He Wasn't You
This is you, this is me.
Her voice gravelly with sleep, the woman traces the
outline of her body and her husband's as if at a crime scene,
her hands the yellow chalk of police. She wets one tapered finger
and massages his eyelids gently. He registers the peach scent
of her hair, newly washed, sighs, then digs deeper into the sheets.
There had been affairs. First him. Then, he suspects,
her. They separated. It went on like that for eight months, then
last night he called. And wound up here. Her house. Their old
He wakes to find ten sharp nails swinging lightly
in his face, each perfectly shaped and painted Ferrari red.
"Kathleen," he says. "What time is
"Blow them dry."
Martin blows lightly on each of her nails, careful
not to touch them with his lips. When he finishes, she taps them
lightly on his forehead, then reaches over, flips on the lampstand
He shoots her in this new light with his camera eye,
unblinking, taking his time, as if he has never before seen this
woman. He sees her chipped front tooth, the small scar on her
temple, the gentle rise of her neck, the slope of her shoulder,
the curve from hip to waist, and the way her legs, half folded
on the bed, seem painted on the white sheets in a sexy angle.
"Stay there," she says. "I'm not finished
She twists to reach his thighs, the muscled calves,
his feet, where the sheets lie bunched. He lies perfectly still
until she completes her tracing, his strong surgeon's hands clasped
and resting on his chest. From where he sits he cannot see the
clock, his pants block the lighted dial. Dusty morning sun slants
through the raised corner window. He props his head with a pillow
She grabs at the reading light suspended over their
heads and adjusts it skillfully, like the doctor she is, so that
it shines brightly into his eyes, blinding him momentarily.
"What time is it," he asks again.
"True confession time. Time to pony up some
answers. Like, for instance, why you called?"
Martin considers. He had been out driving. He drove
across the north shore, onto the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway,
twenty- four miles into New Orleans. Then turned around and got
back on the Causeway. Fifteen miles out he had pulled over, as
far out of the right lane as he could get, set the flashers and
cut the engine. Cars roared by, honking and flashing their brights.
He had gotten out of the car, moving carefully to the railing,
buffeted by the wind of the flying cars. He was out of the sight
of land, he realized. The black water beneath him, what he could
see of it under the light of the half moon, rippled in what appeared
to be circles of light. He spat into the darkness, considering.
Then removed his blazer and let the wind kite it down, down, the
sleeves swirling out then folding in and out of sight. He had
twisted the gold ring off his right hand, another gift from the
New Orleans woman, and thrown it over as well. Past midnight he
found himself in a parking lot, looking in the window of an all
night convenience store. The light was strange, that funny amber
color you see everywhere now that seems to paint things more than
light them, that makes you believe for a time that maybe it's
a different world and that this is no ordinary convenience store,
no ordinary night.
"So," Kathleen asks again. "Give me
a sentence, Martin. The truest sentence that you know. Then another.
Lay them down"
"So I was at this convenience store on the north
end. I was parked there somehow, I don't why I was there and not
somewhere else. And I saw this woman carrying stuff to the counter,
piles of stuff in a basket. She was in a bikini, this woman, one
of those thong jobs that makes your crotch hurt just looking at
it, and had she lots of muscles, but she threw that stuff up on
the counter like it was some great effort, with way more arm movement
than you'd think was necessary for a small basket like that. And
the thing is, I was parked head in, right up in front, so I had
a good view. She had a bottle of peroxide and some rubbing alcohol
up there on the counter, two cans of Band Aids and a big economy
box of Tylenol, an Ace bandage, a tube of Coppertone and a sixpack
"Big night. What'd she look like, your woman?"
He frowns and gives her the big stare. Then says,
"I don't know. Like your average woman in a thong at midnight
getting ready to self-medicate."
"That's the B answer," she says.
"OK. She wasn't hard to look at. Sculptured.
