Sunday, April 22, 2012

Amsterdam

Nathan traveled extensively for his job, and his wife joked that he probably had a secret lover in each country he visited. He might have thought that was funny if it hadn't been true.

These weren't ongoing affairs; he only slept with each woman once, and never a colleague or subordinate, not even from one of the international branches. He had no female superiors--in his company, the only person above him was the CEO--but he would have ruled those out, too. No one from work, no one who knew him in real life. He always made sure that when he left a country, he left the girl there, too.

Sometimes he picked them up at bars. He met a few in jazz clubs or bookstores or cafes. These were more his type. Only a few times had he resorted to champagne-room sex with strippers, and he'd only been with prostitutes twice, in Bangkok and Sao Paulo. He didn't count the "happy ending" massages he regularly received in Hong Kong.

There was only one girl he kept in touch with afterward. Her name was Mallory.

Mallory was an American who lived in Amsterdam. She was a foreign-exchange student. Before she came to Amsterdam, when she was a junior at a small university in the Virginia mountains, she'd felt no special pull to the city. Her college had a sister school in Amsterdam. Mallory had seen a poster about the sister school stapled to a bulletin board in the building where her French classes were held. The poster was a patchwork of Europe images, bait for Americans who long to feel cultured and cosmopolitan: the marble halls of an art museum, a man hefting a long baguette over one shoulder, a field of red tulips, young people sipping tiny cups of espresso.

Half a year later, she was there. She lived in an apartment in an old building whose owner had painted it orange. She took classes in things like art history and philosophy. Her father paid her rent and tuition, wiring the money from the bank where he was president. He also sent her more than enough allowance for things like going to the grocery store on the corner, where she could buy small wheels of wax-covered cheeses and chocolate candy bars with seemingly superfluous j's on the Dutch-language packaging.

***

Mallory ordered bloody-rare steaks and bacon and hamburgers at restaurants. The people she dined with were often surprised and said they'd assumed she was a vegetarian. Nathan had said it, too, when he'd invited her to dinner at Steakhouse Piet de Leeuw. The restaurant was in the center of Amsterdam. Nathan had read that it was historic and named after a famous Dutch pool champion. He recited these guidebook facts about the steakhouse, then he paused and said, "Oh, but you're probably a vegetarian."

She knew why people said this. She was petite and had delicate features and a meek voice. It was easy to imagine her weeping at the thought of an animal being killed.

She met Nathan in line at a coffeehouse. He knew she was American--he heard her place her order with an American accent--and he'd confided to her that he missed the Starbucks he was loyal to back home. He wore the clothes of someone who insisted on quality. Not flashy--no diamond cuff links--but you could tell that the fabrics were good, the shoes expensive. His shirt was pressed, but not by him (by a wife, or a hotel maid). Dimples, a full head of dark wavy hair just starting to get tinselled with silver. She later learned that he had gotten his MBA at an Ivy League school. He seemed like a paper doll of a man, like someone little boys and grown men alike want to become.

***

Mallory receded into a pocket of his mind as Nathan plunged forward in his life. He spent the night at her place after their steakhouse dinner. The next morning, after he left her apartment (splitting before dawn, to catch a 6 a.m. flight to JFK), there was the long flight over the ocean, and the "high-importance" messages on his BlackBerry that his administrative assistant had highlighted with red exclamation marks. And then there was the old guilt to deal with at home. His wife was sturdy, secure, an intellectual brunette he'd met in college. She said she understood that his company was global, that it was important to have "face time" with prospective international business partners.

His two sons always had some new joke when he got back home--after the Amsterdam trip, for reasons he didn't know, the boys were going around saying in a British accent, "I think it's rahther nahsty." It must have been from some movie or cartoon. There were no guilt trips from anyone, but he felt their stoic disappointment when he missed a Boy Scout outing for a trip to Australia and Sri Lanka to meet with the new regional VPs hired for the Asia-Pacific office, when he was gone for a week to speak and network over drinks and cigars at a conference in the Caribbean. His sons' souvenir magnet collections filled their nightstand drawers.

