Tag Archives: whore

If You Seek It Like Silver, a short story

illustration if you seek it like silver bohemian rhapsody freddie mercury.jpgIf You Seek It Like Silver

My father was evasive on the subject of ancestors. Emigrating, as he did, from the dark heart of Bohemia, he must have understood that some mixing of races was inevitable. Otherness was part of him — visible in his eyes, in his cheeks, in the reluctant way he wore his necktie. He forced himself to stand still and proper his whole life — in due time even Anglicizing his name — but try as he might, never managed to forget who he was and where he came from. That was why he ended up erasing himself until all that was left with a pen & ink silhouette.

My mother was not evasive about anything. Or so I thought. In fact, she was so brutally honest, she admitted to my father that her idea of “socializing” was to invite everyone in the neighborhood over, once a year, for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres (whore’s ovaries, she called them). Other than that, she kept our family as stiff & guarded as Alcatraz. My father seemed to be quieter, to drink a little more, to sit a little longer in front of the television. Then one day my little brother came home dirty, sweaty & crying, from his very first day of school.

“They all called me a dirty Bohunk,” he sobbed.

“Well, why do you listen to the stupid, mean kids?” my mother grumbled. She sat at the dining room table hand-tinting my little brother’s most recent black-and-white, artsy portrait photograph. In the picture, he leaned against a Victorian-style porch railing, his blond curls glinting in the studio light, caressing a large sailboat. “Quit complaining about your feelings. Feelings were made to be conquered.”

My little brother and I were eight years apart, and were nothing alike. I was tall, angular and dark, and had a talent for rages that seemed to be sudden, but were slow-developing and complex in origin. He had inherited the large-boned, pink-and-ivory glow and the sound, dreamless sleep of my mother’s family.

“But I want to have friends, Ma,” he shouted. His chest, like mine, wheezed & he coughed

“You’re there to get education first,” she said. “In two weeks they’ll have forgotten all about your last name. They’ll go on to other games.”

“No they won’t. They’ll never forget. They’ll keep saying it until I die.” He turned, running out of the room, and then we heard him clatter down the porch steps, banging the porch door behind him.

My mother frowned and stared, as if waiting for me to go after him; instead I began setting the table for dinner. “He’ll get over it,” she said, turning around. “Just like you did.” No, I thought; he’s going to learn to ignore his feelings; just like you; disgust. The last thing I wanted to be was anything like my mother; who freaked me out; who wasn’t comforting; who scolded her way into your brain like a hot branding iron. Imposing her will; all over the place; over your spirit. Branded spirit; oppressed spirit; dying spirit.

My little brother wasn’t gone very long, but upon returning, got into his pajamas and went straight to bed, refusing to eat. This had never happened before. Daddy went up and sat on the edge of his bed. I watched from the hallway. Wake up, I thought; wake the hell up!

“Don’t you want something to eat, sport?” Daddy asked. He hadn’t cared so much about my feelings when this had happened to me. Then, he’d been silent, letting Ma handle the whole thing. I suppose he felt it was different for a boy — when a boy cried, it mattered. You too, Daddy, I thought; you need to wake up, too; ignoring things; postponing things; assimilating yourself into your life rather than creating your life; quit playing possum; get up out of that chair; change the channel; yourself.

I was surprised when the next day, Daddy told us what he wanted to do. So was everybody else. My mother most of all. I had never seen the two of them like this. My stomach fell into some icy, limitless abyss in the universe; I had to get out of it, immediately.

“I’m going to change our family name,” he announced. “I should have done it long ago. I should have done it before we were married.” My mother sat in her chair, breathing in short gasps, as if she’d received a sudden whack to the chest. Finally she spoke.

“But it’s my last name too,” she said. “I think it’s ridiculous!”

“It’s not just for him,” my father shouted, slapping the newspaper against his legs. “It’s for all of us. I’m God-damned sick and tired of having everyone get our name wrong. Every time we order something, open an account, write a check, we get these asinine comments. Life’s too short for this. I’m changing my name, and the kids’ names, and that’s that.”

“That’s not a choice,” she hissed, “and you know it.” She kicked her pumps off, throwing them against the floor. “You’ve allowed me no say in this.” Now she was all for individuality; feelings; identity; spirit; it’s always just a question of whose ox is being gored by someone else’s ox. I felt like an ox, dragging my dysfunctional family along. Get out of here, I thought. Get out of here and find something to laugh about; or at least smile about.

And what on earth would I tell people at school? Somehow, facing the teachers with a new name seemed even worse than telling all my friends. It was just like my mother and father to ignore the fact that this whole thing would be the hardest on me. They were already grown up, and Dennis was just a little kid. I was the one stuck in the middle. I sat there examining my nails, not wanting to see their faces at this moment. Fox-holing my soul, stuffing it into a warm, soft hidey-hole; as safe as that icy abyss had been dangerous.

***

The name change happened at the end of summer. On my last day before joining the WASP tribe, such as it was; white bread; vanilla ice cream; whipped potatoes; roasted meats; sugar cookies; freshly squeezed orange juice. The day was bright and sunny and dry; my best friend and I were out in the backyard, perfecting our variety show. That day I was the emcee, she was the sponsor, and we each did half the guest acts. We had tap shoes, and purple and yellow shorts from gym class, and a small piece of plywood to serve as a stage. She also had a fringed felt skirt of her cousin’s and a pair of black kitten heels, for the commercials. Nothing else mattered until tomorrow. Stranded on a desert island, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide; naked but for the protective coloration in my mind. No one outside the family knew about our imminent name-change.

In an attempt to make peace, Daddy let Ma choose the new last name. She picked one which sounded horrible at first, but gradually became appealing. I begged Ma to send out announcement cards to my friends’ parents and to my teachers, but she just closed her eyes.

“You’re going to have to tell them yourself,” she said.

“She’s just scared to tell them she’s not going to be a dirty Bohunk anymore,” said my little brother. “I’m not scared.”

“What do you mean?” I yelled. “Don’t make me laugh. You’re the most scared one of all. You’re so scared, you’re the whole reason we’re doing this stupid thing.”

“No he isn’t,” said Ma. “Don’t blame your brother. Now go find something to do, both of you. I don’t want to hear any more fighting.”

“I bet you like being a Bohunk,” he whispered as we walked down the hallway toward the front door. “You’re stupid, not me. You’re a stupid Bohunk girl.” He ran out the door, ducking my attempted slap with an expert sideways twist.

When he appeared in the backyard, jeering and laughing at my best friend and me, pointing at us and smeared about the face with dirt and grape soda, I picked up a large rock and threw it at the fence where he stood — to scare him. The rock, being inanimate, didn’t understand, and so, obeying the laws of physics, bounced obediently off the fence, then into his head. A large egg-shaped lump sprang out instantly, right in the middle of his forehead. The skin swelled bigger and bigger before my eyes like a balloon. He swayed and fell down on the ground right where he was. Without even looking back at my friend, I ran — out of the yard, down the rear alley, and out of the neighborhood. I ran till my breath burned in my windpipe, then kept on walking.

***

Our house was five and a half miles inland. I walked all the way to the boardwalk in my tap shoes, the metal taps tapping and grinding against the sidewalk with every step. Blisters formed on my heels, but I kept on, walking slower, placing my feet against the sidewalks with more care. The wind had begun to pick up; the decorative streamers on my favorite ice-cream parlor puffed and snapped.

The boardwalk was crowded, as usual, with transient peddlers. Amid the portable push-carts was a large, gleaming Airstream trailer. Its bulbous surface reflected the milling crowd like a funhouse mirror. As I approached, drawn like a magpie to the smooth, shiny aluminum surface, I noticed a young woman sitting at a folding display table in front of the trailer. She was missing several of her front teeth. Other than that, she was beautiful, her eyes large and clear, her skin like velvet. The dumpy baby in her lap was drooling and babbling like any ordinary kid. My heart leaped inside my chest suddenly, for no reason.

The brand-new Airstream was hitched up to a horrible-looking pickup truck: scabrous, multi-layered paint, rotting fenders. I stood, my legs trembling, examining the large array of beaded purses on her table, and also peeking in the side window of the trailer — the built-in furniture inside was pale pink, and sheathed in plastic. I picked up one of the small purses, completely covered with tiny glass beads, sewn in a dark Oriental-rug pattern. The beaded bag was sinuous and heavy in my hands, like a living thing.

“Can you tell me my fortune?” I asked the lady, my heart pounding against my chest like a small fist.

