Thursday, November 08, 2007

Ways Of Pulling A Person Out Of The Water

This story first appeared in Other Voices. Thanks for reading! I'll post the second part tomorrow.

Ways of Pulling A Person Out of the Water

If you asked Elana, and you wouldn't because you don't know her yet, this is how she would describe herself: she's money before you spend it, all possibility and no commitment. She's working hard not to reveal anything. Right now, she's Pledging her table until it gleams. This activity has been predicated by a man, of course, one Greg Rivers, whom she met in the usual way, through a co-worker. She wants everything to be perfect because that's how she is. You'll see that as we go on. Greg and Elana have gone out for two months. No sex yet and that's what tonight's about. It's been since her last boyfriend Kenneth, since she was thirty-four, that she has had to think about this type of situation. Three birthdays later, not much has changed and yet everything is different. Elana wants Greg because he's a grown-up, someone as distant and constant as the signal that radiates from the talk radio station where he's the program director.

Elana puts down the Pledge and feeds her fish. They are evil little beasts, besieged by fish diseases like ick and fin rot. Many fish have died, and Elana finds herself at the pet store frequently attempting to find something that will purify the water. The guy at the store talks to her carefully about "the perfect fish environment." She likes that he isn't cynical about perfection, that he has chemicals that measure the gradations. The fish store she used to go to was run by someone who wore a dead scorpion encased in clear cast on his little finger. Black magic, he told her. Mr. Scorpion Ring used to say that a certain amount of bacteria provided the fish with protection and health and he didn't sell things that "clouded up the water." She didn't like the idea of all the germs that seemingly clear water contained, healthy or not, so now she goes to the other store, the one that was in the middle instead of on the edge of town.

Leaving the Lexus dealership early, five o'clock found her in line at the Greek Garden Restaurant waiting for dinner for two. She paid for it, got home, changed into running shorts, and put the food into ivory dishes, throwing the Styrofoam containers in the outside trashcan. Elana jogged by the store after work, a little before six o'clock, moving quickly through her usual five miles. The twilight made the streets beautiful. It was April, not hot enough to be unbearable, just warm enough to remember childhood summers and feel sad. When she got home, she stripped off her clothes, showered, threw on a robe, and started to clean.

So far, the house isn't completely spotless, but she opts for getting dressed so if he's early, she's ready. Presently, her back is sore from high heels and her shoulders ache. She's spilled candle wax all over the carpet, mangled the vacuum cord. Now, she's on her knees in party clothes, cutting off carpet with a huge pair of scissors, leaving a bald spot, the wax clinging to the fibers.
The doorbell rings and she panics. Could it be Greg? He isn't supposed to be here until seven. She puts down the scissors, throws the vacuum cleaner in the closet, and runs her fingers through her hair before answering the door. It's only her neighbor asking to borrow milk. She breathes again: so do we. We know she's not ready. Elana doesn't have any milk, although she wishes she did. She feels a little pathological not having anything normal in her house. Maybe the neighbor will assume she's lactose-intolerant. An incorrect assumption, but a fashionable one. Elana begins to feel bad because she thought she had remembered all the main breakfast foods for Greg. She had cereal without milk, bread without butter or jelly, and a bag of various fruits.

"So you're expecting company," the neighbor says, scanning the newly cleaned carpet, the lit candles.

"Someone new," Elana says.

"That must be nice. I can't remember the last time I cleaned up for a dinner. Romantic."

The neighbor moves over to the aquarium and looks inside. Elana's brightly colored fish move steadily back and forth in their tank, baring their little teeth for all to see.

"Nerve-wracking is more like it." Elana needs to get moving.

"How did you meet?"

"A friend of mine at work set us up." The neighbor nods. Roger, Elana's co-worker, said, "He thought you were about twenty-five from across the lot. He wants to meet you." Roger is currently on his third wife and never ceases to believe in set-ups, meetings, true love. Roger ages well, too well (hence the constant flux of women, progressively younger), and teases Elana about settling down from what he imagines is her wild life, the life of a beautiful single blonde, something so foreign and distant that she has to laugh with him. A role to slip into when Roger's around, it's easier than reality.

Elana had been showing a Lexus when Greg saw her, something she hardly does anymore since she was promoted last year. She had started selling cars sixteen years ago and she is the only woman who stuck it out for more than five in her dealership. Somehow this persistence matters, but not as much as she had thought it would.

"Well, I better get back. I'm sure the kids have torn the house apart," the neighbor says, taking her empty cup with her.

Now she has exactly thirty minutes to transform herself. She combs her hair, brushes and flosses her teeth. Her blouse doesn't seem to match the skirt, so she unbuttons and hangs the blouse on the towel rack. The phone rings. She doesn't want to answer it, but it might be Greg. She runs half-dressed into her bedroom and picks up the phone. It's MCI wanting her to enroll in Friends and Family. She hangs up in the middle of Mr. MCI's spiel, right before he tells her how to join the calling circle. She runs into the closet and finds a new shirt, finishes her make-up, puts everything in the cabinet. The cabinet contains boxes and boxes of laxatives, over-the-counter speed, her special toothbrush that she uses to throw up with, bristles stained with blood from scratching her throat. She uses the make-up to hide that stuff, squishes it down into her cabinet so Greg won't notice if he goes looking for something.

