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THE FIRST TIME I TOUCHED JULIE IT WAS A SHARP KICK TO THE groin. My big toe went into her crotch, deep into the folds of her sweatpants, and even deeper into softer territory. I had meant to kick her, but not so hard. "Oops," I whispered, "sorry." She ignored my apology and kept her fists up, continuing to circle me. Her eyes were locked onto my face, her long dark hair touched with sweat at the ends. I circled, too, but my concentration was gone. I barely stepped back in time to avoid Julie's kick to my stomach.
"Step into the kick!" our karate instructor, Carmine, yelled. "Stop, stop." He walked out onto the mat. Julie and I stopped, letting our arms hang down at our sides. "Step into any attack, but to the side," he explained to me. "Watch. Julie, a front snap kick right here," he said, tapping himself in the stomach. Julie put her fists back up and snapped a kick with her right foot. Carmine stepped forward with his left foot, turning his hips enough to get out of the way, and grabbed Julie's leg at the ankle and the knee. He held it firmly while she hopped around on one foot, trying not to lose her balance. "In here," Carmine said to me, "you've got her all tied up. She can't hit you from this angle, and you can run her around the mat on one leg." He took a couple steps to demonstrate, and Julie bounced backward and forward again, her arms flailing, the toes of her free foot grasping at the mat. Finally, he set her leg down slowly, like a lever, and she stood up straight, shaking her head enough for drops of sweat to fling away from herhair. Carmine looked long at me, as if to say, "Understand?" I bowed shallowly. "Domo arigato," I whispered. Thank you.
"Hajime!" he yelled, walking off the mat backward. Begin! And so we began again, circling, occasionally risking a punch or another kick. But we were both fairly new at karate—I a green belt, Julie a white. She was the only woman in the class, completely different from guys like Bill, who spent fifteen minutes before every class methodically banging his forehead on the wooden bleachers to toughen his skull. Julie didn't bother with the traditional white karate uniform. She came to class in a faded red t-shirt with small ragged holes around the seams, and washed-out navy blue sweatpants with a crotch that sagged to her knees. I didn't know how she could walk in them, much less kick.
We sparred, but nothing was natural yet for either of us. Our moves were forced, woefully telegraphed. If either of us had been any better at blocking than we were at attacking, we would be doing the same thing Carmine did, catching punches and kicks, tossing the attacker around. But we weren't, and at last Carmine waved his hand to stop us. There was no clear winner, just two panting fighters with much to learn.
IT WAS January 1980. I was twenty-one, a college junior majoring in engineering because I'd been good at math and science. Julie was a sophomore, an art major. She was unattached, except for an old boyfriend in Boston who was or had been serious enough to have his picture on the wall of her bedroom at home—something I learned months later, before my first visit to her parents' house. I asked what I should expect. And she told me, laughing, that she'd already called her mom and told her to sweep the room clean of all signs of Jimmy.
But in late January and early February she focused her attention on me, catching me before class, asking if I might be able to stay after and show her some of the moves she'd need to know to get promoted to green belt herself. I stayed. Sometimes we went to the indoor track and jogged slowly, talking. The track circled four tennis courts, and we ducked missed shots. Then, during the first week of February, in the gym lobby after we'd showered and were going our separate ways, she asked me out on our first date. She said she'd been talking to her mom.
"I told her there was a cute guy in my karate class, and she said I should throw him down, pin him, and ask him for a date."
"Who's the guy?" I asked.
"I thought we could go on a bike ride."
"It's February. This is Ohio."
"We're having a thaw. It's supposed to be warm all weekend."
The snow had melted that week. I'd been out walking as much as I could, letting my coat hang open, listening to the birds being fooled into thinking spring was a month early. I had plenty of antsiness in my own bones.
"All right," I said. "If we leave early, make a day of it."
I arrived at her apartment at eight o'clock. Julie was different than I'd seen her in the afternoons—as sluggish as the dark, drawn-curtained apartment itself. I thought: So this is what she looks like in the morning, this is what I would see every day if we were married. Her face had the slight puffiness of someone recently sunburned. Her limbs didn't move in the arcing smoothness of karate class but swung reluctantly from her hips and shoulders like sandbags. It was cute. I loitered in the living room while she banged between the bathroom and her bedroom. Then she trudged to the refrigerator and pulled out a couple of fist-sized objects wrapped in aluminum foil and tossed them in her backpack.