Good bones. Chiseled from the Cosmo prototype. Huge heaving breasts,
wasp- like waist, that one perfect mole just above her pouty lips,
which are lipsticked the color of--"
"Of these," she says, holding up her fingernails,
which have dried by now but still have that nice wet look, and
waving her toenails in the air, which she has done in the same
"And after she made her purchase she drifted
out of the store and toward you in some big, final way, like an
Obsession ad, like she's built for speed, like all your days hereafter
will be filled with a modicum of happiness and just the right
amount of danger, like the grail is in reach and all the brothers
"That's sweet," she says. "Pathetic,
but sweet. Now, are you going to tell me about the New Orleans
"What's to tell? It's over. The New Orleans
woman got deep- sixed, over and out, tossed over the Pontchartrain,
buried deeper than Hoffa. Like a spot, she's been mopped up."
"And that's why you're here."
"Sure. Well, no. Actually, I had a dream."
"You and M.L.K. Lincoln Memorial stuff."
"No, seriously. I really did. I mean, maybe
it doesn't mention you directly, this dream--"
"Dreams don't mention, they enact. Your unlived
life. Your shadow self. The whole coulda, woulda, shoulda thing."
"Didn't Oprah do a show on that?"
Martin ignores this.
"So anyway," he says, "it's a Pope
"A pope dream!" She stops her laugh dramatically,
looks at him hard, with mock seriousness. "Was the popemobile
there? I always wanted to ride in the popemobile."
"No popemobile," he says.
"Isn't the Pope in every dream, technically?
I can't remember."
"Wants to be, maybe. Anyway, you're the Catholic,"
"Was the Catholic," she says. "My
girlish patent leather youth. OK, serious now. So there's the
Pope. What's he doing?"
"I was in a classroom--"
"Tell it in the present tense, like it's happening
"I'm in this classroom. I must be back in high
school because I recognize the colors of the walls and where my
locker is, and the Pope has come to our school to answer our questions
and to talk to us. And I'm scheduled to say something to him,
you know, make some kind of scripted remark, like it's a photo
op or something. Like they had out in Denver or wherever it was."
"Stick to the dream. Don't editorialize."
"So then, for some reason, I'm on the ground,
crawling around. I mean, I didn't start out crawling around in
the dream, I did one of those deep knee bend things that Catholics
"Right, I genuflect to the Pope, and then I
seem to like it, because I stay down there a long time. I'm crawling
around on the ground not being noticed by the Pope, who is busy
blessing everyone and doesn't see me."
"What are you doing down there?"
"Well, this is the funny part. I'm crawling
around by the Pope and I remember I'm trying to feel something.
With the Pope there and everything, I figure I should be feeling
things more intensely. I have this idea that everything will be
"But it wasn't happening."
"Right, it wasn't happening. It's just not there,
I don't feel anything. So then I see this other kid, like me,
on the floor, crawling. Except he's cut his thumb, and I can see
this raised bead of blood on it, and he's looking at this blood
and at the Pope, and it's like I start to feel through him, you
"Uh huh. Weird."
"Yeah. It's like I feel for him, bleeding like
that, and then I began feeling like him, and then I was him."
"And now you're thinking--what?"
"That-- you know." Martin looks down into
his hands. "That it might be a sign or something. For us."
"Yeah. Like we're going to be OK now. I was
this one person, and now I'm another."
"Just like that."
"Just like that. Why not?"
She sighs, and turns into the wall.
"You know you didn't have to work up a dream
for this, you could've just bought the Pope's book at the mall."
"Knock it off, Kathleen."
There is a long silence. Then she turns back to him,
reaches out for his hand. He lets her take it.
"Look, Martin," she says. "I believe
you, what you're trying to say here. That it's over with what's
her face. Miss November. But there's something you should know."
He bites his lip. And waits.
"You've met someone. Is that it?"
"Well, what'd you expect, that I'd crash the
convent? It's been eight months. You didn't call. I didn't call.
Then I called and you didn't want to deal with it. Then you called
and your timing, once again, was off."
"Who is he?"
"Who is she?"
"Was she. Miss November, remember?"
"Well, he's Dr. November, OK? A guy at work.
No one you know. Why don't we just leave it at that?"
"So what was the big attraction for you with
this guy? He's the master swordsman? He touches you in all your
deepest places? He's the one we've all been waiting for?"
"He wasn't you."
