When you’re outdoors at night in a howling gale-force wind, rain whipping into your face, clamping your ancient
Weimaraner between your knees so he won’t blow away, you need someone to reach out to you. Literally, and otherwise. You need your loved ones around you, if indeed you have some. This is all the more true if the power is out everywhere, leaving you and your old dog in perfect blackness, hedged only by the circle of flashlight you used to walk here, to her house. Even the moon is experiencing an outage. So you need something, and you need it to stop screwing around and arrive.
What you need is for Laura to be the one to open the door. You knock. And you wait. And Gary opens the door. You don’t always get what you need.
You’ve never met Gary before but you know damn well who he is. And from the way his body blocks the narrow path of doorway, from the look that crosses his face—though it’s hard to see by just the glow of your flashlight trained to the doormat—you get the uncomfortable feeling that he knows who you are, too. So you assume he has played this scene before. You knew that, somewhere in your gut; still it bothers you to meet him and see for a fact that it’s true.
There’s some land of glow in the house, perhaps a lantern or a candle, which makes you ache all the more to be inside. This is a light place, and you might be safe here. Laura might make you safe, if only you could get to her. If only her husband would let you by.
“I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t an emergency,” you say.
“Who are you,” he asks. He’s still blocking the damn doorway, his pajamas whipped by the wind, rain sailing into his face, newly-wet hair flying, eyes squinted. It occurs to you that he must want badly not to let you in. He’s really braving the elements on the off chance he can still prevent it.
“Kate Feinstein,” you say. “I’m a friend of Laura’s.”
You want to look at his face when you say that, to see how the news settles in, but you are distracted by her voice from inside the glow. Apparently Gary is distracted, too.
“Kate?” That’s what Laura’s voice says.
He turns, allowing the door to open more fully. Allowing more wind and rain to whip into the formerly dry, glowing house. You both look up. Actually, you all three look up. Your dog loves Laura, too.
There she is on the stairs. The ghost. This is not the first you’ve noticed her resemblance to a ghost. She has been ghostlike in your bed in the dark. It’s the hair. She’s all hair, Laura, and it’s all white. Full and wild and down to her waist or below. Must be premature, you always think, because she couldn’t be more than mid-40’s. Well, late 40’s; all right. Well, she could be more; she could be anything. But in the meantime she appears to be only that which she lets you see. In good light she looks less ghostly because of the ruddy skin. The Indian-like skin. Makes her look like an Indian princess now half on her way to crone, but so fully in charge of the process it makes you ache just to look. Now in the glow you can’t see that, just other ghost factors. The eerie glow of light, and the wind you have allowed in. The white full-length nightgown, and the way your wind billows it back. That and the hair, billowing back. Like a ghost in a wind tunnel. She wouldn’t look like all of this if you hadn’t come.
The rain is whipping into her foyer now, and it’s all your fault. Your dog is wriggling between your knees because you’re holding him too tightly. For his own good, but he doesn’t like it. He wants to go in where it’s warm, and get dry, and see her again, and so do you.
Laura descends two more stairs. “Kate,” she says. Like you are the most important person in the world, which is just what you need to be right now. To somebody. One of her hands extends, ghostlike; you want her to hold you, but Gary is still across the door, soaking wet now, apparently a small price to pay to prevent you getting what you want. “Kate, come in and get dry, love. Come in out of the rain.”
Laura has spoken. Gary has no choice but to stand aside.
You hadn’t been in this town long, and you hadn’t been in a small town, really. . .ever. You knew no one here except Donald and Eugene, whose e-mails convinced you this would be a swell place to which to move. You didn’t know how it is in a small town, how everybody knows you, and what you’re up to. Plus you were blissfully but temporarily unaware of other things. You didn’t know that pine trees have short life spans and shallow root systems. That they are known for their tendency to topple when wet and blown. You didn’t know how seriously to take the media hype on El Nino, and you’d never met Laura. Looking back to that time, you must have known some things, but you can no longer recreate what things they were.
You attended a Christmas open house at Donald and Eugene’s. They had the ten-foot tree with a mountain of wrapped gifts beneath, the house decked out in red and green. The spiral-cut honey baked ham. A former Broadway actor and singer playing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on a grand piano. It might almost have been sweetly traditional if 90 percent of the guests had not been gay.
