Saturday, August 16, 2014

Mantras

The women had held up OK, but the men were starting to look like grandfathers.
This was the Class of '72, so they'd be, what, 52, 53? Kari didn't used to have to do the math. She used to always just know how old he was, without having to add 28 years to her age.

She had reapplied her lipstick four times in the restroom outside the hotel ballroom. On easels in the corridor, there were enlarged black-and-white photos of his classmates: the football team, students in labs and at pep rallies.

She hadn't seen him yet.


She was thin now. Back when she'd first met him, no boys at her middle school had liked her. In those days, when he used to come over from next door to watch a Redskins game with her mom, brother, and whoever their mom's current boyfriend was, she'd felt his eyes on her when she walked into the TV room to steal a fistful of barbecue chips from the giant bowl. She always took the chips back into the kitchen to eat them with gobs of creamy French onion dip so the others wouldn't sit there thinking, "There's the fat girl, getting fatter."

In the following years, every breathless lap she ran around their neighborhood, every abdominal crunch, every burning leg lift, it was all for him.

She became convinced that hate was what made the world go 'round.

***

She had known that his class was having a reunion tonight because she still checked up on him on the Internet. She hated that she did this but she did.

She stood outside the ballroom entrance, feeling like a spy or an assassin. A maitre d' asked if she was with the band. There was a band performing covers of songs that were popular when he'd been in high school. She said yes, and the maitre d' told her to help herself to the buffet.


It was in her purse now, the stupid mustard seed. He had given it to her one night in the beginning, when the Superbowl after-party and its requisite beers had left the other adults in a stupor in the den.

It was an odd necklace: a mustard seed that rattled around in a hollow glass bead on a string. He said the mustard seed was from the Bible, something about how if you can have a drop of faith, even if it's as small as a mustard seed, you'll persevere, or God will reward you, or something. They had been at the kitchen table. He had encouraged her to have more chips, and more French onion dip, too.

"I think you have a beautiful body," he'd said. He talked about the voluptuous women in old paintings, and taught her the German word "zaftig."

It hadn't mattered to her what the mustard seed stood for. What mattered was that a guy had given her a necklace.


***


At first he acted like he was so attracted to her. But then he started to drop hints. He would say, "You look like you've lost a few pounds -- you look great!"


After a while working out wasn't doing enough, so she started throwing up.
She took to smoking to kill her appetite. She constantly chewed minty gum, and returned to restrooms compulsively to reapply lipstick, dark eyeliner. Her make-up became more extreme and finally outright goth around the time he'd ended things.

There was a period afterward when she called him up crying. Begging.

After the crying had come a period of silence, mandated by him. He asked her not to call, not to visit, not to write.

Then came the drinking. At friends' parties, Kari would go straight for the parents' liquor cabinet, straight for the vodka. It was clear and clean and did its work quickly.

And then came the men.

***

She remembered the day it had turned in her.

Gym class, tenth grade. The first day of the archery unit. "Imagine the bull's eye is someone you hate," their teacher had joked.

When Kari's turn came, she stood in front of her classmates in her size-extra-large gym shorts, her despicable thighs covered in "slimming" black tights even though it was spring. She could have thought of one of the many classmates who taunted her, or one of her mom's many boyfriends, a different loser each month.

Instead she had thought of him, and she got nowhere near the bull's eye. She pulled the trembling cord back so tight it almost snapped, and the arrow flew wildly up into the rafters in a spasm of misspent rage.


***

Of course he would be here. He'd been a football star in high school. He always used to talk about that. That kind of guy always comes to these things.


Kari stood with her back to a wall of the ballroom. It was dark, candlelit, probably in part to downplay the wrinkles, liver spots, scraggly gray hairs, sagging chins, saddlebags. She scanned the tables and the dancefloor.

He was married. He had been married the whole time.

His wife had been partially paralyzed in a car accident after they were married; she was already in a wheelchair the first time Kari met her.

"I can't leave her. Who would take care of her? Besides, I don't want to leave her. I love her."

***

A man in a tropical-print shirt went up to the microphone. He had been the class president the year they all had graduated. He had prepared a little movie, using old yearbook photos and songs from the era. Stock news images of the Vietnam War and Woodstock were interspersed among the yearbook pictures.

There was a photo of a young man with shaggy hair and sideburns lounging on the bleachers. "Bud!" a man's voice boomed. In a ripple, heads turned toward Bud, the football player in the photo.