"Chicken," she explained.
She had offered to bring lunch.
"How far are we going?" she asked.
"To hell and back?"
"It won't take long to get there."
We headed north. First through Dayton's empty downtown, then up a strangely sparse Main Street past empty fast-food restaurants and closed auto dealers and grocery stores. Then through the suburbs, and finally past the last housing development and into farmland. In the balmy, mistimed warmth of the morning, a tepid breeze coming up behind us from Kentucky, the miles clicked off like city blocks. We glided quietly up Route 48, past muddy cornfields. We could talk only if the person in front twisted around and threw back a quick comment: an observation about a brick silo or a collapsing barn, an exclamation about the great openness. I watched Julie wake up, saw her stretch her eyelids and wiggle on the seat to loosen her muscles. When she was in front, I watched her legs. She was wearing green corduroys, dirty white canvas sneakers. I could hear the chain on her ten-speed whirr lazily, hear it climb and descend the sprockets as she shifted gears. We went through Shiloh and Englewood and Ludlow Falls, rolled right through them and emerged again into the landscape of empty cornfields. We rode parallel to the skinny Stillwater River, crossing it south of Pleasant Hill. Out on the open road, cars full of families passed us, fathers steering wide across the center line to give us room, mothers sizing up the distance between us and the headlong rush of their right front fenders. Tires hummed against the pavement.
By noon we'd made forty miles. That was enough. We turned east on Route 36, figuring we'd start easing our way back south. First, though, we coasted through the bricky downtown of Piqua, looking for a spot to sit comfortably and have our picnic. What we found were the front steps of the Piqua Memorial Hospital, a low-slung, two-story building painted sea-foam green. It seemed deserted, as if everyone were either too sick or too well. We were well. Our legs tingled, the heels of our palms throbbed pleasantly, the cool concrete felt stable under our butts.
Julie gave me a paper towel and then one of the aluminum-foiled chicken pieces. I unwrapped it, and a pink thigh and leg lay in a small pool of blood.
Julie opened hers and laughed embarrassedly.
"I didn't mean for them to be rare," she said. "I thought they were done." She looked over at mine. "You don't have to eat that."
"No, no, it looks good. I'm hungry," I assured her. "I'll just ... chew around the bloody parts."
"Oh my god," she said. "I didn't get these in the oven until after midnight. I sort of forgot about them. Then I was falling asleep waiting for them to get done. I guess I was too tired to let them cook as long as they should have."
"It's okay. This will fill me up and quench my thirst at the same time."
"I'm really a better cook than this," she said. "I just had to go on this stupid date last night." She looked at me as if unsure whether she should have mentioned it. "It was stupid," she repeated. "I only went to be polite. Boring! And before we left I had to run back into my apartment to get my gloves, and when I came back out the car smelled awful. He'd farted."
I nodded. "Bad date."
"Pretty" she agreed.
"Appetizing, too," I said.
I was starving and ate what I could of the chicken. Then I wrapped the rest in its aluminum foil, and that was the end of lunch. We hadn't brought anything else. I thought of hot soup in the hospital's cafeteria, but the clouds that we'd seen off in the distant west all morning were suddenly coagulating above us. The pleasant sweat I'd worked up turned to a chill. The wind was cooler. Searching for more food was going to cost us too much time.
"You happen to catch the weather last night while you were cooking?" I asked Julie.
"Me either. But I'm thinking those might be winter clouds."
She stared hard at the sky.
"I thought it was supposed to be warm all day," she said. "We're having a thaw."
If there was a snowstorm moving in, I wasn't interested in being stranded in a ditch or riding up a dirt driveway to a farmhouse and being greeted by a Doberman. My parents' house was on the north side of Dayton, eight or ten miles closer than our apartments. When I'd talked to my mom the night before, she said she was going to make lasagne. We might not even get there if the weather turned too bad, but we had a better chance than getting all the way back to our places. I proposed it to Julie as a saner stopping point.
"I don't know about dropping in on your parents," she said. She had never met them.
"My mom makes lasagne like some people lay cement," I said. "By the yard."
I walked over to my bike and took the map from my pack. When I unfolded it, its center snapped toward me like a sail. I brought it back to the steps.