You’d already been to a couple of AA meetings in this new town, and someone had told you that Donald was in the program, though you hadn’t bumped into him there. And you hadn’t known that about him, but then you didn’t know Donald and Eugene all that well. At least you thought it was Donald this someone had referred to. And you thought so even more strongly when he put an arm around your shoulder to offer you a drink, and said, “The eggnog is non-alcoholic.”
So you followed him into the kitchen, where a pretty, young, obviously gay man—hired as a waiter for the evening—arranged a tray of spinach canapes in puff pastry to circulate among the guests. You followed Donald into the kitchen because you knew him, because you needed to know somebody there. And you asked him if he was a friend of Bill W.’s. But you knew right off he wasn’t, because he called Eugene over from the oven and said, “Gene, do we know somebody named Bill W, ?”
Eugene laughed and said he’d explain it to him later, and then you knew it was Eugene. Eugene was in the program. And then you felt a little better because now you knew that about each other.
Later you clustered around the Christmas tree with them, and with a striking woman with a shock—no a mass, no a waterfall—of white hair, conversing just loudly enough to be heard over the piano and the caroling. Eugene explained to Donald what that meant. The kind of signal it is, when you ask someone if he knows Bill W. And Donald laughed and made reference to “knowing Dorothy,” which was a new one on you; nobody really explained it, either, but it seemed clear in context that if you know Dorothy, it means you’re gay.
And meanwhile this woman, she’d taken some sort of interest in you, which made you a bit vigilant. You were not the only straight person there, but it was an interesting lesson on life in the minority. And though you were not exactly flummoxed by this woman’s attention, you did begin to fast-forward in your head to the time in the evening you might need to address it, correct her assumption about you. Then you noticed she wore a wedding ring, a traditional set with a diamond engagement ring and a gold band, which confused you. Because the ring and her focus on you—her sort of figurative leaning into you—represented two halves of a reality which added up to a whole you couldn’t understand. So you felt one had to be false, yet there they both were. And you didn’t like thinking about things that left you confused like that, still don’t, never have. So you stopped thinking.
Later you stood out on the upstairs patio, looking, from what seemed like miles above the scene, at the creek spilling into the ocean. And she came out and stood with you, just like you knew she would. You surprised yourself a little, didn’t you, when you realized you knew she would? Then you wondered whether you’d wanted her to, somehow invited her to, but you couldn’t imagine how. Or why. Curiosity, maybe. Just to sort it all out. But it didn’t feel like that; it felt like you’d courted the attention and now here it was, leaving you wondering what to do with it. How many times in your life had you invited something, and then gotten it, and then wondered what to do with it?
You opened your mouth to offer some kind of small talk, but never got that far. You knew you should have known better. She doesn’t do small talk, and you shouldn’t either.
“So, do you?” she asked. And you had no idea “do you” what.
“Do I what?” you said.
And she said, “Know Dorothy.”
It occurred to you then that you might have practiced more. Brought more mental preparation to the moment, since you knew damn well it was coming. Because the way it played out, you came off flustered, which undermined your intention to prove her incorrect.
“Who, me?” you said. “No. No, no. Not me. No.” You listened to yourself, critiquing as you went along, knowing one “no” means no, three or four mean you’re on the defensive for some reason. So you tried to patch it over by saying even more. “Me, no, I suppose I’ve led a bit of a sheltered life. I haven’t met Dorothy. No.”
She leaned in a little closer before she answered you, and you felt it coming, and it was already too late. You couldn’t guess what her exact words would be, but you felt what you’d incited. You had done something to allow her to say what she said next to you, or at very least, failed to do something which might have prevented it. But what any of those somethings were lay beyond your reach, lie beyond your reach to this very day. So your helplessness was not merely complete but ongoing.
She said it to you because you let her.
“I could introduce you.”
You left the door open just a crack, knowing even then that she is not the sort of woman who waits patiently in the hall.
Gary says, “I suppose your dog could sleep in the garage.”
