37

When, and how, to say “No” to your wife.

She pushed the pocket door on her side of the bathroom open with her foot and the room started to smell as exotic as her shower always did. “Thursday is our anniversary,” wafted out with the fragrant girl smells.

“I know.” She was cute in her wrapped around, covers everything just barely towel and big hot-roller curlers.

“I know you know. Our daughter told me you texted her about it. We can’t do anything, though, because we’re still helping them out with the kids. I thought I’d pick up a cake, or make something. Or we can wait until the weekend.”

Please, God, don’t bake. “I can pick something up and –”

“I said I’ll do it. Do you know how long?”

I’d wait until the mascara was whipped on, the only real makeup she wore besides lipstick, just to tug on her patience threshold.

“How long what? To get the cake or until we’re off grandkid duty or –”

“How long we’ve been married, maybe?” She was doing that corner of the eye in the mirror thing that gave her eyes in the back of her head.

“Thirty-seven. This year for sure. I used a calculator. And then all my fingers and toes almost twice to be sure.”

“That’s what you said last year when it was thirty-seven years.”

“Last year fifteen minus nine was seven.”

“For you, Mister Man. Ow!” She pulled and palmed one of the hot curlers. “These things are hot.”

I started to say something about that’s why they’re called hot curlers, knew better.

“Thirty-seven years,” she said. “We’re old married people. Boy, that’s a long time, huh?”

“No, it seems like yesterday and I’d do it all again because you were so cute in that purple robe I couldn’t stand it. And you let me bring my waterbed.”

“That thing,” she made a face and banged a drawer closed with her hip. “Last year, did it really feel like thirty-seven years?”

“That’s two trick questions on one cup of coffee.”

“Well?”

I let that one hang like the last drop of honey in one of those little plastic bears she uses for tea and to keep a sticky spot going on the kitchen counter.

“No…”

She checked his grin with the sideways mirror eyes. “You. Don’t be funny. I need some privacy, please. I need to get dressed.” The door closed with the same foot that had opened it. She raised her voice a touch. “You don’t have to get me anything, as long as you remembered when and how long.”

“Right. No card or wine or even a token gift is how I made it this long.”

“What? I couldn’t hear you, the door’s closed. Are you still in here?”

“Leaving. Just talking to the dogs.”

I may be old and math challenged but I’ve been married thirty-seven really-I-checked-this-time years. And I’m not stupid.

 

 

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It’s Instant, Okay?

Houston, Texas. Valentine’s Day, 1979

She was sitting on his knees, maybe the top of his shins, he knew that, and she was totally involved in whatever she was talking about. He wasn’t alert enough to make much sense of it. She either thought he was awake, or needed to be awake, or at least she needed to be talking to him because she was awake. What he noticed was the lavender bathrobe loosely wrapped around her small frame and on a hair-thin gold chain hanging below her throat a tiny cross and diamond caught the morning sun and splashed her walls with rainbows.

Her big blue eyes sparkled under a morning-esque cascade of dark waves while she emoted and asked him, “This way…or…this way? Which one is more believable?” She had somehow rolled modern dance from a class she’d been to before he arrived last night, theatrical and everyday body language along with linguistics into a single thought that needed to find a way out of her head at six-thirty in the morning. He was pinned beneath her and her bedspread while she let that thought and everything it brought along with it out into the bright sunrise of the day after Valentine’s Day Gulf Coast morning. Her voice was light, she was completely engaged with herself and her audience of one and it was important to her that what was on her mind got worked out, and that he heard it. He let her voice wash over him and tried to participate.

“I’m not sure,” he said, thinking that safe and maybe he’d get an explanation or a repeat that would bring him up to speed.

“Of course you are! Subjectively. You know what’s sincere and what’s contrived. Now that you’ve thought about it, though…” she looked down at her hands on his thighs with an air of disappointment, didn’t let it stop her. “Here. I’ll do it again.” She emoted and said “I love you” three different ways. She was playing with him and thinking about something deeper than messing with him at the same time and he couldn’t keep his eyes off her.