"We can go down Sixty-six straight out of town here, so we won't have to backtrack to Forty-eight. It's not going to be as pleasant a ride, since we have to hit Dixie Highway, which runs right along the interstate, but it'll be shorter."
"We're going to have more trucks that way," she pointed out. She looked skyward again. "Is it good lasagne?"
"Primo," I said.
We loaded up, then Julie paused.
"You know that date I went on last night? I think he asked me out only because he wanted me to ask him to the Turnabout Dance next week. I didn't."
"Did he ask you to reimburse him for dinner and the movie?"
"I don't like dances," she explained. "So I don't want to ask you to go to it either."
"But!" She was clenching her teeth and raising her eyebrows, as if the danger in front of her weren't a storm but the need to finish the explanation she'd started. "I wanted to ask you if you'd like to go out to dinner instead. My treat."
"With cooked food? In a restaurant?" I asked.
"Yes, cooked food." She sighed.
"Then ... I'd love not to go to the dance with you." I swung my leg over my bike and pushed off. "I'll even make it worth your while right now," I said, "by being the windbreak for our first mile out of town."
"But not," she called after me, the breaker of wind!"
We began with a burst of energy—like kids racing to the end of the block—and then escaped the town and hit the wind that had nothing to stop it except a monumental oak tree next to the road every quarter-mile.
We rode hard but slow, the landscape looking as level as it had coming north but making us pedal as if the bearings had seized up in our wheels. Our eyes teared from the dropping temperature. Drivers slowed as they passed, looking concerned and on the verge of offering to toss our bikes in their trunks and give us a ride home. But no one stopped—maybe because we looked too determined. We pushed downward on our pedals, needing almost our full weight sometimes, leaning forward and still feeling their resistance, like planks of wood being pushed under water.
Five miles out, drops of rain began to pop on my shoulders and burst darkly on the asphalt until the road was coated. But it was only a tease, the rain quitting after two minutes. Still, the clouds had dropped lower, and we rode into a mist that collected on my forehead and dripped over my eyebrows. How easy it would have been for our thin tires to slide on the wet asphalt and throw us under a semi. Or for a car going sixty to wallop our back tires and send us rolling over the hood and the roof and bouncing off the trunk. I knew a guy who once got clipped by an old man who was on his way to the hospital because he'd been having fainting spells. He insisted he drive because his wife was too tired. That was the kind of people who were out on two-lanes in lousy weather.
Car tires hissed over the wet road, throwing more mist up into our faces. An eighteen-wheeler rose up behind us like a battleship. I ducked.
"Shit!" Julie yelled.
I glanced back.
"Why are we out here?" she yelled. Her voice sounded like a whisper.
"Lasagne!" I screamed. "We're riding for lasagne!"
She held up a hand. I could see the red of her fingers.
Then the rain started again, not quitting this time, and we fell into a pattern, yelling "Lasagne!" every quarter mile. When one of us wanted to pass the other to take a turn as windbreak, we yelled "Lasagne!"
I worried that we'd be rescued.
I THOUGHT OF the first time I fell in love—the only time before Julie. Anne was an officer's kid who lived up the hill from us in the cinder-block sprawl of air force base housing eight miles north of Las Vegas. I began by walking to her house almost every evening. I'd pass barely a tree, just lawn after lawn of grass that survived the desert summers only by the grace of sprinklers. Then we'd walk together, through the streets of the housing complex. Our friends, when we happened upon them, started backing away from us whenever we were together, as if the rules stipulated that any couple holding hands had to have plenty of space to allow their love to grow unbothered. "Hi, Dan and Anne," they'd say as we joined them in the dusk underneath a streetlight. They would all face us, as if we and they were sitting on opposite sides of a booth. Did everyone sense the fragility of love, walking carefully around it to let it solidify in peace? Or was it the mystery that struck all of us, the sense that love was unknowable except by the people in it, and to get too close was presumptuous? Something about asking those questions in the desert—an ungraspable landscape for me, the Midwesterner living away from thick, deeply ridged tree trunks for the first time, away from the winter snows—gave the inquiries an extra weight. I liked to walk down the streets on the edge of the housing area, within sight of the chainlink fence that divided government property from civilian. On the far side of that fence, desert stretched clear across the valley. All year round, my friends and I rode our dirt bikes straight out for miles and miles, toward and past Sunrise Mountain and the other craggy, brown dirt hills, only occasionally having to steer around a cactus or an especially deep gully. It was open, bare, empty land, stark land in which to have a first love. And yet the starkness made me feel as if I were discovering something essential about love—that there is nothing around to support it, that it must exist in and by itself. Maybe, I thought then and years later when I was falling in love with Julie, isolation was precisely what love needed in order to grow.
