Un/hooked Love Story
“I’m gonna love you ’til the wheels come off. Oh yeah.”
Audrey, with eight-week old on chest, diaper bag on shoulder, pushes through the door to the coffee shop as soon as they unlock it (late today at 5:06 AM), pre-empting crowds and small talk at the counter. Black coffee in spare hand, she collapses into the crumb-infested couch near the toy box filled with rough-looking dolls and cookie-stained books. Here she WILL swig this mugful before the other La Leche moms show up. Last night her husband muttered another woman’s name in his sleep. His ‘was only a dream’ speech when she woke him plain exhausted her.
On Mom’s tail are the recovering alcoholics. As they pause in the wind-swept doorway to scope the scene, she shivers, spreading her hands on Baby’s back.
Meanwhile, at home in his basement, glowing pictures on Mark’s screen jack up his heart rate as does the onset of a rustling upstairs: Fiona? Up so early? Will she come down?
Bianca the barista scrapes her front teeth on the backside of her tongue-ring as she eyes the group that’s just come in; knows the type, has them in her family, both sides. No need for the pack on the program to shiver, their core selves warm, each having donned, as if by collective AA decree, over-sized woolen sweaters along with their itchy, one-size-fits-all sobriety, all the better to accept the things they cannot change—like the frigid Autumn wind threatening to freeze them out of their outdoor table, the one with the multiple overflowing ashtrays that Bianca has to clean.
“Too cute,” the Recovering toss out at Audrey’s baby–(too cute thinks Bianca) as they clog the counter, each jostling to claim the first round of coffee, generous in their eagerness to get down to daily business such as it is for them now—the swapping of last night’s horror tales told AM funny: tooth aches without Advil Lord kill me; breakups without sleeping pills just kill me now; lost jobs, fuck-up kids, flushed Vicodin kill me ASAP; bad dreams, no gin, mounting bills no wine and God damned God! Just kill me. Now.
For Bianca, a slight hangover offers just enough challenge to keep her day from being boring. Coffees paid for and distributed, she follows the recovering alcoholics outside to set out clean dog bowls. As the giddy pets slurp, the sober men and women share soggy tissues, hugs and prayers, along with dog-chewed cards of cheap accountants, cheapest dentists. If they smile too much and talk too loudly, fuck it, frankly, they’re shocked to meet again, cracked but salvageable, braving morning shadows in this (thank) God-forsaken world.
(They all tip well, Bianca credits.)
Still in his basement, Mark jiggles his foot and bites his lip. Fiona would never invade his privacy, but her old Husky, Frank, whines loudly, thumping his head against the basement door. Mark pauses on an in-breath of cigarette smoke to reflect upon Frank’s trembling, crippled legs; the vet’s dire prediction. Fingers hovering over keyboard, he feels a knife thrust of pity for his unsuspecting wife.
Arriving alone at 5:35, writer Ellen hides her foundering ego at one of the back tables near the pay phones no one uses any more. Out of the bustle, she struggles over her article about a critically acclaimed artist, one accepted on spec by a national magazine—her big break, a project doomed from the start, she worries. Thinking of her husband and kids eating their morning waffles without her so that she can do “her work,” she orders two cherry almond scones and a cup of whole fat yogurt before attempting to draft a first paragraph yet again.
Frank whines upstairs; downstairs Mark remains at his computer, coiled and thrumming.
Sixty-something Dennis made his sister set his Star Wars alarm clock for 4:45, then braved the walk across the street to the coffee shop alone. “Intellectually challenged,” the intellectually challenging among the early morning crowd have been known to explain of Dennis to newcomers in respectful if loud tones from behind their New York Times and lowered bi-focals.
5:45. Mark’s gaze cabals from image to image. Will he find what he is looking for? Does it exist for anyone, anywhere?
