In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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My wrist grows warm and creaks, aches like an arthritic’s. My forehead’s pressed against his “treasure trail” — that’s what we called the line of hair on a boy’s stomach in high school; giggling, we watched the shirtless boys run back and forth, chasing a ball. When their bellies began to glisten, we grew quiet, afraid to speak our minds. I’m sweating now, with my head smushed against him. I lick him with my wilted tongue.
“More lotion, more,” he moans. He’s already greasy. It isn’t my standard Vaseline Intensive Care but fancy, scented stuff blended with jojoba oil, impulse-purchased at the mall on my lunch break. I was doped on painkillers, trying to find the food court, when the bath-products store lured me off course. My hands felt porous and light. I dropped my change and had to grub under the counter for an elusive quarter. I bought a lemonade at the food court, but the flimsy cup collapsed between my hands. The sweet, sticky liquid dried on my fingers, my dress. Back at work, the shop guys winked at me and said, “Have a little accident at lunch today, Kat?”
I am worn out and bored. Come, come, hurry the fuck up and come, I want to scream. A hair on my tongue — his or mine? His stomach rises, falls; his breath catches — yes?
Yes, finally. His ridiculous whimper dares me to burst out laughing as he’s shooting off onto my scalp. I stare at the digital clock and the numbers quiver. It’s been years since we began, took months just to go from soft to stiff. I swallow, and the hair tries to slither down my throat. I pick it off my tongue and wipe it on the floor. We lie together awhile. I watch the sky through the small window near the ceiling of my basement bedroom. Indigo becomes gray; gray becomes white. When the day has technically begun, I nudge his back and say, “I’ve got a lot to do today. I’d better take you home.”
I drive my mother’s car barefoot, toes curled around the clutch. We do not talk except for: turn right, take the second left here, it’s Building D all the way down, right here’s fine, thanks for the ride. A quick peck smelling of morning breath, and no mention of phone numbers — thank God. I speed down the empty streets and have to brake hard for a red light. Checking my appearance in the rearview mirror, I spot a matted, sticky clump of hair. I touch it: still moist.
I have cast my lot in with stacks of steel-belted radials, moisture guarded and factory black, every tread crevice unsullied. It’s not the hardest job, I say to myself, parking my ambition for a while. I’ve grown used to the smell of brand-new tires and the silver whine of power tools. Seven-fifty an hour beats retail, especially when the boss is your uncle. Sitting low behind the service-desk counter, I twirl slowly on my chair, the waiting-room TV blaring just out of view.
The sullen shop guys periodically burst through the swinging door to the garage and head straight for the complimentary coffee with just a nod in my direction. A few of the older ones small-talk to me while stirring in nondairy creamer — nothing suspect, just the kind of conversation you could have comatose: “You look tired this morning, darlin’. Gonna be a hot one today. Ooh-wee, this stuff could wake the dead!” I know, I made it — black as fresh rubber. I drink it until my heart races and my fingers twitch typos on invoices. Delete, delete, delete.
I tell time by talk-show hosts: Donahue’s on at nine, Sally Jessy at ten, and so on until Oprah comes on from four to five. While she thanks her guests, I stack invoices and dump what’s left of the caffeinated tar in the bathroom sink.
I don’t get too close to the shop guys, but I feel their eyes as they eat curly fries from grease-spotted paper bags during lunch. They probably think I’m like somebody on MTV with that serpent tattooed on my shoulder and slithering up the back of my neck. I check them out as much as they do me; don’t think I’m not tempted by these shaggy, frayed, simple types with pickups. We could park at the dam, smoke weed, and plow through a case of Milwaukee’s Best.
But no, I’ve got to have some limits. I set my sights on the customers, instead, try to screen out the ones with testosterone clouding the air around them like some sort of toxic fume and aim for the unsuspecting types: the lonely hearts, the workaholics. If he looks like the kind of guy I’d never go for, well, then, all the better, something different, terra incognita. Some are getting on up there. Even if I am young with wrinkle-free cleavage, they’re after commitment, comfort, cohabitation, companionship. They get uncomfortable when I say, “Let’s go hit happy hour at O’Charley’s. I’m off work in twenty. What do you say?” Most turn me down right at the start. Others sit with me at the bar and make nervous small talk to fill the time until we’re drunk enough, the long silences tightening around their heads like a vise. I used to fear such situations; now I like watching the men get antsy before I lure them in.
Best case scenario, they play along and leave when I tell them to in the morning. Worst case, they end up trailing their fingers down my arm, telling me I’m sexy and that they like my tattoo, they really do; it’s “creative.” Once they start proving how sweet and sensitive they can be, sure enough they’ll want a phone number, a follow-up. When I don’t oblige, their tires begin having trouble, requiring daily drop-ins. Getting rid of them then is a challenge. When all else fails, I go to Uncle Larry and say, “This guy ain’t taking no for an answer. Could you maybe . . . ?” He puffs out his service-manager patch and gives my shoulder a long, hard squeeze. “Well, of course, sugar. Let me go take care of this one.”
