Saturday promised to be a busy day. After my regular errands I had to remember my most important one—to stop at the florist, create a nice bouquet, scribble my two pat sentences on a card with Pre-Raphaelite clouds in the corners and have it all in hand when I walked into Christine’s apartment at 7:30.
Early that morning I felt like causing Christine extreme pain after she mentioned how she wanted to get together with an ex on the Lower East Side and swap notes. “Notes on what?” I demanded.
About how they had gotten on, she replied. Who they had met in the interim, what these new persons were like and if their lives had turned out the way the other imagined they might. “I don’t know if I like the idea of this Christine.”
So it would go. I couldn’t keep her from doing something she wanted to do—down the line I would just regret it. By shackling her and I’d be shackling myself—so I relented. We’d known each other a year. She was tall with tuby arms. Her face strongly contoured and pointy like a lynx. She often flashed bitter smiles at the foibles of the city, a rictus I related to. She made good money doing reception at a hedge fund office. This while auditioning for plays and commercials. She had memorized the entire script of A Streetcar Named Desire, though she only saw herself as Stella—the sure-footed, matronly Stella since Christine didn’t want to get pigeonholed playing mentally unstable women. When I argued Blanche Dubois to be the meatier, more complex role, she nearly snapped my finger off, “Who are you to say? You sit and read political science and 9/11 conspiracy theories all day.” As a child she was in gymnastics and I believed that competition bent her personality into the unflinching nail she sometimes resembled. No one will get the better of me. No one but me will win. I liked her spark. It turned me on. It made me forget how easy it was to fool myself that I was happy in relationship.
I generally declined offers to attend plays with her, not because my programmer salary couldn’t afford to, but because I just didn’t enjoy watching people shift around a stage trying to act. To me most every stage actor was a ham. Projecting the voice, outlandish gestures, large emotions—too large for the theatre and not subtle enough to sate my belief in a minimalism much more apt to show up in a motion picture. We went to those regularly. And I never turned down one of her dinner parties with theatre people. I could speak with them but not watch them practice or perform. This with sometimes ten hours a week of overtime—I didn’t have much free time and I had things I wanted to see and get done as well. Add in the hour of the F train to get back to Park Slope and my nights weren’t even nights if I didn’t see her, they were three hours and then falling to sleep, energizing for the next day.
Christine and I had met at the Tea Lounge on 7th and Union. Comparing laptops. She didn’t have to be drunk to say, ‘I love you.’ And I didn’t have to flash my money in front of her face. She knew I had it. After a few months of going out I bought her a one-thousand dollar ermine coat. Winter had just begun. She said she needed a new one. I purchased it for three reasons: her lack, I wanted to and I had the money. Christine resisted it, but then she tried it on. She kissed my face seventeen times. Sure the homeless needed coats. But then the homeless would not make crazy, frenetic love with me. Besides, I saw the ads on the subway everyday, everyone and their mother could donate coats for the homeless at Grand Central or certain police stations. I would go to my own local one and stuff an old tiresome London Fog into the donations box. Case closed.
Bernard Doogland, the former boyfriend Christine would soon see, had written a play of some repute. It concerned a couple encountering trouble on their Bahamas getaway. One too many rum and cokes and one too many young waiters with exposed six-packs. It had a nice run. Success had found him and he wouldn’t have to worry about money for some time. Christine had been with him during the lean years. He started emailing, asking her to accompany him to the Tony Awards and other high class functions. When she told him about me he still persisted, going so far as to invite me along. Remember to tell him a black tie is required! Maybe I would have to change my tune as far as how I regarded her theatrical passions—that would be fine—but I didn’t want them cackling about my mundane existence as a programmer over margaritas. So on Saturday I set out to do some writing myself—verse. I’d fooled around with poetry in high school and decided to attempt a love sonnet in iambic pentameter. I felt I could pull it off. I was romantic and passionate and my words, just like Mr. Doogland’s, could fly into Christine’s heart and elevate her, even though I didn’t start punch out arguments about Arthur Miller’s final plays.
I toiled most of the early afternoon—I had six lines but I wasn’t too happy with them. Comparing my love to a satellite in the sky? Was I nuts? A mile away at the gym Christine took Pilates and would meet another friend for a drink before our date to eat in Chelsea and scoot down to Tribeca for some jazz. Famished and dissatisfied with Tea Lounge fair, I found a deli a few blocks from my apartment on Garfield. It was pretty full but I decided to stay—part of me didn’t want to be alone with my unfinished poem. I asked to sit at a man’s table and he nodded. He had salt and pepper hair and a host of lines and creases in his well tanned face. His bouncy eyes were set widely apart like a fish and his mouth was large and uneven like he’d been hooked and thrown back a bunch of times. He held the Post sports section to his face with delicate hands like it was the Bible. I’d chosen the wrong man. As I kept attention on the corned beef in my hands I could tell he fixed his crazed eyes on me. If I took any note of him I’d be in trouble, but I couldn’t help getting one good look at that ugly mug and I leaned back with a glance. It was all he needed.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I tried to kill my wife?” he said in a snappy Brooklynese.
“We’ll change that right now—”
“Actually I’m just eating here. See…I’m not a priest.”
“And you’re not a pusher neither, I know.
“I gave that woman my paycheck every Friday. I’d cash it and boom, eight hundred bucks in my hand. I’d get out at six at night and she’s upstairs sleeping. So I put the bills in a cookie jar downstairs. In two minutes she’d pop right up. Like some kinda dog, she could smell money a mile away. I didn’t want to know. Hey we’re married. Have a baby girl. Curlers, toy dolls, diapers. She paid all the bills you know, that’s why I gave her the money.”
