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Bearing the Body
By Ehud Havazelet
Picador Copyright © 2007 Ehud Havazelet
All rights reserved.
The letter sat before him, unopened, propped against a coffee mug. He had known it was there, somehow, even before he found it among the wad of junk mail, bills, and offers of credit cards he neither wanted nor could afford that plugged the brass box in the lobby. He had paused with the tiny key in his hand but then opened the box and reached in, not because suspicions were silly — the opposite, if anything, was true — but because whatever was there had arrived, was already unavoidable. There was a letter for Janet also, from her mother, and he placed it on the bench by the door where they left each other's mail before discarding the rest under the sink and filling the pot for coffee. He hadn't slept in thirty hours and he didn't want more coffee, he wanted a drink. But he didn't want a drink, either.
He had two cups, making repeated circuits from the kitchen, where the letter lay on the table, to the living room that sloped east toward Mass. Ave., to their bedroom in back, where the sheets were still twisted and hanging to the floor. He thought of lying on the bed, pulling the stale warm darkness of the room over his head with the blankets, but returned to the kitchen with the dull resignation he had felt opening the mailbox, nothing else to do.
The lamp with its weighted cord shifted in the draft of the floor heater, marking circles of pale light on the table. Across the street a man came out of his house, looked around him, zipped a bright blue parka over his stomach, and began walking toward the avenue. Idly, Nathan leaned in his chair to see which direction he turned at the corner.
The letter, in the emphatic, slashing hand that could only be Daniel's, was addressed to His Holiness Msgr. Nathaniel Mirsky, SJ, DDS, LSD, and had been mailed six days ago from San Francisco. The postmark was smudged, off kilter, but he could make out the city and date. There was no return address.
He was still at the table when Janet arrived. He heard her kick off her shoes, heard her open her letter and sit on the bench in the hall, and over the next few minutes heard her laugh and exclaim to herself. His head felt exactly as if two hands pressed hard behind the temples, something in his chest darted and clenched, a pulled muscle, heartburn, early signs of infarction. A brief hope had flared when she came in; now he was even more alone. Across the street the man had returned, wearing a Hogan's Heroes hat, fleece-lined with flaps that could be pulled down over the ears. He was a portly gentleman in a blue parka, which also looked new, and he stopped at the top of the stairs before going inside, looking around with a pleased expression as if all his prospects were improved, now he'd gotten a warm new hat.
Nathan made a sound. In the hall Janet heard him and said, "Nate? Are you here, honey?"
She came into the kitchen holding her letter, a bag of groceries in which he could see a baguette and a bottle of wine. She was in her stockings, and she walked with feet slightly splayed, flat-footed, which always made Nathan think, for some reason, of a small child, and which, for some reason, he found quite sexy. She put the bag on the table in front of the letter, leaned against the sink and said, "Listen to this. It's about Dana." She picked up a foot and began massaging the toes, one by one, through the sheer stocking. Dana was eleven, her sister back in Cleveland, and Nathan liked hearing about her, more, anyway, than about Janet's parents, who even over the phone — the mother flirty and solicitous, the father bluffly man-to-man, always with some home-improvement project he wanted to discuss — seemed to be asking for something Nathan didn't have in him to give. Janet read from the letter.
"'Yesterday, after dinner, she was on the phone with Carrie, one of her friends. Oh, it's the thing now, talking on the phone. If you come into the room she stops and stares until you leave, and if you stay she says huffily, "I can't talk right now. I'll have to call you back."'"
Janet paused, looked up at him with a pleasure-filled, disarming smile that ratcheted the pain in his chest. Please, he found himself thinking. And then, Please what? "Let me find the good part," Janet said.
She came to the table and sat, the angle of the lamp illuminating the slope of her breasts in the white dress shirt, the slight pucker of the material when she leaned forward. She put a foot onto Nathan's shoe and continued reading. Two months ago she had moved out, gone to her mother's for a week. Things were bad between them. Nathan had agreed to counseling, Janet had returned, and since they had moved around each other with a studied gaiety and hopefulness that filled Nathan with a queasy despair.
"'So, later, I just couldn't help myself. I said, "Honey, who were you and Carrie talking about?" She's in bed, reading Narnia (again), she's brushed and put up her hair and put on moisturizer, but still in her bunny pajamas, of course. "Amanda Vukovich," she said. "She's a ho." "A what?" I said. "A hoe?" "A ho, Mom. You know — she'd have sex with like anybody who asked her."'"
Janet put the letter down and looked at him. She laughed. "My God," she said, "my pigtailed, Wonder Bread, Episcopalian sister. Ho ho ho. I blame MTV."
Janet began unloading groceries, filling a pot for pasta. When she handed Nathan a corkscrew for the wine, she took the shopping bag from the table and saw the letter against the coffee mug.
