All About You
It starts with a call from Nora. The phone rings, and you answer for once without screening, still able to manage speech. A good sign that lucidity hasn't abandoned you forever. It's not unusual to get a call from her instead of Simon. You are friends with both, though you've never been chatty with Nora. Simon came first, years ago in school. Nora entered the picture sometime during the post-college haze when you were still feigning a desire for responsibility and direction. You have long abandoned that pretense and your contacts with what became the married set are necessarily fewer. Still, she provides a much-needed relief from the eight to ten hours of channel surfing and beer swilling to which you dedicate the weeknights.
"I wish you'd come down," she says. "You haven't seen our new place. It'd be good for Simon. He's been a lump lately."
You look to the wall where, in a respectable home, a calendar might be hanging. The perfect calendar would have some Xs on those square days, indicating a busy and well-organized life. There is no calendar and, though you sense an X impending, you announce you're open. You'll look forward to seeing them. It'll be good to go over old times.
The drive is forty-five minutes through the night. You are supplied, but not particularly well-equipped. There's half a dozen Full Sail ales and the remnants of a forgotten halfer you find at the bottom of the suitcase. Also on board are two shirts and a pair of pants you've packed for the indeterminate stay.
You pull onto the highway and open the triangled paper. The powder inside is unequivocally low-grade, though the first two blasts make you gag enough to think the stuff real. The subsequent snorts bring only a longing that the Full Sails can't assuage.
When you arrive at the stucco suburban tract house, you are a little buzzed, but still perceptive enough to sense the place has none of the trappings of home. It was obviously a model unit and decorated with all the personality of a Levitz display window. There is nothing to suggest the eccentricities of Simon, or the gregariousness of Nora. They wed as individuals, but were married into a kind of beige unity—not unlike the Navajo white that fills the walls. This could be anyone's house, anyone's misguided dream.
"So, really, how are you two?" you ask after pleasantries.
"Oh," sighs Simon, "we're OK."
"Yeah," Nora parrots, "we're OK." You deduce they are far from OK. In an effort to dig deeper, you direct a line of questioning to Simon: about work, married life, and mutual friends. This produces two "fine's" and three "pretty good's." Mostly it's a vacant stare and an awkward silence.
Thank god Nora's there. She shows some vital signs and keeps up the pace. Two years ago, she would have retired early to bed and left you and Simon to talk into the late hours drinking beers. But Simon isn't suited to it tonight. This night belongs to Nora. She hangs right in there and talks more than Simon. It's like she spent the last two years in solitary, and you're her first visitor.
You see Nora in a new light. Where'd she steal those eyes? What used to be a straightaway is suddenly all curves. You sense you are clicking in a way that had heretofore been undiscovered. At first, you dismiss the notion. Blame it on your booze-addled state. But the evidence begins to mount.
She's been reading some of the books you sent to Simon. She has endured two or three tomes you count among your obsessions and offers the occasional insight (though, you suspect, an incomplete understanding). Seeing your beer is nearly empty, she replaces it with a fresh one. She opens it herself and rests it on your knee. There is a moment when both of your hands are on the bottle and you can swear she's blushing. Smiling, she puts on the Dylan disc you recommended she buy the last time you saw her and tracks to "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go." Simon curls into a fetal position and, if you can fully trust your eyes, begins suckling the corner of a couch pillow.
When it's time for bed, Nora insists on fixing up the futon. You voice an objection; tell her you can manage. But she emerges from the linen closet, clutching bedding to her chest. On spaghetti legs, you follow her down the stairs to the den.
There is a shallow-lunged giddy feeling as you both unfold the futon. Then the ceremony of sheets. Crisp and white. You pull your end taut and hers comes undone. She resecures her end and yours hopelessly yields. Laughter.
"For the third time, I say, goodnight, you clowns."
"Oh, Simon, I'm coming right up." Nora looks at you and winks. She then takes your hand in hers and begins a downy caress.
