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This Old Heart of Mine
The Best of Merrill Joan Gerber's Redbook Stories
By MERRILL JOAN GERBER
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1993 Merrill Joan Gerber
All rights reserved.
A NIGHT OUT
THE STREET LAMP THAT has been flickering for about half an hour in front of the green house opposite ours finally goes out with a purple flash of light, and then the whole street is dark. I know it is probably ridiculous for me to worry, but it is after one and Danny should have been home by ten-thirty. For three hours now I've been sitting at the window in my nightgown. Every time headlights shine down the street I begin to get happy, or at least relieved, and then the car drives past and I pluck another tissue out of the box. I have been pulling up bouquets of colored tissues all evening, and they are crumpled everywhere on the floor like old confetti.
All morning at work I sat at my desk breathing through my mouth and sucking rock candy, and finally I decided to come home early so Danny could make me hot tea and bring aspirins to me every two hours and treat me kindly. Danny wasn't home when I got here, and coming up the stairs to our attic apartment I bumped into a new couple who were moving in on the second floor. It was very awkward; it seemed as if the boy had just moved in their last piece of luggage, and the two of them were standing in the hall smiling at each other just as I came up the stairs. I couldn't pass them unless they both stepped into their apartment—the hallway is so narrow—and they didn't seem to be willing to. Finally, with a shrug and an odd laugh in my direction, the boy leaned forward and swung the girl up in his arms, carried her through the doorway and closed the door. Then I went along up to our attic, realizing on the top step that what I had just seen was a groom carrying his bride across the threshold of their new home. It made me laugh when I understood it, and then when I found Danny wasn't home, it made me cry.
He was at school, of course, but I had hoped he'd be home. It is Tuesday, and on Tuesdays he has a night class at his professor's house, so that meant he wouldn't be home for dinner either. I might as well have stayed in the office with my little plastic bottle of mentholated air to keep me company.
I don't know exactly what made me cry when I found the apartment empty. No doubt it was partly my cold and partly Danny's absence, but mainly it had something to do with those newlyweds, because just like everyone else around here, he was going to go to Harvard and she was going to work, and it wasn't going to be all peaches and cream. And the girl seemed so sweet. She was wearing orange canvas shoes and orange slacks. And here it is the dead of winter, and she was so trusting and happy.
But she'll never be my friend, of course, because it's not as if you can talk to people around here. No one wants to be friendly; everyone is too busy guarding their privacy and mentally comparing marriages and wondering about the stipend of the other couple's fellowship.
And babies—that's another thing people around here don't have. And then sometimes they do anyway, and in a few weeks the wife trots back to work and the husband has to write his dissertation with one hand and rock the cradle with the other.
I saw a baby today, though. While I was watching out the window for Danny, the girl who lives in the attic of the green house came to the window in her robe and held aside the curtains so her baby could look out at the snow. It had just started sprinkling, very lightly, and she held the baby's tiny head against the glass and whispered something to it, and then let the curtains drop again. Now all their lights are off and it's getting to be two a.m., and soon I will probably have to call the police.
We don't have a phone and we don't have a friend whose phone we can use, so that's why I haven't thought of calling the police yet.
Danny's class started at seven and ended at ten, and he should have been home by ten-thirty—he always is. Even if the class ended late, he should have been home by eleven or, at the very latest, twelve.
Maybe he had an accident. But the odds are against it; Danny is a careful driver and it's not too icy tonight. Well, what if someone held him up, hit him over the head with a blackjack? What if he picked up a hitchhiker who robbed and killed him? What if right now, this very instant, I am a widow?
I pull a yellow tissue from the box on the window sill and think about that for a minute. We own hardly anything—all I'd have to do is buy a ticket and fly home to my mother in Florida. Or I could stay at my job and marry Barton Wilky, who probably will soon own half the stock in the publishing house I work in. Then I could live with him on Beacon Hill and have all the babies I want, and never go to work again.
But I have been over this before. Barton Wilky isn't for me. Danny is. But is he, is he, is he!
My head throbs and I am shivering, so I go over to the heating grate to see if by chance any stray steam is coming up.
Earlier this evening, every time I opened the grate the strains of sweet violins were wafted up at me, and it was too much—I'd rather be cold. The newlyweds were probably waltzing around down there, beaming at each other.
