by James W. Morris
You quickly made it your custom, as one does when one has taken a real liking to some new pleasure, to pose a dramatic question as an exit line each time you chose to leave me. These questions were intended, I suppose, to rattle me psychologically, knock my ego down to size, relegate me to the humbled status of a gape-mouthed oaf, able only to listen, shamed to silence, by the acerbic wisdom of your clear-eyed, insightful query into the divers flaws of my character. You did this three times by my count. On the first occasion, propelled, as if by stage direction, to our tiny apartment’s narrow exit, having on the way grabbed a prop (your overstuffed purse) from the kitchen counter, you marched downstage to your mark, flipped the lovely hair from your lovely face with a graceful toss of your lovely head, declaimed your apparently impromptu line–“Why is it that you always act as if ignorance were a virtue?”–with a loud over-enunciated clarity even the elderly in the back row could hear, then slammed the door behind you on the way out. If this episode had actually taken place in a play, rather than the tiny, two-person theater of our real lives, the fierceness of that slam might have put the flimsier scenery in danger of falling over. (As it was, Mrs. Lecter from downstairs complained to me later that her cat, who had been dozing lazily in her lap at the time, startled at the sound and instinctively extended all its claws, causing Mrs. Lecter, she assured me, no small amount of trauma to her inner thighs.)
At the conclusion of this first–performance–I was, I’ll admit, as you no doubt intended, surprised, awe-struck, gob-smacked; whatever phrase you wish me to use. Your histrionics had their intended effect. But the illogic of the severity of this unnecessarily violent response to our little squabble, your seemingly studied overreaction to what was, from my point of view, only minimal provocation, could not be long ignored. My surprise wore off and I decided you were joking. Thus I stared at the door–the harsh sound of its slam still echoing around the apartment–expecting it to reopen any second. But the door did not reopen, and the echo died down, so, after puttering around the apartment for a bit, at a loss for something else to occupy me, I played the prole, reclined in my recliner and watched a hockey game on television. I didn’t particularly want to watch this hockey game, but since you and I had been arguing about the excessive amount of time I supposedly spent watching sports on television, I more or less felt I had to.
The next day–it was a chill Sunday morning–you quietly returned home, sat beside me on the sofa and explained that you had expected that after our little set-to the previous afternoon I was going to follow you out of the apartment, stop you on the street, and (preferably) with hot salty tears rolling down my face, beg your forgiveness. I laughed at this, in my often-criticized, sudden, barking sort of way, so taken was I with the incredibility of the picture you proposed. But you didn’t laugh; you weren’t kidding; you said you never imagined I would (as you found out later) “just sit there and watch a stupid game” while you were forced(!) to walk all the way to your aunt’s house to spend the night, having nowhere else to go.
On the second occasion that you walked out on me, about a year later, the scenario was very much the same; first, we enjoyed a minor dispute (in this case, if I remember correctly, you seemed to be rather forcefully implying that I was not holding up my end of things vis-a-vis the division of household chores). Then, propelled, you grabbed, marched, flipped, declaimed, and slammed, in a manner exactly identical to the first time. The only substantial difference lay in the provocative question you left me with, which on this occasion was, “How does it feel to be human vermin?” (Honey, as an aside, have you noticed how your supposedly devastating and penetrating questions tend to be a bit off the mark in terms of relating to the topic under dispute? No offense–just thought I’d mention it.)
Well, I’m a fairly easy-going guy, I think, although I’m well-aware that you prefer such rather hurtful and unfairly pejorative terms as “stony” or “emotionally shut-down” when describing me, especially when you are engaged in the apparently satisfying task of describing me to me. In other words, I think I can take a punch or an insult, even from those I desperately love, but let’s face it, you’d have to search pretty far and pretty wide to find a human who doesn’t mind the “vermin” appendage. The point is, because I didn’t particularly like the nature of that question I let you walk out of the apartment without further comment, and I did not get up and follow you though I knew that was all you wanted, a little concession on my part. I could have done it–except for faking the hot salty tears, I guess–but I didn’t. I watched yet another hockey game I didn’t want to watch; it didn’t even involve my home team.
And now, inevitably, we come to the third, the final, occasion. Again, there was a petty squabble, which this time began as a bit of friendly banter concerning which one of us had a better sense of humor. Your position was, if you’ll allow me to characterize it for you, that your sense of humor was superior to mine because you found a greater number, a wider range of things, to be funny. The then-current cast of “Saturday Night Live,” for instance, or Adam Sandler movies–I don’t remember the examples you chose but they were undoubtedly along those disheartening lines. My position was, of course, that my sense of humor was in fact the better one, and my proof lay in the self-same evidence you used–I found a smaller number of things funny. Thus, by my way of thinking, I had the greater discrimination, the more refined taste. I didn’t hee-haw like a lamebrain over every jackass willing to mug at the camera, or speak in a silly voice. Well, our playful interaction, the enjoyable raillery of our contention evolved, or devolved, that day to a genuine dispute with hurt feelings, who can say how? The spark that lit our tiny tiff became a querulous flame, and before we knew it a fire raged between us. I have re-lived that moment, the irrevocable moment of escalation, time and again, turned it over in my mind, inspected and scrutinized it, prayed over it and wished it away, but still, all these months now gone, I don’t know which of us to blame.
