Sunday, February 11, 2007
Let Nothing Disturb You
Here's some Sunday fiction! This story first appeared in Blue Mesa Review.
Let Nothing Disturb You
My husband’s brother has hair like Jesus, and I slept with him three times a week for a year. He was not the most attractive of the two brothers, not by a long shot, but his wife Amanda had left him, and I depressed him into having sex with me one afternoon by telling him that his mother had cut Amanda out of all the family photographs with an exacto knife. I had spent the morning with Joyce while she doctored no less than forty pictures. That afternoon he’d offered me vodka straight while we talked about Amanda, a woman who had insisted that they turn all her stuffed animals to face the wall during sex. After we’d finished, he asked me if I knew that Amanda meant beloved. I refrained from saying that information could be found on any goddamn key chain at Six Flags. He told me that I had the most unusual name, and asked me if I knew what it meant. I said I didn’t know. Because I don’t.
That day marked an anniversary, four years since my mother died. My father died two months after she did. Sometimes I dream that I dive in a lake and collect their body parts, one by one. What more is there to say? Most of the lakes around here are man-made so blaming God is out. I’d had the dream that night so I decided to go to Joyce’s house for the morning to raid her pain pill collection and see if she’d take me to lunch. When I got there, she’d set out her tools for redoing the family pictures, careful as any doctor about to perform surgery. She said, "That bitch doesn’t need to be in the pictures anyway. She’s as good as dead to me."
I couldn’t tell if she was drunk or just in a bad mood. Her husband had a job that kept him away for weeks at a time, and Joyce would wear the same housedress, drinking out of her gas station thermal cup, chain-smoking Virginia Slims. I liked her best during these phases when she didn’t bother hiding her habits. I ate two stale bear claws and excused myself to the restroom to throw up. Joyce keeps her house neat. Even so, I saw vomit stains from my last visit that made me feel queasy. I like things to be clean. After I rinsed out my mouth, I found the Vicodin Joyce had leftover from what she referred to as her female trouble. I didn’t ask her what that trouble might be because she would have told me. I swallowed a pill and took a couple for later, rearranging the remaining ones so that it would look like none were missing. When I rejoined Joyce at the kitchen table, she didn’t ask what took so long. She appeared deep in concentration as she made her cuts, trying to save her son’s arms.
The afternoon I’d slept with my husband’s brother, I got home and showered. I needn’t have bothered. When my husband got home from work, he didn’t have anything to say, so we didn’t go into the bathroom for a conversation. He’d run the shower as he spoke, to make sure no one might be listening to what he had to say except me even though we lived alone. His work as a pharmacist had led to a nasty morphine addiction, a love story that never has a happy ending.
He kissed me on the cheek and dropped a small white bag containing birth control pills on the kitchen table. He turned on the television and told me that work went pretty well considering the spies around and started to watch a rerun of Seinfeld. What he didn’t know is that I’d stopped taking the pills, missing a day or two at first, then not bothering at all, my own weak version of Russian Roulette. I kept the pills tucked in a dresser drawer under some t-shirts, along with my wedding ring which I’d stopped wearing as soon as I could claim that I was too thin and needed it resized. There are so many places to hide things, no matter how small the place you live is.
I sat down on the floor and spread my tarot cards and he gave me a look like I’m the fucked up one, like poor you. I suspected that’s why he married me. I knew that he stole more than morphine from work on a regular basis and with one phone call, our lives would change.
I’d already lost my job at the North Texas Savings and Loan. Many people had been laid off over the past year, and I didn’t envy those who hadn’t. Collecting unemployment had not lost its appeal for me. When I was a bank teller, I saw too many people, had multiple marriage proposals, had people scream and cry and yell at me because they’d overdrawn their meager accounts. One man sent me two Taco Bell burritos through the drive-through tube when I was working the window. He told me that he wanted me to have something to enjoy during my day.
