Authors: Constance Beresford-Howe
“So you might as well face it, the marriage is over.”
“No, it isn’t, really.”
“Come on, what’s this really –”
“Can’t explain. Just it isn’t over.”
There was no way to explain to Junie or even to myself why and how this was true. But Ross and I both knew that, in spite of everything, some kind of tough, durable bond still linked us – something that had nothing at all to do with love and less with sex. Whatever it was, it made Larine with her long, lank hair and waif’s eyes almost irrelevant. But it was not a situation anybody else could be expected to understand, no matter how often they watched
“Ask me, I’d lock the bastard out next time he comes by,” said Junie.
“You wouldn’t. He washes the floors.”
She shrugged eloquently. And because we were friends of a sort, I tried to think of a change of subject. Among the many things she didn’t believe in was housework in any of its many forms (slavery); so they lived in a morass of discarded copies of
choked ashtrays, more or less empty tin cans, and a series of hamsters that kept disappearing into the walls. Whenever Ross grumbled about my casual housekeeping, I used to point out to him that at least our sink wasn’t full of silverfish, nor did our sofa smell shrilly of pee like June’s.
“Grand or petty larceny,” he sighed, rolling his blue eyes upward. “First- or second-degree murder. You’re the family lawyer, all right.”
“Oh, do stop nagging.”
“Listen, in this kitchen you could do worse than latch onto the old line about ‘cleanliness is next to godliness.’ ”
“Cleanliness is next to goddam self-righteousness, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you. I know better than that.”
I shook my head to scatter this line of thought. “Want some lunch?” asked Junie, and I said “Yes,” though I knew that she didn’t believe in cooking either (waste of time). Lunch would therefore mean a tin of something, and for the kids mugs of coloured water made from crystals called Yum, easier to carry home than a jug of milk. Just the same, it was so beautiful to keep sitting down that none of this seemed to matter very much.
The kids were now fighting over possession of a box of popcorn. Darryl, aged seven, was an easy winner. Clad in a torn, oversized T-shirt that read “Great in Bed,” he had his father’s basketball-shaped head and small, nailhead eyes. Charleen, with a loud, nasal whine, grabbed away Martha’s share, and Martha promptly hit her across the arm with a toy truck. Hugh began to wail because in watching the fray he’d relaxed his clutch on his own popcorn and Violet swiftly gulped it down. The whole scenario was so familiar and so bloody awful it was like an old friend.
I thought of struggling up to interfere, but the effort was too much. I closed my eyes again. Junie, returning with a pot out of which she ladled a mass of gluey pasta into bowls, did not appear to notice the fracas at all. How superb, I thought enviously. How great it must be to rise with such sincere indifference above nearly everything, including your own kids. Once she’d chosen their names, they no longer appeared to involve her at all. And this was probably no more ridiculous than going to the opposite extreme, like me. I was already worried that Martha’s nose might be a shade too long, and that Hugh’s wife wouldn’t understand him.
“What’s your feeling about my hair. Be honest,” Junie asked as I poked at my spaghetti.
“Your hair? Why, it’s great stuff.”
“No, I mean the style. I’m thinking about going short. Eh? What do you think?”
“Sure. Why not.”
“Why don’t you too? That huge braid down your back, Anne, is it ever weird. I mean nobody else … and it’s a gorgeous colour, you know. You could have a perm and –”
Fighting off sleep, I said, “Oh, too much bother. I’m used to it this way.”
“But that’s just it, man. What I mean, maybe we’re both ready for a new self-image. Now this radical Afro’s been out, actually, for ages, right? A real short job you can blow-dry. Like Liza Minnelli? How about it, you and me both.”
“Mm. Might look great.”
“Plus I’m thinking of getting into acupuncture. My back gives me hell these days. This winter’s been such a drag. What do you think?”
“Dunno. Might help.”
“Cagy you. Never say. When were you born? I bet you’re Scorpio.”
I was born when my daughter was. But there was no real point in saying this to June, so I said nothing.
