I have a treat for you today, thanks to W&N Books: a short story from Amy Bonnaffons debut collection. The Wrong Heaven. Bonnaffons is a founding editor of 7×7.la, a literary journal devoted to collaborations between writers and visual artists. She is currently working on a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia.
The Wrong Heaven is an offbeat, inventive look at women’s lives. It’s funny and smart and piercing. I enjoyed it a lot. W&N let me choose the story I wanted to share so, as I complain a lot that there isn’t enough writing about music published by women, I chose the story about Alanis Morissette’s ‘Hand in My Pocket’ although, of course, it’s also about so much more than that.
The Other One by Amy Bonnaffons
As far as I could tell, I was the only customer at JoyfulSongTime. Again. This was the third day in a row I had spent my lunch break here, and I had yet to encounter another person, aside from the teenage attendant who’d swiped my credit card and then solemnly handed me a sparkly tambourine.
I didn’t even like karaoke. I had come here for a very specific reason: to sing one song and one song only, over and over again, until I was hoarse. The goal was a kind of immersion therapy. The goal was to sing Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” until it lost its hold on me.
Why “Hand in My Pocket”? I had no idea. Believe me, I had tried to figure it out, why this song of all the songs in the world should have woken me in the middle of the night, and then stayed. I’d had songs in my head before, of course. But this song inhabited me. It blared so loudly through my consciousness that I couldn’t focus on the briefs I had to write, couldn’t help but walk in time with its beat, pace my thinking to its slow loopy cadence.
I couldn’t afford the distraction. I was planning a wedding, and I had dozens of billable hours ahead of me. I worked at the kind of Midtown law firm where peopleactually said things like “I need this done yesterday!” I got the sense that if an associate lost focus noticeably enough, the partners would take her into a quiet back conference room, where she would be discreetly beheaded. Our clients were the people who owned America, America’s version of kings. They’d tolerate no slack, no whimsy.
’Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one is giving a high five.
I hadn’t intended to end up at a place like McNally, Bose & Gold. I went to law school with noble civic intentions; I wanted to be Erin Brockovich. But then I joined the firm to pay off my loans, and discovered my own deep veins of masochism and venality. It became addictive to tap those veins, to discover new veins when the original ones had become depleted through overuse. I succumbed to a pleasurable moral swoon. I began to indulge in other activities I’d previously disdained: spin classes, boozy brunches, adultery. When the married partner I’d been fucking left his wife to be with me, it seemed like my new, self- centered worldview had triumphed.
Now, a year and a half later, Dennis and I were engaged. I had always claimed, for feminist reasons, that if I ever got married I would forgo a white wedding dress, but that was before I saw myself refracted in the mirrored bridal dressing room at Bloomingdale’s, in a gown with a plunging front and lacy back, looking like a beautiful stranger, like the kind of woman I previously never would have even bothered to envy because she was so completely of another realm, apart in her feathery grace from the clunk and sweat of daily reality. I had done the impossible, what everyone wants to do: I had become a different person.
Then, about a week after my dress fitting, I awoke with an ache in my abdomen and a shocking river of blood between my legs. My periods had always been irregular, but usually they came on more gently; this flood was sudden and absolute. Biblical. I rinsed and replaced the sheets (luckily, Dennis had already left for work), plugged myself with a tampon, and dragged my sluggish, sodden self to the office—but after a few hours I gave up and left to work from home. I was extracting a saturated tampon twice an hour. Was this body really the same graceful, confectionary thing I’d seen in the Bloomingdale’s mirror last week? I couldn’t believe what it seemed to be saying about itself, that it could spew forth such carnage.
When I got home, I took my laptop to bed with a bar of chocolate and a hot water bottle. At first this was a relief, but I soon found myself wrenched by a sudden, crippling sadness. I curled up in the fetal position for an hour, uncurling myself only to pull open my laptop and Google am i having a miscarriage???
