Some slighly longer than usual short stories this time, from Ralph Bland, J.B. Hogan, Devon-Marie Shepherd, Kathryn Sanders and Erica Naess. Enjoy.
Like everyone else who lived at the bottom of the hill, I could stand in my front yard on summer evenings after dinner in those long ago days and listen to Marsha Webb sing from her open kitchen window as she washed her dishes at the top of Porter Drive. It was said- although no one ever confirmed it- that Marsha Webb once had sung in the opera back in Omaha before moving south with her husband to our town, and on those evenings after what we called supper it seemed she couldn’t help but keep her vocal instrument tuned by singing those melodies with Italian lyrics we couldn’t understand in a pure and clear soprano we had all come to recognize and rather enjoy in spite of ourselves and our inability to comprehend what they were about. I was thirteen then in that summer of 1963, and though inclined toward immaturity and random acts only a pissant would engage in, I was still in touch enough with the world around me to acknowledge a beautiful sound when it happened upon my ears.
I’m fairly certain everybody in the neighborhood was a little like that. We were the families of working-class Southerners raised on the music of Top 40 and the Grand Ole Opry, but once Marsha Webb moved in and began to wash her dishes in her kitchen at the top of Porter hill she was officially a part of the neighborhood, and the music that floated down from her window soon became a part of us too.
Marvin and Marsha Webb, late of Nebraska, had two children, Charles and Pamela. Pamela was two years younger than me, and I have trouble recalling much about her other than she was skinny and wore black-rimmed glasses and carried a flute around in a brown case back and forth to school. I don’t think I remember a single time I saw Pamela without that flute case entrenched in her fingers like it was the most important possession on the face of the earth, but I’m not saying that being a flautist was all that terrible a thing or anything like that. Heck, for all I know old Pamela could have gone on from those apprentice days to being first chair in the Symphony or something, maybe even landing a gig as that person who played the solo flute in the middle of “California Dreamin’” with the Mamas and Papas, or perhaps tutoring Ian Anderson on how to blow those vicious vibes with Jethro Tull a little later down the line. I mean, stranger things have happened.
Charles, on the other hand, I could write a big James Michener saga about if I thought anyone would read it. He was fifteen that summer, two years older than me or any of the other kids in the proximity, and with that seniority most of the time the rest of us couldn’t help but watch his actions and listen to the words that came out of his mouth so unashamedly, absorbing these offerings like oxygen and the gospel truth, even though a part of us knew what Charles brought to us was nothing close. It didn’t occur to our pack of wild and impressionable pre-teens that the reason Charles was always around as an elder statesman for all our games and secret trysts was because his act had already worn thin on the boys his own age- had, in fact, already led the majority of them to scorn him and view him as a goofball or a weirdo who was never going to grow out of it and take a step into the circle of legitimate high school social acceptance, whatever in the hell that was.
I’d usually discover Charles in my yard on those summer mornings, shooting basketball in my driveway because I had the most level court of any one, unless you wanted to walk a half mile to the elementary school playground, and even then my court had the school beat because I had a net rather than just an iron rim, and it was important back then to hear that swishing sound when the ball passed through for two points.
With no school or job or any pressing place to have to be that summer, I generally stayed up late watching television and slept until about nine in the mornings, but most times I was awakened from my comas by the sound of a ball dribbling on the asphalt driveway and Charles’ own voice as he commentated to himself on the titanic battle the two imaginary teams in his head were having with only him present as both a participant and spectator.
“Peterson dribbles outside, hands it off to Taylor. Taylor goes inside, wants to shoot, but Oliver’s all over him. Taylor finds Kelly over in the left corner. Twenty-two foot shot, and it’s good! What a shot by Kelly and it’s all tied up again!”
Lots of times I’d amble out to the back porch and watch these games in my pajamas, with the running description of the contest going on and Charles scurrying around like crazy trying to fulfill each aspect of his sportscasting report, the offense and the defense and the audience all at the same time. Other than the fact the entire scene was maniacal in its convolutedness and scope, I still had to marvel most of the time at how good and adept Charles Webb was at this schizophrenic tilt. If you watched him for a while and listened in and sort of suspended your disbelief, for a little bit you could almost see what he was seeing in his head and what images he was trying to get you to see too.
He was like that in a lot of things. What was actually happening in the world and what was going on in his head at the same time was never necessarily the same, and maybe that was the reason Charles could never find a spot with the older crowd he was supposed to be hanging around with. Maybe he just couldn’t quite turn the corner on putting away the baseball cards and the bicycles and moving on to the world of grown-up girls and hot cars and whose party you were invited to on the coming Saturday night.
He’d finally spot me on my porch and act like it was no big deal that I’d just witnessed what I had. To Charles, the bizarre things he did on a daily basis was as natural as waking up in the morning.
“What are you doing today?” he’d always ask, like he had to determine if I’d change my routine for something really important he had in mind.
“I don’t know,” I’d say. “I thought I might go to the Y or go fishing at the pond.”
The pond was this little offshoot of water that ran off from the river a couple of miles away. It was about four feet deep during the rainy season and if you were lucky you might catch a fish about the side of your bird finger. Mostly we’d load up our line with biscuit dough as bait and catch fish slightly bigger than minnows, which we would throw back in the pond hoping somehow they’d grow and get larger. You could catch the same fish about a thousand times every time you went down there.
“It’s too hot to fish,” Charles always assured me. “Whatever fish are in that pond are just gonna lay on the bottom and not come up to the surface for anything. To catch those guys during the summer you either have to get there early or go late when the sun isn’t so hot.”
It was true Charles had always been the best fisherman out of any of us boys, so I took this daily proclamation to be the absolute truth.
“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do today.” He lowered his voice so no one within miles could hear and squinted up at me conspiratorially. “After lunch I’m going back to where I was yesterday and do the same thing I did then all over again. Shoot, I may go every day for the rest of this summer as long as the sun’s up there shining.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about how if you walk through the back of my yard and go out past the dog pen in the Crowder’s yard you come to a big wooden privacy fence. Do you know who that fence belongs to?”
“I think that’s where Tommy and Linda Carlisle live.”
“That’s absolutely right. But did you happen to know that every afternoon after lunch Linda and a whole bunch of her friends- Susan Cooper and Judy Daniels and a couple more- like to sunbathe out there in the backyard ? Sometimes there’s five or six girls out there, and I’m here to tell you most of the time none of them are wearing a whole lot of clothes. I know this for sure, because I’ve been watching them lay around on blankets and lawn chairs for about a week now.”
He began to smile at me in that crazy way he had, and any second I expected him to start laughing like he was Dracula’s henchman Renfield, which was another one of his traits that I figured was denying him entrance into the world of high school where he truly belonged.
I couldn’t, however, turn down the opportunity of viewing an unclad Linda Carlisle and the legions of sisterhood that accompanied her, even though Linda and her friends were three and four years older than me and were some of them cheerleaders and on the whole mostly dated big and burly football players, while I was this junior high jerk who’d never yet touched a girl and wouldn’t have known what to do if he had, and about the only thing I’d ever had to do with the opposite sex at that point was to dare to imagine what in real life one of these creatures might possibly look like naked. I mean, I’d looked at some Playboys a couple of times up to then, but I hadn’t really lingered over the centerfolds too much or anything, because they were all about as unreal and other-worldly and frightening as any of the older girls I saw at school or church whenever my mother grew tired and unimpressed with my worthlessness and forced me to go, and I’ll admit even then it was hard to know who to fear the most, me being the low and vile sinner that I was in the hands of an angry Jehovah, or these girls with lips and breasts and legs that I knew would one day cast me into oblivion because of my innocence and my overwhelming trove of utter stupidity. I knew I was doomed either way.
“You want to come with me?” he asked.
I shook my head up and down like a puppet.
“Yeah,” I said.
I got a lot better at it as the summer went along, but on that first afternoon of my spying career my stealth abilities were about as non-existent as my knowledge of the female species. I don’t know if it was a result of my impending excitement or what it was, but it seemed like anytime I could find a hole to step in or a tree limb to smack me in the face or a root to trip over I was successful in maiming myself enough to cause a thud or elicit an exclamation or a highly audible gasp of pain at the infliction I’d just received, and while most older guys would have been pissed at all these possible interruptions during so delicate an undertaking, Charles seemed to find these faux pas added to the danger element of our mission and thus appeared to thrive on the possibility we might get discovered and nabbed. I guess you could say he enjoyed living on the edge.
“We’re almost there,” he said, leaning against a tree. “We have to go about twenty more yards, so we’ve got to be really quiet from here on out. You just stay behind me and I’ll show you where to stop.”
On the brink of completing this hazardous task, I prepared myself for my first journey into the mysterious and mystical world of female anatomical observations. My heart beat like “Wipeout” was being played on 78 speed in my veins and my breathing became heavy and excitable. I had never felt like this before.
I looked down at my feet to make certain I wasn’t going to trip again at so crucial a time, and there on the toe of my right tennis shoe sat a skink with a purple tail and a yellow stripe down his back who looked like he might have been one of those Komodo Dragons that enjoyed swallowing their prey whole, and I forgot in an instant all the possible barely clad cheerleaders on the other side of the privacy fence before me and started instead to slinging my leg like I was kicking off for the Green Bay Packers in an effort to get this reptile off of me so he wouldn’t be prone to advancing up my leg and running inside my shorts and finding a good place to hide. All this sudden physical activity not only caused me to kick Charles in the butt in front of me but also resulted in me kicking the privacy fence one good time to announce to the possibly naked contingent on the other side that the perverts had arrived and they had best start covering themselves up and phoning for the police.
The next thing I knew I was running away from the scene as fast as I could, running from the lizard I was sure had a forked tongue and was seeking me out, and running from the awful possibility of capture and punishment and being discovered and becoming forever known for the rest of my sorry life as one of those dirty boys who looked at girls through the slats of a wooden fence because he wasn’t good enough to get to look at one up close on a real life date, because he just didn’t have what it took, and everyone from this day forward would know it was the truth.
We were never sure if the sun-bathing group had heard us on that day or not, but we decided the wisest thing we could do was to not revisit the scene of the crime for a while and allow suspicions to die down a bit before daring to attempt such a deed again. We’ll give it a couple of weeks, Charles told me, and then they’ll forget all about it. It’s a long summer and we’ll have plenty of opportunities to go back. Besides, they’re not the only ones to see around here.
