Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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It wasn’t my idea to call Marianne. I hadn’t talked to her since she’d shown up drunk on our porch one summer night and tried to kiss me in front of my wife. That was four years earlier, just before Jenny and I had moved from Phoenix to Tucson. Now we were back in Phoenix and looking to buy a house. We had been denied three separate mortgages for one reason or another, and last we’d heard Marianne was still working as a loan officer at a Bank of America downtown. It was Jenny’s idea for me to call.
I phoned the bank Monday morning and asked for her. “Marianne,” I said when she picked up. “Hi. It’s David.” I waited. When she didn’t say anything, I said, “Hallberg. David Hallberg.”
“You think I don’t know your voice?”
“Right,” I said. “Of course.”
“You still married?”
“I’m married, yeah. You remember Jenny.”
“Sure,” I said. I didn’t tell her that the few paintings I’d finished in the last four and a half years had all been crap. Marianne had an image of me as a brilliant, tortured artist, and I wasn’t about to ruin it. I liked that image, after all. I liked the way she thought of me.
“Last year I was in a show on the East Coast,” I said. “The Greenblat Gallery in New Jersey. It wasn’t exactly New York, but . . .” I trailed off and started over. I told her that Jenny and I had moved back to Phoenix and found our dream house next to Saguaro Park. I asked Marianne if she might be able to help us out with the mortgage, as a favor.
“Are you kidding?” she said. I could hear thwacking sounds in the background. She was stapling papers, I guessed, but to make a sound that loud she must have been pounding on the stapler with her fist. She said, “How about an apology?”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I tried to think of how to say it better. Marianne had supported me for a few years after grad school — paying the rent, buying the liquor, posing for me when I needed a model. Plus she’d had faith in my art, which probably had meant more to me than anything else.
“I am sorry,” I said. “But I’ve changed so much that it doesn’t even seem like that was me back then, you know?”
I waited for a moment, hoping she would agree that we were young then, that we both deserved another chance.
Finally Marianne said, “Yeah, well, we’re all sorry,” and then she asked about our financial situation. I gave her the broad strokes. She was quiet for a moment. The thwacking in the background had stopped, and when she spoke again, her voice had that mean, playful edge that it used to have. “You realize I’m going to make this hard on you, don’t you?” Another thwack. “I’ll set it up on one condition.”
“You meet me for a few drinks. By yourself,” she said, as though I could possibly misunderstand.
“You know I don’t drink anymore,” I said.
“Still? What’s it been, like, four years?”
“Four and a half.”
“Well, I’m sure they have Pepsi,” Marianne said. “You can still drink Pepsi, can’t you?”
I agreed to meet her.
When I’d left Marianne, we were both twenty-six years old, and I’d been living more or less in a constant state of inebriation, painting in manic marathons, sometimes not sleeping for days on end. One night I stumbled out of Marianne’s front door around midnight, waving a spatula like a sword, declaring that I’d had my last drink ever. Marianne was laughing, but I meant it. I walked straight to Jenny’s that night. She was a friend from grad school who I knew had a crush on me and who’d been trying to get me to go clean for as long as we’d known each other. She threw out all the alcohol in her house and kept me sober for a week before she even let me out of her sight. Since then I’d avoided Marianne as much as possible. I still have her spatula.
After speaking to her on the phone, I printed the mortgage application from her bank’s website and filled out everything but the signatures. Jenny came home that night from her new teaching job with her blond hair in a messy ponytail and marker stains on her T-shirt. She worked with mentally challenged elementary-school kids and always seemed worn out at the end of the day. She put dinner in the oven and joined me in the living room.
“I called her,” I said.
“She wants to meet on Thursday night.”
Jenny closed her eyes and kept them shut. “Where?”
“A place called Harrington’s. It’s near the bank.”
“We can’t do the paperwork in her office?”
“I’m supposed to bring the application already completed,” I said.
Jenny put her fingertips on her temples and massaged in small circles. She was just getting to know the kids at her new school, establishing her role as mediator and guide, meeting with all the parents, learning medications. “I can’t do Thursday,” she said. “Parent conferences all week.”
“No,” I said, “it’s OK. Marianne wants to meet me alone.”
Jenny raised her eyebrows.
“I just want the mortgage, same as you,” I said.
