UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 11/2011
BARBARA DONNELLY LANE
Theresa Adams liked the discipline of a rigid routine, the whitewashed existence of a suburban housewife. In the morning she vacuumed. Then dusted.
“Hello?” Theresa said. Her long, blonde hair was tied up in a rag. She was thinking about the roses she needed to fertilize in her garden, the pink and red petals as smooth as a child’s skin. Her hands smelled of Lysol and lemons.
“Hello,” a man said, and just like that the room started spinning. There was no mistaking. He had a soft voice with a little gravel in it, the smallest hint of a New Jersey accent. “How ya doin’?”
“Fine,” Theresa murmured. Her tone was one of vague politeness, as if she was speaking with a telemarketer, as if she didn’t recognize his voice. “Can I help you?”
“I wanted to talk to you about… you know.”
“Oh?” She reflexively fingered her crucifix, offering him nothing. “Hello? Hello?” she said vacantly as if checking the connection. She tapped her thumb against the mouthpiece as if it wasn’t working.
“Fuck you,” he snapped. There was an abrupt disconnect, the code blue of a dial tone.
Her hand grew cold as it gripped the phone, as if her heart had momentarily abandoned pumping. She slid down her mop handle and sat on the floor, unconcerned about the wet tiles. The water soaked through her white pants, licking the back of her thighs.
Theresa put Billy into bed with her in the master bedroom. She was in a mood to tell ghost stories, and the four-year-old loved them. He shrieked with laughter at her tales of a mysterious boogey-man wanting to steal the world’s sugar from the middle of his belly button. He pushed his body into hers when she tickled him, his tiny head poking out from underneath a nest of white sheets like a duckling with downy-white hair.
A carved statuette of the Virgin Mother stared serenely down on the laughing pair from the walnut dresser. But the statuette’s fixed eyes—Mary’s placid mouth—felt disconcerting to Theresa. Here was a reminder that there was only one Immaculate Conception, only one innocent birth, so she pulled Mary down and carefully buried her underneath a tangle of faded bras inside her underwear drawer.
The phone rang again after ten.
Theresa yelped at the sound, but the caller was just John. She looked at his picture on her nightstand: tall and thin, receding hairline, thirty-three and handsome. He asked what she was wearing, if it was the green teddy. She had on flannel plaid PJs, but she lied and said she was wearing lace panties.
She pretended nothing was wrong.
It was better to forget she had not met her husband until after Billy was born.
“I miss you,” she said soft as a prayer into the phone.
“I miss you, too,” he said, a voice too far away to help her. “Give Billy a kiss for me.”
“And a big, wet slurpy for you,” he added with gusto, “under the lace panties.”
Then she was left again with memories like pieces of lost costume jewelry she’d forgotten she had ever owned: beautiful things—even when tarnished—shiny things made of rhinestones and glue.
Brian Imporelli was a salesman from New Jersey living in Miami. His skin was stained a permanent chestnut by the beach sun he soaked up with such regularity, and his hair was such a glossy black, it looked polished. He seemed exotic to Theresa when she was a girl just a year out of college. He was of Italian descent and ten years older than she was. Every night he’d hold her in his Lazy Boy chair when they’d watched television; he’d cradle her on his lap, rocking her back and forth like she was a child.
“Let’s go to the ocean,” he whispered, stroking her long hair. “Let’s go after we eat dinner.” He had a purple cross tattooed on the index finger of one hand. She touched the permanent ink, rubbed it as hard as she could with her thumb.
“It’s too late,” she protested. “We’ve both got to go to work tomorrow.”
“We’ve got to go to the ocean tonight. Make love on the beach in the morning,” he pressed, and it sounded like a good idea. Romantic. Impractical. They would eat lobster and drink daiquiris every night of the week until the rent money was gone, his way of living. “Do you know I love you, Reesie? I can’t help but love you.”
