Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

This is That

  

1. This

There’s nothing wrong with me. I just happen to be a woman of a certain age, same as any other woman in my particular circumstances. Alone, yes, but maybe this happens to be by choice. And maybe it’s just a temporary thing anyway. Maybe I have a plan and maybe I’ll go through with it. Maybe I’ll show them what I’m made of, though they of all people should know my mettle by now. Maybe I’ll make them pay.

They…who? My husband, for one. Okay, my ex-husband. But this is an old story, one told over and over, everywhere, time and time again. Sure, I was young once. Sure, I was lovely. Maybe even beautiful. Maybe stunningly so. I’d heard this said, now and then. I fell in love with a boy, is what. Or at least I thought it was love. He was the one for me and I for him. Everybody said so. A first date. A second date, and so it goes. Dinner. A movie. The back seat of his father’s car. A blanket in a field somewhere. My mother’s living room sofa. The back seat of his car. His dorm room. My dorm room. His apartment. Mine. And so on and so forth. Wedding. First house. First anniversary. First baby. Second baby. Two miscarriages. Preschool, kindergarten, grade school. PTA. Church. New house. New car. Promotion. Parties. Middle school. High school. College.

And then, what? He works late. I drink wine after dinner. I drink wine before dinner. I skip dinner, happy to lose a few pounds. Lunch with a friend, friends, we’re all women in the same sinking boat.

I should have known where this was going. He traveled. I stayed home. The boys were gone and I was on my own. It was someone at work, or someone from his past, or someone met by chance, someone at the top of a long list of someones, only this someone had her timing just right, because then he was ready and he made his move. He picked a fight. Or I did.

I don’t really remember this part. He found me on the floor, is how the story goes. Passed out, he claimed, but maybe I fell. Maybe I was sick. Weakened by the cold weather and a bout of bronchitis. Whatever, this was it. My husband came home from a trip and he found me on the floor, and his anger and impatience boiled over into the resolve he’d been looking for all along. Enough’s enough.

So he came clean. There’s someone else, he said. I want out. I can’t. I won’t. This has to stop. It’s for the best.

And the boys, my sons? They blamed me. Of all things. Really! Mom, get your act together. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you…? Why don’t you…?

By then they were both married, and so they’d left me too, hadn’t they? For the other other women in my life.

The older told me: You need to pick yourself up now, Mom. The younger maintained: It was bad for a long time and you should be relieved. This is your chance to start again, he said. His wife suggested I might meet someone else. Online dating, why not? She even offered to help. Write a profile. Take a photo.

I didn’t slap her. I wanted to, but… I don’t think I did. Maybe I did.

My daughter-in-law insists this is what happened, but I honestly can’t recall, and anyway, it can’t have been very hard because she is much bigger and stronger and younger. And she was sober, too. She doesn’t drink. Neither of them do. And the children were in bed already. And my son, he was out with friends or at a late meeting or something. Just he wasn’t home, and maybe this seemed fishy to me. So it was the two of us, alone: mother-in-law, daughter-in-law. I warned her, I did. But she turned up her nose at the suggestion. He wouldn’t dare, she said. He loves me, she said. So, okay. Have it your way then. Thinking, your time will come. I uncorked another bottle and poured a glass for her. Oh come on, I said. Let’s have some fun.

I don’t remember slapping her. I just can’t believe I did any such thing.

But in the morning…

It was Sunday and there they were at the breakfast table, waiting for me. Their shiny faces. Their lowered eyes. Her split lip and rosy cheek. And me the wobbly one, groggy and disoriented in the doorway. They all froze at the sight of me: the monster, the harridan, the hag. That crazy old bitch they call Grammie. The baby began to wail and the toddler hid his face in his hands and my daughter-in-law was shaking her head and my son was on his feet and he was steering me away. Put on some clothes, for God’s sake, Ma.

So this was it. Their minds were made up. They sent me packing. Up and out the door within the hour.

*  *  *


You need to get some help, my son told me. I pretended not to hear him. I was engrossed in the business of putting my bag in the trunk. We were standing at the curb. He handed me a go-cup of coffee to see me on my way.

