Fiction: Jennifer Stroup

Gentlemen and Rogues

He was getting out of a Jeep and all I caught was the flash of orange from his jacket and the way he was watching me from behind the open door. He said something as I crossed the street; he said “Hey, nice boots.” He pointed: they were red. The street was covered with clumps of snow and ice frozen over that, and much later it occurred to me that I ought to have said something to him about the weather instead of a coy and stupid “Thanks.” I should have said “Don’t bother with me, I’m just like that,” and pointed at the ground, and spat. That way when we’d run into each other a week later Nicolas would have pretended not to see me, kept his head turned the other way, finished his beer, and left.

Instead, here I am, sitting at another bar, waiting for him to get off work. There’s a placard hanging on the wall behind all the bottles. I’ve been here for a while with nothing to do with my time but stare at it, and I’ve started to play a game:


The sign has forty-four letters or characters and I have two sets of five fingers; I’ve counted several times but it doesn’t add up. If the sign-maker had chosen a period to end the sentence, used a dash or a comma, he would have solved the problem. There are five letters in the word “awful,” for instance, but seven in “highway,” so that there are three fingers left over, an augury, and not a good one. Too many things don’t add up. This gives a particular feeling of unease, like jeans that are too tight around the waist or a slight headache, something that can be dealt with but is still an irritant.

She’s on the highway, my mother, going to meet my father for a weekend on the Cape. It’s only April, so I’m guessing they won’t spend much time out of doors. They’ve been divorced for a long time. Unlike me, my mother has outgrown the sex-as-vehicle stage, the way you think you can convince someone to fall in love with you just because you sleep with him, because you give him a blow job. Because you nod at him over dinner while he talks and you say things like “wow” and “that’s interesting,” even when it’s not, when you’d rather be cleaning out the cat’s litter box than sitting there listening to him. She’s outgrown it, but my mother will be doing this anyway. My father will sit across from her over a nice dinner that he pays for and in exchange she will nod and hide her boredom and later she’ll let him take her clothes off, perhaps she’ll even do it for him, after two Manhattans probably or a bottle of wine and then a Scotch or maybe a vodka martini. Most people don’t think about their parents being in bed but I can imagine mine; my mother will probably fake an orgasm and my father will edge up behind her the moment she stirs, try to lose the unknowing and strangeness by fucking first thing in the morning when mouths are too dry and bodies still mislaid in sleep so that the act of making love becomes diminished, muted, something that’s done just because it can be. I know my father still loves my mother but he hates her for it, and for leaving him, and she hates him for refusing to take her back, so really I’m not being crass when I say that they’re fucking each other in exchange for all the things they can no longer find a way to say.

Last year my mother moved to Boston to live closer to me. She has no other children. There were four miscarriages; I’m the only one that made it. She keeps hoping I’ll get pregnant so she’ll have something to believe in again, some reason for being here, to keep her hands busy. I see the way she looks at the men I bring to meet her; she is always nervous—she’s competitive, my mother, she wants them to like her, too—her eyes a little too big, like someone looking at something that isn’t there. When she met Tom, she never mentioned to me how much his politeness unnerved her, the way when he cooked for us he had to have everything just so, and I never told her that he hit me.

“Sweetie,” my mom would say, “when are you and Tom going to get hitched?” Then she’d tell me she thought I should have a baby so I wouldn’t worry about him leaving me.

When Nicolas slides in next to me at the bar I don’t notice him. He taps my arm. “What are you staring at your hands for?” he says.

In the dream I am standing in the front room of an old house. It is my wedding day, at least I’m fairly certain that is why I’m wearing a white slip, my breasts bare, while my girlfriends prepare my dress. The door to the room is open just a crack, really only a couple of inches, and on the other side I catch my father staring at me, his lips parted. He doesn’t move to close it.

“Come on, wake up,” Nicolas says. He says it with what sounds like good cheer. “I’ll buy you breakfast.” I watch him dress. His movements are too intentional, too energetic for morning. I’d rather you get back into bed with me, I want to say, but instead I groan and pull the sheet over my chest.

“Day’s a-wastin’,” he says. The buckle of his belt slaps against the leather as he pulls it closed.

I remember having unbuckled that belt not too many hours before. As usual, Balanchine the cat is crouched on the back of the armchair, his paws on the windowsill, looking out. His domed back makes him look smaller than he is.

“You’re thinking, why won’t he just leave me alone?” Nicolas says. He grins; he’s fully dressed.

