At least that's what I told Dr. Finn, the shrink I saw those first months after coming home, and after patronizing me in that oh-so-smooth, oh-so-agreeable manner of his, he proceeded to inform me that I was more or less an idiot, that my thoughts were evidence of some kind of reactionary defense mechanism—a regression to the womb based on all of my recent emotional trauma—and that I should get over it already. He had a bunch of other complicated words for it: terms I'd heard in the psych course I'd taken at Ball State but hadn't paid attention to. What I figured without all the smarmy, highfalutin', Ph-and-D horseshit was that he thought I was a coward, a disgrace to the enlightened modern woman, and that the only way to fix it all would be to blow him (okay, so he didn't actually say that last part, but c'mon . . . womb?).
More sessions with him would help me through it, he said, help me make peace with everything and start to want the good life again. That if I just listened to him and spilled my guts and had a frizzy-haired, backfat-squeezing weepfest, I'd start to crave those tennis dates and golf trips again; those fancy restaurants and theaters and lakefront summer homes; those goddamned poodles with the goddamned diamond collars.
Despite the mick head doctor's lack of professionalism and unwavering belief in the healing power of materialism, I gave him two more appointments to set me straight, evaded him as best I could when he badgered me about my body, my brains, shoes, sex, my father's death, and after I'd shelled out about five hundred dollars to feel like the most screwed up person in the whole world, I decided that if I was bound and determined to be a divorced-woman cliché, then it would be better done with a chocolate bender and extensive time with Karen Carpenter. If that didn't get the job done, I could always add a Jackie Collins novel or do a paint-by-number of some weeping willows.
If you had told me then that I'd be on the road to my ex-husband's house again someday, I'd have socked you in the nose, but here I am: fifty-eight years young and fat as hell, stuffed into this munchkin car, trying to tell myself that when Peter sees me it'll be like a day hasn't gone by, that this trip isn't about ten years past way too late.
All right, so I probably should've stolen a Jaguar.
I'm well aware that the sight of some fat, dumpy broad crammed in a vehicle barely bigger than her ass is one of the more laugh-inducing sights in all of Creation—but let me tell you something. This is one of those things where if you take too much time to think it over and plan it out you'll never do it. Looking back now, though, I'm thinking I probably should've made an exception in regards to my mode of transportation. This rattling little shitbox is about as embarrassing as cars get outside of the forty-four miles to the gallon it produces—saving money hand over fist, thank ya, Lowell—with the tradeoff being I feel like some kind of circus sideshow: the miserable brown bear in the pointy hat on the unicycle or something.
Now look: I've gotten comfortable with the fact that I'm more ursine than woman in terms of size these days. Much of it is genetic, runs in the family, and it is also important to note that I am on the downslope of my fifties, and I have yet to see anyone my age who isn't putting on the pounds somewhere. But what I'm really getting at when I say I'm comfortable with my weight is that I'm comfortable with it so long as nobody's paying attention to it. I'm the modest, prudent, gracefully aging ladybird who sits in the shade at the swimming pool in unrevealing slacks and billowing blouse, face pressed in a book. I won't look at myself closely in the mirror if I'm still in my underthings (there's nothing more depressing than being in bra and underpants and looking at folds of wrinkled, sagging flesh drooping over the sides of yourself like dried-on batter caked over the edges of a waffle iron), and I sure as hell never do anything physically strenuous in public. Being large overall means being large in all particulars, and when something my size gets going, that going is bound to cause certain parts of me to jiggle—and by some I mean a lot. So crap like chasing my nephews through the cornfields—an overrated experience to begin with—is out of the question. Auntie Mal is just fine over here, thank you. No, you go run with your brother. That's right. Go get him. Screw off.
I take great pains to not draw attention to my immenseness, which is why Lowell's Geo was such a terrible choice. Already twice today I've gotten so self-conscious that I've had to pull over and take a walk on the side of the highway, trying to figure out some combination of gut-sucks and clothing rearrangements that won't make me look like the gigantasaurus I've become.
One argument in favor of my all but obliterated femininity is the light red blouse I'm wearing. It looks pretty decent on me, I think, it just has this one drawback: if I start to sweat, it trumpets the evidence in the form of dark, wet pools underneath my arms.
Which would explain the behavior I exhibited off the side of Highway 30 forty miles outside Fort Wayne, where I spent a good ten minutes holding my arms up in the air like a tent-revival preacher, hoping the wind would pick up and dry the shirt out. I know I should have been horrified at the amount of cars passing by and all the travelers laughing at the chubby old bitch drying out her armpits, but I wasn't. All that mattered then is what matters now, which is getting to Peter. And if I can just keep it together until then, it'll be all right. Damn the journey so long as I can fake it at the destination.
