by Alan Devenish
On Columbus I came across a woman whose name I regularly forget.
"You don't remember my name, do you?" she said.
"No," I said, "do you?" meaning did she remember mine. She did.
Marjorie? I thought. Madeleine? My grandmother's name? As I searched the m's for the woman's name, I caught the reflection of a man in a restaurant window: wan and palely loitering, in need of a haircut, out of fashion, melancholy. It was me.
The woman reminded me of her name. Barbara. I felt relieved to have even this slight anchor tossed into the moment's uncertainty. We shared a few pleasantries. Then she went her way.
I had just found a parking space on Central Park West and was exulting over this little victory. I was headed for a drink before the poetry reading. It was early spring and a mild evening, a promising evening.
McGovern's. Old etched-glass doors and just-another-Irish bar air about it, though it was going slowly young professional and single-ish about the gills. A terrace and tequila faddishness sifting in. As soon as I passed through the snowflake doors I saw her. Sitting halfway down the bar, the fifty-yard line, the half-time show. Horizontal black and white striped skirt riding up on her crossed thighs. She smiled. I looked over my shoulder to see at whom, then smiled back but took position on the twenty-yard line, since I wanted desperately to appear casual.
So we sat, a couple of casual desperadoes, as the sun sank behind the Dakota. Soon I sidled up to her, and after a few stabs at the pretzel basket, said, "Did anyone ever tell you you reminded them of Candice Bergen?"
"Lots," she said, shaking her thick, deep brown hair and smiling her Candice Bergen smile. She sighed, breasts heaving, and ordered another vodka and tonic.
"Boredom City," she said, sighing again, as if we were sitting in the Greyhound bus terminal in Des Moines rather than amidst the clatter and exaggerated hilarity of a Friday night crowd at a West Side bar. I asked if she were from somewhere else.
She explained how her parents' house almost floated out to sea in the recent rainstorms and mudslides. Then I asked her what she did for excitement.
"Oh no. You're not going to get me on that one," she said, as if I had posed the riddle of the Sphinx, "Oh, no."
She had crossed and uncrossed her solidly beautiful and mostly bare thighs several times as I pretended to be reading deep into my beer. I began to doubt that we would ride into the sunset together, not this or any other. Just then an athletically-chested fellow entered. Under his warmup jacket he wore a t-shirt that had "San Diego" splashed across it.
"AAY," Malibu cheered, waving a friendly fist in his direction, "San DiAAYgo--my home town!"
"I thought you were from L.A.," I said.
"Same difference," she said, not looking my way.
San Diego shared some West Coast news with Malibu before joining his pals at the television end of the bar. The place was filling. A thirty-ish guy wearing an Italianate leather jacket, silk shirt, and felt fedora came in, cradling a half-dozen roses in clear cellophane.
Malibu noticed him in the mirror and turned on her stool.
"These for me?" she said, lifting the roses out of the man's arm and holding them to her chest.
"No. My wife," the man said.
"Too bad," Malibu said, handing the roses back.
I stood up and looked intently at my watch as if I were late for a date with the real Candice Bergen. Then I fished some change out of my pocket and tossed it onto the bar. None of these gestures lured Malibu away from her fixed gaze at herself in the mirror behind the rising ledges of liquor bottles. And thinking of fishing, I left with the feeling of a man who takes it into his head to go fishing for the first time since boyhood, and after a day spent in boredom and fishlessness, returns home relieved to be done with the thing.
Too bad Malibu didn't ask what I did for excitement. I'd have liked to see her face as I said "Poetry readings."
At the reading I recognized the pretty, Slavic features of a poet who once guest-taught a workshop I was taking. She was very pregnant now and sat next to a friend who was pregnant, too. The friend was one of the evening's readers. I found a seat in the row in front of them. They were talking about kicks and jumps. The woman I knew by sight had aged in the few years since I had seen her, the roundness of feature more rounded, the jaw-line starting to slacken. She was not the sexy guest poet in her late twenties now, but another person in another world. A strange sadness, a deception bordering on resentment came over me. It seemed a betrayal that my contemporaries should age, and not only age but accord to life those processes and changes that time urges upon us. Wouldn't we be always in our mid-to-late twenties, taking workshops, trying things out? I registered these women's pregnancies as an accusation of all that in myself had not borne fruit. It reminded me of my tenacious grip on the past, on a life where things and people could easily be deferred. Or so it had seemed.