"Nora? Are you coming to bed?" Simon is at the top of the stairs now. Nora smiles at you. You pull the corners of your mouth back evenly toward your ears—not a smile, exactly. A look that says nothing, except, perhaps, you've taken on too many G-forces.
You shuffle her toward the door and in a trembling falsetto barely manage a "'Night, Simon."
Next morning you wake to the faint sound of a razor tapping in the sink. You don't own a watch, but a quick inventory of motor skills reveals you are unaccustomed to this hour. There are some muffled voices; it's hard to determine if they're coming from your hosts or being broadcast on a radio. A door slams.
You recognize the padding of feet on the stairs. You open your eyes and a vision fills the doorway: Nora, cotton panties and a clingy t-shirt—not necessarily in that order.
She's all breathy and nervous. And determined. You just lie there in a kind of suspended animation. At once she is on the futon, one hand reaching for Never-Enough Land, the other cradling your sweaty palm as she lowers her mouth to yours. Her tongue is violently demanding. Yours is easy to yield. She is in.
After an eternity, she pulls up to breathe. Her face recedes, and you take a minute to establish that you are, in fact, conscious. She throws a leg over your torso, deftly slides her panties to one side and takes her mount. She tosses her brown hair back and slides both hands under her t-shirt. You think of Debra Winger astride the mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy. You make a mental note to rent that movie again. The bucking and writhing make speech difficult. Nora, for instance, says, "N-nnot b-bad for half-on p-panties." You hear something different. Have you tried French ham pastries? You think about this. "No," you say, though you do like the idea of all this and breakfast, too.
After Nora dismounts you catch a quick nap, then return the den to a semblance of normalcy checking the sheets for forgotten panties, the pillows for long brown hair and your olfactory for evidence of the deed. Satisfied of a clean getaway, you ascend the stairs to find Nora dressed for work and buttering toast in the kitchen. She looks out-of-your-league in a navy blue short skirt and open white blouse.
"You want a piece?" she asks.
You avoid the obvious joke, still unsure how this is going to play out and lean against the breakfast table.
"Nora, we should talk about this." You're wondering if she's already called Simon. Told him it's over. She's leaving him—she's found somebody else. Or worse, told him you raped her.
"I'm already an hour and a half late for work and I haven't even spoken to the contractor yet." You become aware of four or five men on the patio leaning ladders against the house. Soon they are climbing and descending, rising and falling like fish behind aquarium glass. By their speckled white jumpsuits you guess they are painters. But their proximity and officiousness heightens your panic.
You stammer, voice tightening, "But, Nora. Jesus Christ, I mean in the den, earlier." Easy, Texas.
"OK. We'll talk." And then to dispel once and forever any regret you may have sensed, she drops her toast in the sink and plants one on you.
You escort her to the couch, planning a speech. What comes out is less than you'd hoped. "First of all, this morning. Great." She's smiling.
Making it easy. "Yeah. It was."
You put your hands behind your head and lean back. The acoustic ceiling is suddenly a galaxy of stars glowing in full sunlight. Why haven't you noticed this before? An unfamiliar feeling of contentment rises in you and gives way to a primal sigh.
"Something's not right, though," says Nora.
You anticipate a critique on your prowess or technique. You should have known this was coming. You are braced.
"What is it?"
"The coffee," she says. "When I came to see you this morning there was half a pot and now—"
You both look across the room to the kitchen. Next to the sink, the carafe sits—washed clean and upturned in the drying rack.
"What now?" you ask. The implication of an upside down coffee dispenser forces your heart to bang audibly against your sternum.
"He can't know."
This is exactly what you want to hear. You wait patiently for what you think she'll say next: How this was a one-time deal. It was fun. You've both sowed some oats and you'll always have the conspiratorial remembrance of this morning. This, too, suits you just fine.
You even think of saying it yourself. You turn your shoulders to square with hers. Instead of saying something, you let your hand slowly trace the inside of her nearest thigh and watch as it disappears beneath her skirt.
That afternoon Nora calls you seven times from her work. You call her six times. It's an easy baker's dozen, and a gnawing thing, too. The conversations, with little variation, go like this: "Has he called you yet?"
