She says she doesn't care that it’s the kind of weight where it’s okay to say she wears it well. She smiles, and she’s happy, and she even begrudgingly admits she likes the attention that waiting for the baby to get here brings, but she has absolutely no interest in hearing about how beautiful it makes her. She has decided, without exception, that anything said like that is a lie.
I don’t argue, though I desperately want to. I made a promise to work on that – the needling – a long time ago, and though the feeling has never completely went away, whenever I have felt it coming I have managed to push it down. Mostly. And anyway, I have no problem with accepting responsibility for the state she’s in.
I never expected it. But every time I look at her, I’m proud.
This is not the matter at hand however. We are expected out, with the family, and it is absolutely freezing and of all the things we’d planned for, a maternity winter coat had never crossed our minds. And after it was decided that my coat just would not do, we set to work in the closets, looking through the small cache of rarely worn clothes that people who have cohabited for a couple of months actually have. We come up with only handful scarves, and mittens, lots of used shoes, and coats which fit even worse. She is on the verge of tears, which considering the problem makes me want to laugh, which, in her own words, is not helping, because whether she gets angry or sad, she will still cry.
The solution I come up with is awful – but I sell it as genius, and we stand in front of the bedroom mirror while she twirls like a lantern-shaped ballerina, as I wrap one of her scarves around her middle. She laughs, complains she gets dizzy too easy, and then decides this has been a terrible idea. All I’ve done is make her fatter, she says, but I swear it will work, and fasten the end with a gauze clip and a safety pin.
Doing the latter scares me more than I will admit, as I kneel next to her for only the second time in as many months, and notice how sharp the needle on the pin looks to me. It is the first time I will remember thinking like a father, and I know it is ridiculous. Even if I wanted to – and I don’t – no damage could be done. And then I reel at the very idea of doing her and the baby that sort of harm, even jokingly, and wonder if my own father, so callous, and a flake, ever worried like this over me.
Dad. Thoughts of him do not help in this situation. Proof positive that a little prick can do so much damage.
This has to be wrong, she says, tugging at my handiwork, and almost undoing it in the process. If it’s too tight, it could hurt the baby, and suddenly our hands are tangled up, her trying to unpin herself, with me trying to stop her. Take it off, we’ll check the books, they have to say something about not doing this, about causing a compression, or stunting growth. Did I want that on my conscience – our first baby, a Conehead? Our child will never get that reference.
I laugh, which is, again, the wrong thing to do, so instead I bring up all the other near-misses, her used crib, my wobbly stroller – loving parts of childhood, designated screaming deathtraps today. Remember in college, when I shared the dorm with that sculptor, whose kiln wound up filled with lead paint? And didn’t our parents used to tell us how they’d break open thermometers, and play with the mercury?
One night, I tell her. That’s all, and then we’ll go back to the store, and find her a coat, and a dress, and a sweater, even if we do only have two more months. And she smiles again, and the tears were gone, and says she's supposed to be a feminist, and how dare I try and bribe her with clothes. But didn’t you used to say it was a risk to be stylish? And do you really want the poor girl to be cold?
Girl? She narrows her eyes, and asks what I think I know. And I say nothing, just like I’m supposed to. She turns sideways at the mirror, and tilts her head just so.
Loosen it a little, she says. Then we can go.
I think of all this when she hangs up the phone. I start to cry, and decide it is far too early to let go.
There’s salt in the air, and she says she loves it, that she could never live anywhere she couldn’t smell the ocean. And I know this is a lie and tell her as much, pointing out every time in her life it just wasn’t true.
Fair enough, she says, refusing my bait, and I get even more annoyed as she takes my arm, and lays her head sweetly against my shoulder, in a way I know shouldn’t make me angry. So I bite my tongue, and we walk along the empty coast, the only two people in the entire world, as far we both know.
A few hours later, I’m back in the bar. This beach is a transient spot; “regulars” here are just townies, and those few who stay behind keep everything running in the off-season, after all the tourists have decided to go. When I was younger, I always knew I’d end up in a place like this, one of the summer money pits that my family loved to visit on vacation, which we never got to really see after hours, or in the dark, always cramming so much into each minute of daylight, crashing hard in the hotel as the sun went down. And I always wondered if life continued there, after we left, and what that would be like to see. What was the carnival like, after it’s closed?
