The Worse Part
When does a relationship cross the line from being in trouble to being over?
"I'm getting engaged, Rey," Liona says, squeezing lemon onto her fried perch. She is a model, and her movements are fluid, without cessation. The effect is that she always seems to be moving. One movement becomes the next.
"But I thought that--" I start, but I can't think of what to say. We are in the diner on Ninth, doing what we always do afterward. Having lunch. What can I say?
"That I'd wait for you?"
"That you were waiting for me," I say leaning forward and trying to look at her. I have long since learned the difficulties in dating a very beautiful woman. Looking her in the eye is difficult at best.
Liona takes a bite of her fish and says, "Rey, you're sweet, and I'm glad you've finally made some decisions about Audra, but I'm not going to be monogamous with you."
I push the mashed potatoes around on my plate. The mashed potatoes I can look at. Homemade with lumps. The brown gravy is a mix, too silky not to be. "It doesn't sound like you have been," I say.
"No," she says and laughs, "but neither have you, if you think about it. Regardless, I'm not going to marry you, so there's no point in it." Then she adds, "This fish is delicious."
"Why not? We're good together," I say and manage to take a good look at her. Like always, I want to stare.
"No, Rey, we're fun together."
"Exactly," I say. She is wearing a baseball cap and T-shirt and jeans. Her informal dress helps. When she is dressed, I mean really dressed, it's like standing next to a person in a spotlight. Everyone sees you, but only as an afterthought.
"No, those aren't the same thing," she says. "We wouldn't be good together."
"What's the difference?"
"I enjoy you. You enjoy me, we have a fun time, but it's not good."
"That sounds hypocritical."
"No, it's not. It's the truth. How could I ever trust you?"
The waitress returns and fills our water glasses. She looks at my untouched plate and says, "Foodzallright?"
"Yes, fine," I say and stick a fork into the potatoes for her approval. She smiles and walks away. Liona is eating her fish and smiling at me. Everyone is smiling, dammit, and I am struck dumb by my own unhappiness.
Liona's teeth are as white as cow's milk, whiter than pearls. But it is her lips that call attention to her face. They are very thin and a color that I have never seen on another woman. The color of a peach, pink-yellow. I cannot look at them closely without feeling as I did when I first met her: that she is much too attractive for the likes of me.
"Have I ever lied to you?" I ask.
"Not that I know."
"Well, there you are."
"But you've shown me repeatedly how subversive you are if need be. We've been seeing each other for nearly two years." She rolls her eyes. Yes, much too attractive.
"You're saying that because I made a relationship with you while I was married, you can't trust me when I'm not?"
"Don't twist the words. Eat your food," she says, reaching over with her fork for a piece of my meatloaf.
I take a bite of the meatloaf. It is still very hot. Great texture. "Tell me what I can do to fix this."
"This isn't the kind of thing you fix, Rey. It's the kind of thing you recognize."
"But if there's a problem..."
"There isn't a problem. You're a nice, sweet man, and I'm very fond of you, but we can't be serious. Eat."
I look down at my full plate. The meatloaf plate here is large and I love it because I am usually hungry after Liona and I spend the afternoon together. It's like the sex awakens all of my other senses. It has always struck me funny that after sex with her, I invariably find myself having sex with Audra. I wonder what Audra would say if she knew that Liona was responsible for her orgasms for the last two years. Best bet is she wouldn't approve.
I begin to eat my meatloaf, but my heart isn't in it and I mostly stir things around to make it look like I'm eating, the way I used to when mom made liver or goulash. I feel the dull ache in my privates and I can't sit comfortably.
"Sore?" she asks, with a smile.
"Tired, I guess."
"Good," she says and I expect something more but she doesn't say anything and we eat in silence for a few minutes. I watch as Liona delicately picks through the fish and then takes each bite. With her tongue, she searches through the bite for bones, then gently reaches up, takes them out and sets them down on the plate.
Finally the waitress comes back to our table and fills the water glasses. "You no like the meatloaf?" she asks.
"It's fine, I'm just not as hungry as I thought."
