Three Day Expedite
I'd showered early and made a pot of coffee with a clear view of the street through the storm door. I was still working on my first cup when he strode up the front steps with a huge box. He refused to let me lift it, told me he'd leave it wherever I'd like. The package was for my husband and attached to it a hefty COD. I let him in and handed him a steaming cup while I looked for my checkbook. He stood nearby with an elbow propped on the back of one of the tall dining room chairs mmming over my French roast. There was a runny tattoo on his forearm. I couldn't help but ask, and he offered the story about his getting the Raging Bull call while at a pizzeria in the local strip mall, and the 15 Iraqis who had been one minute smoking cigarettes, lying about their tank like mountain sheep, and the next were just a spark and a puff in the dark Arabian night. I thought, I wish I weren't wearing this bulky sweater.
"I'd better be off, I'll just talk and talk if you let me," he told me carrying his cup to the sink. Running it under the tap. Henry. The tattoo read HENRY. I guess it's like the song says, in the desert, you can't remember your name.
When I got off the train it was drizzling. I pointed my red umbrella toward home, huddled behind it shifting it with the wind. In the moment it slipped as I shrugged my shoulder bag back into position, I saw the truck rumble down the cross street up ahead. He'd stopped a half a block out of my way. His back was to the street, stacking boxes on a hand truck. I'd already crossed my border when he straightened to adjust his cap. He stopped lifting to considered this woman making a bee-line for him. Incoming!
"Hey, baby!" he said, in his slow got-nothing-to-lose way. "What are you doing out in the rain"
"I'm playing hooky." I'm blushing. He looked at his wrist. "I take lunch in ten minutes. Should I come by?"
"Sure. Sure," I smiled. "Come on by."
My dog sniffed around his ankles and knees. Henry took a seat at the table where I'd laid out two place mats and was patting her head. "She must smell my dog."
"You have a dog?"
"A Maltese Poodle."
A can of soda exploded over my hand. He's married. I turned, about to say that sounds like a dog a guy inherits, when Henry stood and asked if he could wash up. My loyal pet followed him and I listened to him wooing her over the rush of water and thought of all the dirty soap sluicing down between his fingers. I thought about the truck parked at a hydrant in front of the house next door and how it would be stay there, blocking the neighbor's view, crushing the drooping limbs of their cherished birch tree, for an hour on an otherwise quiet one way street.
Henry unfurled a brown bag lunch. "So, what are you going to do this week end?"
"Oh, errands probably. A lot needs to be done around here before it starts snowing." Jesus, who am I now? Laura Ingles?
He gave me another chance. "But what do you like to do?"
I didn't know how to answer. I didn't know anymore what I liked to do except maybe curl up on the couch with a good book and a bottle of wine.
"Do you go out?" he tried again.
"Not much. I've been busy working on my Master's thesis on book preservation."
"What, you mean like a librarian?" Henry had his sleeves rolled up in messy curls and I could see his watch. The hour was winding down. The dog was getting restless; I had to chase her around a bit to get her to behave. There was something off balance in the room. Like the dreary day had taken a seat at the table. I didn't know whether to stand or sit and began absently pruning dead leaves off a nearby philodendron. Henry pushed his chair back. The air between us no longer contracting, it was over. Maybe even gone. And time for him to leave.
The rain had picked up and I stood in the doorway with him getting splattered and not really paying attention to this awkward good bye—calculating instead what I might do with the rest of the day. I threw the bolt and felt the grumble of his truck's belly as it backed away. It was interesting, opportunity leaving. I moved to the window to spy through the curtain careful to stay a step or two back, mortified by my utter inaction. I felt caught between the lines; not as sharply drawn as I would prefer to be. I was not even faithful to my faithlessness.
But it wasn't all my fault. He proved to be too easy to classify. Ten minutes in and I knew. I knew before he could tell me what kind of car he drove and from what neighborhood he came and maybe even what kind of underwear he wore. And now, now I was having him to lunch, intrigued enough to have hunted him. How did this happen? I wouldn't think about it. It just had.
