“It’s like a vortex. I’ve been sucked into the B.B. Chow Vortex.”
“How does he make you feel?” Marco says. He’s camped on my loveseat, disemboweling a turkey wrap.
“Great,” I say. “Horny. Desirous. He notices my shoes. He tells me my feet are beautiful. I mean, you’ve seen my feet.”
“The admission of desire always entails a larger wish,” Marco says.
“Who the hell are you, Kung Fu? Quit being so goddamn wise.” He’s right, of course. My body has started yearning dumbly for permanence. My cheeks are hot all the time and I’ve stopped obsessing over the skin around my eyes. I feel like the heroine of one of our features: “How I Fell for the Doc Next Door.” But it’s not just the hormones with B.B. There’s something else at play, the terrifying possibility—after years of betting on dumb sexy long shots of the heart, half-knowing how the ride will end—that I’ve finally found the guy who will love me back. It’s enough to send a rapture down my thighs.
“Don’t tell me how I feel, OK? Tell me what to do.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to be able to trust this guy,” I say quietly.
Marco drops his slice of turkey and looks at me for a long moment. “Maybe you can’t handle this guy because he’s able to take care of you.”
We’ve been together for a month now, and for the first time, on a muggy Friday night, something is wrong. B.B. says the right things, but without conviction. He’s just present enough to avoid a direct confrontation. But the slow poison of distance hangs around us. When we get back to my place, he climbs onto my bed without undressing.
I lie down next to him. “What’s wrong?”
I place my mouth very close to his ear. “Either you talk about what’s going on,” I murmur, “or get the hell out of my bed.”
B.B. takes a deep breath. “There’s this girl,” he says.
“What girl?” The back of my neck bristles.
“Last night,” he says quickly. “At the hospital.” B.B. stares at the ceiling and sighs. “She had what we call craniosynostosis. The sagittal suture fuses too early and the fetal brain distorts the calvarium into an aberrant shape.”
“English,” I say. I’m looking at B.B. in profile, the shallow black well of his eyes, the wet budding of his lips.
“There’s no room for the brain,” he says. “It grows in the wrong direction, you know. But there’s this surgery. To correct the situation.”
“The chief of the unit, you know, he performed the operation. Dr. Balk. He let me assist. It was going fine. You know, they have to cut the cranium and fuse the bone. Then all of sudden her vitals started to drop, you know, the vitals...” His voice does a little choked thing. “The respirator, something, there was something wrong. Balk was busy trying to reshape this girl’s skull, threading the bone mulch. Her skull, you know, she looked great. But her numbers kept dropping. It wasn’t the blood; they gave her another unit of blood. Once the bone is cut, you know, there’s no way to control blood loss through the marrow.”
The smell of B.B. is suddenly overpowering: a rind of surgical soap soured by sweat. In the park across from my place, the skate rats have gathered under the willows to tell lies. I can hear them spitting at one another and laughing. Further north, on Tremont, jazz is reeling out from the cafés.
“She looked fine, you know, but she wasn’t, like, strong enough. It’s what we call operative failure. The heart gives up.” His chest starts to heave and I wrap myself around him; pull his head to my bosom, run my fingers through his thatched hair, in the half-light of my bedroom, this awkward healer of children with his soft soft lashes, his big broken cheeks. “I’m sorry,” he sobs. “I’m so sorry.” And now I can feel myself throwing the last anchor of discretion overboard, giving in to the pleasure of giving in, of tending to his tears, his hurt, his deep want of love.
And it’s more than this, really. I can see now that B.B. is as devastated by this loss as by our ardent duet, that what he’s offering me, what his tears offer, is the deepest measure of love: unfettered access to his emotions.
He moves as if injured the next day, though we manage to have a good time, puttering around in pajamas, watching cooking shows, collecting ourselves for some goofy Sadie Hawkins soiree in Somerville. We take the T over, what the hell, watch dusk firing up the Charles, unfolding hopeful pink panels onto the gray rooftops. B.B. is wearing this suede jacket I bought him, even took the sleeves up an inch with the sewing machine I thought I’d never use again. He looks so adorable that I spend most of the night checking him out from across the room, thinking about his smooth little butt, only half-tuned to the sad angry buzz of gossip that rises from the party with the cigarette smoke.