Her fingers went back to her temples. Boxes were stacked in a ring around us. Most of the furniture was still wrapped in plastic from the move. We were hoping to go from this month-to-month existence to our own place without repacking. “I’m sick of living like this,” she said. Jenny had a natural sense of order that was offended by the chaos of our present living conditions. She leaned her head back on the couch, brought her hands together in her lap, and sighed. “I hate that woman,” she said.
Harrington’s was a hotel bar where Marianne and I had gone once to celebrate an anniversary. It was all polished wood and green lamps, an imitation British pub that served a mixed crowd of businesspeople and castoffs from the local college. I got there first and took a seat near the front door. I was glad I didn’t recognize anyone. I remembered some things I had done in pubs around here, and I wasn’t proud.
This was in downtown Phoenix, a city that had nearly destroyed itself with ambitious construction projects during the real-estate boom. Five years earlier, when Marianne and I were still dating and I was still drinking, its skyline had been filled with cranes reaching above half-finished high-rises. Investors had been flooding in, buying properties from descriptions on the Internet. The cranes were gone now, the buildings abandoned in various states of completion.
When Marianne walked in, I stood up. Her heels made her seem strangely tall, but when she hugged me, everything was exactly as I remembered. Even her smell — something I hadn’t thought about in years. She stepped back and looked me over.
“You’ve been eating,” she said. She poked my stomach. “How much?”
“How much what?”
“How much weight?”
“Oh,” I said, “not that much. Maybe fifteen pounds since I stopped drinking.”
“You look like a regular person now.”
“And before I was . . . ?”
“You were gaunt,” Marianne said. “Now you’re regular.” She patted from my waist to my chest to feel the shape of my body through my clothes. I noticed her face had some new lines at the corners of her eyes and around her mouth. Her skin looked dry, and her black hair was cut to match the line of her jaw.
“I like you both ways,” she said. Then she pulled me over to the bar.
I admit Marianne’s touching me was a bit of a turn-on. I would have felt guilty, but Jenny knew exactly where I was. I was practically there on her behalf. So I stood with Marianne, waiting for a bartender like we had many times in the past. On the shelf behind the bar, reflected in the mirrors, the bottles of amber whiskey glowed like torches.
Marianne ordered a Grey Goose on the rocks, put a hand on my hip, and said, “You can have whatever you want, Dave. I won’t tell.”
I smiled as if considering it, and for a moment I guess I was. No one would know. But it could get messy, and there would be consequences. “Diet Coke,” I said. Marianne rolled her eyes.
The bartender gave us our drinks, and I tried to hand him my credit card, but Marianne brushed it aside.
“Room 918,” she said to the bartender.
“Thanks,” I said. “Did you really get a room?”
“You want to find out?”
Before I could answer, she started walking to one of the empty booths along the wall.
“So,” she said after we’d sat down. “You’ve got four and a half years to catch me up on. Go.”
“Well, after we left Phoenix —”
“After you ran from Phoenix,” Marianne said, “like a scared little bitch.” She smiled sweetly.
“After that,” I said, “Jenny and I lived in Tucson, in a house her uncle owned. That’s part of the mortgage problem — we don’t have any rental history. We fixed the house up in exchange for free rent and a cut of the profit when it sold. I did everything: laid hardwood floors, reframed the windows, installed new fixtures, painted the rooms and all the exterior trim. It took almost all my time.”
Marianne drank her vodka and set the glass a little too heavily on the table. “And Jenny thought painting walls was a good use of your talent?”
“It was my decision,” I said. “I still painted at the easel for a few hours every morning.”
Marianne looked at me askance, as if she didn’t believe that I’d sobered up and settled into a normal, somewhat predictable life. It was actually far worse than that. I’d hardly been painting at all. After Jenny left the house each morning, I’d drink my coffee and surf the Internet before getting to work on the house. The show at the Greenblat was all paintings I’d done years before, when I’d still been with Marianne.
“And you didn’t drink that whole time? Even when she was at work?”
Marianne stared at me like a living, breathing lie detector. “I don’t believe you,” she said, “but go on anyway. This is fun.”
“Jenny’s uncle sold the Tucson house two months ago, and we got our cut. This house in Phoenix is within our budget, but you know how hard it is to get credit these days.”
She threw her head back and finished the vodka. I wondered if she’d gotten drunk before coming. Marianne could be wasted and still walk and talk like a normal person. We’d had many conversations where I’d thought she was sober and the next day she wouldn’t remember our having talked at all.