He was right. Over the next two weeks and on past July 4 we stayed busy spying on the houses around us and the people who lived inside them. Most of the time our visual eavesdropping was harmless enough- we’d listen to housewives chat in their driveways while hidden behind tall hedges, we’d climb a tree and watch women work in their gardens in what they thought was their private backyards, we’d go in grocery stores and watch people shop so we’d know what they were having for supper that evening. At the YMCA pool we’d swim around catching snatches of conversations and try to construct a meaning for what was going on in each of these stranger’s lives. We were anonymous and invisible, vicarious in our interest in what the world around us was doing each particular moment. Without this world and its everyday routine drama there was nothing to be had on our own. We were as devoid of individual skills or interests as the invisible summer wind that blew in our face.
And with all the experience I was garnering from this new hobby I found myself becoming more confident and emboldened with each new endeavor. Like Charles, I began to enjoy the thrill of locating a new target or staking out a territory wherein my next adventure of life would come my way. I liked the unpredictability of the subject matter, of having such a profound interest in the goings-on of strangers and those neighbors in close proximity who had never bothered to learn my name. It was like I had been granted a power for going through my identity-free life so weak and defenseless to this point. I finally felt I had obtained from the spinning globe I was a part of some measure of control.
I became so fearless that I began to go out on my own without Charles along as a mentor. Granted, I was perhaps not as imaginative or creative in these endeavors without Charles’ wild bursts of inspiration and bravado, but I was still able to inject my facilities into church when I got hauled there or the doctor’s office where I got my allergy shots and around my own house sometimes after supper, when I’d go outside on the pretense of seeing my friends and instead sneak across the street to peek through a side window and see what the Watsons were having to eat that night. I would spy to my heart’s content while listening to Marsha Webb’s soprano lilting down from the top of Porter Drive. It was as if her voice was a partner in my high and secret crimes.
July passed and our spying expeditions began to lose their flavor, mostly because by then we had looked in every crevice and turned over every promising rock in our vicinity with our zealousness to unearth every secret about the world around us. With the absence of an automobile to transport us to new locales our spying began to become like the summer reruns on television, in the sense that there were no new programs to explore and every subject we turned our attention toward was something we had studied already before. It was getting boring watching the same old thing over and over again, and I found myself silently wishing for Labor Day and the new school year that began the following day.
So I was almost to the point where I halfway wished school would hurry up and start, even though that sort of militaristic routine brought new horrors to my mind that promised to be far worse than the doldrums currently feasting on me. School meant I would have to be out in the world to answer roll call and be visible and vulnerable to whatever havoc the stream of everyday life might want to send to drown me, so I had to consider a lack of having anything to do and a stretch of time where my presence was not required to be a blessing I would one day covet and wish like hell I could quickly return to. I told myself it was better to languish this way than to become rigidly embroiled in a real life situation I could not for the life of myself escape from.
I was weighing these possibilities one night after supper. It was a night where all the usual suspects of my spying agenda had no interest for me, and the idea of going and finding Charles to lead me into new adventures and locales seemed troublesome and unpromising and almost irritating, for I seemed to have arrived at a point where Charles’ stories were beginning to be not so entertaining and his ideas nowhere near brilliant. Perhaps I was getting old like the summer and was reaching that plateau Charles’ classmates had already arrived at, where they and now perhaps me as a collective group suddenly had to get over in the passing lane and get around Charles Webb in his own tiny right hand lane puttering along in his own funny little boy’s world. I knew already I was going to have to start avoiding Charles soon, for it was becoming clearer each day that I didn’t want to be a spectator too much at the events of his imaginative life much longer. I was getting too old for him.
I was starting to think there had never been any half-naked cheerleaders on the other side of the Carlisle fence.
Most of these thoughts came my way after dinner, when I stood at the edge of my driveway and the street looking up Porter hill. I held a whiffleball bat on my shoulder and from time to time tossed up a piece of gravel and hit it down the road. I had the game all figured out, what constituted a single, what was a double or a triple, and how far the rock had to travel for it to be a home run. I liked hitting those rocks all over the place like I was a big league slugger, but I never said anything about it out loud. I kept that much to myself. I just liked the way the hollow bat made its noise when the rock flew off it and how watching those rocks sail away gave me lots of time to think.
And one night in the middle of batting practice I had this idea of how I could break the rut I’d fallen into and do something off the wall. I thought how great it would be to turn the tables on Charles. After all, hadn’t he been spying on everybody in the county almost all summer? The next day was Labor Day and after that we’d all be back in school, and all I’d be able to say is I’d wiled away an entire summer accomplishing nothing. Summers were hard to come by even at my age, and now all the blame for my lack of accomplishments seemed to point at Charles Webb. Maybe, I reckoned, I should declare my independence from him by giving him a dose of his own medicine.
Besides, it would be fun.
Marsha Webb had stopped singing when I started up the hill. On this day the sun was beginning to set in contrast with the long summer days already past, and the twilight felt good on my crew cut in place of the hot sun that had scorched it for months. I heard Cricket, the Anderson’s Chihuahua, yapping from her fenced-in yard, but since Cricket barked all the time anyway I didn’t think anyone would take any particular notice of me passing this way. I crossed over to the Pearson’s side yard and walked around to the back where the Webb’s backyard began. There was a shed back there where I knew Marvin Webb kept his tools and lawnmower, and from there I snuck around the side of the house to where I could get to the window of Charles’ room. I wanted to catch him doing something he didn’t want anybody in the world to ever know about.
I heard voices as I skulked by the downstairs den door, and I couldn’t help but stop dead in my tracks and listen. It was mostly Marvin Webb doing the talking- yelling, actually- and every now and then I could hear Marsha Webb emit what amounted to a peep or a strangled whimper from that throat that had just recently engulfed our neighborhood in song.
Then came the sounds of the slaps. One, two, then a final third.
For a long moment I stood there like a statue, immobile and silent, afraid to move for fear Marvin Webb would discover my uninvited presence in his yard, afraid to get away from this scene because to do so meant I could never look Charles Webb in the eye again, I could never look down my nose on his pose of perpetual childhood at all, because why should he grow up- why should I grow up?- when after you do you have to come to grips with shit like this? And afraid, frightened beyond words, that when I did finally break and run from this yard I would have to carry with me the notion that life was always going to come at me in layers just like this, that what was a beautiful song on the surface was never going to stay that way for me or anyone else very long, for I would know from now on there was always going to be a bruise or a sob somewhere beneath the surface of everything I saw.
It took me a while to muster up enough courage to get back down the hill. I went in the house and watched television for a while with my parents, although I couldn’t tell you anything about what was on for the life of me. All I know is I went to bed and the next morning I awoke to the sound of Charles playing basketball outside. By the sound of his voice he was involved in another exciting game. It was like what went on the night before had changed nothing.
And on that Labor Day and for all the twilights following it I looked in no more windows after finishing my supper. I ceased listening to voices in other rooms. I grew to care very little what people were doing outside my own personal sphere. Instead I stood at the edge of my driveway with my tan plastic bat, hitting rocks over imaginary fences while Marsha Webb sang what must have been the saddest songs on earth in a faraway voice that was hers alone.
“What do you think, Juan,” Bobby Ward asked, peering into the shaded, open air bar fronting the Hotel Criollo on the little island of Culebra off the mainland of Puerto Rico, “do we get to the hotel through here?”
“Ask the man at the bar,” Juan said, “I’ll wait here with the mujeres.”
“Okay,” Bobby said, turning and walking into the bar.
It was a quaint place, walls decorated with worn posters advertising cock fights from a distant past and faded displays for several domestic and imported beers. Some of them looked like they might have gone back to the 40’s.
“Bueno dia,” Bobby said to the bartender, dropping the ending ‘s’ in his Spanish in imitation of the locals. He leaned his body casually against the counter.
“Bueno dia,” the bartender said, looking up from drying a glass with a semi-clean bar towel.
“Uh,” Bobby said, motioning with his arm, “uh, donde esta el Hotel Criollo? Es . . . esta cerca? De aqui?”
“Si, Señor,” the bartender said, switching to a heavily accented English in response to Bobby’s weak Spanish. “The hotel is back alla, back there” – he pointed down the open side of the bar and then to the right behind it – “back there is the manager.”
“Oh good,” Bobby said in English, “that’s great. Gracia, Señor. Mucha gracia.”
The bartender nodded and went back to work. Bobby rejoined Juan and their wives.
“This is it,” he said as they collected their gear, “we gotta go by the bar and around behind it. The guy in there said the manager’s in back somewhere.”
The manager, a thin, voluble man of perhaps forty-five, was in fact in a small dining and kitchen area just around and behind the back wall of the bar.
“Welcome,” he greeted the new guests enthusiastically, “welcome to the Criollo. It is a nice view of Wilson City from the second floor.”
He led the group upstairs to their rooms, chatting pleasantly in imprecise but adequate English.
“You can see nearly to the ocean. A very nice view.”
“It is a beautiful view,” Lisa Ward said, looking out from the landing at the white stucco houses dotting the green hillside beyond.
“Can we eat downstairs?” Juan’s wife, Susan, asked the manager.
“Si, Señora,” he replied, looking at Susan’s wedding band. “We open for lunch and dinner. We have much good food. My wife is the cook.” He laughed, revealing a set of well-shaped, clean white teeth.
“And the playa,” Juan asked, “how do we get there?”
“People go often to Cielo Beach,” the manager said. “My men Victor or Luis or someone going will give you a ride. You can come with me, señor, one of them is maybe in the bar now.” He and Juan started back down the stairs.
“Oh, yes,” the manager added, pausing a couple of steps below the landing. “I nearly forget. The water pump is not so good. Sometimes the . . . uh, pressure is low and there is no water. Mostly in the afternoon, when they come back from the beach. I am sorry.”
“No problem,” Lisa said, “we don’t mind. It’ll be fun, huh, Bobby?”
“You bet,” Bobby said, “no problem.”
Bobby had been roaming in and out of the room, looking the place over and really not paying attention. Having a problem getting water added to the character of the place he thought. He loved it already.
“Good,” the manager said, pleased with his new guests. He motioned to Juan and they hustled off to the kitchen/bar area.