When it was her time to read, the woman rose moonlike from her seat and stood at the lectern. Most of her poems alluded to pregnancy. They drew appreciative hums and smiles from her listeners. In my state of irritation, they struck me as a string of inside jokes, and I applauded conventionally. I thought to recent times when Helene and I spoke of having children. We always discussed the topic obliquely, even childishly, imagining what kinds of parents we would be, what we would name our children, what they would look like, but in the end relegating the decision to some future, ideal season in our lives. We even played out little scenes in which we pretended to talk to our children.
Now Helene was in Italy while I went about the drab business of packing and moving my life out of the few rooms that had been the setting of our shared lives.
Two other poets read. There was a poem about a dog that had trouble defecating because of some disease. I felt sorry for the dog, but for the poet, too, who had such keen powers of observation and the time to become intimate on the state of health of his neighbor's dog. To make matters worse, the neighbor, too, appeared to suffer from a debilitating disease. The next poet read a poem about a hotel room in Rome. I calculated the time in Rome. I thought of Helene in that city, her head on the pillow, her straight blonde hair falling across her cheek.
I skipped the reception afterward, could not bring myself to stand around with a plastic cupful of bad white wine, pretending some pleasure or purpose. On my way out, I noticed how many people were wearing hats. It seemed just the kind of thing someone who goes to poetry readings alone would notice.
Not that I had intended to be alone. I had invited two women, separately, to join me very last minute. The first I asked as she was getting out of my car on the traffic side of Sixth Avenue. She was the new coordinator at our school. I was giving her a lift to midtown. She declined my sudden invitation, saying she had a tea to attend with some friends. I was touched by the quaintness of her engagement and wished I had something as comforting as a tea to attend.
Then, from a pay phone outside McGovern's, I made another last ditch try at staving off an evening alone and called the young nurse I had met in a library. She was beautiful, had been a model, and her handwriting slanted vulnerably, I thought, to the left. I had slid a note across the reference table to her, asking if she would like a coffee break. "Sure. Why not?" she wrote back. That was months ago. I knew she was dating a dentist--David the Dentist--but she said it couldn't last. "He's all vinegar," she said once. Now I was beeping her work number on the square face of the phone.
"How ARE you?" she answered. We hadn't spoken in some time and hadn't seen each other since that late winter afternoon in the ski house I told Helene I had met another woman. Now I was calling June to say that I had broken--our brutal vocabulary of love--with Helene, and that we could do things together now, like go to poetry readings.
"Where ARE you?" she said, "It sounds like an airport."
"Columbus Avenue. I'm going to a poetry reading."
"Oh, I'll be right there."
"No. Just kidding. I can't. I'd love to. I guess I was trying it out for the time we'd both be free. Besides, I have to rush home and pack for Florida. Things are crazy here, too."
"I'm spending the week with my parents."
"Oh. Oh by the way, it's final."
"What is? Can you talk louder, it's really noisy."
"Between Helene and me."
"You moved out?"
"In the process. She's away."
"Listen, I can't really talk now. I gotta go. Call me a week from today, 'kay?"
"I'll call. Enjoy the sun."
Now, after the bar and the hour or so of poetry, there was nothing left to do. I walked toward the park and the car I had locked under the yellow greenness of the trees at that hour in this city at this season when nowhere--not Paris where it rains or Malibu where it usually doesn't--approaches the stony softness of Manhattan's secret. I stood a moment and looked at the car, its indistinct olive deepened by the night that had settled in the trees. Green, I thought, the color of hope. I thought of Vermont and the weekend we drove through the hills for my birthday. I thought of our pilgrimages out of the city, the slow tide of traffic to the shore or family visits, a cincture of security and welcome girding the suburbs and beyond. The odometer read 75,000 miles, a third of which we had put on it. We had 25,000 miles between us, the way some couples had twenty-five years. Once we had joked about who would get custody of the car if we ever split up.
We sat in the rented ski house with the snow falling in large flakes.
"Do you want to keep seeing her?" Helene asked.
"Yes," I said.
"How long has this. . ."
"A while. Not long. We only. . ."
"What about us?"
"I don't know."
Helene started to cry quietly. I walked out into the snow, down the hill to the town where our friends, the couple who shared the house with us, were watching the football playoffs. There was a loud cheer when I entered. Touchdown. They didn't notice me until I sat down and reached for the potato chips. Everybody was happy. The right team was winning. They were surprised to see me. I told them suddenly that Helene and I would not be together very much longer. I knew I was ruining a perfectly good football game.
"This is just a tiff, right?" Lori said, sliding a beer in front of me and looking at Cliff.
"Oh man," Cliff said.
"Yeah. I mean no," I said.
I told them about June. I told them it was nothing and everything, I told them Helene and I were not all they thought, that we had never been the perfect couple.