The thought had occurred to me suddenly, with an inner shock of something-like-certainty, but the Internet could not tell me for sure. It wasn’t likely that I could have gotten pregnant (I was on birth control) but it was possible (I’d missed a day here and there). I’d certainly never bled like this before. I debated calling my gynecologist, I debated calling Dennis, but in the end I did neither.
I didn’t even tell Dennis my suspicion when he got home and asked, with tender boyfriendly solicitude, how I was feeling. By then the bleeding had slowed to a trickle. I simply moaned and turned over onto my stomach and accepted his offer of a back rub. My head was turned to the side and I could see our reflection in the window: a woman prone on her bed, her caramel-colored hair spilling out over the pillow, while a tall handsome man tenderly strokes her back. It was a nice picture. The whole idea suddenly seemed impossible and ridiculous, the idea that I might have had a miscarriage. It didn’t fit. I felt faintly embarrassed about the whole thing. I murmured Thank you to Dennis, and something like You’re the best, and something involving love.
The next morning, when I woke up, my belly had stopped aching, and Dennis’s heavy arm lay across my body like a caveman’s club, and I felt protected and out of danger and blissfully sane. At work I was myself again. That night we drank a bottle of wine and I gave him a blow job that made me feel like the blow job champion of the world, like a real winner. Things were back to normal.
Then, in the middle of the night, it started: the song. It woke me at 3 a.m., pounding through my head like an insistent revelation, preventing me from sleeping until morning.
The teenage attendant led me down the hall and showed me into the dim cave of room 6: small and dark, with padded vinyl couches and swirling disco lights. He went through the same routine I’d seen several times already, the silent flight-attendant-style pointing, showing me the binders full of laminated lists of song titles, the remote I would use to enter their identifying numbers, the button I would press if I wanted to order some beer or shrimp- flavored chips.
“Have a joyful song time,” he whispered. Then he ex- ited the room, shuffling backwards, pulling the door shut behind him.
I sat down, entered the familiar six digits, and heard the opening strains of “Hand in My Pocket”: not the actual Alanis song but the bubbly karaoke version, accompanied by video images of a blond couple strolling down a Parisian boulevard, both wearing flippy ’90s-era hats and laughing heartily, heads thrown back, as if the streets of Paris were inherently hilarious. I now knew this couple intimately; they had transcended their initial ridiculousness and come to seem inevitable, as if they had emerged directly from my unconscious, as if I had dreamed them myself.
My first lunch break at JoyfulSongTime, I’d tried to push the song out of my head by replacing it. I sang sexy songs with frank lyrics (“Drunk in Love,” “I Touch Myself,” “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”). I sang ballads of naked self-pity (“All by Myself,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” “November Rain”). I sang songs I secretly loved (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”) and secretly hated (“Call Your Girlfriend”). For about five minutes after I left, my head was blessedly silent. But within a few blocks, she was there again, Alanis: yelping about high fives and cigarettes, musically distilling the paradoxes of her personality, bleating through my consciousness.
The second day I tried a different strategy: I only sang “Hand in My Pocket.” It didn’t work, not really, but I felt I was on to something: as I wailed the words hoarsely into the small dark room—Alanis’s litany of contradictory feelings, overwhelmed and high and hopeful and lost—they seemed to take on a deeper significance. They resonated like talismans of hidden meaning: like if I only sang them enough times, in my own voice, they would reveal their secrets, and I would be cured, enlightened, released from the torture of their repetition.
For the past couple of years, I’d had exactly two feelings: “overworked” and “content.” Dennis and I put in twelve-to fourteen-hour days at the firm, and then we got take-out, had quick sloppy sex on one padded piece of furniture or another, and conked out while looking through condo listings, waking up the next morning with the iPad sleeping between us like a baby.