She stared at me for a moment, then laughed, causing the baby on her lap to startle, his small fat arms jerking. But he, too, smiled after a moment, a toothless grin that matched her own. The baby grabbed at her long hair, stuffing a large handful of it into his mouth.

“No, I can’t,” she said, shaking her head. “But if you dance,” she said, pointing down at my dusty tap shoes, “I’ll give you something.”

“You mean right here?” I asked. “In front of all these people?”

“Sure,” she said. “I love tap-dancing. I’ll give you that purse, if you want.”

The purse’s beading was dark purple, amber and bottle-green. I glanced around at the people strolling by, wondering what they’d think, whether they’d laugh. But it didn’t really matter, did it? I had stepped across some invisible line: tap-dancing on the beach was nothing for a Bohunk like me.

“Okay,” I said. I moved away from the table and raised my arms, spreading them like stiff, flightless wings. Nodding at her, I began my spring recital piece, the one I did wearing a silver top hat and spats. Though the sound of my taps was muffled by the rough-laid planks of the boardwalk, I knew my form was perfect. I finished, and she brought her baby’s hands together with her own, holding his wrists and slapping his tiny palms in mock applause, but then she stopped and smiled, and I knew she’d been pleased.

“Take it,” she said, gesturing toward the table.

“Thank you,” I said, letting the prize swing from my fingers, the beaded loops of fringe rustling against my arm like the curious touch of a stranger. I stood for a moment, noticing her eyes, which from a distance had appeared dark brown, edged in black: surrounding her pupils were small featherings of blue, green, yellow, brown and gray. “I think I killed my brother,” I told her, starting to cry.

“No you didn’t,” she said. “He’s not dead. You can go home.”

“How do you know?” I asked, clutching the bag to my chest. The baby snuggled against her, leaning into her generous breasts, sucking his fingers and blinking his eyes slowly, falling toward sleep.

“You dance too well to be a murderer,” she said, frowning. “Go home to your… fortune.”

As I turned to leave, I saw a handsome boy in a vivid yellow windbreaker watching me from the boardwalk’s edge. His lean face was sculptured, his cheekbones and chin jutting out. His mouth was open — not a smile — and his teeth were square and white. As my eyes met his… his face benign, expressionless… he made his hands into tight fists, arms stiff and straight at his sides, and began nodding his head — forward and back, forward and back. Yes, he indicated. Yes.

“Take your new purse and go home,” the woman said again, turning to look at the strange boy. “But first give the baby a kiss, for luck.” So I bent down, kissing the baby’s drool-wet cheek, struggling with the impulse to dry my lips on my sleeve as I turned away.

***

By the time I got home, it was dark. A police car was parked in front of the house. As I tried the front door-handle and started to knock, it opened and my mother stood to one side, holding the door, as I walked into the foyer. She reached out, as if to embrace me, but at the last minute changed her mind and pushed me away. I don’t care, I thought. I don’t fucking care. For a moment? I hated her with every cell in my body. Then Daddy grabbed me, squeezing me so hard around the ribs I couldn’t inhale.

“Are they going to arrest her for throwing rocks at me?” asked my little brother from the top of the stairs.

“Certainly not,” said my mother. “Go back to bed.”

***

The next day was hot — the smog so thick it dimmed the sun’s rays. Somehow, that weird half-light made the air seem even hotter than the real temperature. We toured the marble-floored courthouse downtown, meeting our lawyer outside the judge’s office. The secretary ushered us in. The judge had a lot of fluffy white hair and a waxed, curlicue handlebar mustache that gave me the shivers. As I walked by him, he winked.

He asked us if we had any dishonest or criminal reasons for changing our names — then asked us if we were all sure it was what we wanted. I wasn’t sure — I saw my mother start to say something, too, but the judge didn’t notice. He looked at me.

“What about you, young lady?” he asked. “Do you want to change your name to something that everybody in the U.S. can spell?”

My heart felt like a fat frog, quivering, and I couldn’t speak. The judge didn’t wait for my answer, just started chuckling to himself, then he signed the sheaf of official papers with a judge-like flourish and changed me from a Bohunk into an American.

***

I went to confession that week with a lot to say. The new priest had a strange kind of beauty — artfully shaped eyebrows, large protruding eyes, fleshy but precise lips, dimpled chin. His English was faintly accented. I liked to imagine he was in love with me, but too saintly to break his vows — he twisted and turned each night upon his hard, narrow cot, praying in vain for relief from the tempting visions of me. In the booth, the words came easily.

“I almost killed my brother,” I told him. I waited in the hot, breathy silence. “I committed perjury.” Still nothing. “I looked on a man with lust,” I said, remembering the taut face of the boy on the beach. Now tell me I’m evil, I thought. Tell me I’m going to hell, talk to me about the pit of fire, the writhing serpents.

“Do you fear for your soul?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “Everything has changed. I’m not the same as I used to be.”

“God knows what’s in your heart,” he said. “Sometimes being ashamed is the most important thing. It’s the first step to changing.” He cleared his throat.

“I’m supposed to be changing? Does changing your name count?” I couldn’t help laughing — then wondered if laughter in the confessional was some sort of sin.

“Changing your name? You mean by marriage?” He sounded shocked.

“No, my family — we all changed our last name. Because my father was ashamed. Because no one knew how to spell it. Because he didn’t want anyone to think we were — strange.” I waited; his silence was interminable. I heard him sigh.

“A name can be very important for the peace of the soul.”

“But nobody asked if I wanted to change.”

“Your father did what he thought was right.”

“But I can’t stop being angry,” I said, almost crying.

“Pray for your anger to be taken from you,” he said. “Pray for guidance.”

But wasn’t he supposed to give me that — guidance? Where was his usual sympathy? I felt weak, dizzy.

“Yes, Father,” I said, though tears had started. “I’ll pray for guidance.”   Pushing the booth’s wooden door open — so hard it knocked against the outer wall of the adjacent confessional — I felt Father startle and jump inside his half of the booth in the second before I slipped my shoes off and ran out of the church.

***

A bunch of us freshman girls journeyed to the first school dance of the year as a dateless yet hopeful group. As we stood talking and laughing — eyeing the large group of stag boys near the gym doors — we fussed with our hair and rattled our charm bracelets. The tall, good-looking boy I’d seen that awful day at the beach approached, and invited me to dance.

“Did you get married over the summer or something?” he asked, tossing his forelock out of his eyes as we twirled out to the middle of the floor.

“Married?” I said, peering up at his face in the dim, dance-floor light. His eyes were large, round and brown, and his lower lip full so that even his scowl had a goofy, angelic quality. “Are you kidding or something?” I asked.

“Well, last thing I knew your last name was different.” He smiled and tapped my name tag with one finger. “So, I figure either I’m going senile, or you got married.” He winked. “Odds are, I’m not senile.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, smiling.

“Well, sometimes I wonder.” He laughed, caressing my back softly as we danced.

“My father changed our last name over the summer,” I said. “Tired of having it misspelled, stuff like that.”

“Well, this one will attract less attention, that’s for sure.”

“Yes, it will,” I said, and then the fast song was over. We stopped, standing together for a moment, then another song began, but we didn’t resume dancing.

“Would you like to go get a soda?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure,” I said, nodding. We went out to the main entry hall, where some members of the student council were selling refreshments: Cokes, brownies, small bags of popcorn.

“It’s hot in there. Let’s walk around the courtyard for a minute,” he said, holding the cold green bottle against his forehead. He held out his hand to lead me, and I noticed it trembling. We sat down on the edge of a concrete planter, hidden from the dance behind its large circular hedge. The music sounded tinny from out here, but a slight breeze was blowing, and the air had a clean smell. He took a long swig of his soda, then put the bottle down. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered, sounding like he might cry. He put his hand against my breast, squeezing me as though caressing some exotic fruit, and then, upon discerning no obvious resistance, he leaned forward with his lips pursed. As he kissed me, his hand kept on moving, pulling at the buttons of my blouse, sliding around under my clothing and tugging at the hooks on my brassiere like a small inquisitive animal.

***

My feelings over the next few days were a dizzying combination of exhilaration and despair. I’d let him touch me, and it had felt good — but the fact that I’d allowed it to happen disgusted me. It was part of my body that had betrayed me — some fundamental weakness — a new aspect of myself I’d never be able to get rid of. I kept looking in the mirror: the dark circles under my eyes seemed worse, and my complexion got hazy. My hair seemed altered, losing its shine, its color. I felt suddenly younger and older at the same time. Ma and I were shopping for groceries when I felt caution melt away inside me.