“God, you guys,” Bobby happily told the women. “Check this place out. The bar, that little dining area. This is like something out of Hemingway, isn’t it? Man, it makes you want to pull up a table and chair on this landing, grab a cool one, and write all day. Whew! What a place! I could spend some time here, let me tell you.”
* * *
“I could’ve stayed there forever,” Lisa said as they climbed the Criollo’s stairs to their rooms. “I didn’t want to leave.”
“Me either,” Susan said, “Cielo Beach is the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“You can say that again,” Bobby confirmed.
“Con permiso,” an older man waiting at the top of the stairs said.
He and another man of about the same age were trying to get down the stairs just as the two couples were nearing the landing. Bobby and the others moved to one side.
“Con su permiso,” the man said again, more firmly and more formally.
He wore a red guayabera shirt, white beach pants and a pair of black thongs. His face was thick and clean shaven, his hair a steel black with occasional specks of white. He had dark brown eyes and Lisa thought he was very handsome. She smiled and stepped past him onto the landing. The other man, also wearing a guayabera, a spotless white one, was balding and had not shaven. He nodded to the group and made his way down the stairs.
“Wasn’t it fabulous,” Susan said, picking up the conversation again.
“Better than St. John’s?” Juan asked.
“I don’t know,” Susan said, “maybe. In its own way.”
“Listen,” Bobby said, “let’s hurry up and if we can, get some dinner downstairs, okay? I’m starving and I love that little place down there by the bar.”
“I know, I know,” Lisa said with a laugh, “it’s so Hemingway.”
* * *
Juan and Bobby were drinking and getting a little boisterous at a table out on the second floor landing when the two older men who had passed them on the stairway earlier came out of their room across the way.
“Buenas noches,” the dark-haired man said, extending his right hand in greeting; in the other was a bottle of rum. “I am Jorge Ruiz and this,” he added in English, pointing to the other man, “is David Lopez. May we join you and share our drinks?”
Bobby and Juan shook hands with the older men and invited them to sit down.
“So,” Jorge said, after the preliminary courtesies were exchanged and a round of straight rum poured, “we heard much loud talking before. What was it about? Mujeres?”
“No,” Juan laughed, “yanquis. We were saying how much they control things on the main island.”
“The Yankees,” Jorge pretended to misunderstand, “what has a New York baseball team to do with controlling Puerto Rico?”
“Estupido,” David, already clearly in his cups, grumbled, “not those Yankees, the other yanquis.”
“Oh,” Jorge acted surprised by his friend’s response, “oh.” Juan and Bobby laughed courteously.
David refilled the glasses. He spilled some on the table and cursed. Juan and Bobby glanced at each other. Jorge hurriedly mopped up the alcohol with a handkerchief.
“Say,” he proposed, “would everyone like a game of dominoes?”
“Sure,” Juan and Bobby shrugged.
Jorge hustled off to his and David’s room, shortly returning with the dominoes. In moments the game was in full swing and Susan and Lisa came out to watch the spirited play. There was a lot of laughing, loud talk, and drinking.
Jorge and David consistently overwhelmed Bobby and Juan. Juan managed to hold his own but Bobby couldn’t keep up. They were always handily beaten. Jorge took each victory in stride, insisting that Juan and Bobby were improving every game and that Bobby was really catching on fast.
David, whose sullenness intensified as the games mounted up, was not so generous. Around eleven, with the game and energy of the drinkers winding down, David’s sullenness slid toward open hostility.
“Wonderful move, amigo,” he growled at Bobby after a particularly inept play. “Done like a true yanqui.”
“David,” Jorge said, “shush. You are drunk. Don’t insult our friends.”
“Friends?” David snorted, his quick anger catching everyone off guard, “mierda. Crap.”
“Ay bendito,” Jorge told him, “you do this every time you drink. Must you?”
“Must you?” David mocked.
Juan and Bobby looked at each other and at their wives. Jorge rolled his eyes in commiseration. Bobby smiled at him.
“I’m tired of them being here,” David started up again. “I’m sick of you yanquis.”
“Por cierto,” Juan tried to joke with him, “let’s chase them all out. Beginning with this one.” He acted like he was grabbing Bobby, who feigned fear.
“No,” David slurred, first to Juan and then to Bobby, “don’t laugh. It is not a joke. I am sick to the death of yanquis. To hell with them. To hell with you all.”
Juan’s eyes flashed. Susan quickly put her arm on his shoulder.
“I am sorry friends,” Jorge interceded again, “David is drunk. He is troubled and angry. Not at you personally, I assure you. He is not like this usually. It is a private thing.”
“Calleté, Jorge,” David butted in, “shut up. What do you know? For a hundred years they come here. They own everything. They steal our language, our religion, everything. All they do is take . . . take. Everything. I hate them.”
“These people are not like that, David,” Jorge said, “please be quiet.”
“Oppressors,” David said.
“I’m not like that, David,” Bobby said, “none of us here is. We don’t believe like that. We hate that, really.”
“You are all the same,” David said, the fire as suddenly going out of his drunken harangue as it had flamed. “You are yanquis,” he mumbled sadly, “the women too.”
“David!” Jorge said. “Now you must apologize.”
“Yes,” Juan said rising angrily to his feet, “apologize to my friends. And to my wife.”
“Juan,” Susan said breathlessly, reaching for her husband, “come on. He’s drunk. He didn’t mean it. Let’s go. Come on.”
“Yeah, Juan,” Lisa said, “forget it.”
“Just watch what you say,” Juan said to David. Jorge put his arms around his slumping friend.
“He is sorry, young man,” Jorge told Juan, “even though he doesn’t know it. Please forgive us. I’ll take him to his room. We’re sorry.”
As Jorge helped David to his feet, he spoke softly to the couples.
“It is his son. A boy of about your ages. He was shot in the war in the Gulf. The right arm was taken and now the boy has many problems. It has broken David’s heart. Please understand.”
“Oh,” Juan said, “I didn’t know.”
“No, of course not,” Jorge told him. “How could you.”
“We’re sorry,” Bobby said.
“Thank you,” Jorge said. “I will take him to the room now.”
He guided David across the landing, leaving the dominoes and the rest of their rum. Susan noticed and picked up the table.
“We can give these to them in the morning,” she said. “When everyone’s sober.”
“Let’s go to bed,” Lisa said. “I feel lousy.”
“Yeah,” Bobby said, “what a drag.”
“What do you think of your Hemingway hotel now?” Lisa asked him.
“I don’t know,” Bobby said, “I was just saying that before. You know.”
“I know,” she said, taking his hand, “it’s just that this is the kind of weird scene machismo and drinking always end up in.”
“Not always,” Bobby said, as the couples entered their room.
“How would your Hemingway have handled this?” Juan asked, sitting down on the edge of one of the beds.
“Who knows, Juan,” Bobby answered, “probably about the same as us.”
“Then he wouldn’t have done a very good job of it, would he?” Lisa said.
“Let’s go to bed,” Susan said, “and forget Hemingway. He’s long gone anyway.”
“Right,” Lisa said.
Juan let himself fall backwards on top of the covers. Susan lay down beside him. Lisa sat on the other bed and motioned for Bobby. He slowly walked over and sat beside her. In a moment, he too stretched out on the covers and closed his eyes.
“About the same as us, I guess,” he mumbled.
“What?” Lisa asked, rolling over against him. He didn’t speak right away.
“Uh . . . nothing,” he finally said quietly, “nothing, nothing at all.”
Malerie Meets Madame Ines
Malerie fished the lanyard – pink with punched out, hollow hearts – out from underneath her shirt and unlocked the lobby door. The grille and glass entry buzzed like her brain – as usual, she’d hopped herself up on after-school candy before coming home – just as Mrs. Dubrelle was three stairs into climbing up to her second-floor apartment. Malerie sucked hard on a blue candy stick, shook her hair to cover her face, and hoped Mrs. Dubrelle would keep on climbing up the stairs.
“Well hello there Malerie.”
Sugar-spit syrup puddled over her tongue. She slurped it down and felt bettered somehow, cocky. She snapped her hand at Mrs. Dubrelle in a quarter-turned salute.
“Farmer’s market’s still up across the street.” Mrs. Dubrelle hugged a cardboard box. Spriggy fennel and some black-bean aubergines peaked out. Drab flesh hung from her cheeks, worn-thin and faded, like her cotton blouse and shorts. Steelwool frizz frazzled free from her bun.
Every so often there was a market in the city square across the street. Produce mostly, cheese sometimes, and on long weekends, handicrafts and meats. Malerie rolled her eyes at the stupid way Mrs. Dubrelle called it the Farmer’s Market. Karim was always in his Karim’s Konvenience booth and everyone knew Karim was no farmer.
“You should go grab a box. Help your mother out.” Malerie clicked the candy stick along her teeth. Her lips curled in a sort-of smile – more a stretched-loose snarl – her cheek tented over her rock-candy pole.
“If you’re so worried, why don’t you help her out?”
Mrs. Dubrelle stared at Malerie hard.
“You’re becoming a saucy little girl.”
Malerie scrunched up her face as Mrs. Dubrelle turned and climbed a step or two before stopping. “Oh and I hope that ratty cat of yours is fixed.”
“He is, Mrs. Dubrelle. He is.” Malerie shook her head and sighed.
“Good. Because the last thing the world needs is more ratty cats like him. And more saucy girls like you.”
Malerie stuck out her tongue as Mrs. Dubrelle disappeared up the stairs.
Malerie had already finished the ‘Sex and Reproduction’ unit in Health, so she knew all about where baby cats came from. She also knew, to make a baby, Abner’d have to get pretty close to another cat, so fixed or not fixed, that’d never be a problem. Abner was like her – too smart and too feisty to be bothered with things like babies and love.
Malerie pushed through the door to the inner courtyard and stopped. There he was, sitting under the tongue of a pretty she-cat. Malerie’s shoulders lopped and she dug her pants out of her butt with her finger.
“How could you, Abner?”
With a slurp, Malerie pulled her spit-shined candy stick from her mouth and shrugged her book bag back onto her shoulder.
“Pressing up to a prissy puss like that.”
Malerie sucked hard on her candy stick and felt sick.
Ten years old, Malerie wasn’t stupid. She already understood the bossy pull of bottle-bronzed skin, wet-shine lips, and eyes rounded out by liner. But Abner had sprung from the clam-shell cover of the Rubbermaid bin out behind her old house in the suburbs. Born from chicken bones and pork ribs and ground-coffee mud, Abner was scrappy.
