“Are you cold? I’m cold.” Jennifer always answered her own questions like that. She pulled on a pink cardigan that was hanging on the back of her chair. Sitting behind her, I couldn’t help but stare at her toned, even arms and back as she shrugged on the sweater. She carried an air of superiority, even if she didn’t intend to- her marriage was perfect, her kids were perfect, her work was going perfectly.
Without another word, she got up and left our little office. Typically, she would prelude her trip with a little salutation- “I’m going to get a candy bar” or “I’m going to go get some paper clips”, or even just, “I’ll be right back.” As she left, her stride was firm, almost aggressive.
Was she mad? I couldn’t help that her husband spent more time looking down my dress than at the decorations during the Christmas party. I couldn’t help that he laughed loudest at the story I told about my brother’s first year at college. I couldn’t help that I thought I could convince him to follow me into an empty office if I had wanted to, and I couldn’t help that she knew it.
She came back in, her stride strong on her modestly heeled shoes.
“You OK?,” I said uncertainly.
“I’m just cold,” she said, snapping the words off like a candy cane to be divided between squabbling kids.
Category Archives: Michael Webb
“So, do you want to know my number?”
Her brown eyes flashed eagerly at me. Her bracelet shone in the dim light of the restaurant. I felt like she almost wanted to tell me. I hadn’t really thought about it, but now that she had asked me, I wanted to know. Some questions you knew could never be answered- what if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? But others you didn’t know could be asked, until they were. And once they were asked, the possibility existed they could be answered. I had told her my number. I thought about inflating the total before telling her, but I didn’t. My number seemed a little low. I didn’t expect her number to be zero- that seemed impossible. I didn’t know what number I wanted hers to be, either. Was 5 too many? 10? How many should she have? Would the thought of others who had come before make what we had different? Would knowing I wasn’t the only one imbue the act with some sense of corruption, some taint of ill repute? Would I compare? Wonder if I was better? Was there any difference between assuming the number wasn’t zero and knowing what the number was? It was stupid, but now that I knew I could know, I wanted to know.
“No,” I told her.
“Good,” she said. “I would have lied anyway.”
“Didn’t you see how she was looking at you?”
I drove on, the road nearly empty, my brain processing friction, velocity, angles, momentum, speed. The calculus of a body, moving through space. Leaving point A, heading for point B. “52nd Street” blared from the stereo.
“Who?” That seemed safe.
“That woman. Jessica.” My wife spat the words out.
Nick’s assistant, Jessica. Jessica with the doe eyes and low cut top and too high heels.
“How was she looking at me?” There was only one place conversations like this ended.
“She wants you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m married, for one thing. ”
“Oh, she does. She wants you. You don’t know. You don’t understand how women are. You don’t know what we’re capable of.” That was true.
“I don’t think she’s like that.”
“We’re all like that,” my wife said firmly.
“I doubt it. Not her, ” I said softly. I accelerated a little bit more.
“You never think women do anything wrong,” she told me. “Never. I wouldn’t trust her with you for one second. I’ll slit her throat if she touches you.”
I thought she was wrong, but I had been married too long to say that.
“Would you?” she said, rubbing her nyloned foot. Her heels were high, too.
“No. Of course not.” I pulled through a stoplight, glancing around for cops.
“You know you love the knife,” Billy Joel told us.
I liked to watch Annie when she didn’t know I was there. We had hiked all morning, finally stopping for water and fruit along a rock strewn break in the tree cover. I had wandered off, finally coming back to her from behind her right shoulder.
Her University of Michigan baseball cap was tilted back, her face, red with exertion, now blanketed by the spring sun. I could see the sweat on her back where her dark braid hung down. Her legs were open, her long cotton skirt forming a canopy over her hiking boots and thick socks. She was taking enormous bites of one of the huge pears we had brought, wiping her face with her forearm like a teenager, sitting on a flat rock, looking at the sky.
She was consuming. It was exhausting and futile to try and keep up with her. She was smarter than anyone I had ever met, stronger, emotionally tougher, and could beat me in one on one. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to be with her anymore, it was more that I couldn’t measure up. She wanted a partner, and I knew, no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t man enough- at the center of me, there was nothing left.
She turned when she heard me approach.
“You ready to go on?,” she said with pear stained lips.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I said.
I squinted as I stepped inside. The faux gold fixtures looked shiny as my eyes adjusted to the light and I felt the waves of steamy heat from the bodies packed in to my old place.