“Did anybody ever try to touch you under your blouse?” I asked her, in the frozen food aisle.

“What do you mean, touch?” she asked.

“Like on a date or something,” I said.

“Of course,” she snorted, throwing half-a-dozen packages of peas into the cart. “What do you think, that’s a recent invention?”

“What did you do, then?”

“I kept their hands away,” she said. “I made them stop.”

“Well, what about Daddy?” I asked. “Did he ever try? He must have.”

“I’m not going to go into the specifics with you,” she said. “Just don’t let things go that far.” She turned and stared at me.

“No, of course not,” I said, feeling the blood heat up inside my lying cheeks, my lying neck. I knew she noticed. No way out.

***

“I don’t know why I bother,” she said, stirring a pot of tiny meatballs in sauce, her hair coiled in gleaming pin-curl clips. “No one invites us back.” My mother was more cranky than usual about her annual cocktail party.

“That’s not why you give the party, is it?” my father asked, laughing. “You wouldn’t go to most of these people’s houses, anyway. No, you just want them to be in your debt.” He patted her. “Just like me,” he added. People were trickling in when one of Daddy’s friends brought up the name change.

“When I got the invitation, I was stumped for a minute,” he said. “I thought, who do I know who changed their damn name? If you’re trying to lose the bill collectors, you forgot the most important thing — get the hell out of Dodge!” He threw his head back and laughed; a braying ass. My mother felt the same way and poured her drink on his shoes. For once, for one blessed moment, I agreed with her completely on something. Common ground. The beginning of our real, far deadlier arguments.

“I don’t care what you think,” she said, waving her arms over her head. “Any of you!” The whole group fell quiet, and after a moment, people who had just arrived began moving toward the hall closet to get their coats.

“Now, wait a minute,” my father said. “He was just kidding!”

“Gee, so was I,” she said. “Couldn’t you tell?” She kicked off her shoes, then ran up the stairs; I watched, then scrambled up after her. In her bedroom, she flopped down on the bed, heedless of the starched, organdy collar and bows on her black dress. She jerked her legs back and forth, back and forth, and her stockings hissed against the satin of the bedspread. “I knew from the day I met your father we’d never be soul mates or anything,” she said. “But I was hoping for something better than this.”

“I’m sure he was hoping for something better, too,” I said. “Do you know how horrible you can be? Do you?” I wasn’t going to end up like her, or like him — or like anybody in my family. It didn’t matter what my name was. “If Daddy and I hadn’t been there watching, you wouldn’t have poured that drink on the man, would you?” I hate you, I thought. And you hate me, too. Own it, you fucking cunt.

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” she snorted, throwing her arm across her eyes. “You and your theories. I was just mad, that’s all.” She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, live for long outside her locked, electrified steel cage of rage, I realized.

She shook her head, and her hair, pinned in a loose bun, fell free and tangled in a soft cloak around her neck. My own breathing became the most delicate of rhythms. I closed my eyes and stood next to the door, swaying in place. She was absolutely right: her daughter was a rebel both by nature and by choice. Too much Order… too much Chaos… then back again, a beautiful, inscrutable figure eight. Ma kept on talking, talking about the right way to do everything, the petulant sound of her voice changing inside my head into a soothing, abstract blur, like river water over smooth, flesh-colored rocks. Grief and guilt flew out of me: sharp arrows of silver, or cobalt glass. My own insatiable needs burst their seed casings; moving shapes cast their inscrutable dark shadows against the walls of my secret cave; I fell in love with the light of my tiny, disobedient candle. I kept on nodding and nodding; pretending to listen; planning my escape.

3 Comments

Filed under acceptance, adolescence, anger, anthem, anthropology, baby, beauty, birth, blood, boys, child neglect, childhood, civil rights, compassion, courage, daughter, daughters, death, development, dream, dreams, eternal, eternity, everything, evolution, faith, family, father, fatherhood, fathers, fear, fiction, forgiveness, god, grief, health, heart, hope, human beings, humanity, hypocrisy, identity, ignorance, insecurity, judicial branch, judiciary, justice, karma, law, legal system, life, logic, loss, love, man, manhood, maturity, men, mortality, mother, mothers, mourning, mysterious, parenting, passion, personal responsibility, regret, relationships, religion, sex, short stories, soul, spirit, spiritual, spirituality, teenagers, transcendence, transitions, truth, united states of america, universe, wish, woman, women, world, youth

No Nice Guys, a novel fragment

illustration maynard was a nice guy

No Nice Guys

Maynard was a nice guy, but I wasn’t interested in nice guys. I was scared of myself, the bitchy hardness that came out when I got involved with anyone nice. I had only met him in the first place because he lived next door and had, unknown to me, borrowed my alarm clock from a friend who was watching my apartment while I was out of town.

Maynard was tall, muscular but tending to softness around the gut and under the chin. When was our relationship over for me? The night of his birthday, when he got plastered and ended up sobbing and retching on his bathroom floor. He lived across the courtyard from me in a studio with lots of windows, high ceilings, and a cavernous, tiled bathroom. He cried that night about his dead cousin, Willow, who had gotten leukemia in high school. I despised her in absentia for dying, and him for getting all snot-nosed in front of me about it. Weakness brought out no soft, mothering impulse in me, rather the urge to shake the offender by the shoulders until their eyes rolled and their teeth rattled. I saved my own weakness for either my cat or my grandmother. I trusted no one else.

Oh, I could be loyal in times of need, I could help fallen friends and lovers limp bleeding into the safety of my rooms, but once the crisis was over, I’d cut them loose the way I’d learned to cut my mother out of my heart. Any other way and I’d end up going down with them, and that would help nobody. Who would pick me up when I fell? I never asked. Some were kind enough to volunteer despite my tough silence, and to them I was forever grateful. I respected those who kept me at arm’s length.

Maynard’s snot turned me off forever. It wasn’t the only thing I didn’t like about him, but the last straw. His other really bothersome weakness was premature ejaculation, which I only aggravated by yelling at him after the fact. I’d quit taking the Pill and had an abortion the year before. “I risked getting pregnant for that?” I’d hiss at him in the dark. I wasn’t good for him, but only I was strong enough to admit it. He wouldn’t have left me without my forcible eviction.

It was, alas, a time in my life when every man I met wanted to marry me. They all had some flaw or another — lack of intelligence, or prowess in bed, or a cool hand with money. None of the men in my family ever suffered financial crises or setbacks. They were shrewd operators never late on bills. It was what I expected. Not money, but calm in the face of acquiring it. Though when I met the man who I severed Maynard’s and my relationship for, it was true he was already past the struggle to get on his feet. It was myself I didn’t trust, not them. My own ability to withstand hardship. I knew I’d already used enough for a lifetime, I knew in that way I was weak. I knew they’d take me down, or I them, and so I looked for a boat in good repair, no leaks.

How did I become so hard? By being slammed again and again. I defied them all. Sheer defiance and hardness is what kept me going after those boys spent a year or two barking at me. They could sense my strength, which is why they kept at it. I have an inner core that will not let me stop. Suicide never an option. Too cowardly. I despised my mother’s weakness. I didn’t set my cap for my husband, I set my cap against him. With the first three questions, I tried to drive him away, out of my space. When it didn’t work, I figured God meant for it to be. I was wrong. God helps those who help themselves.

My friend Betty and I had gone dancing that night, the night I met Andy. The slang we used for it was “trashing guys.” We’d flirt and get them to buy us drinks and then trash them emotionally, either in person or later on the drunken drive home. We were predators in those days, emotional predators. The key was to get in and out without being hurt. Get into the guy’s emotions, wallow around for a while to make ourselves feel good, then get out, with the least injury to either party as possible.

Andy asked me to dance, but initially I said no. I said no because I thought I was his second choice, I thought he had already asked my blonde, blue-eyed, large-busted best friend to dance and had been turned down. She was older, more experienced, and more opinionated than I, so I deferred to her judgment of him.

I was wearing an odd outfit, not the kind of thing I normally wore. The whole evening had been designed by Betty and me as an act of revenge. Revenge upon men from our pasts, and revenge upon nameless, faceless men careening toward us from the future. The present was only an intersection between men past and men future. Men were sport, to be played with and exploited for whatever happiness or financial gain could be had.

I wanted to drive Andy away from that very first moment. He seemed drunk, boyish and soft. I wore a lavender skirt, a saffron silk blouse, and had pulled my hair back from my face severely. On my lips was bright scarlet lipstick. I must have stood out in that room of tired secretaries and tense professionals. He was a sucker for redheads.