After I managed to dry out my shirt enough, I drove for a few miles before making a pit stop at a delicatessen in Marion.
You heard me. I was feeling super huge and I went in to get a ton to eat anyway. How the two go hand in hand is something Dr. Finn can probably explain better than me.
I sat at the counter and packed my cheeks with a glorious smoked turkey on sourdough while some burly man next to me—bald head, full beard—sniffled over his Mr. Pibb.
He was wearing a plaid shirt and muddy work boots. His eyes were red and I noticed he had an endearing patch of dried snot on his right sleeve (endearing to me only because of my sweaty pits). He was clutching in a hairy, quivering paw a crinkled photo of himself and a perky little blonde in what I guessed had been happier times.
Between the sniffling, the tears, and the photo, I put two and two together and figured poor old Snot Sleeve had just gotten his heart stomped on. I couldn't help but want to say something to pick him up a bit, but when he turned around and barked just what in the big eff I thought I was looking at, my desire to "there, there" the sloppy Bob went right out the sandwich shop window.
Good thing I'm still a generous soul and still willing and able to help my fellow man regardless.
"How about instead of snapping off at some old lady for no good reason you do yourself some good and burn that picture?" I said to him. Then I waxed philosophic, channeled what I thought was Buddha, surprised myself: "To purge the eyes is to purge the soul."
Snot Sleeve didn't say anything to this, just dropped his head, the rest of his body crumpling like the picture in his fist. I suppose just about anything said to him concerning his situation would have had the same effect, but I was pretty pleased with myself nonetheless. I munched Ruffles, sipped Diet Coke, chuckled just like Dr. Finn did when he'd reduced one his patients to blubbering goo (not me, though), and when Snot Sleeve finally picked his head up to speak I talked right over him.
"No need to say anything, sweetie. You just think on that for a while, cuz I know I just blew your mind." Then I threw in one of those Finn-like wisenheimer smiles, gathered my wrappers, scooped up my tray, and stood up. Probably should have refrained from saying everything all over again, but I couldn't help it. I don't know about anybody else, but when I rise to an occasion, nail a moment perfectly, I can't help but want to keep it going.
"Yessiree. To purge the eyes is to purge the soul," I said again as I upended my tray down the garbage chute. "And believe me, I know whereof I speak."
The decision I made to leave Peter wasn't hard, didn't keep me up nights. I made it every day over a series of weeks and then for the last time one cool, spring evening at the kitchen table with his Johnnie Walker—smearing lipstick on his favorite tumbler—and without a single strand of gray on my head.
I had been waiting all day for him to come home from work so I could at long last hear his big plan to win me back. Not that any amount of apologizing and promise-making could have made me stay, but I thought it could only help me in the court of public opinion to at least give him a shot at making things right. But then he didn't bother to show up at the predetermined time (six-thirty sharp), and so I didn't see any reason to stick around like a chump. Hell, I'm mad to this day I waited until six-thirty five, even more so because I boozed it up and hummed sad songs.
What songs? A medley. No, I'm not gonna tell you what they were. Why? Corny. So you pick. Three breakup songs from the 70s. String them together. The only thing I will supply is what I chirped just before walking out the door for good:
Those were the days I was able to keep my weight down, and when I wouldn't have been caught dead saying things like "highfalutin" and "underthings." Like most expatriates from my little corner of Podunkistan, I had stamped out most of that small-town Indiana argot once I left for the real world post-college—which for me meant a part-time job as a cocktail waitress at a hotel in Cincinnati, which itself was but part of the full-time job of nabbing a man of means.
Damn, I was thin then.
And Peter was easy pickings.
After we married, I happily embraced the role of spoiled-rotten housewife that he gave me as a wedding present. I made him buy me a minivan, outdoor patio furniture, and a basset hound. I drank mimosas in the spring and manhattans in the winter. I took out subscriptions to Harper's and The New Yorker and every now and then tried to read them. Any day it was warm I played tennis with my next-door neighbor Jayne at the Whistling Pines Country Club, and every February I dragged Peter, Jayne, and her husband Mike to ski trips in Tahoe. Twice a week, almost every week during the summer, I had over-sweet Long Island Iced Teas with all of Jayne's little friends (Kay, Carol, and Diane) and somehow they became all my little friends. I became part of the clique, the club: Rich Bitch Nation. They loved me and thought I was so funny. I lied to them and told them I was from Connecticut.
I hired a gardener, a maid, and had my groceries delivered. I even brought on an interior decorator, and gave her carte blanche to design the chic postmodern, futuristic nouveau-rococo or whatever the hell it was that ended up being our living room.