Later, in the quiet of my bedroom, we make love, and again when the dawn breaks, a languorous morning session. B.B. runs out to get some fresh juice and comes back with flamboyans and snapdragons.
Phil the Publisher comes bouncing into my office in his dreadful linen suit, full of dumb suggestions. He makes authoritative hand gestures while I pretend to jot notes. This is our Monday-morning ritual. He nods at the stack of proofs on my desk. “Did you come in yesterday?”
“No,” I say. “Did you?” What I actually want to say is: “Uh, Phil, why do you smell like pussy? Have you been porking your assistant again?” But the whole situation is just too pathetic.
He finally leaves and I start thumbing through the glossies. What I’m actually doing is trying to remember what it meant to give a shit about all this: the grinning semi-famous with their hairdos and rescuing platitudes, the sweet, standing water of self-help. The phone rings and rings. Marco is out sick.
I finally punch up the line.
“Hey,” B.B. says.
I can hear all the hospital bustle in the background and I picture him cradling the phone in the crook of his neck—his long, smooth neck—and smile. “Hey loverboy.”
“Are you OK?” I say.
B.B. says something, but so softly I can’t quite hear him.
“What is it, honey?”
“I can’t do this,” he says.
“I’m still in love with Dinah,” he says quickly. “It’s not fair for us to spend any more time. Not fair to you.”
“Wait a second,” I say. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m still in love with Dinah.”
B.B. starts crying.
I feel, in my chest, the slapping of wings around a dark emptiness. Then the endorphins come roaring in and my heart does the little two-step into rage. “Why are you telling me this on the phone? Why am I hearing this from a goddamn piece of plastic?”
“I’m sorry,” B.B. sobs.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” I slam the phone down.
The lesser gay underlings, sensing a disturbance in the Boss Force, have clumped outside my office. In Marco’s absence, one of them will soon be nominated to check in on me. I regulate my breathing and call B.B. back. He comes to the phone in tears.
“Stop crying,” I say. “Be a man, for crying out loud. Be a man and tell me how long you’ve known this.”
“A couple of days,” he whispers.
“So you knew on Saturday, when I gave you that jacket? And you knew at the party. And you knew when you fucked me Saturday night, and Sunday morning. And last night. And when you brought me those fucking flowers? You knew. But you didn’t have the guts to tell me, is that your testimony, you little piece of shit?”
B.B. blows his nose. “I was trying to make sure, you know, I wanted you to have a great weekend. I felt I owed you that.”
And here I find myself, in my ripening thirtyish cynicism, newly confounded by the perversity of male logic. Best to dump someone on a high note? Is this the way men think? As if love were a discrete property, something one accrues, like money or promotions? But surely B.B. is empathic enough to recognize I had gone into full meltdown. And this must have made him panic. He’s one of those men who conducts his love life like a catch-and-release program. Though it’s worse than that, actually, because B.B. made me feel safe by showing me his insecurity. While my ex, for instance, played himself in public as a seducer and a tough, then wound up clinging to me for years. Which just goes to show how little women can know of their men—because men know so little of themselves.
Or maybe this is just the line they run. Maybe they know what they’re doing the whole time. They’ll give you an office and a desk and a title. But in the end men win, always, because they can better withstand their own poor behavior.
B.B. is saying something, sniveling about what a fool he is, as if even at this point we might collaborate in a final scene, commemorating his guilt. I want to shout: I was going to teach you how to kiss! You can’t do this! But giving him anything else, a single word, seems absurd.
I call Marco at home and the machine picks up. The glossies are staring at me, tireless and beatific in their gospel of self-improvement, urging me and all the other me’s in the bleary sorority of millennial womanhood to find our G-spots, to insist on equal pay, to revamp the drapes and consider a diaper service, to do anything but succumb to our own truest feelings of rage and inadequacy.