“Have you ever had a homosexual experience?” I asked. The shock flitted over his features like a wisp of gray cloud over the full moon. That’s not the sort of question strangers ask each other during the first fifteen minutes of acquaintance. Not usually. The fucked-up thing was, he answered truthfully. Why didn’t he run? Surely he knew from the first moment what he was getting into. I had read somewhere that from a third to a half of men had had homosexual experiences. Even my first love, the wholesome boy next door, had engaged in a circle jerk with his favorite male cousin. But my husband was probably more terrified of homosexuality than any man I’d ever met.

“No, I haven’t,” Andy answered. I didn’t care whether he was telling the truth, I was impressed he’d managed to answer at all, rather than leaving. No, I did care about the truth — but that would come later. Right now I was doing my best to shock him, to wipe that jovial grin, gin-induced, off his quaint, antique-looking face. He was a small-town boy from the North who thought the South was one more place he’d conquer. He didn’t understand Spanish moss, magnolias, or reptiles. His hometown was on the banks of the Hudson, across the river from fashionable Yonkers. His town was the poor stepchild of all those arty, antique-y types coming from New York City and Hartford. He thought he was sophisticated. His choice of wine was sweet German white, and that made him cultured.

“Hah,” I replied, scrutinizing his clothes. Pressed khakis, long-sleeved plaid shirt, penny loafers. He wasn’t my type, he wasn’t scruffy enough to catch my eye. “How old were you when you lost your virginity,” I asked. He flinched a bit, but recovered admirably. He stared into my eyes and breathed in and told me he was seventeen at the time.

“Seventeen,” he said. I believed this. It was the same age as I’d been. He didn’t ask me any questions — or did he? Did I answer my own questions before he asked them of me?

“So, do you have any strange rashes,” I asked, question number three. This was in the days of herpes, and it was something I was on guard against with every person I came in contact with. My father had been a pioneer in the genital herpes field, in suffering from it, and he told me it was something I definitely didn’t want to get.

“No,” Andy said. He told me later, that exact moment was when he felt he was getting somewhere, which he was, though not for the reasons he thought. He wouldn’t be repelled — in fact, he stuck fast like a leech. Only I didn’t want to pry him off. I wasn’t physically attracted to him — he was a soft-bodied man, mostly unremarkable features, with a high, fluty voice. But I figured if I couldn’t drive him off, if nothing I said shocked him, maybe he’d never let me down. That, of course, wasn’t the case in the end. I have a former friend who says all endings are contained in their own beginnings. In the end, he let me down, way down, fast, not gently or carefully. But by then he was the father of my son, so I couldn’t kill him. He was so stable, so settled. Just not very nice. But, remember? I wasn’t looking for a nice guy.

Betty hooked up with this ungracefully-balding guy who had his shirt opened to the bottom of his breastbone. You know, the side-combers? I didn’t see his appeal, but she did. He ended up being a one-nighter. My fish ended up being a 12-year-job. Betty, to this day, nearly 30 years down the road from that night, is still single. She lives alone, has had a series of cats. She’s only on her third. I’m on my third, too. Not cat, husband.

So Betty, who had driven us to the bar, wanted to leave with her semi-sleazebag. I calculated quickly whether I wanted to leave with them or trust this new man to ferry me home. He’d already emptied his wallet to show us its contents — driver’s license, business cards, credit cards. He’d already paid our bar tab. I figured I’d get home alive and unharmed.

Betty floated out with Mr. Temporarily Wonderful. Andy and I sat awkwardly with his friend Bob. Bob was magnificently ugly, with a long, thin, sallow face and the biggest, most obviously broken nose I’d ever seen in real life. To tell you the truth, I was at first actually more interested in Bob than Andy, that is, until I heard Bob’s horrible story. Bob was so nice he was pathological. His wife had left him for another man — thank God they’d still been childless — and had remarried within the year. Bob had, for the occasion of his ex-wife Gloria’s wedding, agreed to put up his former in-laws while they were in town to attend the nuptials. He gave up his own bedroom and slept on the couch. He had dark circles under his eyes.

He seemed to want praise for this course of conduct, but all I could manage to say was, “You’re way nicer than I’d ever be,” which was better than strangling him and closing those big, sappy, brown doe-eyes (which unfortunately highlighted his unattractiveness even further, rather than ameliorating it) forever. Yes, I wanted to kill him for taking that level of shit. How could a grown man in his 30s with a Ph.D. in Statistics be so fucking stupid? He wanted a nice pat on the head for it, too. So, though he had a nice tortured, poetic quality because of his malformations, I had to let him pass by, unmolested. He would have been pathetically in love with me in about two seconds. No, Andy seemed more of a challenge, even though he wasn’t tortured or poetic. It would take me years to figure out his weakest spot and forge just the right weapon to destroy him, and, in the process, me.

Mythology, it’s all a question of mythologizing one’s life. The fatal flaw. Mine is an internal coldness, an inability to be moved to tenderness except by a child or an animal, and not even reliably by those. I had to be hard to survive that loveless house I grew up in. My mother was never affectionate unless she was drunk. Then she wanted to snuggle, but also then she disgusted me. Eight years old, I said to her, coldly and flatly, “Get out of my room.” The big wounded cow-eyes, deer-eyes, dog-eyes. Brown bottomless pools, floating in a glissade of unshed tears. Yeah, she could always get choked up by my rebuffs when she was drunk. The bitter smell of her scotch and water, the urine-tinged color of the liquid in her glass, became the Devil to me. All wrongs flowed from that bottle. I was only twelve when I dreamt I’d murdered her.

But back to that night at Richenbacher’s, the night that gave rise to the next twelve years, and birthed a child amongst the misery. It wasn’t all misery, not for the first few years. Not until we got married. So Andy and I got up and walked to his car, a white Japanese semi-luxury sedan. He was so proud of that car, a demo with less than 10,000 miles on it, and even prouder of the bargain he felt he’d gotten.

He drove me home. I was by then intoxicated by the long night’s booze and cigarettes. Outside the bar, my ears felt stuffed with cotton, temporarily plugged by the amplified music. I could just about hear my own heart beating, and I could feel my pulse in my throat, my fingertips. I remember little but the tenseness between us. I knew I was affecting him, and that knowledge was beginning to affect me. It wasn’t him (though he had lovely blue eyes, thickly lashed) so much as it was the idea of him — a man, breathing faster, blood rushing to his pelvis, hands a-tremble, a man in thrall of me.

Men are all alike to me that way — women are individuals, to be met as such, but men are always toys — what button pressed creates the thrilling response? Their desire is so much more pathetic than a woman’s. This forlorn appendage, either airborne or nodding, plumping between their legs. They’re so vulnerable, really. Though we women aren’t as strong, though we seem vulnerable to them, even in the throes of lust, we know no one knows. Our sexuality is owned by us, which makes those Muslims need to cut it out of us. They can’t stand our privates being truly so.

I lived then in a second-floor garage apartment. My stairwell was private and steep, the old, unpainted wood treacherous in a hurry. More than once, I’d fallen up or down those stairs. Still, I loved that place. Three large rooms, plenty of windows, and private. It was an island fortress and I never had men sleep there. I went to their rooms, where I could leave if I chose, without having to ask. I didn’t like waking up with my sex partners. I’d sleep a couple of hours after the act and drive home in the wee hours, reveling in the still quietness of the mostly sleeping streets. I’d take a hot shower and go to my own bed untouched.

Not just my apartment was a fortress, but my body, too. I hadn’t learnt surrender, and wouldn’t until I was 33, same age as Christ when he began to Save. And oddly, the man who taught me to surrender was the last man on earth I would have expected it from. I slept with him only because I’d given up, totally, on my life. It was a symbolic suicide, as close as I could come to killing myself. It certainly killed my marriage and the circumstances of my daily life. Almost three decades later, the terrain of my days is unrecognizable to me. Such a marvel of transformation, all brought about by one little fuck.

No, it wasn’t an act born of Christian virtue, but it was inspired by deep faith in myself. I was reaching out, for life, from a situation that felt like death. Andy would not discuss God with me — it was too private, he said. Yet I was his wife at the time.

While I was ascending the stairs to my apartment, Andy behind me, I hear him say, “You’re gapping.” I turned to look at him, a question on my face.

“I’m what?”

