In this weekend’s story, post #SOTU, Heidi Bell takes us back to an earlier political climate, when Joe Biden was only an angry senator. What do our politics say about us, and about goodness? When is a belief in one thing symptomatic of a larger system of belief, or of doubt? “Paradise Is a Place with Plenty of Music” captures that time in a relationship where the beginning has just passed, and yet everything may be just beginning. When the small things start to become visible in the larger vision of our love. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
John likes to eat his Cheerios on the sun porch, even when there’s no sun. This morning, a Vivaldi concerto plays on the radio, its violins describing the wind outside that bends the trees in the backyard like archery bows. John spoons cereal into his mouth and scans the Wall Street Journal. The former Soviet Union is lurching toward capitalism; Castro calls Western democracy “complete garbage”; Saddam Hussein remains defiant in the face of sanctions. Despite lowered interest rates, the real-estate market continues to stagnate. IBM is in trouble, and a man in Boston claims to have been poisoned by a combination of lawn pesticides and Tagamet. But these issues cannot compete with Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, whose story John is tired of hearing about, though certainly every person he talks to today will mention it.
It is all over the front page, above the fold: “The Thomas Hearings—Unsolved Mysteries: Even If Confirmed, Judge Thomas Will Be Under Cloud of Doubt—Senate Hearings Fail to Prove That He or Prof. Anita Hill Is the More Believable—The Showdown on Tuesday.” The Vivaldi violins seem to grow shriller as he reads what might as well be on the cover of People or Parade: “Behind-the-scenes, Judge Thomas’s supporters and friends repeatedly muttered phrases such as ‘Fatal Attraction syndrome,’ alluding to a movie about spurned love and revenge, in an effort to paint Ms. Hill as a sociopath.” The front-page editorial mixes metaphors, comparing Thomas to the lone protester in Tiananmen Square, the Senate democrats to a lynch mob. All weekend, if Georgia wasn’t watching the confirmation hearing itself, she managed to find some commentary about it on television, talking heads who continued talking when there was nothing more to say. John had to bribe her with dinner at the Blue Marlin to even get her out of the house.
John is clearing his breakfast dishes from the table when his neighbor, Steve, appears in the driveway next door and gets into his Volkswagen. Steve can’t park in his garage because Lynette, his wife, has claimed one side of it for her car and filled the other with boxes of summer clothes, old papers, and discarded exercise equipment. Steve has a permanent hangdog look that John has noticed in many married men, as though he’d happily set out to marry a bossy woman without understanding the long-term consequences. John prides himself on having maintained most of the opinions he had before he met Georgia, including his suspicion that marriage brings out the worst in both parties. The subject has only come up between them as a joke.
In the kitchen, he shoves the newspaper deep into the garbage can and washes his dishes at the sink, noting with mild shock that Georgia has washed her juice glass and wiped her toast crumbs from the counter, though probably only onto the floor. On his way to the bathroom he can hear her humming something, and he pauses to listen in the hall outside their bedroom. What is that tune? Undetected, he watches Georgia comb her hair and smooth lotion on her arms and legs in front of the mirror, the slight bend of her body reminding him of Venus in the Botticelli painting, newly born and riding the oyster shell to shore, her hair curling against the pale rose of her skin, the light of the lamp reflected in the mirror like white waves.
He waits there, lulled by the sound of her voice, until the name of the song occurs to him: “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Chet Baker, from the album they listened to last night. There are moments like this when Georgia’s presence in his house seems as ordinary as his own, times when her shoes lined up in the entryway seem perfectly natural, times when it doesn’t startle him to close the bathroom door and find her pale silky robe hanging there like the skin of an animal. Still, his guts twist a little each time he walks into the bedroom they’ve shared now for more than a year, a room rendered substantially smaller by Georgia’s mammoth dresser and the mound of clothing draped over the back of the armchair.