He'd had to think for a minute when he checked his BlackBerry calendar on the morning of September 7. "call Mallory: b-day." He slowly fitted the fragments together--how he'd never met anyone named Mallory before, how proud he'd been to work in a reference to Sir Thomas Malory over dinner (Nathan had minored in English as an undergrad, despite his father's protests). In Brussels. No, Amsterdam.

He remembered more: They went back to her place after dinner. An apartment full of books--he'd liked that. He'd thought of how his colleagues had joked, on the plane coming over, about how "clean" (i.e., STD-free) the hookers were in Amsterdam, about how the government requires them to get frequent health check-ups. Nathan hadn't had to pay for sex; he'd found a willing girl, a lovely student named Mallory. He'd one-upped his colleagues, and he wasn't even planning to tell them about it. He never talked about the women--he didn't want Frank or Steve drinking too much at a holiday party and getting loose-lipped in front of his wife.

He dialed the number on the morning of September 7, doing the math to account for the time difference between New York time and Amsterdam time. As the phone rang, he thought about how New York was once New Amsterdam. A joke to work into the conversation. Her voice was soft and small when she answered.
"Hey, it's Nathan, calling from the New World--New Amsterdam--how are things in Old Amsterdam?"
She told him about how she'd dined at an Afghan restaurant for her birthday dinner, about the ravioli she'd had there.
"Afghan ravioli? Interesting."
She told him about how it was dumplings filled with ground beef, with a tomato-based sauce, and a yogurt sauce drizzled on top of that. Shit--he was supposed to give his presentation at the quarterly executive meeting in half an hour.
"Sounds good. Hey, I've gotta go. But you have a great birthday."
Shit, shit. Open MS Word, throw together some bullet points to demonstrate his accomplishments of the last three months. There was the successful Asian press tour, the company that had customers throughout Latin America and had signed on to use his company's products, the prestigious award from an American business magazine. At his computer, Nathan compressed all that he had done for a quarter of the year into one page of blurbs, double-spaced.

In Amsterdam, Mallory sat on the edge of her bed in her apartment. She listened to the dial tone for a minute, then clicked "End" to hang up. She stared down at the cell phone in her hand.

***

He had keyed in a reminder to call Mallory on her birthday into his calendar on his BlackBerry, there in front of her at the steakhouse. He did this because he'd asked how old she was, and she'd said she was turning 21 next month. "Oh really? When's your birthday? I'll give you a call." He had spontaneously entered her phone number into his address book.

She dressed well for her birthday: the slinky black dress she'd worn at their dinner, the red heels with the coquettish ankle straps. She did this to feel festive, although she spent the day alone. Her father sometimes apologized, said her shyness could be attributed to her having been an only child in a household with a workaholic father and no mother. Mallory thought it went deeper than this. She often walked through the streets of the city and watched the locals her age on their bicycles with their blond hair in dreadlocks, their messenger bags made of hemp with the straps slung across their chests. She knew a few Americans, foreign-exchange students from her school back home; they were indistinguishable from the locals. The young people sat in circles on park lawns to eat their lunches, played Frisbee with their dogs, smoked their legal marijuana in this liberal utopia.

They were uniformly nice to her. When she sat reading in a coffeehouse or on a park bench in the shade, sometimes one of them would approach her. They asked what she was reading, was she was a student, would she like to hang out sometime, would she like to go to a friend's band's gig that evening. Her first month in town she attended a local band's show in a deliberate effort to be more social. There, she met Jan, a Dutch guy with spiky blond hair. She slept with him that night; he was the first guy she had ever slept with. Jan shared his apartment with two roommates, a guy and a girl. The next morning Jan said he would make apple crepes for her. He was a good cook, he promised; his mother always made these. He wanted to make Mallory his girlfriend. He was a perfectly nice guy. Mallory made an excuse to leave without breakfast. She never called him again.

She had no right to feel sorry for herself, she thought on her birthday. If she wanted friends, if she wanted a boyfriend, she could have them.