Money makes people crazy. The women I worked with depressed me. They put up pictures of their loved ones, even though we didn’t have anything resembling offices. I never took so much as a coffee cup to work, knowing that the day would come where I would leave, and I didn’t want to gather up all my stuff and see how pathetic it looked in a small cardboard box. The women gossiped with each other, shared secrets, applied each other’s make-up, as if intimacy meant adding color to someone’s eye. When I was at work, it seemed as if the bank and the people in it were all that existed. By the time I’d drive home in the evening, I couldn’t remember any of their names.
That’s not to say that I never felt the bleakness that comes with having empty hours. Days when I was feeling low, I talked to the new priest at Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Father John. Father John is younger than me by two years and wears Doc Martens with his priest collar and soutane. I told him the situation with the brothers. He did not blink when I laid bare the facts in the reconciliation room. It’s nothing like a confessional except for a screen that sits in the middle of the room like a prop for a high school play. Father John said I should be gentle with myself. I suspected this made him different from other priests, but not knowing any, I had no way to tell.
During one of his talks, I realized that all the symptoms I’d been feeling every morning that week meant that I was pregnant. I had no way of knowing who the father might be. All the days had drifted into a fever dream of alcohol and pills and bad dreams that I tried not to remember when I woke up in the morning. Father John gave me a card with St. Theresa, the Little Flower. Sometimes I would read the prayer – Let nothing disturb you. I might, I feared, have that part down.
For my thirtieth birthday, Joyce gave me four halter tops, each a different color, the black one without a back. I’d seen them on young girls at the mall, sexy and trying hard to be. I told her that I thought every woman should get such halters for her thirtieth birthday. She said that I had the figure to wear them, that I might as well flaunt myself before things started to fall. This sounds depressing, but what would have been awful is if she’d done something truly lovely, something that had reminded me of what I’d lost. I did not allow myself to imagine what my parents might have given me. She offered to take me out for a drink. I didn’t know what to say.
She’d rarely done anything that required her to get out of the housedress. I’d been drinking all morning, small capfuls of gin that didn’t seem like a real drink. That morning, I’d bought a kit containing three pregnancy tests. Two were positive and one was still in the wrapper. After the tests, I called a nearby clinic that I had once passed in a strip mall and scheduled an abortion for the end of the week. I printed the consent forms out over the Internet and waited for my day.
I’d read my tarot cards for the year, but I still didn’t know what to expect.
I picked up Joyce in the afternoon, a time I’d often see her son, the one that wasn’t my husband. She’d invited both sons to join us for dinner at Mercado-Juarez, a restaurant on the edge of town known for margaritas the size of small fishbowls. A person could sit for hours in such a place without drawing notice. I noticed Joyce had put on a lot of make-up, that she’d pressed her slacks.
In the car, I turned on the air-conditioner. Despite my skimpy sundress, I felt hot. My breasts hurt. I could not imagine feeling this way for nine months and felt a wave of relief that I wouldn’t.
"I’m cold," she said.
"Should I turn on the heat?" I asked. Sunshine filtered into the car, making it hard to see.
"Try nothing," she said.
I wanted to ask her why she looked so much better than normal, but once she told me that her husband was coming home tonight and would be joining us at the restaurant, I knew.
"I didn’t think to ask you if there was anyone you’d want to invite tonight. I’d be happy to meet your friends."
I shook my head and kept going through a yellow that was turning red. I thought that the only person I’d want to see was Father John, but I’d never seen him in a social situation and it would sound weird to Joyce. And I didn’t really like to think of him outside the confessional. I felt happy there, no matter what, and I didn’t want to ruin it.
After we ordered our drinks, Joyce told me she’d helped my husband pick out a present for me. Dear God. I wondered whose child I was carrying, about how I would never know and that would be one more mystery that my life would not allow me to solve. The waiter came and set our glasses in front of us and asked us who we were waiting for.
"Three more. My husband and sons," Joyce said.
The waiter nodded and left. I traced the salt on my glass.
