The Marriage of Sticks
By Carroll, Jonathan
Tor Books Copyright © 2000 Carroll, Jonathan
All right reserved.
THE DOG MAKES THE BED Continues...
In the end, each of us has only one story to tell. Yet despite having lived that story, most people have neither the courage nor any idea of how to tell it.
I did not live this long so that now, when I am finally able to talk about my life, I will lie about it. What's the point? There is no one left to impress. Those who once loved or hated me are gone or have barely enough energy left to breathe. Except for one.
There is little else to do now but remember. I am an old old woman with a head full of memories, fragile as eggs. Yet the memories remain loud and demanding. "Remember me!" they shout. Or "Remember the dog that spoke." I say, "Tell the truth! Are you sure? Or are you making up more convenient history just to make me feel better?"
It is too easy to turn your best profile to history's mirror. But history doesn't care. I have learned that.
Mirrors and treasure maps. X marks the spot not where a life begins, but where it begins to matter. Forget who your parents were, what you learned, what you did, gained, or lost. Where did the trip begin? When did you know you were walking through the departure gate?
My story, the X on my map, began in a Santa Monica hotel with the dog that made the bed.
* * *
We'd met right after college. For a while, for a year and a half, both of us truly believed this would be the great love of both our lives. We livedtogether, visited Europe for the first time together, talked shyly about marriage and what we would name our children. We bought things we knew would live in a great old house we'd have someday by an ocean. He was the best lover I ever had.
What ruined us was simple: at twenty-one you're too damned optimistic. Too sure life has so many wonderful things in store that you can afford to be careless. We treated our relationship like a dependable car that would always start and run, no matter how cold or bad the weather. We were wrong.
Things got bad very quickly. We were unprepared for failure and each other's dumb cruelty. When you're that young, it is easy to go from lovers to enemies in a couple of breaths. I began calling him Dog. He called me Bitch. We deserved the names.
So why, twelve years later, was that very same Dog sitting in an expensive hotel room when I came out of the shower, wet hair wrapped in a towel and pleased to see he'd made the bed? A bed we'd shared for the last ten hours with as great a relish as always between us? Because you take what you can get. Women love to talk. If you find a man who loves to listen and who happens to be a great lover, damn the rest. You're the one who has to live inside your skin and conscience. If you can visit an old lover and still revel in whatever things you once had between you, then they are still yours if you want them. Is it right to do? I only know that life is a series of diminishing returns, ending with too many days in a chair, staring. I always sensed it would be that way. I wanted to be an old woman remembering, not complaining or fretting until death rang the dinner bell.
Over the years Dog and I had met when it was convenient. Almost always it was a joyous, selfish few days together. Both of us left those meetings replenished. His word, and it fit.
He'd made the bed and straightened the room. But that was Doug Auerbach: an organized man and a successful one too, up to a point. I admired him but was glad we had never married.
The place looked exactly as it had the day before when we'd walked in. He was sitting with his hands in his lap, watching a game show on television. The oohs and aahs of the audience sounded sad in that cavernous lilac room. I stood looking at him, toweling my hair, wondering when we'd meet again.
Without taking his eyes from the set, he said he'd been thinking about me. I asked in what way. He said he'd been married and divorced, had only sort of succeeded at what he'd wanted to do with his life, and generally regretted more than he was proud of. He saw me as just the opposite. When I protested, he looked up and said, "Please don't!" As if I was about to do something terrible to him.
Then he turned off the television and asked if I would do him a big favor. Across the street from our hotel was a large drugstore. He wanted me to go there with him while he bought a razor and some shampoo. He knew I had lots to do before my plane left for New York that evening, but there was no leeway in his tone of voice.
I hurriedly dressed while he sat and watched me hustle around the room. What could be so important about a trip to the drugstore? I was annoyed, but also felt there was something both pathetic and urgent about his request.
The store was one of those large discount places that sold thirty kinds of toothpaste, and all the customers seemed to be moving down the aisles in a stupor.
Like the others, we grazed the razor and shampoo shelves. It was clear he was in no hurry to find what he wanted.
"What's going on, Doug?"
He turned to me and slowly smiled. "Hmm?"
"Why do you need me around to buy soap?"
