Things That Never Come
by Dorene O'Brien
My wife makes up stories. She doesn’t lie; she writes fiction, in which lying is not only legal but standard practice. The fact that my wife doesn’t lie outside of her writing, though, hasn’t helped our marriage.
“The sun has set on our time, Bobby,” she looks up, tracing an imaginary sun from its zenith on our stuccoed ceiling to its horizon on the badly scratched Pergo floor. Shelley tends toward the dramatic. It’s New Year's Day, 32 below with the wind chill, the whole Northeastern Seaboard is shut down and she’s talking about the sun.
“Well,” I say, not looking up from the Times I’m holding so tight it vibrates, “a rare snowfall in Mexico just killed millions of Monarch butterflies, so there are worse things.”
Don’t get me wrong; the separation wasn’t my idea and I still love my wife, but I’m reeling over how easy it is for her to leave me and then wax poetic about it. She’s moving in short-term with some guy from her writer’s group I’ve secretly dubbed “Bluto,” someone she went with to a Key West conference on the state of the novel. You may think I’m naïve, but I believe her when she says there’s nothing going on between them. I’ve seen him.
A week after her sunset comment we argue about the credenza; I’m making her take it now so that maybe she’ll contemplate the amount of work involved in leaving me. I carry the computer to her car, and I want to laugh when we slip and slide across the ice and almost drop what we’re loading, but I don’t. Shelley already thinks I’m immature. “Why do you sneak up on people?” she says. “Why do you laugh when someone falls? What are you, twelve?” My standard comeback is “Shelley, Shelley, she’s so smelly.”
“Well, I guess that’s it,” she says as I jam her pillow into the back seat on top of the sari I’d bought her from Target. “I’ll be in touch.”
She looks sad for the first time, and even though deep inside I’m hurt and mad as hell, I say, “Hey, if the Republicans can close up shop to catch up, we can shut down our marriage for a while. This is America.”
She kisses me, deeply, then leaves me standing in the slush with a hard-on as she fishtails out of my life.
I trudge up the stairs and into the house, and the first thing I hear is the familiar click of Faulkner’s nails across the wood floor—I get to keep Faulkner because Bluto is allergic to dogs. Faulkner’s excited because he thinks this is Shelley’s night out to the psychic or to the masseuse or to writer’s group and he’ll get to eat corn chips and watch the news with me on the sofa. What he doesn’t yet know is that from now until possibly eternity he’ll be able to do that every night. At least I have him, and I’m thankful to Shelley for that.
Last year she noticed him lapping filthy water from a ditch in front of a Bronx housing project as she waited out a red light on her way home from a class she taught at the local college. He was a puppy then, his golden coat clean and pure against a backdrop of gray concrete and bleak buildings. As he wagged his tail and barked at the rain, she looked for a collar but couldn’t tell. On impulse she pushed open the passenger door and kissed the air, assuming the dog would stay loyal to some filthy child who undoubtedly abused it. But the most important decisions occur instantly, and Faulkner’s wet face was thrust up against hers before the light changed. She would come back to him, no doubt.
My meeting Shelley was kind of that way. We were in a geology class, where she often stared into space while the professor lectured. When I noticed the bells on her shoes, her Salvation Army coat and her earrings, which were large, plastic globes of the world, I wanted to save her. Actually, I was attracted to her not just because she was pretty and she had the confidence to wear that stuff, but because—and this seems like a terrible thing to admit—she seemed eccentric enough to turn off any competition. I’ve never liked competing for women. Don’t get me wrong, lots of women have said that I’m attractive and I think in the right light I can be pretty funny, but I’m just not interested in vying for the affection of Barbie dolls. Shelley was tall and thin and cute, but she was no Barbie doll. She was as serious as an aneurysm. She aced tests without paying attention in class, haggled with waitresses over the meaning of “well done” and demanded and received free checking at our bank after catching a statement error she was certain was part of a conspiracy to rob us blind. Then, after pulling sheets over the heads of life’s daily crises, she’d stare at the teapot or the window ledge or the pencil in her hand for hours.
