He was late again. He was always late. I don't know why I put up with it.
I don't know why any of them did.
But I did. Once a week. Always Mory's.
I don't like Mory's. It has the kind of flavorless food that makes old Yankee men look so constipated. It has the kind of atmosphere that goes with it, stuffy and bloated. I feel like I'm eating in a museum. I hate the gummy tables with the carved names of long-dead freshmen embalmed in urethane. I hate the rich shrill wives. Even though it's not officially a men's club any more, every woman there who doesn't look like an undergraduate looks like she belongs to someone who belongs. Always a belonging, never there in her own right.
He belongs, of course. I always go as his guest. A waiter deferentially waves me to a table. We know he'll be late.
He was last week. My father had just died. I thought that for that, at least, he'd show up on time. Instead he was ten minutes late without even the usual negligent apology. In fact he didn't even say hello. He just launched right in. "So I said to myself Christ, what the fuck am I going to say to her. And here you go and make it easy on me. Jesus, Rachel, I like that outfit." I was wearing black tights and a big black turtleneck. "Wow. Mourning in Chelsea. Ha. Chelsea mourning. Where was the wake, Pastis? Listen, if I blow my brains out, come to the funeral like that and I guarantee they won't be able to get the coffin closed. Would you stand up and turn around? Come on, for me? Okay, not now. At the funeral. Promise." He tore open a pack of oyster crackers with his teeth. "Listen. I'm sorry. But I figured you must be pretty sick of sympathy. How's your mom?"
He got away with it. He always did. He was right. I was sick of it. When I found out my father was dying I cried. When I found out that he'd chosen a gun in his mouth over another chemo session I screamed so hard I sprained a muscle in my neck. Now I was tired of condolences that seemed awkward because I knew no one wanted to accidentally drop the S word.
So he was late again. I stared out the window. He bounced up. "Sorry. Judge on the phone." It was always something like that: a judge, or a doctor, or a witness. Or so he said. I think it was usually whoever he was trying to line up for the weekend. Though he said he'd mended his ways since Maggie.
He dived into the soup I knew to order for him. He ate as if the bowl said Fido on the side. Actually he always reminded me of a dog. Maybe an Airedale in an Italian suit. He was about the same size. He had the same need for attention. I could imagine him jumping onto the table and barking if I ignored him.
"Listen," he said. "The weirdest thing happened to me this weekend."
"What a surprise. Look at who you live with."
"None of that, dammit. Anyway I think she's doing better."
"Great. So she's getting back to the baseline of just plain nuts."
"Yeah, well, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it. Hey, if you expect a sculptor to act like a CPA you have a rude awakening ahead, I can tell you." He started in on the fruit plate. If he had the table manners of a dog he had the diet of an anorexic girl. "Anyway, I'm sitting in the office Saturday morning."
"Hey, this is a great story. What an exciting lunch."
"Please shut up. Anyway, I'm sitting there and who blows in but Daphne. I guess she got confused between vacations and forgot what day it was. Or maybe she thought hey, I'm a partner in a law firm, maybe I'll go see what the office looks like. So she says I just saw Sarah around the corner having coffee with her father. And I think Christ, the bullet just grazed my ear. I was there half an hour before. I missed her by a few minutes."
"Oh. That wouldn't have been pretty. When was the last time you spoke to her?"
" Eight, nine months, easy."
"And you left it how?"
"Call you tomorrow."
"Very nice. Great way to end. You went out with her for a year."
"Yeah, well, get the fuck out of my house you crazy bitch never seemed to work. Even repeated weekly. So I thought I'd try something a little less direct. Worked. Or seemed to.
I go out to my car. I left the top down. On the passenger seat I find a single red rose.
Wrapped in paper. The kind you buy from a street person. So I think aha, Sarah must want bygones to be bygones. Then I find——" he rummaged dramatically in a side pocket "—-this. Exhibit A. Right next to the rose."
