Saturday, February 03, 2007

Odd Phrases

Odd Phrases

“I don't know about you,” she said, not sounding very serious. “Sometimes I think you're just a moralizing chauvinist.”

“That's just some new crackpot term for an old‑fashioned sexist, isn't it?” Harlan laughed.

Suzanne smiled, shook her head, and took a slow sip from her glass. “No. Let me think a minute. I'm trying to remember some­thing.”

“Take your time.”

It was an early Sunday afternoon at her home on the outskirts of Farless River Estates. It wasn't on one of the more expensive lots on the bank of the river and certainly not one of the fancy hill‑houses that seemed to hang by a finger­nail far out over the water. One of her favorite pastimes was skinny‑dipping late at night, but she had to walk down a long muddy hill to get to the water, so the house wasn't that well‑placed, and she regretted that. When she first bought it ten years ago, her friends had all teased her.

“Far less than what?” they'd smirked.

She didn't know. (Or very much care, either; it was her damn house and she liked it.) Maybe the Indians had called it that, she told them. There were no Indians left to ask about it.

Suzanne and Harlan were taking things slowly, staying out of the after­noon sun. It was August, and they were in the midst of the “dog days”, a terrible time in Central Texas. The central air conditioner was furiously running up a bill and the ceiling fan blades turned slowly overhead. They sat at her kitchen table and talked, drinking W.L. Weller whiskey, and wait­ing for the soup to cook. Every so often, they had a cup of coffee and men­tioned that tired old joke about wide‑awake drunks, though neither of them was very drunk yet.

The smell of steaming vegetables and beef seeped from the big pot on the stove. It made Harlan's mouth water. His stomach grumbled slightly and he wondered if Suzanne could hear it. Apparently she couldn't. She would pro­bably have offered him something if he'd spoken up, but he preferred to wait for the soup.

Harlan sat gazing out the big picture window and thought how much he had always liked her kitchen. The grass in her long back yard, as usual, was over­due for a mowing. Her son Willy was nineteen and always had to be hounded a good deal before it got done. Harlan remembered being bad about that himself.

“Christ, I still am,” he thought. He could have offered to give Willy a hand, but never did.

Close by, he could see Suzanne's longhaired old terrier Frabjous lying in the cool dirt under the storage shed, as still as a turtle. He stared for a long time without seeing movement of any kind, then wondered if the dog might be dead. When he was a kid his dog had turned up dead like that—unexpe­ctedly, just looking asleep at first, so that he had laughed and yelled, “Wake up, sleepy­head!” and gone over and smacked the dog on the hind­quarters. But then he'd noticed the stiff­ness in the dog's legs, and he had backed away and screamed until everybody came running.

“The dog's dead,” his father told him, shaking his head, “you can't do anything about it.”

“Don't cry,” his mother said gently, “we'll get you another one.”

Grownups say such stupid things to you when your best friend is dead, he thought. Yet he was the grownup now and shouldn't be thinking like that. He leaned forward, though, staring out the win­dow and starting to get uptight. Suddenly Frabjous kicked his legs out and rolled over, turning his scarred head toward the window.

“Frab, you stinking old bastard!” Harlan sighed and leaned back.

The tough little terrier had always been a fighter. The street vendors down on the drag used to call him “the little terror” and smile when he padded by, looking so deceptively innocent. Everyone knew that a moment later they might have to risk their lives pulling him out of a fight, for Frabjous wasn't afraid of the devil's Dobermans, much less any ordinary members of his species that were twice his size.

“Why the little canine psychopath was so damned popular was never very clear to me,” Harlan thought. Yet he had always liked the dog too.

Suzanne hated those fights, but she loved the ridiculous dog. She called him “The Old Territorial Bastard”, a nickname taken humorously these days, but dead serious in origin. One evening some years ago the neighbor­hood kids had wheeled Frab home in a little red Hi Flyer wagon. The kids all talked at once, trying to explain how the terrier had gotten so badly cut up. The fight, they said, had started when the German shepherd down the road jumped on a young cocker spaniel. The children, of course, thought Frab was a hero. Harlan looked down at the little triumphal procession and smiled, remembering how much fun it used to be to think about dogs that way. Frabjous, of course, had no need of such heroic excuses; he would have done it eventually just for the hell of it.

They eased the dog into the back of Harlan's truck, and he drove them to the vet. All the way into town, Suzanne sat holding the dog's bloody ear onto his head with one hand and nearly choking the life out of him with the other to make him hold still. She was weeping and hollering at the same time, and for a while he couldn't make out what she was saying. She scared the shit out of Harlan, but Frabjous just looked a little guilty and quietly closed his eyes. When Harlan slowed the truck for the red light in Oak Hill, he finally heard her.

“You goddamn old murdering territorial bastard,” she was yelling, “I'll kill you for doing this to me, I'll kill you!” Somewhere around the tenth time, Harlan ceased to believe her.

That was a few years ago. Frabjous was twelve now and going blind in one eye and didn't fight as often, though he fought just as hard. This afternoon in his favorite shady spot, the old bastard panted steadily. With his eyes closed tight and his tongue hanging out, his face seemed to wear a lascivious grin. Harlan figured the heat was getting to the dog and said so to Suzanne.

“Look again,” she said with a grin. Harlan looked. The old dog's rosy little member was peeking out from between his furry legs. “Now you know what the Old Territorial Bastard dreams about,” she laughed.

“I always thought he dreamed about eating those stupid cats of yours,” Harlan said.

In the middle of the yard Suzanne's two Persians, Bhagwan and Dali, were prowling and leaping through the long grass, apparently practicing their death‑pounce. They left the old dog alone, though not because they were charitable; Suzanne's son Willy had told him once that they'd learned their lesson in that particular quarter. They worked the small fry—mainly lizards, cockroaches, and taran­tulas, although there were several phantoms that only the cats could see. “Maybe it's chinch bugs,” Harlan thought. He wondered where the cats got the energy for it. For that matter, how could they even stand being outdoors on such a hot day?

“You give those cats too much catnip,” Harlan laughed. “Look.”

Suzanne glanced out the window and smiled. “They're just full of piss and vinegar,” she said.

“Don't they ever run out of victims?”