Walking. An activity I dislike. Steadily east in a straight line, busily searching left and right at every intersection for any trace. Listening for an exhaust note which might provide a sight. Each step, I'm getting closer and farther. My chances are dwindling and it feels like I'm being squeezed into the vanishing point ahead. My disappointment builds upon itself until it is bigger than I can carry. I start thinking about a strong drink. I can taste the sour cold already. It pulls me under.
I turn the key but I know I'm going back out. This time with the car to look more places, faster. I twine a long scarf a few times around my neck and change my shoes. The steering wheel is cold. It is nearly dark. I go back the way I came and corner into a parking lot where I once saw him drive past. There are X marks like this one all over my subconscious. I needed a few things; I could go into the grocery and fill a basket to make a good show to myself. I'm thinking this when one of those brown trucks gets caught in my side-view. I hear the driver's door roll open and there he is. Standing just across the street. Under a lamp that has just sensed the dusk.
I wait for Henry to see me, taking the desperate chance he might not. He finds my distress amusing, making fun, pretending to hide our faces behind a corrugated cardboard box that he's holding in one hand way up high in all its bulk, like an acrobat practiced at negotiating awkward props. We disagree on where to meet; this chance encounter thrilling even as it tips the scales. In 10 minutes; on this we consent. By then it would just so happen to be dark.
I slip into the store past the deli man who'd been on the sidewalk and audience to our exchange. He was sneaking a laugh in his food stained smock, at what I made desperate—not slick or practiced. I gather random produce into my arms, not checking for rot, and pay in haste, crumpling bills into my jacket pocket. Later when I wash the red tipped lettuce leaf by leaf, caressing the soft veins before pulling it to pieces and later still when the leaves dripped olive oil from my fork, it would be Henry, velvet in my mouth. I hurry to the car, fumble with the assorted locks and race to where he's said he'd be. When I get there, I have no concept of time spent but somehow know that I haven't missed him.
We are not free. We like to pretend we are. We have that in common. But I'm not the kind who is defined by this complaint. I am not paralyzed by the term divorce the way a friend of mine is. She continues to run from it as though it were the only time she bought something that did not fit. But Henry and I will continue to stand still despite that we say we are unhappy. We've built these cardboard dioramas around our legal partners. And we trick them everyday just by staying. At least that's me. Of course its more complicated than that—unhappiness usually is. There are many layers and varied contradictions. And then there's the ego that needs constant petting and makes one play near the edge.
I shut the engine and collapse the lights to wait. I look away when he pulls up behind me and unlock the door blindly waiting for him to sit beside me. Henry tells me to move the car away from the corner. With him in my car with me, a controlled sense of proportion begins to slip. Reality is elastic and I pull and stretch it thin—at some point it will recoil and sting me.
I laughed at my own surprise when I pulled him out of his company issue pants. I was both hungry and frightened and saw the end to this road coming fast and didn't care. He admonished me for wanting him so recklessly and I for his not being prepared. "I'm bored," he provoked. It was sport, after all.
Get out. Just get out, I wanted then. He reeked of a man interested only in what was convenient and the idea of being or not being in this category petrified me in equal measure.
Somewhere in the back of his mind my Gulf War hero knows that his opportunities are shrinking and that he will never be a rich man by any means. He works hard and swallows down with a permanent smile what he feels is his unique list of unrealized dreams. He's dutiful to a point to his unhappy or oblivious wife and each week prepares a grand Sunday dinner with his little girl who for the moment sweetly resembles him in all her pre-teen awkwardness, but that will change I know. A third of the way into a mortgage on a house that's just a little too small and a little too close to the ones beside it, at 39 he's all about his things: the medals and certificates on display in his den, the hunting cabin he shares with two beat cops and a tricked- out Grand Prix that's irritatingly temperamental and never really running right. I know this man. I remember him when, like his daughter now, I was 11 and it was my father collecting things that eased his disappointments.
When two days later we were walking on the dark side of a street to an anonymous bar and he held out his arm for me to take I felt deliciously small. And then there was the Desert Storm jacket with his embroidered name and the wash of testosterone when strangers wanted to shake his heroic hand as he passed them on his way to pee. I laughed at the sight of myself waiting for him, so entirely out of my habitat, singing in my head "I love a man in a uniform". I accepted a drink on the house for the love of country.