I learned through eight years of marriage that her lost look meant she was directing fictional lives in some other dimension. “Check out that hawk!” I once said as we drove up Fifth Avenue toward Manhattan, and she said, “I have to kill Maggie. I have no choice.” All this as if we’d had dinner with this woman the night before.
“How are you going to do it?” I’d asked, just to appear interested.
“I don’t know. How should I?”
“Hmm…Parachute accident. Hannibal Lector. Run-in with a superhero.” I mean, why not when lying’s not only legal but encouraged? Why not shoot the wad?
“What are you, twelve?” she said.
I guess my lack of interest in her writing got her thinking long and hard about our “incompatibilities.” But that’s not exactly right; I was interested in her writing. I guess I wasn’t interested enough. I love her stories about the clown troupe that defects from the Russian circus while on tour in Egypt and the lunatic pool boy who kills his clients, and I told her so. The one about the couple who communicates without talking I just didn’t get, and I told her that too. I was always honest, although I never said things like, “There is a Miltonian quality to the opening scene, like an invocation,” or “The main character is somewhat nebulous; can you justify his pain?” These are the types of things members of her writer’s group scrawled across copies of the stories I read. I just said things like “This is a good story” or “Can you make that car accident more bloody?”
A week after she moves out Shelley calls to ask for a loan; Bluto’s furnace had blown and since his house is so big he needs a big furnace to replace it. “Okay,” I say, figuring that the money is at least one way to keep her connected. She picks up the check that day and hangs around to toss a tennis ball to Faulkner, something she never before allowed in the house. She looks great; her hair is curled into little corkscrews and I can tell by the sculpted curves under her leggings that she’s been putting extra miles on the exercise bike.
“You look terrific,” I say. “Really.”
“So do you,” she touches my face and her hands smell like toasted almonds. “I’m sorry, Bobby,” she says. “I just need some time to figure this out.”
“I understand,” I say, although I don’t.
When she leaves I’m suddenly grateful for this: I have a small house, an inexpensive furnace. “Winter,” I say, “take your best shot.”
In March I start fixing up the house, although my first project is to trim Faulkner’s nails. He whimpers a little, but I calm him with assurances that our newly sanded and stained floor will be enticing to Shelley. I don’t kid myself: I know it’s the mention of her name and not aesthetic promise that comforts him. What comforts me is the hope that Shelley will fall in love with the renovated house, see my effort setting a new precedent in thoughtfulness, and come home. I start in the kitchen, tearing out countertops and cabinets, ripping down paneling and pulling up the indoor/outdoor carpet Shelley particularly hated. “I cook meat loaf on Astroturf,” she’d tell her friends while shooting me an accusatory glare, as if I had something to do with the former owner’s notion of style.
There is wood—oak—under the greasy carpet, and I take this as a good sign. Or at least a money saving one. I buy some varnish and a small sander and finish most of the floor in a couple of days. The corners I have to do by hand, but I just turn on the radio and lose myself in the work. Switzerland was never neutral, I think after the news woman on TJK says Swiss banks are holding money the Nazis stole from the Jews during the Holocaust, and as I yank out a piece of shoe molding I suddenly feel as if the Earth has fallen off its axis and that nothing—my life especially—will ever be right again. I feel sick and dizzy, frustrated and angry all at once, so I swallow it like I always do. But when the newscaster reports that some failed youth leader killed sixteen first graders in Scotland, I kick the open can of varnish across the room, splattering windows, walls, appliances. I’m really sorry now that I did it, but at the time not the threat of all out war, or my imminent execution, or even the thought of Shelley’s return could have stopped me.
It’s several days before I go back into the kitchen, and by then I need a putty knife to scrape the dried varnish off the windows. Textured paint will cover the worm-shaped splotches on the walls, and if Shelley ever pays back the furnace loan I’ll just buy new appliances. In the meantime I pretend that Jackson Pollock has used my kitchen as a canvas. I’ve always liked Jackson Pollock. He was an active artist. He never simply stared into space.
When I finally tell the guys at work about our separation, Sam and Bernie take me to Tallie’s for a few beers.
“Fuck her,” says Sam.
“No,” I say, “it’s not like that. I want her back.”