At breakfast, the café is crowded and smells of grease. The coffee is watery, the scrambled eggs cut with long strands of onions. When I look up from my plate I find Nicolas staring at me, his expression hard. I smile and stare back at him, at the freckles across his nose and the creases around his eyes and the way his mouth sits, a pressed thin line, even when he’s chewing. We both pick at our food and after a few minutes he gets up to ask the waitress for more coffee. “You want to go drink this outside?” he says. “I’ll get the paper.” It feels like the first morning in weeks that the sun is out and it’s not so easy to see our breath as it has been. A fleet of wrought-iron sidewalk furniture sits uninhabited so we take the middle spot. I prop my feet on the leg braces of a nearby table and watch as Nicolas pulls the paper apart in chunks. A group of college girls walks past, their small young bodies in cords and low-fitting jeans, one grass green hippie coat, kohl around the eyes.

“Which section do you want?” Nicolas asks.

“I’ll take the magazine.” He hands it to me; it flops over his hand on both sides. We sit in silence; we sip our coffee a few times and the sun glints off the sugar spoon. One of the toes of his big work boots is nudging against a leg of my chair.

I spent a year after Tom reliving the experience, which is to say I guess I wanted him back. I wanted to go back. I called up every pleasant experience we’d had and cursed myself for leaving. Especially when I was tired, I missed the way he used to meet me at the door when I came home at night, how he took off my coat, said my nose was cold, took my hand and pulled me into the kitchen to show me what he’d made for dinner, pour a glass of wine. Sometimes just the smell of baked macaroni and cheese makes me long for him. I’ve never called him, though, not that I didn’t think about it every day that year, or note that he wasn’t calling me. The truth is that half the time I’d walk through the door to find him sitting on the couch staring at the wall; he wouldn’t move his head or even the corner of an eye to acknowledge me. He’d light into me about something, how I was fifteen minutes later than usual and I’d forgotten to get the cilantro or the half-and-half, that so-and-so didn’t return his call and he didn’t think he’d ever find a job. I was teaching full time and we were living off that small salary and the money I made doing freelance work on the side. He never got up off his ass except to take walks during the day; he spent hours in the library reading about this or that—Marcus Aurelius was a favorite, a history of the Roman Empire—I’d hear all about it in one of his monologues over dinner, but I learned the hard way not to suggest he call a temp agency or work in a restaurant to help out with the bills.

Every time I have a cold I remember those five days, the week before Christmas, when he got sick. I went out and bought the groceries, as I usually did, cheerful pocket packs of Kleenex and cold medicine, flowers and tea and various other things; I sat beside him on the couch and took his temperature; I cooked him pasta and soup and brought them to him in the living room, seating myself opposite him on the floor. He didn’t leave the house, didn’t shower except once, barely left the couch. Every time I took his temperature it was normal, no fever, nothing, and I started to resent that he, a forty-year-old man, could act like such a child. When I was in high school my father had surgery on his nose to remove a deviated septum, whatever that is, and I took care of him in the afternoons helping him change the bandage, which was always bloody, trying not to look at his two black eyes. My father, though laid up in bed, would never complain. Being a burden was something I think Tom reveled in; he loved to watch other people bend over backward for him; in fact if he caught his lover doing anything else it would send him into a panic, which for him meant a fit of rage.

In one of his better moments, Tom once remarked to me that love is like the myth of seeing God: as in, you’ll never see it the same way again each time you turn away because your eyes, from that too bright light, are a little less capable, a little less clear.

We’re passing whiskey back and forth with one glass between us, only pouring an inch or two each time. The bottle is nice and fat and round, not the kind that Tom and I drank, I don’t buy that anymore. This one has an iron horse on its wood-corked cap. Nicolas and I usually stay up drinking too long into the morning because we’d rather the day not end, instead of the opposite, which is how I guess you know when it switches over that line.

He is telling me a story he’d read in the newspaper about a dairy farmer upstate who won the lottery and donated his entire herd of cattle to charity. We speculate where the cows will go, Africa, the Andes, and I ask what the guy is going to do with his land. “Sell it to me,” Nicolas says.
“I grew up on a farm, you know,” I tell him. I nod at the whiskey. “We’d probably drink less up there.”

Nicolas smiles. “Knowing you, probably not.” I have one leg wrapped around both of his and my head on the crook of his shoulder, the one he dislocated the year before at work, and I’m looking at a 3/4-inch scar he has above his lip. He is studying me, his face is benign but I can see there’s doubt behind the eyes. I don’t tell him I notice this, or how badly I want that farm to go barefoot on, or that it needs a garden the size of my current apartment, or about the children we would have.