"Itsa big meal. Want I should wrap it for later?" she says with a stray finger. "Maybe you have a late snack?"
"No, its fine, thank you."
"But you hardly eat nothing."
"It's fine, really."
"Suit yourself," she says and shrugs. "You don't want pie then?"
"Do you have any chocolate?" Liona asks. I look at her plate of fish bones. Sharp quills as white as her teeth that lie neatly stacked to one side of the cottage cheese ball with half a maraschino cherry on top.
"No, but we got Boston Cream."
"That would be great," Liona says and smiles and looks down.
"Skinny thing like you eating Boston Cream." The woman laughs and turns toward the kitchen.
I know Liona is a little embarrassed because I used to watch her put on her makeup when we first met. We had a ritual. I'd get the room and she'd wait by the elevator. We'd ride up together without looking at each other, then go to the room. We'd make love and then get into the shower and talk and talk until I could make love again. Then sex a second time, and another shower. Then she'd sit on the vanity and fix her makeup and I'd watch her. Married for seven years and I had no idea how a woman put on her makeup. Powder and base and then color in her cheeks, just a little. White shading stuff under her eyes and color over and then a pencil and then lipstick. It takes about fifteen minutes, all told.
At first she used to blush because she had never had a man watch her so closely and you could see the color underneath rise up like now. The amazing thing is, she doesn't really look any different after, she just looks more like her. Then we'd go out and have a meal, just like today. We've eaten in most of the little places in town a few times, I guess.
When the waitress brings the pie and the check, I am at a loss for words.
"You aren't going to get all weird on me, are you?" Liona asks, taking a bite of the pie.
"Weird? No. I don't think so," I say leaning forward and taking out my wallet.
"Do you understand why I can't keep seeing you?"
"Not at all." I start to count out the money for lunch.
"Because I want to have a real relationship."
I stop with the money and say, "I can have that," trying to look right at her, but I can't hold it.
"No. You and I couldn't ever be more than what we are now. Lovers."
"OK, I'll take it," I say, trying to make a joke.
"Rey, try to be serious for one minute. I'm telling you that this afternoon was the last time."
"Because I have never had to trust you to be faithful, and now that I would have to trust you, I know I can't."
"You mean that you can't be involved with me because we had an affair."
"Super. Just brilliant," I say. I am so pissed I can barely put my wallet away, my hands are shaking so bad.
"Are you going back to Audra?" she says, wiping her mouth with the paper napkin from her lap. I watch as the last of her lipstick smears onto the napkin.
"I don't know," I say and she lifts her purse to her lap, opens it and pulls out her lipstick.
She starts to put it on and says, "I think it would do you good to be alone awhile." She puts on a deep red that hides her natural color.
"Well, that I will be," I say.
"Don't worry. I'll call you at the restaurant in a few days and make sure you're OK," she says. "Give me a kiss, then." She leans in, but turns her head when I go to kiss her, and so I only give her a peck on the cheek.
"Super," I say, leaning back in my chair.
"Be nice, Rey. It's not the end of the world." She stands and turns for the door.
"No. Of course not." I say, closing my eyes and leaning my head back, but the muscles in my neck stiffen like they are going to cramp.
Out on the street, I'm only about four blocks from my restaurant. I should go back and finish the afternoon list, but I can't do it. My car is there, though, and I know that if I go get it, I'll end up working. A restaurant is a black hole for time: you can never work too much. Always something to be done.
It's a beautiful day: fall is here. I decide to hoof it home. I can always get the car later, or have Carl drive it out to me. I mean, just because my affair and my marriage are falling apart doesn't mean that my restaurant is going anywhere, knock on wood.
I first met Liona two years ago. She walked into the restaurant one day while Carl and I were finishing the lunch shift. We'd sent the two line cooks home already and we were bullshitting and doing the afternoon list and the place was about empty and it was one of those hellish hot days that we get around here in August. Absolutely criminal weather, what with the haze and the bright sun making everything glare like hell.
