Where We Are | Michele Melnick
Is this where it begins? No, but this is where I am: sitting across from him at a table in a restaurant with children's renditions of cows on the wall. I am collapsing and uncollapsing the links of my wedding ring, until I spot his. I wasn't looking for it, I was looking for his hand. But there it is, an elegant twist of white and yellow gold not basic enough to have been chosen quickly.
He slouches over the table, drawing some replica of a cartoon character that he watches with his son, scraping a stubby crayon on the white paper tablecloth.
I say, "So," and "Stop," and "Say something," shifting uncomfortably in my chair.
He says, "What?" and "You say something," and "Fine," and puts down the crayon.
I study his face and mentally pull at the lines that no longer match my memory of the boy. I note the dusting of gray in his hair, and the heel of a crow's foot by his eye. I say, "You look different."
"I look old," he confesses, then runs his hands over his face as if to rub it away.
I don't deny it. He does look old, but that's not it. He seems smaller than I ever remembered. He seems cut or shrunk or shaved into a suburban family man. And for once, powerless.
We lay in bed watching TV, my head resting on my husband's belly, rising and falling with his breath. If the sound were muted we could hear the masts of the dry-docked boats chiming outside our window, but instead there's just noise. My husband lowers the volume during a commercial to tell me how a group in Australia successfully teleported a beam of light from one side of a bench to another, and that they are going to try an atom next. I get a little scared at the thought. Not of the atom, but of what might come after: the claustrophobic tube they'd stick you in to take you apart molecule by molecule and send you off. Because something would happen before you could get reproduced on the other side, I don't know what, but something, and you wouldn't be able to get all your molecules back together again.
My husband doesn't ask about my seeing Loren this afternoon. He doesn't have any questions. I relayed the necessary facts to him when he got home and he listened, but then he shoved them under the carpet or the bed or the kitchen cabinet or wherever he shoves things he doesn't quite know what to do with, and now it's as if it didn't happen at all.
Loren tells me that he couldn't sleep last night, that after he saw me he was so upset that he ate things that got his hands dirty, that he couldn't stop eating. He says it's a tragedy that we're not together, that he made a mistake, married the wrong woman that he's never loved anyone the way he loved me. I figure this is protocol. It is what you say to a girl who was so vulnerable to you that she picked off rows of Advil like candy buttons to kill the pain when you betrayed her. You almost have to say that, don't you?
I think of broken windshields and screaming and phone calls and him never staying far enough away to let me go. I think of years of other boys', then men's mouths and arms, and hands, each encounter beginning with the promise that my memory of him could be scratched away.
The things he says sound nice, that we should work things out, work through seven years, well five of the really bad pain. The picture that he's painting for me is a sunny lunch 'six times a year,' he actually comes up with the number, and the right to call when he needs me. I am fond of the sunny lunch part, I mean who would turn down a sunny lunch? But the thought of another blown off phone call, or one more opportunity for him to manage my anger back into my stomach, makes me pass. And I say, "I really wanted closure, Loren, a 'Say I love you and say goodbye' kind of thing."
He says, "Closure is a myth, Allie. You don't get closure in a case like this."
I walk downstairs after hanging up the phone. My husband looks up from his laptop, mutes the TV. He clears a space for me on the couch, but I sit on the chair instead.
I say, "It's over now." I told him that I'd call him when I was ready. But I won't call, not for a long time.
"And he said?" my husband asks.
"He said he understood."
My husband tries to appear sympathetic, but seems relieved instead, and I picture him like a blow fish underwater exhaling. He leans into me, motioning to touch me, but I can't be touched, not yet. I reach for the remote and unmute the TV for him. I kiss him on his forehead and squeeze his shoulder and head back upstairs.
I am at my desk seven days later when the phone rings, I look to the caller ID and see Loren's number appear.
The city at night is magical and unreal. We are both in and out of it so often in daylight, you'd think we'd become desensitized to it by now, but you can't be, not really, not at night. You come over that ramp before heading into the tunnel and boom there it is like Camelot or Atlantis lit up against the sky.