He didn't say anything for a moment, only looked at me and seemed to consider the question. "I've been wanting to do this ever since I heard we were going to meet. More than the talk, the sex, more than anything. I just wanted to go into a store with you and walk around, making believe we were husband and wife. Just out for a few minutes to buy some aspirin and a TV Guide, maybe a couple of ice-cream cones. It would've been better really late, but I didn't want to say anything last night.
"I've always been jealous when I go into an all-night drugstore or market and see couples shopping together. I look in their baskets to see what they're buying."
"Didn't you ever do that with your wife?" I wanted to touch his arm but held back.
"Sure, but I didn't know I was doing it then. Now I do. Know what I mean? Then it was just a drag, something necessary. With you, I knew it would be a little adventure and we'd know we were having fun while we did it. Even if we didn't buy anything, it'd be..."
He looked at me but didn't say anything more. The worst part was, I knew exactly what he was saying, and was sorry. Yet there were other things to do and they were more important to me than this. I wanted to comfort him but wanted to leave just as much. It meant so much more to him than to me.
We bought his stuff, went back to the hotel, and checked out. Waiting for my cab out on the street, we hugged. I told him we'd see each other in New York at the end of the summer.
When the cab arrived he said, "You know there's a famous rap singer now named Dog. Snoop Doggy Dogg."
"Doesn't matter. You're the only Dog Man I'll ever love."
He nodded. "Thanks for the drugstore."
* * *
That should have been reason enough to tell me that there was more in the air then than oxygen. Why does it take a lifetime to realize that premonitions are as numerous as birds in a cherry tree? During the cab ride to the airport I saw something else that, in retrospect, certainly should have told me to think hard about what was going on rather than just look at my watch and hope I didn't miss the plane.
The driver was a big old man who wore a San Diego Padres baseball cap and didn't utter a sound other than a resentful grunt when he banged my suitcase into the trunk of his car. That was fine because I sat in the back with a cell phone and returned calls to people I'd avoided while in L.A. I had the practice down to an art--call someone and tell her you're on your way to the airport but just had to touch base with her before you left. Then she told you everything in a five-minute chat she would have taken two hours to tell over an expensive dinner. Who said patience came as you grew older? I had less and less and was proud of it. Whatever success I had was due to keeping things short and sweet, and expecting the same of others.
In the middle of my last call I had my eyes closed and didn't register what the driver said until a moment later. When I opened them we were passing an astonishing sight: there by the side of the freeway was a woman in a wheelchair.
It must have been eight at night and there were no streetlamps, only the stab and drift of headlights across the Los Angeles darkness. Only a moment to glimpse her and then we were gone. But for that moment there she was, illuminated by the car in front and then us: a woman sitting in a wheelchair on the shoulder of a superhighway out in the middle of nowhere.
"Nuts. L.A. is full of nuts!"
I looked in the rearview mirror. The driver was staring at me, waiting for me to agree.
"Maybe she's not nuts. Maybe she's stuck there, or something has happened to her."
He shook his head slowly. "No way. Driving a cab, you see things like that four times a day. You want to see how crazy the world is, drive a cab."
But that didn't satisfy me and I called 911 to report it. I had to ask the driver exactly where we'd been on the road. He answered in a curt voice. The operator asked if there were any more details. I could only say no, there's a woman in a wheelchair on the side of the road and something's wrong with that, you know?
The whole flight to New York I kept thinking about that half hour in the drugstore and then the woman in the wheelchair. Both made me uneasy. But then we landed and there were so many things to do that week before I met up with Zoe.
Even the idea of seeing my old best friend and doing what we'd planned made some part of my heart nervous. We were going to our high school class's fifteen-year reunion.
Events like that always sounded great months before they happened. Then as the time closed in, my enthusiasm began to curdle like bad milk. With this reunion, part of me wanted to know what had happened to certain classmates after all those years. The other part was both petrified and appalled to be seen by people who'd owned my life when I was eighteen years old.
Now I am unconcerned by my past, but at thirty-three I wasn't. Back then, embarrassment still arrived in capital letters. I cared very much what most people thought of me. Even fifteen years after high school, I wanted to walk into the reunion sure that most of my old classmates would be pleased, impressed, or jealous--and not necessarily in that order.