The evidence in question was a square of newsprint, ragged edged, obviously torn from a paper. It was a cartoon from the New Haven Advocate, our local arts, music, and personals weekly. The Screaming Man. I had seen plenty of them, in the paper and on T shirts, a guy with bulging eyes and distended veins usually shrieking something that sounded like it came out of a Twelve Step program. Here the Man had a gaping hole in his chest with an anatomically correct heart lying on the table in front of him. He was on the phone. The boldface in the word balloon said "Honey I know it sounds codependent and dysfunctional but this time I know it's love."
His arms were folded. His terrier eyes didn't blink. "So what do you think?"
"Sarah did this?" It was meant to be a statement but it came out a question.
"I thought so. But it doesn't seem like her style. Too complicated."
"Maybe it was Maggie sending you some kind of romantic message." I tried to sound serious.
"Actually that occurred to me. So like a fool I asked her. Jesus. Grand mal blowout.
I thought I was going to have to stick a spoon between her teeth. Not only was it not her, she was, shall we say, displeased that another should communicate with me in this fashion."
"She didn't come out and say it, but she acted like she thought I was boning someone else."
"Straight is the way and narrow the gait. I'm a reformed character. Sharing and caring. Allan Alda is my role model."
"After five months. A record." He was never discreet about his girlfriends. At least with me. He said he wanted advice. What he wanted was an audience.
I'm not sure exactly how we had fallen into it. When I first started with his firm he ignored me. I couldn't figure him out. His partners were old men or women with rich husbands. All waiting for five o'clock and Florida. This starched little dandy didn't seem to be with the program. When he finally asked me to carry his briefcases on trial I understood why they tolerated him. He was very good. They must have thought the arrogance and eccentricity were worth it. We had our first lunch while the jury was out. Later we started to have coffee when the others were gone. He was funny. He listened. Soon I got invited to lunch again. When I left the firm it became an institution, once a week, always Mory's.
Sometimes it carried over into the evenings. We double dated. It never worked.
My husband was always out of his depth. I usually had to explain jokes to him as soon as we left the restaurant. It was even worse watching him with the girlfriends. They were always pretty, always sweet, and always wrong. Sometimes I would watch them watching him and wonder what they would do when they got home.
I had listened to him whine his way through four or five by now. No matter how melodramatically he complained, he always managed to extricate himself without consequences. Somehow he always got away with it.
Sometimes I think I'm a fucking nut magnet. I draw mentally unstable women the same way a bug zapper draws mosquitoes. Actually, I think it's the other way around. I'm the mosquito, saying hey, what's this bright glowing humming thing. Next thing you know, you're carbon. But if I haven't always got away clean, at least I've always got away. That's the important thing.
Then these things start showing up in the mail. "Unfair" is a client word. I found myself using it again and again. For once I was playing it straight; for once I meant everything I said; for once, someone else was fucking things up for me.
So it's the Monday after I first found it. We're sitting in the kitchen. Maggie's looking better than she has for six weeks. A month before I'd finally persuaded her that what she was going through was no mere variant on artistic temperament. The occasion had been coming home to find that she hadn't been able to get out of bed and had spent the day watching old movies with the sound off. To say that what she had gone through was an illness is like saying Moby Dick was one big damn fish; I had ridden it like Ahab tangled up in his harpoon lines.
So we were in the kitchen. It was something of an occasion. This was the first time she'd cooked since the depression began. A big bowl of pasta and vegetables. She was looking good. Nothing you would call animated, particularly if you had known her before, but neither were her eyes fixed on the middle distance as something that couldn't be seen on a CAT scan sucked away her life as surely as any tumor. I was especially happy that she seemed to have got over the rose-and-cartoon episode of the weekend. For an ugly day or so I wondered whether that was going to tip us over the brink again.
But apparently not. She had talked to someone about learning to weld so she could do this big installation piece she'd thought of. She didn't eat much of her pasta, but she did take out a pencil and start sketching on a napkin. She even laughed a few times, though I had to work for it.
With the plates still on the table I started going through the mail. Interleaved among second notices and no-annual-fee offers was a plain envelope, Hamden postmark, no return address. I slit it open and a xerox fell into my plate. I sponged off marinara with my napkin. Screaming Man. Identical to the one I'd received on Saturday.