Harlan thought that the cats were strange. It may have been the names she'd given them, or the reason she'd given them the names, he didn't know which. The names, of course, didn't impress the cats. In fact, the names had barely stuck to them at all. Most people thought Dali was “Dolly” and nobody felt comfortable saying Bhagwan. It was easier to use Suzanne's nicknames, so most of the time the cats were just Bogs and Dolly.

Harlan stubbornly insisted that the self‑absorbed little toads didn't know one name from another, that they'd come just as quickly if you called them “Doorknob”. Suzanne disputed that, of course. Sometimes he proved they would, and sometimes she proved they wouldn't, but mostly the cats ignored him no matter what names he called them. That wasn't what made him think the cats were toads, though. What brought him to this conviction was that Bhagwan and Dali seemed to like nothing better than to jump in his lap and make a graceful slow circle (sinking their claws firmly into his legs at every step), then raise their fluffy tails and show him a view of the moon.

“See this?” they seemed to say. “Isn't this nice?” Somehow Harlan was never properly impressed. “Listen, you smug Persian toadfrog, I'd smash your silly face if it wasn't already smashed,” he'd say. Why, he wondered, did he never have a sharp pencil when he needed one?

“Do you train them to do this?” he'd asked Suzanne once, making a face nearly as puckered as the cat's behind. He had his hand around Bhagwan's fluffy tail, and looked as if he meant to do some­thing extreme, possibly involving aerodynamic cats.

Suzanne put her hand over her mouth and laughed, but hurried to remove the cat from his lap. “No, I think it's just something they have a natural talent for! They must like you, though, they don't show their ass to just anybody!”

“Yeah, I'll bet,” he said. “I don't think anything much impresses those little furballs or that they like anybody much except you.”

“Maybe so, but they get to do what they want to do, and I think somebody in this world ought to,” Suzanne said. “I guess that's why I like to watch them so much. And, besides, sometimes even I'm just the lunkhead that feeds them. Nothing's snootier than a snooty cat.”

“I can believe that,” Harlan said. He didn't really like cats, although Bhagwan and Dali were so bizarre and obstinate that he couldn't help being interested. He liked to watch them, as long as he could keep a safe dis­tance. He put his feet up on a kitchen chair full of newspapers, and closed his eyes and sighed. The cats were outside, there was nothing to worry about. Suzanne lit a cigarette and closed her eyes too. She put her fin­gertips to her forehead and frowned, still trying to remember.

“Okay,” she said, “I've got it! 'A moralizing chauvinist is a man who wants the perfection he sees in women, but doesn't know what to do with one unless she makes perfect sense.'“

Harlan shook his head and furrowed his eyebrows at her, as any sensitive guest might have done. (He remembered reading somewhere that you don't hear the bullet until it's already whizzed past you or through you.) Suzanne's eyes, though still closed, looked to Harlan as if they might be twinkling. She looked smug, as if able to detect his reactions through her eyelids. She knew that his curiosity was bound to overcome any sensitivity he had, and she waited. Harlan hated waiting.

“What is this,” he asked impatiently, “the goddamn dramatic pause? Is that all of it or not?”

She shook her head and held up a finger, signifying “wait”. Then she resumed: “'He wants to fully know a woman—­which is really only a civilized form of ravishment—and yet no one, male or female, really wants to be known like that.'“

“Good grief, where'd you get that from,” he teased, “the Kinsey Report or Hitler's Diary?”

Suzanne opened her eyes and laughed, “From the goddamn Sunday Parade, where do you think!”

“Yeah, sure; they have stuff like that all the time,” he laughed.

Suzanne had a good memory, after a fashion, he knew that. She fin­ished every book that she started, though, even the bad ones, and sometimes got overloaded. She couldn't always recall where these things came from. Harlan didn't have that problem. If a book wasn't any good by the hundredth page, he would quit flat. “That's where you miss the jewel in the shitpile, though,” she always insisted. He meant to ask her if she could remember which shitpile this latest one had come from, but he got distracted. Suzanne often did that to him, though it wasn't any of her doing.

“For what it's worth,” he thought, “she really looks lovely today.”

It would probably be dangerous to say so, however. Suzanne was such a modern, unromantic woman. Worse, she was an old friend and his best friend; she was bound to object to his compliments on one ground or another. It would have been compli­cated enough if she'd just been a woman. He never noticed just when it had become so wrong to mention their beauty to women, only that it had. All it took was them to look at him as if he had some wretched ulterior motive, and he'd begin to feel that he did. Talking about beauty to women these days was a vice with its own immediate punishment.

“You're the most damnably intellectual woman I know,” he told her. Crap, what a self-conscious sentence, he thought.

“Oh, bullshit,” she said, shaking her head and giving him a sweet-sour glance as she got up to check the soup. It was about what he'd expected, of course; she'd been giving him those looks for years. For some reason he wanted to impress her today, but he wasn't off to a very good start. He felt clumsy and transparent. He wanted to suppress that ridiculous grin on his face, too—not kill it, just suppress it a bit, before she asked him what was so funny. Nothing was funny, really. Though he'd spoken as if he was still teasing her, he had meant it as a compliment. She had of course recognized that it was a compliment; she just wasn't good at taking one. She wouldn't take credit for her beauty, or this either.

He followed her to the stove and stood too close. When she lifted the pot lid, she automatically leaned away from it, but Harlan didn't think and the hot suffocating steam rose rapidly, unexpectedly into his face. He jumped back.

“Godalmighty, I can't breathe!”

He grabbed a newspaper and fanned his face. Suzanne chuckled and reached for a wooden spoon. She hadn't really liked him standing so close, anyway. She hated any­one breath­ing down her neck when she was cooking.

“Well, you are very clever,” he insisted, resuming his subject. Once he began, he hated to lose a train of thought.

Suzanne was studying the spice rack and didn't seem to have heard him. She added some tomato sauce and stirred it in. Harlan licked his lips and lit a cigarette and watched her. If he looked longer or more longingly at the blush of her cheeks or the curve of her breasts than at her hand or at the soup, that was something she didn't have to know. She was only stirring the soup, but she was stir­ring him too.

She had the nicest breasts he could imagine, but he had always imagined that. He knew that he ought not to dwell on it. There wasn't any imagina­tion to it, actually. He knew what her breasts looked like and they weren't that perfect—he liked them because he liked her. Years ago, they used to have these same long daffy conversa­tions in the bathroom while she bathed and it used to drive him crazy.

