It is a night like any other, except for the visitation. I put my head on the pillow, ready for bed. My eyes are focused on the night table, on the clock, the lamp, the books, the glass of water. My eyes see the little bit of busy fabric on the pillow. My eyes see the gentle stripes of the quilt.
I smell it.
Just a tiny—just a fragment, a trace, a little ghost trace. It's on my pillow. But—no one smokes here. I haven't smoked for years. No one has visited us. It must be from long ago, from last night, when my lover and I smoked together, after we made love on these sheets, this pillow, from when we were smoking and laughing and drinking seltzer with lemon and eating chocolate—yes, we smoked a cigarette then, after the red; we lit it tenderly, a shared moment of repose, contentment, letting our hearts slow down, become quiet; sweat drying off, blood pumping slower and the quilt pulled up.
But then I don't smell it anymore. Perhaps I can re-animate this—just this one moment. I sit back up. I lie back down. I sniff at the fabric eagerly-—faith, memory, desire—and smell nothing at all.
My husband and his girlfriend, his then girlfriend, bought a blue couch. He tells me they had a fight about couches—he wanted a cheap, expendable one; she wanted one you could plant a garden around. I guess he won, for this couch isn't exactly the cat's pajamas when it comes to couches—though he used to nap on it while watching golf, and he proposed to me on it one Valentine's Day, too. So you could say, in a sense, that it has held up.
I was reading On the Road the day we moved into our new house, the first house I'd ever owned. I had become nervous the day we signed all the papers. I chatted away and it was only later I realized that my blouse had stained armpits, quite stained, and so while I thought I was exhibiting charm and ease, I was an example of fear and stress, then and now. Later, when talking about On the Road to a student who seemed to have some On the Road characteristics himself, I couldn't help myself from saying, "But I still can appreciate some of the qualities of the book, the concept... " I realized then that I was thirty-six years old, with a baby, a husband, a job, and a house, the vast and literal opposite of anything old Jack Kerouac considered worth adoring.
There was a man I knew a long time ago—I think I told you about this—who was cracked and loquacious and charismatic. A few months ago my husband and I were watching a rented movie and the baby was asleep and the phone rang. "Hello?" I said, and he—cracked, loquacious, charismatic—said something back to the effect of "What are you wearing) sweetheart?" or "I still think about you all the time, baby." I hung up. He hadn't identified himself) and though I thought I recognized the voice, I wasn't absolutely sure—actually I did know who it was, my body rang with certainty, but I wasn't absolutely sure he'd call back if I hung up on him. I wasn't absolutely sure I had to follow through with this call. "Crank caller," I said. The phone rang a minute later, and my husband answered, and cracked, loquacious, charismatic asked for me.
I pretended to have hung up by accident, and I felt awkward and falsely nice. He was saying something—a scheme of some kind, what he was doing, still in Nantucket, lost all his belongings, a new philosophy maybe. I couldn't make heads or tails of it, which I enjoyed in a sense, but it also scared me a little. Even though I hadn't had sex with this man for a long time, talking to him on the phone made me feel like I was cheating on my husband, and there my husband was, sitting calmly and unperturbed on our new red chair, watching TV. Our child was upstairs. Then the man said he wanted to tell me something. He had been thinking about me. He remembered how beautiful and amazing I was twenty years ago, and he still loved me.
"Oh, well, thank you," I said.
The wood floors seemed shiny and long, like I could skate on them if I were wearing socks. This was a rented house, but I'd made a commitment. Probably the first commitment I'd ever really made to anyone—or, in any case, one that I had not broken.
In this new house, no one knows my number yet. No old boyfriends, hardly any friends, just my parents, and while my mother has probably already put the number on speed-dial, my father has probably lost it even though I've given it to him three times. When I visited my father last, I had to tell him that his mother had died. He was playing tennis. When we went to the wake, all the cousins had become the aunts and uncles, and the aunts and uncles had become grandparents. I get the sense that charming, loquacious is spinning around in a time warp, on the other side of the continent, but that is surely not the case at all. He must have changed in all this time. When I last saw him, my grandmother had her wits about her, and we still talked, sporadically, on the phone. When I last saw him, my father and I were still at slight odds, and my mother and I hadn't found our disagreement yet.
Now my husband and I are considering—well, more than considering—having a second child. If I use the urine test to monitor my hormone level, or if I put a pillow under my ass and lie still like a feverish waiting person afterward, or if I tell him we've got to make love today, tomorrow, and Thursday, do I change the course of fate?
Does this potential new child live differently than if things were catch as-catch-can, off the cuff?