I’m far away from all of this when my ex-husband finally calls, asking, Do you have enough money? He’s only being thoughtful, but here’s my pride, climbing up from my gut into my head and managing my mouth for me. Of course I do, I say. A smile, though he can’t see it, a million miles away, across phone lines dipping over cornfields. Not a million, but it might as well be. In any case, he can’t see the smile that belies the assertion. If we were face-to-face he’d recognize the look and know the lie behind it.

Of course I don’t. No one ever has enough money, do they? Fuck you.

I could die like this, I think as I disconnect the call. Holed up in a hotel room in the middle of a city I don’t know. Summer heat beating down. How long before they’d find me? The stink becoming a reason for complaint. Banging on the door, then breaking it down to find Mrs. Nessa Lowe. Sixty-six years old. Survived by her two sons and three grandchildren. Preceded in death by…

*  *  *


If you take the finances of a woman my age and you see what’s average, you’ll notice it’s never going to be enough. Not nearly. My older son has left the country, or maybe I’d call him. Join us, he said. As if it were a competition between him and his brother and he’s come out on top. I love you more and always have. He made the offer and this was enough, even if he also had to know I’d never take him up on it.

*  *  *

I am sixty-six years old. My husband of forty-two years has left me for a younger woman. My sons are grown and gone. There was an incident with my daughter-in-law. Or so they told me. I don’t remember the details. But this doesn’t matter because their minds are made up and they don’t trust me now. We want to help you, my son says. Where are you? I’m worried.

Or, Get your act together, all right? And, That was bad, Mom. Really bad. And, I don’t know if I can fix it, but I’ll try.

So he called his father. My ex-husband is asking me, Nessa, are you drunk? Were you drunk? Where are you?

Just like in the movies, a close-up on my hand, quietly hanging up the phone.

No one knows who I am now. Or who I was back then.

2. That

There were dead flies on the windowsill. The maid must have missed that. Nobody’s perfect. Our room was on the inside face of the old hotel, which circled back on itself and made a narrow shaft, with a grate at the bottom and a square of night sky at the top. The windows all around were sporadically lit, no pattern to that. Shades pulled. Lights out. Behind me Ian snored. I stood at a window with a view of a window. My own reflection was a blur upon the surface of the glass. One fly stirred, then stilled. My husband was splayed on his back on the bed. His breathing was heavy like the sea. Tidal. Wet. The room across the way was dark.

And then Ian’s breathing stopped.

I stiffened. Held myself. Did not turn around. Stared at the flies on the sill. Counted: one one thousand, two one thousand, three…like waiting for thunder to gauge the miles off. At last, a snort, a gasp. He coughed and breathed again. That ocean roar.

It couldn’t go on forever, could it?

He would die before me, that was a given. That was the premise of our marriage. He’d robbed my cradle years ago. Winter-spring, the lucky guy. The winks from those hoary wolves he called his friends and an old hag left behind. He swore he’d never loved her. That it had been a marriage of convenience. He’d been too young. She’d trapped him. He’d wanted to have sex before he went off to war. Just in case it didn’t turn out well for him, see. But she wouldn’t open up without a ring. She was holding a nickel between her knees.

He’d expected a second family, but that’s not how it went. Not his fault; mine. He didn’t care. He swore he didn’t care. And when I cried he held me and said it was better this way. Just the two of us, no brats around to ruin things, spoil things. And I was his child anyway, wasn’t I?

Well, really it was more than that. It was me and the other ones. He didn’t deny it. He told me, it happens. Hell, I wasn’t the first, was I? I couldn’t claim that. So I knew he wasn’t going to be faithful. He wasn’t going to be held down. Freedom, or something like that.

I’d had my golden boy, a curly-haired pup named Billy, but I gave him up for Ian, who was a dog full grown, with money and a house and a car. I fell for all that. Fell hard like stone all the way down to the bottom of the well.

Billy. Ian called him the kid, with a sneer. That kid. What do you want with that kid?