Bud and his wife had been the popular couple at their high school. Most of their classmates had read about the accident in the paper. Bud splurged for a nurse who could stay in the evenings so Bud could have what he called a social life. At first this meant cards with male friends, then lying about playing cards with male friends so he could go to bars and, later, strip clubs.

All this was excusable as far as his friends were concerned. He was lonely; he deserved a little happiness for stoically staying by her side. None of them knew about Kari.

I'm the crack in your picture , Kari would often think.


***

In the hotel ballroom, Kari looked around her at the men. Men with creased skin sunburned the color of bologna. Men with crinkles around their eyes. Their lips and knuckles looked dried out. He looked like this now, probably.


After him, it was always men his age. This was what felt natural. She flirted with her teachers, college professors, random men on the street. Most of them were married. It was as if she needed that buffer of a couple of decades -- and a wife -- between herself and the man, and she didn't know why. Maybe she felt that her relative youth, her forbiddenness, was her asset.


As the nostalgic film ended, Kari saw a shiny bald head become a standing body in the dark. It moved toward a set of doors on the far side of the ballroom.

***

When Kari walked into a bar now, or even just into a Starbucks, men hit on her. Not just men his age. She figured men must sense a pliancy in her, a willingness to become what they wanted her to be. The heavy make-up, the tilt of her head, the ready smiles, the way she laughed at anything a man said that he intended to be funny.


Many nights she walked the streets around the apartment where she lived now and came up with mantras. She would tell herself it was like how muscles get bigger and stronger through damage -- when you work out or lift a weight, you're tearing the muscle, and in mending itself, the muscle becomes more powerful than it would have been without the damage.


Take the pain and let it galvanize you,
she would think. Take that power and harness it.

Such trite thoughts, all just variations on if-it-doesn't-kill-you-it-
makes-you-stronger. Like an old hippie in a yoga class chanting "Om." So stupid.

***

Kari moved quickly toward the corridor. She sat on a small bench. He was in the men's room, or outside making a cell-phone call. She didn't know what she would do when he returned.

Her spine stiffened against the wall.

He would come. Let him come. Let this happen.

She had not let it break her.


***

A motion had begun at the end of the corridor. It was Bud nudging his wife along in her wheelchair.

The silence had been long. Years long, except for a few gratifying times when he had called her up, drunk and wanting her again. When he was sober, he hadn't wanted anything to do with her.

Only pride had kept her from disobeying and contacting him. Some days the absence was so acute that she shuddered; at these times she felt as if she were hemorrhaging air, hemorrhaging nothing.

He had gotten to her that deep.


***

Bud wheeled his silver-haired, ghostly frail wife toward Kari. Kari stood.

"Hi," she said. "It's Kari, from next door."

His wife smiled, gracious. Kari felt rot inside herself, vile. Above the corona of his wife's hair, Bud looked at Kari from sunken sockets, bags underneath.

"Hello, Kari." Cold, wintry. As if nothing had ever happened.

His wife beamed at her. "What brings you here tonight?"

What should she have said? "Your husband fucked me when I was in middle school"?

The lie Kari came up with sounded stupidly Freudian.

"My father was in this class."

It could have been true. He could have been. Who knew, and did it matter, and did anything.

Kari walked away, leaving them to try to puzzle it out. She had completely forgotten about the mustard seed necklace in her purse. She'd meant to give it back to him.

***

She walked down the carpeted corridor, footsteps muffled to silence, vitriol surging in every vein.

Right now, he was thinking that she was weak. That was what he always told her that she was whenever he tried to encourage her to lose weight, to make friends, to be happy.

He'd never realized the strength it takes for some people to get through a couple of hours, to get up and shower instead of remaining in bed. To spend a Friday night at your apartment with a book instead of going to a club and shots of vodka and men who told her she was sexy.

She walked through the parking lot and made herself believe there was something to her muscle-mending mantras. Her anger had propelled her.


She'd fought her fear. She went sky diving, rode motorcycles in the desert, visited the isolated places near the poles of the earth.

She'd fought against him, his criticism, the mind games, the back-and-forth of his love. She stopped having reckless casual sex.

She moved to a city she loved, filled her apartment with warm colors, a kitchen herb garden, and two cats.

She was going to graduate school.

Maybe it all would have happened without him.

She walked to her car and sat in the driver's seat. She met her eyes in the rear-view mirror, framed by the heavy black eye make-up she still wore. She watched the look in her eyes shift: crazed, wounded, passionate, resolute, fierce.

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