“Hey, girl,” Mike said behind the bar. He was a bald, rosy cheeked Irishman. “Haven’t seen you in a piece. Get you something?”
“Diet Coke, Mike,” I said, my own voice sounding strange in my ears.
“Sure thing,” he said. He didn’t react, which I appreciated.
I looked around the place. I had spent so many hours here, so many long nights and indistinct early mornings. It should look familiar, but it didn’t, the edges too sharp, the wood too imperfectly gouged with scratches where I remembered it as being smooth. Everything was smoother when you remembered it than it was in real life.
I used to tell myself that coming here let me relax, let me be who I really was, let me stop keeping my real self hidden away. What I didn’t realize until recently was that it wasn’t that at all. This was the real me, like I was right now, with the snow melting on the tip of my boot, insecurities and vanities and regrets all mixed up into one.
Mike brought me my drink. It was cold, and he had added a slice of lemon.
“How you been,” he asked me.
“Good,” I said. “Real good, Mike. Thanks.”
She stepped back from the white board, where she had written “COINCIDENT” in her firm hand. It wasn’t a girlish, bubbly handwriting, but it definitely wasn’t a man’s either. The letters were in a bright green ink, standing out clearly against the smooth glassy surface. “So if the lines are completely coincident, class, that means…anyone?”
She looked at them hopefully. She looked like one of the actresses on Law and Order, one of the assistant DAs that worked with Jack McCoy- the one who had been married to a football player. He watched everything she did, enraptured. She made him think of a line from a story he read: “her name was like a summons to all his foolish blood”.
He heard the catty little remarks the girls made behind her back- that she was stuck up. She wasn’t- she was as open and friendly as an authority figure could afford to be. The girls in his classes couldn’t be less interested in their fellow students as paramours- except when someone diverted the boys’ attentions.
He knew it was sheer luck he was placed in this math class, the pure happenstance of needing to have fifth period free, and he knew it was a few more short weeks before Mrs. Reynolds was back from maternity leave. He knew she wasn’t really a TV star. He knew this and watched her eyes flit around the room, looking for someone who knew the answer.
Amy had come up on her bike, jean shorts over a bathing suit, early on that hot morning. Her sister had given her 20 bucks to clear out, so riding bikes with me, the only kid nearby who was in her school, became her plan for the day. I agreed and we took off, finally retreating back to her pool hours later, broke, sweaty and sugared up, once the money was spent on Italian subs, Cokes, and video games downtown. There was a Camaro parked in front of the house. “That’s Eric’s,” was all Amy would say as we pedalled past.
We compromised by listening to her station on the boom box, the one that played all the hits. I would have preferred the rock station out of Worcester at the other end of the dial, but I let her decide, her black hair and dark eyes enough to squelch my complaints.
“Do you think Daryl likes me?,” she asked.
I was silent. I was sure he did.
“I hope he does. I really like him. Does anyone else like me?”
The answer burned in my chest like the salami we ate. I was sitting on the steps by the shallow end, only my face above the water, looking at her from the side. She was sitting on the opposite side, her legs pointed straight at me like a gymnast, her hair spread out like tangled seaweed on the water.
“I don’t know,” I lied.
I had searched the whole evening for the code word- the secret joke or quick innuendo that would break through the crust of her fury. I had said something, or done something, early in the evening- that much was clear. All night at the beach and later, at the highway rest stop Burger King with the bored looking staff and broken ice maker, she had been crisp and matter of fact- one word answers, grimaces or silence after my puns and clever allusions. She was boiling, certainly, but still too conscious of her standing among her friends to dress me down in front of them.
I never found it, and watching her walk away, I noticed the way the skin behind her knees made an “H” when she bent her leg. I had studied every inch of her body, I thought, but I had never seen that before. Another fact about her that had passed by me unnoticed- ours was the sort of relationship where a lot went unsaid, unstated and unremarked. She walked firmly, like she was trying to put as much space between my car and her body as she possibly could. I watched her hips move as she crossed the courtyard area and went into her front door.
“What It Takes” was playing on the radio. I wondered if I was going to need to figure out how to let her go. She certainly seemed gone, I mused, as her door slammed shut.
I looked at her, sipping her water with tiny, delicate sips. She was sitting across from me, but her gaze wouldn’t rest on me. Her eyes were constantly dancing, looking around the room, taking in the soda machines, the bulletin board, the passersby, the people sitting at other tables, the garish painted tiger on the wall. She would stop, look at me briefly, and then look around again, trying to see someone better looking or more popular or more important than me.