Well, nothing. What kid? And I slammed away from Billy in a most ungraceful exit that left him standing there on the sidewalk, hands hanging at his sides, his big head held high. Fists clenched. I was afraid he’d kill Ian. Or me. But he took it out on someone else instead. Something else. Himself. His car. The wreck made the front page of our town paper. Drunk. Bad road. Sharp curve. The girl’s family moved away. And Billy is William now, out there in the big cemetery on the good side of town, with a brass marker that it took me hours to find when I finally went back, years later, to see. I wanted proof, but it didn’t help. I still think of Billy as if he were hanging around somewhere close and I might go to him, call him, see him again in a life full of children and animals and some kind of work that he loves.

*  *  *

I climbed into bed beside Ian and fell into sleep as from a cliff into the sea, a stone sinking deep, settling in sand, murk, with creatures swimming past, brushing up against me softly, nudging me open, my clamshell parting, my soft innards exposed and pulsing, a muscle twitching and his hand probing, the kid with the curls unfurling with the tide. Salt on my tongue, the taste of brine, that pickled kid.

What are you doing with that kid? Ian asks, his eyes moving over me. Just having a smoke, I say. Lucky Strike. Picking the tobacco off my tongue, which makes him smile and show sharp teeth. You’re a child, he says. His arm around me, pulling me away. Here, let me show you something. The band on the stage is so loud, the drinks are murky, the ice is melting in the glasses, the guitar is screaming at the moon. A woman is squealing like a pig. Is that me?

I swam to the surface into the dim light of the hotel room and recognized the shrieking of the fire alarm.

I sat up. Listened. Was it real? An exercise maybe. Should we get out now? Fire. Smoke. Danger. Death. I rolled to the floor, padded to the door, opened it a crack, and peered out into the hallway. A light was flashing, the squeal pulsed louder there. I stepped out, tentative steps. No one was around. I peered over the banister to see the top of a man’s head as he descended the open staircase at the end of the hall.

The carpet was thick and green as grass beneath my bare feet, but the door to our room was closed and I was locked out. I pounded on it with my fist. I thought of just leaving him there. Let him burn, then. Never mind my bare legs, my loose breasts, the public gaze. Someone would give me a blanket, wouldn’t they? But as I turned away the door opened and there was Ian, a bear blinking in the light.

Of course I would not leave him. Of course we would go down the stairs to safety, arm in arm.

*  *  *

It was like a slumber party in the lobby. Pajamas and robes. Slippers and bare feet. Tousled hair. Sleepy eyes. The fire alarm still chirping, but from a distance now. Lights from the fire truck flashed through the wide front window. Slumber disco.

I got Ian into a chair by the cold fireplace. I had his big sweater to cover me and keep me warm.

The soft voices, everyone talking quietly, respectful. The hotel manager on the phone. The doorman brought water to the guests. I felt removed from all that. Still dreaming, maybe, still floating, standing by Ian’s chair, leaning on it. He mumbled something, but when I leaned closer all I heard was the gurgle of his lungs. He’d fallen asleep again. Drunk and sleeping. In the morning he might not even remember any of it.

The doorman said it was a prank. Someone had pulled the alarm. Nothing really, but of course they had to check, to be sure. Sorry for the inconvenience. The disturbance. Someone laughed. It was a woman by the door, her robe open and her breasts visible beneath a thin white T-shirt with a happy face on the front. If it weren’t for Ian, that might have been me, laughing like that. Her eyes were bright with emergency. The handsome man that she was talking to looked away, and when he saw me he smiled. Old friends? Do I know you?

Ian will die and I’ll be on my own and then I will wander from here to there and back again. In my own way.

*  *  *

The firemen came in from the street one at a time. That was the only way they could fit through the door in their heavy coats, boots, pants. They were spewed forth from the frozen outside, in the flashing light, like toys or dolls in costume. One carrying the hose, an axe, rope heavy on his shoulders. Taking the stairs with a sense of purpose.