Nathan was different. The kids at the park in their Birkenstocks with their yin-yang-symbol tattoos would have loathed him. He was an American businessman who spent more time on his BlackBerry than he did with his family. He was pushy at the coffeehouse, chastising the barista when she got his order slightly wrong. He didn't listen to underground experimental indie rock or tribal-influenced club music like the young people here. He told her that he liked jazz, and there had been a schmaltzy quality to him that made her assume he meant synth-heavy "smooth jazz" that sounded to her like dentist's-office music. Yet when he asked her to dinner, she accepted, even though she'd noticed his wedding ring. She had almost respected him for not hiding it.

At dinner, Nathan name-dropped Sir Thomas Malory, obviously intending to impress her (he mentioned Le Morte d'Arthur--she figured he probably found out about that one through Wikipedia after she had told him her name that afternoon). She let him pontificate during dinner--about the challenges of running a global business, how he was training for a marathon. She didn't talk much. She just let the candlelight glint in her eyes and off her hair, let him talk at her, taking the stream of boring words in. She was pretty sure they were really communicating on some other, more physical level anyway, and that his words were more like background music.

At her place, he read the spines of the books on her shelf. He seemed to approve, although she doubted he'd ever heard of any of the authors. She was tipsy from three glasses of good red wine--high-quality; he would order only the best--and she led him to the bed, undressing on the way. The sex was hot, good. "So this is what chemistry is," she thought. This wasn't nice Jan with his apple crepes. This was a married American businessman who played golf and skipped straight to the business section of the newspaper. This was someone who would leave the country, and her, behind. It gave the sex a shot of urgency.

The alarm on his BlackBerry buzzed at dawn. He kissed her and called for a taxi; he had to go back to the hotel to get his things, then catch his plane. Half-dressed, he paused and looked down at her lying in the tangled sheets. It was a long pause. "Call you on your birthday," he said. He finished dressing and left.

***

One of the other VPs droned on after Nathan had delivered his presentation at the quarterly meeting. Nathan let his mind drift back to the call he had made that morning. Mallory. She had been a good fuck, he recalled. An enthusiastic fuck. Usually girls that pretty would lie limp in bed, passively accepting his attentions as if he were making an offering at a goddess's temple.

He remembered the moment when he'd decided, for once, to keep in touch with a girl he'd met on a business trip. It came back to him now as he sat in the large conference room pretending to listen to something about financial statements. It was the moment when, before leaving her apartment in the morning, he'd stood over her bed, more of a futon than a bed, low to the floor. It was cheap, but it was a piece of furniture a college student would have, a badge of her education. He'd liked her, liked her books and her shyness. Frank and Steve wouldn't have gotten it; they had surely spent their evening in the paid company of blonde Dutch hookers with breast implants.

He'd been with intellectual, cultured girls before. A smart-alecky barista with hipster cat-eye glasses who served him at a cafe in London. A sultry black jazz singer with green eyes in Paris. And Ling, a college student and part-time model he met at a bookstore in Kuala Lumpur. But there was something about Mallory that distinguished her from the rest, he remembered now. A sadness in her eyes, flickering in the candlelight at dinner, as she listened to him talk about whatever he could think of to fill the silence. A hunger in her lovemaking, feline, bloodthirsty, carnal.

After he left her apartment, there were the tempest-in-a-teapot crises to manage at work, guilt at home. Mallory had faded from memory, until he got the birthday reminder on his BlackBerry.

Now he thought: What if I hadn't given myself a reminder? That girl, that night, would be lost to me. Other girls, other nights, are lost to me.

In the quarterly meeting with the other executives, Nathan pretended to listen to something about financial statements. He felt a lump form and harden in his throat.

***

On her birthday, Mallory walked to Magna Plaza. It was a grand, spired, historic building--a former post office--on the outside, and a shopping mall on the inside. Shoppers' voices echoed off marble columns in the corridors. She walked into a giant electronics emporium. She scanned rows of CDs, looking at the faces of the musicians on the covers. The faces of the pop stars, rappers, and sensitive singer-songwriters were earnest, pleading for attention. To Mallory, the faces seemed to say: "Look at how beautiful I am," "Look at how wise I am." "Look at how important I am in the grand scheme of things." "I matter."