Zoe was different. Compared to my life since high school, Zoe Holland's had been a shooting gallery, with her as the target. She dropped out of college freshman year and married when she found out she was pregnant. The culprit was a vain little scorpion named Andy Holland who, three months after they were married, started sleeping around with whomever he could find. Why he wanted to be married neither Zoe nor I could ever figure out. They had two children in quick succession.
Then, out of the blue, Andy announced one day that he was leaving. Zoe was suddenly on her own with two babies and no prospects. The fact that she prevailed was inspiring because nothing she had done before prepared her for it.
She had been one of the queens of our high school class--high grades, lots of friends, and the captain of the high school football team, Kevin Hamilton, was her love. Everyone looked at Zoe and sighed. But she was such a nice person that almost no one resented her good fortune.
She was an optimist and, even in the midst of her later torment, believed if she worked hard and remained kind, things would improve.
She took a couple of part-time jobs and struggled through. When her kids were old enough to go to school, she enrolled in community college. There she met the next disaster in her life, a handsome guy who began beating her up a few months after he moved in.
Suffice it to say, Zoe's philosophy wasn't correct and throughout the ensuing years more bad happened to her than good. By the time the class reunion rolled around, she was living in a sad little house in our old hometown; one of her children did serious drugs and the other didn't have much to say for himself.
I TOOK THE train up from Manhattan. Since my parents moved to California, I hadn't been back to Connecticut in a decade. The ride that hot Friday afternoon was the beginning of a trip to the past I was ambivalent about making.
I hadn't seen Zoe for years, although we spoke on the phone now and then. She was waiting for me at the station looking happy and exhausted in equal measure. She had put on weight, but what really struck me was how large her breasts were. In high school one of our constant running jokes was how neither of us had much in that department. Now there she was in a black polo shirt that stretched in ways that said it all. I must have been pretty unsubtle in my staring because after we hugged, she stood back, put her hands on her hips and asked in a proud voice "Well, what do you think?"
There were people walking by so I didn't want to say anything too obvious. I shook my head and said, "Impressive!"
She hugged herself a moment and grinned. "Aren't they great?"
We got into her old Subaru station wagon and drove through town. All the way to her house she rhapsodized about new boyfriend Hector, who was the greatest thing to happen to her since she didn't know when. The only problem was, Hector was married and had four children. But his wife didn't understand him and...You can take it from there.
She had the look of a saint in a religious painting. I kept looking from her face to those movie-star breasts and didn't know what to say or think. Married Hector held her life in his hands but she seemed thrilled. From the sound of it, she was just happy someone was interested enough to want to hold her life, take the weight from her while she rested up.
Her house was so small that it didn't have a driveway, so we parked on the street in front. At first glimpse, it was the kind of house you see in biographies of famous people as the home where they were raised, or the first one they owned when they were starting out, poor but enthusiastic.
She had arranged for her kids to be away for the weekend so we could have the place to ourselves and not worry about them.
As she fumbled through her keys searching for the one to the front door, I felt a momentary squirt of fear go up me. Suddenly I didn't want to go into this house. Didn't want to see what was there. Didn't want to see the concrete results of my friend's life on the mantelpiece, the walls, the coffee table. Things like photographs of kids gone bad, souvenirs from places where she'd been happy for a few days, a cheap couch that had known a million hours of unmoving asses watching TV with no real interest.
But I was completely wrong and that broke my heart even more. Zoe had a wonderful home. Somehow she had distilled all of her love and care into those few small rooms. Walking through them, admiring her taste, sense of humor, and talent for putting the right things in exactly the right places, I kept wondering, Why hasn't it worked for her? Why has everything gone so wrong for such a good person?
There was a small backyard that she'd saved for last to show me because there sat the surprise. Pitched in the middle of it was a familiar brown tent that made me laugh loudly as soon as I saw it.
"Is that it?"
Zoe was beaming. "The exact same one! I've saved it all these years. Tonight we're going to camp out again!"
When we were teens, our weekend ritual in the summer was always the same: set up this tent, stock it with junk food and fashion magazines, then spend the night inside gabbing and dreaming out loud. Our houses belonged to our parents, but this old Boy Scout tent in Zoe's backyard was ours alone. Her brothers were banned from it and we took swift action when they tried to invade. What we talked about in there all those nights was as secret and important as the blood moving through our veins.