His finger pointed to the back of my skirt. The zipper had undone itself, though the hooks holding the waistband were still secure. It was a skirt I loved, with a delicate plastic zipper — my grandfather had bought it for me on a visit to California, at a very fashionable and expensive boutique. It was lavender, a synthetic fabric that imitated perfectly crushed silk tissue. It had a Russian cut — wide waistband, full circle hem, delicate string ties to loop in a bow in front. The color was pale lavender, buff like the breast of a dove. I felt invincible wearing that skirt, but now somehow the zipper had broken.

All you could see through the gap was the blazing yellow silk of my blouse — a gift from my favorite cocaine dealer’s French-born wife. It was low-cut, with a double-breasted front closure. Double-breasted but collarless. I had chosen to put the two garments together, bright flame on top, shy dove beneath, because it felt like by putting those clothes on I was perversely parading my naked soul. Same for the combination of schoolmarm bun and blood-red lipstick. See me! I was saying as I’d dressed that evening. See me, a bundle of contradictions, a split personality though both halves are always present and awake. I will at once ravish you and wait to be ravished. Andy’s error was seeing only half, half of the whole. He saw whichever half was at that moment most convenient for him to see. He could not embrace the full duality, it confused him and made him withdrawn, irritable and bossy.

Still, my gapping zipper embarrassed me terribly. I wonder if things would have happened the way they did had the skirt stayed intact. No, we didn’t sleep together that night, or even for weeks afterward. But pausing on the stair in my dim, closed stairwell, on the treacherous stairs, to inspect the rupture of my finery, gave just enough time to give me the heady sense of intimacy. And it was a more intimate moment between us than most which followed, even those involving both of us nude. In that moment, I made more of him than he was. My sense of reality dulled and faded, and Romance sprang its ugly, ill-timed head. I let him in my heart before I let him in my body, a mistake I had never made before and would never make again.

He didn’t even kiss me that night, nor did I kiss him, and for that I was glad. I was turning over a new leaf with Andy, or at least I would try. I would not sleep with him too soon. Some strange restraint held me back, where typically I’d not have cared. Was it his eyes? Some glint in them, something secret, and something I’d have to lie in wait to catch. For him to be taken seriously, I had to wait to fuck him. If he was too easy, I’d lose interest too soon. Not easy as in getting him into bed — I knew if I touched his belt he’d surrender. I meant easy as in figuring him out. The sense of mystery had to linger, if I were to hook myself. I wanted to swallow the bait this time, be caught, not just mouth the taste then spit it out when I felt the fisherman’s jerk. I had to set the hook myself. We stood in my living room and exchanged phone numbers.

“My office is practically next-door to you,” he said.

“Oh, really?” I said, displeased. I didn’t want to imagine him nearby. But there it was, a leaden fact, immutable. Already, I didn’t like his job. I’d never grow to like it, either, and after years went by it was one of the bitterest things he flung up in my face, my despising his choice of profession. But it seemed such a bore — why else were they called statisticians?

The next time I saw him was unannounced, at my front door. In fading daylight, he stood squinting at the blue writing on my door, traces of a mad former boyfriend, written when that boy was tripping his head off just prior to his first breakdown. He’d been tight with money, and too neurotic. He prided his family on being genetically insane — father, two older brothers, even the family pooch. The only sane one was his mother and she the only one in that family who disliked me. At that time, the mothers of the boys and men I dated fell into two categories, and only two. Either delighted to fantasize about me someday producing their grandchildren, or hoping grimly I’d fall into the next open pit and perish, if not from the earth, at least from their son’s life. The writing, blue and spidery, was an LSD-induced ode to my beauty, and my cruelty. Andy seemed amused rather than put off. He asked if I wanted to go for ice cream.

“Would you like to walk over to the ice cream place?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, though sidewalk strolls were, to me, pointless and inane. Too slow — I bicycled or drove where I had to go. I liked the wind in my face, or the fan of the car’s air-conditioning. But I ambled, I strolled, I put one foot in front of the other, pretending I did it all the time. Paul — the LSD boy — had complained bitterly about my failure to walk with him.

Was that cheating? If I had said no, would Andy have backed away, at least slightly? Would a butterfly’s wings have brought a halt to the sea-change then occurring? I wanted to be first agreeable, then indispensable. I would always have doubts, for the entire relationship I would have doubts, but I chose it nonetheless. It felt like a last chance, though of course it wasn’t. It was like a prayer I had made as a girl — if this happens, everything will be all right. If this happens, I will be safe from harm. Safe from harm, from hunger, from dirt, from infectious disease, from accidents, from failure. If this happens, nothing bad will happen.

I ordered strawberry cheesecake on a sugar cone. He had never eaten a sugar cone. They were the only kind I ever had eaten. Should that have been a clue? A family that buys cake cones, how could I find life’s happiness with the product of such a tribe? People who ate white bread, cut lettuce with a knife to make salad, people who never hugged. People from the swamps of the Hudson River. I hadn’t known there was such a thing. I thought the whole state looked like the Bronx. But when I met his parents, they loved me. Rather, his mother loved me, but that was enough. I don’t know that Andy’s father truly loved nobody, even his own wife, so I didn’t feel left out.

We ate our ice cream while strolling back to my apartment. Andy got into the habit of calling me from his office, late, as if to impress me with his work ethic. At the time, I thought I was what drew him to his office, the transparent ruse of being a block from me. I was wrong, very wrong, but even after I knew that I did not cast him off. I had set my own hook, bound myself to him out of some inexplicable sense of honor. I’d double-timed enough men by then — I was going to act the Girl Scout from now on. Never wanting to inflict harm, but somehow always ending up that way.

“Can you go out to dinner this Saturday?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “What time?”

“I’ll pick you up at 6:30,” he said.

He showed up with a bottle of wine, two glasses, and a red and white dishtowel in his hands, like a waiter. He seemed so charming, so boyish, below me on the stairs. I stood looking down at him until he broke the spell.

“Aren’t you going to let me in?” he laughed.

We drank the wine in my living room — the plants I loved were healthy and green, the light through the bamboo blinds turned everything gold-dust shimmering. I wore the lavender blouse that matched my skirt with a pair of gray velvet knickers. I’d left my hair down, and curled it softly. I knew – rather, I hoped — I was beautiful. Then, I hoped, now I know. I wanted to be loved even though I didn’t believe in love myself. I’ve always been in awe of religious faith, for instance, even though mine is rather shrunken, dried and prune like. Taught by nuns as a child, their certitude inspired in me not ridicule, but the hushed reverence of a fan. It didn’t matter whether I believed — they had enough belief for me.

And so it was with men — only those who believed in romantic love could catch my fancy, though if asked privately I would pooh-pooh romance as a sop for fools. I was too rational for Romance, but I could appreciate others’ romantic feelings as works of art, gifts of faith.
For instance, I could only refer to sexual intercourse as fucking. “Let’s fuck,” I’d say sincerely. Perhaps my tone misled my audience. Andy didn’t like that word, forbid me to use it. I had to call it “making love.” I didn’t know what love had to do with it. The feelings I got that made me want to take my pants off weren’t tender but greedy. I couldn’t say making love — I compromised on going to bed or having sex, both of which Robert found horribly unromantic. But then, I was unromantic.

The antics termed Romance inspired in me nothing more or less than the tender forbearance one exerts toward a child describing Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. I’d get dewy-eyed watching my lovers get dewy-eyed, letting them carry me into a fantastical dream, but then, the clinical, adult eye would take hold. I couldn’t love the men I was fucking while I was fucking them. Fucking was too hard for love. Love was too tender for fucking. At its finest, the violence of fucking can transcend all violence and seem for a moment tender, just like on the slow-motion replays football can seem balletic. But football isn’t ballet, no matter how desperately we yearn to make it so.

I held off going to bed with Andy until he seemed unable to wait. Waiting was so new to me it wasn’t difficult because I reveled in its novelty. Little did I dream I wouldn’t bed another man for twelve years? If you’d told me that at the time, I would have had you involuntarily committed to an asylum. It accrued day-by-day the way Alcoholics Anonymous folks accrue sobriety. One day at a time. The close calls I had were few and far between, but there were, indeed, close. When the dam broke, twelve years of pent-up longing swept out, and like any flood, too much of a good thing can be deadly. Twelve years of desire can flood the whole town. My desire was a fierce tidal wave, way over my skill to navigate. I was a tiny figure trying to stay upright, dancing along the blade of a tsunami.
For our first date, Andy and I drove to the restaurant he’d chosen, downtown in an old renovated townhouse. The chef was from Hawaii, a former body-builder who had competition photos of himself hung in the small bar. He specialized now in reduction sauces — brews simmered for hours down into their thickened essence. An example was a macadamia nut sauce — a gooey, sweetish, delectable drizzling over sautéed or broiled grouper. Or a red bell pepper cream sauce. Stocks, simmered for nearly a day.