Is it fair or unfair, tragic or funny, that one’s future happiness, even one’s very life, can turn on an unconsidered, casually made decision such as that, a decision to allow a jocund disputation to become a real quarrel? Honey, are you like me? Even as I’m uttering some accusation I’ll come to regret, there is a more sensible subsection of my reckless mind that knows I’m committing an error in judgment, yet somehow permits me to make it.
Anyway, on that warm spring day you did your bit. Picked up your purse, stormed to the exit, sneeringly said your line (“Why don’t you go downtown and buy a sense of humor?”), and–as always–slammed the door behind you.
What happened then?
I can only relate my side, of course.
Well, it at first seemed to be your usual sort of performance, a performance that was now, in the second act of our little theater piece, becoming a theme. You rushed away to make a point, to make me miss you, and I remained at home and fumed a bit, then consoled myself by sitting down to watch some sports on TV (baseball, in this case), enjoying (I’ll admit it) the absence of your running commentary about how I was frittering away my life. Sometimes you even suggested I take up one of the sports I watch myself–it would be nobler, you said, less of a karmic waste of energy, and recast me out of my seemingly permanent role as “one of life’s bystanders.” (Really, Honey? You want me to take up boxing? I need my brain. Hockey, baseball, football, soccer, or basketball, as you also suggested? Remember, I have that trick knee.)
Anyway, as I was sitting there in my chair, watching the starting pitchers warm up, I realized that your pattern of abandonment had actually altered a bit. For one thing, your posed question on this third occasion was more sneering and facetious than outright abusive, and for another, you were leaving me during baseball season, instead of during the hockey season, as before. These observations seem either deeply significant or stupidly insignificant in hindsight, but they really did occur to me at the time, and because I don’t like an alteration of pattern without suitable explanation, they engendered in me a modest feeling of anxiety. I recall thinking then that it wouldn’t actually do me any harm to catch up to you on the street and request your return home. So I shut off the television, and rose from my chair; you’d only been gone a few minutes.
I halted by the door. No, wait–I would not give you your little victory. I would telephone you later, at your aunt’s house; that would be enough.
I headed back to my chair but stopped again before I reached it. I did–do–love you, and you can’t assert I was one of those guys who never actually said it, as I always pointed out after the words were spoken. “It’s nice that you say it,” you always replied, “but I need you to show me.”
Well, okay, I determined that I would show you. My waffling had come to an end. I turned rather deliberately once again to the door, having decided to find you on the street and ask you to return to the apartment since, though the appeal of the idea was inexplicable to me, it seemed to be a scenario you desired be acted out so ardently. Have I ever denied you anything? (Don’t answer that.)
Standing outside on the front stoop that day, surveying the empty avenue, I took a moment to congratulate myself inwardly on my willingness to change and my fulsome generosity. But which way to go?
Logic dictated that you were heading to your aunt’s house again. I’d been there once or twice, but I had difficulty picturing the most efficient way to proceed there on foot from our apartment. I didn’t feel like puzzling it all out; it seemed like too much of a burdensome mental strain. (How good it feels to be honest about my laziness this way. Also how disgraceful.)
Well, Honey, I simply selected a direction at random–right, that is, south, and I went that way, wandering around for a while in that part of the neighborhood, looking for you. A guilty-looking man was letting his dog poop on a neighbor’s lawn; an abandoned storefront with soaped-up windows held a new sign indicating that a Japanese restaurant was on its way; an old lady was lecturing a parking meter. Or, maybe, a parking meter was lecturing a dog; a guilty-looking man was pooping on a Japanese restaurant; a soaped-up old woman was indicating a new lawn. It doesn’t matter–the point is, I searched around in the neighborhood and saw some interesting things and some interesting people, but I didn’t see you.
I went back home and watched the rest of the baseball game.
The Phillies lost 4-2, in ten innings.
In the second act of plays, usually things get worse; a situation set up in the first act gets more complicated, the hero (in this case, believe it or not–me) finally begins to see the trouble ahead.
After the baseball game was over, I called your aunt.
“What, again?” she asked. “She left again? Well, she didn’t come here this time.”
For a while I considered whether your aunt might be lying on your behalf, perhaps following dictates you’d given her with the intention of worrying me, but in the end I decided she wasn’t. It’s undoubtedly true that your aunt (your whole family, really) never warmed up to me, but she’s not the type to purposely interfere, in my opinion. She wanted us to stay happily together, without splitting up every other week, if only for the simple reason that we might then leave her the heck alone. After asking your aunt to have you call me if you presented yourself at her house, I put down the receiver. I thought of dialing your cell phone, but I realized I couldn’t–it was useless, and still sitting on the bedroom dresser. You’d dropped it in the toilet the day before, remember?