He hissed at Miss Ella’s primped Persian and taunted Ms. Woo’s purse-stuffed poodle from across the street. He squirmed from brushes and collars and those minty treats for his breath. Most of the time, he squirmed from her too. But sometimes he would ribbon himself around her legs when she sat on the edge of the couch, a TunaBake LeanCuisine perched on her lap, and now and then, he would stop beside her for a minute or two, just long enough for her to draw some security from the swell and wane of his body and his vital warmth under her hand.
So it was a bit of a shock to see him sitting like that with such a pretty house-cat. Malerie had never seen him sit beside another living creature for so long. And so calm. Yet, there he was rubbing his nose along her well-groomed neck, on the moss-grown bench, in the middle of the courtyard, for everyone in four buildings and four button houses to see.
Well, if that’s what charmed Abner, Malerie was out of luck. Everyone knew that Malerie had nothing to do with beauty and beauty could stand neither sight nor smell of her.
“Come on, Abner. Let’s go.”
Abner turned from his she-cat and sprang from the bench onto the long trough that fed ropy vines up a wooden trellis. The orange and white she-cat twisted her head to watch Malerie, unconcerned. Malerie hated that cat, with her pickled radish nose and her parsnip and pumpkin coat. It’s butternut squash, sweetie. Not pumpkin. From the garden. Malerie really hated that cat.
“Get!” Malerie brandished her candy stick at the she-cat, who raised her nose and turned away, as if to let Malerie know just what she thought of the bluff.
“Abner! I’m not fooling around.”
Malerie edged toward Abner. The leaves rustled on the vines as Abner scampered along the trough, sending shockwaves up the trellis. Malerie fished her cellphone from her bag. 4:08pm. A Fonder Heart had already started.
Malerie’s mother would definitely flip if she knew Malerie was rotting her brain watching that junk everyday after school. Malerie’s mother would probably flip about a lot of things – chocolate bars and ice cream for dinner, cribbed essays, never-done math work – if she knew. But the way Malerie looked at it, her rotted brain, teeth and grades were the price her mother paid for not being around when she got home from school.
Although she disobeyed her mother, Malerie never really liked A Fonder Heart. The other girls at school loved the soap. Every recess, they sat in a circle, playing with each other’s hair and passing collecive judgement on the characters – Ryan’s love for Crystal was pure, they’d eventually be together; Sola was a witch, she was going to leave the unsuspecting Eric for his older (richer) brother; Ashley, who spent her Saturday nights at the soup kitchen, was perfect for the mysterious drifter, Mark. Malerie couldn’t understand how they knew, how in all this getting-together and breaking-up, they found clues – keys – to some sort of truth. But, as long as she watched it – and handed over the story intact – the other girls sat around her rapt, and Malerie could pretend they wouldn’t get up and leave when it was all over.
They all had mothers or nannies around when they got home. They needed Malerie to watch it. Although now, Adelaide claimed she watched with her father when he got home from work. But her snake-slit eyes were on Malerie when she said it. Adelaide hadn’t let up since she found out.
Malerie’s father had left them.
Abner jumped from the trough and hopped along a series of planters. On the last and highest one, he hunkered down, cranked his tail, and then launched off the lip of the planter.
“Stop Abner! No!”
Abner was a semi-feral cat that Malerie had found, scaring mice from the garbage, out behind the house she had lived in before her family broke. She had begged, relentlessly, to keep him, and so after a trip to the vet for a quarantine and a check-up, her father finally gave-in.
Although Abner had grown to tolerate them, he still didn’t like to be held. But everyday, before she left for school, Malerie carried him down four flights of stairs to the courtyard. Without an elevator, it was quite the task, even if he didn’t stiffen his body and straighten his legs, or throw her dangerously off-balance, squirming over her shoulder to snap at a junebug, knocking about on the landing behind. But Malerie figured that basking on the cobblestones or skulking about the potted vines was a better way to spend a day than cooped up in the apartment, alone.
And the courtyard was big, big enough to hold four detached units. The houses, they called them. Although they reminded Malerie more of the garden shed where her father had stuffed the extra wood from her mother’s deck, Malerie’s flat-tired trike, and the metal garbage cans the city no longer collected from, than a house. She wondered where those trash cans were now – now that the shed had been pulled down to make room for Vivian and her vegetable garden, and she couldn’t help but wonder what had been pulled down in her room – the glittered letters, M-A-L-E-R-I-E, on the door, her Hanna Montana poster, the suncatcher that smashed the light into red-green-yellow-blue shards – to make room for the new baby in her old house.
Abner looked down at Malerie from the roof of a courtyard house. There was no way she could get him down from there and the girls had been waiting all weekend to see what Brigitte would do when she realized Bo was really her brother. She should just leave Abner there. Teach that bummy cat a lesson. Teach him to come when he’s called.
Abner pranced along the peaked roof and then sat himself down. The end of his tail flopped a few times as he yawned.
“Fine! Stay there all night. See if I care.”
Malerie popped her candy stick back into her mouth as the she-cat slid off the bench and sashayed past Malerie to the first house and its stoop. There, she sat, licking her paws. Malerie puckered her face up at that prissy she-cat, just as a latch clicked behind the door. The cat turned and the tags on her string-bean green collar jingled as a woman appeared on the stoop.
The woman bent haltingly to scoop up Michou. A crepey hand with hard candy nails stroked Michou’s head before dropping her just inside the door. The woman pulled the door closed behind her and stepped out onto the stoop.
“Abner? Eeees eeet yur tom’s nom?”
Malerie nodded. Although the woman spoke her words strange, like Frau Weber or Madame Desmarais, it didn’t tickle Malerie like the accents of her teachers. She was in awe. The woman, who was at least sixty, was beautiful. She wore high-heeled sandals with licorice lace straps that criss-crossed over her toffee toes. Her toenails glistened like pink jellybeans and Malerie stood, pie-eyed, as the woman’s stepped across the stones with a smile.
A warmth melted out from her belly, as if she’d just eaten an extra-gooey, extra-fudge brownie and Malerie almost forgot about Abner. Pretty people never smiled at her. Miss Andolucci, who everyone agreed was the hottest teacher at school, was always sending her into the hall or threatening to call her mother, and whenever Karim’s beautiful, black-eyed daughter was around, she followed Malerie up and down the aisles, just because, once, she’d caught her with her pocket full of chocolate bars. And then there was Vivian, whose eyes always skirted her face, and who used to draw her a bath the minute they stepped in the house. As if she forgot Malerie used to live there and knew, probably better than her, how to work the tub.
Malerie and the woman looked up at Abner. Abner, for his part, looked down at them and meowed.
“How’d you know his name? He’s got no collar.” Malerie pushed her candy stick around in her mouth with her tongue.
“The cats appreciate the delicacy. Even your piggy-head tom up there. No, with the cats, you must not shout.”
Malerie dug the toe of her sneaker into the loose dirt between the cobblestones, and then said, with her nicest voice and smile, “It must be horrible living in these houses, surrounded by four buildings and all that echo, ” Malerie had heard her mother say this to Mrs. Dubrelle, “ I bet you can’t wait until someone leaves so that you can move up into one of the buildings.”
“Why do you say this?”
Malerie’s cheeks went beetroot as she picked at a Coke stain on her shirt.
Malerie had overheard Mrs.Dubrelle tell her mother that it was disgusting the way the couple in the middle house leave their windows open all night, the woman squealing like a pig and carrying on.
“Living in those houses must be hard,” her mother had said, “No sun. No air. And what bit of sunshine or breeze they do get, they can’t let in for fear of being spied on by five floors of neighbours all around.”
But, this lady, in her coconut cream trousers and merigue blouse, was tanned caramel and her hair hung loose in long chocolate folds. She didn’t look like someone who’d want to live squeezed of light and air and spied on.
“You want the tom back? Come. I got an idea.”
Malerie followed the woman into the house. In the kitchen, Michou scurried away from her water bowl as the woman gestured toward a table covered with a white cloth that took up most of the kitchen, and seemed out of place somehow among the sober tube lights and stainless steel counters.
“Please. Have a seat.”
Michou eyed Malerie warily as she sat down at the table. The woman disappeared and Malerie could hear the scratch and thump of drawers being dragged open and jammed closed.
“Sometimes the cats need to roam,” the woman called out from somewhere, “When they go like that, is better just to let them go.”
A closet door squeaked opened. Thud. Clunk. Thwack. Something rolled along the hardwood floor. Malerie wondered what it was she was looking for.
A large pass-through opened the kitchen to the living room. Champagne-coloured sheers hung over the window and the room was decorated in rich shades of cream and beige. Vases stuffed with tuberose sat on tables around the room. Malerie folded her sticky hands on the table cloth and looked out over the whipped-cream room through the pass-through.
The woman returned carrying a broomstick twisted free of its brush.
“What’s your name?”
Malerie told her, crunching through the last of her candy, as the woman leaned the broomstick on the wall.
“Me, I am Ines Hildebrand.’” She stressed each syllable of her name in the same ridiculous way Mr. Thomas, the vice-prinicpal, delivered the morning announcments.
“Madame Hildebrand, eees too . . ,” her rings clicked and her nails flashed as she flicked her hand by her ear to shoo away the thought, “For you, is Madame Ines.”
Madame Ines offered Malerie a napkin.
“For the blue,” she said, circling a finger around her painted mouth. Malerie wiped at her face.
“What are you looking for?” Madame Ines slid a drawer back into the counter and held out her hand.
“Give me the napkin.”
Madame Ines cradled Malerie’s head in one hand as she scrubbed away the blue with her other. The curious sensation of unfamiliar hands – one light, the other rough – excited and soothed her. Malerie closed her eyes. Madame Ines’ breath smelled sweet and peculiar.
“There. All gone.” Satisfied, Madame Ines stepped back.
“What are you looking for?” Malerie turned to Madame Ines, but she couldn’t see her, bent as she was over a bottom drawer.
“I found eeet. Sit here. It won’t be long.”
Madame Ines tied a sachet to the end of the broomstick and stepped out the door.
Malerie rubbed her hands on the tablecloth and looked around. The late afternoon sun shone blush through the sheers in the living room and Malerie could see Madame Ines, misty pink and edgeless, as she passed along the side of the house. It was, at most, six big steps from the kitchen through the living room to the window, but Michou sat guard by the living room door.