“Well, one was just TV phony, you know.” He thought a few seconds.  “And the other two might both work. It depends on what sort of reception you wanted.”

She looked at him, he thought to gauge his comment for bullshit factor. “How do you mean?” Yep.

“Well, one of them is romantic and the other seemed more substantial. Infatuation, hearts and flowers. The other was like maybe you were sitting on a park bench or the beach somewhere and wanted to let someone know you just got eaten up with the fact that you loved them.”

“So in one it’s partners and in the other it’s sort of one-sided?”

“No. Sort of.” Shit, girl. It’s too early. “Like in one you hope they’re listening and in the other you know they are, so there’s more of you and less Hallmark moment ‘love’ drama getting tossed out to see what comes back.”

“Of course! One is completely fake, we knew that. One is mooshy and one is like, ‘Hey, you. Love ya.’ But which one was which?”

“Does that matter?”

“Of course it does! We play games with each other all the time. And dance, everything really, needs to be authentic. That’s what we worked on last night, where I went that you had to wait before you could…come over.” She seemed to get flustered a little with “come over.” “She talked to us about the need to be authentic last night, so if it’s anger or love or whatever the choreographer wants, it has to be believable, unless it needs to look contrived, and as dancers we need to know the difference. Did you know that most people think the most contrived is the most believable and that the real one isn’t emotional or theatrical enough? That’s pretty bad. So if I danced ‘I love you’ and wanted everyone to get it I’d have to do the fake version. Anyway, that’s what we worked on last night. Before you, and…I have a teapot, or maybe a saucepan and instant coffee, I think. It’s A&P. When I was a little girl in New Orleans they’d grind it at the A&P right on the counter. It smelled so-o good.”

He didn’t think they ground instant coffee at the A&P, and he usually drank a Coke or Pepsi, nuked one of those local apple fried pies at the U-Totem by the video studio where she was temping and he used to work. The same at the Totem in Tulsa, down in the Montrose or Del City. Coke or Pepsi and a fried pie were ubiquitous. You could find all three in places that were hours from an Egg McMuffin. It was a road food breakfast habit he’d developed since his first band guy homelessness years ago.

“Sure,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Coffee is coffee.”

“Me, too.”

He was trying to discern how “Me, too” was an answer or even a response when she hopped off his legs and disappeared through the bedroom door, the loose lavender robe flowing but never getting too loose, the dark waves bouncing on top. Where the hell was he? Her apartment?

***

Yesterday. He’d played a show-and-blow hard hat soundtrack gig at a video studio in southwest Houston. He’d been late, something that never happened. In the parking lot he’d talked to the girl with the Porsche from GDL&W and they’d bitched about VW engines vapor locking in Houston. His van, her Porsche, same engine, same problem. She’d been a daddy’s little rich girl cheerleader in Tulsa, a last stop hippie holdout town they’d joked about, a place he’d escaped from once already. Now the people who had failed him in Houston and run home were trying to suck him back. He’d thought about hitting on Porsche girl a couple of times, she was friendly and receptive enough, but things were never in sync. Nothing was in sync lately.

Commuting between Tulsa, OKC, Pasadena, Montrose and Southwest Houston. Occasional Little Rock and Dallas trips thrown in. Living on couches, floors and in a van just to play music, smoke free pot and be a one man soundtrack machine was getting out of hand. He’d fucking had it with everything but the live soundtrack guy in a van. His old girlfriend quit her job and cancelled the lease on their apartment in Houston without telling him and that had lit the fuse on his “fuck it.” She’d gone back to fucking everyone in Tulsa with a dick and a heartbeat, giving away his shit she’d said he could store in the duplex he wouldn’t move into with her. All because he never said he’d marry her except once when she’d fed him ‘ludes and sexed him to the edge of consciousness. He’d have admitted Disco was his fault that night and he’d told her as much. Then there were the festival stage managers, caterers, dealers. All wanting to hang, talk shit, shoot pool, get high, ask him to improvise his one-man Tangerine Dream shtick or restaurant air cheese new age gig. Or play prog rock for Jesus one night and high heeled guitar band for topless dancers the next. Fuck it. All of it. All of them. Except his bass player. And GDL&W Porsche girl and he didn’t even have time to work that because they’d both vapor locked and were running late. Happy Valentine’s Day! He’d felt the same on New Year’s only now his van would start before it vapor locked. Slush in Pasadena, Texas and a dead van in front of a Jack in the Box for New Year’s Eve. His bass player had told him it had to get better, hang in. Right.