Dennis is not the kind of man I would previously have imagined myself marrying. He is twelve years older than me and has a receding hairline and speaks loudly, like a game-show host. When I was younger, I’d imagined my- self with the kind of man I’d always dated—the kind who spoke softly and wore faded concert T-shirts and considered himself a feminist and wanted to be a social worker or a public defender. My former boyfriends, collectively, would have disdained Dennis. I know the word they would have used. That word is “douche.” They would have used this word—which technically refers to a clean- ing implement for women’s vaginas, and therefore, when you think about it, is not a word that should be used by genuinely feminist men as an insult—to signify Dennis’s embrace of corporate culture, his lack of shame.
But here’s the thing: all the qualities those boyfriends claimed to embody, Dennis actually did. He was kind. He was a caring, respectful partner. He was honest too: he didn’t pretend to care more about justice or honor than about food or money. And paradoxically, because his own needs were more than satisfied in the food-and-money department, he could afford to meet the world with benevolence. I saw the vigor with which he attacked his pro bono cases: helping a trafficked Serbian immigrant gain asylum, taking down an uptown molecular-gastronomy restaurant that owed its workers months of back pay. Sure, for every evil restaurant owner he took down, there was an evil corporation he propped up. Yet I couldn’t say that he did any less good, overall, than my sour, embattled exes, shepherding their indigent clients in circles through the Kafkaesque bureaucracies of government aid programs. What moral life wasn’tSisyphean, tilted toward failure as much as success? The best one could do, it seemed, was to accept that paradox and try to really fucking enjoy oneself in the breaks be- tween pushing the rock uphill.
I sang “Hand in My Pocket” a total of nineteen times (I counted). Again I had the feeling of asymptotically approaching their meaning, but that meaning remained shrouded, veiled in mystery. What was the significance, anyway, of the song’s refrain? What was one hand in my pocket meant to suggest? To explore this question I tried it myself. I slid my hand into my own pocket while singing the words. Or tried to. But the pants I was wearing—form-fitting cigarette pants from Brooklyn Industries, just formal enough to pass as corporate—turned out to have no real pockets, just little seamed slits meant to resemble them. Cosmetic pockets.
For some reason, this discovery annoyed me. More than annoyed me: it filled me with rage. I don’t know why. I also don’t know why my response to this rage was to jam my hand right into the fake pocket, hard, as I belted out the final chorus: “’Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one is hailing a taxicab!”
Because I was singing at the top of my lungs, I felt the rip rather than heard it. That quick jab of my hand had somehow torn the entire right-hand front panel of the pants away from the back, exposing the front of my thigh. A flap of cloth hung down like a lolling tongue. In the weird light of the karaoke room, my exposed flesh looked sickly and whorish, pale green and mottled by swirling disco lights.
“Motherfucking Brooklyn Industries,” I murmured, dropping the microphone onto the vinyl couch with a muffled thud.
I hunted through my purse, but it contained nothing helpful: no spare clothing, no safety pins, no adhesive tape, not even a Band-Aid. It was a warm early-fall day, and I didn’t even have a blazer or cardigan I could tie around myself to hide the hole. I had two options: call Dennis and tell him where I was so that he could bring me a new pair of pants, or go out into the world like this, holding my purse in front of me to conceal the torn fabric as best I could.
The choice wasn’t really a choice. Just the thought of telling Dennis where I was filled me with a hot rush of shame. How would I explain it? How would he respond to this evidence of a craziness I hadn’t previously displayed? (“You know what I love about you?” he’d once said. “You’re sexy, but you’re also reasonable.”) I held the flap of cloth close to my skin with one hand, pulled the purse against it with the other, and hobbled out of JoyfulSongTime.
Luckily, there was a Gap right across the street. I limped inside and hunted through the rack of black pants. I quickly tried a pair, ascertained that the fit and style were similar enough, and wore them out, tossing my old pants into a garbage can on the street. As I walked the twelve blocks back to work—now almost late for a meeting with the senior partner—I slid my hands into the pockets of the new pants. Real pockets. The song was still blaring through my head, Alanis’s unmistakable nasal voice piercing my consciousness, and there was something oddly comforting about being able to enact its lyrics directly. I left one hand in my pocket the whole way back to work.