I walked over and touched the tent flap. As I held it between my fingers, the rough familiar cloth was an instant tactile reminder of a time when life still made sense, limits were for old people, and James Stillman was the most important person on earth for me.
I bent down and peeked into the tent. Two sleeping bags lay on the floor with a Coleman lamp between them. There was a box of Zagnut candy bars.
"Zagnuts! My God, Zoe, you've thought of everything!"
"I know! Do you believe they still make them? Oh, Miranda, I have so many things to tell you!"
We went back into the house. She showed me to her daughter's room, where I changed into cooler clothes. Afterwards she suggested we take a drive around town before dinner and have a look at our old stomping grounds.
Far more disturbing than any spook house at an amusement park is a ride through the old hometown if you've been away for years. What do you expect to see? What do you want to see? Having been away so long, you know it'll be different. Still, seeing the inevitable changes makes quick deep slashes across your soul. Loss, loss. Where are all those places I once was?
Iansiti's Pizza Parlor was gone, replaced by a store with a post-modern facade that sold CDs. There were only records when I lived here. LPs, not CDs. I thought about all the slices of pizza with extra cheese and pepperoni we'd eaten in Iansiti's, all the dreams and teenage hormones that once filled that dumpy place with its stained menus and bunch of fat-bellied Italian cousins in T-shirts eyeing us from behind the counter.
"Sometimes when I'm driving down these streets, looking at our old hangouts, I think I see myself inside them." Zoe chuckled and slowed for a yellow light in front of the bank where James's mother had worked.
I turned to her. "But Which you? The one you were, or the you now?"
"Oh, the one I was! I always think of myself as seventeen here. I've never gotten over the fact I'm twice that age but still living in this town."
"Don't you feel strange going by the old places? Like your parents' house?"
"Very. But when they died, so did it. A house is the people who live there, not the building. I just wish I hadn't sold it when the market was so bad. The story of my life."
We drove by the high school, which despite some new buildings still looked as glum as ever. Past the town park, where, one fifteen-year-old summer night, I almost lost my virginity. Then down the Post Road to the Carvel ice cream stand where James and I sat on the hood of his old green Saab and ate vanilla cones dipped in heated chocolate.
Until that moment, I hadn't been able to get up the nerve to ask Zoe the question, but seeing that cherished Carvel stand was a sign it was time. As casually as possible I asked, "Is James coming to the reunion?"
Zoe looked at her watch and dramatically blew out a breath like she'd been holding it for minutes. "Phew! You went a full hour without asking. I don't know, Miranda. I asked around, but no one knew. I'm sure he knows about it."
"I didn't realize till we started driving around that this whole town is haunted by him." I turned to her. "I didn't know how I'd react coming back, but more than anything it's James everywhere! I keep seeing places where we were together. Where we were happy."
"Miranda, he was the love of your life."
"When I was eighteen! I have done other things since then." The tone of my voice was stiff, prissy. I sounded too much on the defensive.
"Not as much as you think." She grinned and threw me a quick look. "High school is a terminal disease. It either kills you while you're there, or waits inside your soul for years and then comes back to get you."
"Come on, Zoe, you don't believe that! You had a wonderful time in high school."
"Exactly! And that's what killed me. Nothing was ever better than high school."
"You sound so cheerful about it."
She chuckled. "Right now I'm looking forward to the reunion because in those people's eyes, no matter what's happened to me in the last fifteen years, I'll always be Zoe the golden girl. The cheerleader with the great grades and the boyfriend who was captain of the football team. And you'll always be Miranda Romanac, the good girl who shocked everyone senior year by going out with the baddest boy in school." She slapped my knee.
In a bad Irish accent I said, "Aye, and God bless the boy!"
She raised a hand as if it held a glass and she was offering a toast. "And God bless Kevin. I'm also looking forward to this because I hope he'll be there. And he'll be absolutely wonderful, sweep me off my feet and save me from the rest of my life."
My heart filled so quickly that I couldn't catch my breath. It was exactly the way I had been thinking for weeks.
* * *
I Met James Stillman in geometry class. God knows, I knew about him before; he had a reputation fifteen miles long. He mesmerized innocent girls into his bed. He'd once stolen a pair of skis from the shop, then had the chutzpah to return there the next day to have the edges sharpened. He and his friends were reputed to have burned down the abandoned Brody house during one of their infamous parties there. All told, James was not interested in being a solid citizen.
