UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 03/2012
Arrive early on a grey-stained morning at the café she has chosen. Press your face against the locked glass door. Inside, faux-Italian baristas are circling, fanning out napkins on freshly- laid tablecloths. Rap at the glass until one heads your way. Smile as the door opens. Say: “I guess I’m the early bird,” and step inside, scouring the room for a suitable spot. Opt for a corner- table with a view of the entrance. Ignore the menu and prepare for scenarios: imagine her fainting; do not rule out vomiting. She is your wife. It has been more than six months.
She appears from nowhere, like Joan Bennett in film noir. Watch as she surrenders her coat, revealing a gold-leafed dress that shimmers as she walks. Her hair is up. She’s lost some weight. Search the tablecloth for the right sentence. Strike a chord between familiarity and reverence: the lovechild of ‘Hey Baby!’ and ‘Dearest One.' Glance up as she sits. Break the ice and say:
“Your mother’s going to love hell.”
A muscle twitches in her left cheek. The lines in her neck could be the root of a smile. Follow it down to her chest instead; a delta of cracking skin where Christ on a cross hangs, lopsided, nestled in cleavage.
“George,” She purrs, leaning forward to pet your hand; your silly, insignificant little hand, “You are her hell.”
“The university named a scholarship after you,” She tells you, as coffee is served from a carafe. “It went to a Chinese PhD student: ‘Jonathan Hou from Guangzhou.’ That’s how he introduced himself to the board of governors: like a rhyming couplet for them all to remember.”
Wonder why this is important. Reach for her hand and miss.
“They sent him home after your ‘resurrection.’ Budgets, they said.”
And note the bareness of her fingers as she draws them back: long and slender; a librarian’s fingers.
“Can’t hand out a live man’s dead scholarship!” She half-laughs, filling up the space between your faces.
Stare at her face as she looks out the window.
“Nobody knows how to handle the fact that you’re back. They sent that boy home with a suitcase full of broken dreams. I said it wasn’t fair, but Alan wouldn’t have it. He said you were back and it changed the university’s charter, changed the rules, changed everything really.”
A chirping sound, like a chorus of trapped crickets, halts her stream of thought. Watch as she lifts and unfastens her handbag; presses a couple of buttons on her new phone; takes a moment to read the message; smiles, then un-smiles.
“My friend.” she says, without having to add any more.
“How is he?” you ask, right letters, wrong order. Clever you.
“He’s good; happier now he’s past the bar.” She assures you, as she tucks her phone under a napkin.
Take the biscotti from her saucer, snap it in half, dunk it. Say: “So he’s a child then?” “He’s a Professor!” she corrects you, smacking the table with her ring-less hands. “He sails!”
Do not be surprised by this. Some women lust for firemen; most lust for abusive firemen. She drips for academics.
“You said he’d passed the bar?”
“The bar; yes, the bar! The bar at the mouth of the river! He’s racing to Douglas, to the Isle of Man.”
Isle of Man, Isle of Men, I love Men. Let it warp in your ears. Say: “You didn’t wait long, Anita” Her face turns as long and as blank as the future. It reminds you of a child resigned.
“Long?” She asks.
Nod. Roll the question around in your mouth like a bitter pill. Spit it back out: “You left me behind.” “You were dead, George. You died.” She states plainly.
Bat her assertions away until she wrestles your hand down. “There was a funeral; there was cake for Christ’s sake!” Know that life is a line that can be smudged, that you love her, that it was ever so. Slip your fingers between hers and ask:
“Would you rather I was still in the ground, dear?”
The look she gives you is barbarous: a cold reminder of the girl you un-caged all those years ago.
“I think it’s good that you’re back,” She says, using the word good in a severely technical manner. “I don’t understand this—I can’t—but I know it’s important.”
Tell her you can take her some place new, like she always wanted. Somewhere far away from this maritime backwater; a place where the salt isn’t everywhere, creeping up the walls.
She throws her napkin over your half-full cup, and then motions for the bill. “Peter warned me this might be too soon,” She murmurs. Feel the adrenaline fizzing up behind your eyes. That name.
“Peter the rock, your other professor.”