“In that case,” he says, “I’m sorry.”
We throw some darts, eat burgers dripping grease and play George Thorogood on the jukebox. For the first time since Shelley left my stomach isn’t in knots; I actually feel pretty good and think the night would be perfect if Faulkner were with us. At about one in the morning some college kids enter en masse and swarm the place. The boys sit along the bar downing shots of Jagermeister before commandeering the dart boards while the girls thread their way around the pool tables jiggling to the Macarena.
“Fellas,” says Bernie. “It’s time.”
“That’s what I like about you, Bernie,” says Sam before turning to me. “You know when to quit.”
Sam never liked Shelley. I always thought it was because he couldn’t get a woman like her, but now I’m not so sure. When Shelley and I first met I quit the bowling team to spend more time with her, and since I was the only player without a handicap, Sam was inconsolable. He didn’t speak to me for two weeks, and whenever I needed something from the tool crib he managed at work, he’d turn to anyone standing nearby and say, “Would you trust expensive tools to a traitor?”
“Sam,” I’d say, “they’re not your tools.”
“In that case,” he’d say, “we better keep our records straight.” He then made me fill out equipment request forms in duplicate and offer to page me when the tool I requested came in, even though it was usually sitting on one of the shelves behind him. After ten days of running the tool crib by the book, Sam got tired and returned to his old self. When I approached him one morning as he sat with his chair tipped back, feet propped on the counter, he nodded toward the shelves without turning from his paper and I knew then that things between us would be okay. I wish it were that easy with Shelley.
By the end of March I have the kitchen painted and am growing accustomed to cooking chili on my speckled stove and putting dishes in my spotted dishwasher.
“That’s real nice, Jackson,” I say whenever I notice a new design emerging from the splatters like a Rorschach image. There is a disproportionate unicorn on the dishwasher, a large number 7 on the oven door and, spanning the top of the refrigerator, a cockeyed arrow. And even though I’m actually starting to enjoy my new abstract kitchen art, I know that this is something Shelley will never accept.
I was hoping to renovate one room each month, but at the beginning of April when I tear out the old rust-stained toilet in our bathroom and see the wood rot beneath, I know my schedule’s shot. Sam and Bernie come over to help me pull out the damp wood and put in a new subfloor, and then I install a shiny white aerodynamic Kohler with an oval tank and a chrome handle.
“Well, la-de-da,” says Sam.
“It’s a thing of beauty,” says Bernie, wiping away a fake tear. “May I?”
Sure I’m a little miffed that Bernie uses my new toilet before I do, and I feel oddly territorial, like Faulkner when the Hoffet’s Great Dane leaves a bundle on our front lawn. But in the grand scheme of things I tell myself it’s no big deal. I don’t have to go, anyway. We crack a few beers and turn on the tube while waiting for the pizza, and suddenly Bernie starts choking as he points to the television.
“That son of a bitch,” he yells, the beer gurgling in his throat. “That son of a bitch.”
Staring at us with sunken eyes and disheveled hair, all scruff and attitude, grunge and bones is the deadliest bomber in U.S. history, Ted Kaczynski.
“Seventeen fucking years,” says Bernie, shaking his head sadly, closing his eyes, accepting defeat. “Goddamn, Ted.”
The news anchor says that after a 17-year manhunt, federal agents raided a remote Montana cabin and found the Unabomber right where they’d expected he’d be.
“Then why’d it take them seventeen years?” I ask.
“Because they’re dumb fucks,” says Bernie, who does not so much support the Unabomber as he detests federal agents, who had seized his father’s property in Oregon a decade earlier after he’d refused to pay taxes. “How’d they get you, Ted?” he asks as if the unkempt lunatic is sitting across the room in the sallow flesh.
Sam stares at the TV, nose scrunched as if he smells something foul. “The guy’s a wacko,” he says and Bernie just shakes his head.
