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Pia Ehrhardt

This Life

A good night is a night when Phil’s not supposed to be with me but he is. This happens because his ex has decided, at the last minute, to do something with the kids. They have joint custody. A fifty-fifty split.

When he calls to say he’s coming over, unscheduled, I get an energy surge. I can scrub, scrape, rinse, strip, and pitch. I tend to the things in my apartment that need attention: dust on the baseboards, hand-washables, two weeks of newspapers and crushed boxes worth four trips to the dumpster. I work my list. The vacuum cleaner attachments come out of the box. There’s a window of time, right before he comes over, when I have epic strength, when I could pick up the fender of a car to save a baby, pinned and crying, underneath.

Suddenly, he’s at my door. Standing there in tennis shoes and faded jeans that show his solid, straight legs. He gives me beefy hugs that pop bones up and down my back. I switch from Plan A to Plan B – activities-for-two. The baseball game goes on. We bounce around on the bed. I cut cheese into squares and peel slices of fruit. We drink beer or gin. I rub his pale feet. These are pleasant times. Gifts from the ex. Different from our schedule.

Half of my time is spent with him. Most nights, we stay at my place, unless we have a string of two or three days together. Then, he argues for his apartment because of the chair I bought him. For fifteen years, he waited for a chair. Molded to the shape of his backside, the chair would smell like him and be faded at the arms. His pocket change would fall between the cushions. When he walked into the room, dog, kids, or wife, would pop up and out of this chair. After he left his wife, she bought him a La-Z-Boy. He can see it through the window when he drops off his sons. I guess she thought he’d be back. For fifteen years of marriage, all he wanted was a chair. Now he has chairs everywhere.

When he’s got his kids, I’m on my own. I might have dinner with all of them, but it’s nothing regular. They usually have food delivered. Pizza and fried chicken, since the two brothers never agree. I sit in a chair at the table that doesn’t face the TV. They all face the same way, like a shiny television family.

I ask the boys questions, left and right. We talk about teachers, and their colorful watches, and new CDs. They roll food between their fingers and burp their Cokes, which makes their dad smile.

When I’m on my own, chances are I’ve bought a glossy magazine and I’m looking at pretty women, ripping out those perfumed cards, or I’m pacing around, opening bags of cheese puffs, eating sliced cheddar, making myself drinks in the blender. This life of mine makes me nervous.

The cheese calms me some. It’s nothing fancy. Orange-yellow, American cheddar is all I buy. The man at Breaux Mart slices it thin and smirks when he hands me the package over the deli case. I know he’s thinking, ‘there’s no cheese in that cheese, lady.’

Looking at pretty women is an old habit. Something I do when I don’t know what to do. I’m not far off from pretty myself. If someone had discovered me on an escalator when I was sixteen, shopping with my friends in the mall, I might be wearing furs in Venice, or stretched out on volcanic rocks. Then I could turn off the TV. I know the characters on the networks like old classmates. And with syndication, you don’t have to ever be too far away from any of them. Tony and Angela, Maddie and David, Sam and the guy across the hall. I know their furniture, and their bathrobes.

This time on my hands has drawbacks. There are dead wasps around my windowsill that I can’t pick up. They’re brittle, getting smaller. Maybe they’ll disappear.

Phil has one green eye, one blue. Both nice colors. And contact lenses. His hands are thick with flat nails. (The skin’s bunched up at one of his cuticles from nerves.) He’s strong-looking in his shoulders. A little overweight, to some, but underneath there’s a soldier. He plans traffic. Counts how many cars turn. How many go straight. ‘Urban systems’ is what he calls his work. Maybe that bores you, but traffic flow doesn’t just happen. You know the rubber line you see, sometimes, stretched across the road? It’s put there by people like Phil. They count us. That’s how they figure us out.

I never once thought about who decides when the lights change, or why the Circle-K Food Mart is on that corner until I met Phil. He likes to figure out the quickest way to get from here to there. His brain works in straight lines.

My boyfriend before him was more of a guesser. He ran a restaurant. He could hold a filet in his hand and tell you how many ounces it was without using a scale. Or pour a perfect jigger of vodka with his eyes closed.