This restaurant billed itself as Continental but was named after a large Sicilian town, Palermo. Perhaps that was a nod to the mob money which kept it afloat. Maybe Chef Duke had met his personal bankers at one of the muscle shows he’d competed in in Las Vegas. The Hawaii-muscleman-Mafia connection. It all made perverse sense, especially when you took your first bite of his awesome food.

Chef Duke had an equally awesome wine cellar. Adjusted for inflation, Andy spent about two hundred dollars on our first dinner together, one at which I did not even order an appetizer or dessert until urged to repeatedly, for fear of appearing greedy or gluttonous. Again, I suppose he was trying to impress me with a display of his resources on tap.

I was happy not to make any clumsy faux pas at the table, nor to spill my wine on my blouse. I was tipsy by then, and the food and wine and the candlelit, classical-music infused surroundings went to work on my innards. Andy’s eyes grew wide and misty and tender. It was a phenomenon of nature — I’d been programmed to hunt down scarce resources, he’d been programmed to hunt down a receptive, fertile mate. He had the job and the cash, I had the potential and the eggs. Does this seem unromantic? No, it was the highest romance of all — the next generation securing the means of its entry into the world. Hitching a ride from the eternal, spiritual realm to the finite, temporal one. Needing those chromosomes to meet and dance, just as our own need got met by our parents, in just as starry-eyed a way.

Everyone looks better at a five-star restaurant. All possibilities are ripe for exploration. Andy and I actually didn’t sleep together that night, however, because I was really trying to hold out. The thought of not sleeping with him until we were married (even though I was far from virginal) even crossed my mind. Crossed but kept right on walking. I was a third-quarter-of-the-20th-century kind of girl, after all. I wouldn’t buy the merchandise without a test drive. Which would come later.
At dinner, he ordered an expensive bottle of wine. I flew in those days after a glass or two, and still do. So the candles in the restaurant seemed magical, dancing flames like sentient beings, and the song they sang was the oldest song in my head. Love, love, love went the chorus. That elusive gnat, love, and the one I swatted away from me most of the time, seeing it as the annoyance it actually is.

The wine tasted like the flowers which had heralded its existence. I was like a bee slammed into a flower against its will. Do bees have scruples? I did, and even while I saw the dreaminess growing in his eyes, I felt myself unwilling to stop the surge. I knew, as I have always know, that I can love no one but myself, and that by allowing him to love me I was bringing injustice into the world. I was no stranger to injustice.

In my state of intoxication, I fell back on all the rules I’d ever learned. Such as, encourage him to talk about himself. I was then and am still a most adept examiner. I know what to ask, and how and when to ask it. I know this without being able to tell anyone else how to do it. How do you teach another to inhale and exhale, even when they are unconscious? Another rule I knew was, let him order for you. I did not address the waiter in any way except when asked a direct question, and then my answers were directed to Andy, who relayed them for me as if I spoke another language. Some people love to feel important, and the quality of the illusion is irrelevant.

He ordered for me, fish, which I had grown to detest in childhood, since my father fished nearly every weekend and it was a plentiful source of protein at our family table. I voiced no objection, and in truth, when the fish came, grouper sautéed gently with a macadamia nut white sauce, it was delicious. I grew to like fish in restaurants, and for that alone, I suppose I owe my first ex-husband eternal thanks. I learned that if you trust the chef, it doesn’t matter what you order. Choose your chef wisely and eat whatever it most pleases him to send out from the kitchen.

The fish went into my mouth, forkful by dainty, ladylike forkful, and I swallowed gratefully. The wine, of course, kept flowing into my glass, which kept raising itself to my lips. I don’t remember what I had for dessert other than the fact it was delectable and sweet. Yet even in my drunkenness my resolve was set against bedding Andy that night. Too soon — I could not tell with utter certainty whether the hook was firmly set. I could not bear such disappointment if he rejected me. He was so safe, so stable, and emotionally inflammable. I needed then to surround myself with asbestos on all sides.

I managed to leave the restaurant without falling once. Stepping delicately in my high heels and my gray velvet knickers, my dove-lavender blouse, I made my way back to Andy’s conveyance. It was early enough that there was to be an Act II, but in driving while trying to decide what Act II would consist of, we discussed music. This brought on a cheerful disagreement as to whether the jazz standard “Birdland” had accompanying vocals. I swore it did, swore I’d heard a version by The Manhattan Transfer only recently, in fact. A gleam of competition entered his eyes, and, exhilarated, he drove madly to the record store at the mall. We raced breathlessly under the metal gate of the store as it was going down. They had a copy of the Transfer’s recent album, and there it was on the cover.

Andy was so happy to be proved wrong. It had hardly ever happened to him. Later, when I met his father, that man told me how Andy had intimidated him beginning at age eight. I was stunned. Andy had a secret vow that he would never marry any woman who couldn’t beat him at chess. He told me this after the first, and only time, I beat him. Yet I had fulfilled his prophecy. We didn’t play after that, much, for me the joy had gone out of it. I didn’t understand Andy’s view of competition. I only competed with myself. I didn’t need anyone for that. Companionship was what drove me to intimacy. A longing for oneness with another. I figured it was because my mother hadn’t done such a bang-up job of it in my infancy, or because my father was brittle and sarcastic.

Oneness was the elusive brass ring that kept me getting back on the carousel. Always searching, never finding. I really tried to believe I’d found it in Andy. I convinced myself over and over again we were meant to be together, that fate had invisibly decreed our destiny as a couple. I was trying so hard to have faith. Years later, a man whose deep judgment I trusted almost like my own told me it wasn’t my attempts at that faith in intimacy that were to be faulted, merely the repository of that faith.

“You weren’t wrong to have that kind of trust,” he said. “You were wrong in choosing him to give it to.”

The right impulses, but the wrong decision. Story of my life. After that first date, that first lovely disagreement and its resolution, only a few weeks after all that, I graduated from college. The culmination of four years of hard work and assimilation of knowledge, it was to be a symbol of how disturbed my family life had become. My roots were jumbled and confused, to be sure. This threw Andy into high relief — the light that revealed the cracks and faults in my family simply bounced right off him. He shone like a sane angel among mental patients. It is how mistakes are born. We look, and we think we see. It is an illusion. Lives can be built on less foundation.

My mother was thin-lipped with jealousy that weekend. Her own college career had been abruptly cut off by getting pregnant with me, a fact which even under far more ordinary circumstances she never failed to remind me. On this day, her entire body was stiffened by reproach aimed squarely between my eyes. The high point was after a couple of drinks Friday night, when she bolted out of my apartment to ramble the neighborhood on foot and I had to plead with her to return so she wouldn’t freak out my grandparents. I felt the anger emanating from her physically. You know when you hold two magnets together at the wrong end, they push themselves apart? That was my mother’s and my relationship on a good day. This day was in no way good. I felt that if she could kill me and get away with it, she would. Her eyes glittered with hostility, though eventually she returned to the apartment, and for that I was grateful, since tomorrow morning I had to get up early to prepare for the big ceremony.

The graduation ceremony was held in an enormous indoor basketball stadium. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of us. The speaker was Buddy Ebsen, a pre-med graduate back in the 20s. I sat in my cap and gown with my Bachelor of Science tassel (the funny thing is, for four years I had thought I was working toward a Bachelor of Arts – who knew Psychology was a science?), and scanned the bleachers for a familiar face, but found none. I knew my loved ones were out there somewhere, but the knowledge came from faith, hope and charity, not hard evidence. We graduates were seated in the sunken pit of the basketball court, and the closest seats were fifteen feet above our heads and so far back the spectators looked like dolls. There was movement and buzzing, and when my row was called I launched myself blindly up the aisle and toward the stairs and waited to hear my name. I prayed I would not trip and fall on the wobbly steps in my unaccustomed high heels.

I perambulated over the stage and grasped all hands proffered to me. Someone moved my tassel to the other side and I went back to sit through the rest of the ceremony. The speeches seemed long and boring though I tried to glean insight and inspiration from them. The graduate speakers seemed cloyingly sweet: too good to be true.  Meanwhile, my body called out to recline somewhere, anywhere, cold hard concrete would do just fine in a pinch.