I was her first friend here – when her family moved into town, I shared some potato chips with her at lunch and we quickly became fast friends. I introduced her to everybody, made sure she was invited to the parties, wouldn’t let anyone poke fun at her. We brushed each other’s hair, told secrets, laughed, cried – we were inseparable, and had been since we met. Until now.
It wasn’t the boys that came between us. Well, it wasn’t entirely the boys. There was this distance between us now – I was no longer the first person to learn of her news, while I always told her mine before anyone. I was the same person, but she wasn’t – she had aims I didn’t share, wanted things I didn’t understand. She was seated so close – the tip of her shoe was right in front of my shin – but she may as well have been a million miles away.
She always knew where to sit- the rules were just there, hanging in the middle of nowhere like the law of gravity, ready to remorselessly pull you down. Her place was down at the end of the table. She took a seat across from a girl she knew faintly. Stephanie? Sarah? Something with an S. She had her face buried in a Harry Potter book, so she wasn’t going to have to remember.
At the head of the table, closest to the center of the cafeteria, were the alpha girls- perfect hair, designer clothes. In the middle was the border zone, the outpost of girls who want to be at the head of the table, but weren’t popular enough to be a queen bee. Then, down at the end are the girls who could only wish they had enough of that magical something to be worthy of even the middle. No one talked about the system, but everyone knew what it was.
She wondered sometimes what she had done to merit this. She knew she wasn’t as pretty as the goddesses. But had she done something, or said something, that made her unworthy of a seat in Middleville? She knew her place, but she thought she deserved a seat in the DMZ between life at one end and nonexistence at the other. She stared at the cover of the other girl’s book, suddenly not feeling like eating at all.
I saw her as I walked up. Her back was to me, but I could identify her hair, the curve of her hip, her blouse, her shoes. The line of her skirt was just slightly off- it was higher on one side than it was on the other, and it bothered me- I wanted her to resettle it so the line of dark skirt below creamy white blouse was straight like the equator.
I knew her name- Janelle- and I knew she did something important. I never worked with her directly, but our company was so small I would run into her constantly- coming in or leaving, at the candy machine or heading out to lunch, or around a conference table when some large meeting was called.
I studied her like an animal would- trying to notice patterns. Did she always wear that suit on Fridays? Hair up today to show off those earrings? I intended nothing untoward, but I wondered about her constantly- did she go home to white wine, a microwaved meal, and reality TV? Or did she have a husband, a rugged guy who looked like he belonged in a watch ad? I was a tiny bit in love with her, the way you are with the star of your favorite TV drama.
She gave a tiny, discreet pull, and her skirt was even again. I stood behind her, waiting to go into the meeting, pleased that she had returned order to my world.
She was a playground mom. I didn’t know her name, in fact, I didn’t know her at all- it was one of those connections you make in life that is one spot above stranger, but several notches below anything you could call “friend”. We never spoke- she was always talking on her phone, whispered, urgent words. We would interact when I saw that her daughter left something somewhere- I would walk over and hand her the lost object, she would mouth, “thank you”, and then return to her phone call. She was someone I saw, and recognized, but didn’t know anything about. She was pretty, with curly red ringlets and porcelain white skin.
I heard his car door slam that day, jumping slightly at the sound. He marched across the grass, making a beeline for her. He was shorter than her, darker skinned, but he looked strong, like he had spent his life lifting things. He walked right up to her, standing very close, exchanging angry phrases, his face contorted, his finger pointing. She recoiled before him, not speaking. I was stunned when he suddenly fired a punch, hitting her nose, knocking her onto her back, blood spurting onto her designer sweatshirt. I got up to help her, do something, but he was already stalking his way back to his car, and she quickly gathered her charge up, blotting her nose with a tissue, and left.
I never saw either of them again.
She could always tell the new ones – their jackets hadn’t been thrown up on. They were too ready to believe that they would be the ones to get her to stop, they would be the ones to fix her. She was disdainful of them – others had tried and failed – but she felt a tiny spot of regret, too. They were trying. Somebody should try to reach everybody.
This one, a freshly minted graduate, was feeding the baby while she asked her questions. She had been through this before, but she didn’t let on, wanting the girl to feel useful. She was giving the answers they expected, wanting her gone. He said he was going to be here this afternoon, and she had given him money. She wanted her to leave.
