My lover and I had a fight. So I took him to the end of the Santa Monica pier and tossed him over the side. He fluttered like a seagull's feather down to the water and floated on the oily surface a moment with the cigarette butts and bits of ice cream wrapper. His edges began to curl, and as he sank a minnow nibbled at the strong line of his jaw. His eyes were dark smudges and disappeared last. I'll say one thing for him: he never stopped smiling.
A fisherman watched the whole thing without a word. There were always lots of them on the pier at that time of morning, older men mostly, a few derelicts trying to catch a meal, a few teenaged Chicanos. This one was unexceptional, unshaven, melancholic. He had several flat silver fish in his bucket that eyed me, hoping I'd toss them over the side too. The fisherman eyed me as well, while I kept my own eyes on the gray line of the horizon and imagined Japan. It was foggy that morning; Catalina was a strain to see, a hump of darker gray a long way off like the back of a whale. Who did I think I was, imagining Japan? I remember thinking what a pleasantly distant place it was.
The fisherman hadn't had a bite in some time. He looked friendly; there wasn't any point in not speaking. Our silence seemed awkward after what he'd just seen me do.
"How's the fishing?" I asked.
He looked at the bucket, then at me. The silver fish jostled each other in the water and gasped at the surface.
"Not bad," he said. He directed his attention back to his line, but I had already seen his dark, serious eyes. "Getting a little late for 'em to bite now," he added.
"You come here much?"
I waited, but he didn't elaborate. In that respect he was very different from the lover I'd just thrown off the pier. Eddie would never give me a short answer to any question, hardly ever gave me a straight answer, for that matter, and so he was never satisfied with a short, straight answer from me. He always thought I was hiding something. But then, Eddie was the nervous type, and he thought talking things out relaxed him. I never saw it work. It always seemed to me that his talking just wound him tighter. He was afraid, he'd say, of his terrible temper, and that I should watch out. "One of these days," he'd tell me, looking mean, "I'm going to lose it and kill somebody."
This seemed to be a point of pride with him--his terrible temper--and it didn't take me long to find out that even mildly furious, he was not to be tampered with. The more he'd talk the louder he'd get and the veins would stand out on his neck and my own neck muscles would begin to knot and kink in a kind of cave woman terror. But he constantly promised he'd never hurt me. He loved me too much.
So calming him down became a game, and my reasonableness was my own point of pride. I thought I could talk Eddie into or out of anything by way of superior cool. But the day I got rid of him in the Santa Monica surf was the day after I lost control of the situation and he finally took a swing at me.
The fisherman's line jumped and he tightened his grip on the rod and began to reel it in, while a few of the other fishermen along the rail looked over at the whizzing sound. I watched as the fish slid out of the water, bucking and fighting, but the hook was in.
The fisherman plopped it into the bucket with the others. "Rock bass," he said, pleased. "Good eating."
He held the fish firmly and slipped the hook out of its jaw. His hands were rough-looking, weathered, but he handled the fish with a gentle respectfulness, like he would rather have thrown it back.
"You doing anything right now? I mean, besides fishing?"
He looked at me full on at that, like he understood what I was getting at better than I did.
"Well, I've fished my limit with this one," he said. "Can I offer you lunch?"
That was how it happened that when I took Eddie to the pier I ended up going home with Dave, who impressed me with his brevity and who I think was impressed by my black eye. He took me to a roachy little single out toward Venice in a faded yellow Malibu, and turned out to be a Vietnam vet who lived on fishing and food stamps and hadn't kept a job since he'd come back in 1971.
"Why's that?" I asked.
He never mentioned the war again after that.
Dave's clothes and hands smelled faintly of fish and his beard and hair were long and raggedy and not exactly clean. But the most unlikely people can be good in bed and I guess that was what I needed at the time, a good fuck, as they say. Which I hadn't gotten from Eddie in a while, with my nerves so shot all the time so that I'd given up coming ever again, even by myself.
But as I said, he was very different from Eddie. He made love as if I were the focus of everything at that moment, like he hadn't a thing better to do or think about. To Eddie I always seemed to be something other than myself, Barbara as a metaphor. For what? That I could never figure out. I guess in the advertising business everybody gets that way to you after a while, a symbol for some concept, some product. I don't think Dave could afford that; and so the shitty way he lived, the roaches and the mattress on the floor and the loneliness, the cold mornings I could imagine down at the end of the pier, all seemed to take on a clarity, a kind of hard edge that he somehow created. He made the whole two years I'd just spent with Eddie like a dream, or worse.
