ADRIENNE GUNN

A Night of Sweeping Romance

 

Since her divorce, Christy had become a regular at the Northwoods Tavern. Sandwiched between a supermarket and a walk-ins-welcome beauty salon, the Northwoods was for people who liked things simple and consistent, locals who liked returning to the same parking lot where they’d bought bread and bananas in the morning for light beer in the evening. Christy worked at a bank a few doors down, and when Emily was with her father, Christy went for drinks with the other tellers, single women, all younger than her. They wore a version of this outfit every time they went out: spaghetti-strapped tank top, short skirt or tight pants, cheap heels.

Tonight while sipping her first beer, Christy wondered if they looked ridiculous next to the Northwoods’ deer heads, fish tanks, and video poker machines. Jessica leaning over the pool table with her breasts hanging from her body like fat water balloons; Kelly chalking the tip of a pool cue in slow deliberate circles, her red mouth parted; Carrie perched on the edge of the table, her skirt riding high on her thighs, a pink cocktail in a rocks glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other. They seemed alternately desperate for attention from the fishing buddies, career drunks, mechanics, plumbers, and jig-grinders, and then just like girls having fun, because why should life be so serious?

“Let’s do a shot,” Christy suggested, and then another, because more than anything she wanted to be as unfettered and unworried as these girls were and at the Northwoods there was a small reprieve from the sensible Christy she was in daylight – who was here even now – reminding her she’d taken a very pretty and promising young girl and whittled away at her with bad decisions until she’d become a thirty-year-old divorced single mother with a job instead of a career, boyfriends instead of a husband. So she drank and drank until she could laugh like them, toss her hair like them, be young and beautiful and free like them.

Troy went to the Northwoods rarely and especially avoided it around the holidays when the assholes returned in collared shirts and gray sweaters with pretty little wives in party dresses. Descending upon the Northwoods, the wives would exclaim like tourists over the mounted fish with names like Big Bertha or Cockadoodle, and the husbands would call the bartender “Johnny” and order the local draft beer; Troy’s life their quaint Christmas card. No, Troy preferred movies to alcohol and people. Sitting in a darkened movie theater with the understanding that all this happiness and good feeling was manufactured bullshit seemed more honest than any real life experience he’d ever had. At least with movies you were a willing accomplice to the illusion that loss, suffering, or pain, could somehow be overcome. That was what he found so uncomfortable about people – there was no way out, but people tried to be movies anyway.
They just didn’t admit it.

Tonight he’d come straight from a job and was awkward in overalls covered in splotches of pea-green paint that he’d spent the day slapping on the siding of a house. It had taken coaxing for him to celebrate a work buddy’s fortieth birthday and he only half-listened to the conversation while picking at the paint with his thumbnail. Troy sipped his warm beer and noticed a group of girls taking shots at the bar, wiping their mouths with the back of their hands and smearing their lipstick. And though he was surprised to see Christy standing there, beautiful in her tight jeans and tank top, he shouldn’t have been. They’d both lived in this town all their lives. Never left.

Christy rushed up – she’d always been the sort of girl that rushed up – hugged his stiff torso, and without invitation sat knee to knee with him at the sticky table, just as she used to in art class. “My god, it’s Troy Haight! I don’t believe it. How long has it been? Twelve years?”

“Looks like it,” he said, shifting in his seat. The pool table was being moved to the side, making room for the Friday night DJ who’d play songs like “Friends in Low Places,” and “Brown Eyed Girl,” and soon the entire bar would dance together in a gesticulating herd, united in the spirit of drunken homogeneity. Troy planned to be gone by then. Christy smelled like something fruity and feminine and she had that same ease in the world he remembered. It both attracted and frightened him, because for as long as Troy could remember, he’d had the sense that the world was against him. He supposed he could take a pill for it, medicate his life into a movie, but that seemed pointless.

“You look great!” Christy touched Troy’s arm and tossed her hair. “Have you been here this whole time? Why haven’t I seen you? You bring back so many memories, Troy,” she said, though she could recall little in terms of specific time spent together, because outside of art class, they hadn’t spent much time together at all. All she had were impressions based on the customs and practices of high school – she the popular and pretty volleyball player who’d never had an awkward stage, he the shy and inoffensive artist who’d dealt weed out of his parents’ basement for cash he didn’t really need. But it was like a faucet had been turned on and was filling Christy with the feeling of him, of the Troy who had always adored her in a nonthreatening way, like a dog waiting patiently for a pat.

“Do you still sell weed?” She laughed. “Oh my god, we could get high! Can you imagine? I haven’t gotten high in years and years. I would look ridiculous!”

