Featured Artist Stories - Fiction

Notes on a Tuesday Date
December 1, 2001

Nonchalance links my two lives

by Patti See   PrintEasy

J. and I are at a patio bar enclosed by fence, a place that has become a part of our daytime dating territory. Our unwritten rule decrees that we never come here with our spouses. When J.'s wife appears in the doorway with their sleeping child, I am doubly shocked. A) to see her, and 2) to hear his calm greeting. Email to a FriendHe says, "You found me." She masterfully backs the stroller through the doors without waking their daughter.

She sits down beside me at the picnic table bench, directly across from her husband. 'I saw the van out front,' she says.

'Tessa coaxed me out for a drink after class. You remember Tessa?'

Text Bite'Hi, yes I remember,' she says. I still want her to be doughy and plain, but she is neither.

I nod at her. 'Hey,' I say, suddenly an ugly little girl named Scout. 'Catherine, right?'

She nods and picks up one of my deep-fried cheese curds. I recognize immediately that she has no clue. After four semesters of Tuesday afternoon dates, we've never been busted. We are eager - too eager? - to be nonchalant. After this long we still think we make even God hold his breath.

The girl, four years old and prone to falling asleep in the stroller or car this late in the afternoon, turns her head in the midst of a dream. The terrycloth headrest around her neck resembles an over-stuffed yoke.

'Are you finished for the year?' I ask, a question I know the answer to. She is a social worker at one of the local high schools.

'In a week,' she says, 'then three months with my own children.'

J. eats cheese curds one after another, making his way to the smallest, crispiest ones I've learned to leave for him. I light a cigarette, careful to blow away from his wife and daughter. Catherine takes a sip from his beer.

He fills up his cheeks with air, his full face, the one he often makes to get me to laugh.

'After beer and curds, I'm ready for a nap,' he says.

'We're going out to dinner, remember?' Catherine chirps. There are women who do actually chirp.

I nod toward the sleeping girl. 'You need a yoke,' I say, amazed at seeing my lover's daughter - his Olivia - in person for the first time. Her puckered lips, still carrying the memory of a bottle, suck air. She is gorgeous, as any sleeping progeny might be to someone on the outside.

'Got an extra yoke?' he says in our direction, his wife's and mine. How strange the two of us, side by side in the fenced beer garden, our shoulders nearly touching on the edge of the picnic bench. Later I'll want to laugh at this scenario, laugh until I weep, holding my sides on the floor of my laundry room, letting go my litany or rant. Smartest in my class, free throw champion of the county, Phi Kappa Phi, graduate student of the year. I was not meant to be the other woman.

Now I say in my best Norwegian accent, 'Yeah, I got a yoke. Two guys walk into a bar...'

Catherine forces out a nervous laugh.

J. knows the punch line. 'One says to the other, 'Ouch.''

The chords in my neck ache. That smile. I'm trying not to think of J., up to his eyes in me, trying not to think how my bones spread for him. I'm trying to think of what I know of his wife and what I shouldn't know. Catherine is thirty-eight and weeps each time she argues with her husband. She walks five Text Bitemiles a day and carries hypoallergenic toilet paper in her purse. She wears Green Bay Packer tights even in the off-season. I'm trying not to think about whether she still loves him or just wants to please. Trying not to think of her blank face rising above him at the edge of emptiness, contemplating a lawn to mow, a floor to scrub. I know what a wife does.

'So you're taking a vacation,' I say, 'John tells me.' His name is oatmeal in my mouth, as if I've never called him by name before.

'Yes, Disneyland, the ultimate childhood vacation. I'm being proactive with the kids.' She pitches it like a cheerleader. I can almost see her tights. 'They never would have dreamed anyone would take them. I always wanted to go there as a girl.'

'Me too,' I lie. I always wanted someone to give me a feeling, not the Magic Kingdom.

'I got us a good deal on the flight. My mother's going with us since John will still be teaching.' Dry oats in my ears. I've never heard his wife call him by name.

'But if you decide to go,' she says toward her husband, 'Mother wouldn't mind staying home.' I watch her hands, wounded birds looking for a place to land. She pats her husband's arm with fingers greasy from my cheese curds. It occurs to me, nestled on a bench beside J.'s wife, that we don't really know our own hands, nor their movements. People always say it, Like the back of my hand. But could we really recognize our own if they weren't attached? I spend more time looking at my lover's hands than anyone's.

'I don't think so,' he says, 'I'm more than happy to have her go.'