“Compulsively hip,” he thought uneasily, “that was our disease in 1968.”

That was what he told himself these days, whether it made any damn sense or not. They had all been full of “revolution” back then and endless talk about “freedom”. Now, of course, those things didn't exist at all, or else were everywhere, gutted and co-opted.

“But that's evolution, isn't it?” he thought.

But still, back then, living in Suzanne's spare room for a few months while out of a job, he wasn't so wise. He was young and hip—that is to say, passionate and inhibited. He had leaned against the washbasin each evening and nervously pushed his long blonde hair off his forehead and talked to her, talked ceaselessly, while she took those long slow baths that never made any sense to him. He had always hated being wet. He preferred quick showers. Still, he didn't mind watching her get wet. And, after all, it wasn't as if she waved her nudity around in front of him like a flag—she just didn't hide it. Nor had he jumped in with her; it hadn't been anything like that.

“No,” Harlan thought irritably, pouring himself another whis­key, “that would have been sex, and we were just—free, I guess.”

But still, it was clear that they had loved to talk. Sometimes she had looked at him curiously as if seeing him for the first time and asked if he was really comfortable. He had lied to her, of course, and hated himself for it, though not enough to stop. It crossed his mind now that perhaps those baths had been as pro­longed as they were because she had been as dis­turbed as he was and hoped that he would go away before she had to stand up.

“Maybe that's it then,” he thought. “Ha! The old men are right; wis­dom comes late—mostly when you have no use for it at all.” He was only 38, but the feeling had been creeping up on him more and more often lately that it was too late for a lot of things. His health was failing in a dozen small ways, and he missed those easier times.

She might have felt comfortable about nudity, but he never had. He'd always had to pretend, and it hadn't been “easy” at all. So why did he stay there? “I just like seeing her naked, I guess,” he'd told himself. And yet sometimes he didn't even like that. “God, I really must be nuts!” he told himself now.

But why all this hassle, then or now? She was cute, but nothing out of the ordinary. Why did it have to be her? She was intel­ligent, and she had that wonderful intrinsic beauty of youth—and that was all. But that was all it took. He loved her so much that no one could have been more beauti­ful, and beauty was what he loved. He was in a self‑defeating circle.

Thus, all things considered, her beauty was wasted in the bathroom. Being so near a naked woman who wasn't going to make love to him may have been adven­turous, but it wasn't advanta­geous. A lot of the time, he just felt sick. Even at more innocent moments, with their clothes on and nothing in mind, if she touched him lightly in passing, as friends will, it thrilled him far too much—he couldn't enjoy it. Being in love with her made every­thing she did compli­cated and dangerous.

They had drifted in and out of one another's lives for twenty years now and every time they came together, she was always the right woman in the wrong place or time for him, always bright and desirable in a world full of humorless, dull people. Compared to Suzanne, everyone around him seemed slower than Christmas, duller than untumbled stones. Yet even when she did love him, it was always only as a friend. There had been times, you see, when things had slipped. There'd been three times. But each time they'd slept together, he'd gotten up the next morning madly in love with her and Suzanne went on with her life as if everything was normal. So why in the world had she slept with him?! Did she think he'd been broken and needed fixing?

“She fixed me, all right,” he told himself.

He'd felt inadequate, of course, right in the heart of the matter, except his heart wasn't the organ called into question. Either something was wrong with his brain or something was wrong with his dick, or both. Was it that he didn't know how to make love to her?

“Maybe she wants orgasms by the dozens,” he thought.

Or maybe she didn't want any at all.

Was it only that he'd worn her down, that somehow he'd caught her in a weak moment? Thinking about it made him defensive.

“I think she just fucked me and then rolled over and went back to sleep!” he fumed.

She hadn't been rude about it, no, or very passionate either. Just horribly practical, he supposed. Or perhaps she was passionate; at any rate, she had been very good in bed! Ah, but that only made things worse. Passionate or not, it must have been about as memor­able for her as a game of minia­ture golf—hardly worth discussing once it was over. And in fact she seemed to have forgotten it. But he, no matter how many women he'd known since, or how often she married, or how crazy things got, had not.

“Pass me the salt,” Suzanne said, still tinkering with the recipe.

Abruptly he became aware of her in the present and realized how vividly the past was intruding this afternoon. Sometimes the past was more real than the future, and it made him feel old, as if somehow everything had already happened that was ever going to happen. “This is only middle‑age!” he reminded himself forcefully.

“You're going to spoil the soup if you just keep screwing with it, aren't you?” he said.

“Naa. It's almost impossible to ruin soup. Give me the pepper, too.”

Harlan gave her the pepper, then sat down and watched her mea­sure it out, but the past continued to intrude. He could remember so well those old sensations, those perverse and wonderful conversa­tions in that drafty old house on 15th Street. She'd always left the tap running and the drain plug slightly askew so that her bath wouldn't get cold, and the water had eddied constantly, slowly against her small pale arms and breasts, seeming to caress them, as he wished to. When she leaned forward to offer her lips, it was not to him, of course, but to his cigarette. He held it for her so that she wouldn't get it wet. If her face touched his fingers sometimes by accident, he pretended that it didn't mean anything.

“Bathroom decorum,” he'd told himself. Well, he took what he could get. He was half‑convinced that she was playing a game and half‑aware of his own unstable acquiescence in it, and he felt com­pletely foolish. Yet it was also a game from his side—worse than a game, a terrible self-conscious lie! So how could he fault her? Faulting her was the least of it; some­times he loved her so much that he hated her. He wanted her and wanted her to want him back.

And so he talked, cautiously, rapidly, always furtively watch­ing her and just as furtively looking away, wondering if she was crazy or he was crazy, or if all of it made some kind of sense and he was just being stupid to feel uncomfortable. He liked her too much to do what he most needed to do—pitch a towel over her head and walk out the door.

But that was nearly twenty years ago. Surely none of that applied any more. “We're not as young as we used to be,” he sighed, “and maybe we're not as cruel either.”

All he could really do was guess—there were a lot of things about the past that he would never have the courage to ask her. Perhaps she had merely indulged herself too freely in freedoms that neither of them knew how to handle. Maybe they'd both been crazy; that seemed likely enough. Maybe things could be different now.

