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by kathleen maher
pictures by rhoda penmarq
In my vision of the New C. of C. when I imagined “my turn to speak my mind,” the speaking aspect was metaphorical. The challenge was just to get to where everyone had found a seat, cleared his throat and blown his nose. When it really was finally time for me to say what’s what, a higher order would kick in. What do I think? Why am I alive? Bottom line: I need to believe in something greater than myself, which, Come on; can’t be that hard to find!
It’s after midnight, but Stephanie has joined Maggie and Carlos in the apartment. So I guess they’re anxious, too. Maggie’s calling, “Come out, Malcolm. Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
But I’m drowsy and naked, and wish they would go away. With my door closed, the covers over my head, I’m still aware of Carlos coolly reviewing the plans. Maggie murmurs agreeably and Stephanie mutters.
Stephanie, I found out, visits her sister, the one with MS, in a nursing home every night after her shift. She’s worked with me for twelve years and until a few weeks ago, I knew only that she has a relentlessly sour disposition and wears—every time I’ve ever seen her—a cheap skirt or slacks, white nylon blouse, white stockings, and off-brand aerobic shoes.
Maggie’s perpetual motion—I can hear her boots on the floor—seems at this remove like a peculiar, feminine form of anger.
Why doesn’t Carlos shoo the females away? They linger and fuss and he says nothing, even though it’s late.
They fume and sputter and I have to pee but do not want to see or be seen. If they weren’t here, John Coltrane’s saxophone would fill the apartment. If Maggie and Stephanie weren’t here, Carlos would be curled beside me, feeding me. He’d be getting ready to take his bath. The windows would have misted up and he’d start circling the rooms. The robe would slip from his thin brown frame and the glint from the iron balls in his hands would break through the blanket dimness.
If the women weren’t here, I’d be swirling Metaxa in a glass, watching him. Drunk but still drinking, stuffed but still eating, I’d suck in every detail: Carlos’s tantalizing, unspoken bribes hanging in the air; me stupefied with the awful hope that he might pull me from the chair, might hold me, might sway with me while the horns sounded and the bells chimed.
27) Valentine’s Day
Miraculously, I managed to slip out before Carlos woke. I left a printout for him:
Hope you don’t mind, Carlos, but I’m taking the day off. Don’t worry; I’ll be back for the meeting. And I’m leaving you the station wagon. Have you noticed how the raspberry twists have been selling? Since it’s Valentine’s Day, would you consider doubling the batches? Please also make fruit and custard tarts, those giant macaroons, éclairs, tortes and Black Forest cake. Thanks. M.
I bundled myself into a moss-colored anorak, this year’s Christmas gift from my parents. Trimmed with coyote fur, it is supposed to keep you warm to fifty below. My scarf and gloves lay on the coffee table near the sofa where Carlos was sleeping. Standing there, I could feel a sheet of cold air from the storm window above his head.
Yet he lay oblivious on the undersized sofa—only half the army blanket covering him. Light from a streetlamp emphasized the furrows in his face. His hair flowed over the armrest. His inside arm was pressed into the sofa back and his outside arm was flung over his head, the underside of his biceps looking as sleek and lively as a quick brown fish. The sight of Carlos dreaming, unawares, unprotected and half-naked set me trembling. His offhand pats and extra-casual gropes, his ardent new habit of plying me with narcotically rich food and the flurry of inconsequential kisses with which he rewards me for consuming staggering amounts of it—are more intimate than anything that’s happened to me since Colin died.
As I hovered over him, Carlos shifted in his sleep. His arm dropped to the floor. He turned on his side and the scratchy wool blanket slid lower along his flank. Stepping backwards, I inhaled hard at the sight of his gleaming hipbone. He was snoring and I watched his top leg kick free. For the hundredth time I took in the breath-taking curve of his instep. With his feet, his hugely perfect ankles, and the swell of those calves, you’d think he could jump a mile in the sky.
Determined not to wake him, I still hovered, swearing that any second now, just one more second, and I’d hurry away. Go, I told myself. Go on! Go now! If the next New C. of C. meeting was going to happen, I had to have the day off, away from everything. But if Carlos were to raise an eyelid by so much as a millimeter—I’d be snared inside his net of crisscrossing seductions. Asleep, he looked both old and not-so-old. His features looked softer, his body even more impossibly lithe. The little wrinkles on his sharp thin face did not exist, but the delicate red capillaries looping over his nose, across his cheeks suggested a map of ancient configurations. But beneath this gleamed a lush red mouth, the satiny lower lip just slightly agape and (it’s enough to kill me), vividly tender. Gasping for air, I gripped my jacket, ready to tear it off. My heart pounded wildly and in my frenzy I somehow—unbelievably—got away.
On the street, stunned by the cold black expanse, by the shockingly limitless space, I hurried into the pharmacy doorway. A dire anxiety rose up and within seconds I was hyperventilating through a flood of tears. It was three-thirty in the morning. I didn’t stop weeping for a full, eternal five minutes.
And then, frightened and humiliated, I staggered over the glittering pavement, wondering what had just happened. No one witnessed it. But surely I was not the only one sobbing then; not the only one quaking in sorrow. Isn’t the question, why shouldn’t we cry? Isn’t it an outright miracle that we aren’t all weeping all the time? Because being right alive now is just way too much—and not enough.