Martin gets up, puts on his pants. He reaches under
the bed and finds his shoes. His starts to lace one on, then throws
it at the wall. The shoe ricochets off the wall and knocks a vase
of flowers off the endtable.
"Are you quite finished?"
The water from the vase has soaked Martin's socks.
He peels them off slowly, and lays them methodically on the bedspread.
"Look, Kathleen, I'm sorry. I guess you had
the right. And who am I to blah blah blah. It's not pretty, any
of it, and the worst part is I feel like we're reading off a bad
"And the weird thing is, is that nothing really
happens in this story. I mean something happened, something big
took place here, but in a way everything is still in place. You're
you, I'm me, the house is still the house and these are my clothes
and our friends are still our friends--it's just that all the
meanings have gotten jumbled around, out of order or something.
Stuff that normally goes with other stuff is just lying around
now, out of place. Emotions. We don't know where to put this other
stuff that we feel, right? The bad stuff, I mean."
He considers this.
"And divorce is the ultimate cliche, isn't it?
I mean, then we'd join the national rap about personal growth,
the word space would come up, repeatedly, when we're out with
our respective support groups, in this priestly tone our therapists
use, there'd be the usual talk about us, the allowances made as
to how at least there were no children, our parents and friends
would do just the right amount of tactful commiserating, or they
wouldn't, but the whole thing would be so boring and predictable
we'd want to fucking kill ourselves."
"Death before divorce, that what you're saying?
Take the long view. Play the hand you're dealt. Be adults. Stop
whining, take what you can get, pray the St. Francis prayer or
whatever it is, 'change what you can and don't sweat the rest,'
get a dog."
"Something like that. Maybe without the dog
"The dog, I think, is critical here."
"Could we start with a hamster or a gerbil or
something? You know, work our way up to the big stuff?"
"Sorry, pal. Nothing in cages. You get my drift?"
"Right. Check. Gotcha."
Martin punches the TV remote, surfs to CNN. There's
an update on the latest disaster haunting the world, some wildfire
footage out West. The firefighters look grimy and weary. Like
they'd rather be somewhere else. A place without heroics.
"So, this was good, right?"
"This, meaning what," she says.
He waves his arms vaguely, spinning now, around the
room, like a child's top whose string has been pulled.
"This. Our talk. Our understanding. I fucked
up, you did what you had to do. Now we go on. Right?"
"Sure," she says. "We go on. Thoroughly
modern. But here's the deal."
"What," he says, taking a seat on the bed
next to her.
"I'm going to continue to see him. Tuesday and
Thursday nights, same as before."
"What! You're fucking kidding me."
"I kid you not."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Relax, I'll bring him by. Introduce him. You'll
like him, I promise. Think of it this way, I'm back to seventeen.
It will be like you two have joint custody."
He stands up, turns around, and looks at her. Her
color is up, and he can see her lightly freckled shoulders, the
delicate collarbone, twist away from him, then back. He sees now
that both her hands are behind her back, fingers crossed.
She sticks her tongue out at him. She looks so small
to him, then, sitting there like that, so present, so completely
"Deal," he says.
"You like my hair, yes?" She fluffs out
her hair, which has dried to the color of a new penny. She lies
back on the pillow so that it fans all around her face, framing
"I do," he says softly.
"Hair I am!"
He laughs, and they grow silent.
"We'll have our moments, though, am I right?
It's not this easy, is it? There'll be things I'll want to know
that I shouldn't, words will be said and I'll piss you off and
we'll get off kilter, do stupid shit. That the arrangement?"
"Pretty much. And one more thing."
"I see her around, or you see her, and I do
her. Then you. The full Hoffa. You tracking on this?"
He walks into the kitchen. Opening the back door
he watches their neighbors up and down the street, getting the
paper, taking out the trash, setting the flag on the mailbox,
ordinary stuff he's seen a thousand times. He watches them get
into their expensive cars to pull them out of their cluttered
garages to go to their important jobs.
He studies the careful way that they move. He stands
on tiptoe, lifting his eyes and craning his neck to see past where
his street turns out of the development and connects to the main
road into town. He can just barely make it out.