“Goddamn it, why do I bother to even think about it?”

They were just friends now. God, how he loathed that phrase! What was so just about it?

“You've always had a delightful intelligence,” he said.

She was leaning over the cook pot, blowing on the wooden spoon. He was blowing smoke‑rings with his cigarette, ostensi­bly paying her breasts no mind. Suzanne leaned forward carefully and pushed back her long brown hair. She licked the spoon and murmured, “No.”

“It's the thing I like best about you,” he said. “Even your good nature is second to that.”

“Thanks, I guess,” she said absently, licking her fingers and looking to see if there were any clean soup bowls. Then she seemed to think about what he'd said and looked at him quizzically.

“Is there a 'but' about to intrude itself here like some kind of rooting hog?” she asked. She knew him pretty well. Harlan smiled with apprecia­tion; he loved it when she turned an odd phrase. He'd have to remember it.

“But,” he said with a smirk and a grimace, “there are factors I don't control, at least I don't think so.”

“Such as?”

“Well, dammit, you are pretty cute, you know—no, you wouldn't know that, would you?—and I have no idea how much less 'cute' you could be and still be a viable object of my lust. At some point everyone—I mean, every man—must finally say, “She's too ugly; I could always be her friend, but—”

“But you could never fuck her, right?”


“Big deal,” she said. “Aren't you aware that women think the same things about you?”

“I'd heard a rumor, but I wasn't sure. I'm certainly glad to hear you say it! Every little bit of equitable villainy helps in this unbalancing battle to fool the object of one's desire.”

“Fool them into what?” Suzanne asked.

“Into a reciprocal desire.”

“An odd way to talk about love,” she told him, though she was used to him talking like that. Suzanne opened one of the cabinet doors, then slammed it and said, “Shit!”

“What's the matter?”

“I don't have any bread. Let's make a quick run to the store; it'll only take a few minutes and the soup's not ready yet.”

They took Suzanne's car. She drove rapidly, smoothly, through the familiar winding hills along Farless River. “Well,” Harlan thought, “she evaded that conversation pretty neatly.” She never did say very much when he talked like that. It was that damned practical nature of hers again, he supposed. He told himself to forget it. Then he remembered what she'd been saying earlier.

“What's all this 'demoralizing' business you were talking about, anyway?” he asked her.

Suzanne grinned, not watching him. She had to concentrate on her driv­ing. There was a sharp curve at the bottom of the hill and she always waited until the very last minute to slow down for it. Even though she'd done it hundreds of times, it still took some concentration. With the curve behind her, she relaxed and seemed to remember him.

“Oh. Moralizing, you idiot. A moralizing chauvinist, you know, is just a man who—who wants what he wants, like every other man, I guess. Someone who makes good excuses and feels virtuous about it.”

“And women don't do that?” Harlan asked.

“Perhaps. Though women aren't as good at excuses.”

“Yeah, I know—they just clam up. I don't know much about a 'moraliz­ing chauvinist', but I think a moralist is just someone who wants everything to turn out even in the end, you know? A search for truth, so to speak. Is there something wrong with that?”

Suzanne lifted her eyebrows and shrugged. She knew how easy he found it to make up philosophy on the spur of the moment, hopping from word to word and connecting one meaning to another with an agility that seemed questionable to her when one was supposed to be looking for “truth”. The truth was never that neat, surely. She sighed and punched a button on the dash and groped around in her purse for a cigarette. A few moments later, her head bent down toward the car's lighter, she heard Harlan yell.

“Uh! I think we're dead!”

Suzanne looked up and squinted, the smoke rising into her eyes. An 18‑wheeler with an enormous pig painted on it was bearing down on them. Suzanne blinked once (Harlan, para­lyzed, thought maybe she was too), then looked down at the lighter with a puzzled expression. For a terrifying moment, Harlan thought she was going to try to fumble it back into the dashboard. When she extended her right arm toward him, he thought she'd gone crazy and was trying to hand the hot goddamn thing to him! Actually she had come to life with a vengeance and was taking the absolute shortest route to ridding herself of this preposterously inconvenient convenience. She threw it out his window.

As it sailed past his head, her left arm was already madly spinning the steering wheel, the tires of her old Kharmen‑Ghia screaming in protest. A split second later, as she swerved back into her own lane and overshot it, she furiously jerked the wheel back again with both hands. The car fish­tailed in the loose gravel several times as she brought it back onto the blacktop. She'd barely avoided the plunge over the embankment.

For a split second Harlan had looked straight down on the top of the trees below and pressed back against the seat, shifting his weight slowly toward the middle. He thought seriously about crawling into the back; if the car was going over the edge, he didn't want to be the first to go. But in fact the whole thing was already over. The big truck thrummed past them so loudly that the little VW chassis continued to vibrate for a long moment like a strummed string on a symphony bass. Still half‑turned in his seat, he felt it in his sternum. And then he caught a glimpse of the sign on the back of the Piggly‑Wiggly truck. Under the circumstances that idiotic happy‑go‑lucky pig‑face seemed frighteningly hallucino­genic to him and he looked away.

Harlan took a deep breath and brushed Suzanne's shoulder with his fingertips.

“Jesus, that'll make your heart beat fast!” he said.

“It didn't exactly slow me down, either!” she said sharply, shrugging his hand off and throwing her crumpled cigarette out the window as hard as she could. How she'd managed to keep it in her hand while wrestling the steering wheel like that, he couldn't imagine. She looked mad, but Harlan realized she was mad at herself, and scared. His own adrenalin still con­tinued to rush.

“God, one of these days, if I live long enough,” she said emphatically, “I'm going to quit smoking!”

“Might be a good idea,” Harlan sighed, and nervously lit a cigarette.

Suzanne was watching the road with care and didn't bother to answer. He waited a few minutes before he said anything else.

“Where is this moralist business from, anyway?” he asked. He could see she was still uptight, but he thought that talking might calm both of them.

“Huh? Oh—it's just something I read last week in that new Austin magazine called Silences, that's all.”

“Oh, yeah, I saw that once,” Harlan said with a grimace. “It looked sort of artsy‑fartsy to me.”

“Oh, for Christ's sake, I didn't write it, I just said I read it!” Suzanne snapped. Sometimes he was just too damned argumenta­tive for her. Harlan decided it would be better to just shut up and ap­preciate still being alive. It wasn't the worst thing in the world.