***

She was temping at the front desk when he walked in. Way pretty. Too pretty for this gig. Blue eyes the size of quarters, long, wavy dark hair. A small framed, tan, blue eyed gypsy movie star looking girl in a summery dress. He was toast the second he saw her. His keyboard rig got wheeled in from the van past her desk with a few theatrical bumps with the dolly, and he did the gig. Didn’t hang for touch up or additional drops in the control room. He left his gear set up, waited out his audio to video marriage approval in the guest chair in front of her desk where he pretended to read a leftover newspaper and flirted his ass off. He tried musician, office guy, professional guy, cool guy, nice guy. She wasn’t buying. Plain old conversation that he used as piano bar guy was up next.

He turned a page of the paper he wasn’t reading, shook it. “So you’re new?” Lame, lame, lame.

“Yes. Kind of. I’m a temp.” She kept typing. “I heard about you coming today. You were late. Jan sure seemed glad to see you.”

“Who’s Jan?” Smooth.

“Jan. From GDL&W? The blonde with the black sports car thing? You talked to her in the parking lot?” The parking lot comment came out wrapped in “duh?” and the typing never slowed.

“That’s her name? I call her the GDL&W Porsche girl. We were talking about how her expensive little car sucks as bad as my big cheap one in the heat.” He thought for half a beat, added “My VW van has the same Porsche engine in it as hers. Can you believe that? Like a Porsche van, with the wrong logo.” He wasn’t sure it bought him any cool points but he was clutching at straws. She was way too cute, smart and disinterested.

“Mmm.” She checked a page she was typing from with her finger. “I guess. That’s why you were late? My car overheats sometimes.” She continued to type. He flirted. She answered the phone, got instructions from the regular receptionist and office manager who glared him out like always. He flirted more. He talked about what was in the paper, what she was doing, where she’d gone to college, worked in all the are you married or have a boyfriend questions. She answered no to them all and worked questions of her own along the same lines into those answers, typed like Bach at the harpsichord on crack and didn’t have to look at the Selectric while she did it.

“So a temp, huh? Like Manpower? For girls?” Ouch. “Is that like Girlpower? Or Womanpower?” He followed that with a weak laugh. More ouch.

“No. Lollie Lowe. They’re small and specialized and pay more for college degrees. And they get me better jobs and nicer clients.” She looked at him, never stopped the blaze typing. “Usually.”

He caught that one, grinned in spite of himself. “Where’d you learn to type like that?”

“In high school, first. My mom went to a secretary school in New Orleans, before she and my dad started having babies, and said I should learn. And I worked as a medical transcriptionist for a while. With the Dictaphone things? That’s where I learned to type fast for real.”

“Like typing boot camp? I need to go. I play keyboards and I still can’t type for shit.”

She snarf laughed, caught it with the back of her hand. It was beautiful, though. Just what he needed and it dropped him right back in the toaster.

“Some of that medical stuff was pretty bad.” She made a small yuk face. “I learned to type really fast so I could get through the gross body parts stuff, I think.” She was getting lighter, Valentine’s Day started to look up.

***

 Two weeks later, after making almost daily and nightly phone calls from wherever he was and two one night trips to Houston between rehearsals, gigs and Hotel Oklahoma floor and couch surfing to see her, she stopped him in the little alcove between her bedroom and bathroom. She had mastered the loose, but not loose enough for exposure, unintentionally sexy robe wrap. She was nervous, her hands started talking before she did. When she did start talking she was more serious and worried than he’d ever seen any girl, but she had a rare depth, and her emotions were right on the surface. On top of that she seemed almost apologetic for being about to let go of her real feelings. Again. She let them go whenever she felt them, didn’t sit on them. He always listened, fascinated by her. This was something way more than dance and music and poetry and wine and love making.