“Uh-huh.” She rubbed her cheek against his shirt, knowing she wasn’t answering the way he wanted. Like a cat, she could be cruel in how she kept her distance.
He lifted her off his lap and dropped her with a heavy plop onto the blue couch. He went to the kitchen where she could still see him and busied himself with cooking a steak, slamming cabinet doors, looking for spices. His back was as tight and straight as a guitar string, tempting her to play him.
“What?” she asked.
“What?” he mimicked, frying pan clattering on the stove. “I don’t understand why I put up with you, Theresa. One minute you say you love me. The next you don’t say anything. It’s like you’re a crazy person. A dual personality or something.”
“Yeah?” she baited, grinning. “Does that mean the three of us aren’t going to the beach now? The two of me were really starting to look forward to it.
After midnight Theresa decided Brian’s phone call had been a fluke. It meant nothing. Of course he thought about Billy just as she sometimes thought about Brian. Maybe he was getting married, and he was thinking about the child he never knew. Maybe he really believed she didn’t recognize him on the phone, and he had been too embarrassed to pursue the conversation further. Maybe the caller really hadn’t been Brian.
She buried herself in the blankets, shifted on the mattress. She pulled Billy closer and wondered what he was dreaming. She smelled the shampoo in his hair, the boy scent on the nape of his neck. His perfectly shaped lips were slightly parted, a bubble of spit in one corner. She counted the spattering of freckles across his nose. His skin looked almost translucent; he was so pale. Like her. An Irish complexion. She kissed his forehead. Then she slipped back into old dreams.
After she’d found out she was pregnant, she had hid from the world in her old bedroom, the one that had not changed décor since she was twelve. Late at night when her parents were sleeping, she would stare at her stomach in the vanity mirror on her dresser. Sometimes she could see the baby jump, kick, or flip over, and her sadness would deepen. There would be no baby shower with pink and blue wrapping paper, no nursery to paint with matching border, no book full of baby names to highlight in yellow marker with a husband. The china dolls on the white shelves would watch her cry with their cold, black eyes, and she would hate them for seeing.
Later, labor had been a relief to her, the white-hot pain from a body that felt as if it was splitting in two. She screamed in the delivery room, head lolling to each side, her soul feeling disconnected. She’d squeezed the nurse’s hand until it turned red. She would remember until the day she died the feel of her mother’s cool palm on her forehead. Then Billy was born with blue eyes.
She had been so sure he would inherit Brian’s brown irises, Brian’s black hair, that on the day of his birth she had not wanted to look at him. She pushed him away from her, told the nurse to give him to her mother. Her hands lay empty on her stomach as she stared at the white-tiled ceiling, blocked out the baby’s cries, as the doctor quietly stitched her flesh.
It was only when she was alone in the hospital, after her parents had gone home, that Theresa asked for Billy. He was bundled in a white blanket, a ridiculous blue hat on his head that clung to his skull like the end of a plunger. His mouth opened and closed as if he were talking, making a sucking sound she found pleasing, but deep down she expected to find something wrong with him, something like the mark of Cain. She held her breath as she made her inspection, counted his fingers and toes. But there was nothing. Not a trace of original sin. Not one reminder of her humiliation.
He looked at her with those eyes pale as water, and she pulled him closer to her, chest heaving, tears falling on his face like a baptism.
Theresa got up tired. She used to be a secretary to make ends meet, but she became a homemaker after she got married. It was easier since her husband traveled often. Billy was energetic, and she tried to harness his morning enthusiasm by putting on cartoons. She told herself she’d be more attentive after coffee. The doorbell rang just as she was getting ready to pour the first cup. She wasn’t dressed yet, but her plaid pajamas were modest. She half-heartedly ran her fingers through her hair half expecting her neighbor, Trudy, wanting to borrow milk or butter. But standing there was Brian in gray slacks and a white shirt. She almost fainted.