But of course you know he can’t. He’s too old and arthritic, and he’ll howl if he doesn’t know where you are. If he can’t stay with you, you can’t stay here. So you’ll have to walk farther in the storm, only that’s not good for Tully, either. Maybe you could sleep in the garage with him. Then you remember what just happened to your own garage, and you realize that sleep is not even on the menu for tonight. You stand in the foyer, still holding Tully between your knees, holding his head so he won’t shake off. Laura reappears with a stack of towels, one for your dog, two or three for you.
You say, “Maybe you could drive me to a hotel, then. Or call me a cab? Do we have cabs in this town?” It makes you feel so inadequate, not to know. It makes you feel so helpless to suddenly lose your electricity, your phone, and your car. It makes you feel so helpless to be so helpless.
“What’s this, then?” Laura says, looking to Gary to see what he’s done to you.
“My dog is old,” you say by way of explanation. “He needs to stay warm. I need to keep him with me.”
“Well, of course he’ll be with you,” Laura says. “You can sleep in the guest room. I’ll make him a nice comfortable bed on the rug.”
“The cats,” Gary says.
“My dog is too old to chase cats.” You let the poor guy out from between your knees finally. Tent a towel over him and let him shake off into it. Then he unbalances himself, because his back legs and hips are not too steady. He falls into an off-kilter sit, nicely proving your point.
“He’ll be fine, Gary,” Laura says, and Gary goes upstairs.
Laura draws you a hot bath with bubbles. She lights candles in the bathroom. The windows steam as she towels your hair. You think it might be possible to get warm again. The bathroom door is open a crack for Tully to see in, to trust that he knows where you are. But it works both ways; you can see him, too, his boxy, gun-metal gray face poking in, his eyes blinking, his ears draped on the linoleum, and it makes you feel warmer.
You peel off your clothes, which are wet even though you wore your slicker. And you leave them in a wet, cold pile and climb into the steaming hot water and lean back and close your eyes. Laura sits on the floor on the bath mat, one hand trailing into your bath water. Trailing against your now-warm thigh. You wonder where Gary is now; what are the chances of him coming down here? You want to worry about that, but you can’t hold your worry there for long.
You tell Laura everything. You tell her about the pine tree that crashed down on your deck. How you tried to look out to see the damage it had done, but there were no street lights, no moon. The flashlight couldn’t show enough. Masses of pine needles. A splintered railing. And the breakfast room was starting to rain; that and the noise told you it was settling, pulling the deck away from the house. You tell her how afraid you were that next time it settled it might pull that whole room off your rented house. So you got in the car to go. But the garage door wouldn’t open, not even manually. So you and Tully walked around the front and saw the second downed tree, the one that clipped the corner of the garage, buckled it and bent the garage door. Its trunk lay blocking your driveway anyway, so it didn’t much matter whether you could open the garage or not. You tell her you would have gone to a motel if you had any way of getting there, but the phone lines were down—
She won’t let you continue. She places a finger in front of your lips, holds your apologies captive there while she tells you, “Don’t you dare think of coming anywhere but here. I wouldn’t hear of it.”
Then for long while you don’t talk, either one of you, which feels better.
Laura changes her mind about the guest room. “You’ll freeze,” she says. “Our heater is gas but the thermostat is electric. That’s why we have the wood stove going.” Which is why the house glows. You like her house glowing, but you wish she’d stop saying “our” and “we.”
Together you pull the futon pad off onto the floor. Pull it over near the stove. Tully climbs onto it and Laura says nothing about that, so you don’t, either. You’re wearing a nightgown that smells like her, but you can’t tell if it’s a subtle perfume, or a soap, or just her. But you know Laura when you smell her. You lie down, listening to the wind howl and whistle, and she brings blankets, and covers you. And covers your dog.
She lies down beside you, and you think again about Gary upstairs; this time your worry sticks, right on that place. So you say it out loud. Just that one word. “Gary.”
“He won’t come down,” she says. You are about to ask why not, how she can be so sure he won’t, but as usual she gives you no time to travel there. “He doesn’t want to know.”
So now you know for sure that he knows. Because you have to know something before you can know that you don’t want to know it. While you’re thinking about this, a long-haired black cat walks into the room, spots Tully, arches his back and freezes that way, hissing. Tully does what Tully always does. Nothing. Other than to wag his stumpy tail against the blanket.