Coming back from the store, he remembered another ride with her, a couple of years ago. He had given Suzanne and one of her friends a ride home from work one day and the three of them had ended up pressed together like sardines in Harlan's small truck. She was married to her second husband then and Harlan hadn't touched her at all in several years—even their kisses hello had ended by some unspoken agreement—and this involun­tary intimacy just seemed horrible to him. It reminded him too much of when he'd first known her.

“For Christ's sake,” he told himself, “this is eighteen years later!”

As soon as he'd moved the floor‑shift into fourth gear, his hand slipped unintentionally between her knees—nothing indecent, but there it was. His hand rested lightly against her, and her flesh was cool and smooth, supple and inviting. Despite everything he knew about her, he felt that old juvenile thrill. “Jesus, it doesn't feel eighteen years older, it feels eighteen years old!” He felt like jamming on the brakes and grabbing her then and there. Fuck making sense, her friend could get out and walk or sit still and watch, he didn't care! He imagined rush‑hour traffic split­ting and go­ing past his truck on both sides, like water rushing past a stuck log down in that goddamn Farless River of hers! He tried to imagine what she'd say if she didn't say no, but nothing came to mind. He licked his lips and looked at her, but said nothing. The traffic in front of him slowed a bit, and he downshifted into third.

Later in her kitchen, suddenly and appropriate to nothing that had just been said, he started again. “Back to my point—if any: Not every woman has your character and mental acuity. Some women have to figure out how to be attractive without having an iota of character or humor.”

“But I need both—is that it?”

“No, no! Don't get riled. Christ, these “honest” conversa­tions we have are dangerous things! What I'm saying is that you're so attractive that I—I can't always ignore what I feel. I do love you, you know.”

“But you know how I feel about that,” she said.

Harlan nodded and looked grim. Of course he knew. He kept on anyway.

Suzanne tried to kid him into taking about something else. She never felt comfortable talking about love, least of all with Harlan. The world seemed to lurch sideways when he talked about love. Sometimes he was like the feisty old terrier in the back yard, who'd get hold of something and wouldn't let it go. There were times when his sense of humor would let him back out gracefully if she teased him skillfully enough, but this time Harlan seemed to feel more deeply about it and fell deeper and deeper into his own trap. At length, she began to frown. He poured him­self another shot of whiskey and wondered if he was drunk yet. Pro­bably not, even if he did feel overheated and dizzy; that might be something else. Some­times it took all of his courage just to be a fool. That's as good a guess as any why, when he couldn't imagine that she wouldn't find his next words offen­sive, he said them anyway.

“It's just hard to concentrate when I want to fuck you so bad.”

Dear Jesus! As soon as he'd spoken, he regretted it. He'd already opened a door that he knew she would rather close, and now he'd jammed his foot in it. His face flushed, his soul shriveled, he wanted to run away. He lit a cigarette and looked her in the eye as if he could handle it. Suzanne didn't blink either; she was used to this. She shook her head and reached for the Weller's. She poured a drink and looked thoughtful.

“Well, I can imagine that,” she replied with a trace of a smile. “I'm not unsympathetic, you know. But your real problem isn't how much you want me, it's more a matter of how badly you want somebody—anybody, perhaps.”

“Well, not anybody,” he said.

“You know what I mean. Listen, we've been friends for twenty years now and it's been at least half that long since we were close to being any kind of lovers. Those few days of groping at one another like adolescents in heat—and we weren't young even that long ago!—came to a dead halt when you went apeshit and chattered to my husband about it as if it would be good for his character! Ugh! Your near‑betrayal of your best friend and my near-betray­al of my husband—”

“Not to mention our betrayal of ourselves?” Harlan added. There was a sort of smirk on his face, but actually he felt sick.

It had been very odd to him, of course, that so long after he'd made such a fool of himself over her, she'd begun to make a fool of everyone by falling in love with him. For by then, she was married to her first hus­band, Stuart, and she must have seen that everyth­ing would blow up in everybody's face. This time they hadn't even made love, but fooled around idiotically. They met in clandestine places. They flirted and kissed, slowly pulling one another's shirt‑tails out and sliding their hands underneath. Then, pausing just for a moment to speak—to say, “I love you” or else to split hairs about what they both considered highly ques­tionable behavior—they always got stuck in the moment. Like teenagers, they edged constantly toward doing “it”, but always edged back again. They were only in their thirties, but already on the cusp of being too old for such compli­cated romances. Once the cops had caught them “parking” after curfew in Enfield Park, and the incident amused everyone, including the cops, but the laughter didn't last. Soon everything fell apart with a vengeance. Even now, the kindest thing he could call it was Betrayal. Even now, he felt guilty. That Suzanne should bring it up was fair enough, he sup­posed, but it made him feel like a kicked dog and he could sense the other foot being lifted.

“No, not to mention that. Goddamn it.” She paused for several seconds as if remembering what she hadn't meant to remember.

Harlan remembered, too. 1977 just hadn't been a very good year, not even with it's two lucky sevens. Maybe it had all been a last bit of craziness for both of them before the world blew up. But the only world that blew up was their own, and mostly he'd done that himself. But why? Revenge? Or just bad nerves? Maybe it was nerves; Stuart's foolishness must figure in there somewhere. He was one of Harlan's best friends at the time, but sometimes he was such a sappy, trusting guy that Harlan wanted to slap him—”Wake up, wake up!” he wanted to yell. But that wasn't it, either, was it? Had he really thought he was protecting Stuart from him­self? You don't wake people up by pushing them off the edge of a cliff, do you? Well, Harlan might, even though he'd gone off the cliff with the rest of them. After all these years, he still didn't understand it or like to think about it.

“Betrayal!” She almost spat the word. “Goddamn, Harlan, you will never comprehend the horror I went through with Stuart over that! It's too late to trot all that horrible old business out, but you must know that that killed everything romantic between you and me. We were lucky to ever become friends again, don't you realize that?”

“Yes,” Harlan said emphatically, “I do.”

“I don't think our friendship has been too strained since then—even if it has been—strange. Do you?”