I tromp across the godforsaken Government Plaza, through the fishy stink of Haymarket, and into the North End. I could just barf at the quaintness of it all: the zephyrs of garlic and dusty bricks, the old paisano peddling shaved ice under the weather-stripped cupola. But I need some tea and teary commiseration and I need Marco’s bullshit wisdom and I need a hug.
Marco lives on Salem. But the moment I see the sign for Prince Street I start thinking about Dinah. Dinah who lives on Prince Street. There must be something she possesses that I don’t, some emotional or sexual power, some nonthreatening poise. Something. Because otherwise he would’ve chosen me. And now it occurs to me that I have wound up near Prince Street not entirely by chance, that some darker, unraveled part of me is hoping to find and confront Dinah. So that, rather than hurrying on to Salem—surely the prudent course—I find myself sort of hovering on the corner, though what I’m actually doing (it occurs to me unpleasantly) is skulking, a verb I had hoped to avoid during my brief tenure on Earth.
The old man selling shaved ice smiles at me.
“You want-a eat a good meal?” he says.
“Good-a calamari. Not so greasy.”
“No, thank you. Really.”
He continues to smile at me, suspiciously now, and I flee onto Prince Street and begin checking the numbers on the apartment houses in a very obvious way, then looking down at an invisible slip of paper in my hand, as if I’m part of the census bureau, a special agent sent out to ask the locals random questions, such as Is there a skinny little slut living on the premises who might have stolen my Chinese boyfriend?
I’ve been at this for maybe half an hour when a strange thing happens: a woman strides out of the building across the street with a tiny white dog. She looks just like the photo. Dyed blond hair, leotard top. Her waist is the circumference of a baguette and she has that ducky dancer walk, mons pubis thrust forward, like a pregnant woman minus the child.
I cross the street and walk up to her: “Can I say hello to your dog?” I’m wearing a tailored suit and pumps—an outfit that favors the irrational gesture.
Dinah shrugs. “Sure.”
I bend down. “Hey there. What’s your name?”
“Charmie,” Dinah says.
“Hey there, Charmie.” Then I look up and say, “Hey there, Dinah.”
“He-ey.” Dinah cocks her head. I can see her rifling through her little change purse of a mind, trying to recall how she might know me.
“You don’t know me,” I say. “I’m a friend of Brock Chow’s. He told me you lived around here.”
“Actually. I used to go out with Brock. But he just broke up with me. Just a few minutes ago. He told me he’s still in love with you.”
Dinah takes a half step backward; little tremors of dread vine the skin around her mouth. I keep petting her dog. The fur around its eyes is the color of dried blood. A cumulonimbus has drifted over the spires of downtown, where it hangs like a vast gray anvil. I imagine how this would play in the magazine. “Hex His Ex: How to Confront the Woman Who Stole Your Man!” (Maybe a Photoshop illustration of a voodoo doll in a miniskirt?)
“Do you have a few minutes?” Dinah says. “Like, to talk?”
The moment I step into her apartment, I know I’ve made a mistake. The decor is what Marco would call Early Porno. Popcorn ceilings. A particle-board entertainment center. There’s dust on the sills, crusty dishes in the sink, a to do list yellowing on the fridge. The air smells sharp and rotten, and a dull wet chopping noise comes from down below, a butchering sound.
“Sorry about the smell,” Dinah says. “There’s, like, the landlord put out some of those poison traps. My roommate’s boyfriend said he’d find...whatever it is.”
“You have a roommate?”
“She only spends about half the time here.”
I’m just about to ask Dinah where, precisely, a roommate would stay, when I notice a door located behind the stove.
“Do you want some juice?” Dinah says. “We’ve got some great juice.” She pulls a plastic cup from the cupboard, the kind they give away at baseball games.
“That’s OK,” I say. “I’m actually supposed to be visiting a friend.”
“Yeah,” Dinah says. “Anyway, you know, Brock’s started calling me again.” She gestures, indicating that I should take a seat.
