Duets, 1979

Alan and John are swapping stories about Vietnam when I notice Ann Foster lumbering in our direction. When Alan and John reminisce, they tend to fade away from other people. They don’t notice Ann as soon as I do. They don’t notice when I stop listening to them and start watching her. Ann is an incredible figure by anyone’s standards, at least six feet tall and fat, a Sumo wrestler kind of fat. Today her shirttail has come untucked and dangles, wrinkled and dejected, below her gray polyester jacket. Her short, red hair is creased and matted on one side as if she just rolled out of bed. She holds her textbooks in front of her like a shield. I know from experience that she is heading for the seat next to mine and wish I could occupy both seats simultaneously.

“It was the kids that got me the most, little kids running around playing with these weapons as if it was the most natural thing in the world,” John is saying as Ann plops her books on the table and hulks beside me.

“I have the President’s personal phone number,” she announces to me, leaning so close I imagine we will rub noses like Eskimos.

“Oh, really,” I say. “Why? I mean, what for?”

“Christ, Ann!” Alan means me, the other Ann. “Don’t encourage her. Why do you always encourage her?” He lifts up one side of the red plastic ashtray in front of him and drops it. Ashes fly up and float down in a soft gray cloud. His fingernails are long and brittle. He picks up the ashtray and lets it fall again. It clatters like a series of exclamation points.

“Go on,” I say to Ann. “Tell me about the President’s phone number. I really want to know.” Perversely now, I do.

She leans close to me again. Her eyes are bloodshot. A red, spidery vein strays across the left side of her nose. She smells strongly of stale cigarettes. I am suddenly reminded of a boy in my high school dance class. He had dark, slicked back hair and always had a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his shirt sleeve. As we danced around the gym floor, stumbling through a waltz or a fox trot, I was piercingly aware of the odor of tobacco, the placement of his hands on my body. He frightened me. The more I tried to conceal my fear, the more awkward I became. By the time we finished reeling about, I fervently believed in my own inept and tedious nature. I recoil from Ann as I remember this, cross my arms and hold myself tightly.

“…understands,” she is saying. “Nobody. That’s why I have to call the President. He’s the only one who can do something about it.”

“About what?” I ask and immediately want to kick myself. I should have just nodded.

“Women preachers, women preachers. I told you. God has chosen us to purge the world of evil. But the President has to reveal the chosen ones to the nation before we can act. He has to make the people understand.”

She is belligerent now, holding a cigarette between the index and middle fingers of her left hand as she yells and gestures, smoke trailing crookedly around her head. For a minute, I almost believe she will call the President. Jimmy Carter seems like a nice man, I think. Perhaps he will soothe her. Perhaps he will say, “It’s okay. I understand.” I sneak a look at my watch.

“Gotta go,” I say. “I have a class.”

Alan and John are still talking about Vietnam, caught up in the familiar stories they tell themselves. I pick up my books, scoot my chair away from the table and stand. I wave to them. Alan raises his hand and dips it like a kite in a failing breeze. John looks up and winks at me. Ann hunches over the table and mutters something. As I walk away, I think I hear her say, “Nobody understands.” I think I do.

********************

At home, I tell Ron about Ann. I bring it up as he is watching the 10:00 news. This is a mistake. He gives me a look. He turns his head sideways, stares at me in silence for a second and goes back to watching the news. He means for me to be quiet.

“But Ron,” I say anyway. “She needs help. I don’t know what to do.”

He sighs. It is a loud, deliberate sigh. He folds his long legs up beside him and shifts to face me. He is wearing the blue bathrobe I gave him for Christmas. His hair and eyes are almost exactly the same shade of golden brown. Sometimes I think he is beautiful. He scratches his mustache and clears his throat.

“You don’t have to do anything. It’s not your problem.”

“I feel like I should do something.,” I say. I reach over to take his hand. He pulls away before I can touch him.

“I don’t know why you’ve bothered to go back to school at your age if you can’t be serious about it,” he says. “Seems like you spend all your time talking to lunatics or burned-out vets. Why do you waste your time with people like that?”