"Oh," she said, said it again, and sat. She reached over for his hand but he moved to scratch something on his face. She let her hand drop to his knee. "Oh, Nathan," Janet said. "Have you read it?" He knew she was looking at him. When he didn't answer, she kissed him lightly on the hair, left him to open the wine, and began heating the marinara. Nathan wondered what the man in the new hat was doing, was he wearing it inside? He'd like to knock on his door, find out. He felt the urge to run, to cry, to scream. He saw how the night would unfold and closed his eyes against it.
They drank the wine, and when the bottle was finished opened another, and after that Nathan got the scotch from the cupboard and the weed from the freezer. In the periphery of his awareness he could see Janet moving carefully, trying, in the way she arranged their dinner, the pretty salad with the carrot shavings and cherry tomatoes, the nice sweater she changed into, the way she accepted the joint from him a few times though she rarely enjoyed getting high, and never in the middle of the week, when she was tired from work. He was aware of all this, the way she let her hands or lips linger on him just long enough to have him know she was available, and as he poured his second scotch he resolved not to look at her anymore.
Later they made love, and she left him dozing heavily while she went to shower. He woke, hearing her cleaning the dishes, watering plants, opening the bills she had retrieved from the trash. From Mass. Ave. he could faintly hear music starting up at the Plough. He wondered if Robin was there, or Nicki. Or Eleanor. He lay in the dark, listening, until, much later, Janet came in.
She sat on the edge of the bed and began brushing her hair. He moved over and put a hand under her T-shirt, holding a breast from below.
"Hello," she said. "Somebody want dessert?"
He pulled her into bed, slid her T-shirt over her head, her sweatpants and underwear off. He was like a man running too long, knowing only that he had to finish before he could stop. Janet lay under him, looking at him with her bright, kindly eyes. "C'mere," she said, putting her arms behind his head to draw his face to her. Nathan took her by the shoulders and turned her, and when she lay on her stomach he put his hands under her hips and lifted. With his palms, trying to be gentle, he eased her cheeks apart and positioned himself.
"Honey," she said, her voice muffled by the pillow. "Sweetheart, no, not now, okay? Not right now. Maybe later we could."
He ignored her, began pressing against her.
"Nathan," she said. "Let me do you, okay? I'm really in the mood."
He was nearly ready. He rocked back and forth, pressing against her until he was hard. He pulled away a moment, saw her long white back, the silken hair covering her averted face. Outside Irish music surged when someone opened the door to the Plough. Somebody called somebody's name.
He moved in hard, once, twice. Janet let out a short scream, pressing her face into the pillow, reaching back to clench one of his hands. He kept moving, steadying himself against her. Soon she let go of his hand, was silent and didn't stir in front of him. He couldn't even hear her breathing. He prayed for it to be over and prayed she wouldn't turn and look at him, this woman who on his best days, his naïve hopeful lighter days, he tried to love. He closed his eyes and finished.
* * *
In the morning, Nathan waited until Janet was gone, pretending to sleep, trying to. Despite himself he attempted to gauge her mood, listening for her voice in the shower, whether she put things down more heavily than usual as she moved in the bathroom and kitchen. He couldn't tell. She closed the door behind her, and, though that was what he had been waiting for, he lay in bed a while longer, determined not to think about anything. When he did get up he called Dr. Ammons' secretary at the hospital, who was completely mystified by what he told her.
"You'll be missing rounds, then, Dr. Mirsky? And your shift?"
He had said he was leaving for a few weeks, maybe longer, of course he'd be missing goddamn rounds. "Just give him the message, please," Nathan said, and after a moment, as if she was giving him time to take it all back, she hung up.
He packed, unwilling to decide what he might need, sweaters or T-shirts or maybe even a tie, tossing in whatever his hands found until the old Samsonite he'd inherited from Daniel when he went off to college was nearly full. He topped it with a handful of underwear and socks from the dirty clothes hamper at the bottom of their closet. He sat at the table in the kitchen, trying to compose a note. "Hey," he began, "I gotta take care of some stuff ..." He tore the paper from the pad and began again. "I'll call from New York ...," the next note said, and the next, "J, I need ...," and the last, "Janet, I'm sorry." He left this one, threw the others in the trash, and went through the apartment one more time to see if he'd forgotten anything. In their bedroom he paused at the dresser, looking at the dish she kept her rings in, the assortment of clips for her hair. He stood before her part of the closet a moment, then kneeled to put the clothes he'd scattered back in the basket. He thought of making the bed, but the inadequacy of the gesture struck him as obscene. So did the note he had left for her on the table, which he stuffed in his pocket along with the still unopened letter, before taking his suitcase and locking the door behind him.
* * *
"Fucking old men," Mirsky thought, looking balefully around the locker room. They had a smell that even chlorine couldn't hide — fish about to go bad, or a day-old sandwich left in the sun. He couldn't help himself as he scanned the truly astonishing array before him — hairy backs and ears, speckled bald pates, scrotums dangling like watch fobs, skin withered and flaked and rumpled like canvas. Disgusting. He forced himself to look away, to avoid seeing himself in the row of mirrors opposite the lockers. Not that he held illusions he was any different.