People always think I have so much passion, so much energy, when it’s not true at all. All I have is a voice inside demanding action, good deeds, and accomplishments. I only do things to quiet that strident voice. It beats me up, if I let it. There’s always what I want to do and what I should do, and they’re seldom in accord. What I should do usually wins out.

We went to dinner to celebrate at the same restaurant where Andy and I had our first dinner. My grandparents, my mother, Andy and I. My grandfather was a type of alcoholic — he’d always been functional, never lost a love or a job or his fortune by drinking, but he had lost some of his native intelligence, some of his humanity, and by that I mean that most times he drank, it was to excess: he could not stop, and after a few drinks he got mean. Extremely judgmental, no, condemnatory, and loud. He would tell you how wrong you were and he didn’t care how many others overheard. Once, when my mother was still in her late teens, he threw her out of the house, bodily, along with some of her things. They made up, eventually, because of my grandmother, but it was a bitterness between them that was only to be healed by my mother’s premature death. Yes, her parents were to outlive her, that was her best revenge on them for whatever it was they did to her to make her hate not only them, but her own life. Of course she blamed her parents for her unhappiness. It was easier than trying to alter the way she took in the world.

At dinner, Grampa ordered a Michelob, Nana ordered a Rob Roy, Mom ordered a glass of wine, Andy ordered a gin-and-tonic, and I had a glass of champagne. Or maybe we all had champagne.  It had been my favorite drink from the first sip I had of it, from my uncle’s stash of Dom Perignon.

I watched my family and my new boyfriend interact awkwardly at the table. The food was excellent, as it had been on my last visit. When the bill came, Nana paid it, handing hundred dollar bills to the waiter. He never returned with her change, and gave himself about a 50 percent tip. She was too afraid of my grandfather’s discovering to his displeasure how much our celebratory repast had cost to confront the management. She told me later, when there was no remedy. Andy was aghast and critical of her inaction. Critical, also, of the waiter, but more critical of Nana. It was a preview of what their relationship would look like in the years to come.

Andy and I went our separate ways over the Christmas holiday — I was starting law school in the new term after New Year’s. I went home to Fort Lauderdale and my old haunts that after only two years had grown foreign to me. He went home to the banks of the Hudson River, where I imagined him looking up old flames with the same curiosity as did I.

Everyone seemed pitiable, compared to Andy’s self-assurance. And yes, when you’re next to that kind of self-absorption for any length of time it comes to seem usual, normal. Lesser mortals, on a far less certain path, did not hold the whispered potential of safety, the lure of an impenetrable fortress of wise career choices and ambition. If you were successful in your job, my reasoning went, then you would be successful in everything. Things would fall into place behind the swiftly advancing career the same way bowling pins would fall when the pin in front, at the point of the triangle, carries the rest with it. I believed that a good job and an absence of substance abuse meant I was home free. I doubt I would have persevered through law school without Andy’s unspoken pressure. He’d broken up with one fiancée when she dropped out of her graduate history program — I wasn’t going to follow her path, not after his obvious distaste with her decisions. He’d found her wanting and gotten rid of her. She wasn’t good enough for him — and he never asked the question of whether he was good enough for her. Of course he was! He brought home a generous portion of bacon, he was on his way to somewhere grand, somewhere important. He ruined her life, in the end. She never married. She grew fat and neurotic. He has her on his conscience, though he never lets anything bother him too much.

I remember his secret conferences with her on the phone — he’d take the call, then go into the closet in the dark so I wouldn’t hear everything. She was trying to make him feel guilty, he said. He never imagined that perhaps guilt was something he ought to feel, the way he’d treated her.

She made several decisions without consulting him. She bought a vacuum cleaner, and a honeymoon to Bermuda. He decided he’d dump her for that, and for abandoning her graduate study. She worked as a bank teller when I met him, for God’s sake! She wanted to have babies, quit working. An unpardonable sin. Later, it became his MO to derail professional women. I was only the first.

I spoke to him by phone on Christmas Day. Our Florida patio was warm and breezy — typical tropical Christmas. His home on the Hudson River was unseasonably warm, so he could wear my gift to him — a Polo shirt. Lacoste was passé, Ralph Lauren was in. Ralph used to be a euphemism for vomiting. My biggest flaw, to Andy, in those days was how I dressed — he was on notice from day one as to my tastes, but chose to ignore them. His power of mind control was frightening. If he decided black was white, don’t try to persuade him otherwise.

86 Comments

Filed under health, humor, mysterious, notes, science, short stories

down in florida, a short story

illustration down in florida snapping ass

Down in Florida

            From the age of nine months, Ella grew up in Fort Lauderdale.  Her mother divorced her father up in Michigan and quickly ran south and east, to get far away from the gossipy and condemning former in-laws, and almost as quickly remarried an old college sweetheart, a Coast Guard man.  Ella was tall and fair with red hair and freckles.  She was a daydreamer and a romantic who was dying to take bold action to change her life completely, but kept her true self a tight secret:  everyone else thought she was practical and down-to-earth and would never have the guts to do anything to shock anybody.  She lived on the water and went to high school, and for fun on weekends, even though she was underage, she and her friends usually went out to discos, mostly to one called Mr. Pip’s which was just down the highway from her house.

The city of Fort Lauderdale was full of transients and drunks and drug dealers and well-off retired people from up north.  Bars and discos and private social clubs lined every main drag.  People drove expensive sports cars imported from Germany, Italy and England.  The good houses were on the water and the bad houses weren’t.  The deep-water port was always busy with cargo and passenger ships, and the marina alongside was always full of long, sleek private yachts stopping on their way either back up north or down farther south, to the islands of the Caribbean.

A main road called A-1-A ran along the public beachfront, between the strand and the big hotels.  From Ella’s back door you could see one of the hundreds of canals woven through the city that led into the Intracoastal Waterway and from there to the harbor and the jumbled rock jetties where the tide rushed by and the Atlantic.  The ocean was always beautiful, warm and flat, with a gradual change of color from green to blue to deep indigo along the horizon.  The breezes always blew, the air like a caress on the bare skin, and the tropical flowers always bloomed big and moist like open throbbing hearts.  From her back door Ella could see across the canal to U.S. 1, the oldest main highway lined with gourmet groceries and liquor stores and scuba diving shops and the endless procession of traffic to the beach.  Sometimes all the tourists on the beach looked the same — white and puffy and greedy for the sun’s warmth.

One typical Friday night, Ella and her best friend Tami first went downtown to Lester’s Bar, where the mugs were heavy and frosted, the beer was icy-cold, and the hors d’oeuvres were free.  Then they went over to Yesterday’s, on the Intracoastal.  Tami and a guy named Peanut hung around together the whole time, and Ella felt weird sitting at the bar all by herself.  Finally, Ella met someone named Jerry, who turned out to be a captain at Yesterday’s and she talked to him for a while.  At Jerry’s invitation, all four of them went to the Brickyard, a private club just west of U.S. 1.  Not once the entire evening had the underage girls been asked for I.D.s.  Over margaritas at the Brickyard, Ella told Jerry how old she really was — seventeen — and he flipped.

He went off by himself but when Ella and Tami were getting ready to leave he came over to say goodbye.  He asked Ella to please come home with him.  She said she wasn’t ready for that.  Then he walked Ella out to the parking lot, and they stood there and he gave her a tiny little kiss.  Your lipstick tastes good, he said, too good.  And he asked Ella, again, to please come home with him, but she said she was too scared.  She asked him, would he still be friends with her, and he said sure.  Then Ella said goodbye and got into Tami’s car, only she forgot she still had Jerry’s cigarettes.  She got out to give them back, and asked him again, would he still be friends with her.  He said, why are you so worried about that, and she said she didn’t know.  Ella wondered if he really liked her or just wanted a piece of ass.

Then, on another Friday night, she and Tami went to a place called My Second Home to play pool.  They ordered pitchers of beer and Ella teetered on her high heels and fussed over her lipstick between shots and got a little bit drunk.  A youngish man named Jeff, with the deep tan and scruffy sun-bleached hair of a true beach bum, invited them over to swim at his apartment complex nearby.  Tami said no, she’d rather play pool, but Ella went along with him — Tami just shook her head in amusement.  Once they got to Jeff’s house, Ella didn’t feel much like swimming anymore.  Jeff gave her a pair of cutoff shorts to wear and she went into the bathroom to change.  When she came out, Jeff was waiting for her and he kissed her slowly and gently and his lips were soft, but his hands were hard and rough and insistent.