She shut her binder, fixing her with a fresh, clean gaze. “What does it feel like?” she asked.
“What?” she asked her. This was off script, she thought.
“To use. What’s it like?”
“It’s hard to explain,” she said. It wasn’t like you saw things that weren’t there- you didn’t float away into the clouds. Everything was the same- the baby still had to be changed, the carpet was still filthy, there were still stains on her sweatpants. Cruel men still came around, demanding that she pay them with money, or with something else. But after you got some, and you used, and it hit, for a minute, you just didn’t care.
“Come on,” I said to no one in particular. “They didn’t just DISAPPEAR.”
Silence, she thought. When you’re hiding, tucking yourself into the smallest space you can find, silence is all you want- every squeak of a sneaker or creak of a joist may give you away. She could still fit in her favorite hiding spot, but it involved contorting herself quite a bit, and after a little while, her knees and back began to complain about the forces that were being exerted on them.
Other times, she thought, you hated silence- the hush that falls over a table when you’ve said something inappropriate, or the emptiness of a room with no one there that allows your inner monologue to take over and dominate your thoughts. Hiding here, tucked away, the house made little moans and shivers when the wind blew, but other than that, she heard nothing but the incessant chatter in her head.
“Nobody likes you,” her brain said. “You’re too fat. You’re ugly, you’re worthless. Nobody will ever love you. You should have never been born. Nobody cares about you. You can’t do anything right. Clothes don’t fit you right, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because nobody looks at you.”
She looked down at the hardwood floor between her knees, looking at the red droplets that faded to a darker, purplish hue as the wood soaked them up. In the end, she thought, silence is all there is.
I stared around at the reporters. They had surrounded me in a semicircle as the players stretched and loosened up before heading out to the court. I had made my decision, which all of them had heard about, but they needed to hear it from me. One finally spoke up. It was Red, a curly haired Irishman from the daily paper.
“You going to start him, Doc?”
“But he’s your best player.”
I looked at the others- Sage, a slim, pretty African American girl from the cable channel, Rachel, a blonde from local TV, and Rick, a fat guy from a national magazine.
Sage spoke next, “So he’s going to play, Doc?”
They stared at me.
“You’re going to sit him,” Rachel asked, “in a game seven? For all the marbles?”
Rick chimed in, “He’ll fire you, you know.”
“Maybe,” I said.
The rule was, if you miss the bus, you don’t play, I thought. I told them that on day 1. It might get me fired, like he said. But if you don’t stand for something, then you don’t stand for anything. The rule is the rule. Be on time, I told them, and we won’t have a problem.
Go ahead and fire me, I thought. I’d rather be fishing anyway.
Dressed in only a towel, Mireyah stood in front of her section of the closet. This was the best and the worst part of the process. Everything was potential now- was there an undreamt of combination that would give her the air of mystery she wanted? Or were her choices nothing but lame ass, farm girl, hokey productions that would mark her as a hick from a block away? She sighed. This was a big deal, as such things were- her first college party. Her first soiree, she told herself. There would be boys there, her roommate Cheryl told her- single, straight boys, she emphasized- lots of them!
It was torment talking her parents into letting her move in with three other girls in a tiny apartment 12 blocks from campus. On top of her moving 1300 miles from home, the thought of her with three other foolish freshmen in the big city gave them the creeps. But she argued the economics like the businessperson she had no intention of becoming until they gave in.
It was times like this, staring at a forest of possibilities- skirt or pants, boots or flats, heartbreak or loneliness, outcast or hipster, that she feared they may have had a point- maybe the city was too much for a girl who used to go months without needing nylons.
“Let’s go, Mires!” Cheryl called from the front room. “We’re late!”
She started picking items. “I’m coming!” she called back.
It was over, he thought. He didn’t know the numbers, but he knew the trend line. You could plot it by games started, or by wins. You could look at his shrinking salary, or at the smaller number of teams faxing offer sheets to his agent’s office each spring. You could look at the lower number of offseason speeches he gave, or the tinier number of baseball camps he was invited to over the winter. You could look at however you want, he thought, it still adds up to one thing. It’s over.
The kids, and both of his wives, didn’t want to hear that- they didn’t want the gravy train of diamonds and consumer electronics to end. He didn’t want to disappoint them- didn’t want his youngest daughter to not get a BMW the way the oldest one did- but the math was clear. His old way of life was ending.