Dennis has been beaming at Audrey’s baby. Now, done with his daily croissant (put on his tab and paid by Sister), he wipes his face hopefully, scanning the room, seeking eye contact, a chat. He finds himself, instead, ensconced in a politically correct, seemingly bottomless silence only slightly better than the silence of his never-shared bed where he sleeps with his fluttering lover’s heart, forced to spoon his secret urges.
Alone, Mark pictures his wife upstairs in their bedroom, her atheist’s hands resting in an undeserved prayer position under her cheek—grateful for the sleep that comes so hard to her. He misses her, the mornings they used to have, is lonely; nonetheless, he smokes another cigarette, smoke without fire, unable to imagine walking up two flights of stairs. No longer conceivable the risk of taking off his jacket, jeans, bringing his contagion to the soft, shared bed.
If most at the coffee shop are yawning, none regrets their pre-dawn wakening to be here. Every so often, if he keeps his smile closed over crooked, yellow teeth, Dennis can, in the dim light, catch the half-closed eye of a real stranger, someone from out of town, no Facebook friend to the regulars, unenlightened by the morning crew. Even barring that stranger’s presence (as fate has a way of doing), the kohl-rimmed-eyed barista has been known to fling a “Hey D.” Dennis’ way. Not much different, is Dennis, after all, from the fully-oxygenated at birth?–not at 6AM, in the sinew of his day-dreams and for all intents and purposes, not at all. If Dennis lives for days on a bit of eye contact, an inclusive joke, some fantasy fodder, who doesn’t?
Mark. Mark can’t.
The handsome man arrives at 6:40AM, I awoke in the night and the door was wide open, bedroom eyes calm, compact body still. And now thank God it is shut. shut. He smiles as he hands the barista his copy of Jeffrey Ford’s The Drowned Life—(“I’m guessing you’ll like it, no need to give it back”), shares a rant with the AA crowd (“People who put pictures of dogs pooping with xs through them on their lawns are asking to get fertilized!”). He smiles at Dennis and gives the once-over to Audrey.
All the while he’s looking inward through a tunnel tiled in a checker-board pattern like an elementary school hallway, a tunnel exiting the mundane world. Through it, he views the retreating night–its black dog stricken eyes, its tail between legs, moon paling–and then the earliest onset of day, its blue and gold, its shadowy, sickening symptoms, his own unforgivable complicity with plugged ears against the howling. Mark’s heart beats faster, propelled by a mounting energy/Shut! In this energy, the recovering alcoholics see insight; the intellectually challenging wit; Mom Audrey sniffs sex appeal; Dennis, empathy; the barista, poetic irony; the writer, personal criticism.
Finding a table alone, Mark opens his notepad and uploads his spreadsheet designed to calculate the prioritized goals he will not accomplish today. As he types, his handsome face sets in one expression like a sculpture.
- Fail to get Fiona’s visa. Check.
- Come up with a plausible excuse as to why wife’s visa had not yet arrived; check.
- Articulate an honest explanation for his lapse in this one easy task, which he as her American-born spouse needed to do in his wife’s support, which as her best friend he wanted to do in service of their trip. Beg for forgiveness on the grounds that…But Mark cannot remember the grounds.
His fingers pound out each check mark of failure with tiny, inconsequential bursts of anger.
The bottom line, he alone knows it, (although he sometimes forgets): his wife, still a Latvian citizen will not accompany him on the business trip to China ten days from now. When the certainty of this hits him, he longs to escape himself, enter a new skin; be anyone else, Dennis with the yellow teeth. Yet he never escapes, and daily Fiona is expecting the visa in the mail, calling him, breathless, in love in the minutes before the mailman is to arrive; calling him breathless, in doubt, in the minutes after the mailman leaves. Daily, he feels himself sinking deeper in love with her, the less able to show it the deeper he sinks. Over dinner, he has been thumbing through the Lonely Planet, making jokes, while Fiona tents her ink-stained hands, pressing the palms with her thumbs, excitedly. They’ll go to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square. For once they are going to combine a business trip with personal interest.