The Unabomber makes me think of Shelley, and maybe this is a bad sign, although maybe it’s no sign at all. Everything makes me think of Shelley now that she’s gone. “There’s a thin line between genius and insanity,” she’d said after reading Kaczynski’s anti-technology manifesto in the Times last year, and my look must have had my disregard for Kaczynski and his vigilante brand of justice written all over it. “His mind is amazing,” she said. “Just the way he thinks. If I could capture that in a story—”
“But he’s nuts,” I said. “He kills people.”
She stared at me for a long time, and then spoke slowly, as if to a child. “I’m not justifying what he did, Bobby. I’m saying that the fact that he’s rationalizing what he did is fascinating.”
Shelley read the Unabomber’s newspaper rant countless times: over breakfast, while pedaling the exercise bike, in grocery lines. She highlighted his justifications in yellow, his technical explanations in green, his passages of pure rage in orange. She said she wanted to “become” the Unabomber, to assume his worldview, to write from his perspective. I was relieved that she was never able to do it. But now, staring at him on the television screen, I wonder if the man who for so long was the object of my wife’s attention will resume his role of obsessive importance in her life, will push me even further from her thoughts. I start to think that maybe if I do something desperate, something crazy, she’ll regain interest in me. But when I consider scaling the Empire State Building, or piercing my nose, or slitting my wrists, I realize that I don’t have the stomach for drama.
The next day I simply call her, and she says she’s glad they caught the crazy son of a bitch, that she hopes he gets the chair. Maybe she’s frustrated by her inability to become Kaczynski, or maybe she’s just writing from a law enforcement perspective now.
“So what are you working on?” I ask, hoping my question won’t end in a lengthy discussion about why I’m asking, an accusation that I really don’t care about what she’s writing or, by extension, about her.
“Crystals,” she says, and I wonder if this is chemistry or New Age.
“Huh,” I say, afraid to ask, worried she’ll become annoyed that I don’t somehow already know.
“This crystallographer is at the height of his career,” she says, “and then he gets Alzheimer’s. But he doesn’t know it.”
“How can he not know it?”
“Oh, he has symptoms,” she says. “But he won’t go to the doctor.”
“He’s in denial,” she says. “So when experiments start going haywire he won’t take the blame.”
My heart starts to race; I know I’ve grown sensitive to the word blame, but I say it anyway. “Maybe he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong.”
“Of course he doesn’t,” she says.
There is a painfully long pause. “Sounds complicated,” I say, backing away from the argument waiting to be ignited.
“What’s wrong with complicated?” she asks.
“Nothing. People like complicated stories.”
“What about you, Bobby?” she asks. “Do you like them?”
I understand what she’s driving at, and it irks me. She’s comparing herself to a complicated story and me to a simple reader.
“Well,” I say, “I guess I just don’t think that every story has to be complicated.”
“Even the simplest story is complicated,” she says. “It just doesn’t seem that way.”
I don’t know if she’s speaking literally or hypothetically, about stories in general or about our relationship in particular, but either way I’m in over my head because she seems to have an ax to grind that I don’t.
“Hello?” she says.
“So what do you think?” she asks.
“Maybe I can read it when you’re done.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Why not.” Then she says she has to go, something about a reading at the bookstore. I hang up happy she has ditched the Unabomber but disappointed in the conversation overall, and I start wondering about what I should have said, what magic words will make her want to come home. Then it hits me: her stories.
In the spare bedroom, the one Shelley used as an office, I fish through papers in the plastic milk crates until I find “Freedom in the Shadow of the Pyramid.” I read it several times, trying to come up with some profound insight about it, about why I like the little midget clown Adolpho the best. He’s the ringleader, the one who starts the whole defection business, a brave little guy, and then it occurs to me: Irony. He’s the leader but he’s a midget. After reading a few more of Shelley’s old stories and thinking hard about why I like or don’t like them, what’s interesting or not interesting about them, I realize that I don’t like picking stories apart. I just like reading them, being entertained by funny characters or learning new things that may or may not be true. So I decide to read them without thinking too much about the names of the characters or why a midget is a midget, and I get into them, really get into them, for the first time. Maybe that’s because Shelley’s not looking over my shoulder as I read, asking why I made the face I did, waiting like a collie in front of an empty food dish for my response. I want to call her and tell her how good these stories are, how much more I like them now that I don’t feel pressured to like them, how talented she is. Even without dissecting her stories about a shrinking woman, a talking shark or a group of Martians lost in a Wal-Mart, I can see that Shelley is a damn good storyteller.