He looked down at the ball in the palm of his hand. He had called time out, here in this half dead stadium in the middle of a nothing game between two teams who quit trying around Independence Day. He bent to tie his shoe, feeling the ache in his right shoulder that used to come and go, but never went away now. He had to throw, and keep throwing, ignore the pain and get hitters out, because it was all he knew how to do.
“I was supposed to bring in this postcard–?, ” she said weakly. I looked at her from behind the counter. She was cute- long black hair in a loose pony tail, with khaki pants and a blue top that accentuated the lines of her figure.
“You won a T shirt?” I said with false authority. Everyone assumed you worked here, and shook hands with Jon Bon Jovi once a week. The truth was, I once saw the back of Todd Rundgren’s head as he left the building.
“Yes, I think so. I was the seventh caller. I knew all the songs in order.”
“One of the ‘Pete’s Puzzler’s?’ ”
“Yeah. I listen to this station all the time.”
The radio station where I was interning usually put me down here in the storefront to sell the occasional bumper sticker and redeem prize giveaways. It wasn’t hard- they let me bring in my laptop and soak up the station’s WiFi, and while I wasn’t learning much, it wasn’t hard.
“Do you see one you like?,” I said, trying to sound important.
“How about the pink one there?” She pointed above my head at the display.
“Sure. What size?”
“Are you sure that won’t be too big? You look like a small to me!” Easy peasy lemon squeezy, as my English professor used to say.
She giggled. “You’re sweet. No, that’s my size.”
Score, I thought.
That doesn’t make any sense, she thought.
She stared at her phone, the tiny screen’s glow illuminating her face as she rode home in the dark. He had asked her to come to the party, begged her, told her that he wanted her there more than anyone. She saw this as her entry point into the upper class, and she spent hours working on a costume, comparing and contrasting, weighing the amount of skin she wanted to expose with the originality factor and the comfort issue. She listened intently to conversations, trying to suss out what other girls were wearing, trying to make sure she would stand out.
She settled on a zombie warrior princess, with a cute short skirt and pretty boots. She added enough makeup to illustrate the zombie theme, while still looking pretty. She got plenty of compliments from other girls, and a few glances from appreciative upperclassmen. She couldn’t find Stephen all night, though, and finally had to leave, slipping away into her Mom’s van, heartbroken. She had texted him, thanking him for inviting her, and all she got back was, “Sure. Whatevs.”
What did he mean by all that flattery when he invited her? Did he really want her to come? Was it some kind of joke? Did she do something wrong? What was she supposed to do? It was like boys speak a different language, she thought as the van brought her home.
Walking down the hallway, heels echoing on the polished floor, she felt a flutter of nervous tension. She looked pretty good, she thought- she had worn 20 years and 4 kids well. A man and a woman were behind the registration table, handing out name tags. She recognized the woman- Catherine, an social butterfly and overachiever. A friend, in the loose sense that all women are friends, comrades in the ongoing battle against men.
The man was rummaging in a box, taking out more copies of the alumni newsletter, then turned to face her. It was all she could do to not pass out. He was gorgeous-model thin, but strong, with a stylish haircut, gorgeous eyes, an expensive sweater, and five hundred dollar jeans. Her knees felt a little weak, and she tried to keep her voice even as she stepped up to them, her mind filled with images of this dreamboat coming back to her hotel room tonight.
She saw the name on the man’s nametag. “Stephen HOLDEN?,” she said incredulously. She remembered him- he never took his eyes off of her, history class, junior year. He had a bowl haircut, acne, and glasses then- but look at him now. She thought about giving him tonight what he so badly wanted 20 years ago. It made her sweat. She felt her heart thump, and she held her stomach in. “Bennett,” she said weakly, “Lisa.”
“Lisa Bennett?”, he read slowly. “I don’t remember you at all.”
“Oh, I don’t drive,” she announced, folding one impossibly long leg over the other. She had a short, frilly skirt on, with expensive looking shoes. She could fold one leg over the other so she could slide one foot around her other ankle.
I found that hard to imagine. “Really?”
“Oh, yeah. Never got my license.”
“So how do you go… anywhere? How do you get to work? ” I was fighting my way through the airport traffic- nothing dramatic, just long lines of cars, and decisions- change lanes or don’t, accelerate here or wait.
“I find someone to drive me.”