You date a man; you learn his work, his hobbies, and half a dozen new words. You make him think your past started with him.

I’ve been with Phil almost a year and, already, I can count him on two fingers: rush hour in new cities, and baseball. We go all over to find traffic. And he has this goal to see every major league team in the country play at home. He’s collecting the wool caps. They’re in his drawer, folded this special way, small as sock balls. A red one from the Red Sox is his favorite, faded at the brim, where he sweats.

Last April, we drove over to Pompano Beach for spring training. It was pouring down rain, but there we were, in the stands with the old people. Dressed in plastic garbage bags with holes cut out for our heads. I ate a foot-long hotdog with onions strong enough to clean grout. My stomach went on strike. For two days, all I could eat was Melba toast.

A man from the clean-up crew threw me a game ball. It’s on my shelf. I watch some games on TV now, even when I’m by myself.

Phil is a piece of work. I have to set the alarm to keep up with him. A few weekends ago we were eating something with a bitter taste from the toaster oven catching fire. (It doesn’t matter how often you turn them upside down and shake them. There’s always a piece of something in there.) Phil was reading box scores out loud when he had an idea. "Pack the van!" he said, and we started out – double-time – to Houston.

We shared a six pack on the drive over, and talked the whole way to Galveston, which is half way there. It was late, so we checked into a motel room. There was buckshot in the wall, the blanket on the bed was thin and covered in pills, and the TV was on a stand way up by the ceiling. You needed a key to turn it on. I think that was more than Phil could take. I didn’t mind the room, but he wasn’t happy. When Phil’s embarrassed, the world picks up the check. So we checked out and kept driving through the night.

From Galveston to Houston, he drove without talking. He just popped his jaw over and over. So I sat tight. Tight as a jar seal. I never have been able to sleep in the car.

If I know anything it’s how to ride Phil’s moods. He swings in and out on pretty short notice, so I try to keep my eyes open for how he’s doing. I wonder sometimes what he notices about me. I wish he’d, every now and then, kiss me hard for no reason. Or tell me my hair smells good, which it does.

Houston was rainy and we hit good traffic on the outskirts of town at an intersection into a shopping center with a double left turn on a ten-second timer. The delay gave Phil his second wind, and he, finally, put his heavy hand above my knee.

We checked in to a Days Inn. Our room was on the ground floor. Phil likes to see the car from the bed.

I don’t know about most people, but I see sex in pictures. I can’t take the same one-two-one-two, over and over with the same man, same bed, without some picture in my mind. Sometimes Phil’s a cartoon varmint, so I squeeze him and try to flatten him thin as pizza dough. When he pops back into shape, I steamroller him. He’s up and running. I drop a boulder on him. He crawls out from under – ragged – and gives up.

Thinking about Etch-A-Sketch works, too. How you have to twist the knobs to make curlicues and lopsided heads. Or dark, dark scrapings. How, with a few shakes of the sand inside, the board is washed and you have a clean slate.

The after-part of sex with Phil is worth the price of admission. Partly because it’s over; mainly because he’s calm and cool as a sheet. There’s this ditch in the middle of his back that collects the sweat. Right then is usually a good time to talk.

For the whole trip, I could tell he had something on his mind. Sure enough, after coming, he told me his cinnamon bun franchise idea. Gourmet cinnamon buns, big as bath sponges. With two friends as partners in the deal. He swore me to secrecy.

Privacy is one thing I’m real good at. Which is not to say that every so often I don’t spill my life out to a stranger. The Cutco knives man, for instance, who I only see twice a year. What can he do with the information?

People can make you crazy having to know every human thing. What you’re thinking about. What you have in the trunk of your car. Your real weight. The shape of your face and who you look like.

The last thing in the world I expected was to discuss Phil’s bun idea with anyone in my family, but my mother kept me on the phone too long, and it came out. When Phil and I visited over the weekend, it was The Talk.

My parents were as blind as feeding fish about those buns and Phil was bent out of shape, and gasping for air. They had insisted that he bring samples over. Questions blitzed. Right there on the back porch over coffee and buns my mother had microwaved, so they were too hot in the middle to eat. They wanted to buy in.

