Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Profiles in String 29: Penultimate Chapter

I think I was wrong that all my shaking of last week was from weariness. It's cold in the house. We seem to hold around 50 degrees in the big unheated rooms and spaces. But, the boiler is ordered and may even be installed by late next week. We're getting heat, and nothing else, for Christmas this year -- next year too, probably.


   There’s something very disconcerting about waking up in a strange bed, no matter how comfortable. The shock of entering consciousness in an alien place is enough to offset the effects of a night’s sleep, no matter how sound.  My sleep was not particularly sound. It was broken and troubled with dreams, and I would drift in and out of awareness that I was in a place I ought not to be. 
   I opened my eyes and laid still, trying to place the dark room in my mind. It was neat enough, if neat meant “nothing on the floor”. Clothes were draped neatly over chairs and books were stacked neatly on most available surfaces. Several mugs were stashed on the bookshelf, accompanied by a few shot glasses. There were only two photos in the room, both on the dresser: a black and white image of a gargoyle with an icicle erupting from his open maw, and a snapshot of a girl with vibrant red curls holding up a big fish on a line. A clock told me it was 6 AM.
   I suddenly sat up in the bed and remembered, appalled, that it belonged to Martin, that he had put me there last night after… I remembered hurling myself at his head, and I groaned and hid my face in my hands. Now I was stuck in his room, in his shirt, and there was no way out except past him where he must be sleeping on the couch. I found my shoes, unbuttoned his big shirt and hung it on the chair, shivering a bit in my camisole, and left the room to tiptoe downstairs. My coat was right by the door, and my keys were in the pocket.  Except they weren’t, and Martin wasn’t on the couch.
He was sitting with his coffee at the table, feet hooked over the rungs of his chair, reading the paper while crunching toast. I hesitated awkwardly at the edge of the room, and he looked up over the paper. 
   “Are you hungry?” he asked, as easily as if I came down to breakfast every morning.
   I sat down while he rose and poured coffee.
   “I hope you weren’t too uncomfortable sleeping on the couch last night,” I faltered.
   “Oh, no,” he replied. “It was infinitely preferable to Grace’s toddler bed.” 
   I hid behind my mug, calculating how quickly I could get out the door. It was hours before my parents would expect to hear from me, but the fact remained that I was going to have to drive home in my pajamas... I blushed and wondered if the floor would be so obliging as to swallow me now.
   “What I did miss last night,” said Martin, slinging a plate of toast in front of me, “is brushing my teeth.” He started up the stairs, then turned and eyed me. “If I go up and do that, are you going to run out on me?”
   “No,” I lied.
   “Ah, in that case I didn’t need to hold onto your keys,” he said, disappearing from sight. I sighed and went over to rummage in the fridge. Soon I had milk, eggs, and butter on the counter.
   “Can I help you find something?” He had come down as I was rattling through the pans in a lower cabinet.
   “If I’m to be stuck here,” I said, extricating myself from the cookware, “I intend to eat something more than toast. French toast, to be exact. Where is your sugar?”
   He handed me a sweater he’d brought downstairs, and then reached into the pantry and tossed a bag out onto the counter.
   “Thanks,” I said, pulling the sweater over my head. 
   “Not at all.” He had his back to me, preparing to brew fresh coffee. “Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to see you making breakfast in my kitchen.” 
   I wasn’t sure I wanted to touch that one, so I kept my mouth closed. In silence I whipped up the eggs and milk with sugar and vanilla and dipped the bread in the mixture, and he tended the slices in the hot pan with equal dedication. When the batch was finished, we carried our plates and mugs to the table and sat opposite each other.
   We chewed with great concentration for a moment, then Martin put down his fork.
   “So,” he said, “who starts the conversation about last night: you or me?”
   I leaned my tired forehead against my hand. “I suppose I don’t deserve to get out of it, after my behavior last night.”
   “You make it sound so very horrible.”
   I lifted my head to glare at him. “Yes, it was appalling, okay? I’m sorry about it.”