Someone male, I mused. Someone like me. Someone who can’t resist a warm smile. She had approached me, at the end of an unusually easy afternoon, while I was making sure all my loose ends were tied up. She came around the corner of the cubicle I was in, towering over the top in a virginally clean white blouse. The toe of one shoe, with a gold bauble on it, showed around the green felted wall.
“Can you do me a favor? I need a ride to the airport tonight.” Her voice was sparkly, flirty, and rich- like a wine commercial come to life.
“Of course,” I had said. Out of nothing but a misplaced sense of duty to a very pretty woman I barely knew, I found myself driving to the airport, having said “yes” to another woman when I meant “no”.
I looked at him, watching him look around the room. He was relatively cute, all things considered- lanky, bearded, and generally out of sorts, he had an awkward charm that some girls found irresistible. I had pulled him out of bed, early on a Sunday- mooning for his absent fiancee, in Bordeaux doing research until the spring, he had taken to sleeping late and going to bed early, willing the months away. I begged him to join me, his fiancee’s best friend, for coffee and commiseration about her absence. I whined and complained until he showered and set himself at a sunsplashed table, tired blue eyes measuring the room.
He wasn’t reading or writing, just kind of staring. He watched the baristas share a private joke, giggling into the foaming milk. He watched a girl in the corner in cat’s eye glasses make notes from a Bolano novel. John Lennon music, enjoying another hipster rebirth, was playing in the background as I sipped, watching him observe the life that swirled around us.
I had decided he was going to sleep with me tonight- nothing permanent, just a bedpost notch, a way to prove I could, something to silently hold over her, something I would always know. A way to be someone’s secret, someone’s unconfessed betrayal, someone’s moment of guilty panic. He didn’t know that it was going to happen, as I smiled to myself, bringing my coffee to my lips. But I did.
I said it to myself, hoping that the words would become real if I said them, instead of thinking them hard inside my brain’s tangled nest.
“They can’t see it.”
I pulled my top down hard, willing it to extend, to stretch, to somehow lengthen, as if there was some fold or wrinkle I had missed that was going to make it 2 inches longer. When I stood perfectly still, it extended exactly to my waist, exactly the way I wanted. The fabric ended right at the perfect point, denoting the border between one half and the other half.
But if I bent, or stretched, or turned one way or the other, it gapped, and suddenly an oval of my pale, wrinkly, flabby belly was visible to the world.
“They can’t see it,” I told myself again.
I could, of course, just explain what it was- what I needed, and what had happened and what was going to happen. I even knew the answers to some of those queries. I could answer some of them with absolute certainty. I just didn’t know the answers to all of them.
I heard my name, distantly echoing through the house, the sounds indistinct. I could still follow the shadows of the words, knowing the intonations that meant the yeller was seeking me.
“Coming!,” I bellowed back.
I tugged the top down one last time and left, the door shutting with a solid thump behind me.
They call it No Man’s Land-and it is somewhat aptly named. There are men in it, from time to time, but when you’re in it, you certainly don’t want to be. I first heard the term in baseball- a tipping point between bases when you might as well go forward, because retreating to the previous station is likely to result in disaster. I assume it probably has some sort of real world derivation-referring to an area that is controlled by no one, and thus no rules apply.
I didn’t start out intending for it to happen- she was charming, funny, and whip smart, and she was bawdy, and funny, and could make a sailor blush at times. She was pretty, of course- not in a conventional way, but in a snap your head around, what the heck was that sort of way, like when a shortstop dives to smother a ball in the hole and throws the guy out at first. But it happened, like a solo home run marring a strong 9 inning effort.
When you pursue any girl, of course, you have rivals- some corporeal, like the guy who sleeps next to her, or the guy who makes her laugh more than you do – and some less real, like the ghostly presence of the last guy who broke her heart, and, somewhere in the background, her father.
Sometimes, you don’t even know you’re losing, and then the game suddenly ends.
|The sound of his phone ringing was distant, and kind of hollow. It was a very long distance call. He picked up, sounding a little out of breath.
“Hey, it’s me.”
“Hey!” He tried to brighten when he heard who it was. It didn’t sound real.
“I need a favor. Again.”
He sounded crestfallen. “Really? They keep calling?”
“Uh huh.” I tried to add emotion to my voice, which wasn’t hard. “I need another two hundred.”
He sighed. “I can’t keep doing this, you know. I’ve almost used up that whole credit card.”
“I know, I so appreciate it. I wouldn’t ask if we didn’t need it.”