It had happened without warning one May evening, after Georgia mentioned that the lease on her apartment would soon expire. The two of them were in John’s bed, but it was still light outside, and the evening sun drew bright lines around the blinds. Georgia was hunting for her bra and underwear among the sheets, wearing only a pair of thin white ankle socks, and John was contemplating the perfect trough of her spine.
Since meeting Georgia, John had begun to see his earlier experiences with women as casual, his sexual interest and their half-hearted pretense at pleasure silly compared to the intensity of his desire now and the sound of Georgia’s voice climbing the scale like a hoarse clarinet. Her voice had captivated him the instant he’d heard it.
Georgia finally found her bra between the pillows. “So anyway,” she said, arranging it on John’s chest so that the beige cups covered his nipples, “I’m looking at a place on Spaight Street tomorrow after school. Should I just come over here afterward?” Her fingernails were painted bright pink with white polka dots. Within that context, John’s question seemed perfectly logical.
“Why don’t you just move in here?” he asked.
Georgia leaned back on her heels and scanned his face with her brown almond-shaped eyes. John kept very still. It wasn’t the first time she’d searched his face for something, nor the first time he’d wondered whether or not she would find it.
“What’s the matter?” he asked
“I’m afraid!” Georgia said. “Aren’t you afraid?”
John laughed. He was fairly certain he hadn’t been truly afraid since he was a child. Georgia made him feel giddy, brave, foolhardy.
“No,” he answered, grinning. “What are you afraid of?”
“Well, now I’m afraid because you’re not afraid.”
John reached out and traced the bumps of her larynx. Often when she spoke he longed to be immersed in the reedy sound of it or to enter it like a room and close the door.
“I want this,” he said, and he kissed her.
Georgia pulled away, frowning. “You have to know it’s not going to be like this all the time. We’ll fight, you’ll grow to resent me . . . and then we’ll have to get married.”
They laughed for a long time, and John felt buoyant and happy. Then Georgia wiped the tears from beneath her eyes and said, “Okay, then.”
And when John woke the next morning with her anklebone resting painfully on his instep, and when he noticed the trail of clothes leading from the chair to her side of the bed, panic churned in his stomach like an eggbeater. What impulse had led him to ask such a question without considering its ramifications? Hadn’t the current arrangement been working perfectly for him? My God, they hadn’t even known each other six months! He was nearly overwhelmed in that moment by the urge to disentangle himself. As he contemplated his future, John thought it might be wise to make a clean break, to never see Georgia again, to return to the kind of anonymous coupling that didn’t even entail staying the night.
Then Georgia, still half-asleep, rolled toward him. A wayward curl of her hair tickled his nose. Her hand disappeared beneath the blanket and found his bare hip. She kissed him lightly on the mouth, once, twice, and the urge faded, though it seems never to have left him completely. He can feel it rising inside him from time to time, like a genie in a bottle—this morning, for instance, when he lifts the toilet lid and finds a horrific mess in the bowl. He steps back, and the lid falls with a loud clatter.
Georgia knows the story of how, as a boy, John threw back the toilet lid one afternoon and came face to face with a bloody unflushed mass, a white string snaking out from it like the fuse on a stick of dynamite. His brother Robert had shit his guts out! Or someone had murdered their mother and thrown her eviscerated organs into the toilet! The killers might still be in the house. He had to get out—fast. He darted down the hallway and, rounding the corner into the kitchen, ran squarely into his mother, who clutched at him to keep her balance, inadvertently pressing his face into her breasts.
John’s mother sat him down that morning and explained in gory detail the fate of all women. As she spoke, a dirty smell like the ground after rain seeped from under her clothing and forced its way into John’s nostrils.
“Georgia!” he calls now.
“Are you okay?” she calls, and then she is there in the bathroom doorway, wearing only her underwear. “What’s wrong?”
From the corner farthest from the toilet, he points mutely.
“What?” She slides past him and lifts the toilet lid, and then she lets it fall again. “I’m sorry, John,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I forgot to flush. You couldn’t just flush it yourself?”