She walked into a funky lingerie store. It had a beauty department full of wigs on mannequin heads. She stopped in front of a few wigs that she liked: dark-brown with punky cherry-red streaks, neon-purple pageboy that flipped up at the ends, a platinum-blond bob with bangs like Brigitte Bardot's. He'd had affairs with other women, she was sure. Women who, like her, had seen the wedding ring but had slept with him anyway. What were they like? Did he ever come back for them? After examining some of the wigs up close, Mallory stepped back. Before her was a vast wall of blank mannequin faces under wigs of every possible color, length, and texture.

***

Nathan gave Mallory his number, too, at their steakhouse dinner. He did this perfunctorily, after he entered her birthday and phone number into his BlackBerry. She came close to calling him once. She had gone to a Tex-Mex-themed bar with some students who coaxed her to drink too many margaritas out of a glass shaped like a cactus. The students talked about how much Bush had fucked up Iraq. Mallory slipped off to the beer-sticky restroom. In a stall, the bassline from the popular techno version of "Cotton-Eyed Joe" pounding through the wall, Mallory cried. She took her cell phone out of her purse. She knew better than to call him. What time was it in the States, anyway? What if she woke him up, lying in bed next to his wife? No, wait; it's earlier there. What if she interrupted a rare dinner with his family?

She felt a homesickness she didn't think she could stand. Fuck propriety, she thought. Fuck calling when it's convenient for him.

It passed. She sat in the stall, eyelashes spiky with wet mascara, the cell phone in her hand.

***

After leaving the wall of wigs, Mallory thought, What makes something special? What makes something a thing that Nathan would desire, thirst for, come back for? She thought: I have to make myself scarce in his life, something that's not available to him in abundance. Supply goes down and demand goes up.

She picked the Afghan restaurant (dinner for one) because she'd thought that would sound good on the phone, that it would make her sound cultured and cosmopolitan like he was. She read the menu entry for the ravioli-like entree--mantu, it was called--and filed the information away for the phone call, so she'd have something to say, something to teach him. A reason to keep her in his life.

She ate dinner early and went home to wait for his phone call, although she knew this was pathetic. There was good, steady reception at her apartment, no distractions, no voices echoing under high ceilings, no sounds of traffic or construction. She held her cell phone in her hand. It buzzed, vibrating against her palm. She answered on the third ring.

He sounded bored, sounded like he barely remembered her. He blithely wished her a happy birthday, then rushed off to do some work.

***

In his office on September 7, 6 p.m., finishing up an e-mail to his department about the upcoming company conference, Nathan felt a hit of panic. Mallory had his number--it was conceivable that she could call him during dinner, or even at night as he lay next to his wife in bed. If he left his phone out, say, to take a shower, it was possible that his wife might answer, and Mallory could have a crisis of conscience and rat him out. He'd been sloppy to give her his number. It didn't matter that he'd liked her, that there'd been something about her, that he would like very much to see her again. It wasn't worth the risk. If he never called her again, maybe she would just forget about him. He scrolled through his address book until the cursor highlighted "Mallory." He clicked "Delete."
On the screen, text appeared: "Are you sure you want to delete this contact?"
Nathan paused for a long time. He clicked "Yes."

***

In her apartment, after the birthday call, Mallory stared down at the cell phone in her hand. She thought: Rare equals precious. She thought: If I never call him, if I'm scarce in his life--if he has to be the one who calls me--I'll be high-quality. I'll matter.

She scrolled through her address book until she found him. She removed him from her cell phone's memory. An hour later, she couldn't have remembered his number if she'd tried. A month later, she no longer cared.

***

In November, Nathan traveled for another speaking engagement in Amsterdam. There was no way to contact Mallory to let her know; the way to her orange-painted apartment building had faded from him. A few times during his stay in the city, he thought: I could kick myself for deleting her number.

His room--a suite, penthouse, the best in the hotel--was large and clean. It was so clean that it was as if no one had ever slept there. He looked around him, at the tastefully bisque-colored walls and bed linens, the complimentary soaps and little bottle of aftershave in the mirrored bathroom, the cable-TV guide on the nightstand. All the rooms he'd ever stayed in ran together, indistinct, and he didn't think he could be there alone. He felt a homesickness he didn't think he could stand.