“No, of course not,” he smiled. He couldn't remember with certainty just how they had gotten back on a friendly footing. Even that was years ago now, and his memory was terrible, or at least selective. He recalled that he'd run into Stuart and Suzanne on Sixth Street one day, and just as he was about to duck his head and cross the street, they both spoke to him. God knows where such forgiveness comes from, he'd thought, since they hadn't spoken to him in more than a year. Since then, Suzanne had thrown Stuart out twice and another husband besides, and was on her own again. And Harlan had suddenly been tempted to think of her as a woman again and not just a friend.

“No,” she repeated, “not very strained at all, not until now—”

“Now when I talk about wanting to poke you?”

“Yes—exactly. God, what an awful phrase!”

“Life gets full of odd and awful phrases when you go around like an idiot fall­ing in love with every woman you like,” Harlan said.

“Oh, if only that were really true of you, Harlan, you probably wouldn't have any problem! It's your own damn fault if it's complicated, you know. You're the most hard‑headed person I know!” Harlan opened his mouth and then shut it. It was starting to sink in what a dangerous door had been opened.

Suzanne shook her head and added, “I understand that you're silly enough to still love me. Sometimes it's very flattering, I guess. But it's certainly not my fault if you don't get laid enough to keep yourself distracted from me! You never ask enough women out, it seems to me. Love is sometimes more of a dance or a numbers game than you seem to realize. I mean, if you'd try enough partners, you might find one that you like. In any case, you have to keep trying.”

“I guess so. It's always been hard on me that I like certain women when it seems that I don't really know how to just 'like'. Anyway, what should we do now?” Harlan asked.

“Nothing, I suppose. Nothing, I'm sure of it. You may want it a lot or need it a lot, I don't know which, and you have a good deal of my sym­pathy. Because we're friends, of course. But I don't want to sleep with you and I don't want to have to sleep with you.”

“Sure, you're right,” he said quickly, grimacing with embar­rassment. He couldn't quite believe they were talking about this. He wondered why he could never keep his stupid mouth shut when he knew where it would lead. But in fact he didn't know.

“It may sound sort of odd to you,” she added, pouring herself another drink, “but I haven't been very interested in sex for some time now, any­way.”

“You mean, not since the last marriage failed?”


He'd run across this before. Sometimes it seemed that all the good women who weren't already taken had simply given up on sex. The “sexual revolution” had produced some very curious survivors. Could it be, it suddenly occurred to him, that they felt as unlucky as he did and just didn't say it?

“But there's more to it than that,” she added. “It has something more to do with who I am than with who I slept with last, more to do with what I think about myself, and maybe something to do with having passed 40 now and having a grown son who's finally going to leave the house.”

“Oh. How is Willy, by the way? I haven't seen him in weeks.”

“He's fine, I guess. I think that new job of his is going to work out really well. Young men are so strange though—everything so raw and vivid! It's just like what we've been talking about here. He's a part of it, too, always on the throb! I hate hearing my own son doing it! But when he and his friends bitch to one another about their lunatic sex drives—”

“Good grief, Suzanne, you listen to that?”

“Well, the walls are thin. Oh, fuck it, it's my house! Yeah, I listen. I just don't holler at them about it, that's all. Sometimes, it's amusing and sometimes it pisses me off, but I figure a good mother knows what's going on in her house and also knows when to keep her mouth shut.”

“Definitely a new generation of Mom,” Harlan laughed.

“Yeah, sure. Blame it on sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”

“What do they talk about?” he asked with interest, then bit his tongue. His curiosity had overcome him for a moment. If she was going to go on opening these unpre­dictable doors, surely he didn't have to nudge her along.

“Well—I don't know. It's the same old thing I've always heard, really, when men thought no one was listening to them. Mostly it happens when they've all come back from a party where none of them had a date and none of them got lucky. Willy and his pals sit around in his room and groan and bellyache about all the women that evening who just weren't “com­passion­ate” enough. Compassionate! You know what they want, of course. They want a mercy‑fuck with no strings attached. They don't want much! Christ, the generations don't change much, do they?”

Harlan didn't quite nod, just sort of tilted his head in acknowledge­ment that he'd heard what she said. He wasn't going to open any doors of any kind.

“If a girl ever does come along who seems to have this kind of crazy com­panionable compassion that you men dream about, or who maybe just happens to need a little mercy at the same time you do, all you do is screw it up!”

Suzanne, a little red in the face now, paused for breath. Harlan swal­lowed hard and kept his mouth shut. Maybe these weren't doors at all through which her thoughts were escaping this after­noon, but Pandora's box.

“Goddamn it, you don't recognize mercy when you get it! You just fall in love with her! Then you get resentful and fall apart because your “good Samaritan” doesn't fall head over heels in love with you too! No, you don't want much—just everything! You want somebody to take pity on you and do you a favor—a mighty personal favor, too!—then you think...oh, hell!”

Harlan nodded solemnly as if he understood. (Well, after all, perhaps he did know—finally—what she meant.) His face burned as he remembered those times she'd slept with him. He felt like a roast on the spit when he thought of all the years he'd spent unable to forget it. He'd been a fool.

“So much for getting what you say you want,” he told himself.

“Sometimes there just isn't any way for a woman to win,” Suzanne said in a persistent tone. She was on a roll, as if she'd repressed saying this for a long time—perhaps to Harlan, perhaps to anybody.

“You guys want to fuck every woman that you see, and then you get upset, distracted, despondent, if an attractive woman refuses to be attractive, or is attractive and yet refuses what she attracts.”

To Harlan's relief, a fly started buzzing around their heads, and seemed to like Suzanne best. He hoped it would distract her from him. She fanned it away with her hand, got the fly swatter off the top of the re­frig­er­a­­tor, and scanned the room with a murderous stare. She hated flies and wouldn't tolerate them in her kitchen.

“Where is that little shit?” she said. Harlan shrugged. The fly had disappeared. “Anyway,” she said, sitting back down, “You're probably the worst of the lot, with all of your intellectual convolutions and preten­sions. You even complain about beautiful women not knowing how to wear their beauty! I've heard you do it, so don't deny it!” Suzanne said.

“Well, I am particular, I guess. Or maybe just bizarre, I don't know,” Harlan sighed. His face was turning red; he knew from her tone that she was going to nail him whether he argued or not and that he might as well stand there and take it.

“If you were only particular, that would be one thing. But, hell, you're so absolutely insanely—!”