Malerie narrowed her eyes at Michou and barked. Michou didn’t budge. A bowl of hard food sat beside the water bowl. Malerie wiggled her butt to the edge of the chair, stretched her arm far, and scooped out a palmful. Although the food was crumbly and dry, the pebbly bits left a waxy residue on her hand that smelled like barnyards and meat. She wrinkled her nose as she lobbed the food at Michou. Kibbly pieces rolled across the tile floor or sank between the fibers of the carpet, but Michou hardly noticed.
Malerie was fed up. She clapped her hands hard and slipped off the chair, but just as her rubber soles touched down on tile, Michou turned and hissed. Malerie froze and glared at the cat, until suddenly, as if granting Malerie a pass or throwing off her duties as sentry, Michou stood up and sauntered away.
Malerie stole across the living room and pressed her nose through a part in the sheers. Madame Ines edged along the side of the house with the broomstick held high, overhead. Madame Ines stepped back and brought the broomstick and its dangling satchet over the planter.
And there landed Abner.
Malerie backed away from the window. She couldn’t believe it. Madame Ines had actually got her crazy cat down. Arms at her sides, on that carpet in the living room, Malerie was giddy, relieved. Standing there, surrounded by a buttercream couch and vanilla mouse recliner, she felt better than she had in a while, much better than she had in the kitchen, with its knife-blade counters and freezer-hum lights. Here, the powdered-sugar sun settled over everything like frosting and the spotless carpet was soft underfoot. No Goodwill couch. No scuffed-up tables. No mold-stink chairs. No moving boxes stacked in piles, still packed. Here, in this sweet dream room, it didn’t matter that she flunked math, or that Adelaide had kicked her desk and said, “She’s so gross. Her own father doesn’t want her”, or that the other girls, instead of sticking up for her, had laughed. Here, it almost didn’t matter that it had been exactly 156 days since she last seen her father, 171 since they spoke. This was a place where almost nothing mattered, a place where it wasn’t even so bad to be alone.
Life wasn’t fair. She never asked for much – and was given nothing. At least she was smart enough to just take what she could, what made her feel good. Karim often threatened to call the police – to jail with the chocolate thief – but she knew he never would.
Malerie dropped to her knees and scoped out the room. Her laces flopped loose– frayed, gray trails – on the carpet as she crawled around the room to a low table with a few things on top. A candle, a porcelain lady, a magazine propped against a vase. Malerie pocketed the candle and the lady, stuffed the magazine down her shirt. Water slapped against against the walls of the vase, impractical, as she picked it up. A shadow slid across the window. Outside, Madame Ines was talking to Abner. She put the vase down, plucked out a stem of tuberose and scurried back, across the carpet, to the vinyl kitchen floor.
She was back on the chair, her hands folded on the white-clothed table, her contraband safely stuffed in her bag, by the time Madame Ines stepped through the door, Abner in her arms.
Madame Ines smiled and handed him over.
“Here you go.”
“He never lets strangers hold him like that.” Malerie stepped out of the house with Abner. “How’d you do that?”
Madame Ines just winked and shut the door.
Excited and restless, Abner wriggled about as Malerie struggled up the stairs to their apartment.
“Hey Crazy. Calm down.” She squeezed his hind legs together.
“Gotchu, gotchu. You can’t escape.” He scaled her chest and wound himself around her head. A fur-tangled burr scratched her cheek and tufts of fur invaded her nose. Malerie snorted.
“Oww. That hurts. I can’t see.” She repositioned her grip and peeled Abner from her face. Her chest and shoulders stung where he had scratched her.
“You’re so ungrateful, “she scolded as they rounded the second floor landing. “I’m gonna leave you inside all day tomorrow, alone.’ A bolt clicked back behind an apartment on the landing. A chain-lock crack appeared in the door. Mrs. Dubrelle’s hair-ball brows and chicken-skin cheeks surfaced and submerged in the darkness.
“I can see you, Mrs. Dubrelle,” Malerie sung out. “Always spying on the landing.”
Mrs. Dubrelle unlatched the chain-lock. The door opened wide and the garlicky scent of stewing sauce curled its way around the landing. Mrs. Dubrelle gripped the door and opposite jamb, her wet fingers flecked with dry basil. She stared at Malerie hard.
“Whatever,” Malerie mumbled and buried her face in Abner. Mrs. Dubrelle watched Malerie pass and then stepped back inside and shut her door.
Inside the apartment, Malerie dumped Abner and shook out her arms. Her book bag slipped off her shoulder and landed on the floor with a thump. Startled, Abner scurried off to the kitchen. Malerie followed. Stuck to the fridge with the Numbers To Remember- Courtesy of Honest Ted’s Pawnshop magnet was a ragged scrap of envelope. One of her mother’s daily notes. Honey, I’ll try to be home early, I love you. Sweetie, Let’s do something fun this weekend, Think about what you want to do, I love you. Dear, Snuck out early this morning to grab some Rocky-Road (your fav!) for later, It’s in the freezer, Only one bowl! I love you. Please Mal, Don’t forget your homework, No more calls from your teachers, I love you. She snatched down the ragged-scrap note – unread— balled it up and tossed it toward the garbage.
Standing in the light of the fridge, Malerie tilted the covered plate her mother prepared her everyday before dashing off for work. Left-over lasagna and salad. Through the Saran-Wrap, she could see her cucumbers had been peeled and chunked in the way that she liked, and fresh cheese covered the lasagna. Zap it for two minutes and it’s good as new. No one would know it was leftovers. She rolled her eyes and wrinkled her nose like those crinkle-cut carrots her mother had sworn would be good. Cheese shards and tomato sauce clung to the Saran-Wrap as Malerie peeled it back and slid her dinner off the plate, into the garbage.
Malerie grabbed her bag and slogged off to the living room. She flopped herself down on a cat-hair-covered couch and pulled the coffee table close. She put her feet up. Her white socks had long since faded to a dingy gray and pink flesh puckered out between the worn-thread web at her heel. A TV sat on a stool by the wall, its remote stashed somewhere in the armchair by the window. Still-packed boxes stood in an uneven stack behind the chair, where her mother had piled them, more than eight months ago. Her mother’s tears had fallen on the boxes in drops and long stains traced where black ink had bled from the labels. Wiping her swollen eyes, her mother had said she’d deal with them – later – but the boxes still sat there, unmoved and unchanged, under an ever-thickening layer of dust. Malerie didn’t bother with the remote. Too late now. A Fonder Heart was already over.
Malerie emptied her bookbag beside her on the couch. Between thumb and forefinger, she plucked things up from the pile and tossed them to the floor. Four spiral-bound notebooks with her name scratched on them. An appliqued pencil case, which had read GO GIRL until the first ‘G’ fell off. Three Mars bars she had filched from Karim’s. A creased copy of The Time Machine she had to finish by next week. The candle, the porcelain lady – in three pieces now – the tuberose, and the magazine, she gently placed around her on the couch.
Surrounded by her bounty, Malerie sat back and wiggled her toes. Madame Ines hadn’t scolded her for eating candy before dinner or sighed like she had so many things to do and helping Malerie was just another chore. Malerie liked the warm way she handed Abner over and the calm way he lay in her arms. Malerie imagined chatting with Madame Ines, on her thick white couch, in the living room. You’re so special girl, so special young lady, she would say with her strange speech, making Malerie blush. They’d share all their secrets and Madame Ines would tell her how she got Abner down.
Malerie picked up the candle and sniffed. Vanilla bean and cat food. She tossed it aside and picked up the porcelain pieces – arm, body and head – of a lady molded mid-curtsy, her tiny hands pinching out two draping folds in her skirt. Malerie examined the arm. The top puff of the sleeve and sliver of shoulder had also broken off, while a white hand still clung, armless, to the skirt. Malerie pressed the arm in place, and it stuck for a moment – and then it fell to the floor. The lady was ruined now, nothing but junk. Malerie turned the body over. The figurine was hollow, the inside rough, and Malerie could see the sloppy endings of brush strokes. With her finger, she felt the depressions – the dips and dents – that puffed out the other side to form the thick ruffles of the skirt. Malerie rolled the head in her palm. The sleepy, long-lidded eyes made the lady look stupid, and Malerie didn’t like the pink-bow pucker of the mouth. Malerie threw the pieces at the wall. The head rolled along the floor, the body broke in half. She picked up the crinkled stalk of tuberose and waved it under her nose. Two flowers pinwheeled to the couch.
Malerie kicked her heel against the table. There was no soft light, no thick carpet, no white couch. It was still dark and dirty there, ugly, and all she had taken was junk. She felt around the stuff on the floor for a Mars bar. She felt better as she chomped on the chocolate bar and the caramel-nougat sweetness filled her mouth. She reached for the magazine – Vogue, 1967 – and smoothed her hand over the cover. The magazine was old. She wondered if Madame Ines was green – reduce, reuse, recycle – one of those people that kept everything, like Vivian. Malerie hoped not.
Malerie hated Vivian. Stupid Vivian with her stupid ponytail doing her stupid yoga out back beside her stupid garden. Malerie’s mother had said not to worry. Vivian was nothing but a gold-digger and it wouldn’t be long until her father found out. A gold-digger. That sounded like Vivian, on her knees, under a straw hat, arms sunk into gloves to the elbow, digging around in that stupid garden.
“Why do you do that?” Malerie had asked once, back before her father got late with the child support, back before her mother forbid her to see him (if he has enough money for that floozy, she had said, then your father is hardly broke), back when she still spent week-ends with her father.
Vivian looked up. Freckles peppered the corners of her blue-sky eyes.
“Plant all that stuff.”
“It’s nice to have fresh things to eat, don’t you think?’” Vivian stabbed her spade deep into the soil.
“There are fresh things to eat at the store.” Vivian brought her arm up to shield her face from the sun.
“True. But it’s more fun to grow things.”
“No, it’s not. It’s stupid.”
Malerie had rolled her eyes and gone inside, happy, sure her father’d be home soon and catch Vivian digging for gold in the garden.
Malerie opened the magazine. The gummy-glue spine creaked and the wrapping-paper pages crinkled. Back then wasn’t much different. 1967 models were as pretty as models today. So then why keep it? And just one? Propped up on that vase, like a framed picture. Malerie rubbed the pages, tilted the pictures, she squinted-up and popped-out her eyes, she brought the magazine so close it touched her nose – anything to see past the grainy fade to something special. It wasn’t long, though, before she found herself carried away by the fantasies that played themselves out on each page.
