by Sarah Harris Wallman
Trimble had a bad habit of prolonged eye contact; the so-called windows of his soul seemed perpetually open for business. His wife used to call it his “basset hound look.” He remembered that every time he saw the basset-shaped bank by the cash register at the corner convenience store. You were supposed to deposit change for crippled children, or maybe it was pediatric cancer. Trimble was not a consistent contributor, though if he had pennies he’d just as soon give them away. He wasn’t without sympathy, he just didn’t have as much as his eyes suggested.
That day he put in a whole quarter. He was nervous about the way the clerk was staring at him. He’d paid with a twenty and they were waiting for her manager to bring her more ones.
“That’s real nice,” she said. “They help kids.”
He shrugged, but made eye contact. It was accidental. Her nametag said “Lena.”
There were three people in line behind him, waiting to buy formula or pints of ice cream. The store was one of the few in Georgetown that offered such low-key goods, so there was always a line. Trimble made sympathetic eye contact with all of them, too.
“Do you like to read this?” said Lena, poking at the copy of The New Yorker he was buying.
“Not really,” he laughed. It was true. He was looking for conversation-fodder on the off-chance he and his wife had a conversation. “I just live with someone who does.” This was not quite true.
“I live with someone,” said Lena. “She don’t read magazines, though.”
“Most people prefer television.” He didn’t mean it as an insult. He wouldn’t have minded an evening of television as long as it was with Sylvie, making her usual acid commentary about all the improbable things that happened on the screen.
“Oh, she likes magazines and all,” said Lena. “She just can’t read. She didn’t get much school. Plus, she don’t hold her head up too good.”
He looked up, really seeing Lena for the first time: the way her eyes were not quite focused, maybe even a little crossed. She had a broad pimply forehead and wore no makeup beyond a thick swipe of blue on each eyelid. He couldn’t believe she’d lured him into an implied condemnation of some stricken illiterate.
“The agency sends someone over once a week to read her the TV Guide. She likes that a lot. She’s like, ‘buh buh buh.’” Lena cocked her head and crossed her eyes a bit more to demonstrate her roommate’s expression of joy.
“I’m more independent than that,” said Lena, confidentially, “Got a job and everything.”
Afterward, Trimble walked up the hill with his magazine and toilet paper. He lived behind one of the neighborhood’s many multi-million dollar houses, down a narrow brick driveway in the carriage house. Every time he walked down the street he was struck by the friendly grandiosity of the houses. They seemed likely to house charming aristocrats who supported the arts and never mentioned money. It was a very appealing neighborhood, so on some level it was understandable why they didn’t want a Metro station bringing an endless tide of undesirables. Lena probably got here by bus, arriving from some dark corner of Maryland in the predawn. Either that or she too lived in a rented carriage house, one with a bigger-hearted landlady than Mrs. Herbert Q. Schmidt, call me Nancy.
Before Ben Trimble was a possible bachelor in Georgetown, he was a doctor in a charmless house of magenta brick in Vienna, the last stop on the Orange Line. Before that he’d coached his daughter’s soccer team and taken them out for pizza and “hustle” awards. Before that he was a frazzled obstetrics resident with an equally frazzled wife and baby and before that he was a whimsical undergraduate at Georgetown University, dating Sylvie Strickland. A few years ago, while still happily inhabiting the Vienna house, watching Holly pole vault through high school, there came a night when he and Sylvie sat down over a pile of paperwork and calculated that with the rising cost of malpractice insurance, he really could not afford to keep his private practice afloat. One of his justifications for accepting the position at the Georgetown student clinic was that it would improve Holly’s chances of getting in (she did). But really he’d loved the idea of never working in an office park again, the idea of walking to lunch at the kind of place that served new-age burritos to students and fashionable young professionals. So he was back at Georgetown professionally before the current mess with Sylvie. Every day he wanted to call her and tell about some spot where they once got drunk or laughed hysterically or kissed. He wanted to tell her how said spot now sold designer eyeglasses or how it was still the same cheap pizza.
When they were freshmen together, Trimble had been perpetually impressed with the way Sylvie could locate food and drink in the maze of shops and cafes. He had come from darkest Virginia and didn’t know which fork was which. In fact, that fork thing had become kind of a figure of speech with him, a kind of nostalgia for his former ineptness. “I’m just a farm boy who doesn’t know which fork is which,” he said to smooth over any shortcoming of etiquette or sophistication. Two months ago he had used this statement to justify his failure to purchase the right kind of puff pastry for Sylvie’s “famous” wrapped brie. She’d punched a bag of packaged salad, causing it to pop. “What fucking forks, Ben? What fucking forks?”