The ten pound note she presses to the table pitches up, and collapses again, as she scrambles for her bag.
Despite yourself, ask for his specialty.
“Not that it matters —” She sighs, zipping it up, “—but he’s a social anthropologist.” Laugh so loud that a waitress across the room breaks step, and pivots with her tray. “You find this funny?” she asks. “He’s good, George. He’s helped me see—”
Give her some perspective. Blast the windows open: “Does he fuck my wife like a native, or a settler!?”
“He loves me.”
“I love you more.”
Her fingers flick the words away before they can take root.
Pull yourself back from the edge. Scratch an ear with your teaspoon and wait.
“I keep asking myself if I’m dreaming awake, how you can possibly be here. Every day the same damn merry-go-round! Do you know what they’re calling you in the newspapers? Have you even looked at one? You won’t speak to anyone, so they’re filling in the blanks for you. They’re calling you ‘George, the Second.’
“You’ve given people a false hope. They started leaving their jobs in the middle of the day. They started digging up their loved ones. The army had to step in while you just sat there in your hospital bed, refusing to talk, devouring pot after pot of pudding like a starved mute!”
Tell her you like pudding; it is not a crime to like pudding.
“Joan dug her cats up in her garden—I caught her in the act—and do you know what she said to me? She told me to fuck off, that it was just in case.”
Change the subject. Ask of her mother.
“My mother doesn’t believe any of this!” She barks. “It’s not possible to her; you’re just a blip – that’s how she sees it. She calls you The Burp of God.”
Grin at the image. Lean in and say: “He hears everything, you know.” Watch as her personal saviour rises up from the mounds of her chest. Anticipate the question as she rubs his feet with her thumb. Stand. Tap your wedding ring against the glass of the carafe. Announce:
“Death is like being alone in a room with a coke machine!”
It echoes off the walls as she slumps, like an abandoned concertina, further down into her seat.
“I know it doesn’t sound like much, but that’s what it’s like. It isn’t grand; there are no trumpet-calls, no angels. Just a humming and humming and humming through everything; stretching you out in all directions forever and ever, Amen.”
The room is silent now, save for the fast clicking of a waitresses heels rushing toward you: her face a squinted tangle of embarrassment and duty.
“Sir,” She insists. “Sir, this is yours.”
Take the slip of carbon paper from between her fingers and sit. Lean back, casual-like, hooking your arm around the back of the seat. Breathe in the sweet-smelling air and say:
“My wife, isn’t she something? I’ve known her for thirty years. I know that probably sounds like a lot to you, but let me assure you it isn’t. The truth is we hardly had time to feel happy, then sad together.”
She is patting her lips with a napkin as you talk, looking off at the wallpaper.
“She’s the only woman I’ve ever slept with, apart from a hooker in Crete. I know that sounds bad, but the truth often is. It pushed us together in the long-run: set a little fire under us that never went away. Every year she’d fight her way back to it, like a salmon, ready for the struggle and the sex of it. It exhausted and renewed us. It became an anniversary of sorts. You won’t know this, young lady, but old bodies slip when they make love.”
“You’re embarrassing the girl,” she tells you as she signals another waiter for her coat. Shrug at her momentary discomfort. Say: “I love the body you live in.”
She is nodding now, lifting a thumb energetically as the right coat is selected and unhooked. The vinyl floor groans beneath her as she steps past you, and into it.
“There’s an order to things, George” she says, buttoning herself up to the tip of her chin. “It may not matter to you, but it matters to me. Take that away from people and you leave them with nothing.”
Catch her cuff as she makes for the door. She lurches forward and gasps at the tug; the involuntary twirl spins her back to you like the beginning of a dance. Drop to your knees and squeeze her waist. Push your face into her stomach and tell her something true. Say:
“There is more than one kind of emptiness, Anita.”
She glances down at you, rubs her fingers through your brittle hair. Quietly responds: “You can come by the house for what’s left; there isn’t much.” Feel her slipping away from you, smooth as a ship launching, as she heads for the door, then out into the street, tightening her coat against the knifing wind. The skirt of it swings as she walks away, rocking behind her like a Sunday bell.
For the longest of moments it is all you can see.
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