A gasp follows, not just a draw off one of Mildred’s numerous cigarettes, but a quick intake of breath. Susan knows the reason. For years, Mildred has wanted her to own up to her frivolous lifestyle. Her criticisms are veiled, yet constant, similar to Bull’s tireless invitations to come to the Northwest, and once nearly ended their friendship. It was when Susan was changing her house from contemporary to country, and they were searching for a particular shade of blue. (No matter how much Mildred reacts to Susan’s spending, she always likes to go shopping.) They’d just stepped out of Broyle’s where they’d spent four hours looking at carpets. Four hours deciding between “Distant Horizon” and “Ocean Blue,” the colors close but far enough apart to change the tone of the house. At least that’s what the salesman told them. He was a short, squarish man who, at first glance, reminded Susan of Bull.
“God help him,” Mildred muttered, which made Susan laugh.
She laughed so hard the salesman asked her why. Susan had repeated her observation, and when she came to Mildred’s comment, the salesman laughed, too. She proceeded to tell him about every room in her house. She went into great detail and details of her life with Bull had slipped out. All this was for her husband’s sake, every bit of redecoration. The salesman was surprised to learn that Bull was in Seattle. Not surprised, on second thought, but sympathetic. He touched her arm. He, too, lived alone. He felt sorry for them both. Bull won’t be home until fall, Susan told him, and all the redecoration must be done by then. In the meantime, she’d trust his opinions. He must feel free to tell her his thoughts. “How do you feel about a chandelier in the study?” she asked the salesman. “Would a man like that? Please be blunt.”
When the two women had emerged from the store, hours later, they’d stood silently, elbows brushing. Susan was fooling with her hair. Mildred broke the silence.
“It’s impossible for you, isn’t it?” she asked suddenly.
“You can’t be around a man five minutes without turning it on. I’ve watched you.” Mildred stomped her foot but it wasn’t necessary. Her words used up the venom. “You’re sad, Susan, sad. Batting your eyes, sticking your boobs out. Pulling down your mouth like Marilyn Monroe.”
Susan had wanted to argue. She’d wanted to say that if she were really like that, why hadn’t she ever attempted to seduce Fred? What about Fred? Fred is Mildred’s husband. Every night he sits in a brown leather chair and reads the paper from cover to cover, then turns on the news. They never talk, and he’s the reason her friend never has money. He is Mildred’s sad situation, but never once has Susan pointed it out. People should be free to seek their own solutions. Susan has tiptoed around the problem the way she tiptoes around Fred, who never puts down the paper, and switches on the news every time she visits. So when Mildred accused her, she too stomped her foot, thinking of all the things she could say, but then she said nothing. Just turned away, with Mildred following behind apologizing, apologizing as she is now.
Mildred says she’s sorry to have bothered, but she had no idea she was feeling so rotten. Susan should hang up the phone and go lie down. Or maybe she should call a doctor. One thing is certain, she’s in no shape to go to a movie. They should hang up right now.
Susan laughs, “I’m only cramping. I’ll call you as soon as this is over. I’ll call you tomorrow. We’ll have lunch.”
Click goes one end of the line. Click goes the other. Susan curls her legs under her and examines one perfectly filed nail. If she’s going crazy, she decides, it’s her own fault. She’s too lenient a lover. She should have demanded her rights. She puts down the nail file and looks at the clock. It’s seven-thirty. Not that late. There’s something she can do.
She goes to the Ross & Simon’s catalog and slips out the white card. As she dials the number, she runs her fingers over the green and gold raised leaves. A male voice answers. Good heavens! It sound like the mailman! And it is! It is!
“Yes, I’m Don,” he says. “I’m surprised you called so quickly.” Before she can answer, he tells her he’s been pruning, trimming and fertilizing on the side for years. With his government salary, he’s invested in modern equipment. He easily removes dead stumps.
“This doesn’t make sense,” says Susan. “The card fell out of a jewelry catalog.”
“I slipped it in,” he confesses. “I wanted you to see me in a professional light.”
He sounds relaxed, unassuming. Nothing comes over the wire but warmth. He must live alone — or be in a room by himself. She has no time to chat. She has business. Susan tells him emphatically, defensively, as if he’s touched upon a nerve that the elm tree in her yard must be cut down, not trimmed. Even though she’s just decided, she couldn’t be more sure. It must be cut all the way down.
“What about the stump?” he asks.