He bought magnets shaped like windmills for his sons and a blue-and-white Delftware plate for his wife. At the end of his last evening in town he was tired, and acquiesced to going for clean Dutch hookers with Frank and Steve. As their cab careened toward the red-light district, Nathan thought, as if trying to convince himself: She is not lost to me.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Like Water

The ushers went to the front of the church with the collection plates. This was my cue to sneak back to the ladies' room.

I squeezed past pulled-in knees down the pew. I didn't have a dollar to spare; I was worried the check I wrote for groceries the night before might bounce. My family would notice if I passed the plate down and didn't put anything on it.

The church program said the choir would sing a hymn after the collection. I would sit in a restroom stall and wait until I heard them sing.

I don't go to church every week like the rest of my family. I was only there that Sunday for my sister's baptism. She's 25 and a born-again Christian.

The ladies' room was empty. White sunlight poured through windows and bounced off the mirror above the sinks. It was radiant. I sat in a stall. I waited for the choir.

* * *

I'm pregnant. I don't know which of three men is the father.

* * *

I leaned my head against the cinderblock wall. It was painted white. I thought about the three men. One of them is my husband.

Mike has been unemployed for the four years we've been together, since before our low-key wedding where my mom cried because she was worried about me. I work and support him. He has manic depression, suicidal tendencies, and seasonal-affective disorder. When I first met him he seemed like a tortured and romantic poet, like Byron. He quoted Pablo Neruda. We used to talk about going to New Orleans for our honeymoon, staying in a hotel in the French Quarter, jazz, spicy food, steamy air that made our hair curl and our skin glow. We never could afford it. That was all before the new medication made him flatline. We don't talk about New Orleans anymore.

He sleeps until late in the afternoon and wakes up a couple hours before I get home from work. He kills time by reading or playing blackjack with an imaginary dealer. At first I thought the blackjack thing was weird but then I got used to it. It's the latest thing his mania has seized on; before that, it was learning the Basque language, and it was wilderness-survival skills before that. He says he can count cards and memorize sequences of numbers that have something to do with playing blackjack. "I just won $30,000," he'll tell me, sitting on the living-room floor in unwashed jeans and a T-shirt with some joke or comic-book character on it. He'll be watching a videotaped re-run of "Saturday Night Live" or something else old. The $30,000 is imaginary, of course. Mike didn't come to Emily's baptism because my family didn't invite him. He hadn't wanted to come anyway. He's an atheist.

Our apartment feels like depression, like a defeated sigh. It's dim, scummy, hopeless, stale. It's hard to remember how excited I was when we first got the apartment. I framed vintage record albums and hung them on the wall. I bought cheap flowers for the kitchen table. I looked at interior-design magazines and written down ideas.

Mike and I have sex once every couple of months. The last time was around when I lost my job, which was also when I slept with the other two men. It was an eventful week.

* * *

The first of the other two men was my boss. That's why I was fired.

* * *

I was fired on a Friday. It was a few weeks before Emily's baptism. At the time she was still going to clubs and doing shots of Jagermeister and grinding against strange boys on the dancefloor. On that Friday, after I had boxed up my IKEA cactus and taken down the postcards I'd thumb-tacked to my cubicle wall, I called Emily. Emily knew what I needed. We told Mike we were having a "girl night." He assumed we meant reruns of "Sex and the City" at Emily's place and pints of Ben & Jerry's. We took the Metro into DC and went to Club Five.

I wore black leather boots that were our mom's in the 1970s and a miniskirt that barely covered my crotch. Emily's boyfriend didn't come with us, but out of respect for him she was more subdued in dressy pants and a shiny top. On the Metro I felt that swirl of blood in my thighs that I get when my body knows it's going to get alcohol. "I am going to get crunk tonight!" I joked to Emily on the train, using slang that I knew I was too old to be using.

The club floor was sticky with spilled liquor. The busty bartender glowed in red neon. There were two bars, one downstairs and one upstairs that overlooked the dancefloor and DJ booth. I drank screwdrivers and Emily drank Long Island Iced Teas. Some guy bought us shots of Jager.

