“We should’ve taken the train,” she said. Once again, he heard that caustic edge in her voice that never failed to piss him off.
He saw a car pull out half a block ahead, so he sped up to get to the spot before anyone else.
“Hey! Take it easy!” she yelled, and grabbed the hand strap above her door.
But a fire hydrant was there. He didn’t want to risk getting a ticket and having to pay a prohibitive fine that made coming into the city so aggravating. “Damn it,” he sputtered, just under his breath. Muni-meters and Don’t Park’s and Diplomatic Parking Only and fire zones. Bastards! he thought as he continued along 49th Street to the corner.
While he waited for the light to turn green, he glanced over at her. She used to have such a sweet smile. Her lips were drawn tightly together, in silent anger, as much as from his stubbornness as her annoyance at his erratic spending habits which ranged from penny-pinching to pompous and ostentatious. The futility of driving around every block searching for the rarest of rare – a free parking space – infuriated them both.
Just before the light changed, he stomped on the gas and the car lurched forward. A pedestrian crossing against the red-hand sign had to jump back to avoid being hit. When the pedestrian shook his fist at him, he gave him the finger. Even though he had gunned the car through the intersection, the light at the next corner was already turning red.
“Son of a bitch,” he said, as he banged his fist on the steering wheel.
“You know, you could always put the car in a garage.” Her voice was mildly conciliatory but her tone was still condescending.
“Nah … we’ll find a spot.” He waited to make a left onto 48th Street.
“After all,” she continued. “How much could it cost?”
She knew he hated to spend money on a lot of things but when it came to parking he’d dig in his heels. They could have driven into the city in their new Odyssey, bought after much haggling and hard bargaining, and at 0% financing, but he insisted on taking the drafty, rattling Toyota wagon into the city. “Who cares if it gets stolen or broken into?” he insisted. Instead of heated, leather seats, she was forced to sit in the creaking, leaking car, which he jokingly referred to as his semi-automatic because it had to be manually shifted into low gear to get it to accelerate.
It was nearing 4:30, the beginning of the late afternoon session at the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink. More than ever, it looked like he was not going to find a parking place. He had already been circling the area for more than half an hour. All of the available parking spots on both sides of 48th Street were taken, and so he finally relented. He pulled into the Kinney parking garage. “Twenty six dollars,” he muttered under his breath. “They want twenty six fucking dollars to park this piece of shit.”
The parking attendant handed him a claim ticket and climbed into the driver’s seat. They watched as the car chugged up the ramp and then out of sight. “Oh, shit,” he blurted out. “We forgot the ice skates.”
“Forget about them,” she said. “We can probably rent some.”
They snaked their way through the crowded sidewalk and finally got to the ice skating rink for which New York City was so famous. The Christmas tree, which had once stood regally on someone’s land, had already been carted away. They could never get over how the tree’s owner could have allowed such a beautiful part of nature to be cut down and dragged away, for their five minutes of fame on the five o’clock news. It had pained them when one of their own tupelo trees, split almost to the ground, could not be saved and had to be removed. They still shared some things, some opinions, some feelings. After four decades together, they still had a few things in common.
After they stood on line to rent skates from an indifferent clerk, barely an hour was left in the session. They laced up their skates and skated onto the ice. It took several tries, but he finally pushed off, and managed to stay up. He turned in an awkward circle and said to his wife, who was still struggling to launch herself, “See … it’s just like riding a bike … or riding something else. There are some things you never forget.” And he chuckled. The remark was overheard by several skaters, who averted his glance when he smirked at them before gliding away.
Fuckin’ schmuck, his wife thought, as she gave him a dirty look. If only he could
stillremember how to ride. Between his feeble fumbling and his tearful excuses for a hard-on that invariably softened when – but more often if – it entered her, it had been so long since he had satisfied her. It was usually late at night, after he had passed out downstairs, after she had been staring up at the ceiling which seemed to be closing in on her, after she had watched the red numerals changing on the clock radio, after ruminating about all the things she had been missing, that she finally gave in to her own unfulfilled needs. She reached down to touch herself and then slowly turned over onto her stomach. Soon came the shudder and the release. After her breathing slowed, she invariably felt guilty and ill at ease. It shouldn’t have to be like this, she thought to herself. But that was a much larger issue.
She got up on her skates and headed off by herself. He followed after her, and then caught up. “Hey, I was only joking.”
“You’re always ‘only joking.’ What do you think those people were thinking?”