“I’m Pisces, but Clive’s Leo, that’s probably why we’re so maladjusted sexually. I’d like for us to get into bondage, something kinky, you know, just for a change? But he just grunts and says a screw’s a screw, the quicker the better as far as he’s concerned.…”
I shifted my weight to ease a cramp. Once June got started on her sex life, the monologue could run a long course. By rights I should have found the topic quite riveting, now it was a purely theoretical or philosophical one, removed from the arena of the marriage bed for me, perhaps for keeps. Instead, I stifled a great yawn as June droned on about uterine orgasm. Darryl, on the other hand, was listening greedily. Still, it might have been only coincidence that his hand was on his genitals. It was there most of the time anyway.
Idly my mind drifted to Clive, with that chest hair of his, thick as a hearthrug, and his habit of scratching himself through it
with an absent smile. At least
wasn’t coming home to me every evening. Yes, it was quite good therapy to think about Clive.
Snow was still hissing against the windows. June was silent now, sitting hunched over, pushing back the cuticle from her bitten nails. Without wanting to, I said, “You ever sorry you quit at the bank, June? Ever wish you’d never started all this …” and I lifted my chin at the room, the kids. “I mean, for you it was all chosen … not like me, where the whole damn thing just sort of happened.”
“Are you kidding?” The cigarette bobbed between her lips as she lit a match for it. “Smartest thing I ever did was get out of that lousy job. When I think of that bitch of a supervisor pussyfooting around, and all that nitpicking every day about a few lousy cents … oh God, no. What’s a man for if he doesn’t get you out of all that.”
“Well, he gets you into a lot of other stuff, though.”
June shrugged. “What stuff? Couple of kids – six-room house – nothing to it, if you know how to operate. You’re your own boss, that’s the point. Time’s your own. You can, like, get yourself together.…” But her voice petered out, unconvinced. Then she began again, perhaps remembering which of us was the real failure. “Of course, it’s different for you, with your college degree and that. No way, you were out of your mind to bog down with all these kids. And now with Ross … well, I don’t know, but in your shoes I’d dump the whole gang of them on his doorstep, or on your family or somebody, and just take off. Get some really great job.… And get rid of that braid.”
A fleeting memory of chains made me twitch aside the heavy rope of my hair. “Every single, solitary person I know agrees with you, June.” And I began to cry again, the tears running down warm and comforting into my neck. June pushed a Kleenex into my hand, muttering, “You poor kid.” I blew my nose. Hugh headed over to me with his drunken stagger and tried to climb the mound of my belly. He was considerably wetter than I was.
“Right, Junie, we have to go. Ta for the lunch, and the cry. And I honestly think you’d look great in a short hairstyle – shaped into a side flip, you know?”
June’s narrow face at once turned to the hall mirror. She stared at it intently, trying for the how-manyeth time to get her own identity into some kind of permanent focus. I stuffed the kids into their clothes without help; in fact, she was so absorbed she hardly seemed to notice our departure. And as I herded the kids and Violet out of her house and into ours, I felt the usual guilty relief at having escaped from her. Guilty because often, comparing our failures and frustrations, I knew she was my sister, my double.
ome again inside my own walls, I felt a little lighter and brighter, for no good reason at all. After changing Hugh, I plopped him into his crib; then, using rather more muscle, I put Martha down for a nap. There was no point even in thinking about one for myself, much as I craved sleep. At night I could only doze in snatches, what with heartburn, fetal acrobatics, and backache; but all these things had been going on for so long I hardly noticed them now, any more than I missed being able to see my own feet.
Anyhow, at this point even sitting down was out of the question. It was half past one, and there was all the silver yet to clean, the Coalport cups to get down, a cake to make, and the sitting-room to dust before Mother (promptly on the tick of four-thirty) arrived with the goddam marmalade. Having all this to do was useful, though, if only because it annoyed me and pepped up my circulation. Quite possibly Edwina was mustering a little adrenalin of her own for this encounter. Because by this time she almost certainly realized that calling on me amounted to an invasion of alien territory.
