One Saturday I am exiting the restroom in the basement of a large arts institution. As I move toward the steps I see a friend’s ex-husband waiting for the elevator. Theirs was a difficult separation—but I have not heard of an easy one, or, I have not heard of one that has been easy for both parties simultaneously. Later, once they had saved enough for the lawyers, there was a long, mutually impoverishing divorce.
I remember, there in the basement of the large arts institution, how they have three young children and two cats, how in a carrier the cats travel with the children as they move from apartment to apartment, alternating weeks. I flush an intruder’s wrong intimacy. I feel a droplet of water sliding from palm to wrist. It is winter or early spring and the air is cold in the basement of this large arts institution; I feel tremulous; why. The ex-husband is locally famous for his small-scale installation work, but that is not the reason. So far as I have heard from my friend he is a fine man who did well by their children; it was the space between them that had run rancid. Recently while reading the news, I have meaningfully clicked past pieces regarding the fallibility of the American heteronormative marriage. I have clicked past stories about the lasting effects of Zika. I have clicked past egg-freezing. I have clicked past late-in-life matchmaking services. Not of any interest, I whisper to myself. I am needless as a wisdom tooth and isn’t that gorgeous.
I remember my same friend last summer saying, "Divorce is so expensive; you have no idea." I liked to listen to her speak. She was eating an expensive and beautiful salad and we were drinking expensive and beautiful cocktails and we had acknowledged these luxuries aloud. Weren’t we still white and weren’t we not yet old and so didn’t we belong here? A stagey joke. Tongues run over receding gums. Summers are for teachers lean. She teaches Science. I teach Humanities. We intersect at exhaustion. It was still early in the summer, then, however: Things were not yet desperate. Because of this, and the heat, it was easy to be loose with money we didn’t or wouldn’t have.
Her salad was interleaved with thin beet slices and waves of kale, dressed to a low sheen. I sweated, watched her lift these items from the plate, watched her movable, slightly chapped mouth. It chewed and pronounced reports of her various shapes of labor. During the school year, these labors included both teaching and after-school tutoring; and in the summers, college prep and help with standardized exams, conducted in libraries and chain coffee shops across the city:
"He had an erection the whole time," she reported. "It would have been humiliating but it was too funny." Her own children were still small and gummy-handed; I had met them once, had crouched and looked at them in their faces.
I asked if she had laughed aloud, as I would’ve; I sipped my expensive cocktail underneath fashionable twinkle lights. The options were not great.
"I did!” she said with joy. "Then he was the one who was ashamed."
We toasted. The drink tasted like the wrong season. I gulped it.
My own margin is thin but manageable. For extra money I grade standardized tests. And sometimes, for a regional trivia company, I announce games in a variety of sports bars and dives. It doesn’t pay much. But I—a woman without a partner or heir or animal, a woman with parents with decent state pensions and retirement and prepaid end-of-life plans—do not need much. So I do this second gig only when I need to, as when the rent is increased unexpectedly, or for a medical bill, or for the persistent call of a long weekend alone in a small lake cabin or a strange city’s motel room.
"Speak up a little, honey," a bartender in Mayfair or North Park or Roscoe Village will say, when I’m out on a gig, even though I have a mic. I only ever speak as loudly as I want to. The bar patrons are mostly acceptable, if at times unruly. But this unruliness is not under my purview. I maintain game rules, prim but hop-mouthed. With no reservation I have learned, in a genial manner, to call out cheaters busy on their phones or fudging their answer sheets. No stranger challenges me, and if they do, god help them: My posture is unassailable. I think I know everything about myself but I am still emerging:
For one day, next fall, I'll be in a bar on the border of Wrigley and Lakeview, near all the improv clubs. It is a mid-grade nothing place with two taps, and tropical fruit air fresheners in the bathrooms. My mouth will be full of a question about popular dog breeds. An older man, fit and rich-looking, will approach the table where I'm sitting with my amp and mic "We can't hear you in the back," he'll say, yelling over the bland rock. In the back, which will be only twenty feet away, I'll look to see one more rich old man, this one with a plummy drinker's nose.
In the nothing bar I will feel at risk, risk like a cleaver of electricity bisecting my sternum. His hand will be holding the table, I’ll notice. His knuckles will drain of their blood. His hand will find my hand and his thumb will press so durably against my inner wrist. "Do you like to whisper?" he'll ask. “Do you like to whisper in bed?” And my throat will run dry and I'll say, “What?” and he'll repeat himself, coming closer, his thumb tighter against my wrist and his other hand on my shoulder as if he is my coach, my teacher, my lover. "Will you whisper when my cock’s inside you?" I will let him press me forward, until my mouth is at his left lobe. "Sir," I will whisper, "I hope that you're impaled on your steering column, in a horrible car accident, just as soon as you leave this place."