I was up front, and she walked through the door and the light shone around her when the door was open. I can remember that Carl and I both stopped still. Carl elbowed me, and I don't know, I had had another fight with Audra or something, and the business was going well and I felt cocky, and I knew that I didn't have a chance in hell the moment the door closed and I got a good look at her because she was so stunning. But I wiped my hands on the white towel looped through my apron's tie-back, and walked over to where she sat at the counter.
I turned over her water glass and filled it from the pitcher covered in condensation, and she picked up the glass and drained the whole thing. "Before you even think about a menu, you need a stick of gum," I said.
She smiled, her white teeth shining beneath those even thin lips. "I'm not much of a gum chewer," she said.
"But this gum is guaranteed to transport you directly to childhood," I said and reached into my pocket. I noticed that it was easier to speak if I didn't look directly at her, so I leaned forward onto the counter top with one elbow. "Fruitstripe Gum." I said and held out the package to her. I looked up into her blue eyes as she grinned and I had one of those moments. Religious. Angelic. Something. Carl walked across the restaurant toward the kitchen behind her, and I remember him waving his arms in the air and making the football referee's gesture for "injury on the field."
I watched her hands as she unfolded the wrapper and put the striped piece of gum in her mouth. "This gum is like fourth grade," she said and laughed.
"Why are you carrying around Fruitstripe Gum?"
"Too much free time," I said.
"It's awfully sweet,"
"The gum or..."
"The gum," she said and laughed again.
"Don't worry, the flavor only lasts about five minutes."
"Probably just as well," she said. "I came in for lunch."
"I think we can handle that," I said and nodded. The place was nearly empty.
"What do you recommend?'
"Do you eat meat?"
"It's awfully hot out," she said and looked past me to the windows.
"Cold fried chicken and my own special potato salad," I said and stood up straight.
"Definitely. My name's Rey."
"Sounds perfect, Rey."
"Save room for dessert," I said, picking up a serving plate, and walking back to the cooler door in the back of the dining room. When I caught the handle of the cooler, it was cold. "Hey, if you're hot, come back here for a second," I said.
She looked at me for a moment, then got up and walked over. I can remember thinking how beautiful she was, and noticing that I was itching my wedding ring finger with my thumb. As if I was turning it, but it wasn't there. I don't wear it to work because it gets too hot over the stoves.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Coolest place around," I said and pulled open the heavy blue door. On hot days, cool air rushes out of the walk-in cooler like a cold wind. I flipped on the light, said, "C'mon, you're letting the cold out," and went in. She followed and pulled the door closed.
"Heavenly," she said.
It's actually about 40 degrees. "Feels great, doesn't it?"
I reached into the rack and pulled out the long tray of fried chicken I'd cooked off that morning. "I'm serving these tonight, but I'll make an exception. Which one do you want?"
She leaned past me, over the tray and pointed. "There," she said. I could smell her hair she was so close. I could see the goosebumps on her shoulders. I could see the fine freckles and short peach fuzz on the back of her neck.
I took the tongs from the side of the rack and put the piece on the serving plate. "A fine choice. Potato salad's up front," I said and slid the tray back into the rack.
"My name's Liona," she said, stepping back and sticking out a thin hand to me.
"I was wondering how I was going to ask," I said, and shook her hand. It was cold. Her hands are always ice cold.
"I think I could just stand in here all day."
"Not in that dress. You'd catch your death," I said and walked out of the cooler.
She ate daintily and we chatted all the way through her meal. I gave her a piece of raspberry cheesecake I'd made the night before and asked her to go to dinner with me.
It was that easy.
My house is a beautiful old victorian that Audra inherited. When we got it, you couldn't see across the living room because the ceiling sagged so badly. We've worked on it for almost our entire nine years. It's been a long haul.
I step up the stairs of the front porch and open the door. With my hand still on the knob, I hear it. I stand stock still for a moment, listening to Audra's groaning gradually building, and I know from the tone that if I stand here for another five minutes or so, I will probably hear her make that noise she makes when she comes.
I step back onto the porch and look up and down the street for cars. About a block down is the Jensons' green Toyota. No one. I step back into the house and slam the door hard enough to shake the walls. The noise overhead stops. I hear moving feet. I drop my keys on the hall table and walk into the living room. The air conditioning comes on. The upstairs bathroom door closes.