Strange people, odd occurrences, drama and romance have always fascinated her. She somehow internalizes that stuff, makes it a part of her so she can spin it into something of her own. Bucky balls, black holes, cults, cannibalism; she chews it up, swallows it, then spits it out in a story. “I can use that,” she said after hearing about a yogi in India who ate an entire car over the course of a year or reading that the king of hearts is the only king on playing cards without a mustache. She took the geology class to fulfill a lab credit, but admitted she would have preferred taking Life in Medieval England or the Psychology of the Upper Class. So maybe I shouldn’t have insisted we see Ransom instead of Jane Eyre, and I understand now that I should have bought her the collector’s edition of Wuthering Heights instead of that sari for her last birthday. I could tell by her expression that she was disappointed.
“Sari,” I said, staring at the scratched floor. “Get it?”
So I know exactly what to do when I see the front page article about the auction later this month—maybe some simulated pearls or a throw pillow, a brooch or a compact carved with Jackie’s initials, something simultaneously romantic and odd. I call and they tell me I don’t stand a chance, that the Sotheby’s regulars are carting the stuff out by the truckload. Would I like to order an auction catalog?
“Yes,” I say. “That would be perfect.”
I spend the next few weeks cutting slabs of green and white ceramic tile to spec for the bathroom floor; I’m already off schedule, so I may as well get fancy with the tile cutter I’m renting at twenty bucks a day. I cut the tiles in half, in quarters, in eighths to create a semicircular mosaic on the floor that fans out from the base of our luminous toilet.
I am grouting the bathroom tiles when the UPS man delivers it, and I stop mid-project to wash my hands and change my clothes so I won’t stain the fat, glossy hardback catalog for which I paid $90 and through which I will look to be sure I didn’t miss a bargain. The catalogue is for Shelley, so I turn the pages gently, trying not to crease them. A tape measure sold for two thousand dollars, and an ugly little stool went for almost 35 grand. The cheapest item in the catalog, a reproduction of an etching of Washington, DC valued at twenty bucks, sold for $2,070.
Sometime in the middle of May I set the final tile into the bathroom floor and that very day dismantle our poster bed so I can begin work on the bedroom. With any luck I’ll have it finished by June 28, Shelley’s birthday. I’ll invite her to dinner, present her with the catalogue and then show her the house, something old, something new, proof that things can change. I run a rented cleaner over the stained peach carpet but it still looks matted and soiled. As I contemplate tearing it up Sam and Bernie stop by—they’ve been coming by every week after bowling since I told them Shelley left—to bug me about subbing on the league. The team’s not doing well. I say I’ll think about it, that I’m pretty busy with the house and all, and they always roll up their sleeves to pitch in. I don’t think they’re as desperate to get me back on the team as they are simply trying to help out the only way they can. I ask them what they think of the carpet and they stare at it for a long time.
Bernie finally shakes his head. “Up she comes,” he says.
“Yep,” says Sam. “Let’s go.”
I flip up a corner of the carpet and there’s cement underneath. “Shit,” I say.
“Forget the carpet,” says Bernie. “This floor’s crying for wood.”
“I can’t,” I say. “Too much.”
“Too much wood?” says Sam.
“Too much money.”
“Yo,” says Bernie. “I’ve got three cases of Uniclic in my basement. The room’s small,” he says, nodding as he does a survey. “Should be enough.”
The next night we kneel on the floor sawing and clicking strips of wood into place while listening to talk radio. Manley Horscht discusses the huge asteroid that just whizzed past the Earth, the national increase in strokes, the eight climbers who died on Everest, the preponderance of sluggish sperm, the Morning After pill.
“Fellas,” says Bernie. “We appear to be in a state of decline.”
Sam, who is sweating profusely on the new wood slats, says, “So all this is for nothin’?” He sweeps his arm across the room, exposing a large half-moon stain on the armpit of his work shirt. “Why bother if we’re gonna get blown to smithereens by an asteroid—”
“Or if we can’t propagate the species long enough to enjoy that ex-cep-tional toilet?” says Bernie.