But all he really did was touch me right. It was no big deal. And afterward he fell asleep and began to snore. I decided the beard disguised a set of kind features; he had a nice mouth, to match the eyes.
I smoked a cigarette and leafed through a porno magazine from a pile by the bed. It wasn't anything unusual--just a lot of people fucking and girls together and the usual beaver shots--nothing really sadistic, I mean, which confirmed the generally comfortable feelings I'd gotten about him from that first dark look on the pier. He wasn't any weirder than some guy who used a good deodorant and kept the Esquire on the coffee table and the Screw under the mattress, for instance.
The pictures and the Letter-to-the-Editor got me a little excited again, and I was half tempted to take care of it myself. But when I peeked over the edge of the magazine to check on him he was watching me, and I realized he'd been staring for some time. I made it look like I'd been scratching my thigh. Fleas too, no doubt, to go with the roaches.
"You like that stuff?" he asked.
I shrugged. "The letters are interesting."
His question made me nervous, and I felt all the self-consciousness, and even fear coming back. I started thinking, my God, Barbara, you are weird, you've walked right into the Twilight Zone and he's going to flip out now and slit your throat--
"Your boyfriend give you that?" He indicated my eye.
"I don't have a boyfriend. I fell--"
"You should be more careful."
I started gathering up my clothes, throwing things on. "I have to go."
"I promised you lunch--I wish you'd stay."
Sitting cross-legged on the bed he looked like some bearded Buddha. And then he pulled me down to him, smiling because he knew what a liar I was, and undressed me again and next thing I know this guy's got his beard in my bush.
Traffic was bad on the San Diego freeway heading into the Valley, so it was nearly six by the time I got home. It was actually Eddie's place; he insisted on paying all the bills. I'd been there an hour or so, walking around with a headache--I guess from the eye--making mental notes as to what was his and what was mine (the stereo, the TV, the video recorder--his; the water bed, the books, half the record collection--mine), when the phone rang.
"Barbara? Where the hell have you been? I've been trying to reach you all day. Are you all right? Oh baby, I'm so sorry--"
Apparently, he'd washed ashore.
"I was out," I said. My pulse thumped in my hand as I held the phone. I was sure he could hear it.
"You've got Larry worried sick. He's been trying to call, too. He thought you were in an accident, but I told him you were just a little upset about something and went to your mother's for a couple of days."
Larry was smart and I'd told him enough that a story like that would worry him more than my not calling in.
"He believed you?"
"Of course he did. Listen Barb, honey, I need you. Maybe you don't know that, but you had me worried too--you run off like this and nobody can find you--"
"You hit me."
"I know. And I'm so sorry. I was crazy, you know? I just wish to God you wouldn't say things like that. But listen--I can't get anything done here, I just keep thinking what a creep I was last night. Why don't you just stay put, and I'll bring home a nice bottle of champagne."
His voice was like honey, sticking to me all over. I could hear the bees coming, buzzing through my head, attracted by the sweet smell of love and pain and the blood swelling in the soft tissues around my eye--
Click. I hung up. The buzzing stopped and in the abrupt silence of his big empty house, I just felt the headache beating away at my temples.
It was a simple solution, but a stupid idea. He would, of course, come straight over from the office. I started to get the shakes then so I got myself a shot of bourbon and called the police. I told them I was at a friend's house and a neighbor had called to tell me a strange man was prowling around my house and would they please check it out as I'd already been burglarized a couple of times, thank you very much. No problem, they said. Then I hightailed it over to Jean's. Oh, I was pure cave woman cunning now.
In the car, though, I started to feel bad. After all, it had been my own lack of cunning that had gotten me punched in the first place. He had sounded so sorry. In the rear-view mirror I saw how sorry he'd be if he saw me.
