As If We Were Driving Somewhere
By Catherine Baab
When I realized I really was going to leave Ralph, I went out and bought him the video game system he'd been pining for all that time we'd been living together. The cashier at the Toys R' Us in Charlotte tugged the box into one of those stiff, crackly plastic bags. She asked, "Little brother? Cousin? Nephew?" In our living room, Ralph danced and hugged the sleek machine to his chest. I sat on the couch marking passages in a novel, thick pencil lines like train tracks under the sentences. Ralph crouched on the floor in back of the TV, wires looping across his shoulders and round his ankles. Every few minutes he'd disentangle himself from the cables, appear at my side, wrap his arms round my neck, whisper in tones of hushed delight, "The instructions are in Japanese." His breath was warm against my ear; his eyes were wide when I turned to look at him. There was no trace of suspicion in his happiness.
Two years before, his parents came into town to help us move in. They had a quality of powerful normality that preceded their actual arrival: when I couldn't sleep, Ralph told stories of his Dad's adventures in the cat food business, about his Mother's second graders and her tennis club. Once in Barksdale, his folks—what he called them—signed a lot of checks, stocked our freezer with wholesome readymade meals. Ever solicitous, ever cheerful, full of that utterly honest Midwestern good nature, his mother lugged boxes of books and records up three flights. We kept passing each other on the stairs, me climbing with a lamp in one hand, she descending with mops and dustpans. "Everybody does their part," she chirped. Which I took to mean Ralph had explained my opinions about organized religion and that I had been adopted by a pair of anthropologists at a tender age. "Ee ee ee," I wanted to swing from the rafters and scratch my armpits, or chomp a banana in front of them while hopping from one hairy foot to the other.
Now they would never be my in-laws. Now I was regarding their sweet, sweet son from their old taupe leather couch with a detachment I had been cultivating for some time. Whenever I'd imagined marrying Ralph, it was all driving new Volkswagen Jettas and trotting through furniture stores in running shoes, eyeing taupe ottomans. Well, no more of that.
"Ralph, I'm going out for cigarettes."
"Okay," he turns and says, not shutting his mouth again, his eyes seeing or not seeing the full pack there on the coffee table.
An all-natural air freshener dangles from the rearview; my Dad has been visiting my car again. At the gas station, I approach the counter and Kwame reaches for my brand in the overhead rack. We have been at this so long we don't bother chatting. His expression is one of pathos, typical of younger black men who were not born in Barksdale but arrived here sooner or later, somehow or another.
On the way to Ray's, the landscaping ends and the quality of the road declines. Bodies of dogs and possums replace the streetlamps. From several hundred yards off, I see an accident, who is involved, though it's difficult to tell what's happened exactly. The redhead hippie who lived in my sophomore dorm sways a little back and forth, her hand raised as if to accept something, her palm pink and open. Her BMW is pulled onto the grass shoulder behind a pick-up. An old man in a wide-brimmed baseball cap is in conference with the state trooper a few feet away from the girl. She used to hotbox her room, sew moccasins all night and explain in a distracted voice, "It's so...vulgar...to matriculate." She'd leave campus for weeks at a time, visiting her boyfriend who went to Duke. When I pass them, she smiles and waves at me, and my leg jigs a little on the gas.
The next few miles blur. Then I'm pulling into Ray's long driveway with my eyes closed and the car's in neutral, just rolling toward Ray's house. I see red taillights of cars stretching into the dark like when I left Charlotte during rush hour last week. Everybody's going somewhere, I think. Everybody should be able to go where they want.
We light cigarettes with long fireplace matches, shaking out the blue fizz till the smoke winds off, pools gray on the ceiling. His crooked grin is on view over the top of his beer. I had to pull him out of that creek behind his place, where he's been doing some fool thing like getting his toes bitten off by crawfish, and now I begrudge him that gesture. I got dragged into his affectation, bitten by its mosquitoes. Now, sitting on the couch inside, both of us are still dazed from all that sunlight, too annoyed and too lazy to make a grab, and the window on that shuts, as if it were a real window, and the air inside his house gets thick and hot. He holds the bottle to his chest and crows about growing up in Alabamy, hunting crawfish in the creek behind his uncle's house and chasing rattlers through rows of corn. Ray's from Connecticut and prep schools. He's a grad student here and really, not very bright.
"Choppin' wood, eatin' church dinner on the ground," he says.
"Oh, that fried chicken jus' fell off the bone," I call, opening the fridge. I bring the twelve-pack back to the couch with me. We sit on the couch together, our knees forward, as if we were driving somewhere.