IT KEPT RAINING. Each drop felt as if it were part slush, as if soon it would be snow that would cling to our handlebars and make us guess where the edge of the road might be. I wanted to have every burden of the afternoon exert its weight upon both of us, wanted to tie our experiences together for safety and companionship—all exactly the opposite of the morning, when it felt as if we were riding inside gliders. I wanted to take advantage of the privacy we had within such open space. I wanted to talk. I yelled to Julie, "My parents had a first date something like this!"
She wanted to talk, too. "Tell me!" she said.
"It was in January!" I craned my head backward. "Cold! Lots of snow!"
"Good start!" she said.
"They'd been hanging out together for a couple of months in some bar in Chicago! Can you hear me okay?!"
She held up a hand.
"My dad was in the navy, Great Lakes Naval Base up there in Illinois! Mom lived at home with her parents, liked to drive down to these bars where the navy guys hung out! Mostly this one bar, where she and my dad danced to Elvis!"
"Wait a minute!" Julie yelled. She sped up and pushed by me. "My turn in front. You can talk straight ahead."
I yelled forward: "They finally went on a real date by themselves! Borrowed a car and drove up to Wisconsin to go sledding! Only thing was, they didn't bring a sled!"
I waited for a laugh or a question, but none came. It felt liberating to scream a story. I wanted both to pare it down to its bare essentials and to elaborate on it, make it last longer.
"So they found this sled on the hill, some abandoned one, all rusty and broken up! And they climbed on it together!"
She yelled back: "Romantic!"
"But halfway down the hill, they hit a huge rock because they couldn't steer, and nearly got killed!"
"Almost! Or at least my mom! The sled broke apart, and one of the runners went up her butt!"
"What!" Julie yelled, swerving dangerously.
"Right in! Rip! Blood all over the snow! An ambulance had to come and take her to the hospital! And my dad ..."
I paused as three cars passed, listening to the Doppler effect with each of them. Sssswwwwoooosh! Sssswwwwoooosh! Sssswwwwoooosh!
"My dad had to go to her parents' house, carrying her bloody clothes, and tell them their daughter was in the hospital!"
"It was the first time he met them! And there was an article in the paper the next day, `Woman Pierced by Sled'!"
"It turned out okay, I guess!" I yelled. "My dad went to visit her in the hospital every day for two weeks, and ten months later they got married!"
"Happy ending, anyway!"
"Guess my dad figured: You impale a girl on a sled, you ought to at least marry her!"
"Good story! Except for the blood and the pain"—Julie shifted her weight on her bike seat—"it's romantic! Do you think they fell in love in the hospital?!"
"Maybe on the hill, right before impact!"
We rode for two hours, maybe three. Then Julie pulled onto the head of a farm's long driveway and stopped.
"Short break," she said when I slid in next to her. The rain had decreased to a sprinkle, but small flakes of snow had begun to mix in. The clouds looked even darker in the southwest, where the wind was coming from.
"What time do you think it is?" she asked. "And how much farther?"
"We're going right by the airport," I said, pointing to a plane with a red TWA tail descending in the distance. "However far that is, we've got another six or eight miles on the other side of it. It must be four, four-thirty by now."
"It feels like we've been riding forever." She filled her lungs, then exhaled. She said, "You sure you still want to go out to dinner with me next week? This might be a sign of something, you know."
"That you're bad luck?"
She shrugged her shoulders cutely, asking me to tease her.
I thought I ought to kiss her instead. But I was shy, and I stood and watched her spin her right pedal around with her toe and then settle the ball of her foot on it. I could have leaned over anyway, but there were three or four feet between us, and I wasn't sure I could angle my bike that far without falling over completely. I felt sentimental and suddenly earnest, like a soldier in a war movie falling in love rapidly because of the tenuousness of his existence. Or like my parents.
|A MARRIAGE APART||121|