It had started months before, when I finished a couple of office skills classes and quit waitressing for a posh secretarial job in Century City. I had to work late a lot, and even though I'd come in bitchy and beat from the long hours, it seemed that Eddie got his rocks off getting furious about it, getting himself crazy and jealous on these office party fantasies of what I did all day at work with my boss Larry, who had a lot of class and was probably gay anyhow. Usually I'd end up petting Eddie and playing with him and apologizing for myself, and I'd fix his favorite dinner and lots of times end up making love to him just to get him out of his sulk.
But that night I was especially tired and suddenly sick of the game. That time I got mad. And I picked the moment to tell him I'd be home a helluva lot sooner if I had a goddam human being to come home to instead of a--well, I never finished the thought. I left a lot of thoughts unfinished when I was with him, though most of the time I had the sense not to start them. I guess I meant to say that he didn't seem human anymore when he treated me like that. His eyes--they'd get wild looking, scary, with the white showing all around his china-blue irises like he was a rabid blue-eyed animal.
So that time he hit me, he really did. I probably could have kept it from happening by keeping my mouth shut. I'd done that often enough before. Maybe I trusted him too much, thinking his temper was just a story to keep me in line, his rages just harmless, even therapeutic tantrums that would never touch me. Not physically. Even if I was a little nervous sometimes, I was at least safe. That's what I thought anyway.
I'd never been hit by a man before, not even by my father. I had always thought my girlfriends whose lovers beat them up were stupid, or liked it that way. But this was me, not one of my friends, and I just couldn't get past the fact that Eddie had hit me. I just kept seeing his fist coming at me (though it had happened so fast I couldn't have seen it), and the thud when it hit I just kept hearing like a sickening echo in my head. He really knew how to shut me up.
I was parking the car when I remembered, hazily, like an old dream, how Eddie had kissed me after we'd made love just a few nights before. He'd touched my cheek with his fingertips like a blind man reading, and then he'd kissed my eyelids so gently! He could be that way sometimes. I remembered being sure then that he loved me, that I could make him feel gentle and loving, that the violence was the necessary flip side to his sweetness.
By then I must've looked pretty thrashed, because when Jean opened the door she said, "Barbara! My God--what happened?"
I had meant to make one of my typical jokes. But the shock on her face, the sudden rushing facts of the situation--that I was on my best friend's doorstop afraid to sleep in my own home, afraid of my lover of the last two years--killed the joke right there. Click. My sense of humor done in.
"Jean, he hit me." Then I fell apart.
She was great. She just stood there in the front hall holding me and patting my back like I was a little kid. But then, we'd been best friends since grade school and had been together through all kinds of shit, mainly in connection with men. We were always hung up on them and dealing with each other's sob stories. One time Jean fell for a history teacher in high school and he turned out to be the kind who can't resist an adoring student. But then, of course, he wised up and dropped her when things got messy. Jean wouldn't eat for days, and so finally I brought over a Tommie's burger--her favorite--and tried to make her eat it. We ended up with chili and the works all over our faces and laughing like madwomen. And then I got involved with a customer from the restaurant where I worked who was always having me meet him at crappy little motels in Inglewood or Hawthorne. I liked him so much it took me forever to realize he was married. Jean tried the Tommie's burger trick, but it didn't work. I threw it at her. The stain is still on the wall. But she understood--hollered at me to quit being such a fucking baby and clean it up.
That seemed to be the pattern. We could never figure out any better way to do it but to keep struggling through each affair, trying to learn, but never seeming to. Never really changing anything, though I guess we did start to get a little harder around our hearts.
Shit, Jean and I probably had marriage in the back of our minds all along and never even realized it. And the idea of it, of that veil and the gown, kids and the nice house, the station wagon, the whole peaceful suburban scene we'd picked up from our mothers, always crept up and blinded us when we most needed to see. Usually with the sharp stick of loneliness.
What kept us going was the fact that sometimes we were happy. There would be those wonderful times with some wonderful man, like Eddie had been for a while. And some of the callus would wear off and there I'd be, Marlene Dietrich crooning "Falling in love again--" moony-eyed and scared and oh so hopeful--"What am I to do?"
Jean put an ice pack on my eye and listened to the whole sordid story. She looked like she was afraid I'd die right there at her kitchen table. Her overweight black cat had stretched herself out on the table between our coffee cups and lay there brushing at crumbs with her tail and grinning at me through green slit eyes as if she'd heard it all a million times. The ice felt good, but it was probably too late to help the swelling.