White sun shone over the French Riviera. An Italian playboy stood on a yacht beside a demure English lady. He stared out at the sea, his arm draped over the railing, like he alone knew the secrets of the Mediterranean Sea. Malerie turned the page. In an alpine chalet, antlered heads hung on the wall and a big brown grizzly sprawled out – too flat – on the floor. Turtlenecked men in V-neck sweaters lounged about, while an icy-eyed blonde stoked the fire with a ski pole. On the next page, a freckled girl in a flouncy skirt frolicked through ripe autumn rye. Her strawberry-hay hair twisted out behind her, flapping above the fallen rye-stalks, fanning out under the cornflower sky.
And then Malerie saw it. A young woman in a cashmere turtleneck and an A-line tartan skirt fingered the carved mantel in a countryside manor, while a man in a smoking jacket stared at her, longingly, from the couch. The woman, with her chocolate hair and mint-sherbert eyes, smiled at the camera, completely indifferent to the man on the couch. According to the caption, Ines Hildebrand was in Burberry and Dior.
Malerie couldn’t believe it – she knew a real live model. Adelaide was going to be so jealous when she found out. Malerie clapped the magazine closed and scurried over to the armchair by the window. Hugging her knees, Malerie looked down over the courtyard.
From where she was sitting, she could see down into Madame Ines’ kitchen, but the window was small and all that was visible was one side of the large table and a patch of black and white tile floor. Malerie watched as Madame Ines crossed and recrossed that tile patch, from the counter and cupboards to the table and back again. Down flapped a gold-fringed placemat, a navy-rimmed charger plate, a scalloped fork, a matching knife, a glass for water and one, full, for wine. Her bare arms long across the table, Madame Ines set down a linen napkin and a slim vase with a single stem of tuberose. As far as Malerie could see, Madame Ines was alone, but she had changed from her trousers and blouse into a strawberry-cream dress for dinner.
Malerie was pleased that everything about Madame Ines – even dinner – was beautiful. She rose on her knees and pressed her face to the glass. Her breath fogged the window as she tried to see further into the kitchen, but she couldn’t make out anymore than that piece of table and that slice of floor. Yet, Malerie saw all that she needed to– Madame Ines sliding a plate of meat (veal?) and vegetables onto the charger, sitting down, shaking the napkin out, drinking long from the wine. Malerie loved the careful way she maneuvered her cutlery and how her lips barely moved when she chewed. Madame Ines swirled the wine in her glass, tossed it back and refilled her glass nearly full. She picked up her cutlery again and froze. Malerie, scared she had been sensed somehow, jumped from the chair and ran from the window.
The next day, after school, Malerie had settled into the couch with her Vogue, waiting until she could watch Madame Ines eat her dinner, when a key rattled the lock. Her mother was home early from work.
“Hey honey,” her mother called out, hanging up her coat.
“What are you doing home?” Malerie’s mother leaned against the entry to the living room.
“I missed you, kiddo. Worked through lunch.”
“Whatever. Did you get fired?”
“No, smartypants. I didn’t get fired.” Malerie flipped through her Vogue while her mother rummaged through cupboards in the kitchen. Malerie kicked her feet. Her night was ruined – she wouldn’t be able to watch Madame Ines now.
Her mother returned from the kitchen and sat on the arm of the couch. She placed her hand on Malerie’s head. ‘Hungry, Mal?’ Malerie shrugged.
“That’s an old one,” her mother said, pointing to the magazine. “Where’d you get it?”
Malerie closed the magazine and tossed it to the far side of the couch, away from her mother.
“You didn’t pick it out of the garbage, did you?”
“No! Why would I do that?”
“The library was giving away all its old stuff.”
“As long as it didn’t come from the garbage.”
Malerie rolled her eyes.
“So kiddo, you didn’t say. What do you want to eat?” Her mother was back in the kitchen. Malerie heard the sucking close of the fridge.
“Meat and vegetables.” Malerie’s face burned.
“Meat and vegetables?” Her mother was back. Her shoulder dimpled where it pressed against the wall. “Since when do you actually ask to eat vegetables?”
“Why not? Set the table and stuff? You know, like real people do.” Malerie picked at her shirt. Their dining room table sat under junk mail and miscellaneous papers. Her mother watched her for a minute and then sighed.
“You know what Mal. Let’s save meat and vegetables for the weekend. I’ll even see what I can do about the table, but it’s been a long day. How about pizza? You can even put in a movie if you want.”
As her mother slipped back into her coat, she called from the front hall, “A real meal at a real table. This weekend. I promise.”
Later, side by side on the couch, they drank Coke from the can and munched pizza from the box. In the blue-flicker of the movie, ugly bags hung from her mother’s eyes. She looked old, exhausted. A cheese string hung from her lip and sauce crusties clung to her mouth. Malerie looked away and wiped her own mouth with her napkin.
That weekend, when her mother picked up some extra shifts at work, Malerie didn’t remind her about her real-dinner promise or ask why she was the one who always covered shifts at work. When her mother kissed her goodbye, Malerie didn’t squirm or pull away, and when her mother said, “I know it sucks, kiddo, but we could really use the money.” Malerie didn’t ask for what. Those things didn’t matter now, now that she could spend the day looking for Madame Ines – her friend.
Everyday after school, Malerie lingered in the courtyard with Abner. On that moss-covered bench, Malerie sucked on her candy and kicked the afternoon along with the to-and-fro toes of her sneakers. She tried to remember to scowl or sigh or roll her eyes for anyone spying out their window – she didn’t want anyone to know she was thinking of her friend and that whipped-cream room on the other side of the pass-through – and although she sat there a little longer each day, a week passed without any sign of Madame Ines or Michou.
And every day, when Malerie eventually gave up and went home, she found that Madame Ines’ kitchen stayed dark, so she’d slip out of her sweater and jeans and into a satin dress for dinner. Red, with a crinoline slip, the dress was two sizes too small now, and the seams creaked when she moved. But it was the only dress she owned, so she just sucked in her belly as she pushed aside all the junk-mail and papers, shook out a her father’s old shirt, tucked under the white collar and arms, and smoothed it over her freshly-cleared space on the table. Her tablecloth. With her microwave dinner and her wine glass of Coke, Malerie maneuvered her cutlery carefully and barely moved her mouth when she chewed. Resting her mismatched knife and fork on her plate, Malerie dabbed a napkin to her lips and drank deep from her wine glass of Coke.
It was two weeks later when Malerie saw Madame Ines again in the courtyard. Curled up under the bench, Abner swatted at Malerie as she tried to pull him out.
“Oh no, you don’t.”
Malerie dropped to her knees, pressed her face to the ground, and stuck her tongue out at Abner. Grit scratched her cheek as she felt through an underworld of daggered rocks and limp-thread spider webs until something soft and snakey flopped on her wrist.
“Now I got you.” When Abner flicked his tail against her hand again, Malerie clamped down hard and pulled. Abner swung around and scratched her.
“Oww. Stop it. I’m not letting go.” Heels echoed across the courtyard. Malerie sat up.
“Hello Miss Malerie. Your tom still gives trouble?” Arm lost under the bench, Malerie turned her face up. The black windows storied behind Madame Ines glinted down the afternoon sun. Malerie squinted out the glass-shard light and the weird way Madame Ines wobbled and her wicker bag swayed from her arm.
“Nope. I got him,” she said as Abner dug his nails into her arm.
“Good. I must go to the store.” Panicked, Malerie pulled Abner out hard. She had waited so long to see Madame Ines and now she was just walking away.
An insistent buzz rang out from the lobby and the grille-and-glass entry opened. Through the glass, Malerie could see her mother and Mrs. Dubrelle. Together, they crossed the lobby, Malerie’s mother nodding her head as Mrs. Dubrelle gossiped on. Malerie hoped that old bag wouldn’t see her, but Mrs. Dubrelle stopped talking and pointed. Malerie stuck out her tongue just before her mother turned around. Mrs. Dubrelle scowled. She’d seen. Malerie was pleased.
Her mother stepped out into the courtyard with Mrs. Dubrelle.
“Hey Mal. Whatcha doing on the ground?”
“Trying to keep hold of her tom.” Madame Ines smiled at Malerie’s mother. Malerie’s mother just stared.
“Good afternoon, Ines. Are you off now?” asked Mrs. Dubrelle, pointedly.
“It’s matter of fact . . .” Madame Ines turned and waved at Malerie. In the lobby, she stumbled on the smooth floor. She steadied herself, a long-fingered hand splayed on the wall.
“Jesus. It’s barely four o’clock,” Mrs. Dubrelle mumbled. Malerie’s mother juggled her grocery bag and turned.
“Come on, Malerie. Let’s go.”
A couple of evenings later, Malerie was bored, in the apartment alone, when she decided to go get some candy and visit Karim at the store.
The chimes jingled and the glass rattled as Malerie pushed her way through the door. Karim was leaning on his elbow, smiling at the blonde at the counter. She combed her bone-white fingers through her queen-of-cats hair and flicked her noodle arm at the cigarette-lined shelves behind him. Karim pulled himself up off his elbow and reached back. He said something and they both laughed.
Malerie, arms at her sides, narrowed her eyes at Karim. He had turned his head at the sound of the chimes, but it was as if his shinier-than-usual eyes couldn’t see her. He didn’t say “Oh no, it’s Malerie” or call her “The little thief”.
“Do you know what we do to little thieves like you where I come from?” he had asked her once, as he grabbed her arm and chopped his hand down above her wrist.
“Whatever, Karim. Who says I’m a thief?” Malerie had wriggled free, laughing as Karim swore that she would see this was no matter for giggles.
Malerie marched directly to the counter and stood so close to the woman her belly nearly touched her hip. Karim stopped smiling. Malerie was satisfied with this.
“You’re ugly when you smile like that.” Karim scowled at Malerie.
“That’s Malerie. She has no manners,” he told the young woman. The playful spark fizzled as the woman looked down at Malerie.
“You know, it’s not good to smoke.”
Karim touched a button on the register and the till sprang open. Malerie stared up at the woman. Her centipede-leg lashes flitted over her jagged-cliff cheeks.