She caught the bartender’s attention and made a small motion with her hand. Then she took a cigarette out of her box of Dunhills and tapped the filter against the table. “Are you happy?” she asked. “Truly happy? You used to have dreams.”
The bartender arrived and set another vodka on the rocks in front of her and a whiskey in front of me. “Thanks, Jeff,” she said. He walked away.
“Oh, that one’s for me.” Marianne pulled the whiskey back to the middle of the table.
“Jack Daniel’s?” I said.
“With no ice.” She gave me her innocent look and took a sip of vodka. “Do you sculpt anymore?”
“Not much lately,” I said. I could smell the sweet tang of the whiskey from where I was sitting. I pushed my head back into the cushion behind me. “I worked with charcoals for a while, but mainly I’ve been experimenting with watercolors.”
“I don’t use the paint-by-number books.”
Marianne smiled at this. “You need to figure out how to unlock your talent again,” she said. “You never should have moved out, you know. I was good for your art. And this business of not drinking?” She looked at the glass between us. “Getting drunk used to inspire you. You remember? You used to stay up all night. Remember the time you painted my ceiling?”
© Jennifer Esperanza
“I also cut up my legs and painted your kitchen table with blood.” I could recite bad memories all night, but Marianne was right about one thing: our time together had been my own personal renaissance, which in those days I’d thought was just the beginning of my career as an artist. Since then my paintings had been tame and predictable. Jenny said they were “pretty.”
“I’m happier now,” I said.
“You’re an artist. Your happiness is unimportant.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Marianne smirked. She knew I’d do anything to paint the way I used to.
“So, what about you?” I asked. “What have you been up to?”
Marianne took a big pull on her drink and said, “It’s different with me. I don’t have any talent to waste.” She was still tapping her cigarette on the tabletop. I’d heard this argument before. She had tried drawing, writing, the violin, dance, and even martial arts. None of it had stuck, so she just surrounded herself with artists.
“I have to go outside to smoke this,” she said. “Come with me.”
She finished her vodka, and we slid out of the booth. She left her scarf on the table and told the bartender we’d be right back. I followed her outside, looking down at her legs as we walked. She had the same determined gait as always. The heels didn’t slow her down at all.
Outside she leaned against the brick building and tried to light her cigarette. I kept watching her lips, which were her best asset. Her nose was narrow and blotchy, and her face was small, but she had these great, shapely lips, which held her cigarette while she worked the lighter. The wind kept blowing the flame out.
“Come stand in front of me,” she said, and I did. She bent down and used me as a wind block. After her cigarette was lit, she stayed there for a few puffs, her head against my chest, then straightened up and leaned back against the building again.
“You stopped smoking?” she asked.
“A year after I quit drinking.”
“Want one?” She opened her fancy box of Dunhills and pointed it at me.
“Why not?” I said. Cigarettes weren’t like booze for me. I could have one now and then and not think about smoking the rest of the time. I took one, but she wouldn’t give me her lighter. Instead she pursed her perfect lips around her cigarette and made me lean in and light mine from hers while she sucked on it. I pretended it was no big deal to have her face so close to mine.
The Dunhill had a nutty flavor, and when I inhaled deeply, there was a little pinch in my lungs that made me feel like I was getting somewhere. “So,” I said, “what do you think about the mortgage?”
“You filled out the application?”
I took the envelope out of my jacket pocket and held it out, but she didn’t take it.
“You both signed it?” she asked.
“Initialed every page?”
Marianne turned her face to the side and blew smoke. “Hold on to it for now. You can leave it in my room at the end of the night.”
“Hey,” I said, “you didn’t say anything about a hotel room. You said drinks.”
“Chill,” Marianne said. “I’m not going to rape you. I just need to show you something.”
I could tell from the look in her eyes and the way she was smoking her cigarette that she was enjoying this. It was some form of payback. I consoled myself with the thought that I was doing this for Jenny. For both of us, for our future.
Marianne and I stood against the building shoulder to shoulder, as though to keep warm. I admit I was getting a thrill from spending time with her. It was like running my fingertip along a blade, trying to test its sharpness without getting cut.
“So, what about you?” I again asked Marianne. “You’ve got a boyfriend, I’m sure.”
“I’ve got boys.”
“Still living on Fifteenth Street?”