In a moment, "That you, Rey?" comes down the stairs. It's Carl's voice.
"Don't come down or I'll kick your fucking ass," I say without raising my voice. I could use a drink, and walk over to the liquor cabinet and get a bottle of Jack Daniels from the shelf. I start to grab a glass and don't.
"Can we talk about this?" comes the voice of my closest friend.
"No. Crawl out the damn window and jump off the back porch. Jump off the fucking moon," I say and open the bottle and take a deep drink. My throat gags and I cough, but I take another.
"I'm coming down," Carl says from the top of the stairs.
"Then you'll be dead and I'll be in jail," I say, and I sit down on the sofa. I take another swig, bite back the edge of the whiskey, kick off my shoes and put my feet up on the coffee table. I hear Carl walk back across the upstairs, into the den and open a window. Then I hear him on the roof. It's about a twenty-foot drop. He'll probably break a leg if he jumps. I don't think he will; he's not the type. At some point, I will have to let him back in the house.
There is almost complete silence now, except for the sound of Audra crying in the bathroom. This noise is replaced by the sound of water running into the tub. I try to drink a few inches of the whiskey, hoping to avoid the entire discussion that I know will take place as soon as the water drains, but I can't.
Instead, I set the bottle on the table top, reach into my back pocket and pull out my wallet. I take out the thick wad of credit cards, remove the rubber band from around them, and start flipping them over, face down on the coffee table. I start at the top of the first row, dialing the number on the back. Mastercard. The water stops running into the bathtub.
"Yes, I need to report my Mastercard is missing," I say to the silky voiced young woman on the phone. "I seem to have lost my wallet this morning and I need to have this account stopped until I locate it," I take another drink, give the woman the required number, say thank you, hang up and dial the number for the Visa.
American Express, Diner's, then Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Penney's and the local store cards. I decide to keep the Sears card and the gas card. As I finish, the bottle is about a quarter gone, and I hear the water from the tub gurgling through the old plumbing. I dial the phone number of the restaurant.
"Mable's," comes the voice of the hostess.
"It's Rey, patch me back to Steve in the kitchen." I hear the bathroom door open above me.
"Right away, Mr. Colvain." The line clicks. I hear Audra start down the steps.
"What can I do you for, Rey," comes Steve's voice, our sous chef. I can hear the sound of the fan in the convection oven kick on. Cheesecakes must be in.
"I need you to finish the list, I'm not going to get back," I say and I watch as her feet and then legs and then robe appear through the railing banister.
"What do you want to run for specials?"
"I can't do this Steve, and I'm not going to be in tomorrow. Probably won't see Carl either. Can you just cover till tomorrow night?" Make no mistake, Audra is a beautiful woman in her own right. Red hair bunched up on the back of her head. I raise a hand for her to stop. She ignores me and walks into the kitchen.
"You OK, boss?" Steve asks.
"No, as a matter of fact, I'm fucking awful. I'll call tomorrow sometime."
"I'll cover it."
"OK then," I say and hang up the phone.
Audra walks back into the room with a large glass of Seven-Up. Her white robe is draped closed around her and she opens the liquor cabinet and fishes out a glass and a coaster. She sets the coaster on the coffee table in front of me, puts the glass on it, and sits down on the other sofa, pulling her feet up under her, knees together. Just like her.
"Are you planning to get a divorce, then?" I ask.
"I hadn't really thought about it."
"You should have."
"I should have when you opened Mable's."
"Don't make excuses," I say and tip an inch of whiskey into the glass.
"Pour some of that in here, will you?" she says and holds out her glass. I fill the top inch. Audra inserts her finger and half stirs it, then licks her finger clean.
"Did it have to be Carl?" I ask.
"It didn't have to be anyone. I'm sorry it was Carl."
"Is he the only one?"
"Are you lying?"
"No," she says, but I know her well enough that she could be if she wanted to. Of course, so could I.