Dennis had no children with his ex-wife. Which is, you know, thank God, right? I thought it might be nice to become a mother someday, a mother to something that began as a formless pink blob inside my body—but I couldn’t imagine becoming an instant mother to a fully formed human child, with preexisting allegiances to another woman who hated me.
When I’d asked him if Carlene had wanted kids, he’d shrugged and said, “Let’s not talk about that, okay? I want them with you.” I tried not to think about the implications of his answer. I tried not to feel as if I’d stolen another woman’s future children.
Carlene was thirty-nine now, not technically too old to become a mother, but old enough to panic about it. I thought I’d seen that panic in her eyes the day we’d first met, at the firm’s Christmas party, before Dennis and I had technically started boning but well into the period when it was clear we eventually would. We were fucking constantly with our eyes, and it was obvious the rest of our bodies would soon follow. There was a palpable un-easy excitement stretched between us at all times, even when we were at opposite ends of the room; when we stood next to each other it collapsed, tightly coiled, into a pulse of sexual energy so thick it short-circuited and stalled conversations. Carlene was wearing a lime-green dress that hugged her Irish curves, and her thick red hair spilled down onto her shoulders. She was an objectively sexy woman. Yet here she might as well have been a medieval eunuch. She compensated by being aggressively friendly to me, stretching her fleshy lips into a strained, overly large smile and saying “That’s so great!” to every innocuous fact I revealed about my life: what college I had attended, what neighborhood I lived in, what particular fitness classes I enjoyed. She sensed that she was on a sinking ship, and wanted to go down with her head held high. I respected her for that. Until I ran into her one day at Starbucks nine months later and she dumped what was left of her latte onto my shoes and said “This is my Starbucks, you ferret-faced cunt.” (Unbeknownst to me, she and Dennis had carved up the city during their breakup, splitting custody of it as if it were the child they’d never had. They each had spheres of influence, where the other could not trespass: Carlene had all the Starbucks south of Thirty-Fourth Street and all Equinox gyms; Dennis had Fairway.)
Walking back from JoyfulSongTime in my new pants, an insane thought occurred to me: I have been cursed. That was a thing in some cultures, right? That one woman could curse another—that her hatred could become strong enough to infiltrate her rival’s conscious- ness, perhaps even her womb? Was it Carlene’s voice I was hearing in my head now, blaring out these stupid lyrics, causing me to rip my own pants? Was it Carlene’s rage that had swept my uterus clean of whatever might have been nurtured there?
I shook my head. I was going bonkers. I pushed the revolving door and strode through the lobby, putting on my game face for my meeting, remembering what I was here for: I was here to defend Bank of America from external litigation, and I was here to make money doing it, and to look damn good while doing it, and you know what, fuck Carlene—if Dennis hadn’t wanted to be with her anymore, there was nothing I could have done about it. Some forces are just impossible to fight.
Not that I had tried.
That night, while I stood at the kitchen counter pouring us each a glass of Pinot, Dennis came up behind me and slid his hands into my back pockets, cupping my ass. “Hmm,” he said. “I like this. Wait, are these new?”
“No!” I cried, a little bit too loudly—so loudly that I startled myself and spilled the wine all over the granite countertop. “Oops,” I said, leaning away from Dennis to reach for a paper towel.
“Really?” he said. “I’m sure I haven’t seen these before. I’m sure because I notice your ass. I spend a lot of time noticing your ass. Full disclosure.”
“I don’t wear them a lot,” I said, laying paper towels on the spill, watching them bloom blood-red. “They’re old.”
“Well, you should wear them more often,” he said, turning me around to face him and sliding his fingers down into the front pockets. This action filled me with an inexplicable panic, and I twisted away from him. “The thing is,” I said, reaching for the two now-full glasses of wine and handing one to him, “I actually hate these pants.” I was surprised by the way the word “hate” emerged from my mouth: I practically spat it out, with twisted vehemence. Softening, I rushed to explain: “It’s just something about the material. It kind of itches.”