Pardon me for a moment, but a thought, if you don't mind, about this horrible human being: I hate her.
Why's that? Oh, well, gee. Glad you asked.
For starters, her name's Nina, which I suppose is nothing worth getting nasty over until you see that name embossed on one of those tacky Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe patterned business cards of hers. Add to this the ubiquitous presence of heels regardless of weather and a penchant for flicking her legs out while walking, as though her limbs were in a never-ending commercial for a pantyhose line called "Sassy," and you start to get the picture. And if those two things aren't enough by themselves, she had this beyond annoying habit of licking her lips all the time, like they were made out of strawberry syrup. Even before she nuked my life, I often entertained myself by imagining her practicing her moves in front of a mirror: legs kicking, tongue licking, flapping that business card around like some kind of geisha with a hand fan, fancying herself as the sexy-fun goodtime girl, before realizing no one would ever love her and collapsing to the floor in tears.
She was a laughingstock. In every sense of the word. I mean it and it's not just because of how things ended up either. I had honestly thought at the time that she couldn't possibly pose a threat to me. Jayne and I used to crack up the second Nina came strutting inside the door, wagging that tongue and gushing about whatever amazing, incredible, fantastic-o thing she planned to do with the coat closet. She was to be pitied, I said to Jayne one night over takeout Chinese and beer. Prayed for, Jayne agreed.
And then we made fun of her.
I predicted Nina would marry an accountant with a Donald Trump hairpiece who collected old Civil War memorabilia, while Jayne said she would come out as a lipstick lesbian, host her own interior design show on public television, and campaign on the side for the rights of furry creatures. I returned with Nina becoming a mountaineer who would refuse to climb Everest in any shoes but her heels and force her army of Sherpa guides to carry a complete Ikea living room set for base camp. Jayne trumped that with Nina being the mistress of a traveling salesman who would interrupt their trysts to act out the homecoming game when he was the quarterback of his high school football team. I finished with Nina converting to Mormonism and becoming the second wife to a rancher in Utah (redecorating the homestead in a decidedly deco fashion, causing quite the rift with the other, more old-fashioned wife, Sarah Isabel—bringing out this shout, from me, as Sarah Isabel: "IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE QUAINT!"). Jayne ended with Nina (by now we were both referring to Nina—respectfully, of course—as "Neener") developing mouth cancer when it was discovered that the main ingredient in that red lipstick of hers was saccharin.
It wasn't until we ran out of cracks and stared at each other, half-giggling while the moment blew on out of there, that I realized Peter hadn't joined in the fun; that his smile had been pasted on his face and that he had excused himself from the table—hardly touching his Orange Chicken—and gone off to read in the bedroom.
Considering the destruction this woman has inflicted on my life, it's strange I can no longer remember her face, something that really started bothering me after I left the sandwich shop. Right around the time I managed to coax the Geo past the town of Mansfield I had to pull over yet again for another little stroll (arms up again, goddamned shirt) to get a clear image of her. Eyes, nose, chin, something. You would think this is a person whose every detail would be flash-burned in my mind for all time, but all I could drum up was a bunch of words: hearsay from a younger version of myself that I'd retired years ago like so many other forms, banished into the recesses of memory, only allowed to emerge from its dark, smoky corner to tell secondhand what I couldn't seem to remember anymore.
Words: Brown hair. Killer calves. Big laugh. Short skirts.
Okay, sure, if you say so.
But those stupid lips. I could still see those. Red like the shoes I'd worn the night Peter had asked me to marry him. Red like the slutastic dress the Prom Queen Cindy Stobbler had worn to the dance my senior year at Hickville High.
Red like the neon signs on Folsted Street.
It took me a while to screw up the nerve to get back in the car again after all that. Thinking about a forever young, permanently beautiful (in her chintzy way) woman while you yourself are struggling with a bit of I-am-old-and-fat-and-I-just-stuffed-my-face-with-turkey-and-mayonnaise-and-it-wasn't-reduced-fat-mayonnaise guilt doesn't exactly get you pepped up to squash your belly in between the seat and the steering wheel of a glorified golf cart again. It didn't help either that once I got the nerve up to get back in the car, it seemed to have trouble getting up to sixty miles an hour, as though it just couldn't take my weight anymore. That or perhaps it was pissed at me for stopping for like the fifteenth time, scolding me in a passive-aggressive way—a Dr. Finn term—for being such a kook.