My husband is behaving like a nervous teenager on a first date. We were close friends for years before we got together and so we never really had one. A massage gone too far, and that was really it.
I sit with a lap full of roses, thinking that I shouldn't have told him to surprise me on my birthday. I am not big on surprises, and I'm sick, and he is both too excited and nervous about the prospect of failure, for this to be a good thing. I am expected to be judge and jury for the night, a responsibility I feel too weak to live up to.
I imagine dressing in a bikini and parading around with score cards for each step he takes, a 5 for the French restaurant which turns out to be loud and bright, not quite the way it appeared earlier in the day when he dropped off the second bouquet to have waiting for me at our table; a 9, when I see that he found a hotel right across from the Museum of Natural History, so that I could walk to the butterflies in the morning; and a 4 after an hour spent driving around to find parking since our hotel doesn't have valet, and we can't find an open lot in the 15 block vicinity.
If this was a date, the sheer effort it required to feign a high score of happiness would have forced me to ditch him by the third turn down Columbus Avenue, and I am relieved when he finally drops me off so that I can go up to our room alone.
In the suite I open the bedroom doors to find more roses and cards on the bed. It's the first unforced smile all evening. After reading the cards, I throw open the windows to see the courtyard and reach out to grab the limb of the tree that shoots past our floor.
I close the window and lean back against it. The room is so still I feel like my brain is set to take a snap shot of my existence for some later perusal, that I am forced to just look.
There are so many roses that I imagine the room stained with the soft, elegant scent of them. I am really a tulip girl. I like to watch them die falling backwards over the vase like water ballerinas, their stems twisting like vines. But I can appreciate the rose, and my husband's a rose-giving man.
I lay on the bed surrounded by them, and try to extinguish Loren from the room. I think of doing yoga breathing, lighting an imaginary stick of incense, I try to think about absolutely nothing.
I am still in my coat when my husband comes in, and I must look pale dressed all in black surrounded by red, because he looks concerned.
"We don't have to go back out, you know." He squeezes my knee as he passes, slips into the chair and loosens his tie.
"Yeah, we do," I say, my internal clock ticking loudly the approach of midnight, when the numbers will irreversibly change in my age from 2-8 to 2-9. In mere moments another year of my life will have slipped away. I stand, letting my coat fall to the floor and slide onto his lap. He pushes the hair from my eyes.
"The cards were sweet," I say, "everything was."
"Did you—" he starts, but then stops. He slides his hand from my cheek, to my neck, and rests it on my collarbone. His face gets suddenly serious, he whispers, "God, you are beautiful." And I don't know what it is. It's not the words, but the way he's looking at me, as if it hurts somehow. It makes my eyes suddenly want to well up, because the thing is that I don't know whether that look disappeared for a stretch of time from his face or I simply stopped noticing.
The jazz bar in midtown that he takes me to is touristy and overpriced and they don't even let you smoke. I shake my head the second we walk in and then drag him downtown despite his protests that I am going to end up with pneumonia. We end up at a bar on West 4th with a band covering everyone from Prince to Floyd, and an audience that is punching the air with their fists and scream-singing and dancing between the tables. I get up after Michael finishes his first beer and dance in an antibiotic haze and he smiles as he watches, and so I just lose myself with strangers. I come back now and again to give him a kiss or take a sip of my drink, but keep dancing until the band's last set. It's 3:00 am when they come around with the tip bowl. Michael throws in some bills, and wraps me up in my coat, he says, "Okay, my sick little Birthday girl, I think its time to go."
In the cab uptown we lean against opposite doors and he tells me about the guy who sat in my seat and talked his ear off for that last half an hour about a philosophy he's claimed to have developed based on the idea of only talking to strangers. I stare past his head to the locked up stores we're rushing by and wonder if Loren would have danced with me. But I don't want to answer it, so I push the thought away and pull my husband to me until his mouth is on mine and I can taste the beer, and smoke, and the gum we just split a piece of. I lead his hand up the skirt of my dress until his fingers wrap around the thin band of my underwear. His mouth searches the skin down my neck and then bares my shoulder, and I can feel the fabric under me being pulled slowly away. The signs grow brighter and Technicolor rays paint the inside of the car and us within it, and I think I see a bird swoop past the window right before I close my eyes and let my head fall back to the glass.