Emily drank too much. I didn't know it at the time, but she wound up spending most of the night throwing up in the grimy ladies' room. I didn't know that because I spent most of the night with a guy whose name was Anthony, I think. That's what it sounded like when he leaned over to shout it over the pounding electronic music. Anthony was big and muscular. He was probably a bouncer; he was friends with the bouncers at Club Five. They let the two of us past a velvet cord and into a dark lounge above the dancefloor. They did it as if they do that a lot.

In the lounge was a window with a view of white government buildings against black sky, a leather couch, and what can only be described as a stripper pole.

I love being drunk. I love the dreamy, watery looseness of my body. I love the hilarity of life, I love the bottomless energy, I love how beautiful I feel when I'm drunk.

I went to the stripper pole. I saw it and knew what to do, as if I were born to do it, although I had never even seen one in real life. I entertained Anthony. I twirled and slid my spine down the pole. With my knees bent, I spread my legs and tossed my hair. I must have seen all of that in some movie or HBO documentary. For a moment I was somebody else, living somebody else's life. For a moment there were no consequences.

Anthony pulled me to where he was on the couch. He kissed me with his tongue in my mouth, and I let him. His fingertips slid under my top, and I let them. The bouncer didn't let anyone else past the velvet rope. With my back against the squeaking seats of the leather couch, Anthony fucked me. I love how sexy I feel when I'm drunk.

* * *

My boss's name was Ed. He was a couple years older than my father. He was in great shape for his age, in great shape for any age. He liked Jack Kerouac and gambling and played in an amateur basketball league for men in their fifties. He took trips to Vegas and rented a convertible so he could drive through the desert with the top down. He was always sunburned.

I could tell he had a pervy streak in him when I first met him. My job was in an office, and it was boring. Ed and his wife ran a mom-and-pop property-management company. I think it was her idea to do that in the first place. Ed's wife, Chantal, was a sophisticated, cultured lady; I always felt like a clumsy hick around her. She was sharp-eyed and caught any mistake in the leases and correspondence I typed up for them. She was Ed's age -- when I wished her happy birthday that year, she rolled her eyes and went into her office and closed the door.

Ed took me out to lunch a lot, and I was happy for the attention; to the handful of others who worked there, I was part of the furniture. There was something alive in him that I responded to and hadn't sensed since I'd first met Mike. You could see where this was heading long before it happened, even though for a while he never said or did anything inappropriate -- it was that extra beat of eye contact.

"I love the wind," he said one day over pizza at our favorite lunchtime joint. He got a faraway look when he said this. I saw him in a convertible in the desert, the wind ruffling his hair. Weather and sun had traced patterns on his forehead, around his smirk. To me, he said, "You're like water. You go with the flow, wherever gravity wants you to go. You take the path of least resistance. You let things happen to you, and you don't stop them." I had never known anyone like Ed. He actually said things like this, out of nowhere.

My cheeks burned, and I said something boring about how I need to be more aggressive, more proactive. I was unintentionally reciting Chantal's critique from my performance review the other week. But Ed had a hippie streak in him; he'd flirted with Buddhism when he was younger. Of my letting things happen to me, he said, "That's not always a bad thing."

Sure enough, I didn't stop it when the predictable happened, when Ed and I were the only ones working late one night in the little Colonial-style house that had been converted into an office. I had imagined it happening outside somewhere, maybe in the desert. I had imagined it a lot. It happened in his darkened upstairs office, me bent forward over his sturdy mahogany desk. I wasn't prepared for the violence of it. Mike was the only man I'd been with up until that point. With Mike it was boring and routine, in our familiar bed with our respective books on the nightstands, but it was always safe.

With Ed it had felt like a porn scene: Boss fucks secretary over his desk. Files and papers scatter to the floor. I fixated on the pencil cup on the corner of the desk. I thought about how odd it was that I was getting fucked by my boss but what's foremost on my mind is that, hey, there's that pencil cup I've seen so many times, the one that looks like Krusty the Clown from "The Simpsons," to show clients that Ed has a sense of humor, that he's not one of those stuffy, boring businessmen. I sort of vacated my body as it was happening. You can want a thing and still have it break you.

Afterward, Ed said he hoped Chantal didn't smell me on him. I smoothed my clothes down and started to leave Ed's office, to clean myself up in the bathroom and then get in my car and drive home to Mike. Ed stopped me, touched my mussed hair and my flushed face. He kissed me softly. It was unlike what had just happened. "I really do care about you, you know," he said. It was more like he was saying it for his conscience than because it was the truth.