I was not always like this. With years can come a fuller throat. It isn’t always enough. But this time he will recoil, spit on the floor, take his friend and leave. I will learn that my needlessnes is not camouflage. I will learn that I am not a blank spot in the world of these men.
At school, I always hold my shape, and the students never tell me to speak up. They lean in or else do not listen. Some of my colleagues think this is what is known as a power move. Perhaps it is. "I don’t really care if you do your work," I might tell one student or another. "It’s just that eventually I will have to contact your parents, and this is all so boring." I make a grandstand yawn. The student will then have the opportunity to make a decision in view of consequences, with no real emotion on my part. It is not manipulation. I shrug, then offer them a piece of gum or candy if I have it, send them out.
My friend the science teacher fails students as if it is nothing. The answer keys are on her side. She is not afraid of parents; she is one. I have not known her that long—two or three years perhaps—but I adore her. When she started, the social scent of her grown life had been like a gong to me. The teacher’s lounge is populated by so many glossy-eyed near-adolescents. I myself have wrinkles, have acne, have learned what I prefer in the material world, have learned what I can do without. (I, too, tire of my confidence.) My friend the bright-templed science teacher is one decade older than me, and so understands these same things about herself, and about me, and sometimes I think she understands the world too.
Last summer, in the restaurant, she’d asked, "Are you okay?" and had seemed to want to know, putting down her fork to listen. I said that I was fine, but offered something I had been thinking about:
Earlier, in June, I had—at the center of a shaking, rageful menstrual period—begun to cry in class while speaking about the historical proliferation of printing presses. "It all seemed so touching," I said—the new brightness of duplication, especially in comparison to the current dulling of our civilization at the hands of a newly elected, selfish man. Effacing my body and my political ethics, I had lied to my students. I had told them a distant cousin had died. The next day a sentimental student brought me flowers: tulips, and baby’s breath brittle beneath my touch.
"Hormones are real," my friend then said. "They have a way of being honest for you, or in spite of you."
I nodded and swallowed the rest of my cocktail. Our hands lay on the table like painted women in repose.
When the salad was gone we smiled at the server’s back until he turned. My friend insisted on paying the whole check, explaining: "His mother gave me extra when I told her what had happened."
I wiped a condensation ring from the iron table. "You told her?"
"I would want to know," she said, in that very parochial, parental way. I am attracted to this style of reason. Not a golden rule but a rule of free information imparted kindly, and dryly. It is no nonsense. It is efficient. It is the Dewey Decimal system of reason.
I boarded a sweaty city bus and waved bye. She had her car, was going to meet a new lover in the northern part of the city, and so she walked past the bus stop, on, to the bank parking lot that we all knew didn’t tow like they said they would. It was a light summer evening, still early, and my chest was thrilling with camaraderie, even as I was squeezed standing up, gripping a ribbed hanger loop, breathing the salt and dust of strangers in what must have been rush hour.
Later that night I lay on my couch naked, texting with a friend in a different time zone until she had to leave for dinner. I began to read a novel about a woman like me, though I was drunk enough that I’d work through one sentence and be lost or blurry before reaching the next. I fell asleep and when I rose to go to the bed my skin was marked by the nubby couch fabric, itchy with its imprint. The new landscape of my skin switched me on and before I fell asleep again, I came.
Prior to the basement of the large arts institution I had not met or even seen my friend’s ex-husband in person. But because he was somewhat famous, at least locally, I had, a few times, encountered pictures of him in periodicals and on the internet. In these pictures his features had seemed large, froggy. In real life I now see how his features recede; here is his face at rest, his un-remarking glance sweeping the wide volume and me. A regular-looking man, alone. The elevator doors open and he steps in. The elevator’s interior light shines dull against his winter-dry face. I picture again their cats squalling in the carrier. The doors close, and I nod at him, so slightly that it could be a tic.
"He looked like he knew you," says my mother, who is visiting the city this weekend. Watching this man, I had forgotten she was beside me.
"He doesn’t know me," I say and we go on to stand in the Merce Cunningham exhibit where via fans Warhol’s silver inflatable pillows float so closely, and so softly, between our heads. They brush and squeak when they collide with one another. They muss our hair with static as they pass. We are reverent to them, silent, until:
"Usually you’re scared when such a large thing is coming at you!" my mother remarks joyously. "But here there is no reason to be scared!" I feel in league with the women of the world. Soon we will walk out of the museum and eat lunch somewhere.
Amanda Goldblatt is a writer and teacher living in Chicago. She was a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, and her fiction and essays have appeared in such journals as The Southern Review, NOON, Fence, Diagram, Hobart, and American Short Fiction. Her debut novel, Hard Mouth, is forthcoming from Counterpoint in 2019.
Photo by JD Hancock.