But then I've always done these kinds of crazy things. Drive. Get mad about something. Stop. Get out. Stomp around. Rant and rave to the winds while thrusting my fingers this way and that. Wake up the next morning. Get mad again. Build a birdhouse. Then, just as quickly as I get pissed off, I just as quickly knock it off. I get back in the car and drive away. I leave the birdhouse half-finished in the corner of the garage. And I quit most times without feeling like anything's been fixed inside of me. You want an explanation I'll give you Dr. Finn's number. He knows every goddamned thing there is to know about people like me and why we do things and why none of it does us any good.
Take my night on Folsted Street, for example. Not even that accomplished anything.
At the time, I had thought my plan was perfect. Jayne and Diane had always said that you didn't go hanging around Folsted after dark unless you were looking to get your head kicked in.
I picked the perfect place: right under a broken street light, right in front of an adult bookstore. There I sat in short shorts, tank top, and no bra, and waited for the good old fashioned pornhound, your friendly, neighborhood serial rapist, to come, take me, hurt me, so I could hurt Peter.
It's true I didn't wait all that long—a few minutes or so—but I certainly felt that was plenty of time for one of the many respectable gentleman patrons of "First Amendment News" to see me, become inflamed with lust, and drag me over to the alley nearby and have his way. Irritatingly enough only one man showed during the time I allotted, and he seemed more enamored with the blinking red pointy boobs sign in the heavily barred window and strode right past me.
(Not that it would have mattered anyway. The guy was skinnier than a rail and I would have kicked his ass if he had tried anything.)
My next stop on Folsted was the Pop-N-Stop across the street (neon sign here featured a shit-brown colored hot dog with strings of ketchup and a cup full of something orange and bubbling). I had heard from Jayne that on Folsted convenience stores were robbed all the time, so it wasn't that much of a stretch to imagine the thrill-seeking thief—after this, his latest and greatest heist—seeing me next to the entrance looking docile and delicious and decide to branch out into the arena of sexual assault. Happens all the time, I'm sure. After all, raping and pillaging go hand in hand, don't they?
Tragically, as before, as always, nothing happened. I stood in front of that neon hot dog for half an hour, until my feet started to ache and I started feeling really weird about whether my chest could honestly and truly be seen through the tank top—about which time the cashier came out and told me to leave as I was loitering.
After that I wandered Folsted for almost a block, hoping to find some lurching drunk to punch me in the eye and just be done with it, but for the third and final time I was foiled. The street was essentially empty from the moment I got there until the moment I left, grumbling how there's never a sex offender around when you need one.
Before I left the sandwich shop I did manage to squeeze out a little more from Snot Sleeve. His big pout was that he didn't understand why. The perky blonde in the photo had never shown any inclination toward leaving him for someone else, and he just couldn't understand how this someone else, inferior in all ways to himself, could have so easily taken away what was rightfully his.
Once more I commiserated with Snot Sleeve's busted ego, channeled more Dr. Finn with eyebrow-raises and tongue clucks, and explained that contrary to what his boiling noodle might be telling him, why was not too difficult to understand at all. Take my tragedy for instance. Nina, despite her innumerable shortcomings, still had those lips, those skirts, and those calves; Peter, a flesh-and-blood man, was susceptible to such visuals. And as much as we don't like to admit it, in these kinds of situations there's never a shortage of kindling.
Ever the narcissist, I had left for a weekend to parade around my triumphant Rich Bitch self at my ten-year high school reunion. Because of the unrelenting boredom awaiting the spouses of those who actually attend such things, I let Peter stay behind, and Nina, as though immediately dispatched there by the infidelity gods, showed up out of the blue the first night I was away with a Picasso print we'd picked out together the previous week to put over the mantel. Fade out.
Fade in. Because reunions are ridiculous and the girls I had planned to turn suicidal with envy at the night-before party seemed genuinely happy for my good fortune, I decided to come home early the next day and skip out on the main festivities. Every bit in a fantastic mood for some reason, I snuck into the house with the intent of surprising Peter, who would then, delighted at my early return, take me out to dinner and maybe dancing. I stole up the stairs, thinking he was catnapping, or watching TV. At this point I believe I got so carried away that I started talking to myself in a snooty accent, (I'm also pretty sure whatever I said—something about the dancing probably—ended in daaahling). With a dramatic flair to match my mood, I threw open the door, sashayed into the room, sang "Ta-DAAAA!", and there they were.
Basically, I told Snot Sleeve, it's just what people do, and why is a trick question. Monkey nature, sin nature, human nature, doesn't matter. Then I smacked at the photo in his hand: get rid of this. Get rid of every other trace of the little snatch while you're at it. Then do what the rest of us do: get on with it.