"So you are leaving him?" she asked when I had finished.
"This is the first time he's ever gone this far."
"Let me see." She took the ice pack away and frowned at me. "He must've hit you pretty hard. You're lucky he didn't break your nose."
"I'm lucky he didn't kill me." My voice cracked. "Oh, it's not luck at all. He's not a monster. He's just angry and lucky me, I'm the one he loves. The one he hurts."
"Maybe you remind him of his mother. Didn't I meet her once?"
"At his birthday party. Very nice, well dressed, sweet--"
"She made the cake, I remember. Everybody went nuts over it."
"Eddie bitched about it later. He didn't understand why she couldn't just buy a cake. He sees plots everywhere."
"His folks divorced, right? He told me once it was pretty unpleasant."
She tickled the cat's chin and she rolled over on her back, pushing my coffee closer to the edge of the table. Jean was like that--cats on the table, up in her lap all the time. A new stray every month.
I pushed my cup back. "It was a long time ago. They had gotten a pool table for Christmas and Eddie was trying to teach his mom how to play. But she wasn't ever any good at that sort of thing, and she slipped and tore the felt. Eddie's father got mad and cracked his cue across her knuckles."
"That would seem to explain Eddie."
"He broke her hand. It was the last straw for her."
"So you never answered me."
Sometimes things were too clear to her. She was rarely confused. "I don't know, Jean," I told her. I was running my finger-tip around the edge of my cup and the cat reached up and pawed my hand lightly. "He still loves me."
Abruptly she slammed down her coffee cup. The cat jumped and scrambled for the floor, dumping mine all over the table. Coffee started to pour off the sides onto my lap, and I jumped back to avoid it. But Jean didn't pay any attention.
"Then why aren't you at home, goddammit, waiting to talk this out with him?" She was shouting. Unreasonably, I thought.
I grabbed a dish towel and started mopping up the mess. I was too afraid to face him, that was why. It all made sense, remembering his mother's story, but I wasn't some Jane Doe case history in a magazine; I wasn't one of my girlfriends or Eddie's mother. It was carelessness--we'd both been careless.
"He said he was sorry," I said from the floor.
Jean squeezed out a sponge at the sink and attacked the brown puddle on the table. "That's typical," she said. "They're always sorry; but if he did it once, Barbara," she said more gently, "he could do it again. How could you ever trust him after this?"
She looked at me hard for a minute, the sponge dripping coffee back on to the table from her hand, suddenly so like my mother, angry and worried and sad, and loving me in spite of my mess--I had no resistance against her. But then, I felt like such a kid, sitting there on the floor. I was so tired. My brain had all gone to mush.
Later I took a shower and scrubbed off Dave's fish stink, though I think I imagined it more than it was really there. Jean put on some cool jazz and that started to work on the knots in my neck along with the hot shower. Then we made omelettes and while we were in the kitchen I told Jean about Dave's rock bass recipe. Then I started describing him and his place, and how I met him, and she thought it was all pretty funny. But that was my fault because I told it that way, made him out to be Gary Cooper in beads, a real loser. Jean and I laughed it up quite a bit. Then it all started to seem awful to me, that I could forget so easily how kind he'd been. So I cried again, choking on the whole thing, on my stupid cleverness, on how things could never be as simple for me as they were for Dave, on Eddie and me and how jaded we'd gotten, what we could have been, what we had let ourselves be instead.
So Jean changed the subject and pretty soon we'd gone on to all kinds of other things and left Dave and my lover and her lover, who had simply drifted away to Mexico on her, for another time.
I woke myself up crying in the middle of the night. It was funny how once I had started, I just couldn't seem to stop, not even to sleep. I just kept thinking about Eddie, how he hit me after he promised. It had gotten into my dreams, like everything else.
My eye hurt so I got up for some aspirin. When I came back to bed Jean woke up and snuggled against my back.
"You okay?" she whispered.
"I just needed an aspirin."
"You were crying."
"I'll get over it."
She threw her arm over me and as I fell asleep, it seemed as if we were twelve or thirteen again, ignorant, our dreamy little girl hearts as soft and naked as our still little girl bodies . . .
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Warren Wedin email@example.com