She must have seen me twitch as I crumpled it. "What's that?" she said.
"Oh, nothing." How stupid can I be? You don't crumple up something and then say it's nothing; you say what nothing is. Nothing is always something. Usually something you want to hide.
Across the table she looked like a death mask. Her features were rigid and eyes aimed straight at a spot right above my shoulder. I wondered whether the paint on the wall behind me had started to scorch. "I want to see it." Her voice had that tone of exaggerated reasonableness that SWAT negotiators use right before they okay the tear gas.
This was not going to be pretty. But there was no point in resistance. Without a word I passed it across the table.
She studied it for a full minute. "Interesting. Very interesting. Who is she?"
"Who is who?"
"Whoever you're screwing on the side."
Christ, I've heard this before. But always with some basis in fact. Which makes it all the easier to deny; then I know which bases to cover, where suspicions could have grown, what anxieties can be mitigated with apparently sincere confessions of thoughtlessness. Here I had nothing to work with except absolute factual innocence. Always the worst defense.
"I'm not screwing anyone else on the side," I said. Eloquence, after all, is my business.
"Then who sent this? Who else knows where you live? Who else knows your car?
Who else knows your office? Who else knows you work on Saturdays?"
Calm descended. "I can't answer the first question. My address is in the phone book.
There may be fifty red TR3's in that condition on the East Coast; everyone knows it. My name is on a big sign in front of my office. Lots of lawyers work Saturdays."
"Be a lawyer in your office, then. Not here. You know what I mean." I did, of course. I was playing for time. I couldn't imagine what was happening. "Who sent this to you? Who sent it here? I think someone's jealous. And she's jealous because you're screwing her and she wants you to herself."
It was then that I felt that first pang of bitterness somewhere around my duodenum. Not fair. Not fair. Not fair. Three months after our first night depression had settled on her. It reminded me of Lent. Or better still Holy Saturday, when all the statues in church are covered with purple velvet in mourning, obscuring even the outlines of the figure beneath and the only light is the flicker of thousands of votive candles in their little glass jars. I lost sight of the vibrant character that had drawn and held me in the first instance. First sex went, then humor, then appetite. Though almost every synapse screamed fuck this, I chanced it. I hung in. I became a caretaker. My reasoning, which had absolutely nothing to do with what I did except to justify myself to friends and of course to myself, was as follows: Bimbos are a dime a dozen; artists aren't; therefore, it makes sense to invest in this. The unspoken and thus unrecognized predicate was, of course, a desire for permanency.
She had left the table. From the sound of things she was changing CDs; from the sound of things, our next selection had to be beaten into submission before she could get it to play. She came back. "So who is she?"
I had had time to think. "I'm not screwing anyone else. Don't ask again unless you really want to see me pissed. And you've never seen that. And you won't like it. Just think for one minute about what's been going on the past two months. Think about what I've been doing. Don't bother to apologize. Just think."
She did. She didn't bother to apologize. I hate it when people do what I say.
"Obviously someone I used to go out with. Who else would do this I can't imagine. She must think it's funny."
"Which one, then?"
Christ, I should have heard the ice splintering beneath my feet. But I was rattled.
Like almost everyone else, she was the model of hip about her own exes; hey, what's past is past, what's a cup of coffee here or there. But I've learned the hard way that once acquired, intimacy never quite goes away. Hence I kill them dead and bury them deep. That other shit only works on MTV. I never talk about them with the incumbent and I try never to even acknowledge their existence in her presence. Because I know that Hip Street runs one way. And not in my direction.
But this time I forgot. I started to flip through the mental catalog. Out loud. I guess it was the second glass of cheap cabernet that put a certain nostalgia in my voice. Next thing you know doors were slamming. Needless to say there was about a yard of cold sheet between us that night.
The next day there were three. Each identical to the others, each with a different postmark. The next day none, and I breathed relief. Then two, and a fax from a Kinko's.
I was beginning to get scared
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