"That's easy for you to say, lady," Snot Sleeve scoffed, putting the picture back in his shirt pocket.
"And it's even easier to do, my friend," I said right back at him.
For me, it started with the clothes. I dropped all the blouses and sweaters and dresses I'd bought with Pete's money—boxes of them—to Goodwills and ARCs. I took all the jewelry and trinkets he had given me for birthdays and anniversaries and just-because and sold them to pawn shops, my wedding ring unceremoniously dumped into the pile, like Marie Antoinette in a mass grave. I chucked the wedding and vacation photos into a dumpster. The three-hundred-dollar sunglasses bought on Park Avenue during our fifth anniversary New York City blowout? Out of the minivan window and onto the highway. The porcelain figurines—little pigs, little wolf—his cutesy first gift to me: bashed with a hammer in the basement.
The best part? I did all of it without making a fuss. I didn't rave. I didn't explode, bawling and screaming and clawing at the walls. I was cold, professional, an assassin. I systematically and calculatingly removed all traces of the life Peter and I had built together until the only thing left to get rid of was me. I even cut loose of our basset hound, Charles. Little bastard shit everywhere.
Peter was too ashamed of himself, too scared of me, and too busy helping his clients safely navigate the tempestuous waters of tax season to pay attention to what I was doing. He set up camp at work. He left rambling, stream-of-consciousness messages on the answering machine. He sent purple hyacinths and quoted passages from The Waste Land (which had no bearing at all on our situation other than it was April). When he was home, briefly, to shower, shave, change clothes, he didn't notice that my closet was emptier than before and that tabletops and counters were missing their adornments, that framed photos were gone. He never knew I spent part of a night in front of a blinking tits sign trying to get ravished, and I can't help but wonder how long it took him before he finally realized I had left him altogether and had left nothing of myself behind?
Upon my escape back to Indiana, I took the stack of money I had gained from the liquidation of my marriage and blew it. Blew it on all-you-can-eats at Red Lobster, various pies and sundries at Cracker Barrel. Lost a chunk of it at the blackjack tables on the riverboats, then lit the rest on fire with pampered weekends at bed and breakfasts. Nothing tangible, nothing to take home, nothing to put in a jewelry box or hang on a wall. I deliberately let it slip through my fingers, go straight to my thighs. I spoiled myself rotten—but no keepsakes—until the memory of everything I used to be was so broken up and dispersed over so many places that it was impossible to focus the pain.
I never resumed contact with Rich Bitch Nation either. Not even with Jayne, who wrote once a month for half a year until she got the hint.
What the hell are you doing in Indiana?
Shortly before sunset I reached Akron—the town I learned Peter had moved to once his mother had taken ill—and within minutes was on the road I had scrawled on the back of a pizza flyer two nights prior, the road taken from the upper-lefts of all the occasional Christmas and birthday cards he had sent every now and then over the years.
As I pulled through town, I couldn't help but laugh, a snicker tic like I hadn't had since I was a kid, like when my brother Lowell and I would trade faces over the dinner table, or Papa would do his Tin Man impersonation from the Wizard of Oz.
Peter's house was at the end of a country road a few miles outside of town, and I parked next to his mailbox, tears streaming down my face. My laughs were now a series of hoots and snorts, and I never hoot and I never snort.
I looked down at the flyer and suddenly wished like hell I had a pizza. I'd put on a baseball cap and walk up with one of those pineapple-and-ham abominations Peter absolutely adored and that would be our peace pipe. I'd show up as his pizza delivery girl and everything would be wonderful again. The years would just fall away.
I sat there laughing as my thoughts returned to memories of my father as the Tin Man parading around, my brother and me following him (Lowell was always Cowardly Lion, I changed what I was with every step, never able to make up my mind: winged monkey here, scarecrow there—oooh! Now Glinda the Good Witch!).
Is it any wonder I got out of the car feeling like a rambunctious little kid again?
With a hop onto the grass, I began kicking my legs out, strutting and flapping that flyer like a certain someone I might have told you about (Sassy! ), before stopping dead center in front of Peter's driveway and yelling out:
It's always the things we don't want to stick that do.
That little classic started when I was knee-high, and Papa made sure it stayed good and stuck.
Here's how it happened: I, hedgehog-haired and all of five, was on the couch one squally afternoon, watching cartoons, waiting for Papa to come in from the cornfields because of the lightning. Terrified of the darkening room and the escalating anger of the storm, I was hugging myself and concentrating on the TV with all my might. On it, the Road Runner was doing its thing—pecking at bird feed before bursting off screen in a cloud of dust—while the coyote was doing his, which was to basically kick his own ass. I had just gotten back to where I could giggle again when this big clap of thunder crashed into the house. I wanted to shriek, take off running and hide in the bathroom, but because I thought that would really set the storm off, I squelched it, transformed it into the Road Runner's signature sound, and right then and there it began.
