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Chapter Thirteen 🏠

A cover of a music sheet.


It’s too bad, but the one thing Maggie couldn’t allow herself was the time to let things accumulate naturally, the way Aunt Ruth could. Maggie always made a great, bursting try, and then after that, she had nothing. But there is something to the kind of thing that gets done by doing just a little every day: you save a penny a day, every day, lose a pound a week, every week; the Chinese were supposed to have driven you mad by dripping a single drop of water on your forehead, minute by minute by minute, until your skull looked like the Grand Canyon and you screamed’, “I’ll talk, I’ll talk!” Water is the universal solvent, more powerful than acid or Coke. Drop by drop by drop can be a potent force. The reason Jack and I had to get married was because I didn’t believe a shot glass of beer a minute could get anybody drunk.

When Jack finally came home that evening, I was determined to tell him, to clear the air of the ghosts, and to make a new start as a good person. When I heard his sports car pull up into the driveway and then stop with a rumble like an empty stomach, I started on my plan. I went to the sink and began chopping the onions for the salad, while the chickens bubbled in the oven. The onions were supposed to make me cry, so that I would be in tears when he walked in. I was taking no chances.

He came in and kissed the back of my head.

“Smells good,” he said, as usual. “And what’s in the oven?” And how’s the trip, chop, chop, chop, the solitude, and no tears would come. Chop. Where’s the mail, slice, chop … anything doing while I was gone? … nothing. Absolutely nothing. I picked up the dead center of the onion and sniffed it. No smell. Was I going mad?

“What are you doing?”

And then I remembered—of course—Hints from Heloise: if you keep the onions in the refrigerator, they won’t make you cry. Carmen Miranda was a cold, cold lady under all that fruit.

I looked up at Jack, who was looking with great longing in the oven window at the two chickens roasting there. Behind the spattered glass you couldn’t smell them and he couldn’t know how close to going bad they were, and so I did a brave thing. I went over to the oven, walked right between Jack and the chickens, and turned it off. The light flickered and the oven blacked out. “I’ve got something to tell you,” I told him.

He looked at me with such a look of innocence and surprise, and hunger, that I chickened out.

“I think the food is spoiled—we can’t eat it. We’re going to have to go out and get something. I can take the kids next door.”

“God, Linda, I’m dog-tired! Can’t you just make me a sandwich or something?” He opened the refrigerator and smelled the clean emptiness there. “Anything?”

“Everything’s rotten—I had to throw it all out. There’s nothing in the house—C’mon, we’ll make it fast …”

He whimpered, but picked up his keys.

The gardening neighbor took a long time to answer my knock, and when she finally came, her hands were muddy and covered with a green moss.

“I’ve been playing,” she said. “Just put the kids out in the greenhouse; I’ll watch for you when you get back. Follow me,” she said. And the kids did.

I’ve always felt that the gardener has the best chance for surviving and understanding life. She interacts with life, plays the game. My move, I plant; your move, it rains. My move, I weed; your move—killer frost.

Ten minutes later, Jack and I were blurring down the road at fifty miles an hour in his green sports car with the top down. He shifted into third gear and the car leaned around a curve; the colored lights spun past as he accelerated back into fourth. I was feeling lightheaded and giddy with danger.

“Do you want to get high?” I asked him. This was another thing we had learned from Chuck and Maggie.

“Did you bring anything with you?”

“Lots, lots … and I reached into my pocket for the pipe and plastic bag.

“Sure, why not—the evening’s already shot to hell,” he said. “Hold it down so it doesn’t blow all over.”

Ah, it was good to have him home again so I could be told what to do. My hands were shaking as I tried to light it, and the flame from the lighter bounced and wavered and then went out.

“I think the lighter’s empty; do you have any matches in here?” I reached for the glove compartment, naturally.

“Don’t go in there!” He whipped his hand across, protecting it, before I could reach the handle.

“So what’s in your glove compartment that I can’t see?”

“Nothing, nothing, nothing. It’s packed and everything will fall on the floor if you open it, that’s all.”

I didn’t believe him.

“Here’s a match,” he said, reaching into his vest pocket, and he pushed his cigarette lighter in for extra insurance. I tried again to light it, and the match blew out from the constant wind vectoring over the speeding shell of the car. I could picture it curving over us, making an invisible shape like a 1950’S Chevy around the boxy sports car. I knew this wind existed because once, on a bet, we had driven with the top down in a blinding rainstorm, and as long as we kept moving fast on the turnpike, we stayed perfectly dry, protected by the tapering envelope of the invisible rushing air. Only when we stopped, which was a stupid thing to do, did we get soaked. And we stopped because I couldn’t believe in the wind and he finally had to prove it was there. I would never ask him to stop again, after that experience.