"Think he will?"
"I don't know."
"Do you think he saw anything?"
"Must have. But, really, I don't know."
"I think so. He should have called by now. But I can't be sure."
"Yeah, well, neither can I."
"So, what do we do?"
"I don't know."
"Neither do I."
Most days drag. This one flies by full throttle. By 3:36 p.m., you are flotsam in the wake of the afterburners. Aside from the calls with Nora, you've done little else than pace a trench in the carpet. You've gone over the events of this morning a thousand times, giving yourself the third-degree burns.
You examine the room from every angle. Imagining you are Simon, you fling open the front door and survey the condo. What could he have seen? Heard? From this vantage, the room mocks you. The whole scene becomes a Dali painting and takes on monstrous proportions. You look for the clock that in this milieu would be dripping from the wall. Five p.m. Simon will be home soon. Nora, too.
Panic of the vertigo variety. Heart-thumping, head-pounding, room-reeling panic. Little white rabbits down bottomless holes. Christ, you didn't ask for this. How's this going to make you look? Perdition, damnation, castration. And then, calm.
Yes, calm. Blue water, windless, Sunday paper, phones-off-the-hook calm. You pop a beer, unfold a magazine and flop down in the Levitz SuperSale chair-and-a-half. And wait. Pretty smooth for an adulterer.
Before the beer's half gone, the door, just as it had precisely nine and one-quarter hours earlier, flings open. It is Simon.
"Hey," you say. You've considered this salutation thoroughly and select it for its sheer vagary and shallowness.
Simon says, "Hey."
You wonder just what the hell he means by this, but are stunned to see Nora arriving on his heels. Another round of "Hey's."
Simon stops at the dining room table and unloads briefcase, laptop, pager, cell phone, and a stack of mail. Sorting each piece, he begins a running commentary, "Junk . . . junk . . . bill . . . keep . . . junk . . ."
You look to Nora for information mouthing, "Well?"
She shakes her head and smiles.
"Junk . . . keep . . ."
You shrug. She gives the OK sign.
"Something from Dad . . . junk . . . I thought I paid this . . ."
Paper is being torn.
"Well, what the hell are we going to do about this mess?"
You wish Simon hadn't brought it up, but can appreciate his diplomatic approach. After all, you are all in this together. You take a deep breath and turn to face him as a condemned man might a firing squad.
He is staring at the scattered mail in front of him. "Fuck it. I'll deal with it later." Simon is talking to no one in particular. He rubs his head in his hands then looks to you. "That beer looks good. Any more in the fridge?"
"You bet. Plenty." Unbelievably, you add, "In fact mine's a little low; how ‘bout grabbing one for me?" Simon heads to the kitchen and you look at Nora. She shrugs and turns out her palms in what you think is a gesture of, "I don't think he's got a clue." And this is enough for you.
Pulling onto the highway you feel some relief. Things recede behind you like an ebbing tide. The stench is still there, but the danger of drowning has passed. Simon shook your hand and extended an open invitation, Nora looked like a kid you just dropped off at summer camp for the first time. You're hoping to squirm out of the slime and crawl to higher ground, but your relief at leaving is soon replaced with a cumbersome and all-consuming guilt. The accompanying remorse is something you keep on hold. You look forward to returning home and forgetting the whole affair completely. Well, maybe not completely. After all, the trespass has been committed. There's really no sense in forfeiting the spoils of your sin. Some of the images you'll want to keep well-preserved in the archives of your mind. No telling when a slow-motion instant replay may come in handy.