Dennis’s eyes widened. “Okay,” he said, shrugging. “Then don’t wear them. Your ass looks good in other things too. Your ass looks good in everything. Here.” He set his wine down on the counter, without even taking a sip, and began to unbutton the pants. He nuzzled his lips into the crook of my neck and murmured into my ear. “If you hate these so much, let me help you out of them.”
What kind of woman stands in the kitchen of her Upper West Side apartment, sipping from a glass of ’97 Pinot while her handsome rich fiancé slides her pants down and begins to slowly, expertly eat her out, and finds herself distracted by a dumb midnineties song she doesn’t even like?
’Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one is giving a high five.
It was too much, the cognitive dissonance of it. “You know what I was thinking?” I said, reaching down and lightly tugging on Dennis’s ears to disengage his face from my crotch. “About the wedding. I know the caterers suggested that roast chicken. But, you know, chicken at weddings…I mean, have you ever had wedding chicken that was really compelling?”
He looked up at me, brow furrowed. “Compelling?” he said.
“You’re interrupting cunnilingus to discuss whether a piece of food you might eat in six months will be compelling enough?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, pulling him up to his feet, leaning into him and planting a kiss on his neck. “I’m just in a weird mood today.”
“I don’t know. Wedding planning, I guess.”
He sighed. “Listen, Chris,” he said. “I’m dying to marry you. But, and I hate to bring this up, but I’ve beenthrough this before. I know what a wedding does and doesn’t mean. I want it to be a fun party. I want you to be happy. But I really could care less about how compelling the chicken is.”
“You mean you couldn’t care less.”
“If you could care less, that means you do care. What you’re trying to say is that you don’t care at all.”
“But that’s what I said.”
“Never mind.” I sighed. “Do you mind if we just go to bed? I’m tired.”
That night I dreamed I was being chased by some shadowy creature through the crowded streets of the city. It had no face, or discernible body parts; it seemed to be covered in some kind of fringe that flap-flap-flapped as it ran. I ran up Fifth Avenue, over to Columbus Circle, back down Seventh; as I turned left, toward my office, I could feel it drawing closer, its moist cottony breath against the back of my neck. I turned and saw what the “fringe” was: the monster was made up of hundreds— possibly thousands—of pockets, covering every inch of its surface, all turned inside out, flapping sadly against its side like used condoms.
“This is what happens,” said the monster, in Carlene’s voice, “when you turn yourself inside out.”
I screamed again, and my scream woke me up.
The song was still blaring through my brain, louder than ever.
That day, on my lunch break, I did not go to JoyfulSongTime. Instead, I walked downtown, to the elemen- tary school near Gramercy Park where I knew that Carlene taught fourth grade, and sat on a bench outside the fenced-in schoolyard. I nursed a large iced coffee and waited, though I wasn’t sure exactly what for.
The children playing in the schoolyard all looked Nordic and robust and well cared for, dressed in snug fall jackets and brightly colored sneakers, whooping and cackling and running in circles. About 75 percent of them were blond. I could just imagine them, these chil- dren’s blond mothers, prancing down the sidewalks like thoroughbreds in their Lululemon yoga pants, their bodies bearing no marks of childbirth (perhaps some of them having even avoided the ordeal entirely by transplanting their blond eggs into some brown woman’s body), still trophy wives long into their supposed middle age, when they’d send their blond children off to elite blond univer- sities with a faint blond wave.
After fifteen minutes, I’d finished my iced coffee and was considering getting up to leave—what was I doing here, anyway?—when she emerged from the side door of the school, leading her own class out into the school- yard: Carlene, her long red hair swept up into an elegant twist at the back of her head, wearing a pretty dark- green sweater-dress and excellent brown leather boots, her hand on her belly.
She looked about six months pregnant.
