Shaundra changes her mind on which exit to take and throws the car across two lanes to make the one she wants. I hold my breath, grip down hard on my kneecaps. Cars honk, and she twists her neck to sneer at them, then smiles at me.
It’s a type of fun for her, the swerving.
I think to tell her that it doesn’t matter which exit we take. We’ll get there, I think. All the roads bleed together eventually. Before we left the house, I told her how nice it would be to stay at home, open the bottle of whiskey we bought, and watch Magnum PI until we pass out from mustache overexposure.
We live in a small, upstart neighborhood. Between our house and the Dourmants, the only couple we know, there’s a string of ramshackle houses. The agent who showed us the place, Carl, said this was a rebuilding community. A historical one.
“Can’t you see, he said, pointing down the street, how nice this will all be in a couple of years? Flowers, azaleas. Everything that everyone wants, and just in time for kiddos,” he said, and patted his belly.
Shaundra patted my belly when Carl turned around.
After we signed the lease—a Wednesday, cold—we never saw Carl again. When we tried to ring him later that month, we got a recording.
I kept his card in my wallet anyway.
Francine rang yesterday to invite us over.
“You have to,” she said. Shaundra had her on speaker phone, puppeting her hand to mimic Francine’s drastic faces. “L.A.’s niece just came to town and we’re having a thing for her.”
“It’s kind of last minute,” Shaundra said.
“I’m terrible, I know. But we didn’t know for sure that she’d be here until she pulled up this morning.”
Shaundra eventually agreed, nodding into the phone while Francine poured out thank yous she couldn’t have meant.
“She sounds tense,” Shaundra said.
Francine and L.A. live on the other side of town, in Grand’s Quarter. Francine works in an office somewhere near downtown, and L.A., her partner, is a personal attaché to some big shot from back West. Whenever he comes toward the East, L.A. drops everything and fetches him his mineral waters, his vitamin supplements and laundry. Neither woman talks about their work, and I appreciate them for that.
Shaundra and I manage a small bakery and record store. The building was her father’s, and he left her in charge of it. He kept it operating as a small antique store his wife began ten years before she died. We have a sweet girl working for us, Claire, who cooks muffins, scones, and the occasional lemon square. I arrange records and read liner notes that I have little interest in. Most days we shut down early, maybe swing by Lu Chin’s, the Mongolian Barbeque on Maple, and make it home before dark.
Rarely we find reason to complain on the short walk home.
I figured that Shaundra and Francine and L.A. wouldn’t prefer my company, but most times one, if not all three, invite me for an evening of karaoke, or sushi, or martinis in heavy glasses on a back porch. Out of a sense of respect for her privacy, I turn down the invitations as often as I accept them.
One night, the four of us were sitting at a table at Terry’s, a local flop bar, and a young woman, probably near thirty, with bright, almost mythical shots of red hair, moved toward our table, slushy at the knees. L.A., before the girl got to the table, excused herself, and the two shared an awkward hug in front of the broken jukebox. Shaundra and Francine looked away, out of respect, maybe, or anger. Or boredom, even. After ten minutes, L.A. came back to the table with a spot of white under her nose. Francine tongued a corner of her cocktail napkin and swiped the smudge clean in a quick, maternally rough gesture.
Brushing our teeth together that night, I told Shaundra that I never cared for karaoke. She nodded, spat.
I didn’t go out with them for a month.
Last week, this one kid who comes in the store a couple times a month, came up to me and tapped my shoulder.
“Hey,” he said.
“Can I help you?”
“If you had one more shitty record,” he told me, “the other buildings would kill themselves and fall on top of yours.”
He went outside. The chain from his wallet to his belt buckle slapped against his hips with tinny clicks. I hoped someone had dared him to do it, given him a five spot and said they’d meet him outside. That there was no way he had the stones to pull it off.
The records that I do have I got from garage sales, Craig’s List entries posted by seventy-year-old matrons with old boxes. I tell people that tastes here are eccentric, elite. We only cater to a particular palette.