“You’re really going to have to get down, there’s quite a breeze tonight,” he said.

“God, am I tense! It’s time to stop this rat race and slow up some.”

I leaned far down in the bouncing car, into the darkness near the glove compartment, and thought I might throw up.

“Remember the time I threw up in your mother’s car, her brand-new one, the second time we went out?”

“Just light the damn thing.”

“Touchy, touchy. It’s worth remembering.” Because when you’re married you’re supposed to listen to what the other person wants to say even if you couldn’t care less. That’s part of the contract. I thought I would think about it a little after I got stoned, so I finally managed to light the pipe. I inhaled a little and passed it to Jack like a mystic offering. The little black hairs inside his long, straight nose were lit up for a second as he drew on the pipe, and I remembered the hairs on Maggie’s fingers when she was drinking the hot tea. I keep putting the two of them together. He passed the pipe back to me, and I thought of silent ancient Indians from warring tribes passing a fragrant peace pipe to a person they might scalp in the morning. I inhaled deeply and felt my head clear, and my ears began to tingle with the night air blowing past.

I loved riding in the convertible. A11 the stars were racing by on the blackboard above our heads, and I thought of a song by Doris Day about using the stars as chalk to write something high above you. I tried to remember what those words were that got written up there, and also what I wanted to remember after I got stoned. The short-term memory loss was kicking in. Unfortunately, my long-term memory was quite intact, and I waited for an opening to tell Jack the truth, a moment when he would be ready and the wound wouldn’t be fatal. I was going to tell him the truth, so help me God.

I only saw Jack at widely spaced intervals, when an approaching headlight would light up his face. Then he would disappear again. He was good-looking—Maggie was right. In fact, they belonged together like the “two most popular” in the yearbook who hated each other but got together anyway for proms and photos, just to make the rest of us feel bad. But he was mine—I owned him. Then, a headlight would flash past his face and he would disappear again. He was out of sight most of the time, and then I remembered the other things. The glove compartment—the throwing up. He didn’t get upset at all; he just went into his mother’s trunk, took out the shorts to his gymsuit, which he had worn that afternoon in tennis practice, and mopped up the vomit on the floor. He told me to sit back and not worry about a thing, he would take care of everything. And he has. The glove compartment. Maggie.

Maggie! Her very name is like a bell, routing the Indians, and the chalkboards, and even sweet Doris Day, throwing them out onto the sidewalk. By an immense act of will, I pushed and pushed a sixty-second breath of smoke into the deepest parts of my lungs, into all the branches, so that my lungs would expand and send it floating up into my brain and smother, obliterate Maggie. Go away, get out of our car! Begone! I started coughing, hacking, choking, and then laughing at the same time, because I pictured her as a little gnat being puffed out with the exhaled smoke, tumbling and rolling into the air. Or as a little spark of grass seed that explodes and then dies on the car’s upholstery, red hair aflame.

“Are you okay, there, Oh, great smoker?” he asked. “You’re a walking advertisement for what’s going on in this car. Here, police, over here … this person. Come and get your pot smokers. We’ll be put in jail, behind bars, for Christ’s sake.” He looked over, grinning. “Try to control yourself.”

“Sorry.” I was giggling now, and this was the first time today I had laughed, maybe the first time this week. I leaned over and turned on the radio, a simple, innocent act, and who would think that tumbling out of the car dashboard would come such incredible, tacky music—a thousand violins filling the car, moaning voicelessly, “Strangers in the night,” to the fast black rustle of taffeta skirts swirling.

“Since when do you like that kind of stuff?” I asked his rather stony profile, a Mt. Rushmore of Pollution Control, blurring past the trees.

Unanswered, that question joined the ranks of the millions we had let pile up between us during the hundreds of hours of solitude while he flew around the country. Then there were more.

“Where are we going?”

“Why?”

“What are you thinking?”

“Are you feeling anything?”

“What?”

“What were you going to say?”

“Shall we do another pipe?”

“What do you mean by that?”

It never matters who’s asking the questions. We would switch off: one of us would punch, the other would play rope-a-dope. And then, after that round, we started jabbing at the How to Improve Our Marriage theme, and to be safe, I offered up the knot I had tied myself: I-don’t-like-myself-we-can’t-have-sex-we-get-tense-you-don’t-like-me … I could go on and on, but you get the general pattern. Only tonight, I was going to break the chain.

“In what way don’t you like yourself?” he asked.