Amazingly, we nonetheless march through our paces, day after day, year after year. “Hi, how are you?” “Good, thanks. And you?” And no one protests, no one rebels! Or maybe they do. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe crying in the street is a universal secret. While I’m off tallying inventories, working the cash register, padding haplessly about my apartment, everyone else is outside screaming with abandon, expressing sorrow, disappointment as well as blessed giddy joy—everything, everything all the time!
And then—I admit: probably not. Prolonged laughter or crying of the kind I just went through borders on the surreal. It gives us intimations of life beyond our grasp. My little attack has left me more fragile than cleansed. But the swing and strangeness of it suggest a passageway. What if I did teeter there, all but directly within God’s Presence? Absent the usual warped politics; absent especially that master-slave routine?
Trudging south, into a stinging wind on Sheridan Road, I hop on the first bus coming my way. In the dark sky no stars shine, no trace of color encroaches. The lighting inside the bus renders the riders woeful and unwholesome.
The man across from me is wearing a Burberry scarf and a Burberry coat. He balances a briefcase on his lap and is reading what looks like a legal brief. He keeps tugging at his collar. In a seat facing the front, a round faced, middle aged woman appears asleep, her head back, resting against the molded beige plastic. A few seats behind her, a teenage boy and girl, their faces painted like Kabuki masks, rock to and ’fro, arms and legs entwined. There are a few nurse-type women, their white uniforms showing beneath their big down coats.
And one more: Craning my neck, I notice a man encased in reflective running gear. He’s wearing an orange cap and his shiny silver gloves finger a waist-length beard divided into two heavily moussed conical shapes. The notion comes to me that people who ride the four am bus are desperately clinging to whatever’s slipping away from them. Awake at this hour, they experience a separateness some of us have never imagined. I glance at their expressions: the weariness, the determination, pain and loss. Everyone around me needs that chance to stand up and say what’s most important.
This bus is full of seekers. I don’t have any fliers to hand out, but I have such a strong feeling, I decide, why not at least check? Eyes burning (the air raw with diesel fumes), I rummage in my backpack and, yes! Find the manila envelope stuffed with fliers. I hadn’t put it there, but there it was. So I stomped up the aisle, shoving copies of the “New Forms” print-out in people’s faces, explaining, of course, that the topic isn’t set in stone and, really, anyone can talk about anything. My voice is hoarse, maybe from crying so hard before, maybe because what I’m doing is so unlike me.
Then the bus lurched and stopped, and the driver was out of his seat, yelling, “Hey, you! No soliciting on my bus!”
Right behind me was a bearish man in several Alaskan-type sweaters, whom I hadn’t noticed before. “Say, my good man,” he said in the overarticulated pseudo-cosmopolitan accent sometimes affected by winos. “I’d be interested in one of your religious pamphlets.”
“No, that’s all right. They’re nothing, really.”
“Oh, but obviously they are something.” Setting down what looked like a bowling bag he dug into one sweater’s pocket and offered me whiskey from a brown bag.
The bus driver was making his way up the aisle, coming at us.
“No, thank you,” I said, handing him a flier and hurrying away.
I got back late. Carlos said, “already five PM,” and he told Maggie and Stephanie to mind the shop. We were going upstairs.
“Don’t disturb us,” he said.
They scoffed. “Don’t worry.”
Inside the apartment Carlos already had candles burning. The waning winter light faded behind sheer curtains I didn’t recall hanging there. We drank Grande Dame Clicquot. There was a wheel of runny cheese, which I scooped up with toasted rusks.
Undoing his hair, Carlos sat close to me on the sofa. He crossed his legs and draped an arm around me. “You know what’s going on, with us and the meetings, but more between us, is fantastic. As if, heaven sent.”
Patting my knee, he rose and slipped into the kitchen. The champagne bottle was wrapped in a towel and clumsy me spilt some. Carlos appeared, put a tray of chocolate strawberries on the table, and knelt down to mop up the effervescent little puddle.
I watched the tips of his hair get wet. It’s a mind-control technique, I know: starve a person before unexpectedly offering a solitary feast. But that doesn’t explain my totally out of control desire. Irresistibly sinister and strong, Carlos cuddled beside me.
“Strawberries,” he said, plucking one from the platter and holding it to my mouth. Pressing his fingers against my lips, he fed me one coated berry after another.
We drank more champagne. And after a lull, when he resumed pressing the chocolate strawberries into my mouth, I grabbed twin handfuls of his hair, winding it tight around my wrists as if that could restrain me.
I shifted my buttocks, trying to redistribute my weight, when Carlos slid on top of me, his small skinny chest resting against my fat shirtless self. His long arms reaching for the plate, he continued pushing the strawberries between my lips, followed now by the tip of his tongue. (But every time I tried to bite that tip, it darted out.)
The disc player moved to Gregorian chants, which Carlos did not expect. He got up and I sat up, edging myself forward to guzzle more champagne.
“Are you all right?” Carlos asked. “Your face is red.”
I stood and looked at myself in the mirror. Hands under my pecs, I said, “Carlos, look! I’m growing breasts.”
He said, “That does it,” leading me to bed, where I performed mightily. At first, he tried telling me how to go about it. But fat, drunk—even after years of nothing—I’m still a master at the ever-varying gradations between pleasure and pain. I still know how to make a man scream.