She loves it too, but hates my outlook, and doesn’t get why I only like the misery of it all. She said there were sunrises to enjoy, and people to meet, and seafood year round, and wasn’t that enough to make me happy? But I always end up in tourist trap bars, honkytonks that have no reason to call themselves such without a lick of George Jones in the jukebox or a single handle of George Dickel behind the counter. Jimmy Buffet was enough for me, which in the beginning I said about her too, and she would smile, and we’d hold hands as we’d fall asleep. I’d always wake up after she let go, and snake my way out of the bed and back to the bar, where I’d drink until sunset or doze in one of the corner booths.
This was our ritual for a year, but after some time had passed I began to streamline, and just hold her there, until she’d drifted away, and then I escape without sleep. And then more nights went by, and I stopped accompanying her to bed at all, and she cried at first until I reminded her she’d done the same before, when we’d tried before, and the slightest touch, my breath on her neck or kiss on her lips anywhere near the bed would drive her into hysterics. And then I’d have to sit, in the doorway, where she could see me and know it was me, as she composed herself, and repeated, like a mantra, that it was okay. It was just me. It was all going to be okay.
That I wasn’t the one who’d hurt her.
Eventually we stopped trying. She was afraid there would be pain anyway. And she told me this, thinking I would leave. I told her, honestly, that I would never want to cause her pain. That night, we kissed for hours in the living room. Later, I said it was the reason I didn’t mind sleeping there. The couch was fine.
Still, she hated that I went to the bar. In the summer, I could almost understand – the temptation was there, and I would occasionally sit next to a girl with impure thoughts and low alcohol tolerance who seemed so happy to just be studying my eyes while she slurred her words and traced her finger around the base of my thumb. And it could be hard, at times, to say no, and I even ended up once in a bathroom stall, on a particularly hot Sunday in June, with a woman from Boston who said she’d make all my dreams come true. But she’d fallen asleep in my lap before anything could happen, and had lain there so serenely that I thought of the girl who wanted to be mine, but could only hold my hand. So I left my mistake to wake up the next morning, sure she’d spent the night sick in the stall.
After that, I'd only drink alone, which in the winters was easier, but still made her just as mad. She told me, time and again, that I didn’t get it – that I was missing the point. That it was because I didn’t want to be with her. And I would fire back that I did, that it was her who didn’t want to be with me, and this would make her cry, or scream. There was even that night, when I wouldn’t let it go, that she finally broke down and swung at me – nothing serious, just a swiping blow, but with her claws out, and I bled, while she cried. And I held her, hoping this could be the catharsis that she needed, content in being her straw man if it would make it all better again. When we went back to bed, she said it was okay. As I unbuttoned her shirt, I could see her trembling, but she told me not to stop and I told her I didn’t think I could if I wanted.
But she was so tense, and bit her lip, hard, the second blood she’d drawn that night. There was no going on after that. I skipped going out, and later we watched the sun come up. And for the thousandth time she told me she was broken. And again I told her I didn’t care.
I apologize, and turn her down. I want to tell her this when she asks me why.
Sometimes I think the weirdest place I’ve ever had sex is in our own bed.
It was Saturday night and we were already exhausted. You always work from home on Friday, so that makes Thursday movie night, with five or ten of our closest friends, and even though we promised each other to only have alcohol in the house on weekends, someone always brings tequila. And we are all drunk well before Act 3, which is fine for everyone, including you and I, and on what I call ‘good nights’ our friends file out one by one and we end up tangled in each other on the couch, blissful and giggling with eager hands all over each other. Like teenagers. And the couch still feels like its occupied, still smells like our friends, and we both get a thrill, like they never left, like they are watching, approving.
Bad nights are not always really bad. But you say we’re still young and that as long as we know we’re each other’s finish line, there’s nothing wrong with a few pit stops along the way. And I am wrong to be upset with that, as there are nights when I benefit just as much as you, though deep down, I think, I only get the attention I do because you are my girl.
And you laugh at me when I say that – not about you being mine, I think, that perhaps that still turns you on, that it’s why you grip my hand so tightly when it’s more than just you and I in the room – but about you being the reason I’m cool. You say I’m just being kind, when I call you my better, when I say you are out of my league. You say I did just fine before you, and I’d do just fine without, and then usually you kiss me and tell me that I’m lucky I’m doing so much better than fine right now.