He tries to ignore the way the lacy bra holds her breasts out to him.
“You could have warned me.”
“Warned you about what?”
Her thin lips almost disappear when she’s angry, and her voice reminds him of a viola, the bow drawn roughly across the strings.
“Do you want me to wear a sign around my neck? Should I embroider a scarlet P on my clothing so you don’t accidently touch me and soil yourself? I forgot that you’re from that fairy-tale land where women don’t bleed. Did they send you here to study us dirty people?”
Once she gets started, she just goes on and on about it. So what if John doesn’t like to make love during that time of the month? He’s explained that it’s simply a preference, something he can’t change, but she insists it’s sexist.
She turns away abruptly and leaves the bathroom.
“Aren’t you going to flush it?” he asks.
“No, I’m not,” she calls.
“It doesn’t matter that it’s nauseating to me? That I might even throw up if I have to do it?”
“You’re a big boy now, John. You take care of it. I’m already late for dress rehearsal.”
The elementary school where she teaches music is putting on a Peanuts Halloween program.
It’s a bad beginning to what turns out to be a crummy day. Ninety minutes later, John makes excruciating small talk with a new client, Peter Solis, while the two of them wait for John’s assistant, Katherine, to locate the materials she was supposed to prepare for Mr. Solis’s appointment this morning.
Katherine graduated in the spring from the university with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, and though she’s creative and intelligent, she’s not the most organized assistant John’s ever had. He would never admit that, during her interview, he was captivated most not by her credentials but by the contrast between her long white neck and her deep red hair, the way she swept her bangs out of her eyes with a graceful white hand. This is the third embarrassing mistake she’s made in the few months since John hired her, and he realizes grimly that he will have to fire her.
Mr. Solis is a paunchy man in dark highwater trousers and white socks who has asked the firm where John works to market his line of multicultural puppets. John pours Mr. Solis a cup of coffee from the pot in the corner of his office and then sits down and smiles across the desk at him, trying not to watch Katherine flit back and forth beyond the doorway.
“Have you been watching the hearings?” Mr. Solis asks.
John tries not to sneer. “A little bit, yes.”
“She seems like she’s got a screw loose, don’t you think? Those quiet types, you never know when they’re going to just crack and go crazy on you.”
John nods noncommittally. It really isn’t the time or place to air his opinions on Anita Hill. He glances at his client’s stubby hands dangling from the armrests of his chair. On one a huge class ring with a red stone, on the other a thick gold wedding band.
“So you must be married to an extrovert, then,” John says.
Mr. Solis laughs atonally and then launches into a description of his lovely wife, who has done all the sewing on the puppet prototypes.
“What about you, John? Are you married?” Mr. Solis asks.
“No, I’m single,” John says. He smiles genuinely for the first time today but feels his irritation surge anew when he realizes he’s smiling because he knows how Georgia would laugh if she heard him tell such a lie.
After lunch, Katherine slinks into his office, grimacing, and John thinks of the way the Irish Setter puppy he got as a boy used to approach their cranky old spaniel.
“I am so sorry, John,” Katherine says. “I don’t know what happened.”
It must be unconscious the way her hands flutter at chest level, drawing his eyes to her full breasts. She is wearing a forest-green wraparound dress that plunges in front and ties at one side of her small waist. An hourglass figure.
“I thought I had put all the materials on the cart, but I had accidentally put one file away in the filing cabinet. It was really stupid—”
“Katherine,” he interrupts. “Don’t worry about it.” He can’t believe he’s saying it even as his lips are forming the words. “Solis signed the contract at lunch,” he says, and one side of his mouth lifts involuntarily.
“Really?” Katherine says, wide-eyed. “That’s great news!”
She smiles, and the unabashed relief on her face sends a jolt through John as though he’s stuck his finger in an electrical socket.
“So,” he says, leaning back in his chair, “let’s go have a beer at 5:30 to celebrate.”