I don’t tell them what I’m thinking—that Shelley will be back long before the next near miss with an asteroid or before I have a stroke or my sperm start misbehaving.
“Sam,” I say, throwing him a kitchen towel, “wipe that up.”
Ends up I had to buy one more case of the Uniclic. We originally had enough, but with Sam’s measurement errors we ran short. Still, I finish the bedroom two weeks ahead of schedule—a new cherry wood floor, a double coat of canary on the walls and some “Snow” colored pleated shades I bought on sale at Project Patio. And even though I don’t like yellow nearly as much as Shelley does, I have to admit it looks nice. I spend the two weeks planting roses and daffodils—those are the flowers she put in one of her stories—and trimming trees and hedges.
Bluto answers when I call, covers the mouthpiece with his fleshy, gargantuan hand.
“Hey, Shel, it’s for you,” he yells, and I want to slam the phone through the unicorn’s head. I mean, who is he to call her “Shel”?
“Hello,” she says.
In a split second I wonder if I should call her “Shel” to reclaim her or if that would be too obvious, too immature. “Shelley,” I say. “It’s me.”
“Nothing’s wrong. Faulkner’s fine. I’m fine. I was wondering—I’d like to take you to dinner.”
“For your birthday. Just for your birthday.”
There is a long pause. “Okay, Bobby,” she says. “Okay.”
My palms are so sweaty the steering wheel is tacky, and I have to laugh at myself, how pathetic I feel driving to my wife’s house in a suit I haven’t worn since before we were married. Maybe Shelley wants me back and maybe she doesn’t, I think; maybe I want her back because I don’t know what else to want, because I don’t know how to crawl into a new life and start over. Maybe I should be angry about it—the pain, the fear, the humiliation—and I guess I am, but confronting my anger now seems dangerous, so I slam it back into the shadows. When I pull up to Bluto’s she bursts through the front door, and I don’t know if she’s excited to see me or she wants to keep me from going inside. We go to Braddock’s—dark shadows, roving violinists, old women peddling flowers—and we are drinking red wine and eating calamari when I hand her the gift-wrapped catalogue. I know I should wait until after dinner, or at least until after the greasy appetizer, but I can’t. She wipes her fingers daintily and tucks a twisted strand of blond hair behind her ear before smiling.
“I’ll like it,” she says, “no matter what it is.”
Her comment, I know, is meant to be sweet, thoughtful, but it hurts because I now understand that it is a trained response to my gifts, to me in general, one calculated to dispel disappointment. She tears off the shiny gold wrapper after gently removing the four-dollar bow and stares for a long time into the heap of torn, crumpled paper.
“Thanks,” she says, extracting the book from its bed of gift wrap. “Thanks a lot.”
“It’s the auction catalog from the Camelot collection.”
“Ah, yes,” she says, and as she flips the pages she looks confused.
“I thought you could use it in a story. You know, the information.”
“Oh, right,” she says a little too brightly. “I’m sure I can.”
She holds the book for a long time, then places it on the seat next to her before launching into a superficial conversation about our jobs, our friends.
“How are Bernie and Sam?” she asks. “Still bowling?”
“Sure,” I say, “but they’re fighting like hell for last place.”
“I never understood why you quit,” she says. “They needed you.”
I want to point out the irony of her comment, how this should not be lost on a person who spends so much time with thoughts and words. But I don’t. Things are going all right. That’s why I don’t bring up her stories or tell her how talented I think she is. Why enter those stormy seas now?
“I have another surprise,” I say, and as I watch Shelley tilt her thick mane in the dim candlelight, I am happy for the first time in months.
Even though it’s dark when we pull up to the house, Shelley comments on the rose bushes the moment she steps from the car. She likes the slick dining room wood, the pattern in the bathroom tile, the new kitchen floor.
“What’s this?” she asks, running her finger along the caramel-colored splotches on the stove. I know she’s thinking I’m immature, that I made a mess I didn’t bother to clean up, which is true but it isn’t, and I know the wrong answer will corral all her negative thoughts about me into the present moment, will make her remember why she left in the first place.