It’s a joke, irony, because I know you don’t believe that, even though to me it rings true.
For now, we sleep around, usually with friends which, we both generally agree afterwards, is a very bad idea. And while Thursday was a good night, and we spent the time in the apartment alone, Fridays are always weightier propositions. Often we go out, not always together, you for drinks or dancing, me to see some show, and after we always wind up at whatever same club or party is in vogue. We kid ourselves sometimes, that for fun we should act like strangers in these cases, but neither have that in us. It would be too much like when we fight, at home, when we have to cross each other’s path in the apartment and one of us just looks too cold. The look that makes us feel like breaking sounds; the look that makes us let whatever it was go.
This Friday, it was just a party, with friends, and one of said friend’s apartment. It hardly looked any different from ours. I had got there first, hours earlier, at the request of the band’s lead, who was already falling down drunk. Someone, he said, needed to come and take him home. He had forgotten he had to perform – and so did his “disappointed” audience, all friends, smiling and ribbing him for pulling a Hank Williams, when they all had come to see him play. They had, honestly, only come to drink – and they would keep him drinking, until he felt lucid enough to make up for it all. His first song was, ironically, “The Party’s Over.”
On cue we all laughed, and smiled.
When you arrived, he sat encircled on the couch, strumming early Dylan with me next to him, in case he wanted to leave but fast. And you ran over, so happy to see me, and took my arm as you collapsed on my lap, winking. Best seat in the house, you said, but turned your attention to our washout compatriot, who already held the focus of ever single skirt in the room. But I watched you, watched the way what little light we had streamed it way through your hair, making it shine. You hated it like this, with the “stink of city” [always said with some pride], crimps and curls worn out hours ago after as many hours spent on them, no longer how you liked it, but perfect for how I did. Which you liked, because it meant, you said, when all this was out of our systems, you wouldn’t have to bother with your hair anymore.
So many things like that, you said. We’d make up so much time, because we’d have so much more.
You introduced me to your friend. She was beautiful, this stunning, raven-haired girl, tall and looking vaguely bored with anything other than you or me. She had perched on the other side of my friend on the couch, and you two kept giving each other secret signs, until somehow she had switched places on my lap with you and you with my friend’s guitar. And I remember thinking how innocent it seemed, both of us here, in full view, and there was no guilt, and no one kissed, we just talked, and laughed. Eventually, between the drinks and the girl, you and our virtuoso disappeared.
She was too tall for me, but she sat in my lap like she was comfortable, and through the haze of the alcohol, asked me if I ever held you like this, and I told her that I had. She told me how nice it was, and how lucky she thought you were, and I think she wanted more, but even without the music the room seemed too crowded for me. Even though they were sleeping – it smelled too much like all the people we know. But she was okay with that, so I slept on a couch with this girl. This girl who was just fine.
We slept the next day away, heedless and hung over, and when I woke up my raven-haired affair had already gone, leaving nothing but her phone number tucked gingerly in my waistband. My mind was still struggling with what it was, and how she’d gotten it there without waking me, when you shuffled out, hair a mess, and just a t-shirt on – better than perfect now, the way I really loved your hair, the way I loved to see you period. At least when the t-shirt was mine.
But there is no mention of him this morning. You just slumped down next to me, leaned back your head, and closed your eyes. This time of winter, it was dark already, even though it was hardly five. I nudged you gently with my elbow. It was Saturday night. You shook your head and sighed.
I don’t think I want to do this anymore, you said. You looked at me, and I smiled -- no cue this time. For the first time ever I see a window to suggest, tonight, just tonight, we might stay in. And you don’t say no.
While you’re getting dressed, I pulled out the card in my wallet, for a jeweler’s I’ve visited at least five times before today. The edges of the paper rounded and worn and I wondered if you saw it, if you would laugh. Tell me again it wasn’t time for more time. But maybe today was a sign.
You come back out putting your hair up, dressed in the same clothes as last night but looking like you just bought everything new. You pause, and frown at me – our strummer just invited you out tonight, he’s got another show. We’re young, you say. We have the time. Why not go?
I put away the card, and put the other girl’s number into my phone.
I tell her I think too much about what might have been. She calls it fancy talk for ending up alone.