It isn’t unusual for the people in John’s office to socialize after hours, and he isn’t eager to run home and finish the argument he and Georgia started this morning. Katherine’s eyes shift toward the windows behind his desk.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “I have plans for dinner.”
Her eyes swing back to his, and he can’t tell if she really is sorry or if she’s being polite. John wants to laugh. Does she think he’s asking her on a date? She knows he and Georgia live together, and if he remembers correctly, she’s mentioned a boyfriend. But what do Georgia and Katherine’s boyfriend have to do with getting a beer?
When John gets home, Georgia is sitting on the couch, her eyes glued to PBS, which is rebroadcasting the last day of testimony for viewers whose stamina gave out before the hearing ended at two a.m. There are white cartons on the coffee table from their favorite Thai restaurant—an apology? Georgia waves John over to the couch, puts her arm around his shoulders, and kisses his cheek—all without taking her eyes from the television screen—as though the gesture is supposed to make up for the fact that she had a hand in ruining his day.
“This John Doggett’s a real piece of work,” she says. “They’re supposed to tell briefly who they are, but instead he brags for 15 minutes about how Nightline and Good Morning America want to interview him. Now Biden’s ripping him to pieces.”
The witness is an unattractive black man with a bad hairline who raises his eyebrows as Senator Biden speaks.
“She may not be telling the truth,” Biden says, “but how one can draw the conclusion from that kind of exchange that this is a woman who is fantasizing, this is a woman who must have a problem because she has turned—are you a psychiatrist?”
“Senator,” Doggett says, “I am trying to follow your question, but I may have to ask you to restate it.”
“My question is,” Senator Biden bellows, “are you a psychiatrist?”
“Are you a psychologist?”
The senator leans in and clutches the microphone, as though he is about to climb over the table and challenge the witness to a wrestling match.
“Well,” he says, “how from that kind of an exchange can you draw the conclusion that she obviously has a serious problem that she—where is the section? I want to find it here in your statement. You were stunned by her statement. You told her her comments were totally uncalled for and completely unfounded. Balderdash!”
Georgia laughs delightedly, a gorgeous sound like a scale played on a glockenspiel, and the pleasure it evokes in John only adds to his irritation. She hasn’t even apologized.
“I can’t wait for Angela Wright’s testimony,” Georgia says. “Do you know when she was on last night? Was it right at the end?”
“She decided not to testify,” John says.
“That’s all I know, that she didn’t testify.”
“I can’t believe it. What happened?”
“I have no idea.”
He wonders how Georgia thinks a congressional committee can make sense of what happened between two people in private ten years ago. What makes her think there is any sense to be made in the first place? They could talk for months and never get to the bottom of it. Besides, John hates Joe Biden and his blond comb-over. Talk about a showboat.
“Did she come up to you and say in mildly hysterical terms, why have you not called me,” Biden asks, “or did she just make the statement straight, monotone, you shouldn’t lead somebody on like that, or whatever the precise statement was?”
“God,” John says, raising a hand in front of his eyes, “this is painful. Can’t you just read about it in the paper?”
“You don’t have to watch it,” Georgia says, scooping green curry and rice into her mouth. Some of the rice escapes her fork and scurries like bugs into the cracks between the sofa cushions.
John puts a load of laundry into the washer and then eats curry and rice in the armchair near the baby grand—the chair where he usually sits when Georgia plays—with the stereo headphones clamped over his ears. Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle,” drowns out the television. Each time he comes back to this symphony, it is the same. If another orchestra played it, he would recognize it. And while he might notice something new each time he listens to this particular CD—the dialogue here in the first movement between the brass and the woodwind, for instance—the new details will only serve to make the piece more layered, more complex. The surprise will never be an unpleasant one. It’s different with people. Their loyalties shift; they change their minds. You can’t learn a person like a song.
Later, getting into bed, John asks, “Are we enemies?”
“Oh, John, no!” Georgia lets Time magazine drop over the edge of the bed onto the floor, where it will become bent and wrinkled before he has a chance to read it. She lies down next to him on his pillow, too close.