He climbed the stairs of the carriage house, anticipating the use of the toilet paper, maybe even the magazine. But Holly was there, sprawled in the middle of the floor with various books and papers. Holly liked the apartment, its beamed ceiling and squat 1950’s refrigerator. She was tired of all her usual study haunts and, he suspected, she assumed that her parents would soon resolve whatever was between them and the spoils of the unbreakable lease would fall to her when he moved back to Vienna. She’d been strangely cheerful about the whole situation, but maybe that was reasonable. He’d been waiting patiently for the tears, the anger, the recriminations, and, hopefully, the sense that they were bravely facing something together.
“Looks like a hurricane hit.”
Hurricane Holly, she was supposed to say. It was an old joke between them.
“I need to talk to you about something,” she said.
So it was time. Thank goodness for the basset eyes. “What is it Holly?”
“Can I cook here on Friday? And maybe have some people over? Just Moe and the girls.”
“I’m not sure that’s…”
“Oh, come on. You’ve got plans, right?”
“Since when do I make plans?”
“Dad, it’s Friday.”
“Right. Movie night.” A tradition with Sylvie.
“You should go see this German thing at the student center. Blow your mind.”
“Movie night may be a thing of the past, Holly.”
“I’m serious. It questions the very nature of perception. It’s a little gnarly in the middle, I mean, there’s an evisceration, but the whole point is like, if you react to the evisceration, you’re just…just complicit in the…”
“So you want me to leave the apartment Friday evening.”
“Just for a few hours.”
“That’s it? No suggestion of who I might take to a German film at the student center?”
She shrugged. “If you don’t see it you’re missing out.”
He pressed on, “Because your mother and I aren’t doing that kind of thing any more, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Actually, I took mom to see it Monday. She came down for lunch and we were going to shop but it was raining. She kept covering her eyes. You know how she is.”
“How is she?”
“Good. She ordered wrong, though. You’re not going to get decent maki at a noodle bar. I tried to tell her.”
Was it really possible that he had raised a human being this impervious to the suffering of others? Or were German films and Japanese noodles supposed to stand for something, to tell him that she was feeling…what, exactly?
“Don’t look that way,” Holly said. “Mediocre sushi is not the end of the world.”
“We had a good day.”
“Did she say something about this Friday? Is there something planned?”
“She gave me her linguine recipe. And I’m going to do that thing with the brie.”
Maybe the chatter was a kind of deflection. But she’d never been awkward with him before. When she was eleven, she’d asked him detailed, matter-of-fact questions about the mechanics of sex. They’d been driving home from a lost softball game, buckled in. She’d already asked her mother, but she wanted his take.
“Well,” said Trimble, “I guess I’ll wander the streets. I’m making lots of friends out there.” He told her about Lena, to lighten things up a little.
“Making fun of the disabled. Nice, Dad.”
“I was very nice to her.”
She rolled her eyes and reopened her psychology book, “I know your whole nice thing, dad. Some of my friends even think it’s cute.”
So that was it. Holly had no idea why her parents were separated. She’d assumed it was some amplified version of the usual: squabbles over what to do on Saturday, whether
breakfast food could be served as dinner, the notion that the big-lipped skinniness of some actress voided her ability to portray characters other than herself. Sylvie had always
enjoyed little flare-ups of righteous indignation and Trimble sometimes mistakenly played devil’s advocate when what all that was wanted was devil’s audience.
What Holly did not know was that Dr. Ben Trimble had kissed a student in his clinic and refused to turn himself in. He’d confessed the kiss to Sylvie. That wasn’t debatable. He had betrayed her, if only for a few seconds. He expected tears, a period of exile, but ultimately the betrayal had no depth, and he thought he could convey that to Sylvie.
He had not expected her to insist that he turn himself in, like some kind of sexual predator, even if it meant losing his job, even if that meant losing their house.
“You would really lose the house on principle?” he said.
“Of course nothing. This ethics bullshit is just to punish me.”
“Do you really think so little of ethics?”
“Stop talking that way.”
“You’re better than this, Ben.”
“I know I’m better. It was a momentary slip. I didn’t even instigate it.”
“Now you sound like a rapist,” she said. “Worse: a rapist’s lawyer.”
It had gone on like that. At one point she refused to live in “a house built on lies” and he had said, fine, he’d take his lies and go. Then the magenta rancher would be a zone of total honesty. In the end, she didn’t even have to kick him out.
