In the Thick of Things (I Know How to Sail . . .)

green monster
 
Ross and I had arranged to meet in the office on Saturday; he had been away for over a week and would be flying back that morning. Time to catch up. Somebody was usually in on weekends, generally Paul, and when I got there both he and Ross were already there, Paul in the middle of some heated conversation on the phone, Ross sitting on the edge of the copy table, listening to him, biting his thumb nail, occasionally putting in his two cents which Paul would immediately repeat, barking the words into the receiver.

I had lived a dual existence while he was gone, working hard both at the library and HRI and outwardly flourishing in his absence, but mooning away a good part of my evenings, ostensibly watching TV in my room, but really just reliving all my encounters with Ross from the beginning; running through his phone calls this week to the office and his phone call here Tuesday night when he murmured tender and lover-like into the receiver, lonely in his hotel room, fumbling for the words, the feeling running silently through the wires. I’d remain in this trance-like state, sprawled across the bed, staring dreamily and unseeingly at the little black and white screen until Karen, pounding on the door, would yell, “Give it a rest! Turn it off.”

These thoughts, his presence in my life, so surprisingly vivid in his physical absence, kept me agile despite the fatigue, and life moved along with relative ease. I was never alone; he was never out of my mind. Nevertheless a warm flush spread through me on seeing him once again in the flesh. He was like no one else. No one else had this effect on me. He looked quirkier, his features more extreme, than in the past week’s daily rushes—blue eyes startlingly charismatic under black brows, nose more prominent, lips more sensuous—a bigger presence altogether, really something. His face brightened at the sight of me as he waved his hand, silently motioning me into the office, glancing down and grinning in spite of himself. Paul looked up briefly, still arguing with the person on the other end of the line, not batting an eye at this silent, touchingly restrained little reunion. Our being together had been tacitly accepted by most of the staff.

About an hour later Colleen unexpectedly showed up. Taken aback by the crowd already assembled, evidently feeling the need to explain herself, she complained a bit too strenuously of ‘an overwhelming overload of stuff to do . . .,’ which I found suspect. What did she have to do? She knew Ross was coming back today. She had probably prayed to her fates to find herself alone with him. God, she never missed a trick. Since the disclosure of our relationship Colleen had gone into a permanent sulk; still she pushed forward, soldiering on, refusing to recognize the black hole sucking in all her emotional ambitions. Paul left shortly after her arrival; he and his wife, Cathy, were going to New Jersey that afternoon to visit Cathy’s family. That left just the three of us. I gave Colleen no shelter, cruelly cutting her off from any conversational ties she tried to string together until she gave up and went home empty-handed.

So Ross and I spent the rest of the afternoon just ‘doing and being,’ as Karen would say, working silently together in our own inner universe of the reception area and the office just down the hall, its door open and mutely acquiescent; working suspended there in the empty building, the one air conditioner we dared turn on in the outer office (after Paul left) humming away and dripping, accentuating our isolation. For once I didn’t want to turn time forward or back. I wanted it to stay right where it was, just on the edge of something, just on the cusp of the curve. After a little while I turned on the radio and we communicated that way, our thoughts riding piggyback on the airwaves.

Around four Ross called me into his office—it was sweltering in there. He had turned on his small fan, but it only succeeded in chopping at the hot intimate air; I’d noticed earlier his shirt stuck sweatily to his back every time he came out into the outer office to use the copier or send a fax. I sat down and filled him in on what had been going on here during the past week. We really could be doing this someplace cooler I thought, watching him put in a call to Gretchen, fanning myself with my papers. So close to each other—in the mind, on the phone—so intimate with the miles separating us, now here, alone in this sauna with only his desk between us, a reservedness had perversely sprung up leaving me slightly uneasy and a little depressed. Why this formality, this pretext of meeting at the office, making sure he left himself a way out, a means of escape? Everyone probably already assumed we were sleeping together. I was having a hard time believing I was that daunting a concept to a man who’d been around the world a few times. There must be a hidden switch on him somewhere I mused; if I could just find it, just flip it, all those wonderful things glimmering in his eyes would come spilling out, splashing over me.

Having done everything we could here, Ross stood up, picked up his bags off the other chair—he had come straight from the airport—and swung them over his shoulder. He announced he was gonna pack it in. Did I want to come back to the house with him and watch the ballgame? Or was that too boring? A Red Sox/Yankee day-night double header (his version of heaven and I was flattered to be included in it). We could get supper later, between games.