I drink the whiskey without choking and set the glass down hard. Then I repour two inches, and sip at it. "Can you tell me why?"
"Not without making excuses."
"What can you tell me?"
"That I'm lonely."
"So you fucked my best friend? Jesus," I say and lean back on the couch. The couch is so deep that I am almost lying horizontally and I rest the glass on my thigh.
"No, I looked for someone who would pay me some mind."
"Fucking is a strange way to make friends," I say to the ceiling, letting my eyes close.
"Are you mad because I slept with him?"
"Didn't sound like sleeping," I snap, sitting up, and I can feel the alcohol now, making my head spin. Making me angry.
"Or are you mad because I slept with anyone?"
"Both. But him I have to work with, dammit. I have to look at him."
"I'm sorry about that," she says, and takes a drink of her drink.
"Do you love him?" I ask.
"No. No more than you do."
"What does that mean?"
"You spend more time with him than you do with me."
"I run a restaurant with the guy."
"And the restaurant gets all of your attention. Even now you called it before we spoke."
"Are you trying to blame this on the restaurant?"
"No. This isn't the kind of thing you blame on something, Rey. It's the kind of thing you recognize."
"Yeah," I say, stunned. I drift, closing my eyes, back to Liona and already her face is fading.
There is a long silence. I nod.
"I can't do this," Carl calls from upstairs. I spill my drink.
"Shit," I say, standing up fast.
I have to piss. "Would you deal with him?" I ask and walk off to the toilet.
Pissing, I look at the calendar. Today is St. Michael's feast day, September 30. My mom sent the calendar; I am long-since lapsed. Audra and I were married Catholic. That was about the last time I set foot in the church. I had enough from Catholic school. I can hear Carl climbing back in the window.
Saint Mike was the general in God's army of Angels, I remember from catechism class. He was made of snow. I guess the intended effect was that kids would think they were safe in snowstorms, or something. Or that he was like a blizzard to his enemies, everywhere at once. All it ever made me think about was how when you made a snow-man, you made a thing, but when you made a snow-angel, you made a space: a hole.
I am pretty drunk and I wash my face in the sink, trying to sober up a bit, but I can't get St. Mike out of my mind. Is what Liona and I had a real thing or just a space between Audra and me? I hear the front door close.
When I am back out in the living room, Audra is seated again. "Is he gone?" I ask.
"Am I supposed to go?" I ask. I start to pick up the credit cards.
"You don't have to," she says.
I stop what I'm doing. "Do you want me to stay?"
"If you want to stay married."
"We're married," I say, but the words sound strange to me. It's been a long time since I really thought about being married. All I've thought about for a long time now is getting divorced. I sit down next to her.
"I don't want you to stay because you feel obligated," she says and puts a hand on my knee. She has beautiful hands, I remember.
"Marriage means being obligated," I say, but I can hear how hollow those words sound.
The house is dead quiet. In a whisper she says, "Then go."
I have wanted her to say those words for almost a year now, to let me off the hook easy. But when they come, I know that I don't want them. "No, that's too easy," I say.
"I don't want to fight," she says, pulling back from me.
I push my feet into the cushions on the back of the couch. "That's not the point. The whole point of marriage is that you can't just leave," I say, hoping that by saying the words I will believe them, make them real.
"Yes you can, I'll give you a divorce, if that's what you want," she says.
"No, it doesn't matter what I want. That's not the point. Sometimes being married is bad. But you don't just leave. That's not being married."
"You shouldn't stay if it's that bad. If you want to leave."
"No, you still have to stay. Right now is the worse part of `for better or for worse.' This is just the worse part." I say, trying to convince myself.
"Will there be a better part again?" she says.
"I don't know. I can't say," I answer and just look at her. We sit a long time in silence. I try to remember the things that made us get married. If I can only think of them, then maybe we can have a better part again.
Neal Gordon (email@example.com) teaches at the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia and works with the Working Writer's Group, a long-running critical group in the Philadelphia area.
InterText stories written by Neal Gordon: "When Something Goes" (v6n6), "The Worse Part" (v8n1).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 8, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1998 Neal Gordon.