"That’s a pretty dress. I’d be afraid to do anything in it," Joyce said.
I’d bought it at an antique shop. It had tiny seed pearls sewn all over the top and the bottom was torn silk. I do not think I would have had the nerve to wear it without all those capfuls of gin. I thought about my body, about how it would never be just mine anymore.
By the time the boys got to our table, I’d gone through one big drink. Joyce didn’t lag far behind.
I watched other families and tried to imagine myself as a member of one of them. My gorgeous husband didn’t say a word. I couldn’t tell what might be bothering him. I went through the possibilities. He hated his mother and didn’t want to see her. He didn’t think his father would show up, and he’d be left with Joyce crying and hysterical, pleading with him to take her handgun so she wouldn’t blow her head off, the way she had a few times in the past year. He knew I was sleeping with his brother. He’d lost his job because of the stealing. I wouldn’t even be able to tell him about the abortion. I would have to go it alone, even though the woman on the phone told me I would need someone with me to drive me home. I could call a cab. I ordered another drink.
"Do you need that?" the brother asked. His divorce papers had been finalized yesterday. A large part of our dates consisted of him asking what went wrong. I had nothing to tell him, especially now. His brother and I got married on the 100th anniversary of Wounded Knee. I didn’t plan it that way – we were supposed to get married the day before, but the chapel was booked. For a moment during the service, I was sure that I saw my parents sitting on my side. And then just space, an emptiness where they would have been. A person without a past is dangerous. I do not have to be anything to anyone. And yet there I stood, promising to be everything to one person. For a moment, I might have meant it. Then again, for a moment, it’s easy to mean anything, do anything. Once I slept with a person who pretended to strangle me until I became a corpse.
"Oh, leave her alone. It’s her birthday. That’s why I let her choose the place. You two never want the same thing, so it’s better if you can’t argue," Joyce said.
We ordered after it became clear that nobody was coming to join us. Joyce started to smoke and offered me a cigarette. I took one, even though I never inhale. Cigarettes meant dependency in my husband’s mind. He hated it and didn’t waste any time saying so.
"Those things make you sick," he said. "Mother, I could kill you for giving her one."
"I wish you would. Save me the trouble," Joyce said.
"Not this again," my husband said. He looked around as if help were coming. I wanted to say, don’t bother, it never does.
"I think I see our food," I said. I wanted to get away soon so that I could go to the bathroom. I liked the bathroom, especially since I’d started vomiting without trying to every single morning. It gave me a place to hide, a respite. Everyone in this fucking family would be better off if they only limited their thinking to the next minute and then the next, because that’s all there is. My husband zoned out into the future, his brother stewed in guilt about the past. He threatened to end our affair a couple of days ago, and I said, I guess that means I can confess to your brother?
As much as I hated to admit it, I liked having someone trapped under the harsh glare of the truth. Once a girl in the office had left her husband, who had been dying of cancer at the time. When everyone offered their collective sympathy, she said don’t. She told us, he didn’t die soon enough for me. Don’t be sorry. I did what I wanted to do.
The waiter brought our orders, telling each of us individually that our plates were too hot to touch, not making the assumption that we would learn from anyone else’s instructions. As soon as I ate a few bites, I excused myself. When I came back, I forgot about the plate and burned my finger.
"Let me see," the brother said. "Looks like it’s going to leave a mark."
He plunged my finger into his drink and asked me if it felt better. It did. He picked up the cigarette that I’d been smoking and took a long draw. My husband looked over, and I knew he knew. He slammed his glass down, sloshing margarita everywhere. His eyes darted, liked he’d been caught in a trap and wanted to know who was to blame, the people still at the table or those who’d already had the good sense to never show up in the first place.
"You are truly wretched," my husband said. I couldn’t tell if he was addressing me or his mother.
I’d dropped one of Joyce’s Vicodin into my new margarita and watched it dissolve because I didn’t want to swallow it whole. It looked like an Alka-Seltzer, fizzing away in all that salt and alcohol.