You arrive at home at 9:36 p.m. The house is cold and dark; if anyone were there to greet you, they would notice you shivering as you fumble for the thermostat. Crossing to stand by the wall heater, something about your living room seems amiss. The meager belongings you've dragged from apartment to apartment all seem to be there. Even in their state of disarray, you'd know if someone had broken in and made off with some valueless object. Then it hits you: the message machine is blinking, not the usual once or twice (which is all you can expect after a three-day absence) but seven or eight times. You are hesitant to address this little mechanical intruder. Immediately, you begin to concoct scenarios, make up short lists of those who may have died, search your past for grievous errors that now wait for reckoning spooled on reels in the little black box. You don't have to search hard. Yesterday morning, for instance, springs to mind. Insistently, the red blips come. You are hesitant, but the wall heater is doing little more than burning dust and cobwebs. Shuddering, you press the button and the automated voice says, "You have nine messages." It then begins a slow rewind as you pull a beer from the fridge.
The first is from a telecommunications company promising to save you big money if you switch to them. As far as you know, you signed up with them three months ago. The second is from your mom. She wants to know how the job search is going. You take a mighty pull off the beer and hit delete for the second time. The next seven messages are from Nora. They alternate between passionate and confessional. By message number six, the beer is gone. Number seven you have to rewind three times because the sound of ice grinding in the blender makes it impossible to hear. Confusion always leads to margaritas.
It's been six months since the union of Simon and Nora was officially dissolved by a judge. There were some calls at first and a few more liaisons—the occasional tryst-filled afternoon in the backseat of your car on empty neighborhood streets, but no flowers. No wine lunches in out of the way seaside restaurants. And, somewhat regrettably, no cheap motel room. You might have liked that.
Most of this time you dedicate to keeping Simon propped up, though it seems there's little you can do. He goes to his therapist quite a bit. You suspect they don't talk about his divorce very much. Nora is obviously not the problem. He acquiesced to the break up with little more than a shrug. You keep from prying. Psychiatry is a subject you know little about; you prefer a world where people fend for themselves, where you deal with the shadows on their own terms. But you're none too anxious to give Simon your views on the subject. You've become quite attached to his prescription Benzedrine. So, you must admit, modern medicine does have its merits. Simon is a pretty sloppy pill popper and invariably lets a few tabs fall to the floor each time the lid comes off the bottle. You reserve a little time during these friendly swing-by's to forage in the carpet fibers for the little pink darlings. It's not the greatest buzz, but it does freeze a look of indifference on your face that Simon somehow mistakes for genuine concern. All you hear him say is, "Me, me, me." Nora knew what the hell she was doing by getting out of here. You can't blame her a bit. Gradually, you develop a slow ache for Nora. You long to see her and find out how she's doing.
On weekends, you dart aimlessly through the want ads and stare at the phone, willing it to ring like Yuri Gellar on a pharmaceutical-grade speed buzz. It's been quite a while since you've heard from anyone and even a bill collector would be a welcome relief from your own thoughts. One bright Sunday, you are attending to your ritual, the Chronicle spread on your lap. You are somewhere between "accountant" and "nursing" when the blood-curdling bleat of the phone starts to register.
It is Nora. "Hey there, what are you doing?"
"Yoga," you say. You've never tried yoga, but sense a need for it. You'd like to be the kind of guy who could say that without feeling new-agey about it. You wouldn't mind meditation, either; it's just that you have such a hard time sitting still. There's so much cluttering your mind: the purpose of this call, for starters, your inability to become gainfully employed, dishes in the sink, the passing time, the fact that it's Sunday and all your powers can't stave off the guilt of another jobless Monday. You know this because you've tried.
"Yoga? Really?" Nora sounds impressed, and you consider keeping up the lie.
"Of course not," you say.
"Look, it's been a long time. Want to get together?"
You howl a quick affirmative and are in the shower somewhere between "to" and "gether."
he drive to the meeting is full of tension and excitement. You figure Nora is finally coming around. She obviously can't live without you. She's just been waiting for the dust to settle. Now you both are free to pursue the passion that once burned between you. After all, you're adults. These past six months must have been hell on her, but now she's finally caved. Poor darling. Your mind races: flowers? Champagne? The clock on the dash says 10:30. A quick adjustment for daylight savings time and you calculate 9:30. Too early for champagne. Licorice whips?