Maybe the way I treat these men is heartless, but I have little pity these days, for myself or anyone else.
Uncle Larry is freshly divorced, so Mom is all ears whenever he’s around. A master at the art of coping, she’s eager to share her skills with anyone in a bind. She calls him regularly, asks him to dinner, buys six-packs of Coors for the occasion: she drinks one; he drinks the rest. She prods him with the same gentle tone she uses when one of her third-graders is crying and won’t say why. He adds another empty to the cluster on the kitchen table and says, “I don’t know how I’d get through this without you, Claudine.”
Uncle Larry flirts with female customers while I call up their accounts, my fingers tapping on a plastic-sheathed keyboard. Those redneck honeys love him. They prance in with stomachs pouting over belt loops, hair sprayed up to there, all gold plate and cubic zirconia. Hell no, they don’t smile at me, with my bleached split ends and tattoo, and hell no, I don’t smile at them either. I just rip their receipts off the printer while Uncle Larry does the charming, smooth as suede, explaining to each one the ins and outs of rotating and balancing. The bitches nod their heads and snap their gum, and not one leaves without his card. I’ve heard him joke with the shop guys: “You gotta explain it all to women these days. They just wanna hear it; don’t matter if they understand none of it. We’re a bunch of liberated men around here, ain’t we?” And he slaps the guys’ shoulders, grinning that same grin that charms the ladies.
I ’d been staying at Mom’s house two weeks when she dragged my ass out of bed at 7 A.M. one morning to tell me about the opening at Uncle Larry’s tire dealership. It was high time I found a job, she said, plunking a glass of orange juice down in front of me as I picked sleep from the corners of my eyes and squinted at her through a warm flood of morning light.
“You’ve gotta be kidding,” I said.
Mom didn’t answer right away; she was working on a spoonful of cereal. Why must it take her so long to chew and swallow?
“No,” she finally said, “his receptionist just up and left for Atlanta. Maybe she was running after some ne’er-do-well like you were; I don’t know. Anyway, he needs someone right away and you’ve done precious little about finding a job since you’ve been back. If you’re not going to go out and look yourself, you’re gonna have to take what comes your way. You should be grateful my brother’s nice enough to offer.”
She’d obviously been filling him in on how I’d followed my no-good rock-and-roller boyfriend out to LA and had come crawling back after only three months. I stared at the loose skin around her mouth and thought to myself: Fuck working at a tire dealership, and fuck Uncle Larry. I’ve never liked him much in the first place. It’s a shame he’s divorced because in my book his ex-wife was about all he had going for him.
Typically, I would have been yelling by now, but I was tired, blank. So I sat there, waiting for the subject to go away.
She brushed some stray sugar into a cupped hand, tugged at the belt on her old terry-cloth robe, and said, “Well, I think you should seriously consider it. It’s generous of him to think of you. He’s certainly got enough on his mind, what with the divorce and all.”
She coughed, then dumped her unfinished cereal down the disposal.
Out of boredom, I write my name — Kat Benjamin Bradshaw — in the square that is today, in the grid that is this month, on the calendar taped to the glass wall that separates me from the shop guys. I cross out what I’ve written. This square that I’ve defiled with my bad handwriting tells me it’s been three years to the day since I dumped junior college for a two-room efficiency with my stubbly, nicotine-stained prince. I can still see the sheets I bought at Thrift World and pinned over the windows glowing jaundiced in the late-afternoon light, the hard pools of candle wax on the makeshift coffee table, the never-empty ashtrays, the amps and cords that ensnared my ankles. He did lawn work during the week and tended bar on the weekends; I worked full time at an import boutique, selling Third World jewelry to sorority hippies at inflated prices. We wheedled free food out of friends who worked at restaurants, saving our cash for beer and drugs. The roaches skittered across the wood paneling, fat and brave.
While he was at band practice, I would experiment with dyeing my hair magenta or lime. Sometimes I’d cut it, too. When I liked what I saw in our cracked bathroom mirror, I would think about cosmetology school — but that required money, money I didn’t have, and asking Mom was out of the question. She hadn’t been keen on my dropping out of junior college.
“It was all your father asked of you,” she said the day I came by the house to box up the last of my stuff. “He died believing that his daughter would have the college education he never had. You know that, Kathleen. I shouldn’t have to remind you.”
“Then don’t!” I shouted at her, dropping a box of framed photographs into the front seat of a borrowed car, the frames banging together, glass threatening to shatter. “Of course I know how much Dad wanted me to go to college! What do you think he talked about every goddamn time I visited him in the hospital? I couldn’t tell him that worrying about him made me screw up on the SAT, now, could I? Face it, Mom, I wasn’t exactly on the Ivy League track, anyway. Dad would’ve been let down if he’d known I ended up at that two-year joke of a school.”
I slammed the door and drove off so she wouldn’t see me crying. She was in no shape to comfort me, anyway. I couldn’t stop thinking of all the nights I’d come home to the sound of her muffled sobbing in the back bedroom. At that moment, the most generous thing I could do was get my sorry ass out of her sight, go get stoned, and leave her to her therapy.
We talked maybe eight or nine times in the two and a half years that followed. I remember only blurs. I know my hair was multiple shades, but not which color came first. I remember that musty two-room efficiency, but not what I did all those hours alone there. I don’t remember exactly what it was like working in the boutique. I don’t remember the exact words my prince and I said to each other, either kind or cruel. The calls to Mom are one of the few things that stand out — especially the last one, when I told her I was moving out to LA with my prince and his band. Her voice had been calm and controlled until I said that; she had been singing the praises of Prozac, telling me that I really should check out so-and-so’s book on positive life imaging, blah blah blah.
Now she said, “LA? Kathleen, what are you going to do in LA while he’s playing rock star?’’
“Same thing I’ve been doing here,” I said. “They have boring retail jobs in LA, too, Mom. And he isn’t ‘playing’ rock star. Why do you always have to put him down? They’ve made a demo tape. They’ve got contacts. They’ve got friends out there.”
The line was quiet. I heard my prince’s boots clomping up the stairs, heard him laughing with the bassist. God, I hated it when he came home during these rare conversations.
“I’m sick of this town,” I said. “I’ve got to get out of here. I’m going nuts.”
“Honey, you’re just not responding constructively to your problems. I really think you should talk to Dr. Lawrence. He practically knows you already from talking to me. It’s helped me so much. Why don’t you —”
“I’ve told you, I don’t need a shrink. I just thought you might want to know I was leaving. Look, Mom, I’ve got to go. I’ll call you when we get there.”
I expected her to try to keep me on the line, but her new Prozac voice said, “Well, I’m not going to beg you. I’ve found that to be a losing battle. I guess you’re an adult now, Kathleen. Go ahead and play adult games.”
My mother’s world is pulled as taut as a guitar string. With the aid of her green-and-yellow capsules, she has adjusted nicely to life as a widow, joining clubs and redecorating the house: a basket of potpourri in the bathroom, a set of spirited Fiestaware in the cupboard, a library of fat-burning workout tapes by the VCR. Since I came back, I’ve been living in the basement, which doubled as a guest room. It smells faintly of mildew, and the small windows don’t let in much light, but it has its own entrance. I doubt she knows I bring men back here late, after she is asleep. I always make them leave before she gets up.
My old bedroom has become Mom’s combination office/storage space: her computer and its various appendages at one end of the room, a pile of boxes at the other. She gave my old trundle bed to a friend with a young child. When I first came home I was relieved to find the room transformed: who wanted to be surrounded by the remnants of high school — the yellowing posters, brittle corsages, stacks of yearbooks? I spat upon nostalgia, embracing the sparsely furnished basement, mildew and all.
Now, while she’s at work, I walk through the house barefoot, enjoying the smell of the new carpet, the feel of soft fibers against my toes. Mom says she needed an office to work on her memoirs. She’s not ready to let anyone read the manuscript, but she claims the book will “comfort and inspire those who’ve lost loved ones.”
I stand in front of the door to my old room, looking at the defiant scabs of the stickers that once adorned it. She has picked them off as best she can, but there are scraps here and there. Inside, what was mine is hidden away in boxes that sit at her robed back while she types and sips herbal tea. Maybe this is where she was sitting when I called to tell her LA hadn’t worked out. Seven P.M. on a Saturday in a north Texas bus depot. A thunderstorm was sweeping across the plains, whipping the scent of diesel around the pay phone. Three little girls turned cartwheels in the parking lot until their father came out of the snack shop with ice-cream sandwiches. They screamed with delight while he ripped the tops off the wrappers and handed them each a sandwich and a stack of napkins. Then he corralled them into a weathered Olds Cutlass, and they took off.
It’s a slow day, a constant drizzle outside; I guess nobody’s up to the task of tire maintenance on a day like this. With no clients to schmooze, Uncle Larry becomes restless and finds reasons to join me behind the counter, riffling through files, tinkering with the new fax machine. I roll my chair out of his way, but we keep bumping into each other, all misplaced thighs and elbows.
“ ’Scuse me, darlin’,” he says. “I need to reach under here for just a second.” He crouches beside my legs, pawing through a cluttered drawer, and I am overcome by a mental image of him turning his head to bite my calf.
Last night, biting was the motif, and I guess I’ve still got it on the brain. The guy was a thirtyish waiter with limp, sand-colored hair that he kept flicking out of his eyes. He said his last girlfriend had left him her pet gecko, which he renamed Buddha. I grinned and pretended this was a real clever name. He said he’d been getting into Zen lately. In bed, when he was slurping on my thigh, I said, “Bite me. . . . Harder.” Then I returned the favor. I think I liked it more than he did. Still, I had some trouble getting rid of him this morning.
How would I react now if Uncle Larry suddenly bit my leg? Flinch and wheel away in horror? Or just stare at the thinning spot in his wavy brown hair until he twisted his face up at me, licking his lips?
He stands up and begins jotting down figures on a clipboard. “You got a new boyfriend yet, Kathleen?” he asks.
“Nope. Not looking for one, either.”
“What’s the matter? You still pinin’ away for that guy out in Los Angeles?”
“No. You still missing Sherry?”
He puts down his clipboard and looks hard at me. He’s got his sleeves rolled up over his biceps, chest hair sprouting from the V of his collar.
“Did you get that tattoo out there in California?”
“You don’t like it?”
“Didn’t say that. You want to go around with it on your neck the rest of your life, that’s your business.”
“You never say anything about the mechanics’ tattoos.”
“That’s a different thing altogether,” he says, moving in for a closer look. “What kind of man you tryin’ to attract with that, huh, Kat?”
“That really wasn’t the objective.”
“You got something against men now?”
“What makes you say that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You just look like you got those teeth bared. Know what I mean?”
He winks at me and squeezes my shoulder, letting his hand linger on the snake.
“Maybe I should just go on home, Uncle Larry. Looks like you can handle the customers today, can’t you?”
“Sure, darlin’. You take the afternoon off. I got everything under control.”
When I get home, there’s an envelope on my bed postmarked Hollywood, CA. It’s light and flimsy, as if there’s nothing in it at all. I think of a TV show I saw recently: a woman had a drawer full of unopened letters from an ex-lover. I consider stashing the letter away unopened. Then I think, That’s a fairly idiotic thing to do; I’m not exactly swamped with letters. So I tear it open.
They had their first real show last Saturday. Not many people there, but they sounded good and the booking agent said he’d have them back. Sorry he hasn’t called, but the phone got disconnected. They’ll be able to hook it up again soon, though, because the bassist found a bartending job. The drummer has been hanging out with an actress who’s a body double for some big stars. What am I doing? How was the ride back? He’s sorry it didn’t work out. He hopes we will keep in touch. He doesn’t want me to hate him or anything.
I lie back on my bed and stare at the ceiling, which looks like hardened cottage cheese. It’s the same throughout the house. When I was little, I used to jump up and down on my bed and try to knock bits of it loose. Dad always hated these ceilings and wanted to have them resurfaced smooth, but never got around to it. Not long ago, Mom told me that was next on her list of home improvements.
My heart has returned to its normal pace; it sped up a bit when I saw the envelope, the address written in the scrawl I remember from set lists and rent checks. Will I write him back? Maybe, if I ever have something to say.
Mom appears in the doorway in her robe, stirring a mug of tea, dark circles under her eyes.
“You found the letter, I see,” she says.
“Yeah, I did. Thanks. Why’re you home so early? School holiday or something?”
“I had to call in sick this morning,” she says, sniffling a bit for emphasis. “I hope you don’t get this bug — all my students have been out with it. I knew it would get me sooner or later. You’re home early, too. You don’t feel bad, do you?”
“No, it was slow today, so I left early.”
She comes and sits on the edge of the bed, still stirring her tea. “What did he have to say?”
“Oh, not much. They played a show last week.”
She waits quietly for me to reveal more.
“I’m not upset by it or anything, Mom.”
“Well, that’s good. It means you’re getting over him.”
“Mom, I’m the one who decided to leave him, remember?”
We sit for a few minutes in silence; her eyes start to water. “Your father and I would’ve been married twenty-five years today,” she says.
Later, we sit at the kitchen table together, drinking tea. I’m wearing my flannel pajamas that date back to ninth grade, bought especially for the last slumber party I ever attended, and perhaps the oldest item of clothing I own. Mom sits across from me making last-minute revisions to her memoir in pencil. She says she wants to show it to me when she’s done. I suddenly realize how curious I am to read what she’s written. She has warned me that there are some angry things in it about me, and this makes me all the more eager. But I’m in no hurry. We have all night. I help grade her students’ cursive exercises, imagining the little kids, the same age as the cartwheel girls in Texas, biting their lips in concentration as they form careful loops between the dotted lines.
Susannah Joy Felts