“I sort of figured.”
“You have to understand about Brock. He’s so, like, insecure. He’ll be with one girl, but then he starts thinking about his last girlfriend. It happened to me, too,” she says. “He left me for this girl, Tina.” She touches the sleeve of my blouse and her hand lingers there for a moment, as if what she really wants is to play the material between her fingers. “It’s not even his fault, really. His parents, you know, they put a lot of pressure on him.”
Dinah picks up her dog and traverses the room. She wants me to see how graceful she is, I think. She plops Charmie onto her desk. On the wall behind her is a sampler that reads I’m a dancin’ fool, what’s your excuse?
“And it’s not like I called him back,” she says. “He’s a great guy and all. I think it’s amazing what he does. But I’ve really been trying to do some work on myself, like, interpersonal stuff. And Brock is someone, you know, he can be a little, like, too much.”
The phone rings and we both freeze. “I’m going to let the machine pick that up,” Dinah announces. Charmie starts darting around the desk. The machine clicks on and Dinah’s desperately cheery outgoing message fills the room. Then there’s a long beep and we both stand there not looking at one another.
Whoever it is hangs up.
“How long were you guys involved, anyway?” Dinah says.
She nods and her ponytail bobs. “Were you guys, like, intimate?”
“Listen,” I say. “I should really get going.”
“Yeah, I just wanted, you know.” Dinah makes a little tossing gesture. “Brock is kind of a confused guy. But he’s got a good heart. The work he does, you know, it’s really the work of saints. I remember one time, right before we broke up, he came back from the hospital and he was just, you know, wiped out. Because he’d seen this little girl die during an operation. There was something wrong with her skull.”
The air seems to thicken around me, and I have to lean against the door to support myself. “Do you have a bathroom?” I say.
“That’s the one thing that’s kind of weird about this place,” Dinah says. “The bathroom is actually, like, in the hallway.”
I stumble out the door and into the bathroom and drop to my knees over the bowl, which is stained with what I hope is rust, and my body begins to clench.
Dinah’s outside asking if everything’s OK, do I need anything? “I’m OK. Just girl stuff.”
“Maybe I could get your number,” Dinah says through the door. “In case you want to talk some more.”
“Sure,” I say. “Just give me a minute.” I sag back from the toilet and glance at the milk crate full of magazines under the sink. Right on top is Cher’s face, winched by countless surgeries and beaming from the cover of our Survivor’s issue, alongside Tina Turner and Oprah. Dinah has every issue of Woman’s Work dating back three years. She’s folded down the corners of certain pages. I feel ready to weep.
Down below, on the orange sidewalks, with their steadying smell of baked yeast, I want to feel vindicated, to know that B.B. dumped me for this wreck, that he’s simply one of those men. And I want to feel relief, that he wasn’t in my life long enough to do much damage. I’ve been in far worse entanglements, where the shared data was extensive and the smells haunted my clothing for weeks. Most of all I want to feel my rage again, at the world of men, who never tire of exploiting our ability to care, our hard-wired weakness for weakness.
I know I should toddle off to Marco’s now and have a good cry and listen to his sweet useless pep talk and pretend to make sense of it all. But there’s nothing in me but weariness. I’m weary of moving through life in this way, punished for my capabilities, betrayed by the glib promises of love. I’m weary of managing these disappointments. I’m weary of my body’s gruesome tick. And I’m weary of telling women it can be different.
In this mood of enervation, I wander the docks, the old schooners burdened under ornate masts, the colonial cemetery dressed in gravestones, names and years in elegant rows, and roasted garlic everywhere, everywhere tourists in their pink summer legs and dusk on the bricks, rain gutters fat with pigeons and rooftops sprigged with antennae, the sediments of beauty, I mean, and the widows on their stoops, done with the suffering of men and silent before the soft click of bocce balls. There is so much time in this life for grief. So many men lying in wait. And here, tonight, there is a harvest moon, which hangs so heavily yellow above the sea it might be God, or my heart.
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