“It’s art,” I smile, and she says, “Hmm.”
“Here’s the best part,” I say, pulling her toward the bedroom, and I suddenly realize what she may be thinking—that the culmination of her birthday present is sex with me, although I hope she knows me better. I consider telling her to close her eyes but decide that’s too corny; the bedroom should speak for itself. When she approaches the doorway I flip on the light—actually a new dimmer switch—and decide against saying, “Ta-da!” Instead I say nothing, and I avoid eye contact because I don’t want to see the disappointment in her face that I’ve grown so accustomed to.
She just says, “Bobby.”
We make awkward love on the poster bed; I’m trying too hard and Shelley is reserved, or at least I imagine she’s questioning herself every step of the way. The lights are on full tilt, beaming, shining, bouncing off the bright walls and casting my clumsy seduction into a panoramic display. When I ask if I can shut them off she looks hurt, so I tell her that she is very beautiful, that the walls are too bright, that I wanted to buy her a torn stool for her birthday.
“What?” she says, and I go limp and slip out of her.
“I love you, Shelley. That’s all. I want you to come home.”
We disentangle ourselves and slide apart, then stare at the ceiling, our big toes barely touching, neither of us pulling entirely away.
“Either you love someone or you don’t,” I say.
“I love you.”
“Then come back.”
She sighs. “I’m going away for a while, Bobby. I need to think.”
“Haven’t I left you alone? Given you time?”
She doesn’t say anything, and I understand then that the trip is planned, the ticket bought, the deal done.
“With who?” I ask, even though I don’t really want to know.
“No one, Bobby. Just me and my thoughts.”
“Next month. A few weeks, Bobby. Just a few weeks.”
What can I do? At least all hope isn’t lost. “Okay,” I say, trying to poke my index finger vertically through one of her curls. “Okay. Happy birthday.”
Faulkner and I drive Shelley to JFK, and we’re all crying—Faulkner does this howling thing—as I yank her suitcases from the back of the Jeep. I want her to say that there is hope, that she has a good feeling about this, but she doesn’t, and by the way we’re all carrying on I’d have to say that none of us has a good feeling about any of this. Although I know it’s no use, I ask her again to stay, offer to pay for the airline ticket and imagine burning it later after we make passionate love in our bright yellow bedroom. She kisses me, then disappears through the sliding glass doors. Even though we’re parked illegally, Faulkner and I sit in the Jeep and wait until 8:02 when Shelley’s flight to Paris is scheduled for take-off. We watch for the 747, the huge red and white tubular body, the large “TWA” on the tailfin; I just wave at every plane that takes off.
Windows unzipped, the wind crashing in from all sides, we leave the airport and head up Pennsylvania toward Hewlett Bay Park, a can of tennis balls and a six-pack cooler in the back. It’s humid as hell, and Faulkner is panting hard, jumping from the back to the front seat. I know how he feels. We should be tired, drained, and I guess emotionally we are, but my mind is racing, my adrenaline pumping.
A breeze off the Atlantic tempers the heat, and I start thinking we should move from the city to Long Island, buy a piece of junk for cheap and renovate, keep busy. We make good time, probably because it’s a Wednesday night, and within twenty minutes Faulkner is lapping up grounders like a pro. Nothing gets by him—pop flies, liners, curves—until he spots two black Labs fighting over an orange Frisbee, teeth hooked in, heads jerking wildly. He bounds toward them and leaps into the fray, trying to snap onto the Frisbee, but the Labs pull back, struggle away from him. He circles them several times, running frantically, barking and jumping, all hope, all trust, all desire, but the Labs continue to snarl and tug and spin away from him. He finally plops down on the grass and whines. I sit down beside him. I think about Shelley until I’m numb, until the thoughts stop jabbing into my gut, stop coming on like a shock. She’s gone, I think. Right now, this very minute, she’s gone. I put my arm around Faulkner, then I run my fingers through his thick yellow coat, smooth away the pain and the frustration and the disappointment, rub out the hope that makes us wait so patiently for things that never come.