sheila. This is all we had wasn’t it? Our bodies, our fucking?” I was screaming and crying and wailing and cursing and I pressed into her harder and harder and her head hit the brass rails and my fingers dug into her ass and I knew they would leave marks and when she said I was hurting her, I squeezed her nipples as hard as I could.
“Don’t come inside me, I didn’t take my…”
“You think I want to come inside you, you think I want you giving birth to my kid you witch.”
I pulled out and ejaculated on her stomach, cursing her name with each grunt.
“Get me a towel,” she shouted
“Fuck you!” I dressed and got my overnight bag and left. Peter came over that afternoon, we got drunk. He couldn’t believe what I told him, he hadn’t known that Sheila was seeing another man and that I had known and still stayed with her and I said, never again.
A few days later, UPS left a yellow slip in my box saying there was a package for me. I picked it up after work. It was from her, there was no note inside. Just some books and tapes and some clothes that I had left over there.
I didn’t want it in my place so I threw the box in the first trash can I came to, then went to a local bar I frequented. Peter came, I think someone called him, and he got me home that night.
I called Sheila the next day. The phone had been disconnected.
For a while, things just seemed to take so long. Waking up or eating breakfast, the only thing I could do was work. I had some trips, a convention to attend.
When I came back, Peter was the one who gave me the name of Dr. Willard. He had gotten it from a friend of his.
I called and made an appointment
I figured I had nothing left to loose.
* * *
Mary cut her hair. She hadn’t been home in a few days. She let me hug her, kiss her, but it was just a greeting. Seconds after I touched her she asked me to stop.
I stared at her head for a while. The change was a radical one, the thick, shoulder length style that I had fallen in love was now short, shorn, page boyish on top, but close cropped and very short on the sides, almost crew cut thickness. I hated it.
“What’s the matter,” she said.
“Just getting used to it, Mary.”
“What do you think.”
“It looks comfortable, shows off your face. The important thing is, do you like it?”
“I wanted a change.”
I noticed something on her upper arm, it looked like a Band-Aid. “Did you hurt yourself, or get a shot?”
“No. It’s the patch. Nico-derm. I’ve decided to quit.”
“It should be easy for you, you only started smoking when your mother died.”
“I’ve smoked before, I don’t see how the fact my mother died will make it any easier for me stop this time. I think it was a good a reason to smoke.”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t.”
“Right,” she sneered.
Like Tonto putting his ear to the track in order to hear how far away was the train, I could sense the harbingers of a fight barreling towards us. I didn’t want the argument. I figured she would have forgotten her nastiness towards me after our to trip to my brother’s. I wasn’t saying anything about her radical change in hair style. I didn’t mention that she had been spending more time in Teaneck than in Jersey City. I didn’t bring up the notion that we hadn’t touched each other in weeks.
I stood there just looking at her as she turned around and walked into the living room, but instead of turning on the television or stereo or sitting down on the couch and picking up a magazine from the coffee table, she was looking at the book shelves. We had four of them together, two were hers, two were mine. She began to take some books from my case, put them on hers. Then some from hers, she put in mine. I didn’t register the implications. She was always cleaning and fussing around the apartment more than I did. I limped towards her and she must of heard me coming because she immediately stopped. I hugged her from behind
“I love you, baby.”
“Please what? Jesus!” I let go and moved away. “I’ve missed you!”
“I just don’t know about us anymore. It’s not an easy time for me right now. I have a lot on my mind, okay.”
“Well, maybe you wouldn’t have so much to worry about if you stayed here and dealt with us. There’s only so much you can do about Teaneck, you know. You have a life here, with me.”
“I don’t think I want this life anymore, Tom.”
“I love you.”
“I don’t know anymore.”
I started to get angry. “That’s just great. What about me? What about my feelings? I’ve been supportive, I’ve done everything you wanted.”
“You have not. You just want everything to go along like it has gone along without any improvement, any development.”
“We’ve grown together. We’ve been so intimate.”
“Sexually we’ve given each other lots of thrills, lots of pleasurable shit but it’s just shit compared to the rest of life.”
“Like intimacy’s not important.”