As I beat eggs fiercely into the cake batter, I thought about my own first discovery of how militant a house visit can be. It was the night when I first called at that house on Prince John Street where Ross lived with Larine. They shared the place with four or five other people, including a student librarian and a man who made trusses in the basement apartment. I knew all their histories; Ross often discussed their problems at length with me. It was one way of avoiding confrontation with our own. The result was that I knew the Chinese girl’s grades, the truss-maker’s gambling debts, and why the math teacher’s dropout son Jamie was cheerfully earning a living playing the guitar in subway stations. But I’d never met any of them, apart from Larine. For a long time some ridiculous kind of delicacy – or maybe it was simple cowardice – kept me from going there, even when warmly invited. Disturbingly enough, Larine had from the start been as friendly to me as her unfocussed nature would permit; and as for Ross, as soon as he had moved out of our house, he became more affectionate to me than he’d been for a long time. Still, he’d been gone for over a month before I could bring myself to go where the two of them lived.
Presumably by accident, Ross had left behind some legal papers I knew he would need next day in court. And so, carefully allowing myself no time to get agitated about it, I put on my new eyelet cotton and my best white sandals, and installed a sitter for the kids. My current pregnancy didn’t show yet, which helped give me confidence.
“Come in, come in,” said a pretty little Chinese girl in jeans. “I think Ross is in the kitchen.”
From the hallway I glanced into the sitting-room, where Pink Floyd was bursting out of several speakers and a couple danced at opposite ends of the room. A huge dog of no identifiable breed was asleep or dead in the hall, where a long macramé ornament
hung. I stepped over the brute with some difficulty and trepidation.
“It’s okay,” said a voice from the stairs. “He only bites people he knows.” Glancing up, I saw a boy on the landing fingering a guitar – Jamie. Long, curling Jesus hair fanned out on either side of his freckled face, which was dramatized by a strip of beaded leather tied across the forehead. He smiled at me happily.
In the kitchen I found Ross perched on the counter eating a bacon-and-tomato sandwich. He hopped down at once and came over to give me a friendly kiss on the cheek. “Nice of you to drop by,” he said. He’d been urging me to do so for weeks, because that would force me to recognize his new identity. So I smiled at him without warmth and said, “It isn’t a social call. But I knew you’d need this stuff for tomorrow.” And I handed over the papers. The idea had been simply to deliver them and go, after giving an impression of supreme unconcern. But of course with little or no persuasion I accepted a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table to drink it. There, with as much strategic coolness as possible, I assessed enemy movements.
Larine was stirring something highly unsavoury in a pot. She wore no shoes, and a length of frayed clothesline belted her tattered jeans. Through the thin cotton of a very tight T-shirt, the nipples of her tiny breasts stuck out like two mosquito bites. Except for these, she looked like a deprived nine-year-old, which in many respects she was.
“You eaten yet?” Ross asked her.
“No. Later, maybe.” This I found understandable. The kitchen smelled of stale oil and chemicals. Aside from tins of dogfood, there didn’t seem to be anything to eat around anyway.
“Larine’s on a macrobiotic diet,” he told me, “so I eat alone not to gross her out.”
“Do you?” I said unpleasantly. “Should have thought it might work the other way.”
But this only made Larine smile kindly and Ross give me an indulgent pat. To be showered with so much serene goodwill of course infuriated me, and I stood up to go. But just then Larine forked up the contents of her pot, and I saw it was a blouse she was tie-dyeing, which helped to explain if not excuse the smell. “I’ll hang this out and then split,” she said to us. “You guys maybe want to rap.”
I muttered something and she disappeared.
“She’s a good kid,” Ross said fondly.
I looked at him. “Well, the kid part is right on. Most of your chums here come on like maybe eight years old. And I happen to know Larine is twenty-five. I mean, doesn’t it embarrass you to be with them, for God’s sake?”
“No,” he said coldly. The eyelids dropped sulkily over those very blue eyes of his. I had never attacked so directly before. “Sure, it’s easy to be stuffy about people living like this. But get this straight – they’re people with guts. They’re finding their own way. Even the kids. They aren’t afraid to be themselves, not their parents’ puppets. Anyhow, for the first time in my life, just about, I’m easy. They give me space.”
My mouth trembled. I pushed away my cup. The enemy had been located and identified: me. It was time to go, and I went. But on the way out, I noticed a splintered hole in the lower panel of the vestibule door. In spite of all that courage and space, somebody had raised a foot and kicked that hole in who knows what rage of frustration or disillusion. I wondered which one of them it was, and by the time I got home, I felt almost cheerful.