Papa, in the house after all, heard me and thought it just about the most precious thing a little girl could say. A day later, he was pressing me to do it again in front of Lowell, and just like that it was over for me. I would not get to be the enigma every woman is destined to be, the unfathomable mystery that is our God-given right. I instead became a cartoon, explainable in four minutes or less, easily dismissed.
After that, when Papa would hold his arms out to me at the door and I'd run away, he'd just grin. That's my little Road Runner. That's my little Meep. When I'd throw a tantrum for no reason at all (another inherent womanly right), yell and scream and stomp from the room, Meep-meep! would trail behind me along with the snickering of whoever had witnessed the outburst. When I disappeared from family gatherings, holidays, to yell at the sky, to get away from the simpering and the cheek-tugging and the why-don't-you-go-play-with-your-cousin crap: Meep-meep! When I ran track in high school to get away from the glares and the back-stabbing of the other girls, the teasing and the taunting of the boys, my bleeding uterus and my growing breasts: Meep-meep! When I never dated anyone in high school longer than a week and when I wouldn't put out: Meep-meep! When I spent every weekend my sophomore year at Ball State stoned out of my gourd, slept with three different boys in one semester, and wouldn't return their phone calls: Meep-meep!
When I broke up with Peter six different times before he finally wore me down: Meep-meep!
"Aw, she's been that way forever," Papa said, when Peter came to him out of exasperation, during a visit a week before we were to be married, right after I'd told him I wasn't sure how I felt about him anymore. "Even as a little girl. Never could figure out what she wanted with anything. She thinks she's so complicated."
They had thought I was upstairs, asleep.
"And she's not. Some kind of messed-up wiring if you ask me. Always running away from people. Always wanting to be alone."
I had been in the next room, on the couch, in the dark, listening, waiting for Peter to defend me.
"I don't know, Petes," Papa continued. "I hate to tell you this, cuz you seem like a nice fella and all, but I don't think she's capable of being with anyone for good. She'll always be looking for a way out, for a back door. When my little Meep finally stays put it'll be because she's been busted, because she doesn't have anything left, because she's all used up. It happened with her mother, (God rest her soul). And I don't see it being any different with Mal either."
One thing I'm pleased about with that story is how I related it to Dr. Finn. I didn't break down and bawl my eyes out, launch the cushions at the ceiling or otherwise pinball myself around his office. Neither did I try to laugh it off. I stayed factual, even, still. One of my best performances. I mean, it's not every day you get to recount to someone you pay money to hear your troubles that your father thought you'd finally settle down once life beat the ever-living shit out of you—that he even believed it would be a good thing. Given all that, I thought I did okay. Handled it well. Kept it all together. Papa had become bitter and mean by then. His own end T-minus six years and counting. Full of anger over being busted himself.
And he would be wrong.
Life wouldn't get the best of me. After my divorce, I would work behind the perfume and lingerie counters at department stores in small-town malls for the next thirty years and choose not to remarry. I would live in condos and apartment complexes and rented houses and never get to know my neighbors. Sure, I would bounce around a lot, but it's like that bumper sticker I see all over the place and have always wanted to buy: Not All Who Wander Are Lost. And call me crazy but I don't think any of that is a recipe for an American tragedy. The Meeps of Wrath.
It took a lot longer than it should have, but I eventually righted myself, knocked off my giggle-fit, and began to stumble my way down Peter's too-long (and too-dark) driveway. I was now clutching the pizza flyer to my chest for emotional support, like a rescue victim from a well who's made friends with a log while they've been trapped.
Unexpectedly, Peter's house looked a lot like the one I'd been sharing with Lowell for the past five years: one of those small Midwestern farmhouses that could have been snatched away from our road by one of those storms I had feared as a girl and dropped right here. Obviously his finances hadn't rallied as well as I assumed they would after I'd taken my rightful share.
The long driveway was empty except for a shady oak just to the right. The porch bare too, save for a rocking chair near the front door.
I wondered if Peter was already aware of my arrival, and was at that moment peeking through the curtains at me. I fought back a nasty impulse to lift my hands up with twin middle fingers extended, like the wounded but still cocky gunslinger, pistols drawn, ready for his last stand on the streets of Deadwood— That's right, Cheatie-Pete, the bitch is back! —but I quickly realized, with growing alarm, that lifting my arms up right now would be fairly unwise, as my shirt was once more soaked through the pits. And though I couldn't be certain, it wasn't crazy to think that now, the third time through this, the shirt—and for that matter, me—had started to stink.