Troy surprised himself when he laughed. In high school Christy had always been able to make everyone laugh, and when it was at her own expense he’d thought she was sharing some secret part of herself that exposed the real Christy, the one that wasn’t so at ease in the world – more like him. Now he understood that the two of them smoking weed together was funny because Christy, the beautiful Christy, was proper and sweet, and Troy was gritty and capable of taking her someplace she shouldn’t be, but maybe wanted to be, like crouching over a joint in the alley behind the Northwoods. He looked at her hand resting on his arm. “No, I don’t sell weed anymore,” he said. “But maybe I should get back into it – it was good money.”

They smiled at each other, each beginning to feel more like the undamaged and hopeful high schoolers they once were. The conversation turned to the years in between, but neither of them felt compelled to prove their great successes. Troy and Christy’s life stories had new narrators, who aided by nostalgia and alcohol found in the hard times and unimagined choices a fresh, clean perspective.

“And so I left him,” Christy said. “I realized life isn’t just about making plans, paying bills, or watching football every weekend. It can’t just be about that. About going through the motions, buying groceries, making meals, whatever. But that’s all we talked about. We just talked about our plans. Who would pick up Emily. What yard work needed to be done. And once the plans were made, these horribly boring plans, we had nothing left to say. How awful is that? We just stared at each other. How uncomfortable – can you imagine? So then we’d make more plans just to stop staring at each other! How about a movie Saturday? I could get a babysitter? We could have sex afterwards?” Christy put a hand over her mouth and laughed, took a swig of her beer. “Anyway, after my father died I looked at my mother and thought, that’s what I’m going to be. This is it. I mean I’ve never even been to California – can you imagine? And there was no way Brian was going to California, or anywhere other than softball on Tuesdays and poker every other Saturday. I’ve never even been across the country! I’m too young for my life to look like that. And so I left him.”

Christy revealed this to Troy in a manner that suggested it had been rehearsed and recited many times to many different people, yet when she finished a new revelation came to her like an aftershock. It had been the right choice! Of course it had all been much more complicated than just plans and boredom – she felt she deserved to be loved – and the divorce had left her with a gaping wound that she tried to keep bandaged and hidden but that bled out at various and surprising moments, like when Emily had learned to tap-dance on the kitchen linoleum. Christy had thought it was so cute and funny, the pink leotard and the slow arm waving and mistimed feet clacking, but in these moments she wanted someone to laugh with, to share Emily with, as if her love for Emily couldn’t be real without someone else there to recognize it, and then the steadfast pain would return with surprising intensity and for a moment Christy would think family before jumping up to tap-dance across the linoleum herself.

But Christy had left her husband and now her life was almost completely her own. Doubt that lingered and flared when she kissed Emily goodbye every other weekend and was saturated in all her new freedom – a freedom that she had desperately wanted but that had left her untethered and unsure of what to do with herself without the prescribed responsibilities of child and husband, leaving her to wander her apartment wondering if she should clean, read, watch a movie, eat, take a bath, go to lunch or the mall, see a movie, buy a sweater, balance her checkbook, find religion, knit, take up running, call a friend, find a man to date – was replaced with elation, hope. Here was Troy Haight.

Troy sipped his beer and nodded in agreement. The DJ had begun to play and one of Christy’s friends was twirled round and round by one of Troy’s married co-workers in coveralls. Really, Troy had no idea what Christy was talking about or what kind of life that was. He hadn’t been with a girl for longer than a month or two since Stephanie Conner in high school, and not one of his relationships had ever reached the point where dreams became responsibilities – weddings, mortgages, children, life insurance. He’d never wanted them to. He’d seen what plans and dreams had done to his father. Sometimes he thought he could remember a time when they had all been different, when he didn’t see them this way, but when he pictured family, he saw his shoulder-slumped father with nothing left, huddled in the backyard smoking the pot Troy had sold him; his obese mother with soup dribbled down her front, snoring in the recliner in the middle of the day; the little rat-dogs that peed all over the carpet; and there, on the couch, Troy, watching this shit-hell of a life around him, Troy a painter of walls and houses and not canvases, Troy accumulating and cataloguing the disappointments and annoyances of the hometown man.

Now as he drank his fifth beer, listening to Christy and watching Bob lick that girl’s neck on the dance floor where the pool table had been, Christy seemed so vibrant that he forgot she never would have considered him in high school. He was drunk on the heat of her hand on his thigh and the way her hair fell around the curve of her ear and neck, the texture and shape of it striking him as this small sliver of worldly perfection that must be looked at and seen.

“And so I packed up Emily,” Christy continued, “and we got our own place. Right off Riverside Road. Kind of by where your parents live.” And she thought of Troy in that big house, and imagined herself and Emily spending holidays there instead of at her small apartment, a space that constantly reminded them of what it wasn’t – a house. She imagined herself married again, imagined herself sleeping companionably next to someone, someone who knew how to take care of her, who offered her a whole new way to live, right this time, with rules and structures and a purpose she could understand. She beamed at Troy.

