Nov 142010

by Natalie Campisi

“Maybe that’s why you’re the way you are,” She wondered aloud, fingering the lace camisole that was not hers. It was too small, too delicate. She wasn’t envious, bad taste, she thought to herself, immediately relegating the owner of the camisole to a breed of women so tawdry and boorish they couldn’t possibly be competition.

She tossed it aside. The light was pale and the man, Frank, wanted to enjoy its inherent sadness. He didn’t want to answer insipid questions. He turned on the radio. Bebop. Every night; he was glad for it and there weren’t any commercials and he didn’t have to bother himself with choosing a song or finding a scratch.

“Do you even want to know?” She asked, arching her back, the light sadder now across her chest, every bone nestling a faint gray shadow.

Frank was trying to concentrate on the song; it scattered around the room in puzzle pieces. Was it Parker? It sounded like Parker. He wished he knew, the way his dad could pick out Vivaldi in a waiting room.

He chuckled to himself. Parker on the radio, or close enough. The dingy apartment. The half-naked girl. Except now he was a lawyer. An attorney. Which sounded better? He wondered. He hated both. She wouldn’t even be here without those words. She said lawyer. The only thing missing was a cigarette and one last glass of wine. She didn’t know his cigarette vice. Things would be different if she did; graver. There would be talks of lung cancer and premature aging and how it’s really just a blue-collar, college-girl habit now. No one smokes anymore. Not even the French.

He regretted telling her anything. As soon as he said it, practically. He had too much to drink. It was fall. Things felt more significant; he got sentimental. He hadn’t had a woman around in a few months. She wasn’t a soft, listening woman. She had a list of requirements. For herself and her men. Her nails were always polished, that was the first sign. Red mostly, sometimes shades of beige. Never chipped. You can’t trust a woman with perfectly polished nails, he knew that.

“Let’s get out of here,” He spoke, finally. His legs were big and strong and pale, they spread large across the wrinkled sheets. She moved out of the way, just enough.

“Where?” Her thoughts were grand: Paris or Lausanne. She read a lot of magazines.

“A diner…a cafe?” He said. They were in New York. He was ready to move. She didn’t know that. She assumed he was just getting started. He had a law degree from Brown, a good school. He must be cheap, used to money, she surmised.

“We’re already in bed,” She whispered, recoiling, a small harmless snake, cool and tired.

His twin brother, Bax, was also a lawyer. Except he lived in Connecticut, near the rest of the family. Bax was already engaged — to a lawyer. He had an impressive home. One of those old, set-back houses; sprawling front lawn where Easter games could be played. He had a boat, too. Everyone in the family had a boat. Sailing is what they did. After law. Bax was humble and good and seemed to relish in tradition. This girl here, Frank thought, would love Bax. She would eat him up. She would wear that cheap lace camisole if he asked her to. That was the kind of guy Bax was and the kind of girl she was.

“Do you have any pictures…of him?” She ventured, her eyes wide and sympathetic. Frank looked at her for a second, the light was so flattering, he thought. In the restaurant she wasn’t this pretty. She was one of those plain Dutch-looking girls with skinny legs and good hair. She loved to show off her legs. They were long and smooth and half made up for her face which was ordinary. Small blue eyes, thin lips, roundish nose. Even now, in the fall, she wore short plaid skirts to show off her legs. She didn’t wear stockings. He wished she did, that would at least be interesting.

“Pictures…?” She repeated, catching Bax drowning in a stare. He couldn’t concentrate, not in this apartment without a cigarette and glass of wine. He had to get out of there. It felt like being an undergrad, his first shithole apartment containing all that was important: books, cigarettes, wine and bread. Sometimes cheese, too. He was a long way from then. If Bax saw me now, he thought, this place, he chuckled to himself again. There were a couple years between undergrad and law school when the brothers traveled together: the Czech Republic, Nicaragua, South Africa; places like that, places guys like Bax and Frank are wont to visit. Frank was the one who applied to law school first. It was ironic in a way. He knew the end was coming. His folks weren’t going to float them forever. Bax knew that, too. Frank occasionally wondered if he hadn’t applied to law school if things might have been different. They talked about opening a surfboard rental shop in Chile. They talked about hiking the Fitz Roy, the Shackelton Crossing; mountain climbing, moving to China, opening a restaurant, buying a small newspaper, spear fishing, living off the land. They drank wine and did ayahuasca and picked up women and hitched rides. They never talked about Sam.

Some days, Frank wondered if Bax even remembered Sam. They got so good at not talking about him, they both wondered if he even existed, mostly when they were on acid or some other psychotropic they were apt to stumble upon from new acquaintances. They were skilled in making friends like that. Sam was sacred. As sacred as a thing got for them. More sacred than any god or curse or fear or taboo.

She was yawning, her body twitching with tiredness. She was trying to stay awake. She had an in. The captain fell asleep. She was at the wheel. She had to navigate this ship where she wanted it to go while she had the chance. Frank stopped looking at her. She wasn’t Bax’s type either, even though he was prone to like plain girls. He always picked the quiet, mousy one. The one who looked like she hadn’t rubbed more than two sentences together her whole life. Girls like this one, Frank thought, are worse than whores. At least a whore defies something, rallies against everything people tell them they ought to be. This girl doesn’t care who I am or what I want, she’ll do anything to put an esquire on her wedding invitations. Doesn’t she know she’s not my type? Frank thought, full of annoyance now. People know. We’re animals, for crissake, he thought, his mind going in a million directions.

“You were so talkative at the restaurant, anything wrong?” She asked, her eyes wide again.

“I’m good. I’m just fine…” Frank smiled. He got out of bed, his white boxers sticking to his legs. He was tall and broad.