Mark doesn’t feel like he is lying. He loves his wife and her art more than life itself. There is a problem here, he glimpses. In a perverse mood, he longs to rub his head, his whole body against it, they way a dog caresses the shadow of a dead thing. At times like this he recalls the mobile/sculpture Fiona did of him years ago, back when….
In “Un/hook,” Mark’s crouching, (cowering?) body hangs from a wire attached to a central hook. His face is hyper-realistic, almost a photograph—square jawed, smile lines bracketing his mouth, the snaggle tooth that more than one woman has told him she finds cute—only his eyes on this face veer into science fiction or cartoon eyes, popping out and spiraling in fear. Hanging from their own wires, all around Mark, are circus monkeys mimicking his posture, their eyes also spiraling. A sculpture Fiona has made of herself forms the base of the mobile, supine, sinewy, partially clothed and sneering, despite the hooks and wires protruding from her body. She dangles a mask she appears to have removed from Mark’s head, one of his face but with blank instead of spiraling eyes.
The first time he saw “Un/hook,” Mark wondered if she was making fun of him. “I look like Road Runner on Smack after he races off a cliff,” but Fiona hadn’t laughed (perhaps didn’t catch the reference). And yet he couldn’t stop.
“Has the coyote been chasing me?,” he went on, asking her this question in a fake dumb voice, mimicking the self-appointed critics they usually laugh at, the ones who only buy kitschy scarves and pots at the Art Center and in worried tones ask rhetorical questions about Fiona’s ‘dark’ work. “Beneath my serene mask, I’m a frightened boy?” He’d clenched his fists, wishing he were the kind of man to go out get drunk, get screwed, get something, a man like his brothers. A man who never lived in fear of his own depression.
She’d responded gravely as she so seldom did with him. “We haven’t been close in months. On some level I understand. I go away into my work too”—she looked around at the evidence, tucking hair behind her ears—“but when you do it its different. I tell you where I’ve been and where I’m going. And that I will return. You act like you don’t know.” Behind her hung a print of herself twenty years younger, nose to nose with Frank, eyes closed implying “passionate.”
He’d felt the grief scrabbling at his throat. He tried to joke. “So I see. You get lost driving ten minutes into DC, but you never get lost in your feelings. Must be nice!”
She stood behind her work table, silent, like a teacher or a therapist, waiting, watching him rock on his heels. Then finally, “So that’s it; you’re saying you’re lost in your feelings?” Her chin quivered. There in her studio she was surrounded by her art, showing yes, she was not lost even if she’d lost him, her paintings and mobiles marked her way, they even marked the way for others. He looked back at his own eyes in the face dangling from “Un/Hook.” He could see those eyes were sensate. Fiona’s eyes in the painting of her were angry, hurt. She hadn’t made him funny. Wasn’t laughing at his pain.
Despite her fierce art, her iron calm, Mark’s small-boned wife is delicate, has a degenerative disorder that attacks her nerves. Getting out of bed, Fiona sometimes doubles over, squeezing her own pained hands. She always walks to work—until recently with her husky, Frank—briskly impervious to Main Street traffic. If Mark drives past her, honks, she never turns to look, so absorbed in fighting the pain she tells him stabs through her feet and legs. Yet when he offers her a ride, she refuses.
“Let’s get close now,” he’d told her, anxious to put Un/hook behind them, rooting his face in her neck, smelling something shadowed, woodsy—mushrooms, ferns, the snap of forest fire. A sharp release. He’d been able to make love through the subsequent pain, therapy and medication. Despite the grief clawing him inside, he’d felt moments of raw energy—sexual, righteous, even political–and he knew there was something in excess of his suffering that removing the suffering would not eradicate. They couldn’t really pen him in.