The first two nights he slept on the floor of his office. But they turned off the air at night and the window was adjacent to the exhaust vent of an all-night Chinese take-out. He’d spent the third night on Holly’s floor, much to the amusement of all the girls on the hall. It was scarcely possible to go to the bathroom there, so he’d answered an ad posted in the coffee shop for the carriage house. Mrs. Herbert Q. Schmidt, call me Nancy. He’d told her he worked at the university and let her assume he was a professor. She was instantly taken with the idea of a professorial boarder. It befitted the memory of the late Herbert Q. Schmidt (actually, the Q was Trimble’s addition when he described his landlady to others). He had been living there nearly six weeks.
Of course, it was probably the look that had softened Nancy Schmidt more than anything else. The look of nearly painful sympathy had probably got him all the dates he’d ever had, including young Sylvie, who’d caught him watching a drunk girl dancing on a bar, flinging her long hair around. Sylvie thought he was enlightened enough to pity the drunk girl, though he’d actually been hoping she would take the crowd up on their suggestion that she remove her shirt.
The look had certainly got him the job at the student clinic. After fifteen years as a suburban obstetrician, it was strange to work in an environment where babies were most emphatically not the goal. Parents-to-be in Vienna had a self-satisfied air. His new patients were scared. They came to him when they’d been trembling in a fevered sweat in a dorm room for three days, hundreds of miles from their mothers, or because they feared they’d sacrificed their bodies for one (or more) nights of beer and loud music and goings home with a beautiful stranger who didn’t have sheets on his bed, much less condoms. They were almost all girls in the clinic. Boys never sought medical attention unless they were passed out or punctured. They went to the E.R.
Ashley Jennings had honey blond hair and the usual perfect figure. She wore miniscule running shorts. Her come-on hadn’t been very original; she probably never needed to polish it. She was just trying to be the kind of girl who does outrageous things and gets away with them. The kiss lasted several seconds and tasted of chewed gum, more like spit than fruit. Not unpleasant.
As she left, she glanced back over her shoulder and gave him what she would probably call a wicked smile when describing the scene to her roommates. The thought did not fill him with horror. He imagined they would sit in a circle and pass around a plastic bag of bulk snacks, banana chips and gummi worms, maybe, and Ashley would tell them how she’d kissed a doctor. Holly could even be there, because it wouldn’t have anything to do with him. It would just be about bold kisses and possibilities. So much life and so many kisses ahead of them. It would be perfectly all right for Holly to be there. He hadn’t mentally dressed them in silk nighties. That’s not how college girls in repose dressed these days. They wore flannel pajama bottoms and sweatshirts. If you did look at their
breasts, all you saw was the usual rectangular proclamation: “Georgetown.”
At seven o’clock, Holly was still there, scowling at the psych book and underlining fiercely. Trimble was trying to read an article in one of the less serious journals, something about a computer implant that would allow the blind to see with their tongues. It was pretty theoretical; no chance that he would see blind people skipping along tongue-first in his lifetime.
What he really wanted to do was walk along M street and find a crowded bar of the student variety. He didn’t want to see anyone he knew (except, of course, Sylvie, but she was probably standing at their kitchen counter, eating something odd: an avocado and crackers, or a scrambled egg.). He didn’t want to take Holly with him, but he didn’t want to ask her to leave. He certainly didn’t want to have a few beers and find that she was still there when he wanted sprawl on the couch and devise new ways to approach Sylvie: maybe she would be interested in email. Maybe they should sell the so-called house of lies move somewhere with a different energy. Maybe she had finally tired of being dramatic and would simply accept a hug.
Finally, he said Holly’s name. She reluctantly looked up.
“You told your mother you were going to have a dinner party at my apartment?”
“It’s not really a dinner party.”
“But you told her all the details?’
“You make it sound like we’re going to eat off china and swap wives. It’s just linguine. Maybe some wine. I’ll clean up.”
“Listen: you told your mother you’re inviting college girls to my apartment.”
“Women,” said Holly.
“Women,” Trimble conceded. “To my apartment.”
“And Moe. But he doesn’t count.”
“That’s not my point.”
“What, you think someone’s going to have sex with Moe? Because I can guarantee—”
“Are you really saying no to this?”
“Do you have any clue why I’m living here?”
She started to cry. Which meant she might not talk for a minute or two and he could explain himself.
“I wronged your mother very deeply, maybe for good. It’s not what I want, but we might never be a family again. What I want is for her to forgive me, but I’m not saying I deserve that.”