“God love you, you little bastard!” Harlan thought. There was that elusive fly again, and it was dive-bombing Suzanne's ear. She shook her head slightly and sat motionless. She held the fly swatter stiffly in her hand; she was frozen but poised, using her peripheral vision to follow the fly's flight path. Clearly, she meant business. Harlan waited too, slight­ly amused, thinking that they might have to wait a long time, these blue bottle flies were pretty fast. Suzanne knew it would make a mistake.

“Patience, my ass,” she muttered.

Harlan understood what she meant. He was glad the fly was there, but he prayed that it didn't land on his head. She'd probably knock his brains out if it did. At last, the fly settled for a moment at the edge of the table. Suzanne's arm snapped down as suddenly as the spring‑loaded backbreaker on a mousetrap. Whap! Harlan flinched, even though he'd been expecting it. With a practiced twist of the swatter, Suzanne flipped the corpse off the table, straight into the trashcan. She ran her hand through her long brown hair, pushing it away from her forehead, and nodded with satisfaction.

“Good shot,” he said.

“No offense, Harlan, but a woman's beauty has something in common with a pile of garbage—it attracts every pest on the block, whether you like it or not!”

Harlan shook his head, slightly mystified. He had still been thinking about the fly and it took him a moment to realize that Suzanne wasn't any more able to turn loose of the conver­sation she wanted to have than he'd been able to turn loose of his.

“Including every stray dog with a hardon?” Harlan said tiredly. It was not really a question.

“That's an ugly way to phrase it, but yes. Something like that, anyway. I've tried deflecting my son from going too far in that direction, but it just doesn't sink into his head. I've pretty much stopped trying now, though; I don't want to ruin my relation­ship with him by going too far myself. All I can do is hope that it's just a temporary condition, some­thing in the hormones, and that Willy will be more sane when he's older. But I'm probably expecting too much. I sometimes think that what it really is, is that something's wrong with the entire genetic structure of the male! Some kind of built‑in stupidity—an auto‑pilot of some kind that nature still thinks you need, even though the present state of human pro­gress doesn't need it at all.”

“I need a gene splice, huh?”

“It wouldn't hurt you,” she said. Then she laughed and added, “Or, even if it did, it might be worth it to turn off that insati­able auto‑pilot you're all flying by!”

“It's not nice to fuck with Mother Nature, though,” he grinned. “Some of this 'auto‑pilot' business is natural biological impulse, you know.”

“Be that as it may,” she said, “we are where we are. I wouldn't be the first one to point out that human evolution has a side to it rather dif­ferent from our animal evolution.”

“And I have to catch up with it? I'm afraid you'll be talking about our souls next.”

“Our souls probably both need a talking to! As for all that other stuff, I don't know, not really,” she said with a shrug and a wave of her hand. “I was just being imaginative, I suppose, and blowing off steam. I guess the short version of it is that all I'm asking is that you keep your passion in your pocket and just be my friend.”

Ah! Just friends. But, yes, that was it, after all these years, wasn't it? Harlan smiled and nodded his head dispiritedly. He admired her phrase about pas­sion (no matter how killing it was) and he believed every word that she'd said, but he still felt how he felt.

“You can live with that?” Suzanne said.

Harlan nodded again.

They both seemed to run out of steam at the same time. Suzanne got up to check the soup and took longer than usual to do it. Harlan got some more ice for their drinks and took his time too.

After a while, he spoke again, but it was as if the alcohol were finally beginning to bleed over from his brain into his speech. “You know, I've hurt that some—same—sort of line before,” he said with a careful slur.

“I imagine you have,” she smiled tiredly.

“I always manage to deal with it.”

“Good!” she told him.

He laughed loudly—almost cackled—and said, “You know, I remember a girl once who told me that she didn't want to fall in love, she wanted to stand in love! It was a fine and noble sentiment, I realized, once I'd figured out what she meant. But it struck me as being suspiciously dis­passionate! I even wrote myself a note about it, and I still remember it—well, more or less. It was something like this: 'A puppy's love is unconditional, and a mother's love unreflective, and God's love is—well, God's love is everlasting! (Those are wonderful things, aren't they?) But if everybody loves you like that, then what, I ask you, what is passion for?'“

“Are you sure you don't have passion mixed up with your wet dreams?” Suzanne said with a grin. Sometimes she liked his speeches even when she knew he was making them up as he went along.

“Well—shit—I don't know! I can't even decide if I'm drunk or sober, much less whether this conversation is comedy, or tragedy, or just a simple act of self‑serving‑preser­vation. Why the fuck am I always trying to fall in love with my best friends and they never fall in love with me?”

“I don't know. Lucky you don't make best friends with men, huh?” she teased him.

“Yes, well—,” he grinned. “Christ, you know what I mean! But it seems to me that I've spent my life watching beautiful women's faces turn to such disappointment when they find out that I'm a different kind of friend than what they wanted me to be. Fuck, it's awful! It makes me look as if I had this ugly rooting little hog of an ulterior motive all along and makes me feel like I'm never go­ing to be taken seriously! I must be an awful shit.”

“The inevitable ulterior motive!” Suzanne laughed. “Yes, I know, Harlan, you are a terrible shit and incredibly selfish, and a bit drunk, too,” she said gently.

“Don't try to get on my good side,” he told her lightly, waving his hand at her as if the fly had returned to life and come after him. His mind was still bearing down hard on the conclusion he was trying to arrive at, though it was taking more concentration than usual to do it. He took a big drink of his whiskey made a face and shuddered; the ice had melted. “Agh, I hate warm bourbon,” he muttered, then shook his head to clear it and re­sumed.

“I wonder—even though it seems as if I ought to know!—whether it's a typical male perspective that passion gills—I mean, gilds a friendship and if—”

“If it's a typical female attitude that passion kills it?” Suzanne in­terrupted.

Harlan nodded, grinning sheepishly. God, how he loved her when she knew what he was going to say! “I'm that predictable, huh?”

Suzanne covered her mouth and giggled hysterically. She quickly put her hand on his arm as if to restrain him and laughed, “I'm sorry, Harlan! I'm not trying to make you squirm, I swear!”

“No, that's all right; I'm used to being an idiot by now,” he shrugged. “If they were handing out medals, I'd probably get the 'Best in Show'.”