After a year of treatment, he switched companies to a smaller, swifter-paced, freer one. For a time he’d had smart, fun guys to eat lunch with. A lead instead of a leash. Meanwhile, his beautiful wife, her awesome, terrifying art was emerging.
She has since emerged, even though Mark worries the Art Center will go under; its unrealistic ideas about art and the marketplace unsustainable in the recessional and mostly virtual world. If the Art Center folds, his wife could lose her place to work and their lives will have to change. He should be able to adjust, but…
He has his own company now with two cutting edge partners overseas, a coup only…He can’t think these days. Hasn’t worked in countless. His partners are furious or so he assumes— can’t bear to talk to them. He can’t meet them in China with his wife; Fiona might hear and not be able to unhear what they have to say of him.
“Goals to be left undone today,” Mark types in bold, large font–decisive, angry pecking.
- Tell Fiona I no longer have health insurance. Am off medication. Can’t afford to get back on.
Women like him cut themselves. His wife cuts out her plastic and wood shapes, cuts into her own paintings, leaving something other than scars. Typing, Mark holds “Unhook” in his mind’s eyes, yip yip snuffle snuffle snort..
By 7AM he has checked off as undone nearly his entire list of goals for the day. If a lurking dread remains, after a few cigarettes, ten, it disappears. It may return in the late afternoon, but there’ll be hours and many angry text messages to ignore before then.
* * *
For Audrey, Dennis, Bianca, Ellen, and the recovering alcoholics, three hours and the worst have passed since pre-Dawn, that tenuous time of sleeping with the dream-cheater; of wine-bereft nightmares; of mouthed “feed me” and no titty comes; drafts that sputter and die; secret urges spooned alone; lies understood as such; a fear the dark might last forever. If truth be told, even the most skeptical among the coffee shop regulars welcomes small talk over loneliness. And, to put it simply, who doesn’t welcome sun?
And yet he banters with the intellectuals, “guess I’m going to start my own business, a party neutral catalog of virtually real political candidates. I’m telling you there’s a market for them, got to be realer than the embodied ones we’ve got…” thinking nothing, feeling less behind his spiraling eyes; cold sweat hidden beneath his mask.
Meanwhile, Audrey orders decaf with milk like the other mothers in her circle by the couch, keeping Baby bonded to her chest, facing inward in a de rigor Mexican sling.
Dennis, still at his table, no longer alone, enjoys his one for-sure social interaction of the day, a shared coffee—(Sister treats). Dennis’ friend, a reputed genius with Tourette’s, a research prof, never has to teach a class, reads the Wall Street Journal out loud to Dennis, pausing from time to time to swear, “Pussy whipped Mother fucker” from the corner of his mouth. Dennis doubles over with belly laughter, making even the stodgiest regulars smile.
* * *
“Oh it’s you, like from a dream,” the writer stutters, realizing the man she’s jostled with her computer bag as she shuffles back towards her seat—that man is Mark. He sidesteps away from Ellen, but remains focused on his conversation with one of the blowhards at the coffee bar. “Not that I’ve been dreaming about you,” she jokes when he finally turns to her, but oh no, is he recoiling? “I don’t mean anything that weird, only that I’ve been writing about your wife, her art, and you’re mentioned, and now you’re here, real….not just my words.” Maybe. He looks drawn, like a Tennyson poem.
But he talks with the punched, slightly amused, mostly annoyed cadences of a man of the world.
“Fiona mentioned you were still writing about her model, the guy with the lung cancer,” he tells her. The guy in question, Jacob, claims a Fiona painting of a little girl and a moth somehow tapped into his inner knowledge of his growing mass, causing him to see a doctor despite a lack of symptoms, thereby saving—or at least prolonging—his young life. Ellen watches Mark presumably thinking about this patient/model Jacob. His eyes are gray and deep, the lashes long.
“Fiona didn’t say you were writing about me though,” he adds after a moment. They stand awkwardly, cramped between two tables, their faces, bodies too close together so that each can feel the magnetic repulsion; she smells his cigarettes, he her scones.
