The Interminable Yes
by Connie Corzilius
It's been a couple weeks since I called. Usually when I don't call for a while, Jane does. Sometimes I wait just to see how long it takes her. It's a head game that, after all those years jerking me around, she deserves.
But this morning, when I went out to get the paper and found my lawn all frosted and shining under that white winter sun, I thought today's the day. It reminded me of her, I guess. Those iron afternoons I walked her home, then stood for hours in the corner by her garage, my gloveless, chapping hands all over her. We kissed till our mouths were bruised.
I went back inside, centering the bubble in my chest, carrying the secret carefully, carefully.
Sometimes the house settles like sandbags on my shoulders, but this morning it smelled like coffee and toast, and in the kitchen the baby was red with crying and Debbie still in her robe trying to calm her down, and upstairs, our son still sleeping. My kingdom, I thought. All this, and a little something extra. Carefully . . .
On the radio on the way to the office, that d.j. with the throaty voice got a little rise out of me just like she's supposed to. It's like she's talking to me; me alone, I mean. It pisses me off. They don't play much music in the morning. They jabber on about how very cool they are for forty-five minutes, then play BTO or Styx or Boston. Or the obligatory, interminable Yes.
The office was the same as always. Tense. It was tense before the restructuring, and it's tense now. False. How's it goin', big guy? How's the Steelcase account? False, just false. It wasn't so much a restructuring as a bloodletting. A couple guys I liked got canned. I'm not sure how I hung on, but it's not something I like to dwell on. I call on my customers, I hand in my reports, I skitter out from under the boot. When the equipment fails, I try to make up for it by taking them across the river.
That's something I've saved up to tell Jane about. That dancer at The Fur Palace, the one whose head was connected to her body. Some of them are writing grocery lists up there, but this one's eyes were alive, you know? Like maybe she was born to it. Born to take off her clothes and hump some bachelor party bachelor's sweaty red face? I can hear her now. But she can't fool me.
She would have made a good stripper—after a few drinks anyway, three, four. The one time I took her there, back before she dumped me the last time and married somebody else, she ate it up. Will I sound shallow if I admit that one of the greatest regrets of my life is that she drank too much that night and got sick? I pulled onto the margin of flung gravel by the auto salvage yard and she leaned out the window, the moon bright on all those empty bodies.
Hell, at least I know I'm shallow.
Debbie made me put my albums out in the garage. I've got eleven, maybe twelve hundred. I never got into cassettes. The CDs are allowed in the family room, next to the entertainment center. Except. Except, my Lou Reed is next to her Mariah Carey, Elvis Costello cheek to cheek with Whitney Houston. It's not even alphabetical! On the rare occasions I slide one of my CDs in, she's at my elbow with a look—like she's smelling something bad, but is just too polite to mention it. Finally she says "What is that stuff? It's weird." Weird. That's Debbie's take on everything she doesn't get. Unnecessary, she means. Inappropriate. Why sit around listening to Elvis spit when there's stuff to buy at Target? Good stuff on sale.
Still, I've come home early sometimes and found the kids napping and Debbie in the darkened family room, face turned to the sofa cushion. She excuses herself and goes to the bathroom, and I'm left alone, the CD player glowing like a runway in the early dark.
But Jane—Jane asks me about the latest music like nothing has changed. She talks about groups I never heard of, that my boss's teenage kids are probably into, for Chrissake, and I don't know what to say. She thinks I'm who I used to be. I don't want to disappoint her.
It's not like I'm ashamed. Who can afford to funnel all that money into compact discs? Why keep the subscriptions up if I'm not going to buy? I've got a monster mortgage, and Debbie doesn't work anymore, and even when she did, it was peanuts. You listen to KRCK? That dinosaur shit? What is this, the seventies?
She liked it well enough back then, I remember. I cracked the car door and dropped the used rubber on the wet pavement, and when I started the engine, the radio came on loud with the blower: Pink Floyd, Bruce. We were always starved by then. I ate my Jack Steak with fingers that smelled like her.