I needed to leave, but I couldn’t bring myself to get up. For the moment, my head was thunderously silent: no song, no internal monologue, just the pounding of my blood and the pulse of one monosyllabic question:how?
I sat there watching, unable to even think about moving, unable to think about anything. I just watched Carlene, transfixed. She shepherded the line of children out into the schoolyard and then set them free, walking over to join the group of teachers chatting and patrolling from the sidelines. I watched her laughing, making conversation with the other teachers, periodically resting a proprietary hand on her stomach or leaning down to respond to the question of a child tugging on her dress. She looked radiant, like an exceptionally well-dressed Earth Mother, not anything at all like the sour, embittered woman who’d dumped a latte onto my shoes a year earlier.
Yet when she turned in my direction, I couldn’t help myself: I got up and fled, walking away as fast as I could, before she might recognize me. Meanwhile the song started up in my head again, loud as ever.
“I was just wondering,” I asked Dennis, later—we were on the couch, about to dig into a takeout artisanal pizza strewn with artichokes and arugula, then turn on The Daily Show—“have you heard from Carlene lately?”
“No. Why would I have heard from Carlene?”
“I don’t know. I was just wondering about her for some reason.”
“I just, you know—I guess I feel bad about it sometimes.”
“So do I.” He frowned, for just a second, before his face rippled back into its usual expression of masculine serenity. He shrugged. “But what can you do? We weren’t happy. We hadn’t been happy for a long time. And then I met you.”
“Do you think she’ll get married again?”
“I hope so.” He sighed. “You remember, I had coffee with her when you and I got engaged—I didn’t want her to hear it from someone else. She seemed fine. Took it well. I didn’t get the sense she was with anyone, though.”
It seemed impossible that Dennis would not have heard of Carlene’s pregnancy, but if he had, he had no reason not to share it with me. I had to conclude that he genuinely didn’t know. This made me feel slightly crazier, as if I’d imagined the pregnancy, or as if it somehow existed for my eyes only.
Why didn’t I tell him what I’d seen? Would it have cost me anything? Maybe not, but somehow I couldn’t think of a way to bring it up without explaining the whole train of insane logic that had led me to the bench from which I’d observed his ex-wife—the song, the possible miscarriage, my crazy idea of a curse. None of it made sense to me; how could I explain it to another person, even to him?
Especially to him. Dennis was so passionately logical. That was one of the things that had initially impressed me about him. He loved to argue, but not in the blustery overblown way that many men do; he’d listen to your argument, nodding with deep comprehension, making you feel that you’d never been more closely listened to in your life. Then he would pronounce one sentence, with the cadence of an announcement, and the coolness of its refrigerator-crisp logic would make everything else fall away; it was like taking a shower at the gym next to a model-thin woman and suddenly becoming aware of your own flab, qua flab. Initially, when I first met him as a summer associate, this quality of Dennis’s had intim- idated me, made me feel wobbly and diffuse. But then it took on a sexual edge; it was a turn-on for both of us when he demolished me like that. I was a very smart per- son, I was a good lawyer, but next to Dennis my own way of thinking seemed intuitive, impressionistic, full of curves. It was oddly flattering to both of us when we argued, this sexualized inscription of difference. Yet lately, when he’d cut through some cellulitic worry of mine with the scalpel of his logic, I’d felt exposed, diminished, vaguely lonely. Why was there so much of me I had to explain? Why was there so much of me?
“How did you know?” I heard myself asking.
“That you weren’t happy. With Carlene.”
“What do you mean, how did I know? If you’re not happy, you’re not happy.”
“But you stayed with her for a while after that, right? After knowing?”
“I guess so. Sometimes it takes a while to fully admit to yourself that you know something. Or it takes something else coming along. Something better.” He squeezed my thigh.
“And what if I hadn’t come along? How would you have known then?”
He frowned. “What are you getting at?”