Chantal must have smelled me on him -- first thing Friday morning I opened my work e-mail and saw a message from her. "Miranda: Pack up any personal items. You are to leave the premises immediately. Your earnings from this pay period will be mailed to your residence." It was so formal; she even said "residence" instead of "home."

That night, after boxing up my cactus and calling Emily, was when I let Anthony fuck me. I let him.

"You're like water. You let things happen to you, and you don't stop them."

* * *

In a stall in the ladies' room at my sister's new church, I heard the choir start to sing. "Holy... He is holy." It was muffled but lovely from where I sat with my head against the cool white wall. I got up and left the stall to watch my sister's baptism.

* * *

I have a new job now. Emily works at a catalog call center, and she recommended me to her supervisor when someone there left. I'm faithful to Mike now. He thinks he's the father, and he might be. I don't know. He's excited; he loves children. He's picking up the classifieds more often these days. He's trying to lose weight so he can fit into his interview suit again and not have to buy a new one in a bigger size. Maybe something will come of it.

Maybe I'll look back and think that getting pregnant was a good thing. Maybe it will galvanize Mike. Maybe motherhood will give my life meaning.

A week after I was fired, my last paycheck from Ed and Chantal's company came in the mail. It's Ed who signs the paychecks. When I received that last one, I stared at his handwriting. I wondered what he'd felt when he'd signed it.

If I weren't like water, my life would be different. It would probably be better in many ways. I might have said no to Ed, I might have not let Anthony fuck me.

But there would be things I'd never know. I'd never feel myself dancing the way I did with Anthony that night, desperate and vodka-fueled, dancing like sex embodied, like God had given me one night of my life to dance.

I'd never have felt the thrill when, late that Thursday night, Ed stood in front of my desk wordlessly, looked at me like I was all he'd ever wanted in the world, and held his hand out to me, leading me up, up the stairs slowly, the hormones in me warming to him.

I will let this life grow in me. I will let life happen until one day death will come, and I will let it.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The mountains in me


It's the mountains in me that made me run outside my office building to hunt your car down when you came to pick me up from work.

Your frantic call said there was road work keeping you from getting here; you were one block away but traffic wasn't moving. It was making you mad.

Someone urbane, someone from here, would have had a cell phone. Or would have stayed put by my office phone, knowing it's ridiculous to go hunt a car down.

But in a weird act of atavism, when you called in distress, I was up and running, into the elevator, down the street, flustered and graceless. It's not like stalking a mountain lion or a deer, or a rabbit or a squirrel (yes, I have relatives who eat those). On the gridlocked street, the tops of cars glared in the sun, a river of metal.

When you called again and I wasn't by the phone, you left messages. ("What, are you fucking retarded? Why aren't you at your phone!")

My people come from sad purple hills, where there's a well-known spot to leave money for moonshiners, where some people still have goats instead of lawn-mowers, where one guy even has a mule instead of a car. Their "r"s are harsh and curdled, and they talk like a parody, and my grandmother's favorite apron is the one that says "Hee-Haw" all over it. It's not exactly the South, like "Gone with the Wind" and "Steel Magnolias," but you see faded Confederate flags on pick-up trucks and shacks and tattoos.

In the mountains, my people ("kinfolk," they'd say) got up to hillbilly hijinks. My granny once grabbed a possum by the tail, swung it round and round over her head, then heaved it from the yard like it was an Olympic sport, to keep it away from her kids. Once, when my dad was little, his parents were fighting, and my grandmother brought him to her mama's house, high up on a mountain, with stepping stones so steep you almost climb them vertically. My grandfather followed them there, and my dad's parents played tug-of-war with his arms as they yelled. My grandmother's mama appeared on the porch with her rifle. She was not afraid to use it. "Get off my land," she told my grandfather. He left.

My people get things done. They do it simply.

If the car is outside stuck in traffic, you run out to it. You don't wait by the phone then arrange a rendezvous at the organic grocery store's parking garage across the street then calmly cross the crosswalk to meet the person there. No, you run out of the building like a crazy hillbilly, and the yuppies in the cars all stare at you.