Joyce asked what had happened. She’d been arguing with my husband about how much time his father didn’t spend at home and why that was.
"I didn’t realize how hot the plate was," I said. One of my seed pearls had fallen off my dress into the refried beans as if it were going to take root and grow. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I felt so sad, like sadness might overtake me, and I would not come back from the other side of it. I thought about the baby I would carry for four more days and as sick as it was making me, how I would miss it. Sometimes something you don’t want is better than nothing.
"Honey," Joyce said, as if something sweet would bring me back.
The conversation I had with my husband that night in the bathroom wasn’t really a conversation at all. He asked me what I had intended by sleeping with his brother. I still felt wobbly from all that I had done to myself in my delicate condition. And it occurred to me that I never actually had slept with his brother; our time had been limited to the hours at the end of the afternoon, the period people usually spend killing time at work, the slowest part of the day. There should be a word for that kind of time, all those hours you wish you weren’t where you were. I thought about telling him what I was going to do, about how there was a baby that would not be, that would be a ghost forever, that might haunt me, might give me strength when I didn’t expect it.
But more to my husband’s point, I can’t say that I really meant anything at all. He kept saying, I don’t even know you. Who are you? I had no comfort and no explanations and therefore could offer him none. I thought about all the things I had been, someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s lover, and how none of those definitions would fit anymore. I knew I would never sleep with his brother again. I knew that my marriage, such as it was, was finished. I could have been someone’s mother, but that was not to be. Father John once explained purgatory as a state of waiting, waiting for God to choose you and give you meaning and that’s who I was, a lonely soul praying for the courage to wait for my next life.
On the morning of the abortion, I woke up and dressed in a loose, ugly dress, something I would never wear again. The clinic sat above a nail salon, next to a dentist. The same door led to both places. I could have been having my teeth cleaned.
I expected protesters, but there were none, only a few young girls and their mothers, waiting for the place to open. An Asian couple sat sobbing, leaning on their car for support. When we were all let in, I realized that besides the lone Asian man, this was a place filled with women. I read the framed thank-you notes that lined the walls while I waited for my name to be called. I didn’t worry about anyone else having the same name. My mother had been thinking ahead on that one. Before long, the nurse came to the waiting room door and said, "Quinby," and I rose slowly, like the pregnant woman I was, like the pregnant woman I would soon no longer be.
I had opted to be knocked out for the abortion, even though it cost a little more. When I sat down to fill out the forms, a film played on an endless loop, and I walked in as a woman was saying in a well-modulated voice that you may experience regret and depression after the abortion. Regret and depression were where I lived. I didn’t listen to much as I signed paper after paper without reading a single one. After so many forms and tests, the moment where I was on the table came without warning. The anesthesiologist put the shot in my arm and there was a long moment after I felt the prick of the needle, but before I passed out. The doctor introduced herself and told me that I could change my mind. Instead, I focused on the ceiling where I could see my parents alive again and I smiled because they were back to take care of me and all the pain that came before this moment seemed worth it and this was the last thought that I had before a nurse said my name, telling me that it was all over, that I would be ready to go when I felt strong enough to stand, something that might take a little time.
The clock read noon. My husband would be home in five hours, but I could page him at work. Some of the girls around me were moaning, one vomiting into a miniature trashcan. I felt more awake than I had been in weeks, as if I’d gotten off some horrible ride that I hadn’t realized was going to last so long. Before the abortion, I thought I would be able to pretend it had never happened, but I couldn’t muster up the energy for that kind of deception. My husband would find out, and I would not care. In some way he felt more dead to me than my parents, and all the hope and damage that I could inflict upon him would never bring him back. When I called him to come pick me up, I could only think of Daddy-Long-Legs, the most venomous of all the spiders. Nobody fears them because their mouths are too small to release any of that potential no matter what their intentions are. Depending on your mood, you let them crawl all over you, set them gently outside, or you pull them apart, leg by leg, until nothing remains.
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