“Really, Harlan,” she gasped, wiping the tears from her eyes and trying to stop laughing, “I've never liked you more or loved you less than I do right now! I like it so much when your sense of humor comes back.”

Harlan still felt awkward, but he did feel better. If she could laugh like that, then clearly she didn't hate him, and he hadn't been very sure. Harlan cleared his throat.

“I say all that about passion, by the way, speaking from limited but consistent experience. I've never done a statisti­cal inquiry.”

Suzanne laughed again, but with more control now. “I should hope not!” she told him. She took a long slow sip of whiskey and said, “I wonder how you'd word the questionnaire?”

“I don't know,” he laughed back. “I guess it would be embarrassing to everyone concerned!”

“Precisely,” she assured him with a smile. She sat down and lit a ciga­rette, then looked a little more serious. “And so it is now, even though we've been friends for so long. It's embarrassing to have to withhold kisses from you that you so clearly deserve from someone—just not from me! And it makes me very unhappy to think that you may be getting romantic when I'm merely talking to you. We always have such nice conversa­tions, yet surely it's destructive to the clarity of our communica­tions?”

“Sometimes, yes.”

“I don't know what to say. If I don't feel like you do, what can I do about it?”

“Nothing,” he said flatly, “clearly nothing. Yet even this negative conversation excites me, because it approaches the subject even as it averts any culmination or advance. Ha! Do you remember those books we read by Alexander Durrell?”

“Lawrence Durrell,” Suzanne corrected.

“That's right. The closer I get to forty, the worse my memory gets, I guess! Christ, how did we get so old, anyway?”

“I don't know,” she smiled. “I guess it snuck in through the bathroom window.”

“You're quoting Beatles at me, and I'm talking about Durrell. Anyway, I always recall what he said about love.”

Suzanne raised her eyebrows and said, “I believe he said a great deal about love.”

“Yeah, everything except 'All you need is...'“

“Soup!” Suzanne said suddenly and jumped up to check it. She came back to the table and said, “Almost ready.”

“Good,” he said, “I need something to go with this drink.”

“I imagine you do!” she said. “How many does that make?”

“Fewer than yours, I think.”

“Yeah, but I'm a better drinker than you are,” she said.

“I know you are, but I've got more brain cells left. Listen, do you want to hear my Durrell quote or not?”

“Are you sure you have enough brain cells?”


“Let's have it then,” she grinned. She knew how he liked to quote.

“Let's see now. Okay, I've got it. 'What is to be done when one cannot share one's own opinions about love?'“

Suzanne looked startled. Somehow she'd forgotten that one. But she knew what it meant.

“Nothing,” she answered in an unhappy voice. “Nothing, I'm afraid.”

As so often in the past, her honesty devastated the insistent stance Harlan had taken. “Suzanne's an awfully good friend,” he thought with a sigh, and that was some help, after all. She had her virtues, as he had his—well, one or two, anyway! He knew all that, though he suspected that he'd gotten too drunk for it to matter. In a sense he felt more des­per­ate, fool­ish, morose, and aroused now than ever.

“Patience, my ass,” he thought grimly. There was precious little virtue in this sort of virtue, as far as he could see. But still, if he loved her? She had sounded so unhappy for both their sakes, and he hated that.

“Sometimes maybe it's better just to lie a little,” he thought. He had reached the other side of truth—his truth, anyway—and felt compelled to say something. But what?

“There's always soup,” he said aloud, smiling idiotically.

“Oh, God, that's right!” she said, and jumped up.

She turned out the fire and moved the pot off the burner. When she began to make a clatter with the bowls and bread platter, he thought for a moment that he should get up to help her, then blew it off. “Fuck it, I'm drunk,” he decided.

“Watch out, it's hot!” she said, setting the steam­ing bowls on the table. Harlan looked carefully at the bowl. He pushed the vegetables around with his spoon for a while, then looked at Suzanne.

“Maybe I don't know what women are for,” he said dispiritedly.

“Maybe you don't know what friends are for,” she coun­tered.

“Maybe we're both right.”

“Always looking for the last word, aren't you?” she grinned.

“Yep. But maybe I've got it right this time.”

“Maybe you do, but—”

She was interrupted by Dali jumping up on the table. “Oh, crap, Dolly, how did you get in here? No wonder there was a fly in the house!”

Suzanne rushed off to find what door or window in the house was open. The cat gave her backside a cool conceited look (as if to say, “I can walk through walls!), then tiptoed straight toward Harlan.

“Watch out, Doorknob,” Harlan muttered, but Dali came on any­way, and performed his fluffy‑tailed pirouette with the usual grand finale: he stuck his ass in Harlan's face. While Harlan leaned back, wishing he had a fork instead of a spoon, the cat sniffed the soup, then sneezed. Suzanne's soup was heavily peppered.

“That's nice,” Harlan said with an icy smile. “Nice little kitty,” he said softly while slowly, uncertainly, reaching for Dolly's tail.

Suzanne walked in and whisked the cat to the floor. She sat down on the edge of her chair and tapped her forefinger on the cat's nose, nodding at it as if they were carrying on a conversation. The cat watched her fin­ger closely as if he was thinking of eating it, then complained noisily and tried repeatedly to jump in her lap. Suzanne tried again and again to get her soup spoon to her mouth and finally lost patience with Dolly.

“You don't even like soup, stupid!” she said, and light­ly slapped the cat on the head with the fly swatter. Dolly cringed for a moment, then seemed to think better of it and moved out of range. Harlan was startled, even by this gentle remonstrance. Suzanne's patience with the cats was usually infinite. It must be the whiskey, he thought. Braincells gone to hell in a soup cart. Bread cart. Handcart!

“Maybe you do have it right, Harlan,” Suzanne said, turning back to him, “but that's no reason not to eat your soup. Try it, it's good.”

Harlan frowned. He'd lost track of who she was talking to or what she meant. Right about what? Did he or didn't he like soup? “How drunk am I?” he wondered. “Oh, God, the Weller's ate the last of my braincells!”

“I don't know about this,” he said, shaking his head.

“What don't you know?”

He shook his head some more and wrinkled his nose at the soup. “That ass­hole cat of yours just blew his nose in my bowl!”

“Oh, for the love of God, Harlan, nothing's perfect!” she laughed. “Just shut up and eat your soup!”


4th draft: 02/03/07
©1988 Ronald C. Southern

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