I was in high school before I realized "naked" isn't said like "nekkid." In our image-conscious, nouveau-riche neighborhood, my dad sat barefoot on the front porch and played his banjo. When I was little I sat out there cross-legged and listened happily. Then I got older and wished he would stop.

The mountains in me make me over-polite, saying "Sorry!" all the time, even when it's not my fault. That's just what you do, absorb the blame to make other people feel better. But at school and work, everyone says that's wrong. To them, it's all about polishing your image, your personal PR campaign for you, and so you try to talk more and louder than anyone, and you one-up and elbow people out of the way. You don't let people into your lane. You don't hold the door behind you when you enter a store.

No, it's not at all like "Steel Magnolias" with the refinement and the etiquette classes and the fine heirloom china, saying "sugar" like "shugah." It's "You Might Be a Redneck If..." and NASCAR, speaking in tongues and burning your "secular" CDs during an all-night revival at a Pentecostal church; it’s my mom having pet pigs that she named and then ate as bacon later.

My friends with city parents thought it was funny that I didn't know how to hold my knife and fork when cutting steak, that I was in my twenties before I was on a plane, that my relatives live near a place called Buckeye Hollow that is pronounced like "holler" (I thought that was funny, too). At work, everyone's from the Northeast, they went to liberal-arts schools, they know about all the painters and French New Wave films they're supposed to, they make witty comments filled with obscure literary references. At my house, my dad makes donkey sounds and runs around a tree and it's high comedy.

My mom was so afraid up here, when my parents moved north to the city before I was born, away from the mountains, that she stayed in the house and didn't get her driver's license. She peeked out the windows, from the side of the curtains, and ate Little Debbie snack cakes and fried Spam as her children played in the yard. She avoided the neighbors, who had a knack for making her feel crude and stupid. When the snotty neighbor ladies weren't out walking their bichon frise dogs and gossiping about who was behind on mowing their grass, my mom would kneel in the mulch, barefoot, and plant rows of pansies and potted geraniums and roses that climbed our fence.

At his job, people say my dad sounds like Forrest Gump. He's too nice and trusting so he gets pushed around, even though he's smarter than most of them are.

It was the mountains in me that made me fix your belt. You'd had a bad day, one thing wrong after another, and then the buckle broke loose from the rest of your belt, and that was it. You stormed out into the night, and I followed but couldn't find you. I returned to the apartment to wait for you. But I didn't sit there and cry. I got up to look for glue, and I Super-glued it back together. It's something my people would do, like using duct tape to fix a satellite dish or putting a garbage bag over where a car window is busted out. It's not fancy, but it does the trick, and you don't have to feel useless. The women in my family save their aluminum foil and Saran wrap, balling it up for later use instead of throwing it away. Hillbilly spunk, hillbilly ingenuity. One time my granny pulled some dandelions from our front yard and said she was going to make soup with them. I thought it was a joke.

After my mom finally got her license, my dad bought her a car (white with a burgundy roof, on Valentine's Day). She had a rule that she wouldn't drive in the rain, and she didn't go far beyond our neighborhood. One day my dad locked his keys in the car at work in the city, and my mom had to pick him up. She loaded the kids into the car, and the whole way there--rush hour, Woodrow Wilson Bridge, DC's famous traffic--she cried out loud and told us all to pray for her.

Your people are from the mountains, too, and it's the mountains in you that make you hate it up here. Yesterday in the car, after you finally found me on the street, you said you wished everyone up here would die. People were rude to you in traffic; the congestion was killing you and you longed for the soft green hills of your hometown. At a restaurant in your town where we ate barbecue, a waitress wearing too much make-up who would get laughed at up here called everyone "sweetie" and meant it.

I went to college in those sad mountains, and I hated driving back to school after a visit home, those limp purple humps slowly swallowing me up. They made me think of alcoholic great-uncles and pregnant-teenager second-cousins, of all the people stuck in the mountains like drowned bodies in the ocean.

And now sometimes you say you want to go back, but it will be the mountains in me that make me stand on my porch with a rifle that I won't be afraid to use. If you push me too hard, I will use it.