“You don’t understand,” I say.

“No. I don’t. I don’t want to. Drop it, Ann.”

We retreat to opposite ends of the sofa and watch the rest of the news. I am only thirty, I think, not that old. And I really don’t know what it means to be serious. I watch my husband watching the news. His legs are finely muscled, covered with soft, light brown hair. His bathrobe gapes open at the chest. I can see his right nipple, round and erect. He is still wearing a gold watch on his left wrist, a gold chain around his neck. I cannot remember ever seeing him disordered.

The news ends. Ron gets up to turn off the television. “Are you coming to bed now, Ann?” It is the same thing he says every night at this time. You’d better come now if you want to make love is what he means.

“No,” I say. “No. I think I’ll read for a while.”

“Suit yourself,” he says and shrugs his shoulders as if shedding himself of desire. I open my book and begin to read.

********************

We are stretched out on the mattress in John’s apartment where we have been necking like teenagers, still fully clothed, disarranged and sweating in the heat of this Thursday afternoon. John begins to unbutton my shirt. He breathes softly into my left ear. My eyes wander around the room, the only room in this apartment except for a tiny bathroom. One room with one mattress, one small desk, one chair, one bookcase and one hotplate occupying a corner of the desk.

Surrounded by all these ones, I suddenly feel awkward in our twosome-ness. We are, I think, two ones. Separate. I turn my eyes back to John. His long, dark hair curls and waves in the damp air. Several strands have pasted themselves to his face as he returns my gaze, his hand now groping for bra-less me. I sit up.

“Stop,” I say. “Stop.”

“C’mon…” He speaks gently but with a hint of impatience. He sits up then, too, crosses his legs and lights a cigarette. “Okay, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.” I don’t. I button up my shirt, taking in the comforting odor of tobacco as he exhales. “Maybe I’m just not in the mood today. Maybe I’m tired. I don’t know.”

“Look, I hope this isn’t about guilt. Ron doesn’t love you, you know. Not really. You deserve to take what happiness you can find.”

At that I smile. John’s eyes are a surprisingly bright shade of translucent blue. When he looks at me this way, I feel the whole free-love-be happy-live-for-today vibe. The vibe wants us naked and joyful. I want to trace the shape of him with my hands, every line and masculine curve of his stocky self. It’s a good feeling. Sometimes it even feels right. I reach for his hand. He grasps mine in return, lifting my fingers to his lips.

“Ron loves the me he wants me to be,” I say. “He does. And sometimes I want to love that me, too. Sometimes I think loving that me is the only proper thing to do. Do you understand?”

“No, darlin’. I don’t. But I’ll be here when you want me. Now I think I might as well study. Do you mind?” He stands, ready to usher me out the door.

“No, go ahead,” I say. “I’m going to wander over to the student union for coffee. Maybe I’ll see you there later.”

He smiles and winks as I head out and down the sidewalk.

********************

When I near the courtyard outside the student union, I see Ann sitting alone at one of the small round tables. Her lips move as she talks to herself though at this distance I can’t distinguish any words. She waves her arms, flapping like a crow in her loose fitting black coat with its wide sleeves.

Is this what Ron sees when he looks at me, something disordered and indecipherable? I wonder. I stand and watch her for a time until she seems to lose some inner spark, folding in on herself and hunching over the table in silence. I make my way to the counter inside the union, grab a cup of black coffee in a white styrofoam cup and walk back out. Ann is still there, oblivious to everyone around her. I approach, unnoticed, touch her gently on the shoulder to get her attention. She starts a bit at my touch, turns her head to look up at me with hair askew. Her eyes are red, wet. I believe she has been crying.

“May I join you?” I ask. She nods, a fleeting nod. I settle into the chair next to hers. She leans close as if she wants to tell me things that only we can understand.


© 2016 Karen Kleis –  All Rights Reserved

You are free to reblog or share a link to this story.  You are not free to copy or otherwise reprint this story without my explicit permission.  Thank you.

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