“Then why do you attack me when I do or say something you disagree with?”
Georgia sighs and flops back onto her own side of the bed. “It’s not just that I disagree. It’s that you’re . . . well, you’re wrong. Don’t you want to keep growing? Don’t you want to be a better person?”
“So I’m supposed to change whatever it is about me you think is wrong?”
“This is about behavior, John.”
“Exactly. But it’s about my behavior, right? You don’t have to change your behavior, but I have to change mine.”
John feels the adrenaline pour into his bloodstream, preparing him for the inevitable escalation. But Georgia only slumps back against the headboard. “Touché,” she says through pursed lips.
“You know,” John says, glancing at the book on his nightstand, unable to stop himself though he knows she might laugh, “one of the seven habits of highly effective people is ‘First try to understand others, then try to be understood.’”
Georgia nods. She takes his hand and squeezes it. He can’t remember the last time he’s had the last word.
As she turns onto her side and pulls the blanket up over her shoulder, John says, “Hey, I have to take my car to the mechanic in Shorewood tomorrow after work. The exhaust is really loud, but the muffler looks fine—Steve thinks it might be the manifold. Anyway, could you come and pick me up at the garage about six?”
After Georgia closes her eyes, John tries to read but only ends up staring at her face. The first time he saw her was at a symphony orchestra concert. He was in the lobby of the civic center sipping wine with his brother, Robert, and Robert’s wife, Nancy. John’s program slipped from his fingers, and as he bent to pick it up, he bumped backsides with Georgia, who just happened to bend down at that same moment—to brush a drop of wine from her leather boot, she told him later. It was a perfect slapstick moment, but John wasn’t a fan of slapstick. His face was hot with annoyance as he turned to face Georgia, who was laughing.
“Excuse me! I am so sorry,” she said, laying her hand on his arm, and he stared at her, unable to process the low flute of her voice, her slight overbite. She was wearing a deep red turtleneck and matching lipstick.
“That’s okay,” he said and then stared dumbly at her mouth, hoping she would speak again, that he would be able to think of something that would make her laugh.
Nancy turned toward John and Georgia just then.
“Georgia!” she said. The two women hugged, and Nancy introduced her as the music teacher at Randall Elementary School, where Nancy worked as a nurse.
“You have a very distinctive voice,” John said, feeling a blush run up his neck the moment the words left his mouth. As if she’d never heard that one before.
Georgia laughed, and the sound, like the snap of a hypnotist’s fingers, made him forget how foolish he’d felt.
“Thanks, I think,” she said. “You have very distinctive sideburns.”
The blush began to burn again in his cheeks and forehead. He had been shaving his sideburns a little longer lately, emulating recent pictures in GQ. How long had it been since a girl had made him blush?
The chimes rang, indicating the end of intermission, but John was distracted during the rest of the concert and even at work the next day. On his way home, against his better judgment, against his will, he stopped by Robert and Nancy’s house to see if Nancy had Georgia’s phone number, even though she really didn’t seem like his type.
“She thinks you’re gorgeous,” Nancy said as she paged through her address book.
Women usually responded positively to John, so why was it so difficult for him to believe that Georgia would find him attractive? Why did he feel so stunningly inept?
“I told her how uptight you are, but she didn’t seem to mind,” Nancy said. “God, John, I’m just kidding. Stop looking at me like that.”
“Christ, John, relax,” Robert said from the recliner, where he was drinking a bottle of beer.
It was a refrain Robert had been repeating since the two of them were boys, and John wished he could simply comply, just decide to take life a little less seriously. Initially, Georgia’s presence did seem to relax him. John lay on the sofa in her small apartment, dazed as she played Chopin concertos on her old upright piano or sang “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” over rippling chords. He wanted to know everything about her. He wanted to buy her a baby grand.