“It may be important, but it’s not intimacy. We may be there for each other sexually, but I don’t feel close to you, Tom.”
“I really don’t need to hear this right now.” I turned and took a step, slamming my shin into the edge of the coffee table. I cried out in pain, my yell amplified by my anger. Then, my foot kicked into the leg of the coffee table and I cried out again, hobbled over to a chair and dropped myself into it, holding my leg.
She walked over and crouched by the chair arm. ‘Are you okay?”
“I’ll live,” I said, my frozen wince an exaggeration of the actual pain. “What do you care.”
“I care, Tom. “
“Wasn’t I there for you when your mother died.”
“You have no right,” she whispered.
“I got every right. No one I ever know is there for me. I can’t believe we’re in two separate movies. I love you. I’m not perfect, I have a lot of things in my past I deal with. But I meet my responsibilities.”
“I just want more than my past.”
“Thanks for caring.” I squeezed my leg again, knowing that seeing me in pain could change her mind, or her attitude at least.
She touched my shoulder but I shook her hand away. She said, “I care Tom, try to understand. You should really be more careful with that leg.”
“Okay, fine.” I stood up, headed towards the bedroom, dragging my leg as if gangrene was already setting in. “I think I may lay down. You can do what you want, as usual.”
I took off my trousers and lay down. I half expected her to leave. Maybe I was testing her, I don’t know. Some regret, some hesitancy had to be installed, of that I was certain. The bedroom was dark.. I pretended to be asleep. I could tell she had been crying when she came in and lay down beside me.
“I’m just sorry, okay Tom.”
“You mean so much to me, Mary. I just want you to be happy.” I figured she wanted to hear something like that and I kissed her. “I’m here for you, don’t you understand that.”
“But I want a house and a yard, I want a family. Growing up wasn’t easy for me either Tom, my parents weren’t hard on us but they were hard on each other. We didn’t have much money and the divorce and my mother’s refusal to accept it. But there has to come a time where the past doesn’t matter. I’ve been married and divorced too. There are mistakes I won’t make again, but just because I know that doesn’t mean I toss it all away. Kids, the house, it’s just Human. This city, it’s like Hoboken or New York. I don’t like it. It’s dirty and congested. I don’t know anybody and I don’t want to know them. I want something different. I want something better.”
“I do too, Mary. But I want you.. Don’t cry, don’t be upset.”
We held each other and she let me kiss her and it became passionate. I had her blouse and bra off. Her breasts seemed so lovely. We hadn’t had sex since the hairline fracture. Her nipples were hard before I touched them. Always a good sign. But my hands didn’t go below her waist when she started to cry again. In fact, I just backed off and she laid her head on my chest. I kissed the top of her head, smelled her hair. I figured we would just nap for a bit, then discuss dinner.
And I was asleep, or near sleeping when I felt her hand pull off my under pants and her head slide down my stomach. Then her tongue, her kisses.
“Oh, Mary,” I said. I wanted to encourage her. She began to suck me. “That feels so good. I love you.”
She put her fingers to my lips and I stopped talking. She took off her jeans and panties and climbed on top of me and she moved with an expert silence, back and forth. “Tom,” she said. “You will always mean a lot to me, you’re a good lover. I won’t forget that I appreciate how much that means to you.”
“Don’t talk, not now,” she said, her hands pushing against my chest as she straightened her back and this time, the speed of her hips was for me and when I came I grabbed her waist.. She lay on top of me. There were some more tears but when I moved her hair from her face to see if her eyes were opened or closed, she climbed off and got out of bed. “Don’t be mad, but I have to go to home tonight, I mean I have to go to Teaneck. I’ll call you. I promise.”
“The trips have been worthwhile,” said Trevor during a closed door meeting. “I’ve reconsidered a lot of things about you Tom, and you should take that as good news.”
‘They’ve been fun, as long as sales are good. I do have some new marketing ideas.”
“Write me a report, you’re not out there for fun. I think we have been doing too much marketing and not enough sales. You have experience, you know these people and that’s a big plus in your favor. I’m still trying to think of how I can use you for the new direction of the department.”