We have two couches now, my husband and I, but we also have lizards, little golden and black lizards that leap and slither in the corners of our walls and around our houseplants. Last night, making love, he smelled different than he'd ever smelled before.
The table is sticky. "Butcher Block"—a new concept for the era. You need to oil it every couple of months to keep it fresh. There's a fine sediment, a film, that never comes off. If you keep your elbows on it too long you make a slow noise when you tear away.
The clock stares from above the door. It ticks; the refrigerator makes a warm hum. The mother fills the refrigerator and the daughter empties it, basically. The daughter enters the kitchen and, nine times out of ten, opens the refrigerator, looks in, maybe gets something, closes the door, and turns away. It's as if she's checking on incubating eggs. She doesn't have to be hungry.
Out the window in front of the kitchen sink you can see the garden and part of the yard. Sometimes you can see the dog rolling around in the grass, or one of the family cats walking one of the railroad ties that separates the strawberries from the herbs from the cucumbers, or sitting, head bent, waiting to pounce on something.
The kitchen is all orange. It's got brick orange floors and bright bright orange linoleum counters. Everyone in the family knows the map of the cabinets, knows where the raisins are, the teaspoon, the pudding, the matches.
Even when the daughter is relentlessly interested in everything else in the world, the smell of her mother's brown rice or her mother's broccoli or ratatouille or her mother's pesto fills her like no other food, no other smell. Right now there's something boiling, and the daughter is sitting at the table, elbows glued to the wood, and she is staring at the clock aimlessly and telling her mother about the guys he likes, Dan.
The daughter is fifteen and the mother is thirty-seven. The mother loves love stories.
It's a lost, delicious feeling, knowing you have a lot of time. Besides the radical joy of her feelings about Dan, there is the additional joy of telling the story of Dan to another, to her mother, and thus to make it more real... to make it tick like the clock.
Now there is no trace of Dan, but the kitchen remembers the conversation, the color orange, murmurs strong and regular against the clink of the metal bowl and the hush of the tap water and the chop, chop, chop of tomatoes for dinner.
Some days it seems like I have a lot to say, that life holds important and beautiful stories. Other days life isn't shaped like that—into stories and whatnot. Some of those other times I feel, you know, tired, lazy, nothing to say, nothing to do, no interest in anything, irritated with myself for not holding to various standards, not thin enough, don't remember enough dates in history, shouldn't have treated A or B human that way, how will I feel when they are dead, wouldn't it be nice to have a drink right now, maybe a gin and tonic, or maybe a shot of tequila, or maybe a glass of cognac in bed with the long book I'm reading at the moment—the author of which feels life when he writes, or at least it seems that way.
When I see a woman in stretch pants and a push-up bra and lots of eyeliner, I make a vague mental note to dress more like her tomorrow. Tomorrow, I'll put the effort in. So then tomorrow comes and I put on a T-shirt and jeans. (Although I do have these basketball sneakers—they're blue.)
Cocteau says you aren't free until your parents are dead, but I think the main problem is with my name. I've got to start going by Sheehan. Sheehan says you are free even if your parents aren't dead. Sheehan says that green eyeliner and stretchy pants are the thing. And also that you don't need to have eighteen cats, or write naked, or wear all white, to be somebody.
The problem with life is that it isn't over, that's the problem with that story.
What about sounds? I can do sounds. The way I sounded out mag-nif-i-cent when I typed it, or the beeps and wrinkles that count for words from my baby, her voice the sweetest sound I've ever heard. Or the sound of my husband's voice at night, the sound of our voices together, in the dark, murmurs of assent after lovemaking, like two shoppers who've come across a very nice brass lamp, or two giddy senior citizens who've come upon the shrimp bowl at the buffet. I think Rushdie is good, too, and Hemingway. I think writing about sex in general would be fine, and also writing like a fucking maniac, in a cafe. Sheehan writes like a fucking maniac, in a café, sources will murmur quite confidentially.
The friend had done you a favor. The friend had done a generous thing. No one had any money back then. The idea was, maybe the friend would take the boots as payment. They were blue— turquoise, really. The friend tried on the boots in your bedroom. You and the friend were on the skids, man. You and the friend—something bitter to the taste, something poison. The friend sat down and pulled on the boots. They were boots you'd given yourself for your birthday one summer in New Mexico. Whatever, the friend could have them. Maybe it would help. She pulled on one boot then the other then got up and walked around a little, looking down.
"They fit, maybe. Maybe they're a little tight."
"You can have them you want." The friend shrugged. Took them off. Neither of you mentioned them again, the turquoise boots, the transaction, the failed transaction, the thing the boots were payment for, the friendship, the failed friendship, the possibility of change.