A Good Book
“Hurry up Sy! We’ll be late, Ruthie hollered from the hallway, as she threw on her wool coat.
The last time they arrived late at a book signing at Sophie’s Choice, to hear Isabel Allende read from her latest release, they’d ended up by the front door with biting cold wind attacking the back of their necks every time someone entered or left the building.
“Sy!” she yelled again, just as he turned the corner from the upstairs bedroom and descended the aging wooden stairs, which squeaked like asthmatic mice with every step.
“I’m coming. I’m coming,” he grinned, still tucking in his shirt. “You’d rather I go naked?!”
Ruthie’s lips parted slightly as she watched her husband of thirty-four years. He walked with a slight limp from his hip surgery the previous summer.
“Damn,” she thought. He looks good.”
She waited until he reached the last step, stood on her toes, and shared her thoughts by planting a kiss on his familiar weathered lips and giving him a squeeze around his hips. When their mouths parted he kissed her slightly rouged cheeks and put his large fingers through her shoulder-length wavy gray hair.
As he snapped his tan parka, he asked, “Who is this we’re seeing again?”
“Hooks?” he rolled questionably across his tongue while holding the screen door open for Ruthie to lock the door. She put her arm in his as they walked towards their eighties Plymouth. “Isn’t she that environmental fiction writer you like so much?”
“No,” Ruthie said, waiting for him to unlock the car door. “You’re thinking of Barbara Kingsolver.”
Sy opened her door.
“Thanks, Hon,” she said, as she sat on the old torn leather seat.
Sy went around the front, climbed in, patted the dashboard for good luck, and turned the ignition.
“Still purrs like a kitten,” he said sweetly for the ten-thousandth time.
They drove out of the gravel driveway, down Chestnut Street, towards town on the straight and narrow two-lane road they had driven their kids and step-kids to school and themselves to and from work for thirty years. This was Sy’s second marriage. He had two children from his previous marriage and he and Ruthie had purposefully created one of their own.
The next in kin had all flown the coop long ago and kept in touch with their “old folks” with fluctuating degrees of attention, based on their needs and/or personality. The one constant connection with their offspring was their children’s children. They had three of these grandchildren, two by birth and one adopted, to whom they were severely devoted and unashamedly tethered.
“Alice Hooks is a writer of romantic feminist fiction,” Ruthie explained. “The book she’s reading from tonight is Close Encounters. It was nominated for The National Book Award last year.”
“Sort of like Gloria Steinem falling in love with Steven Spielberg?”
“I knew you’d say something like that,” Ruthie sighed. “I just knew it.”
“Well,” Sy replied, still grinning at his own joke, “I had to say it then didn’t I? I don’t want to destroy your expectations or diminish your superior powers of Elementary Spiritual Perceptions.”
Ruthie gently slapped his leg with the back of her hand.
“Far from it,” she smiled. “Close Encounters is about a woman called Maya. She’s an anthropologist and professor, who circumnavigates the globe on research expeditions. While studying antiquities and cultures she also searches for a man who is willing to practice feminism in bed, as well as at work. Every time she thinks she’s found her mate, he starts to subtly or blatantly manipulate her and splits when he doesn’t get what he thinks he wants.” Ruthie sighed noticeably.
Sy’s smile had vanished. He gazed straight ahead, as if he was a student driver concentrating on not making a mistake. As they reached the city limits he said, “Well?”
“Does she ever find the man of her dreams?”
Ruthie’s left hand rested gently on Sy’s thigh. She could feel his hamstrings tighten with each step on the gas peddle. “I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t finished it yet.” She smiled and squeezed Sy’s leg. “But I’ve found mine.”
Sy was flooded with relief by Ruthie’s re-assuring words. He had always helped raise the kids, cleaned and cooked at home and believed that women and men should be respected for their character not their gender. He was beginning to look forward to hearing this Hook’s lady.
The parking lot at Sophie’s Choice was full.
“I knew it,” Ruthie admonished. “Will have to park on the street.”
Sy found a spot a block away. They walked briskly to the entrance and to their surprise, saw two empty chairs in the far back. They made their way to the metal folding chairs, used their coats as cushions to sit on and caught their breath. Sy took in the crowd and noticed that only two other men were in attendance, re-confirming his enlightened attitude.
Their timing was impeccable. Just as they had taken their seats the introductions were completed and the author, to much applause and a few jubilant trills of sisterly welcome, stepped up to the podium.
Sy was mortified. Not only did Alice Hooks not look like the radical feminist he had envisioned, but she was not Alice Hooks. The woman he saw standing before the crowd, waiting respectfully for the applause to subside, was Alice Hawkins, the woman he’d been in love with in college.
“I can’t believe this,” he proclaimed, while his eyes remained riveted to the wet lips and long neck he had once kissed so passionately.
“She must have changed her name,” he whispered to Ruthie. “I knew her when she was Alice Hawkins.”
“Shhhh,” she replied.