Susan hangs up the phone, exhausted. Still, her mind races ahead. Where is her lover? What can he be doing with his mother in the Mammoth Caves? closing her eyes she tries to picture the woman. When she can’t, she imagines his mother doesn’t exist. But no, she must be real because there was a letter. Susan screws her eyes together tightly, remembering she’s been through this before. At that time, she and her lover had been together all day, hanging out, and that evening was when he told her he was going on vacation with his mother. AAA had already routed their map. When Susan heard this, she had a reaction. She curled back her lip and spat, “Two weeks? With your mother? How dumb do you think I am?”
Susan is always embarrassed when she thinks of this. She’s embarrassed now. She’s thought it over and decided her reaction was totally out of character. There is little chance of it happening again. Even if she were drinking margaritas . . . no, it wouldn’t happen again. She’s not one to trespass mutual boundaries. Even though they have an intense spiritual liaison, both know they can leave anytime they want.
But when he told her, she wasn’t thinking.
“Oh, yeah,” she’d cried, her voice breaking. “I’m stupid. At least you think I am.”
“No, it’s true, really,” And he’d looked so sincere that she took the letter from him. It was from his mother. She’d written a great deal in a tiny crabbed hand, but all Susan could read was TAKE CARE OF YOUR TEETH in large block letters at the bottom of the second page. Susan had smiled, forgetting her suspicions, thinking his mother must have told him this a thousand times because his smile is perfect. He was smiling at her, then. “Take care of your teeth,” she’d told him, and they both laughed. Susan is only thirty-seven, but it’s hard for her to read fine print. She has a set of checkers, not on a grand scale, only -150, and they help. Her lover is only thirty. His name is Bart. He isn’t handsome, but has a quiet personal strength. Sometimes he tells her what to do. If he knew she needed reading glasses, he’d make her wear them on a chain about her neck, but he has no idea. She was sitting on the red Chinese couch in front of the picture window with the evening sun streaming in. He did offer to pull the drapes but she said no. She wanted to disguise her squint.
Bart and Susan. Susan and Bart. Sometimes when she’s alone she scribbles their names together on her personalized notepad. Quickly, she throws them out. She wonders if she’s ever been in love before, this schoolgirl silly. Agains she picks up the pad, scribbles their names, and blacks them out. Two weeks with his mother? Now that she’s thought about it, Susan has decided what sort of woman she is.
She’s large and fair, and Bart looks like her. In fact, their features are almost identical except for the lips. Hers will be thin whereas Bart’s are full. The first time she met him, she remembered thinking his lips were the only part of him she hadn’t expected. She’d thought he might be a musician and was surprised to learn he was a librarian. As he checked out her books, he was grinning. Oh, what lips! When he kisses her, he kisses her all over. Once he started at her feet, but most often he starts with her mouth, her throat, then moves to her ears. Her breasts tingle and she squeezes them. Even though she is thirty seven, her doctor told her she had five good years. Five more years. She stands, aching, picturing Bart and his mother in the Mammoth Caves. They’ve deliberately gotten lost from the guide and are standing near a pool of ancient rock formations. Those things that grow up and down. Stalactites. Or stalagmites. That’s what the brochures call them. Susan can’t remember which is which, but she’s sure they’re admiring the pointed ones that grow from the ceiling. There is a drip of water. Drip, drop, drip.
His mother taps her foot. Bart looks anxious, sensing her discontent. “Isn’t this interesting?” he asks.
“Very,” says Ruth, “but let’s try Europe next year.”
Susan stiffened. She almost cries out. How can he go to Europe when she has only five good years? She thumps her foot against the couch. If he were here she’d tell him frankly that she must have a child by him. A child. A baby. Someone to come back to her time and again. Her hands drop to her waist. Her stomach is flat so her hands travel to her breasts again. She goes upstairs and slips on her nightgown. Though it’s barely dark, she counts out tiny white pills.
In the morning, she uproots the newly planted dahlias. The red and orange are vulgar and the blooms overlarge. She dusts her hands and drives to Nature’s Way to buy pansies. The ones she chooses are taller than average but their faces are smaller, about the size of dimes. They sway in the breeze after she plants them, simple harmless flowers, but as she takes the dahlias to the trash, she imagines they are winking in the sun. Smug bastards, she decides.