   “I’m not.” He looked down at his mug, twisting it as he spoke. “It would be hard for me to be sorry that when you were desperate and lonely you came to me. I know how difficult this past week has been for you, when it seemed like no one cared that Aunt Emma was dead. I could see how much you were struggling yesterday at the funeral and at your house. All that emotion and grief had to come out sometime. It means more to me than you know that you trust me so much as a friend that you could depend on me to be a safe outlet.”
   I stared. “A safe outlet?”
   He pushed away the mug. “Even you can’t deny,” he said, with a faint edge in his voice, “that I was as safe as I could be.”
   I rose from my chair and retreated from the harsh glare of the kitchen light to stand facing the living room, arms clasped across my chest. “You’re right that I was overwrought last night,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. “I hold things in at the best of times, and this week has been one blow after another. I’m not ashamed that I was upset. Anyone would cry over these things.”
   He was quiet, but I didn’t turn around. Finally he too rose and carried his plate of half-eaten toast to the sink. “Then I guess we’ve had our conversation,” he said resolutely.
   I twisted around to face him. “I came over here,” I said with repressed vehemence, “because I wanted to kiss you. And I threw myself at you because I wanted you to kiss me back. I accused you once of pushing and pushing, but last night I would have kept pushing until I was broken if you had let me. You did keep me safe, from myself and from yourself. I put you in the position of having to stop things if they were going to be stopped, without even thinking about what it might mean for you. That’s the behavior I’m ashamed of.”
   He was standing at the sink, regarding me intently as the water coursed unheeded over his plate. Suddenly he dropped it in the sink and crossed over to me, taking my face in his wet hands. I waited, but he studied my face for a moment and said, “Let’s have a different conversation, then.”
   “About what?”
   He exhaled. “I’m attracted to you, Emma, don’t doubt that. I would love nothing more than to act on that, but I have to be honest with you about what that entails. I’m not free to move in and out of relationships at will or to take years to figure out where I stand. I have to play for keeps, because of Grace.”
   “What do you mean by playing for keeps?” I asked, tracing his lower lip with my thumb. He took my hand away and held it. 
   “You’re almost six years younger than me. You want to be self-sufficient, to start a career, to be productive. I’ve known too many women who see those things as being in conflict with marriage and children. What I mean is, if you want to start this, would you, at twenty-three, think seriously about having a step-daughter and getting married -- about marrying me -- sooner rather than later?”
   “Are you... proposing?”
   He gave a shaky laugh. “No. Do you want me to?”
   “Wait.” I wriggled out of his grasp and sat on the couch. “Slow down. Are you saying that you won’t kiss me again unless I can be sure I want to marry you?”
   “I’m saying I don’t want to start anything unless I have a good chance of finishing. And that Grace and I are a package deal.”
   I sat and tried to ponder having a four-year-old daughter, but the concept was as bouncy and elusive as a rubber ball. “That’s a great deal to have an answer for right away.” Rising, I pulled on my coat over his borrowed sweater. “Are you going to give me back my keys?”
   He took them out of his pocket and held them out to me. I took the keys, and his hand. 
   “I think it’s manipulative of you,” I murmured in his ear, “to bind all this up with one little kiss.”
   “Right now,” he said, turning me by my shoulders and marching me out the door, “there are no little kisses.”


Melanie Bettinelli said...

“there are no little kisses.”

Well said.

Banshee said...

You go, Martin! Martin, defender of the value of kisses! (And the dignity of single parents, for that matter.)

It is a constant amazement to me, how you manage to keep these scenes both realistically contemporary, emotionally satisfying, and honorable.

I'm awfully sorry about the heat; I've been there. It's amazing how oppressive that continual cold can be. (Although I cheat, until they turn on the boilers every year, by using an hour of oven as a heater when it gets too bad. You've got a whole house and kids coming and going, so that wouldn't work as well. Those small radiant heaters don't really do the job and I distrust space heaters, but modern electric blankets are awesome. If I lived near you, I would give you mine.)

But maybe the novel will make money, and the heat was going to go out anyway. Having heat and a first draft novel and a story to go with it -- that's the sort of thing that you can tell your greatgrandkids. (With many additional comments by your kids and husband, no doubt.)

Anonymous said...

The no little kisses line is just wonderful- lovely summary!