“No, they moved. They’re off North Main now.” And as Troy said this, for the first time he didn’t feel embarrassed. So they’d had some hard times? It suddenly felt as simple as that. Life was a dirty, messy thing, wasn’t it? Maybe the world wasn’t against him, maybe this was just the world? Christy’d had some hard times and look at her here, her cheeks as rosy as a child’s, still as beautiful as ever, looking at him like if he kissed her she’d be glad for it. For the first time in years Troy felt compelled to take some sort of action and so he leaned forward, touched Christy’s knee, looked her straight in the eyes, and said “Listen, do you want to dance?”

So began a night of sweeping romance that only the youngest of lovers can sustain. Troy and Christy were teenagers in an all-consuming, tunnel-visioned, speeding-car-off-the-highway-and-into-a-ravine kind of love. They drank and they danced, practically lapping the beads of sweat off each other’s faces, grasping and fumbling at each other and the pool table for support as they moved. Oh, this feeling! They were sexy, caring, funny, selfless, smart, important people!

At the end of the night, Christy’s co-workers dropped them off at Troy’s house, which looked less ramshackled to him in the dark, drunken blur, and after an intense bout of lovemaking where Troy bounced the bed against the wall and felt like the eighteen-year-old stallion he had never been except during his own epic masturbations – he could, go, on, for, ever – Christy rested her head on his chest, smiling up at the wonder of him, thinking it was a miracle she had left Brian, her life was so open now, it was opening up right in front of her now.

“Why didn’t you ever ask me out in high school?” Christy said. “Think of how everything could’ve been different! How much time we’ve wasted!”

“You were too good for me in high school, remember?” Troy said, intending to joke, and immediately regretting it. The third party he’d been trying to ignore all night crawled into bed, curled against their naked bodies, and laughed. She’d been what he wanted, wet and appreciative and adoring, and he’d given himself up to it, believing for a moment that life – weddings, mortgages, children, life insurance – could be amazing with the right woman and that maybe he was capable of it. And now this interloper in bed with them.

Christy thought about high school. Though Troy’s family had money and his art and pot business brought him a small bit of charm, she had been too good for him then. She’d ignored him mostly. None of her friends took art – she’d taken it on one of her dreamy whims – and so they sat together and that was it. Christy had talked to him in art class. Mostly about herself. Thinking about it now scratched at her wound and it began to bleed. She no longer felt young and beautiful and free, even in her memory. She’d spent these years believing that in high school she’d been somebody and that was what was lost to her now.

What kind of mother was she, drunk and naked in some man’s bed who was not her husband and who was not good enough for her? Christy noticed the musty dankness of Troy’s bedroom, the weeks old sweat stinking in the sheets, the clothing on the floor, the empty cans on the dresser, the recliner, television, and videogame console. She’d barely thought of Emily all night, had left her with her father and had gotten drunk and fucked Troy so she could feel good. And she had felt good. Troy’s sex had surprised her, he’d fucked her like she hadn’t been fucked in years, and the memory of it sent a fresh rush of blood to her crotch and she wanted to snuggle against him, to forget about the selfish and silly girl she’d been, and to look to something better. She pushed her body closer to Troy’s, caressing his belly with her hand, nuzzling his neck with her nose. He really had been wonderful back then, very introspective and creative. “Do you still paint?” she asked. “I could never paint like you. I remember how good you were. Mr. Eckerman used to always say so. Troy this and Troy that, everyone look at Troy’s.”

“Yup. Houses. I paint houses.”

“You know what I mean. Pictures. Do you still paint pictures?”

“Walls,” he tapped her nipple. “I also paint walls.”

“I remember how you used to paint.”

Her remembering felt good to him then, as if to Christy, Troy was someone important, worth looking back upon. He hadn’t gone to college after his father’s business went bankrupt and the lawsuit began, and then they’d lost the house. There wasn’t money for college anymore, so he just didn’t go. And it had felt like a stupid thing to do, to pursue something frivolous and uncertain like art once he’d understood that it was only an escape, a momentary mask on reality. What he’d really needed was a job, so he’d gotten one. But what did any of this matter anymore? These disappointments? He was lying in bed with the beautiful Christy, who used to drive a brown El Camino with a blue and white volleyball bag tossed in the back and who was looking up at him now with big eyes, and maybe what he’d done was a noble, right thing, and maybe staying in this town was what had brought him to her, and maybe everything was just about to begin.

“You should paint me!” she said suddenly, sitting up in bed and fluffing her hair around her bare shoulders. “My portrait!” and the way she looked at him then, it was as if all the things he thought he didn’t want he was suddenly desperate for: a house with curtains on the windows, pancakes on Sunday mornings, an artist’s studio in the garage, Christy’s portrait hanging over the fireplace, maybe even a dog and a pool. He could hardly believe it was real; he wanted proof.