She laughed. “No, I bought a condo downtown. I’m renting the Fifteenth Street house and another one in Gila Bend.”
“So you’re a slumlord now?”
“Something like that,” she said.
All around us the dark skyscrapers loomed. I smoked the cigarette, each drag bringing me a little deeper into the past. Marianne hooked her arm through mine, and I let myself imagine what my life would have been like if I’d stayed with her. I’d still be drinking, I supposed, but maybe I’d still be painting, too. Painting my old way. I closed my eyes and told myself I had a real life now: a wife, a savings account, a decent car. I took another drag on the Dunhill, and when I felt the pinch in my lungs, I kept going.
Marianne shook my elbow. “Don’t smoke the filter,” she said. “It’s bad for you.” I dropped the cigarette and stamped it out. Marianne just tossed hers into the breeze and smiled at me — a genuine and admiring smile, that look that used to make me feel like I could do anything.
I led the way back into Harrington’s. As soon as we sat down, Marianne picked up the glass of Jack Daniel’s, an old-fashioned glass with a heavy bottom. I became fascinated with a small hole in the vinyl seat. I stuck my finger in it and wiggled it around. Marianne held the glass up to the light.
“You sure you don’t want this?”
“It’s not a matter of not wanting it.”
“So you’ll just deny yourself, even though you know you want it?”
“Do it all the time,” I said. “Every single day.”
Marianne shook her head. She would never deny herself anything. To her it would be a form of self-betrayal. She brought the glass to her lower lip and held it there with her eyes fixed on me. “Do you still want me?” she asked.
I looked over at the bar. The bartender was showing off for two young women, flipping bottles. “Sometimes I want things that aren’t good for me,” I said. “I know how to keep my distance.”
“It’s your loss.” Marianne downed the whiskey in one smooth motion and stood up. It took her a while to get her arms into her jacket. “Come up to my room. Then I’ll leave you alone, and you can have your stupid mortgage,” she said. “OK? You think you can handle that?”
“Sure,” I said.
Before bringing me upstairs, Marianne walked back to the bar and got two more glasses of whiskey.
We took the elevator to the ninth floor. Marianne had rented a suite with a sunken living room, leather couches, a flat-screen TV, and a slick, modern coffee table. One entire wall was a window that looked out over the city. It was warm in the room, almost tropical. She must have turned the heat way up.
“Sit,” she said. I sat down on one of the couches. She put a glass of whiskey in my hand. “You have some catching up to do,” she said.
To show her I was a good sport, I swirled the whiskey in the glass. There’s something silky about the way whiskey moves. It’s different from water or juice. It catches the light in a special way. I set the glass on the table.
“Remember Puerto Vallarta?” Marianne asked. “When you got drunk and climbed up on the town statue and threw down all your clothes?”
“I remember snorkeling.”
“You don’t remember the statue?” She looked me in the eye to see if I was lying.
I shrugged. There were probably a lot of things that we remembered differently.
“You used to have more fun,” she said. She flicked a switch that shone a light on the coffee table. Then she stepped up onto the table and stood there looking down at me, hands on her hips. For the first time I noticed that her black dress sparkled.
“So, now you’re some sort of expert in self-control?” Marianne asked.
I looked up at her.
“I’ll make you a deal,” she said. “I won’t lay a finger on you. You can stay right there on the couch. We’ll play a game.” She raised her eyebrows and waited for me to respond. When I didn’t, she said, “I will personally, personally make sure your mortgage goes through if you can sit there for five minutes without getting excited.”
I took the envelope with our mortgage application out of my jacket pocket and laid it on the couch next to me. “Deal,” I said. I checked my watch.
“You sure?” Marianne looked a little shaky on the table in her heels. “Sit on your hands,” she said. “Scoot forward. I need to see your pants.”
I smoothed the front of my pants and sat on my hands. Marianne didn’t put on any music. She didn’t bother dancing or trying to be coy. She just reached behind her and unzipped the back of her dress. She had to work it over her hips, and when it dropped to her ankles, she kicked it at me and nearly lost her balance.
“Don’t want?” she said, and she turned slowly in a circle so I could get a good look. She had on a black thong and a black lace bra with some sort of floral embroidery. I looked at my watch.
“Three and a half minutes to go,” I said.