A group of typical thugs had usually slouched around our school halls wearing gaudy leather jackets and intricately piled hairdos that looked like hood ornaments, but James Stillman's brand of bad was planets away from those human clichés. What fascinated me was his great, singular style when I didn't even really know what that word meant yet. Despite his reputation, he dressed like a preppy, in tweed jackets, khakis, and loafers. He listened to European rock groups--Spliff and Guesch Patti--and was even rumored to love cooking. When he was going out with Claudia Beechman, he had a bouquet of yellow roses delivered to her in gym class on her birthday. Like most of the girls in the high school, I watched him from afar, wondering if all the things said about him were true. What would it be like to know him, date, kiss him? But that was academic because I knew the thought of someone as colorless and well behaved as me would never even cross his mind.
"What'd he say?"
Only after a thud inside my brain did I realize that James Stillman had asked me a question. He sat behind me in geometry class but only because seating was alphabetical. Before I had a chance to digest what had happened, he repeated the question, this time adding my name to it.
"Miranda? What'd he say?"
He knew me. He knew who I was.
The teacher had said the earth was an oblate spheroid, as I dutifully noted in my book. I turned and said, "He said the earth's an oblate spheroid."
James watched me intently, as if whatever I said he'd been waiting all morning to hear.
"Uh, an oblate spheroid."
I was about to say, "Like an egg that's been leaned on," but something inside said shut up. I shrugged instead.
A small slow grain moved his mouth up. "You know, but you're not admitting it."
I panicked. Did he know I was playing dumb just for him?
"It's okay to know things. I just know different stuff." He smiled mysteriously, looked away.
After class I kept my eyes down and gathered my books as slowly as possible. That way there would be no chance of walking out of the room at the same time he did.
I stood still and closed my eyes. He was behind me. I didn't know what to say. I didn't need to because he came around and stood in front of me.
"Sorry about what?" I couldn't look at him.
"About what I said. Do you think you'd ever want to go out with me?"
All I remember about that moment was I could actually feel fate's wheels turning inside me. In the split second before I answered, I knew everything would now change, no matter what.
"You want to go out with me?" I tried to make it light and sarcastic so I would be in on his joke if there were one.
His face was expressionless. "Yes. You don't know how much I've been wanting to talk to you."
* * *
We were inseparable for the rest of the year. He was everything I wasn't. For the first time in my life, I learned with increasing joy that different could be complementary. We had worlds we wanted the other to see. Somehow those very different worlds fit together.
Remarkably, we never slept together, which was one of the great mistakes of my life. James was the first man I ever loved with an adult heart. To this day I still wish he'd been my first lover instead of a handsome forgettable goof I said yes to a month after I got to college.
I never asked about other girls before me, but contrary to his reputation, James never did anything I didn't want. He was gentle, loving, and respectful. A sheep in wolf's clothes. On top of that, he was a wickedly good kisser. Don't get me wrong--just because we never did it doesn't preclude a few thousand delicious hours horizontal, hot, and hungry.
Because we were such different souls, he seemed delighted by my prim, skirt-down-over-the-knee worldview. He knew I wanted to be a virgin when I married and never tried to force the issue or change my mind. Maybe because he was so used to girls saying yes to everything he wanted, I was like an alien to him--something peculiar, worth studying.
As is so often the case, our relationship ended when we went off to different colleges in different states. Those first months apart, I wrote him furious, impassioned letters. He responded with only stupid two-line postcards now and then, which was perfectly in keeping with his bad-James part. Gradually college and its different faces, as well as the rest of my new life's diversions, slowed my letters to a trickle. When we saw each other again that first Christmas vacation home, it was warm and tender, but both of us had new lives elsewhere. Our reunion was more nostalgia than building toward any kind of future.
Over the next years I'd heard things about James from different sources, but never knew which were true and which third-hand information. Someone said he worked in a boatyard, another that he'd finished college and gone to law school. If the last was true, he became a very different J. Stillman from the one I had known. They said he lived in Colorado, then Philadelphia; he was married, he wasn't. Sometimes when I was restless in bed at night, or low, or just dreaming about what might have been, I thought about my old love and wondered what had happened to him. The first thing that came to mind on reading the invitation to our class reunion was James Stillman.
