August 5, 2002 (revised October 24, 2006)
When you haven't heard your real name for a while, it takes you a moment to remember that it's you, and it seems to bridge the time since you've last heard it, so that within those two syllables I'd stepped back about three years. Laura also had a way of saying my name, as well as many other things, which somehow expressed dissatisfaction yet bemused acceptance, as if every mistake I'd made was tattooed on my skin for her to see, for her to take in and pronounce upon by way of that one simple word.
The second thing she did -- a close second -- was grab Felicia from my arms, cradle her like a baby and coo in Latin very seriously to her. Laura had studied Latin as part of her legal training and had used baby-talking it to the cat as a kind of mnemonic device when we first had gotten her. For Felicia, though, this was a ticket straight back to kittenhood, and who doesn't like a trip down memory lane? Felicia let loose with a purr like a diesel engine, although the jealous part of me thought it was probably also the air conditioning in her apartment, which was a relief.
Laura leaned in and kissed Felicia's head, and then looked up at me, a long critical gaze. "You've taken good care of her. But you know you actually have to do that for yourself, too."
I nodded. "Yeah."
"You look like cobwebby shit."
"That feels accurate."
"You want to take a shower?" she asked.
"Is that a recommendation?"
"More like an order. Go wash the death-glaze off, you're scaring me. If you don't look better when you come back out I'll call an ambulance" She pointed down a short hallway. "First on right." And then she spun around on one foot and headed into the kitchen, the sound of Felicia's internal motor still resonating in the air.
So I did my best to wash off the road in Laura's guest bathroom -- like all guest bathrooms, there was an impersonal air about it, an eclectic combination of bad gifts and accessories that had been retired from the master bathroom like star ballplayers sent down to the minors. Guest spaces in houses always depressed me -- they're always a bit sterile; attempts are made at making them pleasant, but they don't receive the attention and care given to the more trafficked areas of the house, and the room itself seems to know this, resigned to second-class status.
There were many things I recognized -- the toothbrush holder, the soap dish, the white plastic shampoo-and-shower-gel-holding utility rack hanging around the neck of the shower nozzle -- all things that had been in her bathroom in her apartment in Boston when she'd lived there, when we'd lived there, and now they were here, set aside for the occasional guest, while the master bathroom must have held the new things, the things she enjoyed now, just as her bed held another. I looked at myself in the mirror and realized this was the room I belonged in -- not to be thrown out, thankfully, but on a lower rung. Recognizing one's place in the structure of things is never good for mental health, so I did my best to put the thought aside. Besides, it was nicer than anywhere I'd washed myself for a long time, and I was warmed by the familiarity of Laura's housekeeping as I was by the hot water and steam -- the precise arrangement of half-used shampoos and shower gels in the tub, the toilet paper roll folded under, the towels with their precise color arrangement.
When I came back into the living room, Laura held out a watered-down whiskey to me, glowing gold in the late-morning sun through the window. "I assume some things still haven't changed?"
"Some things obviously have." I took the glass.
"Changing you isn't my business anymore," she said and reached out and ran her hand through my mussed hair, which I had begun to comb in the way she had always liked before I realized what I was doing and purposefully undid the work, reverting to the who-gives-a-rat's-ass do I had been affecting of late. Felicia was still purring contentedly, lulled into a half'sleep like only recitation in a dead language can do, but when I reached out to scratch her neck she looked at me lovingly -- she thought she was finally back home, that she was a kitten again being adored by the pair of humans who had picked her up from the Rescue League and brought her home to spoil her like only a young couple can. Her happiness sent one of the deepest shudders of sadness through me I had ever felt. Coming off uppers and seeing your ex-wife after a long drive of wistful staring at the ocean will loosen up the sap in the toughest of men, and I am not the toughest of men. I felt tears coming, and so did what I had always done -- diluted the thought with a substantial taste of whiskey.
"Good bourbon," I said.
She sat down on the couch, nestling Felicia into her lap. "Frank enjoys booze, like you, with some differences -- he cares what brand he drinks, he only drinks it in the evening, and not even every evening at that."
"Poser," I said, and she laughed. There is a friendship between those who have loved and tortured each other that is impenetrable to anyone else. The course of a love ending produces a blistering series of emotions that leaves you exhausted, the other person having become a focal point for a bundle of hopes, fears, disappointments, in the world and in
ourselves, that produces a survivor complex in those left. Laura got through it by becoming a better person. I got through it by not staying sober, an approach to dealing with the world that I don't recommend, but then again I don't need to -- it's an approach that seems to recommend itself.
(end of Part 9)
On to Part 10