“Hi, Theresa,” he said. He was as tan as always, black hair slicked back with gel, but much older. Almost forty. Had it only been four years? “Did I wake you?”
“No,” she stammered, clutching onto the door for support. “Just surprised me is all.”
“I guess so,” he said.
“What can I do for you, Brian?” she asked, as casual as possible, but her voice was shaking.
“I was in the neighborhood.” He smiled broadly, and she thought she saw something in the shape of his jaw that looked to her like Billy. Something she’d forgotten.
“Can I come in and have a cup of coffee?” he asked as if he stopped by every Saturday. “I know you’ve got a pot brewing. I can smell it.”
“Umm, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.” The potted plant on its stand by the front door, the green welcome mat on the ground, the blue sky above the oak tree growing across the street all looked completely normal. But she was suddenly in the Twilight Zone. She hadn’t seen this man since before Billy was born.
“Is it a bad idea to talk to an old friend?” he asked.
She didn’t answer him.
He shrugged his shoulders, held his empty palms up, looked as innocent as the painting of Jesus she’d hung in the hallway. “Look, Reesie, I just want to see him.”
Her body was experiencing such an explosion of emotion that she felt something akin to drowning, a great internal struggle, and then all the energy was draining out of her again beneath his gaze. His old nickname for her jolted through her body, adding to the conflicted feelings she had for this man who’d once rocked her on his lap, rubbed her hair until she purred: the same man she had left in her past but who still held a blood claim to her present. “I’m not even dressed yet. You can’t come in.”
“Of course I can, if you let me,” he said as if everything was simple. As if there should be no question about what she should do. As if the days had not stretched into years. As if he still belonged near her. “It’s not like you’re standing there in your underwear. It’s not like I’d care if you were.”
Her cheeks flushed red; her fingers reached for her crucifix. “Billy has a father who loves him. You’re not welcome here.”
“And where is Prince Charming?” he asked flatly. His eyes were as heavy as a visitation order, heavy enough to crush her.
She slammed the door shut and locked it. She fumbled with the chain.
But he just knocked again.
Beads of sweat popped out on her skin.
It didn’t matter that it was just a gentle rap of knuckles across her door. The quiet taps were as persistent as the heartbeats Theresa had seen in her first sonogram long before she knew she wanted Billy: a steady thumping too loud to be ignored.
Oh, how she used to love the way Brian would trace the curve of her hips with his fingertips at night. She would run her tongue from his Adam’s apple to his lips, gorging on his affections. He would call her his brilliant baby in the bed over which her college diploma hung, and she would forget the way he started breakfast with a six-pack each morning, the sweet smell of pot that clung to his skin like cologne.
“Who’s that outside, Mommy?” Billy peeked his head around the corner. His hair was the crazy bed hair he got in the mornings, cowlicks going every-which-way like the hair in the posters of Albert Einstein she had once pinned up in her college dorm room. The serious look on his preschool face reminded her even more of a nuclear physicist, and she realized she must look scary to him, her back plastered to the door as if only her body was stopping it from blowing open.
She smiled, the wrinkles in her forehead softening. “Just an old friend of Mommy’s.”
“Yeah?” Billy said. She noticed one of his socks was missing as he climbed onto the couch and peered out the window. “Is he here to play?”
The knocking seemed to have moved from the door to the inside of her skull. Billy looked at her quizzically until she couldn’t stand it anymore. She smiled again, wiped the sweat from her forehead, and turned the doorknob quickly before she had a chance to change her mind. Brian looked surprised when the door opened.
They stood at an impasse, staring at each other. Her knuckles were white from gripping the doorknob, and Brian took a step backward. Still, he didn’t go away. He wiped his palms on his shirt and waited. She noticed the purple cross was still on his finger, but a watch with a tasteful leather band had replaced the heavy gold chain he used to wear on his wrist, the gaudy links of dark yellow from the pawnshop where he had once bought her an engagement ring.