After that, the deal lost its shine. My father was free and loose with advice and Phil likes things to be his idea. Me? I was relieved and I told him. His schedule’s a zoo, anyway. He coaches his boys in baseball, he goes to Toastmasters on Tuesday nights. Add to that the group of men friends he plays golf with and there’s not much time left over for his girl. Besides, I could take the buns or leave them. Too heavy on the cinnamon, and no nuts. Phil was pretty mad with me, though, for talking about it, and he clammed up to teach me a lesson.

On Saturday night, I was at home giving myself a French manicure, which takes a steady hand. The phone rang off the wall and I let it. Two can play the silence game. Phil was out of town at a convention and I had the night to myself.

My neck was stiff from this blue-colored dream that had tightened me up. There was this chunk of water – like a Jell-O square in turquoise, but there were waves right in it, swaying. These two women were standing on the beach, naked, with their breasts and crotches smudged out so you couldn't see anything. And I was standing on the hill with my grocer watching that chunk of water. Then this baby walked by with a huge head. She was too young to be walking and she looked like Tweetie bird.

I’ve worried away having children. For two weeks last month, I thought I was pregnant. I knew as soon as we finished. I left the bed and sat on the toilet, like I always do, pushing out rubbery strands. But I could tell that this time there was a sex education film going on in there. Two things getting together with crazy glue. All the pushing and peeing in the world wasn’t going to shake them loose.

I’d wake up in the middle of the night, bone-straight, sweating around my neck, worrying about the things I couldn't do. The baby and I would be a package deal. I couldn't drink coffee, or beer, or gin. I couldn't ride a horse. There'd be no monthly blood to count on.

Whatever was in there never had a chance. I willed it away by thinking about the wrong things. Whatever was in there went somewhere else. I kept it to myself. The possibility was over before Phil ever knew.

I knew it was him on the phone but that manicure has five steps. After the last ring I felt guilty, so I turned on the weather channel to see how it was where he was. The big map was bruised with color.

The map was a sign. If Phil was going to get home safely, I was going to have to concentrate. I turned off the TV, put out the lights, and sat on my couch.

I have a system that works and it’s based on the notion that life gives you warnings. For instance, I’m driving to work without my seatbelt on because of a ruffle on my shirt. And that’s when I have a close call. Then, I let worry cover me like a rag because, in my life, things happen in two’s: I rush through two yellow lights; I almost hit two birds with my car; two people bring donuts to the office on the same morning.

Worry pre-empts surprises. And so does prayer. Do them both and you’re double-coated.

I don’t pray because my grandmother does. With two sets of beads. One for the living, and one for the dead. When I was young and staying at her house, I’d get up in the night for something. Outside her door I could hear her fingers working the beads, clicking the pearl rosary against the wooden rosary. She was pinning a prayer on every good person in the family. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know Phil, yet, to pray for him.

When the phone rang again I was up like a shot. He was at the luggage carousel. His group had rented a van to drive to the airport in five o-clock traffic. They wanted to see Houston at its most tangled. Phil said the delay was so awesome they almost missed their flight. I insisted on picking him up from the airport.

That night I was his crib toy, with parts to pull and squeeze and bite. My legs were a jungle gym. He climbed between the bars and got his head stuck. We fell asleep before Conan O’Brien.

I thought I heard him get up in the night but I was having a quick dream about trying on hats. When I tried to throw my leg on him he wasn’t there.

He was in the kitchen, in gym shorts, reading the back of a jar. He likes to cook thick foods in heavy pots, like pot roast, and garlic chicken. What he makes takes hours before it’s ready to eat.

There were ham bones on the counter, cut into disks, and red beans swelling in a glass bowl. Phil was seasoning like a hero, free-handing lemon pepper, celery salt, onion flakes, cayenne.

Everything was melting together and it looked like a winner batch of beans, with a night of leftovers for the kids. I took a sip out of the beer he was drinking. He was humming the bars of a song I didn’t know, but I didn’t let that bother me and rinsed the dirty utensils he was through using.
Pia Ehrhardt lives in Mandeville, Louisiana with her husband and son. Her work has appeared in Blip Magazine Archive and Louisiana Life. She is writing a collection of short stories and, this summer, she'll produce a short film that's an adaptation of one of them. Weather and bank account permitting.

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