"But Allie I was good," Loren says, his voice is like a little boy's. The way I imagine his son sounding.
"Your number didn't come up on my Caller ID," I say.
"Your machine is broken then, because I called."
"Like 7:00, 7:30. I got your voicemail."
I was home then, getting ready for my birthday dinner with friends. At 7:27 I looked at the clock because I had just finished blowing my hair when the doorbell rang, and I could hear Dara's voice echoing in the hall and her footsteps moving up the stairs. I was standing only in heels and a thong, unbuttoning my dress on the hanger when she threw open the door. She lay across the bed and started jabbering away, the way someone who shared a bunk with you in sleep-away camp can, someone you only have to partly listen to, paying attention to key words. When she stopped abruptly, I turned to see her staring at my body, her eyebrows knitted and frowning.
"I don't like how thin you're getting," she said. "It's not good." She marched out without another word and came back dragging Michael, who was on the phone laughing, saying, "Could you hold for a second?" and palming the mouthpiece.
"Look," she said, as if pointing to a crack in the wall he hadn't noticed, "there are bones jutting." She came over and poked at my hip bones and ribs. And Michael stopped smiling.
"You can't let her lose another pound," she said. "Not one more."
"I've been sick, Dara," I say, "Don't give me a disorder, I have too many already." I looked to Michael for a smile or a laugh, but he didn't. It was like he was caught in a thought, like a foot jammed in a trap and he hadn't even begun to consider how to get himself out.
"Dr. Restivo just put me on Ceftin," I say to Dara. "There is nothing to worry about. The weight will come back with a vengeance just as soon as I'm better. You'll see." Somehow this helped Michael free himself, and he slipped back out, shutting the door. We could hear his voice fading as he moved back down the stairs.
She lowered her own and asked, "Are you still speaking to him?"
Even as I buttoned up the dress, Dara eyed my body suspiciously, as if Loren were hiding somewhere inside the thin material peeling my weight off strip by strip.
"He didn't call," I admitted.
"What a surprise," she said and turned onto her back. "People don't change, Allie."
"Why didn't you just leave a message?" I ask.
"What, so Michael can hear? I'm not doing that, I'm not pushing myself in your husband's face like that."
"My husband knows we're talking, and you know it."
"That doesn't mean I have to throw it in his face."
"How do you expect me to work through this if you keep giving me more things to work through?" I ask.
"I'm trying, Allison, I am. I just don't want to invade the man's home."
"So you're protecting him? I see. My husband doesn't need protection from you, Loren. I do," I say.
"God,” he says, “you don't sound good."
At a hotel in Baltimore, my husband orders a bacon cheeseburger for himself from room service and I get a grilled chicken salad. After the waiter leaves, he nudges my plate over with his so that my forkful of salad now hovers over a pickle. He doesn't say anything, just waits.
I say, "Stop."
I imagine that my metabolism is now so slow from my rapid weight loss that a Tic Tac could probably add six inches to my thighs, I am not sure if the latest antibiotic is working because I barely have the energy to walk one city block, and my husband is trying to fatten me up like I'm going to be put on a spit. He's been doing this ever since my birthday, like Dara is on his shoulder with a halo or something.
I say, "This 15 dollar burger is going to end up costing you thousands in liposuction."
He just looks from me to the burger and then back again, until I take a bite and eat some fries.
Ordinarily, Michael is my favorite person to eat with. We set everything up like a picnic, dipping our forks into each others' plates. In restaurants, we work on our appetizers together, arrange them between us one-by-one like on an assembly line. But lately I just order to have something sitting in front of me that I can push around, and I'm sorry because he seems lonely.
After we throw our napkins over our plates and Michael wheels the table to the living room, I climb back onto the four posted bed and stare through the bay window at the small boats speeding across the harbor. There are people moving along the promenade and crews on barges that I am sure are working on the New Years Eve shows for tomorrow night.