But lately the steady pressure of her influence seems to threaten his very identity. Does she want him to be a man who will cater to her every whim, pick up after her, make love to her when he finds the idea repugnant? And what of the reserve, the stability and business sense she said had attracted her to him in the first place? Would she throw those characteristics out the window, the baby with the bathwater? He suspects that she has misrepresented herself, that she has pretended since the beginning to be satisfied with who he is.
Now she lies on her side next to him with one hand folded beneath her chin. There are lines etched from the corners of her mouth, corkscrew curls pointing various directions. The woman he met that night at the symphony wore her hair pulled back in a smooth twist, allowing a silhouette of her straight nose and strong, rounded chin. A woman whose heart melted for the strains of Vivaldi violins.
How can the same woman find it funny to imitate Beavis and Butthead when John happens to say the word “head” or mentions his colleague Dick? Just last week, while they were getting ready for bed, she ground her pelvis against John’s thigh and sang “I Wanna Sex You Up” with a mouthful of toothpaste. And when he frowned down at her, she only laughed harder.
John turns off his lamp and settles onto his back. Then he hears it rising in the dark, the delicate, nearly inaudible snore.
On Tuesday night, John waits nearly thirty minutes before Georgia finally pulls into the miniscule parking lot of the garage. He jerks open the passenger door to find her sobbing behind the wheel. The car reeks of cigarettes. When did she start smoking again? And what on earth is the matter? He recalls a similarly emotional scene a few weeks ago, when Dr. Seuss died.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, unsuccessfully trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. “Do you want me to drive?”
She shakes her head, and reluctantly he gets into the passenger seat.
“Didn’t you hear?” she says in a voice thick and throaty as a French horn. “They confirmed the bastard.”
John barely has a chance to pull his door closed before she forces the long car into a U-turn, her right front bumper nearly hitting a parked car.
“You’re crying because they confirmed Clarence Thomas?” John settles his briefcase between his knees and fastens his seatbelt. Then he notices Georgia is glaring at him through her tears.
“Sorry,” he says, wishing she would watch the road. “I’m just surprised. You weren’t expecting it?”
“How could they put such a person on the Supreme Court?”
How can she be so naïve? Should he explain to her that the confirmation hearings are little more than a formality, that unless the candidate has been killing and eating kittens and babies, he is guaranteed the rubber stamp? It was all just a show, a carnival that even the Wall Street Journal had fallen all over itself to attend. John clutches the door handle as Georgia squeals around a corner on a yellow light. One day she’ll kill them both.
“What a colossal waste of time,” he mutters. “I hope it was worth it for Anita Hill.”
“What?” Georgia breaks too late at a traffic signal, and John slides toward the dashboard.
“Could you please slow down?” he asks. “I said I hope it was worth the money Kennedy’s minions paid Anita Hill.”
“You think she’s lying?”
“Maybe they had a little office flirtation or something. It’s possible. But maybe they didn’t.” John loosens his tie. “My guess is she either made it up or exaggerated the situation.”
“Of course.” Georgia’s voice moves into her throat again. There was a time when they were first dating when she would humor him by reading part of the local newspaper aloud each evening after supper. When had she stopped doing that?
“You can be a real asshole, John,” she says.
“What did I do?”
“Why do you automatically think she’s lying? He’s the one who’s lying, by the way. He has all the reason in the world to lie. She doesn’t. His testimony was so over the top—”
“I read his testimony, and I thought it was quite convincing.”
The traffic light changes, and Georgia stomps down on the gas.
“You heard what John Doggett said about her going-away party,” John continues. “She cornered him and accused him of leading her on when he’d never had the slightest interest in her in the first place.”
Georgia scoffs, “If anyone was getting paid, it was him. Hell, they probably didn’t even have to pay him to get up there and make a fool of himself.” She wipes her nose on the back of her hand.
“What about the other women who testified on his behalf?” John asks. “Maybe she doesn’t even know she’s making it up. Maybe she’s one of those women who thinks every man she comes in contact with is attracted to her. ‘Oh, he looked at me wrong. Oh, he told a dirty joke. Oh, I just got a bad feeling when he was around.’”