When it was starting getting dark, I asked myself: now, what?
I made a mental list of places you might have ended up:
A friend’s house.
(Okay, sorry about that last one, but I was starting to worry.)
Determining to put all my embarrassment aside, I located your old address book, the book you used before you acquired a cell phone, and dialed every telephone number it contained. No one who answered had seen you, and no one that I left a message for ever returned my call.
Here’s a question: Who is David Kent? There was a star adjoining his entry in your phone book, and when I dialed the number it simply rang and rang. I’m not being paranoid or jealous, or maybe I guess I am a little, but his didn’t seem to be a name you’d ever mentioned to me. Hell, for all I know, he’s just a plumber someone recommended to you and the star means he’s only a marginal crook. Still, I had to wonder.
Actually, that’s about all I do these days, wonder.
That night, your first night gone, I did not venture anywhere near the bed. Instead I dragged the big chair–the lumpy one that you use to read those fat novels you like–to a spot close by the front door. Sleep was not on my mind, but I dozed a bit toward morning, I expect, though it was an unpleasant dreamless repose and not at all restful, the kind of punishing sleep that makes one feel worse rather than better. When I came back to myself the blackness had a forgiving bit of gray in it, but the sun had not officially risen, and the stilled world, so quiet at that hour, allowed me to enjoy a brief period of hope. In that hushed moment everything yet seemed possible–your return, your safety, even the abatement of my shame. But then came daybreak.
Well, Honey, I’ll do you a favor and skip over most of the next few rather over-dramatic scenes that followed, except to say that I did all the right and proper things, which included informing your family about what happened and enduring several pointless and dismaying discussions about your departure with some of the professionally mistrustful members of the Missing Persons section of our local police department. They began by accusing me of all sorts of unspeakable acts, or at least implying some sort of nefarious behavior on my part, but by the time of our last conversation, a month or so ago, I perceived that their collective attitude toward me had grown considerably friendlier, in fact, almost fatherly. One veteran officer pulled me aside and informed me he was going to be frank. He said that in his experience, ninety-nine percent of young women who disappear in the manner you did show up again within a few months. These women have taken the big step of leaving their long-term relationships, and (he added reluctantly, almost shyly, as if I were twisting his arm), they generally have another man to go to, or at least one they’d like to go to. Also, he said, it would not be unusual for these disappearing women to provoke a senseless argument to help give them the impetus to leave. (But let me state clearly that I don’t–can’t–believe that of you, Honey, no–not you, though in a crazy way I’d like to; betrayal is a fairly mundane sort of sin, I think, easier to live with than guilt.) I should mention that I was not so taken with this policeman’s supposed frankness that I failed to notice that he chose not to mention the probable fate of the remaining one percent.
In the evenings I like to walk, having long ago given up on the overrated habit of sleep. Frankly, I don’t know what I’m looking for when I go for these aimless late-night sojourns, but I think it is better to go out, to do something. Better, that is, than sitting at home, contemplating the bedroom closet still packed with your clothes.
One evening–this was when I was still in my full-time drinking phase–I saw a young dark-haired woman who, from a distance, resembled you. I was quite drunk, so I ran (stumbled) ahead of her, threw myself down at her feet, and with tears rolling down my cheeks, begged her forgiveness. To her credit, the woman, who actually resembled you not at all, had the wherewithal to refrain from being unduly alarmed. She merely touched my shoulder, quietly said, “You’re forgiven,” then went quickly on her way.
Well, I gave up drinking after that, but I still walk at night. There are street-sweepers, big growling orange machines smoothly steered by faceless drivers, that brush and rinse the empty roadsides in the early hours, did you know that? And on my travels I seek out activity and noise and so I’ve witnessed a few late-night crimes, bar-fights, for example, and a few dismaying episodes of domestic violence. But for the most part the streets are quiet, in fact, they seem abandoned: traffic lights that cycle uselessly from green to red. Parked cars. And bedroom windows going dark.
Anyway, Honey, I guess this brings us up to date. But of course, a question, the question, remains unanswered, and that is: what about our little playlet, our long-running two-person theater piece? It still wants an ending. The sad actor left alone on stage has declaimed all of his scripted lines and is completely out of ad-libs; the ushers pause patiently at the end of the aisles; the audience, arrayed neatly in rows, is utterly silent. All together, they exist, breathless, motionless, waiting, waiting, for the curtain to fall.
James W. Morris is a graduate of LaSalle University, where he was awarded a scholarship for creative writing. He has published dozens of stories in various literary magazines, including PHILADELPHIA STORIES and ZAHIR. He has also written one play, RUDE BABY, which was recently produced, and worked for a time as a joke writer for Jay Leno.