“Send it to the same place?”
“Yeah.” My heart pounded. Was he going to do it? I felt a solid, responding thump, lower in my abdomen.
He sighed again. “OK. Let me hang up and call Western Union.”
“Ok, thanks! I’ll pay you back! I love you!”
“Love you, too,” he said resignedly, and disconnected.
I had dumped him almost a year ago, taking off for Hawaii winding up pregnant and broke when Jonathan got laid off and started moving meth to keep the refrigerator full. Then he started using, and then things got tight, and then I’m calling an old boyfriend, begging for him to wire me money.
He didn’t know about the baby.
He didn’t know I wasn’t coming back.
He didn’t know I couldn’t pay him.
He didn’t know I didn’t love him.
She was pretty, with brown hair pulled back severely and tired eyes. The bright pink of her scrubs injected a note of cheerfulness into the room that I was confident none of us felt. She carried a stack of papers which were probably parts of my chart. They were in the midst of converting to electronic records, so each interaction with a professional in this building usually involved them looking at papers, then at a screen, then back at papers.
It was inappropriate, at the very least, to think of her as pretty. She was a professional, with years of specialized training, and she was here to do her job. The fact of her appearance should matter as little as the day of the week, or the number of the room they brought me to. She was smart, and capable, but I saw pretty before I saw either of those- her face made bad news easier to take.
She was already talking as I mused to myself, and I tried to tune in quickly. There was a bit of little girl still in her voice. There was one number I needed to know-if it was less than 50, I might be around long enough to open Christmas presents. She said the number, but I didn’t quite catch it. I asked her to say it again.
Willie Mays’ number, I thought.
“My lucky number,” I said quietly to her. She smiled.
Fenway Park unfolded before us- the left field wall, so close it seems you could reach out and touch it, the sweep of the bleachers in the sun, the overhang where the broadcasters work and where the swells sit to watch the action unfold behind glass. And the people- old men who saw Williams, toddlers who don’t remember 2007, baseball mad youngsters and patient, pregnant wives- a sea of motion and talk, laughter, smells, and colors.
I got these tickets through an amazing series of coincidences, but pass to me they did. I had to ask my girlfriend to come, of course-secretly wishing she had some engagement, freeing me to bring a seamhead buddy to enjoy the best seats I’ve ever had. But of course, she was absolutely free today, so she dug out her pink cap, short skirt, and Ellsbury shirt and joined me.
“What’s this say,” she asked, squinting, “on the back of the ticket here?”
We were late, hustling to our seats as the first inning began. “That’s the disclaimer about how they’re not responsible if you get hit by a line drive or something like that,” I said. “You have to pay attention to the game,” I reminded her.
I heard the crack of the bat, and started to turn my head to see what happened. I heard it the same time I felt it-a soft crunching sound of something impacting my head from the side right before everything went black.
There was a timid rapping on the frame where a door would be. It wasn’t an office-but I didn’t really care, since I wouldn’t be in the olive drab prison more than another week.
She came in, a pretty redhead with an uncertain stride, visibly pregnant. Jeanne, I thought, remembering details from her file- unmarried, working her way through nursing school. She was wearing the pastel scrubs of her intended profession.
“Can I ask you something-” she began. Her voice was uncertain, her eyes already watery and red from a previous bout with tears.
“Of course,” I said, smiling neutrally.
“I was wondering if you knew anything about what’s going to happen?” Her voice was breaking already, her face red with exertion.
My job was to tell her no, I didn’t know anything.
My job was to come in to this faltering location, encourage the useful ones to transfer, drain the maximum useful work out of the ones that remain, and, at the last minute, close up the shop, cashiering the others with regret and thanks for their service.
I watched tears carve cool paths down her hot, red cheeks. I knew her name was on the list that was under my left hand, right on the desk in front of me. I could see, on her face, the pressure, like the part where the strain shows on an overstuffed garbage bag.
“I’ll let you know as soon as I do,” I said.
There’s two kinds of sleepless, I thought- can’t sleep because of overscheduling, and can’t sleep because of overthinking. I do tend to overthink- certainly that plays a role in my life. But it’s usually the first kind- too many demands chasing too few hours, causing me to walk around in a semi- aware haze. I have, blessedly, seldom been unable to sleep- being able to drop off, nearly on command, has proven an asset, as well as a detriment to family life or long, complex films.