Wonderful. Exactly the way I had hoped things would go. Can't wait for that first hug.
The last time I saw Dr. Finn he asked me if I had gone through with my marriage to Peter just to prove Papa wrong. Then he did that annoying, super-abrupt change-of-the-subject thing and started poking around the state of that union the weeks leading up to Peter's infidelity. I didn't have much to say about any of it, and got appropriately outraged when Finn tried to place some of the blame on me ("Given how you said you had trouble being in the same room with him a good deal of the time, seems to me like you were almost hoping he would cheat."). Just about got me to storm out of the session forty minutes early, but then Finn offered muffins and coffee and downshifted to what my thoughts had been when Papa had died (about six weeks before I caught his beloved "Petes" penetrating our interior decorator spread-eagled on our Oriental rug). He asked me why I hadn't stayed with Lowell for that last-night vigil he had held for Papa. Between mouthfuls of a double Dutch chocolate, I told Finn I just wasn't up for hanging around for that short window of consciousness the doctors had said may or may not come, the one where my father would wake up long enough to mumble some sort of fond farewell before going down the tubes once and for all. I knew such a thing wasn't in the cards, but Lowell swore up and down that our father was coming back to say something nice to us for the first time since we were kids and vowed to stick it out no matter what. So what other choice did I have but to take off? Papa was finished. Been dead in mind and spirit for days (if not years) already. He wasn't going to snap out of it, say something wonderful to me and my brother before fading away into whatever's next. No, he was going to sleep, drool, moan, breathe shallowly, and then, one day, thank god, stop.
"And that wasn't worth staying for?" Dr. Finn asked.
I was now in front of Peter's porch, pondering that rocking chair for a lot longer than it deserved (final analysis: it lent the scene a comforting, grandfatherly feel—though in a cheap sort of way, like some wall art scene you'd buy at Hobby Lobby). Night had fallen, and through the window, I saw there was only a single light on in the whole house.
I ascended the porch steps quickly but quietly—shocking myself again, as I am usually neither of those things these days—creeping as though about to pull some kind of prank. I leaned into the door, pressed my ear against it, listening for the sound of Peter traipsing back and forth, clearing his throat or—yes, please—sobbing over an old picture of moi.
Hearing no traipsing, no throat-clearing, no sobbing, I rapped on the door with more conviction than I felt. As much as I was trying not to let them, all the little things I hadn't done beforehand, such as making sure that Peter would be home, were flooding my brain in a rush of slap-happy ridicule.
I turned back to the window and peered inside. The one light on was in the kitchen, and through the shadows I could see that the living room was a simple one. Couch, love seat, television (off). Could have been anybody's living room. Nothing had a telltale Peter-like look to it. Except . . .
The Picasso. Proudly hung over the TV like a hunting trophy. An eternal reminder of a once-glorious conquest.
Unable and unwilling to deny the clear meaning such a choice of décor suggested, something primal, guttural issued forth from inside of me, and I stepped away from the window, clenched my fists, and seethed.
First thought: I was going to burn this house to the ground. If that wasn't feasible, I was going to drive Lowell's Geo full speed through the front door. Maybe next I'd find a cat somewhere and make it piss on Peter's couch. If no cats, then I would take it upon myself—not to pee on anything, mind you—but to write ASSHOLE in the darkest red lipstick I could find (and oh, look, here's some in my purse!) on the Picasso.
The cruelty, the injustice of the whole thing was breathtaking. I mean, what would Peter be cooking up if I had screwed some other guy and then when he showed up a million years later I still had the condom nailed to the mantel?
I kicked that rocking chair of his, and it, along with the tranquil aura of idealized yet affordable Midwest Americana it exuded, went flying across the porch. Feeling angry and powerful enough to consume entire galaxies, I turned to the door with the thought that maybe I could smash it in. I bounced on my haunches like I imagined a boxer would, going through the logistics of door-smashing in my mind, before realizing I hadn't the slightest idea how to go about doing such a thing.
I thought about using my shoulder, but then I'd seen Lowell do that once when he was locked out of our shed and it took him four tries and he'd messed his neck up something terrible because of it. Knowing me, the door wouldn't budge an inch and I'd knock myself out.
Thinking I might pick the lock with a hairpin (despite having zero hairpins and even fewer clues how to pick locks with them), I took a closer look at the door and noticed a crack under the knob where it looked like somebody had slammed it too many times over the years—and, well, wouldn't you know it, a voice that sounded a lot like Doctor Finn's piped up inside my head.
