Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Saturn in Retrograde

Temperatures in Philadelphia reach 95 degrees by 7 a.m., and I end up running into Harry at the train station.  I am in town for a conference, and he is apparently going to work – dressed in a suit that doesn’t quite fit him. 
“Judy, what are the odds?” he laughs, and I notice there are old coffee stains on his sky blue tie.
I smile, hoping the humidity hasn’t destroyed my hair.  “What are the odds, indeed?”
“What are you doing here?”
“In town for work,” I say, holding up my brown leather bag as if to drive home the point.  We both chuckle, though I don’t know why.
I try to remember his wife’s name: “How’s . . . Jessica?”
“Jessica’s great,” Harry says.  He has taken out his BlackBerry, and he asks for my number.  I take out my BlackBerry and ask for his, and, once our numbers are safely tucked away in each other’s pocket, we agree to have dinner tonight. 
“Bring Jessica,” I say, even though I don’t mean it.
“She has to work tonight, sadly,” Harry says. 

“Aw, that’s too bad,” I say, trying not to smile too hard.

Later, the sun has slowly started to sink behind the skyscrapers, but there seems to be no sign of the heat letting up.  In my hotel room, I obsessively pluck my eyebrows and apply and remove five different shades of lipstick until I get the right one.  I try to dress light, and I make sure to wear open-toed sling-back heels, because I remember that Harry liked those.

I meet Harry at the restaurant, a little place called Rouge, right across the street from Rittenhouse Square Park.  We have to wait twenty minutes for a table.  Most of the seating is outside, so we have to stand on the corner of the street, watching other people eat at their small tables.  We don’t talk to each other at all during this period.  I notice that all the waitresses (there are only waitresses, no waiters) are young pretty things dressed all in black.  I imagine they are all college students, working here in their spare time, and I cannot help but hate them.  They have tattoos on their arms, and tacky jewelry hanging around their necks, and they all look incredibly bored.

We finally sit down at a tiny round table and our waitress brings us water.  We have a nice view of the park, which is overflowing with people.  Teenagers jump on their skateboards, girls sunbathe in bikinis (even though the sun has almost set), and people walk their dogs.  I sip the water and pray the sun will go down faster so the heat will break.

“So, how have you been?” Harry asks.  “Married?  Kids?”

“Yes on both counts,” I say.  “Well, kid – singular.  A son.”

“That’s great.  Really.  We have two girls.”

“Fantastic,” I say, smiling.  We order our food and our wine, and the food is good, although on the greasy side.  

The wine is terrible.  I don’t say anything, and I regret getting it because it makes me extra warm.  Harry is rambling on and on about his family, and he tells me his wife is an English teacher and that she has a PTA meeting tonight.  How utterly boring that must be.

Harry is still handsome.  Not as handsome as he was in college, when he was in fabulous shape and always sporting a five o’clock shadow.  He’s clean-shaven now, and a little pudgy, but he still has those high cheekbones, and he still has those deep-set eyes.  I continue to smile at his banal existence, and then I drop the smile – afraid that I’m smiling too much.

“So, what about you?” Harry says. “What about your life?”

I tell him my husband Mark is a doctor (a lie; he is actually an accountant) and I tell him my son Cody is a straight A student.  (That’s also a lie; in fact, Cody has been getting in a lot of trouble recently for fighting at school, and we had to attend a parent-teacher conference last month because his art teacher discovered that he had drawn page after page of women with their heads cut off in his art journal.  “Boys will be boys!” had been my only statement at the conference.)

Absently, I slip one of my shoes off and begin to rub my foot against Harry’s leg under the table.  This stops him in the middle of one of his dreary sentences.  His mouth hangs open and he raises an eyebrow.  I smile seductively and continue to rub my foot against his leg, sliding it all the way up to his crotch.  I keep expecting him to tell me to stop, but he sits there stunned.  Then he downs his entire glass of water and asks for the check.  He pays for both of us and I don’t object.

Walking through the park, the sun has gone down, and fireflies twinkle around the grass.  Someone is strumming a guitar somewhere, and someone is talking loudly on a cell phone.  The air is still warm; but not humid.  Harry and I don’t speak the entire time, and we leave the park and cross the street.

“Is your room near by?” he asks suddenly.

“No,” I lie.

“I . . . I don’t know what we’re doing . . .,” he mutters.  All the joy has gone out of his voice.  His words are clipped and strained, and he is sweating.  “We shouldn’t . . . .”

“We shouldn’t, you’re right,” I say, and then I lean in and kiss his neck.

We duck into an alleyway by two old brownstones, and he presses me against the wall and we begin kissing violently.  He paws at me, and I tear at his hair, our bodies soaked in sweat.

“Fuck me; here, now,” I whisper in his ear, and he is hiking up my skirt and I am unbuckling his belt and it isn’t long before he is inside me, but it is not at all like I remember.  It’s weak and it’s sort of sad, and I can hear he is crying.  Sobbing, actually.

“Oh, stop,” I say, angry.  “Just stop.”

“I’m sorry—”

“Stop, god damn it.  Just forget it.”  I am pushing him away, pulling up my panties, hating the universe. 

“I just—”

“Just stop.  Forget it.  Thank you for dinner.”


“Please, if you say another word I’m going to start screaming,” I snap.  I am out of the alley and walking back to the hotel, with Harry calling after me.  I continue to walk, not looking back, and he does not follow.  But I get lost along the way, and on the corner of a street I see that a filthy homeless man is looking at me.  I start screaming at him.

“What the fuck are you looking at?” I say, pulling strands of hair out of my eyes.  “You filthy fucking slob.  What are you looking at?  Get away from me.  Get away!”

As I’m screaming, I can see the utter sadness in his glassy eyes, and I can imagine the life he had once – a dead wife, children who won’t speak to him, some sort of terrible trauma that made him the way he is now.  And though I am overwhelmed with sudden sympathy and pity, I can’t stop screaming.  My words explode out of my mouth in rushes, and spittle begins to fly.  I scream obscenities until he staggers away. 

I start to softly cry, because it’s too hot and I have no idea which direction my hotel is in.  My phone rings and I answer it without looking at the caller ID.  It’s Mark.

“Hi hon!” he says.  “How’s Philly?”

“Hot,” I say flatly. 

“How was the conference?”

“Oh, the usual.  Nothing too exciting.  How are you?”

“Okay.  Miss you.”

“Miss you too.  How’s Cody?”

“Well, that’s sort of why I was calling . . .,” Mark says, his voice unsteady.  “It’s . . . it’s not a big deal, I don’t want you to worry.  But Cody . . . had a problem earlier.”

“A problem?  What—”

“You know the Wilson’s next door?”

“Yeah . . .”

“Well, he...I don’t know.  He says it was an accident.  But he killed their cat.”

I close my eyes and lean against a building.  A hot wind blows by, scattering trash and empty bottles down the block.  I am silent.  Mark is still talking:

“—an accident.  He swears it was.  But, well, they were pretty upset, and they called the police.  And the poor cat – oh, Judy, there was so much blood.  Cody got it all over his clothes – they’re ruined.  I had to throw them out.  But, you know—”

I can feel myself coming unmoored.  I can feel the hot city night pressing into me. And at the same time, I can feel nothing.

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