“I’m not going to pass messages.” Holly stood and began to gather her papers. “I already told Mom. If you two have something to say to each other then pick up the phone. I’m trying to have a life here.”
“She said something? When you had lunch?”
“Forget it,” said Holly. “I’ll find somewhere else to study. I’ll find somewhere else to have my friends.”
She slammed the door and was off, back to her alleged life. Trimble missed her instantly. The afternoons they had spent in the carriage house seemed suddenly special in their weirdness, as if they had both occupied the waiting room of some crazy hospital where the doctors performed invasive full-body neuron rewiring, so that when you left you could smell colors or taste music, a change that would either reinvigorate you or disable you so completely you went insane. He and Holly were going through different doors and might experience different outcomes, but at least they’d had this sweet, bland time in the waiting room. Most people never got that.
Down at Extra Innings, he ordered the beer special and paid with a couple of ones. They had a barback who reminded him of Lena from the corner store; she was slow or touched, or whatever Lena was. She gathered empty glasses and washed them and periodically wiped down the counter with an ammonia-soaked rag, lifting people’s beers out of the way when necessary. When anyone tried to get her attention she stared steadfastly at a spot two inches below the bar and said “I’m not ’llowed to serve drinks.”
“You’re doing a great job,” Trimble said, when she lifted his beer to clean the spot beneath.
“Thank you,” she whispered. Her eyes flickered up to his for a moment. On her next pass, she spoke.
“You know we got pretzels for free?” she said. “You like pretzels?”
“Sure,” he said. “Pretzels are my favorite.”
“Not me,” she said. “My favorite is grilled cheese sandwich.”
“How interesting.” Was this it? Was this how sympathetic people spoke? People who actually cared?
“We also got free matches,” said the girl, “But I’m not ’llowed no matches.”
“Hey!” The bartender had noticed them. He pointed a beefy finger at Trimble. “You some kind of pervert?”
Ben managed a “who me?” gesture. The eyes were failing him. “I was just talking to…to your…”
“As far as you’re concerned, she’s my freakin’ wife. My daughter. She’s my goddamned mother, guy. So don’t bother her.”
“Don’t give me the goo-goo eyes, asshole. I got your number.”
Could you give it to me, Trimble wanted to quip. But that didn’t seem wise. He wondered
if it was still Lena’s shift at the corner store. He could go in and buy some beers just to hear her too loud, too stilted, “DID YOU FIND EVERYTHING YOU NEED?” She might not remember his name, but at least she would recognize him as a good person.
He ordered another beer and called Holly’s cell phone. He left a message, saying that she could have the apartment Friday, that he might have plans after all, he might take her advice on the whole marriage thing. He wanted desperately for her to like him. He considered a second message, so that he could go ahead and say “I love you.” He wanted to tell her that everything he’d ever done had been out of love for her and her mother. But it wasn’t true. He’d done any number of things for no reason at all. He didn’t really like pretzels (or nuts, or snack mix) but he was always eating by the handful at bars, at parties. Last Christmas he filled up on this nasty Asian mustard mix to the extent that he wanted to throw up so he could start over with the real food. But reversing the digestive
process in Sylvie’s parents’ guest bathroom seemed a little over the top. He couldn’t work up the nerve.
The slow girl barback was wrestling a loaded garbage bag out of the can, straining so hard her tongue stuck out to the side. But she didn’t seem discouraged. She seemed perfectly sure the garbage would yield to her will.
“That’s it. I warned you.” Somehow the bartender was behind him, knocking the stool from beneath him and man-handling him toward the exit. Trimble hit M street with both knees and then with both hands, skidding an inch or so. A flock of legs in platform sandals paused. There were a few giggles and a soft inquiry as to whether he was okay.
“Yes, yes. I’m okay.” He looked at his scuffed palms and never saw their faces. Actually, he kept looking at the ground even when they said “hey” to him because he could not bear to meet their eyes. He had the impression that they were underage and over-made-up. They were armed with false identification and headed for some terrible danger from which he was only a brief distraction. He didn’t want to see.
He limped into a nearby ATM vestibule and dialed the number of his own house, miles away in Virginia. He got the machine, but that was okay. He could still tell her what he needed to tell her. He told her that everything he does from now on, he does for love. Part of him believed that this was possible.
* * *
Sarah Harris Wallman’s work has previously appeared in Brooklyn’s L Magazine and been produced off-off Broadway. She holds an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and currently co-directs a new MFA program at a small but scrappy college in New Haven, CT.
A version of “Georgetown Kisses” was honorably mentioned in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open.