Authors: Carol Anshaw
Tags: #Literary, #Fiction, #Family Life, #General
“This is very, very cool,” Alice said, then looked up and saw he had already drifted off. She reached over and pulled some hairs on his forearm.
“Hey,” he said. “You think because I’m high that doesn’t hurt?” He
then paused so long she thought he had finished speaking, but then he started up again, this time as though he was being forced to tutor a dullard. “It’s really just mapmaking. Eventually we’ll chart it all. It’s just a big project. Do you know how many stars there are? Just in our galaxy, the Milky Way?”
“Thousands,” Alice said. She knew she was going to be wrong no matter what she said.
“Billions. And billions of galaxies beyond ours.”
“I hate when you tell me this stuff. It doesn’t make me feel the majesty of the cosmos or anything like that. It makes me feel like a speck.”
a speck. This whole life that seems so huge to us?” He gestured widely with his arm, nearly taking down a tiny waitress passing with a tray full of cocktails in ceramic pineapples. “All of human enterprise even? Fuck us. We are so tiny.” As he said “so tiny,” he bent over until his forehead was nearly touching the tabletop, as if he was homing in on the speck that was them.
“I can’t stand to think we only add up to a blip. I need to think we’re more than that.”
“Deal with it.” He looked around, as though someone had called his name.
He counted a lot on people being too polite to confront him about being high. Alice was not too polite; she just didn’t want their whole conversation to revolve around this. Easier, really, to ignore the problem and just let him take the time he needed to set down his glass of iced coffee. Or listen to him speak in small, deliberate word packets. Or watch him gaze for way too long around this restaurant. What did she know? Maybe he could live a sort of okay life even though he was on drugs most of the time. And anyway, her nagging wouldn’t make any difference. She left the reforming to Carmen. Carmen could keep pressing books and articles on Nick, dragging him to meetings, trying to keep him on track. By now Alice questioned even the notion of a track.
“I know I don’t have much credibility at the moment,” he said. “That you’ll just think this is all about the drugs, but I swear it’s not.”
“What are we talking about?”
“Something new. Keep an open mind. Please. The thing is, if I wait in just the right way, I can tell when it happens. It’s very easy to miss. The first time I noticed was a couple of months ago when I was making a pot of coffee, but I was out of creamer. On my way out I glanced at the clock on the stove—3:17. Okay?”
“I drove to the White Hen but things were peculiar, don’t ask me how.”
“I mean I was clearly in my car, headed the right way, and the weather was exactly what I’d noticed out the window—a cool, brilliantly sunny day. And the Indian guy at the counter was the same one who’s always there. Everything about the errand was routine, except it wasn’t. Something was off. The colors were too high contrast, as though some dials had been turned up, others down. The breeze was a little too warm, or with little bits of warmth inside the colder air. The Indian guy, who is usually very laid-back, was slightly impatient, as if he was nervous to be doing something else with this moment other than taking my money and asking if I wanted a bag for the Coffee-mate and Marlboros.
“Okay, so when I came back and was pouring the coffee I’d made, I looked at the clock on the stove, and it said 3:17.”
“And the clock wasn’t just stopped,” Alice said.
“Now I can tell when it’s happening. I don’t need the clock. I just exit regular forward momentum, then I come back in at exactly the place where I left.”
“Have you told anyone about this stuff?”
“What would be the point?”
Over dessert, which was beige and sweet and quivering in little dishes, they exchanged birthday presents. Alice had found Nick a boxed set of his namesake opera, Verdi’s
. He had two gifts for her. The first was a Chicago Bears keychain. (Alice didn’t follow football.) The other was a turtleneck sweater she had seen him wear a few times. He smiled graciously as she pulled it out of the grocery bag he brought it in. Like it was a real gift. Like he had handed her a check for a million dollars, the keys to a yacht, like he was waiting to see how thrilled she was going to be. Tonight was beginning to depress her. She tried to keep in mind that it was only through some stroke of good fortune that she herself was not a junkie or an alcoholic. That she was not the one at this table thinking an old sweater of hers with a food stain on the front was a pretty good gift.