Finally, she has a minute to relax and flips open a magazine. A big, full-color picture of Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith kissing stares out from the inside of the magazine covers. There's something kind of pathetic about Melanie Griffith, and Elana can't stand it when she sees pictures of her kissing Antonio. It's like looking at an accident, not entirely without its pleasures, but you don't feel very good about yourself afterward. Once, Roger made the mistake of comparing Elana's hair with Melanie's, and she changed it. She remembers reading an article in Ladies Home Journal right after Melanie left Don for all his drinking and Melanie said that she was trying to be happy and that she could sleep without tranquilizers or someone there. Big deal, Elana thought, who, as we know, had been sleeping alone for years without so much as a cup of hot chocolate. But she was sort of proud of Melanie, the way she was trying to bear up to the reality of her life after Don. But now, Melanie's losing her shape, transforming into something that seems altogether desperate.

Elana turns on the television and finds "Wheel of Fortune." The theme music is so oppressive that she feels that she has no choice but to switch it off. Even though she hasn't in years, she wants to smoke.

Here's a story Elana remembers when her mind wanders away from counting the minutes until Greg shows. It's kind of gross, and like Elana, you'll probably wish you never heard it. Imagine this scene. Just after dinner, twilight. Two brothers are fighting in a barn, somewhere like Iowa, the Midwest. One of the brothers takes a shotgun and blows a hole into his brother's stomach. Undigested corn spills out along with some of his other vital organs. He dies before the police come.

Elana waits and waits and waits for Greg, growing more agitated with each turn of the clock. The only sounds in the house come from the aquarium, the sounds of the filters, the air pumps. He's late and there's nothing she can do but sit and wait.

When Elana turned twenty-nine, her mother died. It was expected -- Elana had taken care of her since she was fifteen and the mother's arthritis had become an increasing difficulty, a problem. Elana stayed home from college, helped her get dressed, eventually made enough money to support them both well. Her mother was kind, well-meaning. She asked Elana about boys, about going out. Elana didn't want to do anything more serious than the dinner, movie, occasional sex dates. She didn't want to get into a serious relationship when she already knew the dimensions of this relationship, the one with her mother. When her mother died, she forgot about those dimensions. The plants died. The house fell apart. Finally, Elana met Kenneth.
Kenneth had left his wife and daughter. Elana didn't care. She was tired of caring, tired of being responsible. When she did her make-up for the funeral, she noticed tiny lines by the corners of her eyes. At that moment in the mirror, she saw an old Elana, an Elana who dreaded birthdays, an Elana who would die. Kenneth took her mind off this, treated her with a kindness that clung to her, infected her daily life. Three years later she found herself in a canoe on a lake in the middle of March with him.

Kenneth couldn't swim very well, didn't like the water. Elana was rocking the canoe, no life jacket, no worries. Kenneth's teeth chattered from the cold air, from the rocking. Finally, they took off from the dock and made it almost across the lake when Kenneth started rowing toward shore.

"Don't go by that brush. Snakes are in there," Elana said.

"Too cold for snakes," Kenneth said and kept rowing.

Elana didn't answer. She just put her oars in the water and started paddling the other way. Her motion against Greg's steady paddling made the canoe start to rock.
Instead of stopping, she leaned her weight into the side of the canoe and continued pushing her oars into the water.

After the canoe capsized, Elana realized how cold the water was and how dangerous it was to be in the lake this time of year. If they had been further out, both of them might have drowned or become hypothermic. Even with the shore as close as it was, Elana felt exhausted and cold. Time seemed to stop while she watched the canoe float away. Kenneth started to scream, barely treading water.

"Conserve your energy," Elana yelled. Elana took off her jacket and threw it out to him. "Take hold of my jacket. I'll pull you in."

Kenneth grabbed a hold of a sleeve and Elana sidestroked with the other sleeve to the shore.
She finally hit a rock and managed to drag Kenneth onto it.

"Why didn't you come get me?"

"There's lots of ways of pulling a person out of the water," Elana said, lying on the rock, trying to breathe.

"Why did you do that?" Kenneth asked.

"Because I asked you not to do something, and you did it anyway."

"There can't be any snakes. It's too fucking cold."

"That doesn't matter. What matters is that I have to explain every fucking thing about twenty hundred times. What matters is that I shouldn't have to explain anything. I want what I want. If I want to fucking starve myself to death, I'll fucking starve myself to death and you won't say a word. You know why? Because you'll be gone. Go back to your wife and kid. Just leave me alone," Elana said. For the first time since her mother died, Elana felt like going home and reorganizing and restructuring her entire life. For the first time, she realized it could be her life, just the way she wanted it. It was on that rock that Elana vowed never to put herself out again. What people can't see, they can't pick apart.

Michelle's Spell of the Day
"You must understand, I don't have to be happy to be happy."Juliette Binoche

Cocktail Hour
Drinking music suggestion: Bringing Down The Horse The Wallflowers

Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Thursday! Dear everyone, I am horribly behind on my e-mail, but plan to get caught up on Saturday. Thanks for all the kind words!


Charles Gramlich said...

I like the line "pledging her table." The guy at the pet store is also interesting. I'm looking forward to the conclusion and enjoyed this segment. I thought for a moment she was going to drown Kenneth deliberately.

Scarlett Johansson said...

Hugh Jackman thought he had me in our little canoe incident in "Scoop." But it just so happens that I was a swimming champion in high school! Ha! Love your blog!

Brian in Mpls said...

Unless you are me and you try to pick apart everything anyway

the walking man said...

Very good the way everything is detailed and ordered so you can really be in Elana's head looking though her eyes at the world and see her sadness while still struggling for some sort of fulfillment. I like it very much



Paul said...