Sy was eternally grateful that they were late and ended up in the back row. “I wonder if she would still recognize me?”He pondered. “I doubt it,” he answered himself. “I was nothing to her.”
As Alice began reading from her book Sy couldn’t push aside the gut feeling that her personal life and thus his own, was being laid bare for public consumption. He was undoubtedly one of the men she had based her story on.
“He raised his sweaty head from the pillow,” Alice read, “and practically spit in Refina’s face.” Alice glanced at the audience over the top of her designer glasses, then returned to the words on the page. “’You aren’t worth it,” he said coldly and turned away. You don’t understand.’
‘Understand what?’ she pleaded.
‘Me. You’ll never understand me.’
Rafina replied, ‘I understand you all to well.’
‘See!’ he yelled, with a trembling voice, as he got out from under the rumpled bedsheets and put on his bathrobe. ‘You’ve never liked me!’ He pouted, retreating to the bathroom. She slipped on her nightshirt and followed.
‘There’s no pleasing you,’ she said, standing in the doorway as he pissed away his anger. ‘Whatever I do isn’t enough. You always want me to be different.’
He shook off the last drops, tied his bathrobe and walked past her as if she were part of the door frame.
‘Lies,’ he whispered. ‘All lies.’ She watched him zip up his pants. ‘How often have I told you I love you?!’ he said accusingly.
‘Yeah,’ she agreed. ‘How often and when?’ He stopped tucking in his shirt and stared blankly. ‘Whenever I get physical, is when,’ she stated. ‘When I act like your sexual puppet, is when. Whenever I do things I don’t really want to do out of fear I’ll lose you. And you know what?’ He put on his watch and started towards the door. ‘I’m going to lose you anyway.’ She wiped her fingers on her nightshirt, as if she was trying to rub out the memory of his touch. ‘I don’t need that kind of love.’
‘See ya Refina,’ he said, turning. ‘I hope you enjoy being alone. You’re so damn controlling and manipulating nobody could ever put up with you.’
‘Don’t project your crap on me!’ she shouted, as the door careened open and he disappeared down the hall of the old city hotel.
After the reading Ruthie wanted to get her book autographed, but Sy lied and said, “It’s late honey. I’m a little tired.”
She looked at the long line and the clock, hesitated, then reluctantly agreed.
Sy deftly guided them towards the door, along the far side of the exuberant crowd that had cheered Ms. Hooks with a robust standing ovation.
As they drove home Ruthie went on and on about Alice’s novel, almost repeating her every word. Sy paid particularly close attention to his driving until Ruthie stopped her monologue long enough to ask, “What did you think? Did you like it?”
Sy cleared his throat and carefully replied, “She sure has a way with words.”
“But did you like it?” Ruthie reiterated. “Did her words touch you?”
“Oh, it touched me alright,” he said to himself, recalling an argument that he and Alice had once had that sounded remarkably close to her characters. “It was good,” he replied. “A little unrealistic, but good.”
“Unrealistic?” Ruthie questioned, sounding more surprised than she’d intended. “How so?”
“I don’t know,” he mumbled, wishing he’d left well enough alone. “Do you think men are that uncaring and unconscious?”
“Yes, most.” She rubbed his shoulder gently. “But not all.”
They gazed into the fog that had descended on the blacktop.
“Have I ever treated you like that?” He asked, almost imperceptibly.
“Like the guys in her story?”
Sy nodded, ever so slightly.
Ruthie looked out the side window at the fence posts appearing and disappearing in the thick soup along the edge of the highway. She didn’t reply until they rolled into their driveway and Sy turned off the key.
“Actually,” she said softly. “Yes. You have.”
Sy felt a chill up his spine as he got out and opened the door for Ruthie. “Not me,” he told himself. “That was the old Sy.”
They walked to the house. He held open the screen as she unlocked the front door and entered. Sy took their coats and hung them on the antique maple coat rack while Ruthie turned up the thermostat. “I’ll make us some tea,” she said and went into the kitchen.
Sy followed, sat down at the kitchen table he’d hand made from pine wood not long after they’d married and watched her move in her familiar surroundings. How many times had he’d seen her at that old gas stove, cooking something up for him or the kids; a thousand, ten thousand?
As she placed their large mugs of decaffeinated Earl Gray on the table, sat down and leaned back on the fading daisy print wallpaper, he asked, “When?”
“When what?” she smiled.
“When have I acted like the men in that woman’s book?”
“Only about every day for the last thirty-four years,” she said.
“Are you serious?” he gasped.
“No,” she said. You’re not as blatant or consistent, but you have your moments.”
She sipped her tea and watched him through the steam.
“For example?” he queried.
Ruthie looked at his lined face and sunken blue eyes, trying to surmise how much and how willing he was to hear. Disregarding her past experiences and the hundreds of times she’d brought the issue to his attention, she decided to grab her red cape of hope and enter the bullring.