So I stayed cold and pulled out my wedding album from the closet and climbed under the electric blanket with it, to get altogether sentimental. The thing that shocked me, though, is that when I looked at those pictures I stayed as politely unmoved as a stranger. There was me, in my white dress in this fancy hotel, in a line, shaking hands with everyone right after the ceremony. Big smiles were coming at the camera from all directions, but I don't remember that at all.
What I remember are four or five strangers who were clustered behind the glass door of the wedding hall, just hotel guests who noticed a wedding going on, and all of them were beaming in at me with radiant smiles. And I remember the lady in the elevator who tapped me on the shoulder as I was going up to change out of my wedding dress. She smiled at me and said, "I was married a week ago and I'm on my honeymoon now, and I'll tell you, dear, it's very wonderful." She was about thirty-five and homely, but she looked beautiful to me.
That's the kind of thing I remember, and now I wonder where that lady is today and if she would still tell me it's wonderful. Rather, I wonder what I would tell her.
Well, I was very happy for a while, but then Danny didn't seem to be turning out right—he wasn't working as hard as I thought he should be. I had this idea that when I came puffing up the stairs after work he ought to be wildly typing his dissertation or flipping through his books at the rate of a thousand pages a second—just to prove to me that he was really going to get his degree as soon as possible, so I could stop working and be a wife-type wife in our little house somewhere, with tricycles on the lawn.
The truth is that when I come home Danny is often asleep or listening to records—or not home at all but at the library, where he spends the day reading current magazines, as it turns out when he finally does come home. At first I waited patiently for him to get to work, and then I began to yell at him, and it seems I've been doing that now much too long for it to be fun, or even useful.
Another picture in the wedding album was taken of me by Danny in Georgia, on our honeymoon trip to Florida. We stopped there one afternoon to visit the Etowah Burial Mounds. When you get there you walk up the mounds on steps carved into the earth, and then you are standing over the bones of hundreds of Indians. It was very sunny out and everyone there had a camera swinging from his neck, and it didn't seem that anyone dead even existed, much less right under our feet. Then we went down and there was this little depressed cage in the earth, and in it, bare to the air, were the skeletons of two Indians, a husband and wife, close enough for us to kneel down and touch. The smaller skeleton—the wife's—was on her side, her back curved toward her husband as if they were sleeping on their own pallet in their own tepee. Their bones seemed to be naturally cemented onto the little platform they lay on, and it was not scary at all, just very sweet and peaceful. I remember turning to Danny and kissing him, and thinking that I would love him when we were alive and then when we were dead.
The picture he took of me there shows me holding onto my sailor hat in the wind. No one looking at it would ever know that the bones of an Indian husband and wife were two feet away from me in an open grave, or know what I had been thinking about then
I decided now that the true nature of anything that happens is always and only in your head, and nothing is as it seems. The strain of that reflection is too much for me—it doesn't explain anything and it doesn't help my cold—and I suddenly feel very sorry for myself.
I don't want to do anything drastic; I just want Danny and me to be all right. But can we be unless I stop yelling at him? And how can I stop yelling at him, unless I decide that I don't care about his dissertation or his mental blocks or gardens full of tricycles, but that I only care about him? Did that Indian squaw keep nagging at her husband to catch better buffalo hides? Or did she just curve next to him at night and assure him that she would stay with him forever because he was her man and because she loved him?
I just don't know. The world is so lonely, and if I married Barton or flew home to my mother, I would be so lonely I would die. I can't think of not being with Danny; he is my only friend and we have no other friends in the world.
But am I Danny's friend? How do I know, if he makes my life so hard and makes me sit at the window like this, praying every car will be his? How do I know anything?
Well, I know it's ten minutes until three a.m. and my husband is nowhere in sight, and I just cannot sit here any longer.
I go to the closet and pull out my snow boots and gloves and my winter coat and put everything on over my nightgown. Two blocks down Massachusetts Avenue there is an outside phone booth; that's where I'll go. But whom will I call? Danny's professor, who'll probably be fast asleep in bed? And if that's true, the class was over hours ago, and how can I explain my husband's absence to him? And you don't go calling the police when a full-grown man is a few hours late. Well, then, I'll call someone in Danny's class. Who? John Longenecker—that's a name I can't forget. He's in that class. Danny has mentioned him.
It's not snowing now but it's very cold, and dark because the street lamp is out. Under the sink I find Danny's army-surplus flashlight with the red glass on the end.