The fifth night of Tom’s supposed sickness we were lying in bed, it was late and I had to get up early for class in the morning, and he began to moan, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” just like an old man. I asked him if he was serious, growing alarmed, wondering what I should do. I took his temperature: normal. At two in the morning he was still going on about it, and I lost my temper. “Tom, you’re a grown man,” I said. “If you need to go to the hospital, tell me and I’ll take you. Otherwise stop acting like a baby and try to get some sleep.” My mother later told me if she’d said this to my father he would have been angry too, but that he would have gotten over it had she said something patronizing like, “I didn’t mean it, honey.” What Tom did was reel away from me, sit straight up in bed, and say, “You fucking cunt. My father was right when he said I should never marry you.” He stalked into the living room. I heard him rummaging around in the cabinet by the front door. I got up and followed him, in nothing but my underwear, and said, “Tom, I’m sorry, I overreacted. Please forgive me.” He yelled, “I’m fucking sick, you whore,” and threw a small box in my direction. I bent over and picked it up. He said, “That’s an engagement ring I bought for you. Go ahead. Open it. But don’t think I’m ever going to let you wear it. Fucking cunt.”

He later wrapped the box in blue and gold tissue paper with a ribbon and put it on his closet shelf, within eyesight, but protected, as it were, so that he’d be able to tell if I tampered with it. It sat there for five months, all told.

Sometimes I walk by the apartment I shared with Tom, and with the cat I’d raised from a baby and had for three years—and three years do add up—until Tom stole it from me, and stare through its dark windows, trying to catch a glimpse of any new tenants, but really I’m just looking to see if I can find my old self in there, the family we were together. The windows are always blank, dead. I imagine the cat finally got his wish and ran out the back door into the night, much like I did, though I used the front; I imagine he ran out and climbed the fire escape all the way to the roof and maybe he miscalculated and fell over the edge, or maybe he got run over by a car or hit by the train, or maybe he’s living with a different set of people with a different set of problems, but most likely he is still living with Tom. Running on silent, fast feet to the sound of the refrigerator and the can of Sardine, Crab and Shrimp Feast that he knows is inside, chasing around the snake toy that also looks like a leopard that I bought him while Tom snaps it in the air and shouts “Look at you!” and “Good boy!” and sits on his brown, checked loveseat sipping the brand of bourbon I introduced him to. I loved that cat more than I ever loved Tom. This new cat, who is supposed to replace the one he took, sinks his claws into my legs when I pass by the way my old cat used to do. I broke that one of the habit, but Balanchine doesn’t seem to learn. Maybe Tom snapped the old cat’s neck and told him to come back to haunt me, told him he should reincarnate as the same kind of sadomasochistic reminder that memory serves, just to make sure I know I can’t go home again.

Nicolas comes to dinner straight from work, the dust still clinging to his clothes, knocking his boots against the sill of my mother’s front porch before he enters the house. My mother has already opened a bottle of wine and our faces are flushed, but when I see him through the window in the door I get jumpy. The chicken is browning in the pan and sliced rounds of potatoes are roasting in the oven; it’s all ready but somehow by the time the salad is served the leaves have wilted. I recall, too late, that Tom would have arranged the tomatoes on the bottom of the bowl, just so, and waited until the last possible moment to add the vinaigrette.

When dinner’s over we move to the living room and sit with our wine and smoke cigarettes. I love to watch my mother when she drinks, her long, knuckled fingers around the glass, the veins in her wrists, the way she covers her face when she laughs. We get silly, my mother and I. It’s something my father used to hate, especially when he drank, his half-lidded eyes glaring from one to the other as if we’d betrayed him. Usually he’d tell us to stop or he would leave the room. The three of us are sitting in a house my father’s only been in a few times on furniture that never belonged to him and I can’t get the image of him out of my mind, his face through the door. We’re playing Scrabble and drinking from the bottle Nicolas brought. I’m watching him pretend to be competitive with my mother, who is laughing; her face has gone red. I lean across the coffee table and squeeze her hand.

Nicolas and I decide to keep drinking; I sit close to him in the cab of the truck. He stops for a light and we notice the bumper sticker on the car in front of us: I [heart] ROADHEAD. “Who doesn’t?” Nicolas remarks. We laugh. I count the characters: ten exactly.

At the bar, I challenge him to a game of pool. He follows me to the table, blowing on the back of my neck. My aim is unbelievable, I hit every striped ball but the last one until he taunts me with an unlit cigarette between his lips. “You want it, don’t you,” he teases, and then he wins.

That night, Balanchine pounces. He leaves one red welt beneath my right eye. Sleep starved, half panicked, I yell at him to stop, slap him on his haunches, pick him up and hurl him to the floor. I’m fighting him as I did Tom, someone I no longer miss: cruel. When I wake up, I go to the bathroom where I’ve put Balanchine at some point and open the door. He walks out slowly, stretching his legs and scratching his claws on the rug. He’s happy, as if to say, Nothing you do to me will make any difference.

Jennifer Stroup is a writer and editor. She lives in Woody Creek, Colorado.

(c) copyright 2005, Jennifer Stroup; author retains all rights.