A lull entered the conversation, out of which Nick emerged trying to be social, to appear to have social skills. “You seeing anyone?” He always asked this, but Alice had become leery of exposing her love life to his inspection. It only fed his interest in girl-on-girl action. Plus he found it hilarious that Alice was still looking for love; he found that quaint. “You still getting lucky at those women’s issues groups?”
“This woman is too good-looking,” she said. “It’s not going anywhere. I’m trying to steer clear of gorgeous women. They’ve dragged me under too much barbed wire. Over too many deserts. Deserts made of shattered glass. Plus this one has a kid and a husband. She’s still coming out. Everything has to be very quiet.”
“Sounds kind of interesting.”
“Interesting at first, but gets old fast. Like waterskiing.”
“Like drag shows,” he offered, then asked, “What’s her name?”
“What does it matter?”
“I’m putting a picture together in my mind.”
He grew quiet, savoring this little nugget of information, a hard candy. He looked down at his plate.
“I’ve got someone new, too.” This turned out to be his new masseuse.
“I thought you went to that guy, Earl. The one who put your rotator cuff back in business.”
“This is different,” he said. “Her name’s Celeste. She does an herbal oil, hot stone thing. You have to go to her apartment. There’s this kind of Malibu atmosphere.”
“Right. That would go with the herbal oil thing.”
“And, well, it’s a nude thing, too,” he said.
“Well, of course. I mean I just don’t get people who keep their underwear on. I always just take it all off. Let them really dig into those glutes.”
“No,” he said. “I mean her.
nude while she does the massage.”
“Oh man,” Alice said, caught by surprise. “Boocs, I’ve got to tell you if I were on the table and popped open an eyelid and saw Eleanor—you know? my massage therapist—saw her prancing around in the altogether, I’d be flipped.”
“This is kind of a different thing. Celeste is a different kind of person.”
“Different like a hooker?”
“It isn’t just that. We take her dog for a walk afterward.”
“Oh, well then, sure. Sounds meaningful.”
Although he had spent much of his adulthood avoiding real life, what small contact he’d had seemed to leave him embittered and edgy. Although he still sought out women, he appeared not to like them very much. He didn’t have real dates anymore; it was all hookers now. When he was flush with funds from Loretta and research grants, these were call girls. When the money ran out, the hookers he could afford were junkies he picked up on North Avenue. “You have to buy them dope and wait until they shoot up,” he told her once. “Then wait some more until they stop shaking enough to fuck them.”
In order to keep liking Nick (as opposed to loving him, which was non-negotiable), Alice sometimes had to look at him obliquely, or with her eyes half closed, or through a pinhole in a piece of cardboard. Straight on would burn her retinas.
After dinner, they hugged on the corner and Nick insisted on taking a cab home. Alice drove around for a long time. She was thinking about the married woman. Nora. The husband, Alice knew, was out of town. Tonight started coming together as an opportunity.
The lights were off except in the basement where she could hear the TV going. That would be the daughter. Alice used the secret key the family kept in a fake rock by the front steps, slipped up the stairs into Nora’s bedroom, shut the door behind her, all without a sound, Alice thought, but still, something caused Nora to wake.
“It’s me,” Alice said as she shrugged her jacket and jeans and underwear into a fireman’s pile at her feet. Nora lifted the covers, still half asleep. She was wearing only a black T-shirt, and soon not even that.
the limited palette
Alice awakened into the first morning of the new year—the last of the current century—a little groggy. For a moment, she wasn’t sure whose bed she was in. Then life rolled back in like a tide. Last night she and Charlotte went to a party thrown by a collector friend, an apartment with a roof deck overlooking the Amstel. By eleven-thirty the sky was on fire with luminous anarchy. Afterward, they walked up through the city zigzagging along the ring canals among maybe a million other celebrants, ducking and weaving around all the amateur pyrotechnicians—many of them, of course, drunk—setting off crackers and cherry bombs inside trash cans, near the exhaust pipes of parked cars. They traveled through a fog of gunpowder so thick they could barely see across the Herengracht. If war were a happy thing, it would look like this. Even as they were going to sleep, late crackers were still popping sporadically, the last kernels in the bag of microwave popcorn.