Most of the people who come in remember it when Stan Poulaikous ran it. They want to see candleholders, dioramas that move by turning a key.
I smile and tell them we don’t carry those items anymore, but wouldn’t they care for a cup of hot tea and a scone?
Late in June, so hot we had to sit outside, L.A. found us at a patio table at Lindo’s. She had a margarita and a new streak of silver running down the back of her hair like a mane. I checked my phone after fifteen minutes, apologized.
“Shaundra looks happy,” she said. She sat back in her patio chair, her spine massaging the curve, and looked away when I looked at her.
“I hope so,” I said.
“She does. She looks happy, and you look tired, and I don’t understand the difference. I don’t understand why she’s so happy and you’re so miserable all the time. Every time that I see you, you have this dogged look on your face, like someone just took away your cereal bowl and put a turd in front of you.”
After a certain amount of time, everything that gets said turns to conversation.
I remember that I took up my margarita and hoped that Shaundra would walk in just then, saving me from having to defend myself.
“I don’t feel that way, L.A.”
“Of course you don’t, sweetheart.” L.A. leaned forward in her chair. There was a perfume to the slur in her words.
After dinner, I leaned in and kissed both of L.A.’s cheeks, then both of Francine’s.
That night, Shaundra stood in front of the bed, taking off her earrings. She said that Francine chatted the entire time they went shopping. I asked her about what, and she shrugged her shoulders and kicked off her shoes.
“We should have them over some time.”
“If they’d come,” I said, and dropped a shoe on the carpet. Shaundra tightened her lips, and then asked if there was any melon left from breakfast.
It’s not that I took L.A.’s comment to heart. I could see where she gets the idea that Shaundra and I aren’t matching on all sides. What she doesn’t see, what no one else does, is how one person’s happiness can depend on another’s exhaustion.
We owe one another for the good days we can never remember.
The best thing to cherish is how often you forget the incidentals, the new razor, the calamari as an afterthought at the grocery.
The night after I proposed, Shaundra and I placed three bottles of wine on the coffee table, rolled a handful of joints, and watched movies. One was an old war movie with John Wayne. He had a platoon at one spot that needed to get to another spot. In the morning, I drank from the glass of water she placed there in the night.
L.A. and Francine consider us equals on a couples’ scale. No children, educated, dreams of living somewhere where learning another language is a requirement.
Occasionally, when we drink at their house and the lights around the neighborhood have all gone down, and the three of them have started railing against Republicans, or animal abusers, or the guy at the Taylor’s Mart who looks down their cleavage, I’ll excuse myself and walk around the block. I’ll peek into windows. Once, I saw a man in a bra and a top hat. He was dancing to chorus music and drinking from a highball.
“The truth is,” Shaundra says, changing lanes in a whip to make a right at the light. “I’d rather not go over there tonight. Francine’s been having some tough times.”
I nod, hold my breath through the light.
“I think L.A.’s having an affair. I think she’ll leave her.”
I don’t say anything, but I nod my head, like an admission of guilt, or sympathy.
Whether or not L.A. leaves Francine doesn’t matter to either one of us. We both sense it, in the efficiency of our normally lax drinking around them.
“We don’t have to go,” I tell her. I’m not holding my breath, now, but taking deep, easy ones. A couple of houses melt past. They have small porches with plants choking out any view into the windows. A little dog, a yorkie, maybe, crashes down the steps of one and runs after us, barking. With its little legs, it looks like a rope caught in a strong wind. Something that’s blown loose that was holding down something important.
“We do,” she says. “And we’ll enjoy ourselves.”
There’s more gray in her hair, I think, but it may have something to do with the angle of the sun. What they call the magic hour in children’s books. Her fingers are twitching on the steering wheel.
I can smell the soap she uses, and I know the name.
“We’re close,” she tells me.
Willow Avenue, Vermont.
We’re getting closer, I know. We’re always getting a little bit closer.
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