“Remember last Friday, after I’d been tutoring English to that cranky old German woman half the day and then worked at the church office all afternoon?”
“Remember that night?”
“What about it?” he asked, trying to gauge the forthcoming charge.
“Remember when we went to bed and I almost fell asleep before my head hit the pillow?”
“So?” He didn’t see any connection.
“Remember how you snuggled up behind me and were all hot and horny and I said, ‘Not tonight, just hold me?’”
Sy put down his cup, which made a louder thud on the table than he’d expected. “Yes and I totally understood and said so, remember?” His mouth was taut and his breath shallow.
Ruthie smiled. “Yes, you said as much, but I could feel otherwise.”
“How could you feel anything?!” he declared; his shoulders erect. “I went to the living room and read.”
Ruthie went to the stove and returned with more hot water. She filled his cup, then her own and sat back down. “It didn’t feel like you understood the next morning when you barely touched me and only replied in monosyllables. It felt like you had closed down shop and checked out.”
“What’s wrong with wanting a little love from the person who says she always loves me?” Sy declared, his face curling like sour milk.
“But I DO love you.” Ruthie leaned forward and placed her hand on Sy’s callused knuckles. “Why do I have to prove it with sex?”
“You don’t have to prove anything!” Sy exclaimed, sliding his hand away and tightly grasping his cup. “I know you love me, but what’s wrong with wanting to share a little sugar to show it?”
Ruthie sat back and stared at her now empty palm. “Nothing, if it’s at a time when I have the energy and my body is willing and able.”
“Well,” he snarled. “There you go.”
“Did you hear me?” She looked intently at the spot on his forehead where his wrinkles assembled to worry.
“Loud and clear.” Sy went to the sink without looking back. He rinsed out his cup, put it in the dishwasher and turned around. “I’ve heard it a thousand times. You love me, but you don’t want to make love with me.”
“Stop it!” Ruthie stood abruptly. “Just stop it!” She took two rapid steps, faced Sy eye to eye and said, “Are you implying that we never have sex, that I never kiss you, give you pleasure or want you inside of me!?”
Sy tried to move, but Ruthie put her arms on either side of his and pressed herself firmly against his pelvis. “No, you aren’t saying that, because you know that would be a lie.”
“But . . .”
“But, it’s never enough, is it?”
Sy hesitated. “Well . . .”
Ruthie shook her head side to side, her cape of hope torn to shreds. Her eyes watered. She tried to turn away from her predictable hard-headed husband, but Sy firmly and gently, grabbed her wrist and stopped her.
“Don’t you see,” Ruthie cried, “how that makes me feel? No matter what I do, it’s not enough. I am never enough.” She let herself be pulled closer. “Why can’t you just love me as I am?”
Sy took her arms and put them over his shoulders then encircled her waist with his own. “I do,” he said.
“It doesn’t feel like that when I don’t perform on demand or the way you want.”
“I’m sorry,” Sy said softly. He wiped the tears from under her eyes.
“I love you more than anyone I’ve ever known,” Ruthie cried, “but feeling forced to have sex, to not alienate you, isn’t love, it’s fear, just like Hooks says. That kind of love feels coerced, manipulated; manufactured to fit some imaginary image of how you think I’m supposed to be.”
Sy felt a lump rising in his throat, as his hold on Ruthie tightened. Her words seeped through his weathered walls. Something cracked open.
“Why now?” he wondered. “After all these years. Was it something Ruthie said or how she said it? Was it Alice Hawkins or Hooks, whatever she went by these days?” Whatever it was, his comfortable delusion of being different from other men was crumbling under the weight of a searing reality.
Ruthie felt the shift. She could feel his skin of fear peeling away. She could see him turning, painfully turning away from conditioning, expectation and judgment. She had never felt so completely and openly accepted by this man. His love was palpable. He saw her. He really saw her.
“I’ve always loved you,” she whispered.
“I know,” he cried. “I’ve kept you away for so long.”
She wiped his face and her own, then looked at her wet hands. “We should boil these tears instead of water for tea,” she grinned.
Sy felt like an anvil had been lifted from his chest. He could breathe freely. He sighed deeply. Each breath released another encrusted layer of tension, doubt and the fear of rejection.
When they went to bed that night they looked like they were teenagers who had just fallen in love for the first time. Their eyes were full of anticipation and unlike most teens, knew who they were and where they had been. Their lovemaking was slow, passionate, peaceful and fulfilling. Their history held them and freed them.
After turning out the light, Sy snuggled up to Ruthie’s behind and put his arm around her soft belly.
“You know that Ms. Hooks?”
“Yeah,” Ruthie said, on the verge of dozing off.
“I knew her back in college.”
“Really,” she sleepily replied.
“I mean I really knew her, like intimately.”
Ruthie raised Sy’s arm off her belly and turned to face him.
“Really,” he said, his hot breath caressing her cheek.
“Tell me,” she said, her eyes wide open in the dark. “Tell me all about it.”
Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.