“In any way—the way I dress, the way I look …”

“What do you mean? The way you look is fine. Maggie said you look younger … damn.” He winced, I think. I couldn’t see clearly.

“I also don’t like Maggie. Why do you keep bringing her up? Are you fooling around with her?”

“Of course I’m not fooling around with her—she’s your best friend.”

“She’s no more my best friend than …” and I trailed off and kept the “than I’m my best friend” to myself.

“Do you want to fool around with her?”

“I want to fool around with everybody. You know that—you know how frustrated I am.”

“I’m sorry. I think if my body hadn’t gotten ruined, I wouldn’t feel this way.”

“It’s not ruined, Linda. You know I love it, stretch marks and all, and so would anybody else if you would just open up to people instead of being so covered up and cold.”

And suddenly I panicked, because I was thinking he was getting too close. “I think there’s a curse on us,” I said, to throw him off by making him think I was crazy.

“What do you think this curse is?”

“It’s lies, lies, lies. I lie to you and you lie to me. There’s no truth at all between us. I fantasize about every man I see …”

“About Chuck?”

“Of course about Chuck, and Tom, and Dick, and Harry, whom you’ve never met.” I had heard this conversation somewhere before.

Where … here … in my own house … in my own mind … those words stayed in, these words went out: “And I imagine that you’re doing it with everyone. you meet on the road, fooling around with the stewardesses, with half the women at work, with Maggie …”

“I am.”

“What?”

“I am.”

“When?”

“Whenever I get the chance.”

“Where?”

“In hotel rooms, at work, at their places … in Debbie’s bed …”

“In your own daughter’s bed?”

“Here …”

“Here? In this lousy little car?”

“In this car, your car, her MG …” and he reached into the glove compartment and took out a package of rubbers. “I can prove it,” I heard him say, throwing them in my lap.

“What does this prove? Why do you need rubbers? Doesn’t she take the pill?”

“No.”

“Why not … ?”

“Because, you idiot, Chuck can’t get it up—they don’t ever have sex—you know that, he’s a wet noodle.”

He pulled the car off the road and put his head down on the steering wheel, and I heard the crickets all saying, “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” and I knew the salespitch was coming, and I thought, oh, my God, what have I done, because now he was starting to cry. Who knew he was a wet noodle? What a waste! Those shoulders, the teasing; what kind of person gets stood up by a wet noodle? Had I now gone beyond frigid?

Then he was crying on me, repentant, crying, telling me the truth, and I knew that there it was, there was his truth, he got his in first, all spread out so I could see it, be blinded by it. It was worse than my everyday reality of him, which I had learned to live with; worse, because now I couldn’t feel any pity for him. Before, when my paranoia about his traveling and the secretaries had been especially bad and he did something nice to make me stop believing my bad hunches about him, I would feel incredible pity for the beating I put his reputation through.

He would bring me sticky buns, and I would think him a sterling character, and he was, because he was always being polished by the gauzy embraces of my soft pity. It was all so dependable. I was the bad seed, he was the good egg. Instead, he really was a worm. A creep, a cheat. The dark waters of the lies had parted and I could see the seabed, and it was full of slime and corpses, mangled things. He was crying something about he was afraid I’d hate him … and, sure enough, there on a street very much like our own, with crickets singing and warm breezes sighing, I hated his guts.

I wanted details, of course. I probed him with my tongue the way I would probe a new cut. The more he cried, the more supple he became in my arms, the more I could bend him. I smoothed his mossy hair, stroked his curved spine, again and again, as he leaned into me, wrapping around me, and my arms encircled him until he was shivering and all rounded like a bow with his guilt. I sat straight beside him, tightly strung like a wire from his forehead to his hands, and he thought as he bent over me that he was playing on me, like a harp, drawing soft, forgiving music from my tense nerves with his plying fingers. But slowly I pulled back, slowly, slowly, bending him toward me until ping! And I flew away from him, finally freed from the pull of guilt. I blew away from him like a long, feathered sigh into the sky. I had used his confession to escape from him, and now my guilt was gone. He was so sadly human; he was just like me.

I looked into his eyes and saw they were as vulnerable as waiting targets, black-centered, gray circles rimmed in red, and I turned away because I couldn’t tell him my secret now. I knew to sting him that way would be the end of everything, and when I looked again, he was wiping his eyes and smiling, and we were saved for a time. The dark waters closed again, but we had both seen that incredible bottom of the pit for a second in each other’s eyes.

There was no more going back into the past now, so he turned the car around, tight in the middle of the road, and we went home, while the silence darted back and forth between us like a devil’s darning needle, mending the rip in our fragile black fabric of lies. 🏠

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