Anyway, that life is over.
Anyway, there's a lot of stuff at Target that we need.
I make her do things.
Put your hand inside your blouse, I say. Pull on your nipples.
At first, she balks. But I—
Do it. I hear her readjust the receiver. They're hard, aren't they. Tell me, are you wet? I know you are—
Find out for me. Slide your hand up your thighs, under your skirt.
I am, I don't have to—I mean, I am.
What? What are you? She pauses. I watch the houses go by like they're the ones moving.
Wet, she says finally. Releases a trembling breath.
Let me hear it.
What if someone—
No one will.
She tries to speak but it's hard for her. Her words grow heavy, too heavy to utter; she is pulled down into silence, drained of will like a woman locked inside a booth, a woman afraid to use up her tiny allotment of air.
For the first couple years of her marriage, she protested she was happy, happy, okay?, but I knew that was so much P.R. Now she admits her husband is depressed, medicated, she walks on eggs. He needs her, she says, sounding tired.
She's like a box with a false bottom, and the trick to opening her is buried under the tree in our grade school playground where I opened it, over and over, opened it repeatedly. Or it's hidden in the one Stones lyric we spent an entire Saturday afternoon trying to figure out, and did, and now we're the only two people in this fucking world who know it.
I tell her things while I'm driving around in my car.
Not even Keith, not even Mick.
I remember those times in Chicago after college, fifteen years ago already. Another relationship had fallen through and she was trying to love me again.
We used to meet at this bar in Old Town, I can't remember the name. Ale, rich, dark and expensive, was what she favored those days. When I was paying, anyway. The first two went down fast, but she went slow on the third. I could always tell by her eyes—sliding sideways, as if oiled, to look at me—when she was feeling it.
I had watched her drink since high school, so I knew her proclivities and her feints. I stayed far enough behind to take care of her if called upon. I held her long thick hair in a knot at the base of her neck, and when she was done I wiped her face with a wet washcloth. I didn't look away. I can't say that there was beauty in it, but she was mine and even that belonged to me.
There are questions it does no good to ponder. It's not my nature and it's a waste of time. For example, I have long since stopped asking myself whether she drank as an excuse to fuck me or fucked me as an excuse to drink. Maybe a couple times a year now I'll think about it, turn it over once or twice like a smooth stone. But there is no answer that can announce itself as such. I'm much more comfortable shoving that stone back in my pocket, the one constant in the jangle and flux of loose change.
When she looked at me, her eyes were liquid, the color of her Watney's. She'd rub the rim of her glass with her index finger and watch the slick compass as if the movement she inscribed was independent of her looking. I can't explain the power I had over her but it was real. Ah, but there was always a catch, you see. In an hour, when she opened her eyes and pulled the sheet up to cover her nakedness, my hold over her had evaporated, the spell broken. She turned away in a cold sober misery. Her voice was wooden, staved to keep me out. It took her a long time to get dressed because she was self-conscious, like an actor overwhelmed by her own performance once the scene was over.
Sometimes we never got to that moment. I tried to take her by the arm but she wasn't ready. One more, she said, and I knew she was thinking it would be better, wilder, deeper if she just kept drinking, just a bit more, so I let her though I knew where we were headed. Because soon the moment passed and she was too drunk, she was weeping and begging my forgiveness. She was falling asleep in my car and I was driving her home, the lights on Lake Shore beautiful and false.
I've been driving around all morning and I still haven't called. The truth is, I'm afraid I haven't heard from her for a reason. The kids, maybe. Funny how easy it's been to keep them from her. She lives in a different city now, but still. You'd think someone would mention it in passing. She told me about her little girl, of course. Just keeping me up to date, like I'm some old buddy from high school. Just filling me in. I didn't really want to know, is the thing.
I don't want to know and I don't want to fuck her, exactly. How can I explain? It's like talking to her I see myself 16 again, trudging through the snow with a new eight-track in a thin plastic sack. Or like I'm tipping the Annie Green Springs up to her lips, and it's trickling from one side of her uneven mouth as she smiles. I'm holding the bottle for her, but I'm not drinking.