"Why not just get a haircut, for Christ's sake, if you want a change so bad?" was what my mother said, this morning on the phone. "There's nothing wrong in it, sleeping with people, you know, except the deceit." She's always been very interested in and approving of whatever I did, which is probably why I keep her informed, but she has annoyingly, repeatedly stated a preference for honesty. As when, in her oft-cited example, her first husband turned out to be gay. When he was ready to tell her, he came to her and told her honestly. They are still the best of friends. Sometimes we vacation with him and his partner. My Mom, my Dad, her first husband, his partner, Doug, an accomplished opera singer, and me. Last year we all enjoyed Venezuela. Once, too, I almost had a Congolese little brother who would have joined in on all that, but for some reason or another he never materialized.
"Did you ever see that movie, Mom, Night of the Hunter?" I asked her. "Robert Mitchum, Lillian Russell, 1955. Anyway, you know the tattoos on his knuckles? 'LOVE' on one hand, 'HATE' on the other? And how he does that wrestling act with them and—"
Eager, she cut right in. "Is this your way of telling me you are swinging between those twin post-adolescent poles of affection and disaffection? You are at the right age, now experienced in the ways of love, and exploring cultural expectations of—"
"Answer the question."
"I'm not in Film Studies. But yeah, maybe a while ago." Mom's sigh then was two-part as she switched the phone from one ear to the other. I began to suspect then that she was taking notes, and that I should never have told her anything.
"Ee ee ee!" I shout in Ray's living room.
"That's right, honey," he says, and makes his grab. We have drunk all the beer. He's like one of those red fluid-filled birds, tipping on its beak.
"Get off. I loathe you," I say, but don't move, so that his tongue swipes along my jaw. I turn away from him, so his face is in my hair and his left hand's tickling my armpit. The first boy who kissed me laughed after he did it. Rocked back on his heels, and laughed at me. He was one of my Dad's grad students. We were standing on the front porch while one of my parents' wine parties carried on inside. I was fifteen, I never told my Mom, and now it seems crucial: all those boys kissing me and walking away. Now I start laughing. Now I start crying, and can't stop. Ray sits back up, runs his hand through his hair.
"What the hell is so funny? What's the matter?" he demands.
My face is hot, wet against my palms. I hate him and I hate me. I whisper, "It's important to remember that before American Idol, there was Billy Idol." It's a quote from one of Ralph's papers. It was for his philosophy of popular music class. At the time I had thought it demonstrated a dangerous literalism. Oh Ralph! I think of his family photo tacked on our fridge: his mother in awful glasses, his father's meaty hand on his sister's shoulder, all of them smiling, wearing red turtlenecks from the Lands' End catalogue. A happy family, a Christmas with cookies and stockings and church; all I'd said was "now we don our gay apparel," under my breath when I saw it, and Ralph had seemed hurt.
"You're a terrible snob," he yelled, without thinking.
"I am not!" I yelled back. "It's just that I have a taste for the finer things." Now I can see that that was something of an evasion. How can he love me? I am an awful, sneering, adopted sort of person. Really, I should have grown up in a trailer, eating eight-for-a-dollar Ramen, fetching beers from the fridge for my teen Mom's deadbeat boyfriend. I shouldn't be in college, working on my thesis—I should be in a tube top, in a Cutlass. Even if I'd never been told I was adopted—though of course I was told it, just as I was informed about everything else, in keeping with the policy of honesty and openness; you'll understand I was taught the proper anatomical name for my genitalia, right from the start—I would have pieced it together eventually. I'm not that dull. Perhaps I was dealt a crap genetic hand, but I was raised on Kashi and mueslix and flown-in sashimi. Anyway, I would have known I was adopted because I have the trademark Flintstone feet. Don't ask me why, but all adopted kids have them. Big rough toes, prone to spread. I've also got the brown-black eyes and hair that suggest some Indian (Native American, that is) blood, the poor-white-trash dead giveaway. On me, these features look bohemian. I wear gold ballet slippers, silver bangles, my hair long and loose. The fatal thing is that I have brought my trailer park promiscuity and opportunism to this milieu, where innocent guys like Ralph (not to imply he's a typical Barksdale student, quite the contrary, a real gem, utterly genuine, a diamond) have been sent by their naive, yes, dreadfully naive families.
Ray didn't hear me. "What's the matter? What did you say?"
"Just leave me, leave me alone," I sob.
"Yeah, well, it's my house," he says finally. But he gets up and leaves the room and after a minute I hear the shower start.
With my head between my knees, my forehead on the edge of the coffee table, I can see a few inches under the couch, pennies and hairballs and cigarette butts and half-crushed cans of Pabst and leather-working tools, all his silly attempts to be working class. Ray's world, maybe, but not mine anymore. In the bathroom, behind the shower curtain with its fading tropical fish, he's shampooing his hair, quite vigorously. I wash my face in the sink, rub my face on his skimpy gray towel.
"Hey," I say. "I'm leaving now. I'm not coming back."
"You weren't invited in the first place. Fuck off and die."
"Fuck off and die," I repeat after him. It's a slow, sad handshake. Like, "It's not goodbye, it's see you later." Not "fuck off," but "fuck off and die."