He didn’t have to say anymore and I wasn’t about to blow it by saying how I really felt. I was torn between genuine fear that I would lose my job and not be able to pay my bills and a resentment so deep towards this young douche bag that it bordered on absolute loathing, the kind murderers feel before they commit their crime.
“Make flight plans for the west coast. Spend next week out there. Here’s a list of retailers you have to see, talk to our two reps and go with them.”
I walked out, smoldering inside but keeping my face placid. I checked the message on my phone. Mary had called. I dialed the Teaneck number, which I had memorized since I had been calling so frequently.
“Tom, I’ve thought a lot about us and what I’m about to do, but I have no choice. I’ll pay the next month’s rent. I’ll just take what belongs to me. You can keep the stuff we bought together.’
After a while, I just sighed. “Mary, I have to travel next week. I don’t have time to look for a place.”
“There are studios and one bedrooms in the complex, you can switch the lease. If you need to, I can pay the month’s rent after the next one too. I won’t bother you about anything. I’ll move my stuff when you are out.”
“Can’t we talk about this,” I whispered.
“I don’t want you to feel like I’m abandoning you, but I have to get out of this situation and think about my own life. I’m going to travel a little before the school year starts, and I’ll live in Teaneck with Harry and dad and help with things. Who knows about the future, Tom. Please understand.”
“I understand, Mary. Thanks for fucking up my life.” I slammed the phone down and walked to the elevator and the woman I had slept with two years ago got on and I tried to smile hello. She ignored me completely. The doors sliding open with that annoying electronic chime finally broke the silence.
It was humid and sunny, the kind of day New York seems like a boiling sewer. I talked to God. Why did it happen to me, why did I think the way I do or feel the way I do? Why was I doomed to be alone? I didn’t cry or have a break down or even feel upset in any way. I felt oddly relieved, certainly not surprised.
God didn’t have any answers or maybe He did but stayed as silent as he had been for two thousand years.
I had been alone before, it wasn’t so bad.
I knew I would get laid again.
I called up Stephanie when I got back. Her office voice mail message said she was taking a leave of absence so I dialed her home number.
“Why… hello,” she said, her voice higher in pitch, not exactly pleased.
I told her I was coming to Frisco. Did she want to get together?
She cleared her throat. Then there was a pause, a lengthy one. “I can’t Tom, I’m… pregnant.”
“I guess I’m at a new stage in my life. Going to be a mommy full time for a while. We all got to do something different.”
“I guess so.”
There was another excruciating lull. “It’s kind of awkward, isn’t it.”
I laughed. “Yes.”
“I think about you sometimes, Tom. I like you, you’re a good guy. How are things.”
“Heard the new VP paired down the marketing department and you’re back in sales.”
We talked about the industry and business before I said goodbye.
* * *
Peter was too busy to hang out. The stock market was doing a roller coaster thing and everyone was afraid of 1987 happening again. He sounded like he had a bad cold.
He had some words of wisdom, of course. “I never trusted her, she seemed nice on the outside, but she was a bitch inside. You slept together on the first date, it could never last.”
“Whatever,” I said. “I’m okay.”
I came home and I worked out with the dumbbells, the cast making rowing unfeasible. The apartment seemed so empty and quiet, my thoughts and memories echoed and multiplied. I could feel the self-pity coming. I went out to Winston. I had money to spend and I was going to get drunk instead.
Maria Kelly was at one end of the bar. Two blue collar types were at the other end. She was wearing a sweat shirt and her hair was pulled back, piled at the back of her head, held together by a wide clip and she was reading Vogue. She said hello. She didn’t seem to mind that I sat next to her. “And how is the upstairs Kelly doing tonight.”
“I’m not upstairs, I’m down the street. I guess you don’t know. I split with Joe.”
“Yes, we’re divorcing. We gave up the apartment. I’m living in some shit hole on Barrow street and looking in New York. He moved back to Pittsburgh. Why are you laughing?”
“Mary and I, we broke up too.” The bartender, a heavy set woman. brought my beer and shot. I clinked the bottle against the side of her wine glass and said, “well, here’s to the future and to freedom.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, she was nice. Very cute.”
“Sometimes, then other times… she was pretty uptight,” I said under my breath. “She even threw out the dolphin.”