I can't imagine him in Disneyland, like Tom Waits singing 'Some Day My Prince Will Come.'

'Well we'll just have to bring you back some gewgaw,' she says, getting up from the bench. The little girl still does not stir from her afternoon dream.

Two things: thank God she's getting up (I exhale for the first time), and I can't believe J. is married to a woman who uses the word gewgaw about Walt Disney paraphernalia. She exits the same way she came in.

'Thank you,' J. says. His hand settles back on the table after waving to his wife through the fence. 'You don't creep easy, baby. Asking about the vacation. Nice touch. You're the real deal. Hedonist, idealist, romantic. You're the woman who was made for me.'

My hands shake as I light another cigarette. 'Just tell me one thing, does Catherine read Stephen Covey?' I have reached the point of ultimate paranoia. My husband has been recently 'Covetized.' My lover's wife seems as if she is not far behind.

'What are you talking about?'

'A proactive approach to Disney-dom?' I say. 'Next she'll be sharpening Dopey's saw. I've seen this before. I'm living with it. People looking for some purpose in their lives. Watch out, man. First step is the personal mission statement, then talk about private victories and public ones. It's bad. I'm warning you.'

I am frazzled and babbling. My glass is empty. I reach for J.'s and drink from the spot where his wife sipped. I slam the glass down.

'I'll ask her if she's read Covey. I will,' J. says. 'You all right?'

'Reading, him? Man, she's a fan. I can see it. She's a fan.'

I shake my head all the way to the car. I continually look for metaphors to define my life, my two lives. I can't help myself, this is how I make sense of anything. Today I think I've got it, something to sustain me on the drive home. Text BiteKeeping my life with J. separate from my life with my husband and son is like hearing one song and trying to recall the lyrics to another. My husband Jack is a childhood song, one whose lyrics I never thought I'd forget - 'Puff the Magic Dragon,' or the theme from 'The Brady Bunch.' I turn off the radio and hum some cartoon theme Sam sang to me weeks ago. I think of lines for a new poem, 'Quiz for My Lover's Wife.' Name three of his heroes. Retell a story from his childhood that best represents who he is now. A test I could pass with my lover and my husband. So pathetic that realizing this makes me feel better.

When I get home Jack's weekly planner is on the kitchen counter. He has been bringing recipes from work, folded into his Covey planner. It has been weeks since he began working on his personal mission statement.

'I know,' he said one night during dinner, 'that I want to be a better husband, father, scientist.' He shoveled another bite of kilbasa hot dish into his mouth while I poked through my salad. 'But I want mine to be more specific than that. You're good with details, what do you think?'

'I think Stephen Covey is making a lot of money off of companies like yours,' I said.

'You've got it all wrong,' he said, 'this is the inside out approach. It's not just about companies becoming more productive. You know, inside out, start with yourself first.'

'Inside out approach?' I said. I've always been a doubter. 'Start with your socks first.'

When Jack went up to bed with Sam, I flipped through his book. I even distrust the number seven. Attitude equals altitude, resourcefulness and initiative, emotional bank account. It's evident that this Covey guy has never taken a lover. His book is worthless to me.

Today I am still jittery from a Tuesday date, a busted story I could never tell Jack. But how he'd howl if the story was about someone in my office or even about me before he knew me. That's the saddest part. The most important details in my everyday life involve my lover, and I can't tell.

I find Jack with the radio station tuned to Promise Keepers Live! in our office. We don't greet one another anymore, just resume conversations as if no time has lapsed, nothing happening nor being said again and again.

'You're really listening to this?' I say.

'It's just on,' he says, looking up from the computer. He hugs me around the hips and buries his face in my blouse. 'It's not like I turned it on.'

'What are you learning? Tips on how to share the remote with me? How to allow me to be right in two out of five arguments? Put me on a pedestal?' He used to find my feistiness attractive. He kisses my waistband and turns back to the computer screen.

'No, I'm learning that nothing is more important in a child's life than a promise kept,' he says to me over his shoulder. 'That's what I want to give to Sam.'

'Aha,' I say, 'you are listening.' Even when we tease I hear the heart's stubborn pretending: We're all right, we're all right. Later we'll make love because it's Tuesday. The rush of guilt is sometimes magical.

'I'm also learning that if men were sweeter to their wives everyone would be a lot happier,' he says.

He's right, but I'm not convinced he heard it on this station. It sounds like something I might have said years ago.

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