“I’m not getting at anything. I’m just curious.” “Don’t be curious,” he said, leaning over and kissing my neck. “Just be happy. I’m happy.” His hand was still on my thigh; now he slid it up further. I thought of the moment in the karaoke room when my pants had ripped, when my thigh had been exposed to the swirling greenish disco lights. It was this part of my thigh he was touching now. I was suddenly saturated with a self-disgust so thick that I actually gagged. “I don’t feel so good,” I said. “I think I might just go to bed.”
“What about the pizza?”
I looked longingly at the box, steaming fragrantly on the coffee table in front of us, not yet opened. Its tomatoey, herbed aroma filled up the room. I wanted it, but not as badly as I wanted to be alone. “I think it might make me barf,” I said. “I’m just gonna go lie down.”
“What’s going on with you?”
“Nothing. I just don’t feel well. Stress, maybe. The change of season.”
He smiled. “You’re not pregnant, are you?”
“Of course not! Dennis, I just got my period, don’t you remember? I went home from work. You gave me a back rub that night.”
“Calm down,” he said. “Of course I remember. I’m joking.”
“Don’t joke about that, please.”
He held up both palms. “Sorry. I guess you should go to bed.”
From the darkness of our bedroom I could still smell the pizza, could hear the TV crowd’s muffled laughter, could sometimes even hear Dennis laughing along with them, as if everything were just fine. It was odd, experiencing this all from the outside: hearing the sounds of our life, smelling its smells, without participating. Was this what my life would be like, without me?
The next day I went back to the elementary school again. I sat on the same bench, sipped an iced coffee from the same Starbucks, waited again for Carlene to emerge.
She did, at the same time as she had the day before: today in nicely tailored dark jeans and a kind of maternity peasant blouse, her red hair down around her shoulders. I strained to glimpse the presence or absence of a wed- ding ring, but I was too far away.
As I had the day before, I watched her walk over to the group of teachers, chatting while keeping an eye on the children’s antics. I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for, what I had hoped to see, beyond confirming the truth of what I’d observed yesterday. I was just about to get up and leave when she turned in my direction—then paused, squinted, and stiffened in recognition.
I raised a hand weakly in greeting. She murmured something to the teacher next to her, let herself out the gate in the chain-link fence, and strode over to the bench where I was sitting. She looked down at me, hands on hips, as if I were one of her errant students. But she didn’t exactly look hostile: more like wearily patient, as if she’d been expecting this moment for a long time.
“I was just in the neighborhood,” I said. “I didn’t know you worked here.”
She sat down next to me, arranging herself on the bench, resting a hand lightly on her belly. “Somehow,” she said, looking straight ahead, “I find that hard to believe.”
“You look . . . great.”
“Thanks,” she said, turning to face me, with a smile so large it must have been involuntary and genuine. “I’ve al- ways wanted kids. And so when, you know—I thought, fuck it. I’ll do it on my own. And I have to say, it’s already the best choice I’ve ever made, and I haven’t even met the baby yet.”
Usually, when pregnant women say that they’re excited to “meet” their babies, I want to vom. As if the baby is already this fully formed person with opinions and a per- sonality, who they’ll finally get to sit down and have coffee with. When my sister’s was born, we all made this big fuss about the arrival of a new person, and then the new person turned out to be not a person at all but a wrinkled, larval sac of bodily fluids. There was nothing to “meet.” Yet when I heard Carlene use the phrase, I felt oddly touched. I could tell she really meant it, not as a smug pregnant-woman plat- itude but as an actual description of her feelings.
“Everybody’s rallying around me,” she continued. “I have more support than I would have if I’d stayed married to Dennis. Dennis was never home for more than five minutes. You know?”
I did know. That morning, when I’d awoken at six- thirty, he was already gone. He liked to get to the office before anyone else. He was one of those people who barely rest, who view the need for sleep as a faintly pitiable quirk.
“That’s great,” I said weakly. “I’m happy for you.” I was surprised and oddly disappointed, hearing the words come out of my mouth, to realize that they were true, or at least could be true. I could suddenly see Carlene in a detached, disinterested way; we had nothing to do with each other. I might have stolen her husband once, but what difference did that make, now? She was happy. I hadn’t stolen her future babies, and she hadn’t stolen mine. Even if such a thing were possible, she had no reason to curse me.