“Fuck ’em,” though he wanted to add, “And fuck you, too.” Instead, he just skated away.
Their skating date was turning out much different from their first time on the ice, forty years before, when they had skated on the lake behind the Patterson estate. On that frigid day, they were tired of pre-wedding shopping and preparations so they took a ride out to visit his parents. Because his mother enjoyed cooking, though only by herself – she made perfectly clear – and because his father still had several hours of work, he suggested that they go ice skating. They found the old pairs of skates in the basement. Luckily, she wore the same sized skates as his sister. They put on extra sweaters under their parkas and left the house.
They crossed over St. Bartholomews Lane and slipped through the open gate of the Patterson estate. She hesitated, and said, “Wait. We shouldn’t be here.”
“It’s someone’s private property.”
“Don’t worry. I used to play baseball on the field when I was a kid. We came here all the time,” he said. “I think only old man Patterson lives in the mansion besides the caretaker. Nobody ever bothered us.”
Why does she have to worry like this? Why do I have to make excuses? he thought to himself. Doesn’t she assume I know what I’m doing? Then, Goddamn it. She almost killed the mood. But he decided to not let her objection spoil their fun, and they continued on the tree-lined driveway out to the lake.
They sat together on a rickety wooden bench and laced up their skates. They heard a noise from the mansion but when they glanced back they saw nothing. Some windows were covered with drapes while the others were shuttered.
“I figure you’ve skated before?” he asked.
“Yes, a bit, but it’s been a long time,” she said. “I’m probably pretty rusty.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be there to catch you.”
When they got onto the ice, they soon got their footing. They skated hand in hand, and then held each other close as they moved rhythmically together to their own inner music. At the center of the lake, they stopped, kissed, and giggled when their icy lips met. There was no wind whistling through the pine trees surrounding the lake, and no other sounds – just a stillness, a time meant only for them. No white clouds dared to mar the brilliant blue sky. No black clouds threatened to hang over their dreams. At that special moment nothing else mattered.
They skated together as one, until she said, “Ooh. I’m getting cold.”
“C’mon. Just a little bit longer.”
“No, I think we’d better go.” She headed back to the bench.
We’d better go. We. He sadly shook his head. It had felt so good being out on the ice with her that he never wanted it to end.
But now, instead of reliving the magic that embraced them forty years before, he was on the ice in the middle of midtown Manhattan, with gawking tourists taking flash pictures in the early evening darkness and jaded New Yorkers looking on with indifference. He felt none of that special feeling he had once hungered for – no longing to hold her and kiss her, no skating to their own special syncopation, no craving for passion. He skated here and she skated there, coming close only by happenstance. They were no longer two souls joined as one, but two strangers who, along the way, had allowed their vows to love, honor and cherish to be fractured and replaced with something out of reach. He could not wait for the skating session to be over.
They continued skating in circular loops and figure-eights whose paths sometimes crossed but never met. He couldn’t take his eyes off a young lady who was wearing skin-colored tights under her short skating dress and who was performing for the crowd. Every time she whirled around, in particular, his eyes were drawn to her. Mmmm...nice ass, he thought. His wife, of course, saw him watching and took note of this transgression, as she did every other one of his past transgressions, real or imagined. This time, she only shook her head in contempt. Out of the corner of her eye, though, he noticed her silent condemnation. Who cares if I want to watch the girl? he thought. What harm could come of it? Then, Why can’t she just leave me the hell alone?
He thought back to when he was a teenager, when he had skated on Patterson’s lake with his friends. He remembered the day he had fallen through ice that had not yet completely hardened. He should have noticed the cracks and fault lines in the ice, but he insisted on skating out to test it. He laughed with his friends when they pulled him out of the lake, but the joking ended when they brought him home, shivering and chilled to the bone. He never forgot the burning when he soaked his feet in hot water to thaw them out.
His reverie was broken when he looked around for his wife. Only a few skaters were left on the ice. She was already waiting for him, ready to leave. So to spite her, he took his sweet time unlacing his skates before he turned them in.
His plan for the evening was to pick up some tickets at the discount kiosk in Times Square, and then grab dinner before the show. They got on the end of the line but only a few tickets were available when they got to the window. They settled for a musical that had gotten tepid reviews and was about to close. “Hey, what the hell. A show’s a show,” he said when she objected. They crossed Broadway and they continued on toward the restaurants that lined Ninth Avenue. On the way, they passed the theater. “Let’s see where our seats are,” he suggested. It didn’t much matter to her. At that point, she didn’t care if she saw a show or not.