While Troy gathered his supplies, Christy went to the bathroom and peed. She stared at her bare feet on the white tile. Her red toenail polish was chipped, but this didn’t matter – she knew this imperfection wouldn’t matter to him. She knew this certainly, just as she’d known the moment she became pregnant. Sometimes connection is certain. She paused at the mirror, licked her finger and rubbed the mascara from under her eyes, before returning to the bedroom and arranging herself on the bed in the way of ancient Roman women she’d seen on postcards of paintings at the greeting card shop, lying on her side with the sheet rippling in front of her, artfully covering her vagina, exposing one breast.

Troy returned with a dusty, rectangular canvas, a plastic grocery sack filled with small tubes of paint and brushes, and a paper plate. She watched as he squeezed the tubes. Yellow oil spurted onto the plate, followed by coils of paint. Dull colors: brown, white, earthy yellow and red. He was quiet, contemplative, as he rubbed them together with a butter knife, and in the silence she felt silly lying there naked as if she still had the body of a teenager, as if she were someone who didn’t have a child and responsibilities.

She thought of a time when she and Brian had showered together during her pregnancy. Her body was stretched and oddly shaped and unfamiliar to her and she was sometimes ashamed of it, and then ashamed of the shame, that she was so vain and incapable of loving her child more than her body. And she thought of how he had looked at her and looked quickly away, her body making him uncomfortable too, and how he was supposed to have loved her forever, when she was no longer the teen dream, but a woman with imperfections, and how he should’ve made her comfortable then, how it was all supposed to have worked out, and then Christy wanted to cry.

Troy wanted to savor every inch of her, so he began at her feet. Instead of outlining her body with a turpentine-thinned yellow, easily masked later on, and going back to work through the detail and color, he slowly defined each of her toes with his brush, painted her toenails cleanly white, shaded the rigid tendons across the top of her feet, curved the ankles into pleasing circles. The bedside lamp was on, and he saw her as an artist would, polishing her, changing her just a bit. On the canvas her feet became transcendent. The simple beauty of a foot! What was life if not this foot, post-coital and arrested in time, the smooth, bare sole somehow exposing all that was vulnerable and real?

“You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever known,” he said impulsively, the paper plate flimsy in his hand. “I think maybe I haven’t had much. That the world hasn’t given me much. But it’s all here tonight, isn’t it?”

It was the most perfect thing to say, such a romantic thing to say. It was what she’d hoped for, this kind of acceptance. Yet Troy seemed so raw and intense then, so desperate and full of a need for her to fill, his eyes searching her face, his hair all askew, the dank mustiness of his bedroom, that he suddenly wasn’t what Christy wanted at all. In the wild look in his eyes, Christy saw him filled with the pain there was no cure for other than the Northwoods and small, euphoric moments where you felt like someone else. She would never love him, or anyone, as innocently as she’d loved Brian, accepting all of him without much thought. Troy wasn’t a salve for her wound – he was too wounded himself. No, there was no lasting comfort.

“It’s been wonderful,” she said, because it had been, for a moment. Christy relaxed into the bed, allowing her whole body to go slack and her eyes to close.

Troy started again. Moved on to her legs, the curves of her calves, the width of her thighs, nice thick things for a man to bite and bury his face in. He was tired and he made more mistakes than he’d made on the feet. He’d spent so long on the feet that he was no longer drunk. Christy slept on the bed, a soft huff escaping her lips as she exhaled. Troy wanted nothing more than to go lie next to her, to close his eyes. But finishing this painting was suddenly the most important thing he’d done in the past twelve years, and stopping would mean failing at that too, when what he needed was evidence of all the dormant possibilities that beckoned still.

With each mis-stroke he felt more and more like an imposter. He hated her for forcing him into this. He was a painter of houses. Walls. At the hips, things completely fell apart. Troy put down his brush and stared at Christy’s hips and the thick, white stretch marks that ran down them. As she slept with her stomach muscles relaxed, an extra handful of skin rested against the sheet, also lined with the marks. Troy stared and stared at the scars, wondering how he was supposed to paint them, what he was supposed to do with them, no longer able to see her as an artist would, with paint to cover, change, render. She had betrayed him, but he should’ve expected it, he’d been foolish to think any differently. Her breasts too seemed less buoyant than when he’d held them in his hands just hours before. And her face! When he looked at it, it was no longer the face of a seventeen-year-old girl, but as the early morning light began to stream through the blinds it illuminated the wrinkles of a thirty-year-old woman. Her skin was pallid and pulled and lifeless. Ever her hair seemed dirty and he thought if he got close enough it would smell. She was changed in ways that couldn’t be undone. The possibilities were slipping through his fingers, he could feel them going, going, and she would be gone in the morning.

 

[BIO]: Adrienne has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon and currently lives in Chicago, IL.

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