“Oh,” Ellen stammers. “I only just mention you. And I mean they’ve got interns to fact check if I want to quote some witty thing you’ve said about Jacob’s mass-mailed Christmas memoirs.” Ellen giggles (no giggle but an awkward one) hoping they can pile on Jacob, the man with the New Agey claims. In fact she’s written close to nothing yet, and nothing about Mark.
“Yeah, well knock yourself out,” Mark says. “I don’t have anything against the guy. He’s not as interesting as Fiona thinks, but I feel bad he’s got the cancer.”
“Well his obsession with Fiona is interesting,” Ellen hedges. (Whether it’s actually interesting or not is the “spec” in her assignment.) “He’ll tell you anything, let you feel the scar on his chest, but he’s got Fiona’s portraits that he commissioned stuffed in his closet. If you ask to see these paintings, I swear he actually blushes.”
Unexpectedly. Mark intones in a radio voice. “Art Teaches Guy with Cancer to Blush. An Epiphany of Shamefulness. We All Should Be So Lucky. Before…The End.” He lowers his tone to intimate the horror and the permanence of “The End,” moving closer to Ellen as if ready to include her in the strange joke, lightly touching her arm. Ellen laughs with him, but backs away, her butt against a table.
“No I know,” she says, although she doesn’t really. “All that optimism about his cancer masks a desperation. He wants to ‘exponentiate’—his word—his life’s meaning. But they say it may have spread to his brain. It’s not over but it’s not likely to end well. If I knew that within five years I’d be wearing diapers, typing nonsense, unable to speak, or walk, barely to eat…and this is his likely trajectory of meaning…I mean my mom has Early Onset Alzheimer’s. If I get that, I’m taking pills.” As Ellen says “pills,” she notices Mark mouthing “pills” in synch with her. Mark’s face wrenches as he wriggles on her line.
Feeling suddenly, atypically powerful, she can be the first to break away. “Look, all of this is premature. Before I get Alzheimer’s and off myself I’ve got to get this draft in,” Ellen jokes. “And drink my coffee.” Perhaps, really, instead, she’ll quit for the morning, write a kick ass grocery list. Carpe diem, she thinks, smiling at a 40-something woman behind a scuffed laptop whose hair, like her own, sports a Scrunchie.
“Go right ahead,” says Mark, color back to his face. “I’m going to Ohio.”
At 5AM while other married men his age were dreaming of work partners or turning to their wives for one grind of animal passion before the flattened day or were switching on their laptops, searching for beseeching soft-faced girls to give them back the illusion of power, Mark had been downstairs in his basement, his computer on, his cigarette lit, his nerves coiled and thrumming, looking at what this day was missing: Knight, the rescue Husky…
On his way out of the coffee shop, thinking of Knight, his heart as close as it ever comes to soaring these days, Mark stops at Dennis’ table and speaks right over Dennis’ brilliant friend. “You’d like this. Today I’m getting a surprise.” Dennis beams and Mark beams back.
Heading fast towards the door–an athletic, bouncing walk–Mark stops to chuck a baby under the chin. She is facing her mother’s chest, which means he has to sneak up behind her mother’s back. The baby eats him up with her black eyes.
A minute later, he is back from the Men’s room, paper towel in hand. “Ya mind?” he asks Mom, before wiping a streak of spit-up off her shoulder. “Sometimes you gotta rely on the kindness of strangers.” Suddenly, his eyes fill as he imagines himself turning Fiona’s blunt-fingered hands palms up to clean off the daily paint.
“I’m Mark,” he tells the young mother as he imagines Frank, holding Fiona’s small hand between his big teeth, not biting.
“Audrey,” she tells Mark, twisting to extend her hand. “Nice to know someone’s got my back today.” Despite sharp cheekbones, flawless brown skin, her hesitant eyes and posture hold her back. Now she flashes a tentative smile. “Thanks again.”