“No, I’d like that. By the way, all those vegetables the Wilson’s gave you, did you ever use them?” I asked while gathering up my stuff.

“No.”

“Have you eaten any of them?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s . . .”

Ross rapped my head with his folded up newspaper, an annoying gesture which was why he liked doing it. “C’mon, let’s get out of here. Someday we’ll go to Fenway . . .” he promised rather wistfully going out the door behind me and locking it, and I imagined the two of us having a someday, imagined us having a fine time together in that hallowed place, Ross in his element and carefree. “. . . It’s totally different than on TV.”

We emerged from the building onto the heat shimmering street; it was still a high summer day, hot and sunny. Blinded by the glare, we stopped short and a panhandler accosted us. Ross dug into his pocket and gave the man his change. I dug into my purse and put on my sunglasses.

Driving down I-95 to Milford, we put a tape in the tape deck and shouted over the music, talking quickly between songs. Quiet earlier, intuitive and ambient, we both now had a lot to tell. We drove through town, and on turning one corner, the ocean suddenly came into view in front of us. This never lost the ability to stun. It had only been a little over a week or so since I was here, but it was like greeting an old friend, the warm breezes pushing the smell of rotting seaweed through the car; it smelled like home.

“It’s great to see the water again; you know what I always say, don’t you? It’s like being let out of a box,” I enthused, turning to Ross. We were stopped at a stop sign. He covered my hand with his and squeezed it for a moment.

“It’s good to be back,” he said, smiling at his own reflection in my sunglasses. He stepped on the gas and we sped forward. I had learned to enjoy the kickback by this time, closing my eyes, sticking my hand out the window; the luxury of time with him stretching out in front of me.

The house was hot and stuffy from being shut up for the past few days and smelled of sandalwood and cloves. We went around opening the windows, letting the air pour through. A woman from Ethiopia and her two children had been staying here the past week, panicked by a glitch in her paperwork, looking after the house. She left on Thursday, free and clear, going on to her sister in Chicago before Ross got back—it would’ve been improper for a female to be in a house alone with an unrelated male, and she had grown increasingly afraid of the neighbors’ stares. The house basked in the late summer heat in a cleaner state than normal. One of the living rooms windows was stuck fast, and I called for Ross to come and help me open it. I stood in front of it, hands in the grooves, struggling to no purpose as he came over. I didn’t move when Ross came up behind me. He fixed me in a steady gaze, asking when it was obvious I wasn’t going to get out of his way, “Do you want me to try and open it with you attached?” Chagrined, I moved aside and it was then we saw that the wallpaper under the sill had been scribbled over with red crayon. What would the Nagles say about that! Ah well, it was too hot, the late day air too balmy to think about it now.

Ross quickly read the note Mrs. Mosissa had left and looked through the mail piled on the dining room table. He was tired. He took the envelope holding the extra house key and threw it in the drawer of the desk in the living room, walked out into the kitchen and got a beer out of the otherwise empty fridge, then went back and sank down on the living room couch to watch the end of first game. The house was empty and quiet for a change—just the two of us. I didn’t want to appear to hang all over him, so after watching the bottom half of the fifth, I went into the kitchen to putter about. My senses were acutely heightened, picking up all the sensualities—I could smell the heat rising, hear the humidity droning, punctuated by the TV crack of ball against bat in the late afternoon light. An array of vegetables in varying states of ripeness was spread out on the kitchen counter (a good percentage of it zucchini), a token of thanks from the Wilsons down the street because the residents here occasionally mowed their tiny patch of lawn. The area teenagers were cruising, one car after another screeching around the corner, puncturing the languor, the booming base notes announcing their arrival long before they sped past the house and annoying the neighborhood long after their departure. I fought the impulse to run out the back door and lob the disintegrating vegetables like grenades at the offending vehicles.

I picked up a tomato but the bottom half of it stayed on the counter. Gross. “These tomatoes Tom and Mary gave you are too ripe,” I called out over my shoulder. “They’re gross.” No response. “I’m gonna throw them out.” It was very quiet in there. He had probably fallen asleep. If I had known, understood the struggle, the walk out of the emotional wilderness that Ross was undergoing in the other room, I never could’ve acted normally and probably would have ruined the whole thing.

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