"Wait a sec." He turns to face me, but a puckering clown fish obscures his features. "You sure you can drive?"
Because I am going home, where I belong, I don't slam the porch door. I don't make scenes. I do stumble slightly, going down the stairs, opening my car door. The ignition turns, the engine revs. Dad's air freshener swings jauntily, a charm that makes the dead animals reappear, that keeps the state troopers away.
Suddenly it all becomes so clear I nearly veer off the road. I will make something for Ralph, my honest, yet deceived man. Perhaps brownies. The smell of baking will fill our apartment. We will drink not beer or wine, but whole milk, and we'll eat the brownies warm from the pan. We will lie down, full. We'll make love then and maybe take a nap. I will nourish him and love him, and afterwards, I will listen to whatever he finds worth saying. I'll not judge him. This time I'll not fall asleep till he's finished talking. One evening of endless, perfect tenderness. Endless because if we can have one, others might follow. Perfect because it might be endless.
But I can't go into a grocery store like this, swamp-eyed, drunk. And the little organic place near my Mom and Dad's, in their planned community, Kentlands, closed down (now the neat brick paths lead to vacant storefronts), because hiring has ceased and enrollment is down. There's been a serious decline in the Ivy League run-off, always crucial to our numbers, for reasons much too trite to delve into here (couple of scheming trustees, Kofi Annan's visit, a muckraking Charlotte reporter, etc). And I know all the baggers in the Piggly Wiggly in town: sneering, pierced teenagers in need of dental work and psychotherapy who unnerve me even when I'm sober.
I almost miss the gas station, step quick on the brake. All roads lead back to Kwame and his silent ways, I think, just as they should in this part of the world. The rest of us are imposters. We don't belong.
Inside the lights are off. The muzak, too. Only the video poker machine lives on, flashing straights, flushes, and four-of-a-kind, revealing in the dimness that the office door is ajar. Laughter tinkles beyond it, and the een-een of the nightcrawlers in their tub with a mesh lid. I pause for a moment, wondering whether I should. Then I wander back. Behind the store, it's a fairly erotic scene. Kwame and the hippie are sitting on a wooden packing crate, so close together that their knees are touching, smoking a giant spliff. He's just said something to her, and she's laughing at whatever it was, her eyes half closed. Her peasant top's loose around her shoulders, its ties dangling, and I can see in the twilight the freckles at the tops of her breasts, lit by the milky pale spaces between. Her feet are bare, too. Neat little toes with pearly paint on them.
"Where's your car?" I ask her, deciding instantly that I will do what Ralph would do, the Midwestern thing.
"Oh...Jesus. I think they impounded it."
"The trooper dropped you here?"
"How come you didn't get arrested?"
"Hell," she shrugs and grins. Her teeth are impossibly white and straight: veneers.
"Hey," says Kwame, his face losing all expression. He points to the box of Rice Krispies in my hand. "You gotta purchase that." But he adds, "They're probably stale," the most he's said to me in quite some time.
"Keep it," she tells him, indicating the spliff. The hippie gathers her moccasins from the dusky dirt. We leave Kwame there on the crate, skirt the store, climb into my Honda.
"Just drop me at my studio," she yawns. We turn corners toward what is not a garden apartment but the place where she paints, or pretends to. "Want to come in for a beer?"
"Thanks, no. My guy's waiting," I tell her.
"Let him wait."
"Oh, I'd rather not. He comes from a very punctual tribe."
"African or something?"
"No. He's from somewhere like the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Or Idaho. Where the wheat and corn grow. Home on the range. His name is Ralph."
"Ralph Wise?" She perks up the slightest bit. He is rather attractive. Hot, even, in his goofy fashion. "Is he a philosophy major?"
"Yes," I say. "We live together."
"Him? Christ. Probably... doesn't know the difference between...a guru and a gyro."
I understand immediately that the hippie is jealous, not merely bored. Pride floods me, and my smile is so big and sudden and earnest that for the first second it hurts.
"Yeah, I know." Maybe I'll marry him in the Catholic Church, and move with him back to Boise or St. Paul. Our children will have his wide eyes and his accent. I'll refrain from a PhD, and after a while I'll be as naive as anybody else.
But for the moment I know fully and absolutely that when I get home, he'll be sitting in the glow of imported entertainment, in awe, just where I left him. He'll turn to look at me as I come in the door; he has heard me on the stairs.
"My darling," I will tell him, "I am going to make you a bowl of cereal." I will hold up the box like one of those blondes on The Price is Right, running my hand along the top and side. I won't tell him about the cashier in Charlotte, or the nightcrawlers, or the hippie, my whole epic battle to return to him like this, just brimming with love and devotion.
He'll nod, recognizing the gesture. No doubt his mother watched the show all throughout his far-off, happy childhood. "Oh, good." His voice will trail off then as he turns back to the screen, as he says, "I was getting hungry."QLRS Vol. 8 No. 2 Apr 2009