Sleep, when it comes, comes in a rush like an orgasm. You’re not sleeping-you’re inside your head, thinking, tracing the action in the room with your ears, then suddenly you’re gone. It’s fundamentally frightening-you have your consciousness, which is really everything you are, yanked away, and whole blocks of time just vanish. I guess that’s why I hate it- that, and the vague badge of honor sleeplessness brings in modern society. It’s a way to say, “See how hard I’m working?”
There is a horrible ripping noise above my left shoulder, metal being torn and burned, and a shower of sparks, some of which land on my pants. They glow on my motionless legs for a moment, then wink out. An Irish face fills my field of view. “We’re going to get you right out of there, sir,” he says with a flat voice.
“No problem,” I say, tangled in the wreckage of my car. “I’m not going anywhere.”
He looked at me, brown hair nearly in his pale eyes, speaking with the earnestness of a 3 year old who will not be deterred. He’s holding an expensive, battery operated toy.
“I can’t wait to open this.”
After a health crisis erupted in his family last night, my wife and I, a decade after we dealt with our own 3 year old, are suddenly caring for our nephew, all bony legs and certainty in the early morning hours. He had coped marvellously with waking up to his aunt where Mommy should have been, and now here we were, making a run to the colors and sounds and mercantile madness of our local Target, needing the fruit snacks and apple juice that no longer populate our house.
We get into line, neither of us having slept well after the sudden events, smiling at his enthusiasm for this new adventure he’s on. He doesn’t really know, and can’t fully understand, why Mommy and Daddy aren’t home.
“Can I open it now?”
“No,” my wife warns. “When we get back to our house.”
He doesn’t need another toy or more DVDs. His parents, if not otherwise engaged, would tell me this- he doesn’t need it, and they don’t want to have to store it. But something about this situation and his eagerness puts the toys into the cart. It’s a horrible lesson- spending money makes you feel good! – but my sympathy overcomes my wisdom.
That, and my weakness.
I had found her on Facebook, one of those chance encounters you have in the 21st century- a friend of a friend had a name that rang a bell in my mind. A short note asking if she was the same Shari I remembered, and then a connection is made.
By chance, we were in the same city, briefly, and we agreed to meet for coffee. She was still gorgeous, warm and curvy with deep black hair, lovely eyes, and cute little glasses that made her look like a barrista or a sexy librarian. She sat there, her skirt revealing just the right amount of Stairmastered thigh, a high heel dangling from one toe.
She had tea, while I had coffee. We compared notes- industries, college, marriage, children- all the checkpoints from age 12 to the present. “I remember-”, I began, “the last night of camp, when we were all down by the lake. I was staring up at the stars, while we were singing all those songs, looking into all that eternal emptiness . You had your bathing suit on, with a sweatshirt over it, because it was getting cold. You sat next to me, near the back, and you reached over and took my hand, and I was so excited, so happy, because a girl had never held my hand before.”
She looked at me, her brown eyes warm behind her cat’s eye glasses, and said evenly, “No, I don’t remember that at all.”
“I’m itchy,” she says, breathless, panicky. I’m swimming out of the depths of full sleep, I’m not totally sure what she’s saying. We were up late, watching Monty Python tapes and laughing, newlyweds. The urgency in her voice brings me out of it.
“OK.” When your bride, pregnant and uncomfortable, says she’s itchy, you hop to it. Feet on the floor. Wallet, keys. Billy Joel tape. Shoes. Shirt.
No, wait. Pants. Then shoes. Jacket. OK, showtime.
Slate gray skies, with fat New England snowflakes blanketing everything. An angry, not-messing-around snowfall. Accumulation already on sidewalks and streets.
Out to the car. Scraping snow and ice. Tape playing, heater running. “Running On Ice”. Apropos.
Car is ready. Roads slick, but empty in eerie morning quiet. Drive with increasing anxiety as I grow more alert. What could it be?
Round corner, into drugstore parking lot. Accelerate in, fearing the long drive back to her already. Car jumps the curb, smacking into brick outside store, denting fender and chipping brick. Reverse, pull car back into position. Walk in, purchase pile of itch products, heedless of need.
Back home. Roads greasy with slush. Taking corners more carefully now, but still accelerating. Instincts taking over-woman in danger, man must fix.
Park car, storm into apartment. She is in bed- deep, restful breathing. I jostle her.
“Hi,” she murmurs.
“What about the itching?”
“Oh, it stopped.”