“Yeah smartass, my wife. She paid the bills,” his eyes dipped, weaved and bobbed and he continued, “Time flies. November. Then another. And another. The girl’s talking, asking questions everyday. Why is the moon round? Why is the moon a little bit tonight? Where did the moon go daddy? I’m working here. I’m working my ass off. Things are slipping, I can see that. I’m not a lug. I figure the punches, you roll. No more Hello—Goodbye, whatever. I know it wears off. We do it less and less, big deal. Not any guy I know puncturing her. But as long as the money comes, fine. She kisses my hands. Then it’s a Sunday night and I’m watching the game and she comes up to me. ‘Can I have some money?’ And I look at her. ‘What the fuck you talking about I just gave you eight hundred two days ago.’ ‘It’s gone.’ ‘I know it’s gone, why the fuck else you’d ask for more.’ So she puts on the big, long innocent face.
‘You wait,’ I tell her, ‘this shit doesn’t grow on trees.’ Whatever. You know it happens, you know when it’s happening.”
“Alright, alright,” I interrupted. “Cut to the chase.”
“Burly bastard, aint’ cha? So she’s screwing this dude. Spending all my money. An then a neighbor comes up to me. ‘You’re wife owes me a few hundred for a month now. Paid your electric and gas bills for you’s.’ This bitch. So I don’t say anything. I’m like a tiger, laying in wait.
“So one day I come home about two hours early from work—something I never do and the kid is devastated, lonely, hitting her dolls with a screwdriver. ‘Where’s mommy?’ I say. ‘In the tub.’ Oh, yes, wonderful. She had just picked Heather up from kindergarten. Interesting to take a bath in the middle of the day. So I go up there.
Say hi. Nothing, no response. Her head turned ta me. She’s soaking. I say, ‘Are you hungry? I’ll order a pizza or something.’ By this time she had stopped cooking altogether. We lived on takeout. Doesn’t say a word, but before I leave she pipes up, ‘I need some money. When are you getting paid?’ ‘Same day I always do.’ She groans.
“So I go downstairs. Check on the kid. Order the pizza. And I’m docile. Docile as a fucking cow. I sit and read the paper. Pizza comes. I set Heather up with a slice and climb upstairs with one for her. She’s still in the tub. ‘You want some pizza?’ She raises her hand out the water and points in the air. ‘Fuck you and fuck your pizza.’ I take the slice I’m holding and heave it at her. Hits the side of her face with a slap and slides off into the water. ‘You no good fucking asshole,’ she says. ‘I’m leaving your fool ass.’ And I rush over, grab hold of her hair tight and jump on her and stuff her head into the water. And I’m holding and holding and bubbles coming up and the more I feel her struggle the more I press and all a sudden this voice comes inta my head. Some voice, not mine. Stop Ralph. Don’t do it Ralphie. Stop. I’d nearly shit my pants and let go. She pops up coughing, choking and I just draw back, sit on the floor and look at my slice.” The man hit the table with both hands.
“I bet she left then,” I said brusquely.
“Oh you bet your ass she did. Tried to sue the shit out a me. Attempted manslaughter. You believe that shit? Wouldn’t let me see my daughter. That’s sixteen years ago now. Have no contact with anyone in that fucked up family. Don’t even know what my girl looks like. But if Heather wants to find me she knows where ta find me.”
The crusts of my sandwich lay on the plate by my fingers. “You tell that story often?”
“Only when I need to.”
“And this Saturday in March, Brooklyn, New York—you just had to?”
“You sat at my table.”
I crumpled up my plate and sandwich wrapper and stood up. “I hope things have gotten better for you since.”
“They are what they are.”
He made his mouth into an O and scratched the sauce stained left corner.
“There’s a reason you sat down with me pal. Let’s just leave it at that.”
“Let’s,” I instantly replied and left. Around the corner of the deli I checked my pockets for the sonnet. It was still there. As soon as I arrived home I finished it in a flash of inspiration.
When I came to Christine’s she rushed back into the bathroom to finish getting ready. The slower weekend subway would take an hour to Chelsea. She acknowledged the flowers as she applied some lip stick. I was just about to go into the story of my encounter when she bolted back to the living room, heels snapping on the wooden floor. “So that thing with Bernard’s off.” She dropped an earring. “Shit.” She smiled and pecked me on the cheek. “He just got engaged and his fiancée, the one that had a supporting role in that Spiderman movie, she won’t allow it.”
Briefly she examined me. “You must be relieved. All for nought. I mean you both have nothing to be suspicious of,” she laughed scornfully.
She fiddled with her cell phone. “So what did you do today? Spend a bunch of time at the flower shop?”
“No,” I began to pace a bit.
“So Keith said this was the best young jazz group on the East Coast?” she said while daubing a tissue under her eyes.
“He did. You know how Keith is. The best this… The best that…”
“Okay,” she said breathlessly. “I’m ready.”
“Just a second,” I said walking to the bathroom. There I tore the sonnet in shreds, dumped them into the bowl and flushed it. After I watched the pieces spiral down I opened the shower door and bent down by the tub. I ran a finger over the linoleum. Not any dirt as I expected. She scrubbed it furiously after every bath or shower. This was the woman I’d come to know.
Standing up I slammed my shoulder into the towel holder on the door. One screw broke off.
Christine waited at the door, her hand by her face, the key chain wrapped about her fingers. “Feel better now?”
“I do.” We hadn’t kissed or hugged. We still wouldn’t until well after the drinks were poured. We left for Chelsea, relaxing into the thorny silence that helped make our affection tolerable and cut us down to size.