While you’re watching this happen, still half thinking about Gary, where he is and what he knows, you feel her lips brush sensitive places on your neck. Laura knows where to find those places, too. She knew where to look that very first night. By now she has them charted, memorized, prioritized. You want to push her away, because of Gary, but you don’t push her away, because you don’t want to. So instead you weave your hands into all that amazing hair and admit to yourself that you sought this out tonight, came here for precisely this reason.
Then Tully looks up, which makes Laura look up, and you hate to feel left out, so you look up, too. Gary is standing in the living room, looking down on all three of you, a glass of milk in one hand, a small plate in the other. You can’t see what’s on the plate because he’s above you. But you hope there’s really something on the plate. You hope he really came down to make himself real food, not just to come down. Not because he really does want to know.
You can see his face surprisingly well in the firelight, and you expect it to be hard, or cold, or angry, or forbidding, or shocked. No, not shocked. You knew he wouldn’t be that. But he doesn’t appear to be any of it. It’s almost as if it’s gone too far for all that. As if it’s too late to feel all that now.
He says only two words, and he says them in a voice both quiet and polite, but you can’t get those two words out of your head. Already you know they’ll keep you awake all night, and in the morning you’ll lie and say it was the wind. But it will have been those two words.
What he says is, “Excuse me.”
Then he goes back upstairs.
In the morning you open your eyes, surprised because you slept. Surprised that the wind let you sleep. Not to mention those words. You lie still a moment, stroking Tully’s silky gray ears. You look up to see Laura looking in from the kitchen at you. Then you remember that she followed him upstairs last night. Left you and went up after him, and you were amazed at how much that hurt you. And now, looking back, you’re amazed at how much it still hurts you now.
“Good, you’re awake,” she says. “Don’t be startled if you hear me shouting.” She disappears again. She begins shouting, and it startles you. “Get out!” she screams. “You’re not welcome here! Get the hell out of my house!” Tully’s head snaps up. A calico cat skitters out of the kitchen, spots Tully, panics, and runs upstairs. You wait, frozen, wondering what you’re supposed to do. Laura sticks her head out again and smiles at you. “You’re startled,” she says. She seems disappointed in you, which is the last thing you want Laura to be. “I told you not to be.”
“Who are you shouting at?”
“Is it ant season?”
“No. It’s the damnedest thing. Isn’t this weather bizarre? There’s coffee.”
Now she is gone again. You look out the window, and notice it’s not raining. The wind has died off. You get up and stretch, and wish you had something to wear besides this nightgown; you don’t wear nightgowns, and it doesn’t feel right on you. Then you look down at the end of the futon pad and see your clothes—your jeans, and the big dark red corduroy shirt you appropriated from your ex-husband—clean and dry and fluffy and folded, waiting for you. So you put them on. Right there in the living room. As you do you wonder yet again where Gary is, but it doesn’t seem like he could possibly walk in on anything more revealing than he already has.
He said excuse me.
You join Laura in the kitchen, tell her you’d love coffee, but of course she’s already poured you a big mug. In fact, it has a nice amount of half-and-half in it, and you struggle for some memory of ever having told her how you take your coffee. It’s too early for this. You sit down. She’s wiping the counters, still in her nightgown, her solid hips rocking against the thin fabric. A light scatter of ants dash around near her sink, but they appear disorganized, as though they were just leaving.
“Do they leave when you yell at them?”
“Usually. I guess they don’t want to be out in this weather any more than we do.”
Tully bumps hard into your knee and then plunks down with a sigh. He’s so old, poor Tully. You just know he’s going to go off and leave you soon. Then what will you have? You look back up at Laura.
“Where’s Gary?” Excuse me. That’s what he said.
“He went over to your house.”
“Yes, he took his chainsaw and drove over.”
For a moment you have a vision of him wreaking vengeance on your innocent house with his chainsaw. “Why did he do that?”
“I asked him to.”
You realize, to your disappointment, that you can’t stay here with her. You want to, but you can’t. You have to go home and assess your damages. You have to report your phone lines down, call your landlord. You have to see in the daylight how you’ll ever get your car out of the garage. And, in the midst of all this, you have to face Gary.
Gary, holding a chainsaw.
