Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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First, there was the customer ahead of Simon in line disputing the price of a jumbo jar of sliced jalapeños. Then the senior who was low on cash and tried to pay on a credit card, invalidated three times. And then the lady with a payroll check and no identification. On the interstate, rush-hour traffic was backed up for miles, bottlenecked by giant earthmovers where they’re building the new theme park. Simon made an illegal U-turn across the median, exited onto the old airport feeder, and got lost.
Now, hours late, gritty and tired, the front seat of his Honda filled with groceries, Simon wends his way through glum side streets, past row upon row of boxy cedar structures, to his and his wife’s condo on Realto Drive.
As he pulls into the driveway, he momentarily thinks he sees their child playing on the front stoop — a trick of the dusk, the soot-covered windshield, the overcast sky.
Simon carries the groceries around back where their garden used to be, now gone to seed: the parching heat, the citywide water rationing.
“Are you OK?” his wife asks as he walks into the kitchen.
He ignores her question and puts the groceries away as she serves up a salad she has just tossed, warms the breaded shrimp and asparagus left over from her luncheon meeting.
She is telling him about Mrs. Morales’s painful reconstructive surgery, the sixth since the botched operation. He can tell from the way his wife talks that she assumes he is familiar with the details.
He is not. He is certain he has never heard of a Mrs. Morales. Only with some difficulty is he able to piece together that she has been wrongly diagnosed with breast cancer and has had a total mastectomy, for which she is now suing the doctors at the clinic.
Simon is distracted by his wife’s breasts, which seem strangely unfamiliar, and by the shrimp, so tangy and succulent that he makes loud, appreciative lip-smacking noises in a way he is sure must be quite irritating, but which she hardly notices.
Not for the first time, he is overtaken by a powerful urge to travel, to be somewhere else: Bora Bora, or Maui, or Madrid. How peculiar that he, a travel agent these past dozen years, has not traveled, has not taken advantage of the many promotional junkets, the discount plans, the complimentary air fare and hotels.
How often, staring absently out his office window at the gutted buildings across the river, has he felt himself transported somewhere else: the slanted zinc roofs, the decaying wood-shingled mansards, the dusty garret windows glazed with light, chimney pots and steeples and antennas poking into the sooty air? Old Paris, perhaps. Or Barcelona. How odd that he can see it so clearly, a place he has never been.
After they’ve eaten, Simon turns on the news: mudslides and brush fires and earth tremors; random shootings in the workplace; escalating wars in the inner cities, in Bosnia and Rwanda and the Middle East; unseasonably hot October weather blanketing the Midwest; an unexpected traffic jam just outside of Vandelia due to a large female brown bear trapped for hours on the grassy median between east- and westbound traffic before they shot her with a tranquilizer gun and flew her to the zoo.
What does any of this matter? he thinks. He imagines himself on a plane, a cocoa-complexioned flight attendant in crisp gabardines reaching over him to freshen his drink. “We are less than twenty minutes out of Marrakech,” she says. They glide through great, incandescent columns of cumulus. Far beneath them, the ocean deepens to indigo, and in the distance mosque domes and minarets glow like copper in the late-afternoon sun.
Simon has not yet spoken to his wife. He has not even petted the dog, who growls irritably, licking and biting and scratching at a difficult place to reach, and thumping its leg on the linoleum floor.
Simon swivels his chair away from the television and faces the wall. He stares at the wallpaper he himself hung so long ago: trellised fairy vines, and violet and white and madder red petals with their lathery efflorescence.
He moves his chair closer to the large window that looks out at their terraced front yard and the condos across the street. He slides the curtains back. Under the pallid halogen street lamp, dead leaves swirl in the hot, dust-laden October wind.
“What are you doing, hon?” his wife asks.
“Looking out the window,” he says.
She is watching the late show, which Simon sees reflected in the window, a vague magenta-violet nimbus.
Are their neighbors across the way also watching television, he wonders — the neighbors who not only live in identical houses but drive the same late-model cars and have similarly landscaped terraces, right down to the last bush?
Simon thinks how deceptively familiar television is. More familiar and reassuring than a mother’s nipple. When we are out of earshot of its seductive voice, don’t we feel a sense of loss, as when a child of ours has just been given over to some haplessly cruel accident, the bedding still turned down, the toys left waiting on the nursery floor?
How unprepossessing these matte black boxes. Yet inside their soft curves everything is so sharply luminescent, so fresh. And how we delight to their inhabitants’ dreamy voices, tremulous with emotion, seemingly coming from the next room. We are more attentive to their frayed feelings, their failed marriages, than to our decaying bicuspids, the warning arrhythmia in our chests. We know them down to their very hair follicles, better than we know our own wives.
Even now, Simon’s wife is sobbing softly over the dark shapes that fill the screen: an ambulance, its doors open like a gaping wound; the doctors and orderlies, slump-shouldered, huddling around a gurney that holds a child. The doctor addresses himself to the ambulance attendant in Spanish: “The moment of urgency is past. It is already too late.” Simon’s wife’s mouth is twisted in horror, her eyes watery plums looking inward.
How does she understand Spanish? Simon wonders. She can’t. But if she doesn’t understand Spanish, how can he explain her face, shiny with tears? Even at their own child’s funeral she did not cry.
Then Simon realizes that the whole program is in Spanish. The commercials, the credits, even the late news that comes on afterward. All in Spanish.
Simon’s wife kisses the nape of his neck. Her breasts brush against his shoulders, and she runs her palm along his chest. “Don’t forget, Pedro,” she whispers softly. “Let the dog out before you come to bed.” In Spanish!
Why has she just now called me Pedro? he wonders.
Yet doesn’t his radio jabber to him in Spanish day in and day out, on his way to and from work? How is it he’s never noticed? Doesn’t the co-worker whose cubicle adjoins his talk irritatingly to her fiancé two and three times a day in Spanish? And wasn’t his last appointment just this afternoon conducted entirely in Spanish, a language he does not speak or understand? How is this possible?
Simon feels strangely lightheaded. He can see the television reflected in the window — a soccer match, the Iberia Argentina game — and hear the announcer’s metallic voice, like a plectrum-strummed flamenco guitar.
Simon stands and draws closer to the window, his hands clasped behind his back. He rises up on his toes. Beyond the magenta-violet reflection he can just make out the distant flickering lights on the sea wall that juts out into Porta Valencia. Every fifteen seconds or so, he hears the horn lowing against a heavy fog rolling in, a sound he is certain he has never heard before, but which by now is as familiar to him as the irritable growl of their dog, licking and biting and scratching at itself, and the thumping of its leg on the linoleum floor.
Len Messineo Jr.