‘It was supposed to be just a goof.”
“Well, Joe was kind of a frat boy type wasn’t he?”
“He just wasn’t into living with somebody. No, what I mean is that he wasn’t used to it at all, I think I was his first relationship, at least his first live in. Don’t worry, I have a lawyer and I’m going for the alimony.”
“I thought you had a job.”
“I do, the store is doing real well,” she held up the magazine. “I love fashion too. But he makes a lot of money and my lawyer has convinced me that I deserve some of it.”
I decided not to pursue this line of logic. “You got to what you got to do,” I simply replied.
I finished the shot, ordered another and before she could say no, I told the bartender I was buying another for the lady.
“Well, I had a fun time at the Beltane party.”
“Joe was an asshole that night as usual. I guess that’s why Mary never returned my calls.”
“Well her mother died, a lot of crap happened. I guess there was too much stuff going on for us to make it, but you know something, I just feel better. I have to go to California next week, then think about where to move.”
“I love California.”
“It must be great, to travel a lot.”
“You get used to it, I suppose. It’s a lot of work.”
We talked about work then the neighborhood. I asked her about astrology and an article on the pagan revival that was in the Times last week. She hadn’t read it. She said she wasn’t interested in it like she used to be. Instead of looking at me like I remembered, she kept skimming the magazine. She was in jeans and sneakers. I couldn’t see if she still wore the ankle bracelet.
“Well, at least I can decide who I want in and who I want out of my life,” she said, when we got back to the relationship and being alone topic. “It’s good to have my own place, even though it’s a hole and I am bored with the neighborhood.”
“Living alone has it rewards. It’s called freedom I think.”
She asked about the cast then asked if I was still working out. I mentioned weights and I bent my elbow and she felt my arm, saying, “Not bad.”
I looked her in the eye, those dark obsidian eyes that seemed all pupil. Then I winked, “Now do you want to feel something really hard.”
“Funny,” she said, not really laughing.
But I thought I had a shot. It was apparent to both of us that we had nothing in common. We weren’t friends. Still, she was alone and I had something to prove and I figured, maybe we could get friendly. We could have a hedonistic thing, check out another body, a brief pit stop between longer pit stops, lick the wounds we didn’t want to reveal we had. I thought her knee was touching mine so I pressed back and changed the subject and she didn’t seem that bored. “You learn a lot about yourself, how not to feel confined by rules or other’s expectations.”
I put my hand on her thigh and I wanted it to seem just a touchy feely thing, but also a come on too. I wanted both possibilities open. “Look, if you want to just talk or hang out or something.’
“That’s okay, Tom. I got an early day tomorrow. Thanks for the drink. If you see her again, say hello for me.”
She left and the two blue collar types were laughing at the exposition football game on the television suspended near the ceiling in the corner. I heard crowd noise and their laughter and waved to the bartender for another drink. I remembered what Peter said, everyone loves a lover. I was part of a different club now. I had the non fuckable miserable wretch stigma. I took a codeine pill, and another shot.
I was partying alone, paying homage to another pair of breasts I would never see again.
* * *
May be hard to believe, but my state of mind was actually better during the California trip. It was grueling and tiresome but I was somehow able to leave the east behind and just work, talk about industry issues like industry issues were the only ones that mattered. The cast worked in my favor as well. I was playing hurt, I was the man for the job overcoming any hardship as I limped my way from meeting to meeting. On the flight back, instead of being glad to return, I was miserable.
This misery didn’t abate when I entered the apartment and noticed the furniture was missing. I immediately thought another burglary. But I saw my stereo, my book shelf, my chair, my lamp and the bed. Everything I owned was there, all traces of her were gone. There was a note where the phone used to be. I had to shut off the phone. I’m sorry about that. M.
No love Mary, not even her full name. That, her final word, was underlined.
There was check made out to the apartment building for half the rent, postdated for next month.
I just lay on my bed. I wasn’t one to let present adversity interfere with my constant need to brood.
The next day I took action. I rented a car and drove towards Bergen county. I stopped at the florist, got a dozen roses.