I cry in the shower. I sit on the tiles, head in my knees, the hot water pounding down and hiding me. I've taken so many since we've been here, that my skin is permanently flushed. Michael doesn't ask me why. “My sinuses,” I might have forced myself to say, if he had. The tears feel like betrayal. For all these years I've been unable to cry. I tried, I would stare at the light, pinch myself. I'd sit on the bed begging Michael to make me. To say mean things, to threaten to leave me, but when he did I'd only end up laughing. I'd be all stopped up with things that needed to be released, a death, failures, frustrations, but I couldn't. I'd pretend that something bad happened to Michael, on a business trip, on his way home, after he drove off in a rush or after a fight. I could work myself up, feel the potential pain wash over me, but still not a tear. And now I can't stop.
It was like playing hooky with Loren those last few days before I left. I fell down some secret slide to a time when it was good and warm and sweet to be with him. We couldn't get off the phone with each other, as if we were never going to speak again. No, as if any time not speaking was too much. If it weren't for cell phones he wouldn't have been able to leave the office or I, my home. I can't remember what we even talked about, it wasn't about his horrible behavior or my constant running away, it wasn't about damage. It was as if we were just taking a break from all that to rememorize the different tones in each others' voices. Through his voice I could feel his arms pressing me to his chest, his lips to my forehead. Feeling as only he could make me feel, in those moments—safe.
I was thankful that Michael and I were going away for the New Year, so I could steady myself, remember where I was. I expected it to be like coming home from a great vacation, but still feeling relieved to find your bed. I didn't expect Loren to come with me, he wasn't supposed to still be with me this far away.
“Explain this to me again,” Michael says, tired, as if we've been going over a mathematical equation and he just can't get it to add up.
I am lying on the bed, resting up before New Year's dinner. Outside, a large band is setting up and people are starting to gather. Michael has turned a heavy chair around and is just watching me, as if he's been right there for hours.
I sit up weakly and look to him and then find the far wall instead. I try to think of what I haven't said already, what missing piece would explain why we're here, when all the others haven't. I could tell him about old wounds that never healed. Why you go out and bear the waves, and think you are getting somewhere, but then there is this undertow and you can no longer see land. Words fumble out, I don't seem to make any sense, phrases like “bad childhood” and “making amends,” seem transparent even in their basic truth. With each word, Michael seems to get more frustrated and angry, until finally he gets up and starts to shout, "It's like I'm fucking handing you over to the guy. I thought I was being the good guy,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief, “giving you your space to work this thing out. I might as well have opened up our front door and said here you go, to hell with my life. Do you want my fucking dog, too?” He searches around the room, I know, to find something to throw. I want to give him something of mine, something I love that can shatter, produce a result he can see.
I turn back to the window, as a test fire goes up, and a single shot lights up a newly darkened sky. He looks at me for a moment and then falls back into the chair. When he's composed himself enough he says, “Explain this to me again.”
At dinner, I try to smile a lot and eat. I try to eat way after I'm full. Michael can see that I'm trying and so keeps the conversation light, laughs at the waiter's jokes. They're all wearing Hawaiian shirts, running around frantically serving out course after course of artistic little creations of fusion cuisine. So many come that even Michael holds his stomach and says, "No, no more." We get the check before dessert, we can't even look at the tray of them, and leave holding hands like we always do, trailed by an uncomfortable silence.
We get back to the room with time to spare for the fireworks and take a long bath in the oversized tub. Then we slip into robes and put on the countdown. I stand up on the sill right up against the glass and Michael's arms are tightly wound around me. We scan the sky that borders the harbor, and find the Mall that we shopped at when we got here and the Hard Rock Café sign and a building in process beside it that still has work going on behind huge translucent tarps that billow like they're being punched by the wind. As the harbor begins to bang and crackle and glow, I keep trying to think of what I could turn around and whisper to Michael, something that I could graze his ear with to make him smile. But I can't figure out what that is, or I can, but it wouldn't be true.