Realizing this, I should have felt free, but instead I felt weighed down more heavily than ever. Because, if the psychic explanation for my malaise did not involve Carlene, whatever thing was attacking me had come from some other place: some place that was harder to define, harder to assign a location outside of myself.
“Thanks,” said Carlene. She frowned again. “So why are you here?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I honestly don’t.” I stood up. “I have to run,” I said. “They need me back at work. I’ve got a meeting in half an hour.”
I didn’t hear Carlene finish her sentence, because I was already walking away.
I did not walk back to work, though. I hadn’t been lying about the meeting, but I just couldn’t go back there right now. I couldn’t be around all those people who thought I was this one thing when I felt like this other thing. Something was pounding through my head, an almost unbearable pressure, something independent of the song, though the song was still there too, now starting to skip like a broken record: ’Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one, the other one, the other one . . .
I went back to JoyfulSongTime, paid the teenage at- tendant, accepted the sparkly tambourine. But when I finally found myself alone in room 6, I didn’t pick up the remote and punch in a number. Instead I just pulled my knees in close to my chest, rested my forehead on them, and began to sob.
A karaoke room in the middle of the day is a great place to cry, because you can be completely alone. It’s the last place anyone would expect to find you. Even if I’d been home, I would have felt more exposed, among all the objects that used to be my own and which I now shared with Dennis, intermingled with the objects that had once been his and Carlene’s, and the objects we had purchased together. Here in room 6 there was nothing personal, only binders full of songs cataloging the variable and yet endlessly predictable permutations of human feeling. Here my privacy was the most common, clichéd thing in the world. Here I could safely turn myself inside out.
I cried for half an hour straight, and then my Black- Berry started to buzz. It was Dennis. I was late for the meeting, of course. I let it buzz until it died, and then it started buzzing again. Then a text came through: Chris are you OK?? I’m worried about you. Fuck the meeting. Just tell me where you are.
I hit the reply button, then stared down helplessly at the device. Was it even possible to tell him where I was? Where was I?
When Dennis found me, I was lying supine on the long padded couch in room 6, my hands at my sides, like a corpse. I wasn’t crying anymore. I was staring up at the ceiling, at the swirling pattern of lights that spangled its surface; yet my focus lay elsewhere, on something beyond the visible.
What I was focused on was the silence. When I had finally stopped crying, my head was blindingly clear, like a landscape blanketed in snow. The song was gone. Everything was gone—except this silence, like a taut tightrope across which I now had to navigate without losing my footing. I couldn’t be distracted. I felt a clarity that was wordless, without reference. It had no message. It wasthe message: a tight humming blankness that belonged to me, that demanded my attention, that demanded everything.
I heard the door open. I heard Dennis come in. I heard him speak my name. I did not reply, or turn my head to acknowledge him.
I knew that I would have to speak soon, that I would have to tell him some things. What I didn’t yet know, what I hoped that the silence would reveal to me, was just how many things there were. And also: would he be able to hold these things, to cup them in his palms and accept them—or would he hand them back to me, impenetrable as mirrors, mine and mine alone?
He sat down next to me, his expensively suited butt squeaking on the cheap vinyl as he settled himself. He said nothing. He took both of my hands into both of his. I tried to pull them away, but he held them tighter. Then he looked up at the ceiling, where I was looking, and waited for me to speak: so patiently that it was like he wasn’t waiting at all, like he was simply watching the miasmic patterns of the disco lights as if they held great interest, sanguine about whatever mysteries or banalities they might reveal.
I opened my mouth and heard myself begin to speak. The sentence I spoke was not the one I had planned. What I said was “I’ve lost something.”
“What?” said Dennis, gently. “What do you mean, baby? What have you lost?”
I had no idea how to begin.