Frank picked her up at a bar. He was there with a bunch of guys from his firm. They were all married or engaged or about to be engaged and Frank had this shithole to come home to. He knew her type before he said hello. A few dates later and a whole lot of liquor and he told her about Sam. Not everything. Just that he had a brother named Sam who died when they were kids. Sam was the third one, the triplet. He was the middle one, right between Bax and Frank. He looked like a cherub from a Renaissance painting. A cherub with small wire-rimmed glasses.

She was still asking about pictures when he finally tuned her back in. The music was so good. They didn’t stop playing it all night, too. Frank thought he might donate money to that radio station. No commercials, no bullshit. Just jazz all night.

“Listen…I’m tired. I’ll call you a cab, okay….” Frank offered softly.

“What? A cab? Are you serious?” She raised her voice.

There wasn’t a tender thing about this lady, Frank thought. Bax would’ve asked her to leave and then called the cops. Bax liked things neat. He didn’t mess around. He would’ve just called the cops and waited for them in his little rocking chair while she wailed her arms and demanded and looked all insulted. Not Frank. Frank liked to draw things out. He liked the pain of it, he knew that. So he told her that he regretted everything he said at dinner. He told her to forget what he said. He told her he was dumb and drunk and it was better if she found someone more stable, more ambitious.

“I won’t forget it! I care about you…” Her voice trailed off.

She wasn’t going anywhere. She was planted in his tiny bed, pushed against a dirty wall, beneath a window facing bricks. You can’t look for infinity in a place like this, he knew that too. He was looking for that small gap between the platform and the train, between standing and moving. That suspension before gravity remembers to do its job.

He couldn’t talk about Sam, about what happened and what didn’t happen, if he wanted to. Not even if a gun were pointed at his head. Not even if he didn’t care if he died. Because those boys don’t exist anymore and if they don’t exist they can’t remember. It’s a funny thing memory, you can ignore it into silence. Into death maybe. That’s what Frank hoped for anyway.

The closest he came to remembering was when he was in some old shack down in Tennessee. It was raining and he and his girl at the time, Martha, were on the porch, sticking their bare feet out in the rain. Frank loved Martha. She was crazy. The thing that bothered Martha more than all his drinking and cussing and feeling sorry for himself was that Frank said she was gray, like old books. She hated that, especially after he told her that her best friend (a tall beanstalk girl with blonde hair and beautiful full breasts that pushed against chiffon every time she left her house) was lavender, like a cool sky. Martha hated being gray, but Frank thought it was a compliment. Grays are serious and stormy and interesting. Grays are sad alleyways and faraway horizons and days that feel so miserable you wish they’d never end. When they broke up after a couple years of never getting serious, she asked him one last time if he still thought she was a gray. Truly, that was the foremost thing on her mind. And he told her the truth, a gray she is and a gray she’ll always be, can’t change your color. She left, thinking he didn’t know her at all.

“Maybe I would like to go out…a diner?” She said, grasping.

“I’m going to go. In a minute,” Frank said, searching for matches.

“I have to work in the morning,” She said.

She was in sales. He never could remember what it is she sold, despite her telling him a few times. It was something you can’t buy at the corner store, like circuit boards. She was a burgundy, Frank thought. Dusty and old-fashioned. The thing is, she wouldn’t even flinch probably. He could tell her she was shit brown and she’d laugh and ask where they were going to dinner next Friday. He could never be with a woman like that; a woman who didn’t care about the important things.

Frank and Bax were practically identical looking, it was Sam who looked different, the blonde hair and all. Sam was tall like his brothers. As much as Frank didn’t think about Sam in the past, he sure did think about him in the future. He figured Sam would be an artist and better looking than him and Bax, maybe a faster runner. He could run faster when they were kids. All the way to the end of the dock, to the end and beyond. To the bottom of the lake, to the bottom and then gone.

They were racing and then the brother pushed Sam. There was a push. Mrs. Jerome came running because she thought she saw something from her kitchen window. One time she said she saw a push, but then she stopped telling that story. No one wanted to hear it. Even though it was an accident. His head hit the boat propeller. Mrs. Jerome couldn’t tell the difference between Frank and Bax; most people couldn’t who didn’t take time with them. One of them pushed him off the dock, I think…that one…no, maybe it was the other?

They allied themselves against Mrs. Jerome, against her story. If she wouldn’t have pointed they probably would’ve cried and told everything. Maybe they would’ve been different if they did tell.  Maybe it was her pointing finger that drove them into silence. All they knew was that there was no going back. They made an unspoken promise. It was funny to Frank for a lot of years that this one most important thing in both their lives, this one crucial fact was sealed without words, without a nod or a handshake. Bax was better at it, Frank thought.

“It doesn’t matter what happened!” His mother screamed. She screamed like a lunatic. She was at the end of that dock, her skinny body bent crooked. She scared both Frank and Bax and Mrs. Jerome. Her face was dark and grim and if they didn’t know better it was almost as if she grew fangs the way she screamed. Her head shook and her arms were straight and strong, locked at the elbows. Frank never forgot that. Never. He knew that she didn’t want to know. And that scared him more than anything. That scared them both.

Frank put on his shoes. He poured himself a glass of wine and took a long, steady drink. She was out of bed now, scrambling for clothes, afraid of being left in this terrible apartment. He finished the glass. He grabbed his coat and thought of Bax, probably asleep long ago in his big, warm Connecticut house. Probably wrapped in an expensive down comforter, everything quiet and peaceful. It was almost four in the morning. Frank wanted to be passed out before the sun came up. He pulled out the pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket. She was half-dressed. Frank picked up his single key, the only key he had in the whole world. She was scurrying. Her bag. Her shoes. Her phone.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” She demanded.

Frank chuckled again. He was ready to leave.

“I smoke.”