“So you just want to see him? Satisfy your curiosity?” she asked hoarsely. She looked at him with wild eyes like a person acknowledging a dead man. The voices in her head were skeptical. She didn’t think it was possible to see Billy just one time without falling madly in love with him “You’re just gonna have one cup of coffee, and then you’re gonna leave, right? Be right back on your way?”
“Just one cup,” he said, voice cracking. “Promise.”
In a moment, she felt something hard inside her break, something that could not stay frozen beneath his look of desperation. It wasn’t a ghost or a demon standing in front of her. It was a very human Brian, the person who had once loved her, shared her bed and been discarded. She felt as if she owed him something.
She stepped aside.
He followed her back to the kitchen. She noticed Billy looked closely at Brian when they passed him—this strange man that made his mother act so funny—before deciding there was nothing interesting to see. He plopped himself down on the floor in the adjoining living room, and in a matter of minutes he was thoroughly engrossed in a program. But Brian couldn’t stop looking at him, staring at him from where he sat down at the breakfast table. There were no walls to hide the boy from his eyes. It occurred to Theresa in a flash of recollection that her home had the same open layout that had once been in Brian’s apartment.
“You still take cream?” she asked, opening the cabinet where the cups were stored, grateful for the task of getting coffee. The last time she had made love to this man, the windows in his apartment had been open. The air conditioner had been broken. She’d moved out weeks before then, having already outgrown him. But she got drunk on red wine and somehow ended up in his familiar kitchen. She could still recall how she had heard people laughing outside when she had kissed his collarbone.
“Reesie?” Brian said, snapping her back to the present. He looked at her suddenly as if he had just become aware of her. His eyes were appraising. She became conscious of her bedroom slippers. “You look nice. Gotten a little older, but it suits you. You’ve got to be thirty, thirty-one by now, right?”
“Twenty-seven.” She put a steaming mug in front of him. She tried to remember the color of his kitchen tile. The floor had felt so cool to her naked skin.
“Still just my baby girl.” He shook his head in amazement.
“Well, no.” Theresa’s stomach knotted. She clenched her jaw.
“Right.” Brian smiled uncomfortably and shifted in his seat. “Anyway, I see he looks like you, the spitting image.”
“Yep,” she said curtly. She put a bowl of sugar in front of her ex-lover.
“No matter.” Hard lines appeared around his mouth. “He’s still my son.”
She sat down at the table, too. She didn’t feel like arguing. Instead she closed her eyes against Brian, willed her body to fall away. She wanted to dispose of all the feelings that had begun to roil inside of her: the guilt she carried, the anger buried beneath it, and the fear she could not erase, the threat of biology.
When she opened her eyes again, Brian had moved from the table to the plaid couch in the living room. Billy was sitting on his lap, watching Bugs Bunny. She took a deep breath and moved to the rocking chair beside them, leaving her coffee on the table. She wanted to change clothes, but she was afraid of leaving Billy and Brian alone.
“So, what are you doing here, Brian? How’d you even find me?”
“I know how to use a phone book, sweet cheeks, and I know my rights.”
She blinked. “What rights? You don’t have any rights. You don’t pay child support. You’ve never even seen him.”
Brian was touching Billy’s arm lightly, looking at his small fingers. It amazed her that Billy didn’t seem to mind. He wasn’t as good around strangers as he used to be. Part of her wanted to call him over to his mommy, and part of her felt as if she shouldn’t. She honed in on the television screen since it was the only thing in the room that felt familiar.
“He even has your toes,” Brian observed, his voice full of wonder.
“The second one is longer than the big one; just like yours.”
“Are you ticklish, Billy?” he asked, reaching under Billy’s Spiderman jammies to his tummy. Billy looked up at him and smiled, giggling, before pulling away. “You are, and you’ve got my teeth, don’t you?”
“He does?” she asked, truly surprised.
“Yep. He’s got a cross bite, just like I did when I was a kid.”