He doesn’t stop when you and Tully walk up. Maybe he doesn’t see you. Or maybe he sees you, but he just doesn’t stop. He certainly couldn’t have heard you come up, not over the roar of that chainsaw. The weather is damp, chilly, but sunny and calm. A downed power line drapes partway across the street; you cut a wide arc around it and force Tully to do the same, though you doubt it’s live. He’s cutting up the tree that lies across your driveway. Slicing it into rounds and then moving the rounds off onto your lawn. Both your lawn and your driveway are now blanketed with pine needles and damp sawdust. He looks up at you, but still doesn’t stop.
This is the first you’ve seen him in broad daylight, and he’s not what you were expecting somehow. You wonder if he’d say the same of you. He’s younger than you thought. Younger than her, like yourself. He looks a bit rough, like a tradesman, like someone who would work construction. Like someone who is right at home cutting up a fallen tree with a chainsaw. Maybe you expected him to be more intellectual. Maybe you are surprised that she is married to a man who works with his hands. Maybe you are thinking all this to avoid thinking that you are still surprised she is married to a man.
You move close to him, within a foot or two, close enough to be heard over the chainsaw. It feels like a direct gamble with your safety and well-being but you do it anyway.
“Gary,” you say. Nice and loud.
He cuts the power on the chainsaw. The silence resonates, bounces off pine trees, echoes out through the woods. He’s wearing clear plastic goggles, and he raises them, as if he can’t hear with them on. But he doesn’t seem interested in hearing.
“Good, you’re here,” he says. “Grab the other end of that limb.”
You do. And you work together like that for five, ten minutes, during which you do not find the nerve to address him again.
A pair of your neighbors strolls by. An older couple. They have a poodle on a leash, and Tully rambles unsteadily out into the street to sniff at it. “Is he friendly?” they call.
You nod, because you’ve lost the feel for talking.
“My, you really took some damage,” the wife says. “Wasn’t that a lulu?” the husband adds. “Been in this town 30 years, never saw anything like it.” You get the impression that they have come out walking for just this reason: because there is damage everywhere, and they want to see it and comment.
Enamored with their poodle, Tully tries to follow them away. You call his name sharply and he lumbers back to you. Then, having found your voice again, you say, “Gary. I—”
“Tully,” he says, “I used to work with a guy named Tully. Built a house three streets over from here with him. What made you name your dog Tully?”
You explain to him that your dog’s name is actually Jethro Tull, and that he will respond to any or all parts of that name, but you rarely call him Jethro, for fear that people will think you are a fan of—rather than the immortal rock band—the Beverly Hillbillies. Gary nods thoughtfully, as if this requires deep consideration.
This time you’ve only just opened your mouth to speak, haven’t even gotten to the “Gary” part yet, when he overspeaks you. “Unlock the front door, and I’ll go through and see if I can open your garage door. I doubt it, though. I think you’ll have to have it taken out.”
The landlord will have to have it taken out, you think. The joys of a rented home.
You let him in, but don’t immediately follow. Instead you stand outside surveying the house for a minute or two. You look closely at the corner of the garage, which is structurally damaged, cracked and slightly buckled. You wonder if a new door can be installed in this mess. Then you let that be the landlord’s problem.
You find Gary inside the garage. It’s nicely dim in there, which seems to help.
“Gary—” you say.
“No luck on this. Sorry. I tried. I’m going out on your back deck, and I’m going to cut up as much of that tree as I can and throw it into the lot behind you. The more weight I can take off for now the better.” He brushes by you and disappears.
You stand frozen a moment too long, one hand on the roof of your useless car. Then you realize you don’t know where Tully is, so you go through the house looking. He’s in the breakfast room, watching Gary set up on your back deck. Watching him break branches away to make a spot to stand. You watch, too, for a while. You watch his hands, which look broad and square and rough, and you try to imagine them on her full, soft-yet-solid body. But you soon realize that you not only can’t imagine that, you want badly not to.
Excuse me. As if he were the one to be forgiven.
You decide that to say “Gary” again would be a mistake. You decide to say something different and fast, and then go away and leave him alone, because he so wants you to, and he’s asked so nicely so many times.
“It’s nice of you to do this,” you say, before he even knows you’re behind him.
“Laura asked me to.”
You wonder, briefly, why people always do what Laura asks them to. You know they do, but you wonder why. You wonder whether, if Laura asked you to do something nice for Gary, something you didn’t want to do, didn’t feel you owed it to him to do, would you?