Henry took a pack of cigarettes from his jacket and tossed them beside the change on the bar. I smelled the Newports on him on Christmas Eve while he was leaning against my fridge. I was elbow deep in ingredients for a feast and he was dripping city snow on my newly mopped floor. When he took the cellophane package of home baked sugar cookies out of my hand and asked me if I'd let him hang me upside-down, I could taste it.
Henry spends Sundays cooking Paella with Lisa. I think about weekends at the Vega house. When her father emerged from a steamy bathroom smelling like shaving gel did Lisa ignore him?—more concerned with hanging out and the things of Teen People. If he insists on paying attention to her, can she? It's all in who is paying the most notice at that age. I remember.
On Sunday mornings amid the waft of bacon and pancakes, my father used to whistle the tune to I Think I'm Going Out of My Head. And I suspect all the while my mother was hoping he just would already; do it soon. My father's attention was greatly divided. He had this weird idea that it was all about ownership. He owned it. It would always be right where he'd turned his head. It. Me.
I asked Henry if he carried a picture of his daughter. He hesitated for a second but then reached around for his wallet. He pulled out last year's school photo from behind an AMOCO credit card. I let him just turn it to face me.
I stepped back and lifted my drink. "Gorgeous hair," I remarked with a laugh. In a few years I thought, that look in her eye will change ever so slightly. I wondered if it frightens him knowing all too well what women are. And here she comes sneaking up on him, the one he helped create. Will he run? By standing with me he's already gunning the engine that will carry him away. Our choices are what define us.
That night I told Henry the F85 story; how my first love affair had ended badly. This quite serious devotion was to my father's '68 Cutlass...."I had named it Giraffe, " I said. "Because of its washed out yellow body that had been liberally spotted with primer sealer during another one of my father's failed, though earnest, intentions to see a project through." Sipping what seemed the most delicious Bacardi and Coke I'd had in forever, licking lime pulp off my lipstick, I told him how its sticky summer-hot black vinyl seats and all the things that over time that had gotten lost between and beneath them had shaped me. That my father used to sit me on his lap and let my steer it out of the driveway.
"I thought he knew how much I loved that car," I said. "'Cause when I asked, he promised to keep it for when I was old enough to have it. I thought he realized how, since I said it, I must have meant it. But one day my father left it at the park and ride in the morning like he always did, and for $250.00 some stranger got to drive it away. He didn't even need to say good bye. Apparently never did."
"Oh, come on," Henry scoffed, "I'd do the same thing."
"Listen, Henry," I poked him with my swizzle stick. "I'm thirty two years old and I'm in a no name bar on a work night telling a married man this story. You might want to think about that before you do the same thing."
Henry pointed to my empty. "How many have you had?"
First, let me say that I found some humor in the sheer unlikiness of waiting "in secret" at the intersection of something and Main Street at the height of a Friday evening rush hour. And though I wanted to appear aloof or rather, just arrived, there was little else for me to do than scour the writhing worm of cars coming off the expressway.
When I had first claimed this position—legs crossed against the cold, suede gloved hands tucked up underneath my arms and the shoulder straps of my purse and a shopping bag from Saks, carrying expensive wine poorly, a tourniquet at my wrist—I'd heard the sharp voices. The accusation rose and fell as the wind fanned their words across the brick face of the Italian Cucina with the sad potted evergreens flanking its doorway.
"I wasted thirty two years of my life on you." The irony contorted my carefully twice-a-month-sculpted eyebrows into peaks. I set upon constructing in my mind their Roman Catholic wedding the year I was born. "You're doing to me just what my papa did to my mama." Ain't it always that way?
Like a dog who can smell a cancer I tried to move myself away, out of range. I was sure if I didn't I would have erupted in that hysterical kind of laughter which sometimes leads to involuntary hospitalization. You see, why I was there, standing in high heels in the cold, hungry, needing to pee, waiting to get rushed into the passenger seat of a car and whisked away like a kidnapping, was to myself, act upon a useless urge which if discovered would cost me dearly.