* * *
For old times' sake, Zoe and I had dinner at Chuck's Steak House. We'd worked there together as waitresses one summer and walked home late all those warm nights with nice tips in our pockets, feeling very adult. Chuck had died years before, but his son took over and kept the place looking exactly the same.
Earlier, Zoe had said she had many things to tell me, but since that afternoon a kind of delicious time warp had set in. Both of us were content inside it talking mostly about then and little about now. A half hour sufficed for catching up on where we were in our lives. This was to be a weekened for memories, photo albums, "Whatever happened to...?" and the sighs that come with remembering who you were. At dinner neither of us expressed much interest in talking about what we'd become or where we hoped to go with our lives. Perhaps that would have come after the reunion--a natural summing up after seeing old classmates and putting the weekend and the experiences into context. But as things turned out, that summing up was done for us.
After Chuck's, we returned to Zoe's house. Both of us were dying to get into the tent, our old mood, those times. We hurriedly washed, changed into our pajamas, and by the hissing light of the Coleman lamp, talked until two.
The next morning she got up before I did. The first thing I remember about that momentous day was a violent tugging on my arm. Not knowing what was happening, I tried to clear my head and sit up at the same time. I forgot I wasn't in a bed but wrapped in the cocoon of a sleeping bag. Held on all sides, I started thrashing around, which only tightened the bag around me. By the time I extricated myself, my hair was standing out from my head, my face was heated to two hundred degrees, my pajama top was wide open.
"What? What's the matter?"
"Are you all right?"
Early as it was, I went instantly on the defensive. "What do you mean?"
"You know exactly what I mean. The way you were thrashing around. And everything you talked about last night, the way you see things now....You have such a good life. You're successful and you said it yourself; things've worked out. But you're not happy. The way you talk--"
"How do I talk, Zoe?"
"Like you're old. Like you don't expect anything better to happen because you've lived too long and seen too much to have any more hope. I'm luckier than you. I don't think life's very friendly either, but I know we can control hope. You can turn it on and off like a spigot. I try to keep mine on full blast."
"That sounds good, but what happens when things go wrong? What happens when you're disappointed time after time?"
"It kills you! But you go on and when you've got the strength, you start hoping again. It's our choice." She reached over and took my hand. It made me very uncomfortable.
"Maybe I've just learned to be careful."
"Would careful you have the guts to fall in love with a James Stillman today?"
The question was so accurate, so right into my bull's-eye, that I started crying. Zoe squeezed my hand tighter but didn't move.
"I saw a woman last week in a wheelchair by the side of a road. Right there on the side of the L.A. freeway with all these cars zooming by. I was so frightened for her. Out in the middle of nowhere. What was she doing? How did it happen? I haven't been able to stop thinking about her and I didn't know why until right now.
"It was me, Zoe."
"I don't know. Her helplessness, the danger, the wrongness of her being there. The longer I live, the more careful I get. It's like you stop using certain limbs because you don't need them, or because you only used them as a kid to swing on trees. Then one day you realize you can't even move that leg anymore--"
"And you end up in a wheelchair."
"Right, but even that's okay because everyone else around you is in one too. Nobody we know climbs trees anymore. But sooner or later we come to the freeway and we're alone; no one to help and we've got to get to the other side. We're stuck, and it's dangerous."
"So you're stuck?"
"Worse; I'm careful and I don't know how to stop it. I wouldn't fall in love with James now. I'd get one sniff of what he's like and run away. Or push my wheelchair as fast as I could to get out of there. He's too dangerous."
"'Cause he has legs?"
"And arms and...a tail! He could swing from trees with it. That's what was so wonderful about him, what was so wonderful about those days--I was using all my arms and legs and loved it. Today I'd be too scared of the risk. I wish I knew the flavor of my happiness."
She looked at me while I continued to cry. Life had come to a stop on a nice summer's day in my oldest friend's backyard. I had no desire to go to the reunion now, even if James was there. Seeing him would only make things worse.
Copyright 1999 by Jonathan Carroll
Excerpted from The Marriage of Sticks by Carroll, Jonathan Copyright © 2000 by Carroll, Jonathan. Excerpted by permission.
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