Somehow, they ended up in Jeff’s bedroom on his bed, and over a period of time he got most of his own and then Ella’s clothes off, and he climbed on top of her again and again, but each time she kicked him off with her legs.  I don’t want to get pregnant, she said, which was true, but the real reason she didn’t want to have sex with him is she could feel he wasn’t the right person for her.  You won’t get pregnant, he said.  You’ll get your period at the end of the month just like you always do, he said.  She kept her legs together and put her feet against his chest and pushed him away from her over and over.  It happened so many times she lost count but the word rape never even entered her mind until the next day.  He never did get it in.  Finally he gave up and drove her back to the bar and in the parking lot sitting in his car with the engine running he leaned over and said to Ella, at least let me teach you how to kiss.  Then he showed her how to leave off kissing a man delicately, with some transition, not to pull her lips away from his like one would somewhat abruptly pull the petals off a daisy while chanting, he loves me, he loves me not.

Then Charlie was at Mr. Pip’s one Saturday night.  He had been done with college for a few years but still lived with his parents because he was more comfortable in his old room than he’d be in some affordable apartment.  His mother and father were elegant, wealthy people and believed Charlie was the smartest boy they’d ever seen.  Charlie had curly black hair styled in a small Afro and prominent brown eyes, and Ella noticed the way he had of staring right at the other girls and then her like his glasses were secret X-ray goggles from the back of a comic book.  She liked his eyes because they were so very curious besides seeming a little bit dangerous but she never imagined she’d end up dancing with him or going out on dates with him.

Even though his eyes cut into her in a way that made her feel attractive and desirable, Ella didn’t like Charlie very much at first.  She didn’t like the way he asked all those other girls to dance before he asked her.  She didn’t like how he laughed at her when she initially refused to dance with him, though she liked how he didn’t take no for an answer.  She hated herself for how she knocked his glasses off on the dance floor with her elbow while he twirled her around like a doll.  She hated how his parents acted like she wasn’t good enough when he brought her home to meet them.  But she liked how he stared at her, hungry and curious and patient.  Staring back at him for any length of time made her feel funny, dizzy and small, like she imagined being hypnotized would feel.

All the time after she met him Ella wondered if Charlie would fall in love with her.  He seemed too jaded for that.  He talked about his college days and the hundreds of lovers he’d already had and Ella’s non-Jewishness and how his mother disliked Ella but his father liked her a lot.  On their dates, he took her to good restaurants and gave her too much wine to drink, and stared at her with his hungry eyes, but he didn’t seem to be in love with her.  He eventually got a job selling stereos, which his father said was a waste of his talents.  Ella would go out with him every weekend, and stay out too late, and then her mother and her stepfather would make snippy remarks about her the next day as if she wasn’t even in the room.  Ella decided she wanted to sleep with Charlie even if he hadn’t fallen in love with her.

She wondered if Charlie would ask her to get married after they slept together.  If he didn’t ask her to get married, she decided that would mean he probably had never loved her.  One week Charlie’s parents went to Italy on vacation, so Charlie invited her over for dinner at his house.  He cooked heavily spiced Indian dishes, and served French white wine.  The kitchen was full of gleaming copper pots and the countertops were polished slabs of green stone.  They sat at a long, low oak table that Charlie said came from a nunnery in Spain.  He unbuttoned her blouse while she sat eating some ground lamb and rice.  She was starving but she didn’t take more than what he served her because she didn’t want to eat like a pig in front of him.  She sat and spooned the food into her mouth like she was dreaming.  He held her left hand and never stopped rubbing the back of it with his thumb.  He had a blurry, bloodshot look like he’d been drinking before she got there.

After a while he led her by the hand into his parents’ bedroom, through their bathroom and into their sauna.  His parents’ bedroom furniture was carved and gilded French, and the carpet was a primarily pale beige Aubusson and the bedspread was pale beige silk with a woven floral design, and all Ella kept thinking was how any little spot at all was going to stick right out and be totally noticeable.  He undressed her in a room full of mirrors then took his own clothes off.  She wasn’t relaxed in the sauna at all.  When she saw him naked she felt afraid but also excited.  His muscles were large and well-defined from lifting weights and he had a patch of fine curly black hair in the middle of his chest and a thicker, coarser patch of hair below.  They sat in the sauna for a while then took a cool shower together, and he did most of the touching.

He led her up the stairs to his bedroom, both of them naked, and from the stairwell across his parents’ wide living room, through the huge glass doors leading out to the terrace and the Intracoastal beyond, she could see the lights of boats like glimmering fairy jewels — red and green and white, doubled by their reflection off the water, every ripple of water caused by the outgoing tide sparkling, too.  The carpet of the stairs was soft underfoot and so thick her toes sank into the pile and caused her to wade up the stairs, struggling against the nap of the rug like gooey caramel.  His room had dark green walls and dark green sheets and there was a huge cabinet filled with stereo equipment against one wall.  He stopped to put on a record, some soothing instrumental jazz — slithery clarinet and round fat saxophone punctuated by the rasp of a brush across a drumhead.  She stood in the light from the hallway and let him take her to the bed.

They rolled together in the bed, the smooth fine sheets and the cool pillows.  His hair brushed her all over as he worked and she lay there thinking of nothing except what it was going to feel like.  She could hardly concentrate on what he was doing and she had no clear idea of what it was she was supposed to be doing.  He placed her hands on himself in various locations and told her to imagine she was touching herself.  He padded to his bathroom and came out with a box of Trojans.  He put one on and knelt over her, resting his weight on his knees and his elbows and with his glasses off his eyes were huge and dark and poring over her face like searchlights.  She felt part of herself tear loose and dematerialize and go up and into his eyes as though they were portals to outer space and though she hadn’t planned on it and certainly had no intention of saying it out loud she thought to herself with a bit of a shock, this is the right time and the right place and the right man.

There was a warm feeling all over her body and in her thighs and her belly there were occasional jabs of what was almost but not quite like pain, delicate lightning bolts along the nerves that felt like silent music.  She willed herself open to him, mind, body and soul but her body remained uncooperative.  He moved confidently and gracefully between her legs but all that happened for what seemed to her like hours was a dull ache centered around a point of resistance as if she were being prodded with a dry stick.  She blamed herself for being dry and closed up and she was ashamed of it and thought she probably looked ugly to him.  He didn’t seem to lose any of his enthusiasm for the task but kept right on fiddling around trying to get it in.  Finally it slipped past some sort of barrier and it still hurt but now there was a liquid feel, a dark slow movement inside her, a curious hungry swallowing up of something.  It still hurt but it seemed to be going the way it was designed to go.

Afterward she felt lassitude in all her limbs, a leaden weight that could not be defeated and she lay on Charlie’s bed looking out the window toward the water and every now and then she heard the horn of a boat waiting for the bridge to rise, waiting to get into the open passage to the sea.  The bed was soft and warm and sweet, and Charlie slept beside her breathing shallowly like a child and his arm rested against her hip and her throat was full and the room seemed to pulse in and out, in and out like when she had a fever but she knew she had no fever now.  She lay there for a time listening to Charlie breathe and when she turned to get out of bed his arm reached for her and he sighed and his eyes fluttered open.  Where are you going? he said.  I have to go home, she said, my parentsYou’re kidding, he said.  No, I have to go, she said, and she got out of his bed and went down the stairs alone through his parents’ room and put on her clothes.

Between her legs was a soreness impossible to ignore and through her panties the seam of her slacks rubbed against her and instead of fabric felt like the bark of a tree.  Charlie was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, barefoot and shirtless but wearing a pair of trousers.  He had his glasses on and he was looking at her face with his usual patient hunger but his eyes were at the same time distant, trying to look past her, as if he too was feeling something he had not been expecting to feel.  He put his arm around her shoulder and they walked to her car.  Please stay, he said after she got in the car and closed the door and rolled down the window.

I can’t, she said.

Call me when you get home, he said.

Okay, she said.

She drove off and in the rearview mirror she watched him standing in the driveway until she rounded a corner and could no longer see his house.  There was a slight chill and the vinyl upholstery of the car felt cold and damp.  It was late and there were few cars on the road and as she drove along the streets which were nearly deserted but still lit up and gaudy with neon, she was astonished by the strange new rawness inside her.  She had not expected to feel so much; she had not expected to love him.  She had not really known what she was giving up nor what she was receiving:  that place within her which always before seemed complete, that place which she now thought of as wonderfully empty, waiting for the next time it would be filled by her lover.

4 Comments

Filed under short stories