“And they’re all lying.
“I said exaggerating.”
“Okay, well what about Angela Wright? What happened to her? Who silenced her?”
“I’m sure she got cold feet after hearing those other women testify. Anita Hill worked for the EEOC, for God’s sake. Are you telling me she didn’t know the proper procedure for filing a sexual harassment claim?”
“Men do this to women every day,” Georgia says. “This is standard operating procedure. You are such a jerk. I can’t even talk to you about this anymore.”
John can’t feel sorry about it. He has imagined paradise more than once as a place with little talking. He is tired of the constant negotiations that come with language, that thicket of thorns. Give him a symphony: resolution in three movements.
At home, they eat in silence. When John joins Georgia in bed, her eyes are closed, though he knows she’s not asleep.
“I need to ride with you tomorrow,” he says to her back.
She says nothing.
At seven-thirty the next morning, John gets into Georgia’s station wagon and waits there fifteen minutes before she comes out of the house. She doesn’t even say goodbye when he gets out of the car outside his office building.
At noon, John calls the garage and learns his car won’t be ready until Thursday. He leaves a message on the answering machine at home asking Georgia to pick him up at 5:30, but she never returns his call. At 5:40, he swivels in his chair toward the windows and scans the street outside half-heartedly for her car, and then he picks up the phone and punches in their number again, wondering how he has come to depend on someone so completely unreliable.
As the phone rings at home, John watches the elms lining the street outside disrobe in the thinning daylight, flooding the gutters with burgundy leaves.
The answering machine finally picks up, and John listens to Georgia’s voice saying, “John and Georgia can’t come to the phone right now, but please leave a—”
He slams the receiver down just as Katherine pokes her head into his office. She flinches.
“I was going to ask if you need me to do anything before I take off,” she says, “but is everything okay?”
John smiles wanly. “I’m not having such a good afternoon.”
“I’m sorry.” Katherine tips her head to the side and her hair shifts, a flutter of burgundy leaves. “Can I ask what’s wrong?”
“Georgia and I are arguing,” John says, though he can’t imagine why he would tell her such a thing. “We’ve been doing that a lot lately.”
He knows he should stop talking, but there’s something urging him forward, the suggestion of intimacy, however false or fleeting. He just wants to feel better.
“You know how when you first fall in love with someone, you love every little thing about them—the way they brush their teeth, the way they tie their shoes or leave their shoelaces flapping, as the case may be.”
Katherine’s laugh is a tinkling, insubstantial sound.
“Then it’s as though you’re sobering up after being drunk, and everything looks different.”
John thinks Katherine probably has no idea what he’s talking about. How much experience can she possibly have? She’s 22 years old, barely graduated from college. He rubs his face with both hands. She stares at him, her lips parted slightly.
“If I’ve been especially hard to work with this last month or so,” he says, “I apologize.”
“Oh, God, no,” Katherine says. “I should be apologizing to you. I’m sure I made your life even more difficult by screwing up the Solis account—”
“Come on, forget about that,” John says, though not a day has passed since then that he hasn’t thought about firing her. “Anyway, sorry for the outburst. Thanks for listening. Oh, could you, before you go, take a look at this fax you gave me earlier? A couple of the lines are smeared. Maybe you can decipher them.”
Katherine walks around to John’s side of the desk and leans over the paper. Her shoulder is only inches from his face, her hair a curtain between them, the skin on her neck and forearms luminous. He’s never seen such skin on a girl.
“Hmm,” she says, bending closer to the desktop.
“What does it say right there?” John asks, leaning in and pointing to the blurred line. There is a vibration in the air between them. Katherine turns slightly to look at him. Her eyes are sherry brown with darker brown starbursts around the irises, and they are open wide—with what? anticipation? surprise? John reaches up and touches her face with his thumb, just to the right of her mouth.