Now, although technically morning, it was actually still night outside. The seasons this far north pushed the light around in dramatic ways. In mid-winter, the sun didn’t arrive until after eight, then slipped out of the sky before five. Alice checked the bedside clock—twenty past
seven. The flat, narrow radiator was gently clanking and hissing. Then a distant, machine gun–like burst, then another, enlivened the air. The racket awakened Charlotte.
“These are crazy people!” she said, burying her head under her pillow. Her cat Melke—who was only middle-aged when Alice first slept over here the night of that long-ago museum show—was now skinny and stiff with arthritis as she walked along the wide windowsill of the bedroom. Quietly, Alice climbed out of bed; the lifted comforter released a small gust of sex.
They did this sometimes, Alice and Charlotte—slept together. It didn’t jostle their friendship. Neither of them was spoken for, neither precisely free. Charlotte had an on-again/off-again girlfriend who was a film critic in London. Alice wasn’t in the market for a girlfriend in any country. She was resting up.
She and Charlotte went to movies together and of course, to galleries. If they spent a Saturday night together, they lingered through Sunday morning reading the papers. But if they didn’t see each other for a week or two, it wasn’t a big deal. Whatever element causes romance to flare was simply not present in the air between them. This was a huge relief to Alice. Romance no longer looked like so much fun, more like a repetitive stress injury—beginning with Maude, but by now also including all the failed and pathetic attempts to replicate that constellation of emotion with someone else. She could measure this past effort in all the underwear she had left behind in apartments, all the bottles of pricey wine she had brought to dinner, all the recitations of bad childhoods and adult disappointments she had earnestly listened to. Sometimes she made lists in her head, little catalogs of experience. The first list was, of course, all the women she had by now slept with. Taken individually, they seemed, at their various times, to hold the possibility of lasting love. As opposed to now, so far down the line, when they could only be looked at in accumulation, as one then another fool’s errand. An offshoot list to this was the figure for how far she had gone for sex. (Thirteen hours on a flight from Chicago to
Tokyo then back to Chicago the next day has held the top spot for quite a while; she might never better this.) Books she had read to get into somebody or other’s bed. (
The Four-Gated City. The Fountainhead. Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. Women Who Run With the Wolves
.) Terrible music she had listened to because it was someone’s idea of a mood enhancer. (Hall & Oates. Holly Near. George Winston. The Carpenters. Celine Dion.) Topics in which she had feigned an interest during the short term (Juice fasts. Rugby. Celtic dancing. Bikram yoga.). The longest list was of the kinds of tea she had drunk in moments structured around the pretense that tea drinking was the reason for being in this or that café (Pergolesi. Kopi. Café Boost.) or kitchen, or side by side on this or that futon sofa or daybed, sipping. (Earl Grey. Lapsang Suchoung. Gunpowder. Rooibos. Sleepytime. Morning Thunder. Seren-i-tea. Every possible peppermint and berry. Plain Lipton.) There was a stretch of time when tea became fetishized for her for being so linked with sex and romance, so reliable a harbinger of one or the other.
She could scare herself with the renewable ingenuousness implied by this catalog. Still, the alternative—the development of an acidic cynicism—seemed worse. She tried to steer clear of that. Instead, she made a quiet life out of a limited palette—grays and the paler hues of blue and green. And it was easier to do this half a continent and an entire ocean away from Maude. As a mechanism, this at first seemed a little ludicrous, like the heiress in a novel of manners being sent to Italy to cure a broken heart. But the move had turned out to be successful in a small way. Back home, her initial injury was repeatedly supplemented by insult. After Maude’s move to L.A., it was absurd for Alice to care where she was if she never saw her anyway; nevertheless she did. Then there was her coming back that one weird time, then fleeing. And then there were the Gabe-related events where Alice had to good-naturedly go along with the two of them being mutually doting aunties. At one of these birthday parties, she met Maude’s husband and immediately threw up in the restaurant bathroom. Ridiculously, each of these encounters
was ferociously difficult, each a new configuration of Maude’s absence.
Over here it was better. She had managed to shrug off a significant amount of her obsession. She could now go about living a life with only a shadow of Maude lying softly across some edge of her. Nothing so terrible, really. Maybe distance and quiet were all she needed.