Intellectually I knew this was Henry's game now. I understood that. He made sure that I did when he yelled at me.
"Listen," he said, "after we do this, you can't stop me in the street anymore. You can't come looking for me."
I was electrified by this man who was being stern with me. Who was explaining the obvious in a way which would imply that English might not be my thing.
"I wasn't yelling at you," he said when I got into his car. I slipped into his empty cap. It was soft and worn and shaped like him.
"I wasn't, you were just acting crazy yesterday. Shouting across the street like that, at five o'clock in the afternoon, next to the park. My daughter could have been hanging there." Yes, yes, I thought. But you loved it.
"Boy, this seat is really far forward." I changed the subject.
"So move it back."
As he drove to the motel, I turned to him and said, "Come on Henry, tell me a nice lie."
"Mama, what are you talking about?"
"Tell me something nice."
"Why would it be a lie?"
"It would. But I still want to hear it."
"I'm not going to lie to you."
I knew that he meant at the moment, not not ever.
I disobey a direct order and pushed off my bus long before my stop to check to see if the truck parked beside the middle school was his. I walked neither swiftly nor slow, just walked, to see. I caught sight of the arched handle of a hand truck in a shaded courtyard but there was a back to me and as I slipped between the truck and a parked car I decided the hair wasn't enough gray and I was disappointed even before some other driver tossed me a curious glance.
I was wearing new shoes and couldn't bear the thought of trudging the rest of the way home on foot, even though it was still light out and I might legitimately yet come across Henry making pick-ups. Pick-ups were last; favorite customers very last, as a courtesy. I struggled home. What was I doing? Someone was going to have to break my legs to get me to stop.
I unlocked my front door, ignored the mail and went straight for a corkscrew. I thought about the night at the motel. About my role in it. I'd been busy wondering about his story and what it said about the man. The foot soldier, breaking bones jumping out of airplanes in the middle of the night at 18. ("Don't let anyone tell you they don't shit their pants the first time,"); sniping Iraqi generals in their red BMWs on their way home to their families at 30. ("I've still got one guy's wallet,"); Package Car Driver, still, at 39.
I'd somewhere heard the company described as heavily fortified. It seemed apt. From what he told, it fostered an entirely Us-against-Them mentality. Every day began with security cameras and roll calls, locker rooms and degradation. Uniforms that didn t always fit but had better be finished off with spit-shined shoes. The man found comfort in the structure. A civilian who still clipped his hair short and did rounds and rounds of push ups and sit ups. But at 39 he was feeling a little too old to be every day told he was a fuck up. So he tweaked the system any way he could and liked to sue people. He sued a customer a few blocks away from me whose slate step had been loose and had laughed when he slipped and fell. ( If she didn t laugh, I wouldn t have taken her for that 7 K. ) He sued Pontiac because after keeping his car for a month they still couldn t figure out why the check engine light was always lit. He had had to take off work to make trips to Small Claims Court and won a settlement of $3,000. $2,000 less than he was out of pocket, all totaled, but he WON the judgment. And that was all that mattered.
After an hysterical reenactment of an encounter with his supervisor and his union rep earlier in the week, he put his foot on the edge of the bed and started untying his sneaker.
"Go on," I urged.
"I wasn't sure."
He was stripped to his briefs before I knew it. I saw him looking at himself in the mirror. I took a layer off and sat back down on the bed. At one point I pulled at him. Are you coming over here?
You scare me, mama. Worse than the front line.
I stood at my kitchen counter wrestling with a cork, making lists of excuses for his bad behavior. He's in Florida with his daughter, it's Spring Break. No, I pass Lisa's school on my way to work every morning. The yard's still full of little posses. Oh, it's Passover. He's hanging around while his wife's family lights candles. No. Not likely. OK. He's bleeding in Kosovo. Well, I hope to death!
He shouldn't have told me that, yeah, he's lucky that he lives in his own route.
"Yeah, it's cool," he tells me with lifted brows like it's an inside joke. "I can keep an eye on Lisa after school; except she hits me up for money every time she see me." His wife has no face. It's Lisa I want to replace.