“Has black sludge ever come out your nose?” The woman ignored Malerie and snapped her change away in her purse. Karim placed a white matchbook on her pack. The woman picked it up and flipped it along the tops of her fingers.
“Thanks.” As the woman turned to leave, Karim plucked a lollipop from a display by the register.
“Here. You forgot this.” The woman tilted her head. Malerie mirrored her gesture.
“Something to sweeten your night.’ Karim explained as her long fingers expertly unpeeled the wrapper. She rolled the lollipop around in her mouth.
“Mmm, Strawberry.” She pulled it from her mouth, shiny, and smiled. “Thanks.”
The door chimes jingled and the woman disappeared out the door.
“Who was that?” Malerie asked. Karim ignored her, but when she grabbed a lollipop, Karim snatched it back.
“Hey! Whatchu do that for?”
“Where’s your money, Malerie?”
“She never paid.”
“You want one? Give me a quarter.”
“Come on Karim. Why’re you always so tight for?”
“You heard me.”
“But that’s not fair.”
Karim hid the lollipop display under the counter and shrugged.
“Fine. I never wanted one of your stupid lollipops anyway.” Malerie stuck out her tongue and stormed out the door.
Outside, Malerie counted her money. What did she want with a lollipop when she had almost enough for a chocolate bar? She wondered if Karim was too angry to let her off a couple cents. Malerie was looking around the sidewalk for a lost dime or quarter when she heard the familiar rattle and chime of the door. Someone had went into the store.
Malerie pressed her face to the window. Madame Ines was wandering around the store. Malerie watched as she bumped into a rack and knocked three bags of chips to the floor. She continued on and Malerie chuckled. Good, let Karim pick them up.
At the counter, Madame Ines plunked down two bottles of wine. Malerie wanted Karim’s eyes to glaze over again, but he just took her money with a pressed-lip frown. Malerie moved in front of the door as Madame Ines came out.
“Hey ! Madame Ines!” Madame Ines turned, her eyes glassy.
“Kid. Go out of my way.” Malerie started at the thucky-thuck slur.
“Madame Ines? It’s me, Malerie.” Madame Ines narrowed her eyes over Malerie’s head and swayed, and then started to walk away.
“What’s wrong? Are you sick?” Malerie called out after her. Madame Ines flapped her hand limply behind her and wove on down the street. Malerie wanted to run after her, but Karim was calling her into the store.
She opened the door.
“Don’t talk to that woman.”
“Madame Ines? Why?”
“Can’t you see? She’s a drunk.”
A drunk? Malerie felt sick. She knew all about the drunks that took over the city square when the Farmer’s Market moved out. But those drunks slept on benches and smelled like pee, and Madame Ines lived in a courtyard house with a cloth-covered table that looked over that beautiful room through the pass-through. They had lava-red cheeks and black-brown teeth, and Madame Ines was a real live model. Madame Ines had got Abner down. By the time she buzzed through the entry, Malerie was sobbing.
When she reached the second floor, Mrs. Dubrelle was on the landing, her arms crossed over her chest.
“Malerie, you know you shouldn’t be out alone at . . .” she stopped. “What happened? What’s wrong?”
A hard and hurtful root coiled it’s way out of her stomach and squeezed the air from her lungs. Malerie coughed out a sob. “She’s not a drunk. She’s my friend.” Malerie hiccuped hard, “Abner down.”
Mrs. Dubrelle nodded slowly.
“It was just catnip, sweetheart. That’s all.”
Malerie rubbed her eyes.
“Oh Malerie. You’re a smart girl. You’re going to be alright.”
Malerie sobbed harder. Stupid Mrs. Dubrelle didn’t know anything. Smart wasn’t beautiful. So how would she ever be loved?
Every Step, and There Are Lots
You are heading to work, and every step you take closer to the subway feels like a step further away from the person you wanted to be. When did you become this? This hard-hearted Hannah, this shell of a real person. You have been waking up every day for the past week lying flat on your back, both hands clutching your heart. So dramatic. You’re sad that you care more now after it’s ended. You’re praying the dreams will stop soon.
The first two seconds of every day are the best. There is a brief window in the morning, the glorious break between dreaming and remembering. You long for the day when you’ll wake up with only an ambiguous sense of loss, and your feelings will be like an old newspaper, yellowed and crinkly at the edges.
You woke up one morning, exactly a week ago, ready to cut the proverbial cord, though even now you worry there will be remnants stuck in your belly button for the rest of your life. It has been one week, and still, the hands, the clutching. It simultaneously feels like one day and one year. You wonder how long it takes to forget. You think back on former, similar times. How long did it take? You don’t remember.
When you were a child, 26 seemed so old. You thought you would be in love by age 26, or at least capable of it. Now, you’re older and have experienced hurt, and you no longer have the romantic sensibilities, or the ability to give yourself completely to someone else. You sneer at terms like “soul mates.” When you were 21, you would gladly have taken a bullet for the boy you were dating, but you’re pretty sure that level of unconditional love is a window that is permanently jammed closed. Now, you hold back. Now, you know.
You fall back into happier scenes in your mind, scenes and moments that weren’t even particularly happy at the time but seem better than where you are now. You seemed to yourself more adjusted, more focused, not so insecure. You liked yourself. You wish your entire life could be lived under the halo of nostalgia’s hazy kindness.
You are listening to the latest Bob Dylan bootleg album on your Ipod. You first heard it playing at a restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall place run by some people from upstate. Their sign reads “Best Chicken Wings in Park Slope” and they’re not wrong. You went one time last fall for dinner, alone, sitting at the counter and writing and eating chicken wings with a knife and fork. You were happy and sad at the same time. You are never just one emotion, always a mix, and usually contradictory. You can never enjoy anything too much.
You descend the subway steps, and these steps feel even more like a journey away from the person you thought you would become. You thought that once you found a man you liked, it would be easy. Your mother and everyone else said that, “it should be easy, you’ll know when you find him.” You thought that you had found him. But it wasn’t easy. Does that mean you didn’t work hard enough?
You get a seat on the subway. There are always people older than you standing and you always feel guilty but you only once offered up your seat to someone’s aging legs. Your mind recalls a scene in his living room. His cat was trying to claw its way up your leg; he calls you selfish, your needs unfair, you need to grow up. “You’ve been spoiled,” he told you, and you wanted to cry, but now you want to laugh. You picture your insides rotting. Your emotions are pieces of fruit that have been left too long in the bowl.
You close your eyes, block out the heavy-set man in the seat next to you who smells like mothballs and urine and…sunscreen? You wrap your arms around yourself. You’ve never tried hugging yourself but it’s not a bad substitute for someone else. The man next to you shifts in his seat and you can tell he is looking at you, but it’s not distracting. You lift your right thigh and move it closer to you left, and clear your head and try to imagine the most peaceful thing you can. You immediately see yourself in a wide field, no, under a tree by a stream. This surprises you; you hate nature. Huh. Well, the temperature is perfect. A little on the hot side, but you’ve always liked to sweat, and there is shade from the tree, though you’re sitting just outside of the shade shadow. A friend is with you, but you don’t know who, but you know you’re close, maybe best friends. Maybe it’s Bob Dylan, but the young Bob, 1960’s Bob with the crazy curls, and it’s a faceless Bob, so you’re not scared. It’s Bob Dylan, but not. A white shadow of Bob.
The friend is playing an acoustic guitar, singing, singing words that aren’t English and maybe aren’t any real language though they make sense to you. It’s a perfect song, but no one else will hear it. It is just for you.
You don’t want to interrupt, but you want Bob’s advice. “Bob,” you say, though you’re still not entirely sure that’s his name. “Will I ever get over this? Will I ever forget him?” Bob continues finger-picking but stops singing. He pauses. “Do we ever forget anything?” Bob asked, in typical Bob fashion. He was the type to never answer you directly, only answered a question with another question. It could be very frustrating, but he got cut a lot of slack on account of his genius.
“And do we ever really remember anything? Or is it all fantasy?” he continued. This is not what you came here for. A bee buzzes suddenly in your ear and the sun becomes too hot and the sweating is no longer fun. You sigh, a gusty sigh, your guts heave, shoulders rise and fall. He is still finger-picking but not singing. “Play that song again, Bob.” He starts up again, never looking at you, but he’s faceless, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s not like he would look you in the eyes, anyway. You feel yourself getting cranky. Maybe it’s the heat. He is singing too softly.
You open your eyes and noticed the heavy-set man beside you has left. You are pleased to see you haven’t passed your stop, and you’re only at Rector Street so you have several more stops to go, a little more time on the subway before you have to go to your office. Seeing Bob did not comfort you like you thought it would. You turn off your i-pod. You listen to the homeless man asking for change. “I know my situation is all my fault…I was a drug addict. This is my cross to bear, but please, my children are hungry. I want the food for them, not for me. So if you have anything, a granola bar, a sandwich, a pretzel, anything.” You’ve noticed a trend in begging on the subway lately. People are blaming themselves, putting on a humble façade. You are still not inspired to give. You never give of yourself, you realize. That was something he told you but you didn’t believe until now. However, this realization doesn’t guilt you into giving money. You’re poor, too. You spend your money stupidly. But you dig in your purse to see if maybe you have a spare granola bar or a pretzel. All you find is a stick of gum half out of the wrapper and covered in lint and ink. Gum offers no nutrients and it’s sugar-free, so the homeless children wouldn’t even get the benefit of empty calories. You, for once, look the beggar in the eyes and shrug. “Sorry,” you say. He nods, holding your eyes for a split second too long, and moves along. Now you’re uncomfortable. This is why you have trouble making eye contact.
The homeless man shuffles away and it’s a good thing, because the woman who sits down beside you at the next stop has a bag of groceries with her, and she doesn’t look like she would spare much of anything, judging from the hard set of her jaw and the thin line of her mouth. She looks at you and her lips seem to disappear. Her plastic shopping bag brushes your leg. You look into it and all you see is a 2 liter of Coke, a bag of Lay’s potato chips and a package of Oreos. It’s so oddly touching, so purely American, that your heart breaks a little bit. You want to hug this woman. You also want to wring her neck for passing along such unhealthy snacks with all we know about health these days. Mostly, you just want to rip open that package of Oreos and stuff a fistful into your mouth at once.