While you’re wondering this, Gary says, “Did you call telephone repair service? Before you left our house?”
“No. I didn’t.” You’re ashamed to admit you planned to come back here and do it, because you’re so used to having utilities, you just couldn’t make the mental jump into understanding that you currently don’t. “I’ll go do that now.”
You leave Tully home, to keep Gary company, and you know Gary won’t mind. Because Tully won’t say Gary’s name in that tone that alerts him of more information to follow.
The phone company keeps you on hold for a long time, during which Laura stands over you combing her fingers through your hair, firmly massaging your scalp. It feels wonderful, yet it seems essential you not admit or even betray that. The music they play while you hold is beginning to irritate you.
“What about the fact that you’re hurting him?” you say. You expect her hands to leave your hair, but they don’t. They don’t even stop massaging. You can’t throw Laura off her stride.
“I didn’t realize his interests were yours.”
Neither did you. And you don’t know if you’ve suddenly discovered that you do care about him, or if that was only a diversionary tactic.
“What about the fact that you’re hurting me?” you say, which seems more to the point,
“I didn’t know I was.”
“You think I don’t have feelings?”
“I thought you weren’t taking this all that seriously.”
You might have thought that yourself, for a minute. Early on. But it was a ludicrous minute, anyway. “If you’re gay, what are you doing with him?”
Without missing a beat, without taking her hands out of your hair, she says, “If you’re straight, what are you doing with me?”
Of course, you just hate it when she answers a question with another question, and you tell her so, in no uncertain terms.
But she says, “No.” She says, “No, what you really hate is when I ask questions you have no answers for.”
And she’s maddeningly correct, as always. Well, it’s both. But it’s true you have no answer for that. And, really, you’ve asked yourself the question a lot lately. You would think that, however rudimentary, you’d have dredged up some sort of theory by now.
A real voice comes on the line, so you report your phone trouble. You want to tell the woman all my lines are down, all over my life, come fix me, but you know she only cares about your phone service. While you’re talking, Laura apparently grows bored by the digression, and wanders off into the kitchen.
When you’ve hung up the phone, you sit still a moment with all your irritation, and it’s so damn familiar. Such a familiar frustration. It’s the familiarity that jogs you to see. It’s that successful jigsaw puzzle feeling, like finally remembering where you’ve met someone before. You follow Laura’s path into the kitchen. She’s wiping her counters again; about six ants still haven’t left, so you brace yourself in case she’s about to shout at them.
“I do know the answer to that question,” you say.
“Yes. So do I.” You want her to be wrong, to strike way out in left field, but of course she beans you a direct hit. “You thought it would be completely different, almost by design. That you couldn’t possibly find yourself right back in the same pattern of relationship again.”
She looks over her shoulder and smiles at you, a little sadly, you think. Then she sweeps over to put her arms around you, and the whole time she’s sweeping you think, I’m not going to let her hold me, but then, when she arrives, you do. You even hold her in reply.
But it’s really not very different. Is it?
You want to tell her the only real difference—as far as you can see—is that the sex makes you feel inept. Even though you’ve only had a small handful of instances by which to judge. You want to tell her that you shouldn’t have to lose your virginity twice, that it was hard enough to learn how to please a man, that you’re a grown woman and this sudden rookie status demeans you. But you don’t tell her any of that. In fact, you don’t tell her anything. She tells you.
She says, “Okay. I’m not going to hold you in something that isn’t working for you.”
But you want her to hold you. You hate this part. There’s the letting go, and then, ten times worse, the being let go of. This is another obvious repetition of pattern: she’s right, this isn’t working, you have no future here together, but you still don’t want to be let go. That’s the part that feels like dying.
You let go, take a step back from her. You made it through your divorce, and you didn’t die, did you? So that feeling is not exactly what it seems.
You walk home, hoping Gary will be gone now.
You get your wish. He is. Sometimes you get what you need.
At least now, next time someone asks if you’ve met this Dorothy person, you won’t be caught all vulnerable and stupid. You’ll be able to say, hey, I wasn’t just dropped on this planet yesterday. I know a few things.
But no one ever asks you that again. Maybe because you never invite anyone to.