I told myself again and again. I was going to ask her to marry me. I was going to say let’s look for a place. My credit was good and I had some money in the bank, we could make a down payment. I would admit that I slept with Stephanie but it was only that once and she doesn’t mean anything to me. I had everything planned and went over the words again and again in my head.
Harry was standing near the top of ladder that leaned against the side of the house. He was painting a window frame on the second floor.
He climbed down when I yelled up to him. He had lost at least thirty pounds and seemed extraordinarily healthy.
“Harry, you look good.”
“Thanks Tom, going sober will do that to you. I’m actually going to the gym too.” He saw the bouquet I carried and shook his head. “I’m real sorry, Tom, she’s not here. She’s in Europe.”
“She and Sarah took a trip. She’ll be gone two weeks. I don’t think she wants to see you.”
I couldn’t speak.
Before I reached my car, he ran up behind me and said. “I’ll never forget when mom died. She liked you and I liked you too. You acted real stand up. Mary’s my sister so I got to be on her side. But you’re stand up.”
“Thanks Harry.” My voice cracked. “The house looks good.”
I drove aimlessly. I didn’t want to head back. Without really intending it, I found myself heading towards Paramus. Everything became familiar and for a while, my memories switched to those teen and post teen years when driving was new, driving was all, and suburbia the only world that existed. I was alone and sad back then too.
I was too old to go through the same depression I went through with Sheila. Sheila still hurt more. That split was more devastating, this one was just a blow to the pride.
I sat on the cemetery grass, smoking cigarettes and tossing petals at the tombstone of my parents. When I bared a stem, I flung it like a projectile towards the sky.
I knew I would go home and start packing and find a new apartment and just go through the necessary steps to move on. I knew that next time would be better. The sun was hot, not a cloud or a bird in the sky and somehow, the hate just evaporated. I didn’t hate my father, I didn’t hate Mary, and I didn’t even hate Sheila. Just as everything was part of me, my childhood and New York and all the shit in between and after, so was this strange sensation of being both alone and free.
* * *
I left the doctor’s office after the cast was removed and bought a new pair of sneakers. I had gotten used to wearing the cast and a sneaker on the left foot and the left sneaker was now more worn so the pair was no longer even.
I walked around the neighborhood, enjoying my renewed gait, please I was no longer dragging one foot around. I headed towards the river and ate some eggs at the Flamingo then looked at unchanging Manhattan skyline and the teal-colored robes of the statue of the liberty as she stood prettified for eternity on her brick pedestal. I stared at the Hudson river and thought about it disappearing into the Atlantic and how these water molecules would become part of the ocean and eventually flow into other rivers. I considered drowning myself in those molecules, diving off one of the bridges on the horizon and sinking as tug boats and passenger liners and ferries from New Jersey and Staten Island passed me by. But no matter how sad I felt, how hopeless right now, it was pale in comparison to the desperate anguish Shelia had rendered and now, even that, didn’t seem so devastating anymore.
The old guy with his sketch pad was still sitting on a bench on the outer perimeter of the pier. Mary and I had seen him every time we had come down here during the day.
I walked over to him and said, “how you doing.”
“It’s a good day.”
“Nice view from here.”
“Got to draw something,” he kind of chuckled, he was old and his voice weak.. “The world is here for a reason.”
“Can I see?”
He held up the sketch pad. The picture was perfect, but instead of the awesome view of the world’s greatest metropolis, the array of buildings epitomizing the power and money achieved by the western world, he had drawn the edge of the pier, the planks of wood, a piece of litter, a pigeon and the railing beyond which was only water.
The picture was limited but exact. I squinted across the Hudson and the sun’s glare was so bright I couldn’t see the modern mount Olympus either, just river and sky. I smiled at him and walked away.
I became fully aware of each step, each breath, each beat of my heart and each blink of my eye lids. Everything had changed for me and I knew that I would call the landlord and pack up my things, get in touch with Peter, plan for my next trip, give my brother the news. Soon it would all flow together again, my past and my present and near future and perhaps, my life would make more sense. There would be a another clarity. I would face that clarity stronger and smarter. Now, though, I was overcoming my sadness and I savored that sweet pain from which true confidence flows .
Hell, for a moment, maybe an entire afternoon, I understood what survival felt like. .