As usual the mailman is friendly. He doesn’t mention the phone call nor does he press anything into her hand except the water and sewer bill. Well, there is a circular. A local circular with cardboard-like coupons inside. Susan pulls them out and remarks that they look like playing cards or those quirky calling cards salesmen push at you. The mailman says no, they’re redeemable and are part of a game they’re playing at the Super-X next week. He also tells her they haven’t found the right materials for his grandson. She tells him what she’s done to the dahlias, and he agrees. She watches him walk down the street before she settles in her lawn chair. From the rear, he looks like a much younger man. But not too young, not foolish. She puts on her sunglasses and sips iced tea. When he crosses to the other side of the street, she is stretched out, pretending sleep.
That evening as she sits by the phone, she examines her body. Her muscle tone is improving, and she is getting tan. Susan points her toe and watches the shadows dance off her calf. The phone rings. It is her husband. He has called promptly at seven o’clock.
“The die isn’t setting up right,” he tells her. “I may be here past fall.”
“Oh, dear. I’ll miss you.”
“Really? Would you like to come to Seattle?”
There is a silence.
“Bull, don’t you listen?” Susan shouts. “I’m into plants!”
She is crying softly.
“I’m sorry,” he tells her. “I just miss you. I keep forgetting what you said.”
“No, I’m sorry,” she tells him. “I’m sorry but it’s just that time of the month. I overreacted and now I feel bad.”
Bull can faintly remember his wife curled up on the couch with a hot water bottle or a heating pad pressed between her legs. A pad or a bottle, he can’t remember which. It seems so long ago.
“Are you cramping?” he asks awkwardly.
“Mostly fluid retention. My breasts are sore.”
At the word “breasts”, Bull is reminded of how much he’d like to see her. But he only says, “If I were there, I could make you feel better.”
“I know,” says Susan, sniffing. “If you were here, we could talk and hold hands.”
Susan is crying because she dreads saying goodbye to her lover. She knows with a certainty that Bart is not with his mother, but with a woman younger than she. Their relationship is far too complicated for it to be otherwise. When he’s in town, he only calls her on Tuesdays and Thursdays Why is she the one to call him on all the other days, and weekends as well? He’s always glad to hear from her, but dammit, why does she have to be the one to phone? She brings her foot down — BAM — against the couch, furious that she’s not seen through this sooner. She’s been foolish, and when her husband comes home, she’ll be a good wife to him. She’ll cook hot meals, clean the attic, and promise never to cut her hair again.
“I have a confession,” she tells Bull, openly weeping. “I’m not cramping. I’m only missing you.”
Bull grips the phone, powerless. He wishes there were something he could do.
“You’ve been doing too much damn yard work,” he tells her gruffly. “I’ll send you some extra money. Hire some man to do that.”
Susan has always been a little doll-like woman. When Bull first met her, her hair was straight and dark and hung down her back. At the wedding, she wore it twisted atop her head in a coronet of seed pearls. She cut it right after the honeymoon, and although Bull didn’t mention it, she could tell he was disappointed. But he said nothing. Her husband isn’t the type to analyze women; he just likes them.
Susan wonders if Bart likes his new girlfriend. She tries to imagine her appearance. Where to begin? The girl is younger but not really attractive, knows nothing of style and is too long of limb. Her bones suggest a broadness that will turn matronly when she fills out. She wears tennis shoes with golf socks; green pompoms sprout at each heel. Jeans and a faded tee-shirt — her only bit of finery is a gold ankle bracelet that intermittently winks in the dark. The anklet is real gold and Susan knows he’s bought it for her; it’s not something the girl would choose for herself.
She’s not too clean, either, but for some reason, this excites Bart. He sends his mother ahead to the guide and waits for the girl, gauging the distance by her odor. He is breathing heavily. Here she comes, a girl to do with as he wants. She comes deeper into the cavern and the light from her anklet is totally extinguished now. Bart knocks her to the ground. Susan can’t see them, but it’s impossible to ignore the sounds. Wet, sucking noises. She hears the scrabble of feet, although she knows they’re both lying down. Was that a slap? Susan flinches.
The sounds become muffled; the girl is murmuring now. She’d use Bart’s name if she knew it, but because she doesn’t, she makes low sounds. After one particularly long phrase, Susan is livid. How dare he? How could he do that? Susan hopes the girl has a yeast infection. That way, Bart will get thrush, an infection children get when they pay with their privates, then put their hands in their mouths. His tongue will break out in sores. Even so, he’ll try to skate by when they meet again. Bart will try to stick his tongue in her mouth. “No, no,” Susan will say, head turning. “Just on the cheek. Or the ear.”
She decides her next lover will be a discreet older man, perhaps a veteran who’s been through a battery of inoculations. He’ll drive a large, comfortable van.
to be con’t