I stick that in one pocket and a clump of tissues and some dimes in my other and start down the winding steps. On the second landing I stop, wondering if I am insane to go out like this and if I shouldn't just go back up and get into bed and try to go to sleep. It occurs to me crazily that I would be doing the new bride in the second-floor apartment a good turn if I knocked at her door and told her to take a good look at me now. I'd warn her about night classes. There are lots of beautiful girls in night classes, because I've seen them, I'd say. And if they've got to graduate school, they're likely to be brilliant as well. And probably one of them in your husband's class won't have a car, and your husband, being gallant—besides being reluctant and guilty to go home to a wife who has worked all day to support him—will offer to drive her home. She is single, of course, and carries on scintillating conversations. She never complains, and she knows about all the things your husband knows about and you don't.
Then I'd tell her about "having coffee," which is what graduate students do all the time in student unions and such places. Your husband sits around all day with people you never meet, and when you ask him to tell you what they talked about, he'll tell you you never heard of those things and wouldn't really be interested. You might think if the girls he has coffee with are interested, why wouldn't you be, but you never say anything. He doesn't ask you where you had lunch or coffee because he already knows; you've already told him—about a hundred times. You eat lunch at Woolworth's with no one, and you have coffee in the employees lounge with a girl from the art department. He doesn't ask what you talk about because you've also complained about that; the girls talk about clothes and sales in the department stores, and it couldn't be more boring.
Oh, I'd tell her, all right: Sweetie, you don't know what you're getting into. But then again, she may be more tolerant than I am. She may be willing to have a few days of dancing around the heating grate with her husband and then plunge right in like a steady old scout. She may be a better woman than I am.
But—and now I am angry—she may have a better man!
I run down the rest of the stairs and then I am out in the night, with not a soul awake in the world that I can see.
There is a wet fog hanging over the street that will probably be snow by morning. On Massachusetts Avenue there are a few street lights, making the sky appear a chalky charcoal color. I take as deep a breath as I can and begin to march along, noticing it is not much colder out than it was in the attic.
All the stores are dark except the supermarket across the street, which has a pyramid of yellow grapefruit in the window—much too expensive for us to buy at this time of year. Right there in front of the store is where I wait every day for the trolley that takes me underground to the subway at Harvard Square. Maybe I will stop off on the way back and tell that new bride about the subway. But she won't believe me, because at first the subway is very pleasant. You leave your gloves in your pocket and cross your hands delicately on your lap, and then everyone can see your beautiful new wedding ring, the way it glints in the light and the way it tells everyone—all those painted-up old ladies and those young girls losing hope—how you have just made breakfast in a special warm home for a man who loves you and to whom you will go home tonight when the work of the day is over, and that none of this sooty world is real to you. The only real thing is the light in your eyes, which they can see after they notice your wedding ring.
I feel so bitter thinking this that I am almost happy when I am distracted by an attack of sneezing that lasts a full two minutes. So shaken am I by this attack that I hardly see my tissues go flying about as I walk along. Later, when I look back, I see a trail that could be the salvation of a hundred lost Hansels and Gretels.
I still can't see the phone booth and I hope I am not mistaken about its being there. Usually in emergencies we use the phone in the drugstore, but it is closed now. I remember, thinking about phones, how on our honeymoon we called my mother collect from a phone booth in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and my mother kept saying, "From where?" and the operator, exasperated, kept saying, "Blowing Rock, Madam, Blowing Rock! Will you accept the charges?"
The thought of that makes me smile, and in quick succession I remember some other funny things about that trip. One night we got lost in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our gas was nearly gone and we were exhausted and tired and the road wound endlessly onward. Finally our headlights grazed the square of a white sign coming up. Terribly excited and anxious, we pulled up; the sign said "Do Not Feed the Bears." We laughed and laughed, rolling around on the front seat, slapping each other on the back. That is one funny thing I remember.
"Ha," I say out loud into the cold air, and I feel very lonely. It seems to me that if I could just see Danny's car coming now, I would be happy for the rest of my life and never complain again.
The other funny thing I remember isn't really funny, but it was wonderful. On one of the nights of that trip Danny and I had to stay in an old hotel in Knoxville that had available only a room with a single bed. It was right next to a bus station, and all night the loudspeaker woke us with announcements of departures for all points north and south; and each time we woke up, one of us started rolling off the bed and the steady one had to catch the other.
Excerpted from This Old Heart of Mine by MERRILL JOAN GERBER. Copyright © 1993 Merrill Joan Gerber. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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