On the phone, Nora suggested a coffee spot on a trendy little side street in Berkeley. You park three blocks away on the outskirts of an Albertson's and move stealthily through the cars, weaving your way like a big cat stalking prey in the high grass. You stand between a lemon-yellow Mustang and a nondescript Dodge and eye the coffee shop. Poised by the front door is a vision of beauty and something you perceive as power. This is unexpected. You approach warily.
"Nora?" you say, "You look stunning."
"I'm much happier now."
You don't doubt that for a second. You allow a brief pause, hoping she'll return your compliment, or that you'll read something in her face like longing, but that moment never comes; so, you gesture toward the coffee shop.
Nora shakes her head and laughs, "You want to just go for a walk?"
The day is spring itself: birds, sunshine through green leaves, more people on foot than behind steering wheels, and a promise that floats on every breeze. Suddenly, you're sixteen and the whole world is a Wordsworth poem. It's exhilarating and Nora is not the least of the intoxicants. She tosses her hair more than anyone else in the history of the world. Everything about her is light and good and has the scent of apples. You hope she won't notice the graying storm cloud that hovers over your head like a gathering of marsh gnats on a windless afternoon. Fortunately, Nora does most of what passes for talking. Actually, what she does is gush—and somewhere in that gushing she's thanking you for having liberated her from a stunted life. Again, this is unexpected.
You don't pick up all the details of what she says; it's the way she says them that is enough for you. The essence of her monologue is inescapable. Her life is a well-painted picture. And it is complete. Stunning. There is no white spot on the canvas where you might brush yourself in; no way to tolerate your presence between the lilies and the brook. Your image is a garish intrusion on the serenity of the landscape. She is framed and hung on the wall where, you must admit, she looks beautiful.
The drive home is full of resolve. Well, it's forty percent resolve; you allow regret another forty and let frustration and confusion battle for the rest. You think of what Nora said when you parted on the curb this afternoon: "Take care of yourself." It was the first time those words ever came across with any meaning, and you feel somewhat obligated to heed them. You know from how she looked at you that you will receive no more calls from her. Ever. It's not that you'll miss Nora, necessarily. You are genuinely happy for her and wish her well. Something else is pressing on your chest, making it difficult to breathe. You roll the car into the driveway, turn off the engine and just sit there. By now it is nearly evening and you are in no hurry to be alone in your house.
There, in the motionless car, as the last rays of sun sweep the horizon, you start to understand the vast emptiness growing inside you. It isn't guilt or envy or even regret that plagues you; it is the conclusion that throughout this whole experience with Simon and Nora you've been a minor character, an incidental. This revelation gnaws at you, and it's made more disturbing by the fact that it is accompanied by a vision. Of all your memories of Nora, this imagined one visits you most often. It is a vision you are to play repeatedly, especially at night when you lie in bed with the sheets twisted around your neck between two a.m. and the ungodly hour of sunrise.
Nora sits in front of the mirror. Every so often she has to wipe the gathered steam from the glass. She slides the comb through her long brown hair. It's the first morning in her new apartment. Light comes from unexpected angles and refracts in the mirror. She is annoyed at first, straining to see her reflection. From the left she seems vulnerable with the right side in darkness. She looks straight on, but realizes that's not a pose that works. She brings the right side from darkness into the light, throws her head back and feigns a laugh just to see what the world will see. This is the way she wants it: vulnerability with confidence in the wings, a twist of the head away. Indestructible.
Satisfied, she pulls the past from her comb and gathers it around her fingers letting each auburn-colored bird nest drop into the wastebasket. This is Nora without regret, without mistakes. This is Nora rising.
She walks across the hardwood floor to the bed and surveys her clothing options. With her fingers, she traces the hem of a crimson skirt, but chooses the navy one. White top. Black shoes. No panties.
You wait patiently to make your entrance, to slip your hand around Nora's waist while she throws back her head and smiles. Her world is a far better one than yours and you long to be a part of it. But then the alarm clock rattles and your head begins to pound. In the grayness before full consciousness you try again, using all your powers, to sustain the vision. But slowly, as always, it begins to dissolve completely.
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