At the other end of the locker benches, Melamed was dressing, talking with someone Mirsky recognized, but whose name he had forgotten. Melamed was an importer, retired, a snappy dresser with pressed pants and jackets with handkerchiefs in the pockets. He wore goggles to do his laps, a silly tight cap with a boomerang on the side. Sometimes they talked about medicine. Melamed asked about Nathan up in Boston, and Mirsky saw the man was offering him the opportunity to be proud, which he accepted, if grudgingly. Melamed had no children of his own.
"Tell him," the other man was saying to Melamed, gesturing over at Mirsky while pulling on a spotted yellow undershirt. "Ask him if police brutality's the biggest problem we got." As he sat on the bench to pull off his shorts, Mirsky caught a glimpse of the man's left forearm, the black numbers faded to green but still visible, like those on Mirsky's own arm under his shirt. Maybe years ago they might have sat somewhere, he and this man, and talked about it, where they had lived, their experiences. Not now. Mirsky turned his back and hung his pants by a belt loop in the locker.
"I didn't say it was our biggest problem," Melamed said, quietly. They had been discussing the case in the Bronx, two police emptying their guns into a black grandmother. The man was defending the police, saying you could ride the subway now without risking your life. He shrugged impatiently at both Melamed and Mirsky and shuffled off to put his head under the hand drier.
"How is it?" Melamed said to Mirsky. "The shoulder." He had seen it the day before.
"Fine," Mirsky said, though at that moment he was taking off his shirt, which caused him to wince. He saw Melamed staring at the wide bandage, the bruised skin, yellow and blue, leaking around it.
The two men continued in silence a few moments, Mirsky pulling on his baggy trunks, Melamed folding his towel, loading the little shoulder bag that had the same boomerang as his cap. When he was dressed he walked over and stood before Mirsky.
"I just heard," he said, "about your boy." Then he added Mirsky's first name. "Sol. I wanted to tell you I'm sorry."
Mirsky nodded in acknowledgment, but Melamed didn't move. Mirsky looked up at him, the creased face and berserk eyebrows, the patient gaze of a man used to soliciting complaint, offering comfort. Mirsky realized distantly it would be nice, were the circumstances entirely different, to speak with him. But they weren't. He had nothing to say, to him or to anybody. At least with Melamed he didn't have to try. They stayed there another moment, then Melamed gently touched him on the arm and left.
The pool was half full, aged men and women, the only ones at the Y in the middle of the day, struggling through the lime-blue water, bobbing like seals by the tiled rim, talking. The high opaque windows let in a diffuse sunlight, and the air was saturated with the oppressive humidity and odor of the place, chemical, human, old masonry and pipes. Years ago Mirsky would rush right in, welcoming the bracing shock the cold gave his system. Now he had to wait while two alter kockers stood arguing on the steps into the water. For ten cents he'd drown them both.
His stroke was makeshift, inefficient, a spastic forward plunging that filled his mouth with water and every few feet left him submerged, goggling at the legs of the other swimmers until he was forced to surface, gasping, half blind. But here he was every morning, as he had been over forty years now, doing his twenty laps, chuffing and splashing and clearing a wide berth, slowly forgetting himself in the movement and the sounds of his own labored breathing, his world constricted finally into blank walls and ceiling, the cracked blue bottom of the pool and the shimmering expanse of green water before and around him.
He swam a lap, two more. His left arm was nearly useless, but he kept going, an occasional sharper sting telling him he'd torn away another piece of bandage, using this as a goad to swim harder. When he stopped to get his wind he saw three women by the steps looking at him. One looked away, embarrassed, another smiled compassionately. He lunged back in.
It was six days ago. He'd hung up the phone, some stranger, a girl, telling him the news. He had walked around the apartment, waiting for an impulse, a clue about what he was to do next. He had called Nathan in Boston but found he couldn't utter any words once the machine picked up. He called again, this time forced himself to leave a brief message, then, as if it were any other Tuesday morning, got his ratty Mets gym bag from the floor of the bathroom, the dank towel and trunks and shampoo still wadded inside, and left for the Y.
Except it wasn't any other day. The colors of cars and buses were too bright, the sounds of horns and voices out of sync, as if dubbed onto the action. His head was filled with roaring and everything seemed far off. When the boy turned the corner and made directly for him, Mirsky had to remind himself to look down, deflect what he could of the menace. But the boy came right up and grabbed him with one hand, then his bag with the other. Too startled to let go, Mirsky hung on, feeling his cap sliding off his head, catching at the boy's jacket, then putting both hands on the strap of the gym bag. The boy dragged him up the sidewalk.
"I'll fuck you up, old man," the boy said. "Let go." He was dark-skinned and thin and astonishingly young. He kept looking around him. Mirsky said nothing, but held on.
Excerpted from Bearing the Body by Ehud Havazelet. Copyright © 2007 Ehud Havazelet. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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