While she waited, bundled up behind him, he checked the seating chart next to the box office window. “Goddam it,” he said, turning around to her. “We’re in the next to the last row of the orchestra. On the side. Not even the center.”
He opened the door for her. A beat, then another. “You know,” she said, “it would be nice for a change if you ordered tickets ahead of time. Then maybe we could get some good seats for a show that we really wanted to see.” Again, there was that edge in her voice. He felt like smacking her. He imagined how it would feel to punch her, to see blood spurting from that angry mouth and those tightly pursed lips.
“I don’t think any show is worth a hundred and twenty five bucks a ticket,” he replied. “Fucking fags dancing around, is all. A bunch of bullshit, if you ask me.”
“Then what are we here for? I thought we were supposed to be enjoying ourselves.”
He couldn’t answer. He didn’t know how to say how much he missed their being the kind of couple they used to be and how he missed doing all the things they used to do. He did not know how to make her understand how their disappointments made him feel – all those unmet expectations that festered just beneath the surface, always threatening to seep through a crack or burst up through an abscess.
“Who the fuck knows.” Then, a few seconds later, “Who the fuck even cares.”
He reflexively reached for her hand, but she had already pushed it deep into a coat pocket. They walked in silence, close enough to be considered a couple, but far enough apart so they would not touch, even accidentally. They crossed Eighth Avenue and passed a small restaurant that was several steps down from the sidewalk. “I’m hungry,” she said. “How about here?”
“Okay. Whatever.” He was glad that the restaurant had a bar. He hoped they would have to wait a while for a table.
A girl took their names and told them it would be twenty minutes. “We’ve gotta get to an eight o’clock show,” he protested.
“Why don’t you have a seat at the bar and we’ll get you seated as soon as possible?” she suggested. He smiled to himself as they checked their coats and returned to perch onto their stools.
The bartender came over and asked, “What’ll you be having?”
“Johnny Walker Black, rocks.”
“We’re out of ice cubes. Will cracked ice be okay?”
“Yeah, sure. And bring a glass of red wine for the lady.”
He always has to sound so sure of himself, she thought. Why couldn’t he have said ‘with ice’ instead of ‘rocks’? When he says it that way, he sounds so goddam pitiful.
She had liked him a lot more when he was smoking pot every night, and all day on weekends. At least he was mellow and affable. Because of the cost, the illicitness, the damage to his lungs, and the two kids who were no longer so naive, he had given up that drug of choice and replaced it with a stream of alcohol. Now, there was always a drink or two before dinner often followed by heavy drinking afterwards. He watched television on the flat screen downstairs, and then passed out, sprawled on the tattered Barcalounger, while she was upstairs being lulled to sleep by roaming fingers or by her own tranquilizer cocktail with a sleeping pill chaser.
He knocked back his drink and then rapped on the bar for another. He sipped at the one the bartender brought over. When the maitre d’ called their name, he swallowed down the rest and ordered a third to be brought to his table. He was welcoming the warmth and the numbness which made him feel normal again. He smiled at his wife but she looked away in disdain.
“Three drinks, already?”
“Yeah. And I’m gonna have another, and another one after that.”
Their bickering was interrupted when the waiter handed them their menus. He started to announce the specials but the husband cut him off.
“Listen, all I want is a steak, rare – make it bleed – and some fries. You think you could handle that?”
“Give the guy a break,” his wife said. “I need a few minutes to see what they have.”
“In the meantime put the steak on the grill so we’ll get out of here before tomorrow. We’ve gotta make an eight o’clock show.”
The waiter made a fleeting eye contact with the wife. “I’ll be back in a few moments to take the rest of your order.”
When the waiter returned, she said, “I think I’ll have a Greek salad.” And she added, “I’m not that hungry anymore.”
“You were hungry before,” her husband pointed out. “Now you’re just ordering a salad?”
“Well, I’ve lost my appetite.”
“It was you who wanted to come into this joint.”
“You’re drunk again. You’re already slurring your words.”
“I’ve got to get drunk to be with you.”
“Why do you always have to be such a prick?”
“Why do you always have to be such a bitch?”
“I knew this was all going to be a mistake,” she said.
“Then, why don’t you go fuck yourself?”
A young couple holding hands at the next table could not avoid overhearing the exchange. They felt uncomfortable and embarrassed, and resented being an unwilling audience to the two miserable people. Later, as they would lie in bed together for the first time, they would promise each other that they would never become a sour, unhappy couple like the two who sat next to them in the restaurant.