Mark holds the woman’s hand, staring blankly. The clock on the wall behind the counter reads 7:45. The cell phone in his pocket vibrates. He starts.
“My pleasure…the cleaning I mean.” He gives a little bow. “Although that doesn’t say much for my day, does it?” As he turns to leave, Audrey calls after him, “hey, happy to make your day such as it is!”
* * *
Mark gone, Audrey looks around at the circle of mothers, their faces dull white and un-expectant, feeling glad she, at least, wore lipstick this morning. “Well, if a handsome man’s gonna get my back each time Willow spits up, what am I doing drinking decaf?” she addresses the group, interrupting something about safety gates. The other women stare.
But Audrey is already up at the counter, ordering. On her way back to her seat on the couch, she sees one of the quieter moms smile–a pale woman with thin hair, dressed in over-sized overalls.
“Full proof!” Audrey raises her caffeinated cup to the smiling woman. “Sweet Pea,” she tells Baby, lifting her out of the sling and facing her outward, “Get ready to live on the wild side.”
“Where were you all my pregnancy?” the over-alled woman asks.
“Eating feta in my closet?” The two women laugh until their babies cry from the noise. After a while, some of La Leches join in, possibly not begrudgingly, but the new friends don’t acknowledge them. This will be their last mom’s group. As friends, and not just mom friends, the two will find a different coffee shop.
* * *
Hand on the exit door, Mark hears beneath the soaring laughter of women, over the sickening jazz of an incoming text, a groaning, thick-tongued voice, calling after him (he knows it’s after him): “See ya tomorrow, ya Pussy Whipped Mother Fucker.” Guffawing: two voices—one low, slow; the other short, high bursts. The door shuts behind him, bells jingling.
He stands in silence near the emptied outdoor tables in the blue and gold day–the recovering dispersed for morning interviews, their dogs’ bowls empty.
Mark turns towards the door, tempted to go back inside, share the joke on him, but changes his mind. He’s out of time, must drive 12 hours to Ohio to rescue Fiona’s new protector.
Still for a minute he stays there, blinking in the cold. He opens his notepad on the abandoned outdoor table, already collecting leaves. As he types, he imagines the new Husky’s knowing eyes, the color of oncoming winter. I awoke in the night and the door was wide open. He imagines clear-eyed Knight come bounding in.
- Tell Fiona I love her.
* * *
A supposedly rehabilitated anorectic, jogging past, limbs like knives, decay-scented breath, watches a small-boned man raise his collar against the sudden tearing wind that lifts napkins, other garbage, off the table at his side. Her throat clutches and she makes eye contact, starts to wave but then forgets him altogether as she rounds the corner—yet another lap—past the coffee shop, dreaming of a muffin—pumpkin chocolate chip.
About the writer:
Karen Sosnoski is a mother, writer, and documentary filmmaker. Her writing, most recently in Argot Magazine, Sunlight Press and on Romper, explores what happens when people face their limitations through disability, illness, sports, or other intense encounters. She has also been published in the LA Times, Poets and Writers, Word Riot, Grappling, Bitch, Radioactive Moat, decomp, Identity Theory, Chaffee Review, Yellow Mama, PsychologyToday.com, Camroc Review and on Studio 360, This American Life and Boundoff. Berkeley Media distributes her documentary film, Wedding Advice: Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace. Her story “Too Sweet” is published in the seventh anthology (Fall 2016) in the Grace & Gravity series of fiction by Washington, DC-area women. Currently, she is working on a novel, Strange in the Shadows of the Artist Hannah Gray, about a poorly connected, adjunct English instructor who disavows her life-long meekness to avenge a famous artist she believes has stolen her mother’s memory and, with it, her own destiny.
Image: “The Heart of the Morning Bird” Abstract Expressionist painting by Valeriu Pantazi (1940-2015). 1991. Private collection. Netherlands. By permission.