“Well, it’s something you can fix with braces. Not like if he’d gotten my nose, right? What did you used to call it? Roman?”
“Yeah,” she said, unsure of how she felt about this newly identified genetic connection, this genetic flaw in her son.
“Billy,” Brian said softly into the boy’s ear just loud enough for her to hear, “do you know I’m your daddy?”
Blood rose to her cheeks. The flush of anger in her chest cut through all other thoughts as if they were soft as butter. A sudden rush of adrenaline made her hot and dangerous.
“Now, you wait one second, Brian Imporelli….” She started to stand up, but the grin that instantaneously flashed across Billy’s tiny face pushed her back into her seat again, stopped her objection.
“You’re not my dad,” Billy said, as if this concept was funny.
“Yes, I am,” Brian insisted.
“Nu-uh. My Dad’s got yellow hair. Just like me. You’re not my Dad. My Dad’ll beat you up.”
“Let’s fight,” Billy said, still smiling, sticking up his dukes, getting set to play.
“Let’s fight? You wanta fight with me?” Brian poked the boy in the tummy, setting off a wrestle in the middle of the floor. “You really are just like your mother, big man. Just like your mom.”
Brian stayed through Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo. Theresa watched the clock hanging on the wall, ticking away the seconds. When Billy offered Brian another Pop Tart from the box on the counter, Theresa picked up Brian’s cup full of cold coffee and dropped it into the sink.
“Oops!” she said, “Brian’s cup of coffee’s gone, Billy. I think it’s time for him to go.”
Brian looked up at her, resentment mingling with amusement on his face, but he didn’t argue. “Okay,” he said. He pulled several bills from his wallet and stacked them on the coffee table. He looked at Billy. “This is for you, alright? You know, for your birthday. It was last month, wasn’t it? I didn’t buy you a present.”
“Geez. Thanks!” Billy said, opening his arms for a hug.
“Well, I like to buy things for my buddies,” Brian said, scooping the boy up and squeezing him tightly. “I can buy a lot of things now for friends like you, you know. Anything you want, really. You just have to tell me.”
“Too bad he couldn’t ask for diapers or formula when he needed them,” Theresa said, acid on her tongue. Her neck seemed to be hurting from the weight of all that was inside her head. “Come on, Brian. I’ll walk you to the door.”
“Right,” Brian said, following her.
“Well, then,” she said with falsetto, good cheer. She wrapped her arms around her torso, a defense against the chill in his eyes.
“Right,” he said again, but he stood in front of her, still inside the foyer.
“Okay, then.” She tried again. This time she held out a hand to shake his. “Have a safe trip home, alright? I’ll make sure we got something nice for Billy with the money you left him. Maybe start a college fund.”
Brian took her hand into his, sandwiched it between his fingers. His palm was moist and warm. He squeezed lightly, but when she pulled away, his grip tightened. She bit her lip to stop herself from screaming.
“Let go of me, Brian,” she said firmly, softly, but he continued to stare, studying her face and holding on. Tears began to trickle down her cheeks. Her nose started running.
Brian pulled her closer to him, cocked her chin upwards with one hand, took a thick thumb and wiped the tears off her face. His fingers lingered near her cheek. Their bodies were almost touching despite the dark chasm between them. Her breathing was becoming ragged; her heart was beating in her throat. She was on the verge of panic.
“Right,” he finally muttered, and pushed her suddenly away from him, releasing her so quickly, she almost fell to the floor. He turned on his heel and strode out the door across the yard to his car, his back straight as a knife blade, sharp and menacing.
She watched him for a moment. She didn’t feel like moving. She thought if she did, he might come back; she might throw up.
The tiles in Brian’s kitchen had been an almost white, a powder blue so light the color was just a suggestion.
Theresa slammed the door shut again and twisted the deadbolt.
She sank to her knees and looked up for help from heaven.
Old fears felt resurrected.
Old ghosts were flesh and blood men.
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