“You’ve got a little pen mark right there,” he says. Then he smiles.
“Oh.” Katherine straightens from the desk and her hand goes to her cheek, which is now bright pink. “Oh, thanks. I—I—can’t make out those lines, either. I’ll—just—call in the morning and have them send it through again. Sorry about that.”
When she reaches the threshold, John says, “Goodnight, Katherine.” His words contain an invitation—to what, exactly, John isn’t certain, but he knows he does not want to go home just yet, knows he does not want to sit in his brother’s living room and endure Robert’s meaningless advice—but if Katherine hears it, she doesn’t acknowledge it, only waves over her shoulder without looking back.
“See you tomorrow, John.”
He catches the city bus home and watches from the window as the trees rush by. The locusts are already bare, their branches black as ink. The maples go in patches, red against the green like a head wound, like an infrared photo of the body’s warmth. He gets off at the corner and walks two blocks home through thousands of leaves. This time of year always smells like burning; white clouds stretch across the darkening sky like the skeletons of fish with the flesh burned away.
He is startled to find Georgia’s car missing from its usual place at the curb. The Capital Times is still lying at the edge of the driveway. Has something happened to her? John scoops up the paper and hurries inside, where the light on the answering machine is blinking with his own undelivered message. There is a note on the dining room table.
Dear John, it begins, and he thinks that perhaps Georgia has left him. His heart beats painfully hard. Would she really leave him over this? I’ve decided to spend a day or two at my mom’s to think things through. I’ll call you. Georgia
What does it mean? John pushes the question away, focusing instead on action. He will drive to Georgia’s mother’s house right now and insist that they talk about it. Maybe he has been too harsh, insensitive even. Would he have said those things about Anita Hill if he hadn’t been so angry?
He will go to her mother’s house and insist on seeing her. But first he should eat something. He goes to the cupboard and finds a can of tomato soup, and as he pours it into the pan, he remembers how, through Georgia, he discovered certain small spontaneities in himself he hadn’t known existed. In the beginning, he would be on his way somewhere—to the grocery store or to meet friends at a bar—and he would end up instead on her doorstep. When she opened the door and found him there, a light appeared behind her eyes.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said soberly one night when she opened the door, and then she laughed, and he walked into that sound and closed the door.
But now she’s angry with him. She probably doesn’t want him coming to her mother’s house without calling first. He’ll try to call her later. Maybe he’ll call his brother. Maybe Nancy will know what he should do.
As the soup warms, John grills a cheese sandwich and then takes his meal and the newspaper to the porch. Next door, Steve and Lynette are working on their yard, as they often do in the evenings, and the light mounted on their garage spills into the room and across the table where John sits. He is distracted by a pressure in his mind like a tide that seems to have the potential to drown him if he doesn’t stem its flow. He reaches out and turns on the radio. The sound of a flute floats out and narrates the shadows, the shush of wind outside. John forces himself to concentrate on the high, sweet sound of it, on the warm salty soup, on the evening headlines, on the image of Katherine’s hair falling across her white neck.
Georgia’s temper will cool, and she’ll come home, and they will come to some agreement about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas—perhaps only that the topic, like capital punishment, belongs on the list of things they can’t discuss without arguing. Afterward, they will fall together on the bed, the light from the hallway gilding Georgia’s skin.
John will not allow himself to consider the other possibilities. He will not think about the film of tears illuminating Georgia’s eyes last night as they ate in silence or the way her body hunched toward the steering wheel this morning as though she were struggling under a great weight, as though John’s presence in the passenger seat made her smaller. He refuses to believe that the bright, fierce insistence in her has dimmed. He thinks instead about how he likes the sound of the flute floating out of the radio and the taste of tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich. He thinks about how he should buy stock in a cellular phone company.
He stares out the window at his neighbor, Steve, who is up on a ladder pounding nails into the back porch. He’s been working on it since the beginning of summer, yet it’s still little more than a frame, bare greenish ribs where the roof should be.