“We,” she unfolded her arms, held her hand between them, took a deep breath, sighed big. “We can do this. If you want to.” She looked at him, big blue eyes wide open. “This…us. What we’re doing.”

“Okay.”

She put one hand on his flannel robed upper arm, stared at it while she caressed his arm with her fingertips. “Because of you,” she looked up at him again, nodded towards the bedroom, “and that. I mean really be usIf you want to.”

“Look, I’m not driving ten hours to see you and then turning around just for sex. There’s more going on.” He wanted to say something about how relationships, including a marriage, had always been a dead end pain in the ass, how sex was an equational, simple tap and go most of the time. But that she wasn’t tap and go, or simple, and was the uncommon kind of girl he wouldn’t, or shouldn’t say that to, so he left it.

“Alright. But… ” she was lost in her fingers and his arm again.

“But?”

She squeezed his arm, looked him in the eye, let it out in a rush. “When I want to get married I want to get married, and when I want a baby, I want a baby, okay?” She paused, the worried seriousness ramped up. “Or we can’t…do this.” She looked off toward the bedroom again. “I can’t. Not with you.”

“That’s okay, too.”

For the first time in nearly ten years he put his arms around a female because he meant it. He didn’t try to kiss her, distract her, ignore her, heat her up. He held her. This wasn’t the game he’d been playing since a girl taught him when he was seventeen that really caring was a deep hole of one way stupid in the female culture of opportunistic, reward based convenience. This girl? The looking for herself college graduate video studio temp out of nowhere? He’d never met anyone like her. Passionate, talented, smart, caring, spacey. Sexy, pretty, petite and shit free. With a classical sounding name. Self-admittedly she wasn’t much of a cook or a housekeeper, and her laundry skills were laughable. All of her white undies were light, “Don’t laugh, it works out for ballet tights” pink. She liked real wine better than Mateus, shrimp pizza with Alfredo sauce and veggies, books and dance and classical music. Could play the violin and dance and write, hated nail polish and plants grew when she walked past them. She’d said she loved him. He wasn’t letting her go unless she broke both his arms.

“You have to mean it.” She pushed back, coy, sparkling and ridiculously feminine.

“I do mean it. Pick a day if you want.”

“How about July? The fourteenth?”

“Fine.”

“You mean it? I just made that up, the July thing. We don’t have to use it. Really?”

“Really.”

“Good! Us is us.” She hugged him back before the loose lavender robe and dark, unbrushed morning waves stepped around him, flowed and bounced their way to the kitchen. “Coffee? It’s still instant.”

“Sure.” He followed her, his hands on both sides of the kitchen entry. “I need to go back, get some things. It’ll take me a couple of days. There’s not, um…I don’t have much left. How do you feel about waterbeds?”

“Don’t know. If you like them we can try one, I guess.” She was opening drawers and cabinets and then closing them like the coffee had sneaked off somewhere new since the last time he was there. It might have, the way she used and cleaned a kitchen. “Do you really have one? A waterbed I mean? I’ve never really…” Slam. “That’s okay, the waterbed. You can bring it if you want to. Something new. Have you seen the fucking coffee?” Slam. “No, I guess not, huh.” Slam. “Well, shit.” She stood up, glared tight lipped around the kitchen, landed on him. “Where’d it go?”

“Someplace.” He got a knitted eyebrows look. He was laughing at both of them, not out loud. He’d already seen it. “If I were instant coffee, I’d be on top of the fridge. Don’t ask me how I got there.” He got a quick waist high hug and more of a kiss than he deserved for finding coffee. “Sorry I got all sailor mouth, but some times, you know?”

Yeah, he knew. He’d said “Okay.” To married. To baby. Those hadn’t been on his calendar, but then he didn’t have a calendar. He had a front pocket full of business cards and bits of paper with notes on them. It was her first gift. His was no shit going to be the barely used Mr. Coffee he’d left sitting in his bass player’s girlfriend’s garage.