Just past Prince Street, the air conditioner stops working. Your skin gets clammy before you’ve reached the next stop, sweat beads on your upper lip. Your hair is snaky damp clumps on your neck. There is an Indian boy across the aisle from you, cute, taking his glasses off and wiping his face with a maroon washcloth he pulled from his bag. Does he always travel with that? The heat is so pervasive; you know it’s the only thing on his mind. You turn left, to the door that leads to the next car. You wish you were taller and could see through the window in the door if the people in that car are fanning themselves and wonder if it’s worth the effort to actually get up to check. You look back to the Indian boy. He is not looking at you. He is standing up and heading to the door to your left. He stands there for what seems like too long. He is not reaching for the handle, just staring. His back slumps.
You think how nice it is to share a singular train of thought with someone. Your brain immediately shifts to the boy of two months, the one you keep remembering to forget, and your final argument, his words that solidified your breakup: “I still never have any idea what’s going to come out of your mouth.”
The Heathcliff Toad
Geographical Distribution: Found primarily in Oslo, Norway and surrounding suburbs. Has been known to temporarily migrate to places as far as Thailand, Mauritius, and various locations across the United States.
Habitat: My memories; occasionally dreams.
Size: Height approximately 185 cm tall. Weight varies from 86-92 kilograms, though usually around 90 kilograms.
General Appearance: The Heathcliff Toad looks Aryan, with a shaved head, white skin. When his hair grows out, it is a light brown. His smile is big, goofy like a child’s. His lips are soft, the top lip marked with a sharp m-shape. On his cheek sit a few dark moles. He is stocky and solid, with thick muscular legs, a wide torso, and a broad chest.
Eyes: “Sweet are the uses of adversity
which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.”
-Shakespeare, As You Like It
Frogs and toads have some of the most striking eyes in the animal kingdom, ranging in color, shape, and size. The Heathcliff Toad is no exception. His eyes are a shade of blue impossible to define. They are not quite the color of the sky or the sea, but in fact resemble the blue of the dyeing poison dart frog, one of the few land mammals to be almost entirely blue. When he looks at me with them, I feel beautiful, loved.
Language: English is not the Heathcliff’s native language, so when he speaks it, he has a thick accent. He is unable to pronounce the th sound, so if he counts it comes out, “one, two, tree.” Likewise, he says w sounds like v sounds. He adds an s to the end of any word he wants to make plural, so deer becomes deers. He asks me to correct these mistakes in order to improve his English, but when I do, he complains that I correct him all the time.
Second Sighting: We meet through my older brother, who is living and working overseas. It is a strange coincidence: he and I share the same birthday, though he is exactly two years older. When we hit it off immediately, the birthdays seem like fate, a sign that we are meant to be together.
Though I’ve been to the city many times before, it has been years and my brother has arranged for the Heathcliff Toad to be my tour guide because he is busy with work and cannot show me around himself. We’d met once years before, but I thought nothing of it. However, when my brother showed me recent pictures of him I thought he was gorgeous and was looking forward to seeing him again.
We walk around the city all day, eat lunch at the pier, and lounge in the soft grass of my favorite park. He is trying to impress me by telling me things about the park he learned on a tour he took once; he wants to be a good guide for me, forgetting how many times I’ve been here. I am wearing a floral print sundress and am worried that the moist grass will soil my dress, but as I look over at him I relax. I want him to kiss me here, in my favorite place, but he does not.
After the park, we drink a couple of pilsners at a café before finally heading back to his apartment around 9pm. It doesn’t feel like it is this late; time has flown by and the sun hardly sets at all in the summer, so it screws with my sense of time.
Back in his apartment, he pops open a bottle of Dom Perignon for us to drink before we head to a popular club to meet his best friends. I am selecting music to play on his computer when he turns and kisses me; we hardly stop kissing the rest of the night.
He and his friends drink as if the next day the stuff is going to be prohibited. When we get to the bar, he immediately brings us each a pint of beer, then a bottle of red wine, a bottle of white, and tequila shots. There are only five us. I stick with my beer.
When we stumble back to his apartment that night, he opens yet another bottle of white wine, which we then spill all over the coffee table like big drunken babies knocking things over. After that, we go to bed.
I wake up the next morning naked and don’t remember a thing though I figure we’ve had sex. When I ask him about it, he thinks I am kidding, claiming I seemed into it. This doesn’t bother me because I had intended to sleep with him anyway, though remembering our first time would have been nice.
We spend the entire next day in bed cuddling and talking because we are so hung over we can’t manage standing. We also have the first sex that I can remember. I end up changing my flight, so I can spend four extra days with him. I never even sleep at the bed and breakfast for which I’d paid.
Nutrition and Foraging: The Heathcliff Toad will eat almost anything he can fit inside of his mouth. Though my tastes are far more peculiar, I promise him I will try anything he asks me to once. He pulls off a stalk from a plant in his yard, chewing the end, insisting it is sweet, and that I taste it. It looks like celery, so I bite in, spitting it immediately back into the grass. He giggles and consumes the rest.
As a result of his insistence, I discover that I like Beef Carpaccio, depending on how the restaurant prepares it. However, when he asks me to try an oyster, it tastes like I’ve shoveled a spoonful of ocean into my mouth. Fortunately, I never make that last trip to Oslo—he’d planned on forcing me to eat rakfisk, salted trout or char fermented for two or three months and then served uncooked. The smell is so horrific I don’t understand how Scandinavians can get it near their mouth without vomiting.
Thermoregulation: He always flips the comforter over to feel the cooler side.
Genitalia: Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that most Europeans are uncircumcised, so the Heathcliff Toad is equipped with his foreskin. I think his penis looks like the Loch Ness monster with his one eye peering at me. It is big and fat and wears a turtleneck. However, I soon grow to prefer it over those who have been snipped.
“When a toad has procreation on its mind, its single-mindedness leaves it vulnerable to predation by its natural enemies and pulverization by nighttime traffic. And yet the intrepid toad will not abandon its quest for suitable aquatic breeding grounds and a willing mate.”
-David Badger, Frogs
I tell him I think it is ridiculous when women scream during sex, that it is overdramatic. I have to recant. Depending on the species, amplexus can last for a few minutes or sometimes up to a few months. The Heathcliff is one who lasts forever, having practiced Tantra, though he doesn’t know it is called that. He moves me into many different positions and for the first time, intercourse itself actually feels good. Sometimes, after he comes, we lie in each other’s arms with him still inside of me. He can get an erection again almost immediately and we do it again.
This week in Norway is probably the best week of my entire life; he claims it is his as well. His parents own a cottage on a summer island in the fjord, so we jump in their boat and drink red wine in their garden overlooking the sea. A cool breeze drifts in from the water sending goose bumps up my legs. He clasps my feet, declaring them frozen. He hops into the little cottage and collects me a pair of wool booties his grandmother knitted for him.
Toad Communication: The Heathcliff shakes my arm to wake me up. I am groggy and want to sleep, but he insists I listen to what he has to say. He is drunk. Note his wide, silly grin and watery eyes.
“You are so beautiful. You’re everything. I know it’s only been a few days, but I’ve never felt like this before. I think we’re soul mates. You can’t go. We’re soul mates.”
Conservation Issues: Leaving the Heathcliff is horrific; he cries even more than I do. We decide to keep in touch through the Internet; I buy a web cam so we can see each other as we speak. We stay up all night talking to each other, which is particularly difficult because of the six-hour time difference. I am starting to feel chained to my laptop.
He comes to visit me for a few weeks in September and once again in November. We share some great times, the same great sex, but it isn’t long before we begin to unravel.
Essential Liquids: Though he does not usually drink during the workweek, the Heathcliff Toad downs a disproportionately high amount of alcohol on the weekend. As such, he is able to absorb alcohol cutaneously through his skin.
Diseases: The Heathcliff Toad is more than an explosive breeder; he suffers from an acute case of nymphomania. If he does not ejaculate at least five times/day, he may become agitated from the unspent sperm.
Due to his condition, the Heathcliff has a difficult time remaining monogamous. If he chooses to partner with a female, he will often ask for a ménages a trios or, if that request is denied, he will cheat on his mate.
Because my relationship with the toad is from a distance, I suspect that he’ll have trouble remaining faithful. My hypothesis proves correct. Unfortunately, we’ve had unprotected sex numerous times, leading to my paranoia of contracting disease. As per my request, both the Heathcliff and I are tested for the spectrum of STDs. Though my results are thankfully negative, he tests positive for Chlamydia.
When questioned, the Heathcliff Toad adamantly denies contact with other females, though the evidence is conclusive. I can’t possibly be immune to an STD so the only way he could’ve gotten it is from someone else after me. I don’t want to believe it, try to come up with excuses instead—maybe his is a false positive, maybe mine is a false negative. However, after getting tested twice more, with negative results, it is quite clear that if I am still able to suspend my otherwise scientific and reasoned mind, it is I who am suffering from an acute case of denial.
Camouflage: Like the Barking Treefrog, the Heathcliff changes colors to suit his environment. He is so many different things to so many different people there is nothing left to be when he’s alone.
“So now you’ve caught a frog or toad. You’ve experienced success, but what are you going to do with it? We strongly advise that you take a good look at it and then let it go, right where you found it.”
-Elliot, Gerhardt, & Davidson, The Frogs and Toads of North America
Two weeks before I am supposed to visit him after Christmas, he calls me via the Internet, crying. “What’s wrong?” I ask, concerned that perhaps his grandmother has died. “I don’t love you anymore and I don’t think I ever will,” he declares. I do not say anything, can’t believe that it is happening; I don’t even cry at first. He confesses that he’s slept with his ex-girlfriend and another female as well, that he wants to continue mating with this other female.
I lose fifteen pounds in the next few weeks. I can’t eat, don’t want to do anything. Christmas is joyless; I’d already purchased all his gifts and have to bring them back to the stores, citing “breakup” as the reason for the return. I finally understand how depressing Christmas songs can be. I make bargains with a god in whom I do not believe: “Please, please bring him back to me. I’ll do anything.”
Journal Notes: I finally realize why the characters in Wuthering Heights have to die. That sort of intense, passionate, all-consuming love cannot last. You can’t be Heathcliff without losing yourself. Someone has to go or it does.
He and my brother are still friends, though they are not as close as they once were. He’s had a new girlfriend for some time now, probably the girl he started seeing while he was still stringing me along. I haven’t communicated with him in years. I have nothing left to say to him. And sometimes I worry that I will never feel that way again.