"Nobody is," Lori said.
"Look at us," Cliff said, and I laughed into my beer despite myself. Each weekend Lori and Cliff fought about something, from Central America to who forgot what for the house.
"June's beautiful," I said.
Cliff looked at me and then at the weather outside.
"That's her name--June," I said.
"How's Helene?" Lori said.
"I'm not sure, she was crying," I said.
"I don't want this to happen," Lori said.
I smiled weakly. "Thanks."
"Is there anything we can do?" Chris said. "I mean, you know."
"I know. Thanks. Sorry for the news. Who's winning? Or who's playing?"
A drunk came over to our table and introduced himself.
"My name's Wilson Jennings. Best stone-mason in Greene County. That's the truth. This is my boy Mac. He's stupid."
The man was small and wiry. The boy was broad-shouldered and about sixteen. He slapped his father on the arm with his orange tractor cap but didn't say anything. He might have been retarded.
Everything, the crowded bar, the football game being played in some sunny stadium far away, the snow falling into the red glow of the beer sign in the front window, struck me as impossibly grotesque.
"You look outside," Wilson Jennings went on, "and see the smoke coming outta them chimneys, the ski houses, I mean, and I bet you odds Wilson Jennings put up the stone. Just me and Quicksilver here."
The boy took off his cap again and made to hit his father, but changed his mind and just blushed.
"Best goddamn stone-layer in the county," Wilson Jennings said and thumped the table hard.
Then he sat himself down at our table and told a long aimless story about trying to find his sister one time in New York City. Having no address except Greenwich Village, he had made a phone call from a booth outside the women's prison, with the women screaming down obscenities at him.
"Never heard nothin' like it. Finally I found her, almost by chance. Some sort of residence, I remember her saying. That's how I wound up at the prison. Asked somebody for the women's house. That's one goddamn crazy city you got there. We went to Coney Island. Ever been there?"
The next day the snow was too soft for cross country, and I decided to go downhill skiing alone. Helene and Lori dropped me off. Aside from a few questions at the ski rental and a brief conversation with a Japanese student I shared a lift with about the Japanese Alps, I spent the day wordless, skiing a little too fast for my skills and enjoying even the spills. It seemed at the moment I could lead an entire life of solitude and skiing.
Helene was sitting at the window of the base lodge when I got back.
"You're a natural," she said, "I watched you."
"How was antiquing?" I said.
"Crowded. We had Irish coffees, instead. Cliff went for a hike somewhere. He's soaked."
She drove, and I wished I had, so I'd have something to do. The sunset was bluish pink.
On Sunday I walked into town and found a thrift shop. The rows of shoes, molded into the shapes of the former wearers' feet, the shelves of old-lady hats, and the racks of clothing that so clearly had once belonged to people, gave me a mortuary feeling. I imagined that some day something of mine would turn up in such a shop, a book, perhaps, with my name on it, and someone would pick it up with an amused smile, read the inscription, and put it down.
They had some old whalebone fans. In the folds of one were written the names of boys long ago promised a waltz. If the girl, whose future then went no further than the next dance, were still living, she would be very old and her partners, like the fan, discarded by time and death. I bought the fan. I would give it to Helene.
Riverside Drive at night. Most of the traffic gone north and west over the bridge. The course of the river translated into asphalt, but I could feel it all the same, the original, the primordial land rising and falling and winding beneath me. The bridge visible at certain bends, the water so calm some nights that the bridge lights taper white far out along the surface of the black water, like so many luminescent eels.
So I drove home--home!--my mind filling and emptying of thought. A vision came to me, of tomorrow, packing the framed pictures of Helene that hung above my desk. I saw my hand rising to lift the photo from its hook, gently, like carrying a sleeping child or removing the effects of the dead. The picture I liked best--Helene in her red sweater, sitting on a parapet overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, the bay very blue and cool that summer day, the wind blowing her blonde hair forward as she smiled more with her eyes than the slight crease of her mouth.
My life had not been rational. I had entered the lists of sudden love, forsaken the often plodding course of life lived between two people and pursued an elusive and illusory enthrallment. I had often been wrong about love and now suspected that I was wandering once more through the thick mists of my own myth-making. I thought of Helene, her logic, her refusal to grin for photographs, her love of dance and travel, her Yankee accent in French, her reserve among strangers, the way she twirled her hair while reading a book, her fondness for rich desserts. Helene, whom I loved more than I admitted, less than I was capable, and not nearly enough for either of us to call our few years together our happiest hours, though perhaps here, too, I was wrong.
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