A few moments passed, moments filled with silent recrimination and emotional sores that had been reopened. Whenever one of those sores had scabbed over, it itched so much that it was inevitably picked at until it ripped open. It was their way, their destiny. They could never avoid veering off the desperately yearned-for path of normalcy and mutual warm feelings, and onto the off-ramp that brought them to this point. For them, it was always “EZ-off, but never EZ-back-on.”
Abruptly, he announced, “I gotta go take a piss.” He got up and staggered to the men’s room.
She let out a sigh and felt a tear roll down her cheek. She patted her eyes dry before he returned. She never wanted him to see her cry. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
He came back and stumbled as he sat down. When the waiter brought them their meals, the husband pointed to his drink and said, “How ’bout another.”
He dug into his steak, but his wife picked at her salad. Halfway through his steak, he looked at his watch, and said, “It’s getting late.” He gobbled down a few more slabs of meat, and motioned to the waiter to bring the check. Although he left fries and steak on his plate, he made sure to finish his drink. When the waiter returned, he slipped his credit card into the leather binder, got up, and threw his napkin back on the table.
“We still have a couple of minutes,” she said. “Can’t you even wait?”
He ignored her and went to get their coats. The waiter handed him the binder, and he signed the receipt.
“Thank you very much, sir,” the waiter said. “Have a wonderful evening.”
When they were out of the restaurant, his wife asked, “So, what did you leave him?”
“Why did you give him so much?” she asked. Again that edge. But this time, sufficiently lubricated and thus inured, he did not bother to take the bait.
They followed the crowd hurrying to the theaters. When they got back to Eighth Avenue, the red Don’t Walk warning hand was already blinking. “C’mon, let’s cross,” he said. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a taxicab approaching from behind. The driver was accelerating to try to make the light.
“No. We ought to wait.”
In one furious motion, he shoved her from behind. She lost her balance and began slipping on a sheet of black ice. The speeding cab was honking her out of its way. But just as soon as she started to fall, he grabbed her hood and dragged her backwards, out of the cab’s way. It missed her by inches.
She was shaking, not only by how close she had come to getting hit, but more by what had just happened. Despite the shock of the near miss, she remembered being pushed – and it could only have been by her husband – as well as being pulled to safety.
She stared at him, dumbstruck. Then, she asked, merely, “Why?”
He shrugged his shoulders and gestured who knows? with his hands. Then he sadly shook his head.
A not-so-minuscule quantum shift in the fabric of their relationship had unexpectedly taken place on that otherwise nondescript northwest corner, for, when the light changed, he held out his hand for her. This time, instead of ignoring him by stabbing her hand into her pocket, she took his hand and they crossed the avenue together.
When they got to the theater, a young couple was standing under the marquee. “Hey,” the husband said. “You got tickets for this show?”
“No. We’re trying to get some. Got any to sell?”
“It’s sold out?” the husband asked.
“Yeah. We thought since it was closing, we could pick up a couple just before curtain.”
The husband looked at his wife, who nodded back to him. “Here,” the husband said, taking the two tickets out of his pocket. “You can have these.”
“No charge. It’s on the house.”
“Hey, thanks, mister,” the young lady said. They both smiled at the husband and his wife.
The husband took his wife’s hand again and said, “C’mon. Let’s go home.”
“That’s a good idea.”
“Okay if you drove?” he asked. “I’ve had a few too many.”
“Sure. But on one condition.”
“Can you kiss me right now?”
They stopped and hugged. As he drew her in he said, “I hope I remember how.”
She laughed and said, “You better.”
There, on West 45th Street, they shared affection and passion for the first time in a very long time. And when they got home, they made love for the first time in a very long time.
After, he made believe he was smoking a cigarette. “Was it good for me, too?”
She punched him playfully on his arm and said, “You’re always kidding around.”
“Yup, that’s me.”
She almost told him that his constant joking around turned her off and that she wished that he‘d stop. But this time, she didn’t.
He almost told her that her condescending manner turned him off and that he wished she’d stop. But he decided to keep silent.
Instead, for one night, they enjoyed an unexpected and precarious truce – a tenuous cease-fire that was so very welcome. That night, they drifted off to sleep in each other’s arms.
They had almost forgotten what it had felt like.
First versions .. February 12, 2004; Revision 7 .. December 26, 2012
-- Appeared in Grassroot Reflections Issue 26, February 2013
December 2012 Copyright © 2012, Lloyd B. Abrams