The guests were watching them, and there in the corner, by the window, that handsome man was watching me. He was the kid, grown old, his eye on me again. I blinked and hoped he’d disappear. A snort from Ian as he caught his breath. I looked away, felt the heat in my cheeks. I sat on the arm of Ian’s chair. I put a hand on his hand. I whispered in his ear, I love you, but he didn’t hear. Grizzled chin folded on itself. His belly. The bathrobe. Silk slippers. I pulled his sweater tight at my throat, checked again and yes, the man was still looking. And knew I knew it. And smiled, small, tight, to let me know.

*  *  *

Ian had never been faithful. Wild dog. Old dog. He cheated with me first, and then on me with someone else. One after the other. One night of tears; mine, not his. That’s how it is, he said. You shouldn’t mind.

I’d done the same, only once, a quick tryst in the shadows of an alley with a stranger from a bus. It was nothing.

So what did I care what Ian did? I let it go, per his own instructions. Do what you want, I said, and thought I meant it.

It was only lately that I’d been traveling with him on those trips he took. He was finished with all that other business by then anyway. Who would have had him, old bear?

I looked again, but the man at the window was gone.

The manager stepped out from behind his marble counter to announce: Okay, folks. False alarm. Go on back to bed now.

No smoke. No fire. A prank was all. Some kid, I heard a woman say, and anger flowed in her eyes. Her sleep disturbed. Her tomorrow sullied by a lack of sleep. Important meetings. Travel ahead. As if jet lag weren’t enough…

The manager, a pale, stunned man with dandruff in his hair and spots on his chin, flushed red, his emotions flaring up into his face for all to see. He clutched his pen and nodded and chewed his lip and apologized. But it wasn’t his fault, was it? These things happen. And the guests all looked around at each other, wondering, Was it you? You? A fat boy, smiling, seemed the obvious culprit.

I thought then: I can escape. Ian snuffled in the chair. He might not know right away. The manager would find him there. Sir? Sir? Where is your wife, sir? Do you need help?

But no. I bent close and said his name, and he looked at me like a child. Mama? And I helped him to his feet and then on to the stairs. The others were ahead of us. The crowd had thinned. Slowly we took it, one step at a time; it wasn’t easy for him. Ian stumbled at the landing and would have fallen, would have pulled me down with him, but the handsome man was there. He came from out of nowhere to lift Ian’s weight off of me and onto him, and he helped us all the rest of the way up the two more stories to our floor. I took it from there, along the green carpet, past the closed doors, to our own room at the end.

 *  *  *

So now, here we are. Ian isn’t well. He will die, sooner or later. Sooner, I think. And then I’ll be free. But for what? For now I’m here with him. I’ll take care of him. Dear Ian. I help him into bed. I tuck him in. With his eyes closed it’s hard to tell what he’s smiling at, whether it’s at me or at something else. A memory, say. Or a dream.

The window. The bed. The light. The curtains are open and I realize that anyone who was in that room across the way could have seen me earlier. He could have been watching me all along.

I stand and look and sure enough, there he is, the handsome man from the lobby. The prankster. The voyeur. So he’s the one who pulled the alarm? To get us down there? Where he might take a closer look?

I stand at the window. Behind me Ian takes up again the racket of his snore. His breathing stops and starts. The handsome man is a shadow in the shadows of his own room. The curtain moves. He watches me.

What if I don’t wait for Ian to die? What if I just leave him now? What if I walk away? Won’t someone come to care for him, out of the shadows of another marriage, into the light of some new arrangement of her own?

What if I go my own way now?

The silence enfolds me. The man from the lobby watches as I open this sweater and step away from these clothes.

 

 

 

Susan Taylor Chehak has published several books, most recently The Minor Apocalypse of Meena Krejci and It’s Not About the Dog: Stories. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Adirondack Review, Blue Lake Review, The Chariton Review, Coe Review, Crack the Spine, Folio, Folly, Grey Sparrow, Guernica Magazine, Juked, L.A. Under the Influence, Limestone, Minnesota Review, Moon City Review, Pennsylvania English, Permafrost, Ragazine, Sliver of Stone, and Word Riot. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught fiction writing in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, the University of Southern California, and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa.