(set up: At the worst possible time in her life, April has to deal with a blind date sent by a friend who is riding high on the upwardly mobile elevator)
One night in late summer, the telephone rang and a voice April had never heard, high but self-assured, asked if she was April Taylor.
“My name is Bob Waller.” There was a moment of silence. “I’m calling at Sylvie’s suggestion. I’m recently separated and she said you were in the same boat.” Again a long silence that she didn’t feel obligated to fill. “Hello…are you there?”
“Yes.” Another silence.
“Well, are you?”
“Am I what?”
“In the same boat?”
She had a vivid picture of herself and Bob Waller in a flimsy rowboat, in the middle of the ocean, wearing business clothes. Yet she felt no responsibility to be friendly and helpful. Sylvie had no idea how fat she’d become. This man would show up at her door and faint. What could she tell him: I’m very fat, can you take it? “I guess,” she finally answered Bob Waller.
“I have a little boy who spends the weekends with me. How about you?”
“How about me what?”
“Do you have children?” He asked hopefully. He would be disappointed if she were any less emotionally stranded than he.
This made him thoughtful and silent. So what? He was the one who wanted to row out of the harbor of loneliness into the port of togetherness. She considered offering him this metaphor but decided against it because she could feel herself seething with anger. Why? What did she have against this stranger?
“Well…uh, I was wondering if maybe we could go out or something.” Her slow, dim-witted delivery had appealed to him. She could hear the eagerness in his voice.
“I don’t know.” She wound the telephone cord around her wrist.
“I know it’ll be awkward, but you’ve got to start somewhere.”
You don’t have to start with me. “How long have you been separated?”
“That recent?” It was just something to say but he took it as a criticism.
“You think that’s too recent? It seems kind of long to me. How long have you been separated?”
“I’m divorced. I’ve been divorced for seven months but I haven’t been living with my husband for a year.”
Long silence. “Well, what do you think? You think we can go out and see what turns up? Come on, it’ll be good for you. I know it’ll be good for me.”
“I’m not in such great shape.”
“It’s been a long time. Don’t expect much.”
“I mean really don’t expect much. Dating is the last thing on my mind….Look, if you just want someone to talk to, we can talk on the phone.”
“Stop worrying. It’ll be all right. We’re two adults, two battered souls. We know what the score is.”
For a moment she wanted to accept. He was patient and kind. “All right.”
“Sylvie said you were a lot of fun.” He waited for her to confirm this. “Are you a lot of fun?”
“Oh, sure. A laugh a minute.”
“ So how about tomorrow night?”
She gave him the address and hung up. Right away she was sorry she’d said yes. Which one did she hate more, Sylvie or Bob Waller? Why did Sylvie still consider her a friend? They hadn’t seen each other for almost two years. Sylvie, with all her reversible clothes from Talbot’s, was a stranger. Now she was going out with a stranger, as a favor to another stranger. He would fall down the stairs and kill himself when he saw her. It would serve them both right.
After the call, she was starving. She opened a can of Old El Paso tamales. She was crazy for the taste of corn. Doritos, Fritos, all those corn-y snacks were high on her list. The tamales were standing erect in their cornhusk envelopes, five stiff soldiers. She fished one out, shook off the sauce and ate it in two bites. Bits of reddish fat clung to her fingers and she decided to heat the rest. When she finished the tamales, she wished there were more and debated whether it was worth going out to get another couple of cans. No. Her ribs hurt, something new that had cropped up. There was a bursting, wrenching pain that began when she sat on a soft chair or slept on her side. She got up to bind herself with a scarf and stubbed her toe. She cursed, brushed her teeth twice to get rid of the sauce taste that clung to her mouth and went to bed.
That night she dreamt she had a new apartment in an Art Deco building. She kept finding new hidden spaces that she hadn’t been aware of before. The apartment was empty and she was anticipating the fun of furnishing it from scratch when she noticed a huge, old couch, hogging almost all the space.
Either out of nervousness or momentary blindness, or because he was still in shock from having his wife walk out on him, Bob Waller didn’t show by word or expression that there was anything unusual in his blind date. She wore a silk shirtwaist in size 20 with a self-sash that she considered leaving off. It was colored in what the fashion world called ice cream stripes. At the last minute she added hoop earrings. She had blow-dried her hair into a careless, no-part disarray of waves and curls. Her green eyes looked restless and feverish because of a light tan acquired on the previous weekend. If you didn’t stray below the neck, she looked pretty.
He appeared to have planned and timed the evening and picked her up at 7:00 for a 7:30 dinner reservation at a restaurant on the West Side. As they walked along 34th street looking for a cab, she realized he was trying to look at her when he thought she wasn’t looking at him. But that was crazy. She was an expert in pretending not to be looking when she knew people were looking at her.
She found Bob Waller handsome in a babyish way, with round cheeks, round eyes and a heavy, labored gait that didn’t go with his slim, tall body. She said as little as possible, waiting for the more relaxed atmosphere of a dimly lit restaurant to get acquainted.
The Café Lyon was small and narrow and cozy, accommodating about twenty tables. “They serve everything on one plate here. Very unpretentious,” he said with the proprietary air of a longtime customer. “The food’s terrific. I always drink the house wine. It’s Sebastiani. See that woman, she’s the manager. The French make good businesswomen. Tough as nails, but very proud. They use the best ingredients and if you complain they get annoyed.
“How do you know? Did you complain?”
“Me? No, I love everything. There was a man who sent back a lamb chop because it was too pink and she had a fit. He said he had asked for it medium and she said that was medium, and in any case, the meat was choice and the chop would be ruined if it was put back in the fire. It would be dry and tasteless. Then she said a lot of other angry things in French to the waiter.”
“What happened to the idea that the customer is always right?”
“Oh, she was right. Don’t you think?”
“No. The man should have walked out. And maybe tossed the lamp chop around a little.”
He was disappointed and she saw him reassessing the evening. Might she throw something around? She made a conciliatory gesture. “Why don’t you tell me about your marriage?” After all, he was spending good money to take her to dinner.
He perked up at once and motioned the waiter and asked for some white wine while they decided what to order. “Is white all right?”
As the waiter was leaving, he changed his mind. “Uh…make that a vodka gimlet.” The waiter looked questioningly to April.
“I’ll stick with the wine,” she said.
“My wife was a very pretty woman, he said by way of a preamble. “She was the sort of person who had to always be going someplace where she could put her prettiness to work. You know what I mean?” April did and nodded. He had described his wife very concisely. “Well, after a while, a marriage settles in. You can’t always be going places. Anyway, she became restless. Very restless. She used to tap her fingernails on any surface. Tap, tap, tap, while she was waiting for the bacon to cook for my son and me or while she was waiting to add the softener to the wash cycle. Tap, tap, tap. She was very edgy, but I never dreamed she would leave. She walked out…just like Joanna Kramer.”
“Yes. Ted Kramer’s wife. You know the movie Kramer vs. Kramer? Well, it was just like that with me. I could be Ted Kramer except that my wife took the kid with her. Also, I’m not in advertising. Also, I’m not the Class A jerk that Ted Kramer was. I didn’t neglect my wife or work long hours, but it was the same basic situation. I married a girl who was too pretty for me and she got restless. There was no place for her to put her prettiness to work and she was afraid it would all be gone and she’d have nothing to show for it.”
April was surprised at her lack of sympathy. “What was your wife’s name?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Why do you ask everything in that suspicious tone of voice? It’s not information I can sell or anything like that. I just want to picture the woman you’re talking about. This callous, adventurous woman. Is it Ramona Waller? Or Elizabeth Waller or Cynthia? It helps to know.” Actually, she thought Mrs. Waller was smart and brave.
“Ooooo, Samantha.” She bobbed her head up and down as if she now understood everything. “There were a few years where everyone was naming their girls Samantha after Katherine Hepburn’s role in some movie. Her parents must have been high-class.” Why had she said that? She really didn’t think that.
“Yes. Yes, they were.” He was appreciative of her deductive powers.
“But how can you compare your life to a movie? Kramer vs. Kramer was full of shit. Just good old Hollywood craperoo.” She knew that was not herself talking. It was Don. She was talking and behaving like Don.
“Why do you say that?” He was startled by her language.
“Why do I say that? Because there’s no way Dustin Hoffman could have a kid that looked like the kid in the movie. Even with a mother like Meryl Streep. And, for another thing, he was too frenetic. The first fifteen minutes of that movie, where he tries to make French toast and does everything wrong…how could you believe anything after that? I was glad she left him.”
Bob Waller looked at her in a funny way. As if she might be glad his wife had left him, too. As if he were taking out the enemy instead of someone who could offer him succor. Fortunately, the waiter showed up and they ordered the food.
“My quarrel with Ted Kramer was that he treated Joanna like a piece of furniture. He marries this gorgeous superior person and then expects her to be satisfied to wash his socks.”
“That’s not too hard to understand,” said April. “My husband thought I was born to wash his socks, and you know what? I did, too. My husband was perfect. A perfect person.” Right after she said that, she realized for the first time that Harald was not perfect. That she might not even choose him again even if she could. This sudden reversal so engaged her, she wanted to stop talking and think about it. Bob Waller looked bored. He didn’t want to hear about her marriage.
“Look,” he said, pointing to the end of the bar where the lady manager was sitting on a stool, “that man. I think he’s her boyfriend. When he shows up, she shuts up.” The man was leafing through the receipts in a surly way.
“Maybe he’s the manager.”
“No. He might own it, but she runs the show.”
There was nothing for her to say. He seemed to get a second wind and told her about his childhood. He had been an altar boy at St. Thomas the Apostle Church. He was originally from Boston. Boylston Street. Georgetown University was his college. Then, he, too, was at the end of his vivaciousness and looked nervously around the small room. Their food came and they ate it. April said it was delicious. She was tired of acting like Don.
“Where do you work?” she asked. A guarded look came over his face, as if she was going to show up at his office and call him sweetie. It was true. When you were fat, people expected underhanded behavior. If you were capable of being fat, you were capable of anything.
Her feet were beginning to tingle, as were parts of her thighs. Of late, she had been losing sensation in different parts of her body, as if sections were going to sleep or the blood supply couldn’t penetrate all the fat. When she thought her circulation was about to give up, she became alarmed. She bought a detailed body atlas put out by Hammond, the map people, so she could see how it all worked. She often studied it, tracing her own blood out of the heart, into the lungs, back to the heart, out the arteries, to the capillaries where the nutrients were extracted, drained by the veins and then, the used, tired blood going back to the heart to be replenished again. It was the used, tired blood part that got her. Was it too used and too tired to take the journey again?
The ice cream had separated in her dish. Bob Waller looked tired. Little beads of perspiration had formed on his upper lip. There was a pointlessness to the evening that gave her a headache. She felt more sorry for him than for herself. Did he know as an altar boy in Boston that his life would take such a turn? As he was learning his ethics from the Jesuits, did he suspect he would have to cope with the faithless Samantha and then attempt to lift the leaden stone of rejection off his chest by calling a faceless stranger connected to him by the fragile thread of coincidence and Sylvie Straight, nee Beck? Sylvie, who now wore wraparound skirts and short-sleeve cotton lisle shirts with repeating patterns of strawberries or smiling frogs, who had been elected treasurer of the Episcopal Women of Ardsley, New York. Oy vey.
She decided to go to the bathroom. It would give her legs and feet something to do. It would give Bob Waller some privacy to fall apart and it would give her a chance to pee, which she badly needed to do.
The bathroom was small and not altogether clean The door had a hook latch that rattled when anyone walked by. She looked for a place to hang her pocketbook and finally placed it in the sink. She sat down on the toilet. Immediately there was a loud snapping sound. My god, what was that? The seat had broken. She jumped, startled and the sudden release of pressure on the seat made the two pieces come together again catching the flesh of her under thigh. Now the pieces seemed cemented together with the glue of her blood and skin. Some blood began to collect on the dirty white tile floor. She let out a cry of pain and fear.