She unhooked her bra and elbowed her way out of it. Her breasts were small, her areolas darker and larger than Jenny’s. She put a hand underneath each breast, lifted them, and pushed them together.
“Have a drink,” she said. “No one will know.” She turned around again and almost lost her footing at the edge of the table. “Relax a little. Have a good time.”
I imagined that I was hiking barefoot in the rain through a muddy field, freezing and dirty, with cockroaches crawling up my legs. I tightened my stomach muscles each time I exhaled and held them like that for a moment, disrupting the flow of blood to my groin.
“Why won’t you let yourself have fun anymore?” Marianne asked. She pulled down her thong and kicked it at me. It landed on my shoulder, and I left it there. She undid the straps on her high heels and tossed them one by one onto the floor. Then she squatted on the table and looked me in the eye. She picked up the full glass of whiskey and drank it in three large gulps.
“I can keep a secret,” she said.
“One minute to go,” I told her. I concentrated on my breathing.
“You sure you don’t want a taste? For old times’ sake?”
I didn’t know whether she was talking about the Jack Daniel’s or herself. I looked at my watch. Forty seconds. “We used to be good together,” she said. “Remember?” She was still crouching on the table. “I don’t care about the loan,” she said. “You can have the stupid loan.”
Then Marianne stood up too quickly, and she started to fall. I got up and caught her.
“You OK?” I asked.
She laughed and slung her arms around my neck, her eyes barely open. She was wasted — probably had been all night — and wearing nothing but a small silver necklace I had given her years before. Without her clothes she didn’t seem so sophisticated. I set her gently on one of the couches, face up.
“You’re not going to remember any of this, are you?” I said.
She grinned with her eyes closed and panned her head slowly from side to side. These blackouts were funny to her, like they’d once been to me. I sat down on the coffee table and watched her fall asleep. Her breathing slowed, and her lips parted. Marianne looked better naked than I remembered, soft in places where she used to be hard. I rested my hand on her stomach and let it rise and fall with her breath. After a while I had to stand up and adjust my pants.
It was true that I’d moved to Tucson with Jenny in part to get away from Marianne, but now she didn’t look like much of a threat. I sat back down on the coffee table. I was tired. It felt like I’d been tired for a long time. Months, maybe. Years. I loved Jenny, but sometimes living with her was like living in a classroom, lining up all my pencils, just waiting for the bell to ring.
It looked like Marianne was done for the night. I stared out the window at all the empty skyscrapers. I picked up the remaining glass of whiskey. I think I missed drinking more than I missed Marianne, but they were so bound up in each other that it was sometimes hard to tell the difference. I missed myself, too, the person I’d been when I was with them, an altogether different person from who I was now. I held the glass up to my nose and inhaled deeply, remembering the sweet burn and watching Marianne on the couch, her sleeping face younger-looking than when she’d been awake. It was as if it were years before, when we were first dating. I dipped my index finger into the whiskey and rubbed the wet fingertip on one of Marianne’s relaxed nipples, something we used to do. I thought she was asleep, but she smiled when I touched her, a triumphant grin. That’s when I decided that Marianne had been right: I used to have more fun.
I got down on my knees in front of the couch, leaned over and licked the moist skin around her nipple, the familiar taste of the whiskey making the roots of my teeth itch for more. I lowered my mouth and sucked until all that remained was the vague saline taste of Marianne’s skin and the distinct scent of her body. Then I rested my head on her chest and worked my arms around her waist. I held on.
Marianne put her arms around me and stroked the back of my head. I closed my eyes and pretended she was forgiving me for leaving. When I felt her hands go limp on my back, I went to the bedroom, pulled a sheet off the bed, and covered her with it. Then I set the mortgage application on the table where she would find it in the morning.
Marianne stirred and opened her eyes. “You’re leaving?” she said.
I leaned over and kissed her forehead. I said goodbye. She reached out and tried to pull me back down, but I slipped through her arms and stepped away.
At the door I looked back and saw Marianne prone on the couch, reaching for the glass on the coffee table. I saw then how I could paint it: In the background, through the huge windows, would be all of downtown Phoenix, with its half-finished skyscrapers, the broken dreams of a thousand investors. Closer, the multiple light sources in the room would cast soft, overlapping shadows onto everything. And in the center, sprawled on the couch, would be Marianne with her blotchy nose and one breast exposed as she reached from beneath the sheet, her eyes barely open, her hand extended for another drink.