I know what she wants. I'm the punctuation, the secret vice, the hip flask of something searing.
I've lost track of all the times I asked her to marry me.
Now it's enough to hear her gasp when I tell her what I want to do to her.
Once, when she was breaking up with me yet again, I told her about this fever I had when I was a little boy—six, maybe? Seven? We still lived above the laundry. Anyway, I was out of my mind with this fever, thinking there were kids scraping their stick horses across the floor and shouting so my head hurt and I couldn't sleep. I told her how I yelled for my mother, who was downstairs working, but she didn't hear; couldn't, I guess, hear me above the hissing and slamming of the machines, my father barking instructions, the little bell above the door tinkling with the customers coming and going. I called and called and called and no one came. I thought no one ever would.
That's how I felt, I said. That's how I feel now.
Something adjusted in her eyes. Something rotated slightly, a couple of degrees, and I could see that she finally saw how we had taken something nearly innocent, nearly lovely and exploited and degraded it, and who knows why. Because hitting my head against a board doesn't seem to do the trick? She touched my face once and then she left.
She's chilly, formal, like I've only seen her from the waist up behind a counter. How's the weather there? She actually asks about the weather.
So, she says when the weather has been duly described. So it seems you have children you've neglected to tell me about. How did that happen, do you think? And just that easily, I'm nailed.
I don't know, I say. The time was never right, I say.
Did you think I wouldn't find out?
I knew, I say, that you would.
I don't understand—I have a kid myself. Why would you keep this from me?
I don't know, I don't know.
This is stupid, she says. Twenty years. Shit . . .
I was afraid, I start to say, but then I stop. Try again. I was afraid that it would hurt you.
And then she is crying. Trying to stop but not stopping. She is crying and it kills me. Because I was right.
I'm so sorry, I say. Please don't cry, I say.
She tries to clear her throat.
I didn't mean to hurt you, I say.
I know, I know—
Nobody knows you like I do, Jane.
You—you actually believe that? Her voice is thick with tears, but she is alert, waiting, she needs an answer.
Please, I say, whispering now, please, I still, I can still—
Still smell your perfume.
My perfume? She pauses. I don't wear that anymore. I haven't for a long time.
You don't? What, then? What do you wear? Tell me.
But she won't tell me. She won't fucking tell me.
I'm usually in the industrial areas, but one day last week I was driving around, just driving, and I went past the university. There was this girl. I saw her walking down the sidewalk next to the Student Union, and she was smiling, smiling so big—not crazy, just really happy, I don't know. Then I saw the diskman. It could have been Bell Bottom Blues, it could have been Alison, it could have been 4th of July, Asbury Park she was listening to except that's my life, not hers. Or was.
She was just a girl, a girl with a song in her head that showed her what kind of girl she was. A girl with something to look forward to tomorrow and next summer and next year.
And out here, all of us guys in our cars, our Tauruses, our GrandAms tooling around, trying to sell something to someone. A brotherhood of men in white shirts, balls and bellies and sweating feet.
It made me fucking want to cry.
Now, I pull into the mall parking lot, park anywhere. Usually I circle, I wait for a good space, but today that seems pathetic, like some old geezer who's afraid of being gypped, slighted somehow.
It takes me a few minutes; I'm used to the men's department where the dark colors suck up the light, such serious business, but here the aisles are dazzling, refracted, reflecting a blushed cheekbone here, a painted lip there.
I pick up the tester, take off the cap, and smell it. I lean into it. I don't care! I take that smell inside myself and you don't have to tell me what I'm doing. I know I'm crazy at the same time I'm thinking clearly that if I only hold my breath I could die smelling this scent, smelling her.
Then I stop. Breathe after all. Turn. Leave. Get back in my car, where I belong.
The radio comes on, classic rock, but I turn that shit off.
Copyright©2004 Connie Corzilius