It's easy, Mallory, the voice said. You just smash your fat foot through that crack.
Stunned by the obvious brilliance of that solution, I took another look at the door. Ya know what, Doc? I thought, smiling. You're right. That does seem awfully easy.
And it was.
And now I'm stuck.
I suppose this all goes without saying but I'm gonna anyway: I sure didn't see this coming. We're in one-in-a-million territory here, you better believe it. The force of my blow should have blasted the door open, reduced the house to rubble, but what happened was that my foot made it through, along with most of my right leg, and then nothing else moved. I swear that at that exact moment the rest of the door did some kind of weird magic and constricted itself around my leg, rendering it (and me) unmovable. Since then, I've been passing the time trying to wrest myself free, but what I've come to realize is that unless some Good Samaritan chances upon me and my little dilemma, I'm going to be here with my leg stuck in this door until Peter shows up.
I can see it now.
Hi Pete, how you doing? Just wanted to say hello. I know, out of the blue after all these years. As you can see, I'm old and heavy now and I tried to kick your door in—though in all fairness, it's because I was so mad about the Picasso (any reason why you still have that, by the way?). Also, I know this is a bad angle, big ass and all now, but I'm really not so fat as I look. Lots of people actually say I look pretty decent for my age. Like this man I met earlier today that I like to call Snot Sleeve who got dumped by this really tiny blonde and—Not that I have much choice in the matter, but I am determined to wait. Just because it looks I've got no choice doesn't mean I don't. I've still got a nail file in my purse. I could saw through my leg.
Yet, despite the obvious appeal of lopping off a limb or two, I will wait. Wait in the dark (the stupid light in the house just went out) as night comes to comfort and succor me with these wonderful and totally asked-for face-whipping winds. Definitely some weather brewing, and with the way my luck's going it'll be a flash flood, a cyclone, or that lightning storm of yore finally catching up to me after all these years.
Even if, even so, tough stuff. I'm waiting.
If Peter's at the store, shopping for some kumquats, I will be parked right here until he gets back. If he's on a vision quest in the badlands of Arizona, I will figure out some way to subsist on roots and tasty Akron squirrels until he remote views me. I will wait, on this porch, for as long as it takes. If termites come out of the woodwork to attack me, I will squish them with my free leg. If a hungry wild boar approaches, I will tell him to shoo, pound my fists on the door and karate-chop the air, use my pit-stench to drive him away. If the long-delayed pervert jumps from out of the bushes over there, I will say no thank you.
But I'm not going anywhere.
And now I'm laughing again. The totally joyful yet utterly insane laugh consistent with the kind a depraved shoe fetishist would exhibit after incredibly waking up one morning in a world created by Jimmy Choo (or, the kind of laugh consistent with someone who just got their fat leg stuck in a hole they made in a door and can't fucking believe it! ). As I laugh I'm thinking of hospital rooms and Folsted. Of empty streets and blinking red boobs. Of Dr. Finn's bullshit and Papa's bullshit and how similar their voices sound in my head. I think of Lowell, Peter, and Neener, Neener Wiener-Cleaner and her ruby-red whore lips. I think of a pack of goddamned diamond-collared attack poodles, and more than anything that wonderful turkey sandwich from lunch, with Swiss and tomato and lettuce and pickles and mayonnaise and mustard, red onion, a Big Grab of Ruffles and...
Oh god, I gotta get out of here. Okay. Easy does it, here we go, just pull your leg a little . . . wiggle it there . . . now pulllllllllll . . . ow ow ow . . . shit!
Fine. I'm staying. This is me, right here, right now, choosing to stay all over again—and only because it's the right thing to do. Because Papa's wrong, everybody's wrong. I've proved it over and over again. I'm the one sitting in the dark, sitting through a storm, sitting on a street corner, sitting in a hospital room, waiting. Waiting to be defended, waiting to be comforted, waiting to be hurt, waiting to be loved, waiting to be forgiven. I'm always waiting, always have been waiting, and always will be waiting.
Waiting for someone who's not coming.
Raconteur, accomplished curmudgeon, baseball fanatic, David Skinner hails from the badlands of suburban Colorado Springs, where he lives with his wife, Jenn, and pug, award-winning snuggler and chewer-of-things-that-are-not-his, Howie. When he's not derailing worthless internet political discussions for his own amusement by accusing any and all contributors of Hitlerism, Mr. Skinner typically produces a story of some kind. His latest is the comic novel, The Antichrist of Kokomo County. Find him at http://tdavidskinner.com and on Twitter.
Share on Facebook
Tweet about this Piece
Poor Mojo's Tip Jar: