Ben told me that the top floor of the Sears Tower moves anywhere from seven to thirteen inches in a good ripping wind. On the day we visited, riding the elevator up and down because going up just once seemed ungrateful, I read all the plaques on the observation deck. We stood looking out over the square concrete blocks veined with interstate and I thought of ants on a Lego farm. Ben said he thought of Godzilla. Eight shades of blue lapped like spools of ribbon out into the lake. On a clear day, the signage said, you can see all the way to Michigan.
I suppose a building could move that much. But secretlyI’m convinced of thisthese skyscrapers don’t want us to believe in them. They can only take so much pressure. One day they’ll decide to give up, let the top floors snap off and crash into the streets where the winds howl like an El train gone mad. The day my mother tells me is a ten-incher, by my guess. Women clutch their skirts to their knees and leaves from the Tribune skirl against a grainy sky. I can see it in my mind, in slow-action black and white, the observation deck cracking, toppling, plummeting onto the steps of the courtyard right as I’m walking across it. I would dash under the shadow to grab for a small child and be pinned beneath the debris. Spectators would clap hands to their mouths in shock and horror. My officemates would declare a day off for grief. My mother would dab her eyes. “Lucy was always my sweet one,” she’d say, though she has no other children.
“It’s just the way it’s built,” Ben had said as we stood at the summit of the Windy City, watching traffic back up on Lakeshore Drive. “The girders are designed to give against the stress.” He pressed his nose against the observation window, leaving an obnoxious smear.
“There’s no such thing as flexible steel,” I said. “That’s against nature.” I thought I could feel the building sway. In the plunging tube of the elevator I’d careened on my feet and Ben propped one careless shoulder against me. In the gift shop I looked sidewise at him through key chains and waited for him to turn to me, the light glinting meaningfully off his glasses, and say, you have the most beautiful teeth I have ever seen. You don’t know what your teeth do to me.
“My mother’s afraid of heights,” I’d said, though I couldn’t think of a single other thing she was afraid of.
“I’m not afraid of heights,” Ben said, making another nose-smear next to the first one. “I’m afraid of falling.”
The day my mother tells me I fight through the winds to the Bongo Bar, our usual after-work watering hole, closed briefly for renovations. “I’m thinking Van Gogh, only not so many fields and stuff,” Nan says, standing in the middle of the room and wheeling her arms like a windmill at the flares of blank white space. “Monet, without the flowers.”
“Did you know Monet made over four hundred paintings of those lilies?” I tell her.
“Because it wasn’t quite what he wanted, I suppose. Can you imagine? Four hundred tries to get something right.”
“I have less than four hundred tries,” Nan says. “I have slightly less than one. If this place doesn’t start making more money my landlord’s going to kick me out and open a Laura Ashley shop.”
Nicky’s been with Nan from the start, and I do what I can for business. The Bongo Bar is her brainchild, born from all those afternoons spent drumming in Grant Park. Nan assures me that drumming has very therapeutic effects. She invited me to a session once, and I brought Ben. After we broke out into an impromptu Bob Marley medley, we were asked not to come back.
Nan slaps a hand to her head dramatically. A tiny black curl stuffed under her bandana springs back into form when she takes her hand away. “You’ve hit it, Lucy! I want the Japanese garden all along this wall. Little girl, here.” She directs one flannel-clad arm toward the spot. “Trellis, here. And the sunflowers, all along here. In neon paint, so you can see them in the dark.”
“I’ll bet Ben could find you a good painter,” I offer. “A student at the Institute who would work for free.”
Nan gives me a coy, sidewise look. In her bandana and overalls, with the tails of her flannel shirt sticking out the gaps in the sides, she looks like a bohemian Lolita. Next to her in my heeled boots and sweater jacket, I feel frumpy and far too tall. She starts stacking stools atop tables and I help.
“Where is Ben?” she wants to know.
“How should I know?” One of my chairs skids off the tabletop and hits the floor. “Why should I care?’
“Ah,” Nan says. “Ben has offended.”
“Ben has a date tonight. I doubt we’ll see him.”
“Good riddance,” Nan says. “You can help me paint.” Behind us, obeying the same law of gravity, one of Nicky’s sheets of plywood slides from its perch on the bar and slams to the floor with a resonant echo. Nicky voices an enthusiastic curse.
In the manager’s office I try to explain things to Nan while she rummages through a pile of clothes looking for something in my size. “I’m just stressed out because my boss is prepping me for this big proposal in Tucson in two weeks, and then my mom called me at work today, which she never does.”
“What’s in Tucson?” Nan has more clothes scattered around her office than I have hanging in my closet. A toothbrush peeks out from underneath a lacy sleeve.
“A big research firm that my boss wants to start using our software. If I do the presentation, and it goes well, it will clinch my promotion.”
Without warning Nan flings open the office door and screams out of it. “Nicky! Could you keep it down out there?”
Nicky, who fears Nan in none of her tempers, hammers a board with significant emphasis. He’s adding a platform behind the bar because he thinks if he looks taller, he’ll get better tips. He’s about as tall as a twelve-year-old, but his compact body is definitely that of a developed male, and he wears T-shirts and trousers tight enough to prove it. I throw my arms across my chest in pure reflex and Nan grins when she catches me doing it. “Nick won’t ravish you. You’re not his type. Too talltoo female.”
“Cold,” I defend myself, reaching for a paint-spattered T-shirt.
When I’m in a pair of her overalls, my hair pulled back and her old sneakers on my feet, we drape the floor and crack open the cans of base coat. Hiring painters is not an operational expense Nan can afford right now. Having been raised by a professional painter, I’m a whiz at all the basics, and Nan pays me back in free drinks.
“So,” she says, setting up the stepladder, “what are you really upset about? Tucson, or Mom?”
“Mom.” I love mixing paint, or even just stirring it, watching the smooth slopes fold in on one another. I try to lean over and take a sniff without Nan’s noticing.
“Phone’s ringing,” Nicky announces, ignored.
“I saw that. I bet you sniffed glue when you were a kid, too.” Nan throws me one of the nylon brushes. “What’s the matter with Mom?”
I debate telling her, watching as she vaults up the ladder. It would embarrass my mother to know I was sharing tidbits about her health with my friends. Vivian blushes and changes the channel when advertisements for creams to treat yeast infections or vaginal itch come on the television. She won’t even send my dad out to buy tampons, or, as she calls them, her ladies necessaries.
“She calls it a feminine complaint.”
“Nan! Get your phone!” Nicky yells across the room.
“Feminine complaint? Oh, Lord,” Nan says. I tip some paint into the roller pan and hand it up to her, and as I do, the pan tilts and institutional white slops over my hand. In surprise I let go. The pan falls and paint splashes everywhere.
“I can’t believe I’m wasting paint!” I let out a shriek that startles Nan.
“Chill out, sister. I told you it’s water-based. Nicky, throw us a bar rag, will you?” Nan hollers across the room, which is a span of no more than twenty feet, but Nick has stopped banging and started pounding.
“Is somebody going to answer the god-damned phone?”
“It’s not my phone,” Nan yells back, catching the cloth in mid-air.
“It’s my phone,” I say, taking the washcloth from Nan, and Nicky dives into my purse with the quickness of a seal. Nan watches me for half a second, then grabs my arm and begins scrubbing with great energy. It amuses me when Nan gets motherly. I’m older than she is, but she believes she’s much more worldly.
“What sort of feminine complaint are we talking about?” she wants to know.
“Oh, she’s got this bleeding, and she doesn’t want to go to the doctor. Isn’t bleeding the type of thing that is supposed to make you want to go to the doctor?”
“Menopause,” Nan announces. “It’ll turn her into a raving bitch. Get ready.”
“No, it’s Nick,” Nicky says from behind us. “Can I take a message?”
“That’s what I thought, too. But she says she’s been bleeding for a month now. I don’t know why she hasn’t told someone long before this.”
Nicky’s laugh sounds like a seal’s too, the little barking kind. “No, she’s not lying in bed while I feed her grapes! I said, she’s got paint on her hands. She’s helping Nan.”
“Ben!” Nan bellows. “Tell him to get over here. He can get the hard-to-reach spots.”
“Okay, Nan saysOkay, so you know whereOkay, bye then,” Nick ends, holding out the cell phone and looking at me. “He hung up on me.”
“That’s just Ben. He’s very abrupt with his endings. Beginnings too, for that matter.”
Nick hands the phone to me and I check the display. There’s one missed call from Jeff. He must have tried me while I was out on the street and didn’t hear the phone over the crashing of skyscrapers.
“Has she made an appointment?” Nan wants to know, turning back to her paint.
“We discussed it. I want her to and she doesn’t. I may have become a little vehement.”
“Tell her to come to Chicago. There are specialists here.”
“Sure,” Nicky offers. “We’ll have mother’s night specials at the bar.”
We’ve got about six square feet done when the door to the street bangs open. It was propped open with a chair, so the banging is on purpose. Having announced himself with a long-legged kick, Ben slides in, singing the tune of the vaudeville frog on the old Looney Tune shows.
Not even Nan is immune, though she tries to hide her smirk. “You’re in a jolly mood.”
“He’s had his late afternoon coffee injection,” I guess, assessing the java-jacketed cups in his hands. He sets two down on a table, nestling them between the upturned legs of a chair.
“Guess what the Institute just got at auction?” he demands. “And guess who gets to restore it?”
“Guess who cares?” is Nan’s answer. “If you stay, you paint.”
“Can’t stay. Can’t paint. Have to run home and change.” He waggles his eyebrows suggestively at her, crossing the room to me.
“Hot date tonight?” Nan scoffs, while Nicky looks crestfallen.
“Yes and no. My friend’s sister is in town and I promised I’d show her around. Hey, you’re cute in bibs,” he says to me, dropping a quick kiss on my temple. At the same time he presses the coffee cup into my freshly-scrubbed hand.
“Bring her by here,” Nan says. “Bring all your friends.”
“You won’t be done by then.” Ben eyes the wall, the crazy quilt-patch of paint samples and then the squeaky clean swatch that we’ve just made.
“It’s dark at night. Who will notice?” Nan wants to know.
“I’ll know,” Ben says. “Even if I can’t see it, I’ll know it’s there. It will be like a big white eye just looking at me. Lucy, where will you be tonight?”
“Home.” I wish I could say I had big plans. “Hey, what was it?”
“What was what?” He looks up from behind the bar, where Nicky is showing him the modifications. On the platform, Ben towers moreso than usual. Nicky flexes.
“The piece you got. The Art Institute got.”
“I’m not telling you. I’m going to make it good as new, and then I’ll show you.” He gives me a one-armed hug before he leaves and throws a kiss at Nan. “Ciao, bambinos. Lucy, if she’s boring I’ll call you so you can come rescue me, okay?”
With that, he whirls out the door, and Nick throws down his hammer. I turn my attention back to the wall. Nan’s eyes drill little holes into the side of my face. I pretend I’m concentrating.
“So. You want to order a pizza?” she inquires.
“Not really. I need to get home eventually. Call my mom. Feed the fish.”
“I wish!” Nicky howls from the other side of the room.
“He’s crazy,” Nan says loyally.
“I’m the crazy one.” I try to laugh. “Something would have happened by now, don’t you think? I mean, if anything were going to happen? We’ve been friends for two years.”
“Look at it this way.” Her squeeze on my shoulder makes me feel like a dog that just got hit by a car. “If he screws up with other girls, there’s always another girl. If he screws up with you, he’s lost you. You’re gone.”
“Where would I go? You don’t know how many times he’s knocked on my door at two a.m. after some stupid date, and we stay up all night playing cards and making fun of the reruns on Nickelodeon, he falls asleep in my bedin my bed, mind youand that’s it. I don’t know how to say anything to him. I’m stuck.”
“So hang out with us tonight,” Nan says. “Blow him off. Let him see what it feels like.”
“I can’t.” My hands shake only a little as I seal up the can of paint. “I have to talk some sense into my mother before she bleeds to death.”
Nicky hugs me, firm and long, and I’m grateful even though he concludes with a squeeze on my behind. “It’s not like you always think, Lucy,” he says seriously. “Just because you pick up the pieces doesn’t mean you get to keep them.”
The next day, I suspect, is an eleven-incher. Things are getting violent. I throw a scarf around my neck and walk through parking lots so I don’t have to cut beneath any skyscrapers. The wind hits clean and crisp in my face and I hope no one will notice if I close my eyes for just a second. I love Chicago in the fall, the way the buildings downtown make the streets a wind tunnel, the way it can take you half an hour to walk down to the lake and ten minutes to walk back. My friends from college laughed at me when I told them I wanted to move to the big city. “New York’s a big city,” they said. “LA’s a big city. Why compromise?”
“Iowa City is a big city,” my mom said.
I’ve been to both coasts. I’ve had brief infatuations with Central Park and Santa Monica Pier, but I love the lift in the bottom of my stomach on the approach to O’Hare when my plane sweeps out over the lake, a deep blue shimmer scalloped at the edge with the tall buildings hemming the shore. I can wait two months for the latest self-help trend, the newest play, or the next burned-out chef to work its way to the heartland. Chicago still has a sense of humor.
The one time, all day, that my boss comes by my desk, I’m surfing the Internet. My phone rings right as he opens his mouth to comment. “No dysfunctional bleeding until after Tucson,” he says straight-faced. “I need you for this, Lucy.”
Face on fire, I pick up the phone. It’s Jeff. “Did you get my message?” he asks while my boss’s back looms significantly near, the black-suited shoulders very square.
“Message? No.” I watch as Donald mixes his coffee, one ear clearly tuned in to my conversation. “Leave another one. I can’t talk right now. Terribly busy. Tucson and all.”
It feels quite satisfying to hang up on him, but the minute I do, my cell phone rings. “I called you six times last night,” Ben fires at me the moment I answer. “What were you doing?”
“Research,” I say. “I’ll call you later, all right?”
“Do you even know how much bad karma you’re generating? Do you care?”
“A regular switchboard in here, isn’t it?” Donald observes, coffee in hand, interposing his black-suited shadow once more over my desk. “Tucson will be a nice break for you.”
“You don’t even want to try to meet the rent on my condo if you get me fired,” I hiss into the phone as the black suit removes itself to its office.
This seems to mollify him. “Meet me at the Java Stop after work and I’ll forgive you for blowing me off last night,” Ben says nicely.
“I told Nan I’d help her paint.”
“We’ll both help her paint. Don’t stand me up,” he says, and hangs up on me.
‘Dysfunctional bleeding,’ my computer screen blinks at me. It lists common causes, symptoms, treatment. I think I know why my mother is afraid to go to the doctor. I close the site and pull up the Tucson proposal, hoping Donald will walk by again and catch me working.
Ben and I selected the Java Stop as our hang-out not only because it’s halfway between our places, travel-time wiseI just walk up Ohio Street, and he comes from Lincoln Park on the Elbut also because they have the most comfortable furniture. I used to tease him about the coy looks he gets from the counter girls until I realized that Ben really doesn’t notice how often women look at him. He’s addicted to the hazelnut house blend. I asked him once to name the one thing he couldn’t live without and he promptly answered, “Coffee.”
The night I met Ben, we stayed up all night drinking coffee. We had both been other people’s dates for a charity dinner held at the Tremont downtown. I was new to the city and a co-worker set me up with a friend of his. Ben was there with somebody who had been my co-worker’s ex, or sister, or maybe second cousin; we tried to sort out the tangled network as we stood by the champagne fountain while our dates struck up a lively conversation with each other. For a while we entertained ourselves by making up dialogues for the other guests and floating boats made from folded napkins in the champagne, and then we were asked to leave. When the hotel bar closed we headed to some cheap all-night diner where we drank pot after pot of truck-stop coffee and revealed to each other the entire history of our lives. When the morning shift arrived we stumbled out into a hazy dawn and flagged a taxi to my place.
“It’s a palace,” Ben said as we reeled past the doorman, through the apartment complex, then through the courtyard fronting the smug interlaced row of townhouses, one of which belonged to me. “It’s like a twelfth-century keep.”
“Yeah, but without all the stinking moats and heads on stakes and stuff,” I said.
Ben yawned against the doorframe while I unlocked my door and led the way upstairs to my flat, where he said, “What? No fish tank?”, lay down on the couch, and immediately passed out. I crawled out of bed a few hours later to the smell of pancakes and fresh coffee. When I scuffed in my slippers out to the kitchen, Ben grinned at me and pointed with the spatula towards the bag of oranges and two large to-go cups sitting on the table.
“I went to the deli round the corner and got us the daily dose. How do you survive without a coffee maker? Is yours broken?”
“I’m more of a hot cocoa person,” I said, peeking beneath a lid.
He shook his head. “I knew there had to be something wrong with you.”
Ben spent the whole afternoon at my place, rifling through my CD collection and my bookcases, listening to the detailed account of my recent departure from my long-time boyfriend Richard and sharing advice from his experiences with serial dating. Ben and I never had a warming-up period; we collided like atoms, the connection immediate and unexplained. I’ve seen him through three jobs, the death of his father, and more flings than either he or I can count. He’s steered me through one promotion, two breakups, and all of my fights with my mother. I don’t know what I’d do without him. The absence of Ben in my life would loom larger than the presence of anyone else.
Ben comes into the coffee shop wearing his green turtleneck sweater and beat-up jeans, his glasses on and his brown hair sticking up in tufts that certain hairdressers strive to emulate and which Ben achieves by simply not combing. Other patrons pause in their conversations and turn to look at him. Ben has the magnetic field of a small planet.
As soon as I tell him about my mother, he insists on trying to call her. Ben adores Vivian. Vivian wants me to bring Ben to Iowa City so she can bake him muffins and he can go to the junkyard with my father looking for old furniture.
I grouch at him while he looks for the fastdial button on my cell phone. “As if she doesn’t have enough to worry about.”
“I’d hang up on you too. You were a crank when I called you at work.”
“Only because Donald had already caught me surfing medical websites. Not activity that is going to earn me a big bonus.”
“It’s just menopause,” Ben diagnoses, hitting the button. “My mother went through it a couple years ago. Irregular bleeding for a time, and then it stops altogether.”
“I was on the website that said cysts,” I tell him. “I was on the website that said cancer.”
He gives me a stern look. “Don’t do that. You’ll just upset Vivian.”
I refill my hot chocolate at the counter while he leaves a message. I return to narrowed eyes and an accusing stare. “Your display says Jeff called. What does he want?”
“Alas, not me. Probably his movie. I kept his copy of Arsenic and Old Lace.”
“Let’s tape over it with that World War II tanker special the History Channel is running.”
“How about reruns of I Love Lucy?”
“Oh, very good,” Ben approves. “I’ve taught you well.”
“My mom wants me to move back home,” I blurt out as I sink onto the couch. I hate how the sudden falling silence in the room makes that statement sound so much larger and desperate than it really is. “She says I could study art history at the University.”
Ben lifts my feet into his lap and uses my legs to prop open Sunday’s newspaper.
“Why would you?” he asks, skimming through Lifestyles without looking up. “You have a great apartment. You have a career. She just wants you to marry Richard and bear grandchildren that she can bounce on her knee.”
“Richard’s no longer available. He’s had a new girlfriend for a while now. Betty, or something like that.”
“I envy men like Richard,” Ben says, flipping through Lawn & Garden. “I never have relationships. I have brief, violent spasms of attachment that end in humiliation on the part of one party and eventual disgust on the part of the other.”
“That’s a good title for a memoir, isn’t it? Love and Other Natural Disasters.” I hold my mug of hot chocolate between both hands, letting the steam curl beneath my chin. Paul Simon sounds tinnily from the speakers.
“Why not Life As I Know It?” Ben says. “That’s really all you’re writing about.”
“I want to write a chapter where Jeff dies of grief over how he treated me. A sort of Dangerous Liaisons kind of thing. It would do a great deal to soothe my bitterness.”
“Wasn’t he with Nan before he was with you?” Ben observes from the paper. “And didn’t he start pursuing you while he was still with her? He is not a man sensitive to guilt.”
“You men never are.” It’s a cheap shot, but pure reflex.
“Don’t say ‘you men’ like that. Don’t put me in the lineup with Jeff.”
I can feel my shins falling asleep, but to move my legs would be to apologize. “Why not? You both have the basic equipment.”
“But the difference is, I have the upgrade package with sensitivity and distinction. Jeff is your basic unimaginative male slut.”
I stare at him. “Don’t tell me your little friend went home alone last night.”
“She most certainly did. I sent her back to her little gumball machine where she belongs. I am weary of the ten-second gumball buzz. I want the banquet, with cocktails first and coffee after dessert.”
Watching the side of Ben’s face, the cheekbones that could cut glass and the straight, square, gorgeous chin, I am sure the lack of interest had been largely one-sided. The night I met him, I spent the whole first hour of our conversation staring at his eyes, watching them change from gold to green to brown, as facile as his moods.
“What if Vivian’s right? What if I do need to put down roots? I am living without soil. I lead a hydroponic existence.”
Ben picks up the Travel pages and starts thumbing through them. “How economical of you. Soil is so messy. Why deal with it if you can dissolve all the necessary nutrients into water? Then you can move wherever the whim takes you. Would you like to go to San Francisco?” He holds up a page and flashes a picture of the sea lions sunning themselves at Pier 39.
“The chapter about you is going to be called Changing the Subject,” I tell him, taking a long sip of hot cocoa, whipped cream sticking to my upper lip.
“Is that all I am to you? A chapter?”
“What do you expect?”
“I want to be a theme,” Ben says. “I want to be a recurring motif.”
I call home the evening after my mother’s doctor appointment, which I finally scheduled for her. I am adept at nagging, having learned from the best. When the receptionist at the clinic heard her symptoms, she booted an annual pelvic to fit my mother in.
“So, how did it go?”
“I got an early seed catalogue in the mail today,” she reports. “I’m going to start planning my garden for the spring.”
“I mean, what did the doctor say?”
“Oh, and I have news! You’ll never guess who I ran into this morning.”
I don’t even think of Richard until she says his name. “Richard?” I am truly surprised. “Where’d you see him?”
They are only small things: they were at the grocery store. Her name is Becky. They were tan and slim and had just been diving in the Bahamas. They’re getting married in June. My mother gave Becky my address so she can send me an invitation. None of this should come as a surprise; I know it’s Becky who sits at the patio table with him, a bottle of merlot gleaming like rain-dark earth. I know they prop themselves up with fat pillows on the bed on Sunday afternoons while she sips hot chocolate and he reads to her from the paper. She’s the one who cradles his head on her lap as he falls asleep during yet another movie. As it should be.
“You should see the rock on her finger,” my mom exclaims. “It’s the size of a pea.”
I can’t answer. Something a bit larger than a pea has taken form in my throat.
“Still, you’re much prettier than she is,” my mother says thoughtfully.
I can picture Becky in a wedding gown, and I have to agree her face would look a little round under the veil. But she is perfect for Richard, really, both of them smoothed out and smiling and stuffed on the inside like chocolate éclairs. I try to imagine introducing Ben to a tuxedoed Richard, stout and with his hair thinning, and I can’t see even a corsaged and married Richard next to tall, lean, caustic Ben. Snooping through a photo album of mine once, Ben had discovered the picture Richard had given me of himself in his National Guard uniform.
“This?” Ben had exclaimed. “This is the man whose heart you broke?”
“I didn’t break his heart.”
Ben held the photo up next to my face and looked at it, then at me, then back to smiling, blue-eyed Richard.
“Oh yes you did. You crushed him.”
“You wouldn’t know.”
“Any other girl in the world would stay in Iowa City with him and start populating the tax base as soon as possible. And he picks the girl who decides he has no passion and moves to the big, exciting, soulless city.”
“Oh, and I have more news,” my mother says.
Ben calls almost immediately after I hang up the phone. I only have time to wander to the fish tank, wonder blankly if I fed them yet, and toss in a few flakes.
“I’m at the Bongo Bar with some people from work,” he reports. “What are you doing?”
“Making phone calls. Looking for something to eat. There is no food at all in this apartment.” I slam the refrigerator door shut.
“Not pleasant phone calls, if the gauge on your temper is at the level I’m reading.”
“Vivian has to get a hysterectomy.” I sit down at my kitchen table, prop the handset of the phone against my shoulder with my chin, and spread my hands over the Formica tabletop. I lay my fingers against the knife scars, trying to fit my knuckles against the crooks.
“Can’t they just put her on estrogen therapy? That’s what my mom did.”
“Apparently the symptoms are too severe. The ultrasound showed cysts on her ovaries.”
“The benign fibroid sort of cysts, right?”
“No.” I swallow hard. “The other kind. The non-benign kind. Her doctor wants to take everything out.”
“Next Tuesday.” The table top feels cold beneath my fingers. “I rented a car for Sunday. I’m going to drive out there and stay as long as she needs. Donald is going to have a fit that I can’t do Tucson. No promotion for me.” I purposely dialed his voice mail to leave a message; I didn’t want to talk to him, afraid of what he might do if actually faced with emotion.
“Christ. Vivian,” Ben says softly.
I have found tracks for all my fingers on my right hand but not all the fingers on my left. Behind me, the fish tank burps as a bubble goes through the filter hose.
“People don’t die from hysterectomies, do they?”
“Of course not,” Ben says. “It never happens. It’s just a routine surgery nowadays. Like an appendectomy.”
“The doctor said he doesn’t like to do total hysterectomies unless he really has to.”
“Do you really have no food there?”
“Not even olives. I ate them all last night when I was watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
“Come meet me at Sergio’s. I’ll stuff you with olives and take you to the French feature at the Esquire. I’m certain they have something romantic about a woman who stabs her unfaithful lover to death.”
“Speaking of that, Richard’s getting married. I found that out today, too.”
A short, pooled silence, and then, “Wear your sexiest outfit. I’m going to take you out and get you roaring drunk.”
At Sergio’s we haggle over French burgundy or Napa Valley merlot. The sommelier favors the burgundy and I win. “Let’s drink to Richard,” Ben suggests after he pours the wine.
“You’re cruel.” One sip and I’ve already spilled on my shirt.
“I’m not. You wish him all the best. You’re glad you won’t be the one who has to wash his dirty socks for the rest of your life.”
“Who’s going to wash my socks?” I want to know, spearing the black olives off his salad.
Ben raises his glass and examines the wine. I imagine the deep red is the color of our vital organs, the color of oxygenated arteries. The color of a womb. “Do you who I’m going to marry?” he says. “A woman I can talk to. I figure when I’m eighty pretty much everything else will be limp, but my mind will be going strong. I want to sit and chat with the little woman while we play backgammon or rummy and have her laugh at my jokes.”
I look at the flat space where my plate had been, a few dabbles of dressing dotting the tablecloth in exactly the shape of a Valentine heart. “As long as her mind is gone by then, she will,” I say, but I hardly mean it.
After coffee and dessert we catch the El to Oak Street, where the Esquire occasionally shows a foreign feature for a few pennies. Beneath a grated staircase a woman stands preaching to a small group of people waiting in line for tickets at the automat. A captive audience, most ignore her; some listen, nodding in encouragement.
“God made this world,” the woman shouts. She has frizzy braids of hair and wears a sweater and an Indian-print skirt, no hose, with a pair of black combat boots. The skirt whips around her legs, lifted by the fall wind. “All the plants, all the animals, every rock and tree. God made you. The color of your hair, every cell in your body. This was all God’s idea.”
“Did you hear that?” I ask Ben. “This was all God’s idea. I’m going to tell Vivian that.”
His hand on mine tightens as he glances down at me. “Everything’s going to be okay, Lucy.”
Ben’s saying that makes me feel as I do when my father tells me everything is going to be all right: it’s crossing home plate, touching the safety zone in a game of tag. I want to curl up against the hard door of his chest and sleep there, out of the wind.
“Do you know I heard this story once about orphanages in Victorian England?” I tell him. “The infant mortality rate was just incredibly high. They had food, shelter, and were relatively free from disease, but no one could understand why these babies didn’t thrive.”
“Why didn’t they?”
“They were never touched. They were fed and given blankets and that was it. No one simply held them, or cuddled them, or anything.”
“Poor little tykes,” Ben says.
“People die for lack of love,” I say. I believe this.
We cut out of the movie early to head to the Bongo Bar. Ben’s friends are still there, and I want to talk to Nan. Business is booming; every available inch is crammed with bodies and a haze drifts over the heads of the crowd, a combination of cigarette smoke and poorly-ventilated desperation. In the dim light you can’t tell that the wall is only half-painted. Ben’s friends crowd around one of the tables by the window. A fake redhead in a low-cut V-neck, whose name I can never recall because she never speaks to me, squeals at the sight of Ben and pulls him into a chair next to her. I head to the bar where Nicky is gleaming in a tight white shirt and industrious sweat.
“What’ll it be, beautiful?”
“The strongest thing you can think of,” I say, and watch while he shakes and pours a martini for another customer in a motion so smooth it’s almost sexual. I’ve seen Nicky practice his moves afternoons before the bar opens and I have to admit that if I didn’t know better, I’d be giving him my phone number, too.
“Ben’s got a millipede attached to him,” he observes, glancing over at the art table.
“Ben’s on his own. I’ve had it. I’m moving back to Iowa City.”
“For real?” He doesn’t pause in his slide from one liquor bottle to another. “What about Nan? What about me?”
“I might not be serious. I don’t know. But I’m going home next week, and if I lose my job over this, I’m not coming back.”
“For you.” With a flourish he places a foaming glass before me, and then lays a toothpick full of olives over the edge. “A Bongo Banger. Nicky’s own.”
“I’m taking a poll,” I decide. “Tell me the one thing you can’t live without. And don’t say sex,” I warn him as he grins. “That’s off the list. You’re talking to a desperate woman.”
“I could help you out with that,” he says with a wink.
I nearly choke on my Bongo Banger. “ I’ve never seduced a gay man, as far as I know.”
“Make Ben jealous.” His eyes twinkle under the bar lights. “Maybe that’s what he needs.”
“I’m afraid Ben doesn’t operate in the normal male mode. The window of opportunity has pretty much slammed shut at this point.”
I make the mistake of looking back at the table. Ben’s head is bent as he listens to the girl next to him. She reaches out and puts her hand on his forearm.
“Hey, where you going?” Nicky wants to know.
“In the office. But I wouldn’t go in there if I--”
I painted the door to the manager’s office red, a bold red, while Nan was out one evening. She loved it. She painted a dark crescent moon on it at eye-level. When I fling the door open I can hear a whoosh of surprise. Only the dim desk lamp is turned on, and with the noise and the music as a distraction, it takes a moment for my eyes to make out shapes. I see Nan with knees straddled wide sitting on her desk, skirt shoved up around her waist, hands braced. And Jeff, in flagrante delicto, stooping over her with his jeans pushed down. Their heads swivel in my direction with what seems a mechanical slowness. The three of us stand in tableau for a long minute, me at the apex of both their gazes, lit up as brilliantly as the Hotel Inter-Continental.
“Oh, hello. Is this the line? How long is the wait?”
“Lucy,” Nan says, her face registering shock. “Sweetie. Don’t jump to conclusions.”
“So was I before or after on the call list?” I ask Jeff. “I’m just curious. Did you call me because you couldn’t get hold of Nan, or did you come here when you couldn’t get hold of me?”
“Bastard,” Nan exclaims as she starts rolling off the desk, and I hope she isn’t talking to me. Nicky calls to me as I shoot out the door, but I plow straight through the crowd to the table where Ben and his friends are having a jolly time.
“Hello,” I announce to the room at large. “I’m leaving.”
Ben tries to scramble to his feet and the redhead clamps onto his arm. “What? Did I miss something? What’s going on?”
“I’ve had enough.” I’m speaking into the formidable bosom of the redhead, who has interposed herself between us. “I’m going now. I’ll call you from Iowa City.” I push my way outside through the crowd of people waiting to get in, until the leather and heels and dyed hair let me go and I spill out onto the sidewalk.
The worst part is, not a single person runs out the door after me.
My cab driver’s name is Kim. The photo on the ID hanging from the visor grins hideously, like a disembodied head.
“Do you know anyone who ever had a hysterectomy?” I ask him.
“Oh, yeah, yeah, my cousin once. It was really bad. The thing busted in him and flooded all over and he had to go to the emergency room and almost died. Very messy, very bad.”
“Wow,” I say, “I hope he’s all right now.” I don’t have any small bills so I leave him a five dollar tip.
I had asked Nan my question just that afternoon, as we put the finishing touches on the sunflowers. “The one thing I can’t live without?” She sounded amused. “Is this some kind of survey?”
“Human interest only.”
“What have you got so far?”
“Food, sex, love. For some, religion. For others, art.”
“You know what I say?” she reported, pulling at one black curl. “I say air.”
“Air,” I repeated.
“You know it, baby. You can go seven days without food, three days without water, but without breathing? Three minutes tops.”
“I heard some Olympic swimmers can go five minutes holding their breath.”
“I went skydiving once,” Nan said. She gave a neon sunflower a smiley face. “It was the most incredible sensation you can imagine. Every nerve in your body comes alive. It’s like you’re floatingor flying, like in dreams. It’s like the only reason you’re up is that there’s nothing holding you down.”
I am not sleeping but sitting in the dark watching the fish when I hear the clatter, like hail against my window. I open the door to the balcony and step outside. In the courtyard the night air is cold but soothing, like swimming in mountain water. Ben is bent over in the bushes.
“Are you throwing up or looking for more rocks to throw at my window?”
“I tried calling you,” he says, too loudly, straightening. “Your line was busy.”
“I was on it.”
“Are you alone?”
“Of course I’m alone,” I hiss at him. “Do you mind not waking up the whole building?”
“He didn’t dare come here. I would have kicked him in the head.”
“Nan tried calling you too. She wants you to know she’s not with him, it was strictly sex.” The lamplights glint off his glasses, hiding his eyes.
I shrug. “I don’t care. I’m just glad I get to keep the movie.”
“Who were you talking to, then?”
“I was on the Internet. Looking at medical websites. None of your business. Are you drunk?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe.”
Ben rarely gets drunk. I look down at the shape of him, standing in the bushes beneath my balcony, and have that funny sensation I get when I’m sitting in the chair at the optometrist’s and he’s flipping the lenses in front of my eyes. “One, or two,” he drones on, over and over, “one, or two,” and everything just gets blurrier and blurrier. But then, suddenly, he hits on the right lens, and things snap into place, so clear and obvious they make the eyes ache.
“Nobody,” Ben says after a pause, “but nobody who gets a degree in art history ever makes any money. I stand to know, damn you.”
That damn you thrills me. It’s so unlike Ben. I curl my hands around the iron bar of the balcony, a sharp cold hardness beneath my palms. To my right the yellow moon burns a hole in the sky, and to the left the sodium lights gleam off the glass wall holding back the swimming pool.
“I don’t believe in strictly sex, you know,” I say at last.
“Of course not,” Ben says. “You just end up with a guy like Jeff, who’s never been to an art show in his life.”
When I was a kid, and bored, I made telephones out of two tin cans and a piece of string and I’d pester my mom until she played with me. She wouldn’t stop what she was doing, knitting or stirring peas on the stove, but she’d crook my phone against her ear and talk to me while I stood around the corner in the hallway and whispered into the can. That was how I told her all my secrets. When I ran out of conversation or imagination, I’d end with saying, OK, I love you.
“OK,” I say to Ben. “Do you want a jacket if you’re going to stand there all night?”
“Aren’t you going to let me in?”
In a moment of utter stillness we stand staring at each other. Blocks away, the lights atop the Hancock building blip in tandem, off and on, in their own gentle and faultless rhythm. The Hancock building will never tip over. They thought of that in advance and designed the sides to narrow near the top, giving it a square alien head with flashing antennae. On its immoveable base the Hancock could sit there forever, blinking, battered by the great winds.
“No, I’m not going to let you in.” In the night breeze I could be a runaway, I could be an owl about to lift off into flight. “I’m tired of the á la carte menu. I want the banquet, too.”
Behind the glasses Ben’s eyes gleam like a dark sea. Deliberately, he grabs the bottom rung of the balcony, a challenge. I stare back at him, feeling cold air on my knees. He pulls himself up in a few easy movements and clears the railing and lands on the balcony like water falling into a glass jar, and I stand in the doorway watching him come to me. If it had happened any other way, of course, it would have been ridiculous. If he had said anything, I wouldn’t have believed him. But right here on my balcony he walks up to me and puts his hand on the back of my neck and pulls me against him, and the shamelessness of being in plain view, the simple urgency of being reached for on an open balcony makes me feel that the air around us has come alive. A champagne buzz goes all through me. It’s better than skydiving. It’s better than anything. Until this moment of Ben’s mouth opening against mine I hadn’t known that I had stopped breathing a very, very long time ago.
The phone rings a couple hours later. A dim light eases through the window. My groping hand knocks the alarm clock off the nightstand and, I think, Ben’s glasses.
“I’ve decided on orchids,” my mother announces.
I glance over at Ben to see if the phone has wakened him. He hasn’t moved.
“I’m going to raise orchids. They need temperature control, of course, but your dad can build a greenhouse for me out back. He wouldn’t mind.”
“Orchids are a lot of work, Ma,” I say, keeping my voice low. I begin to slide out of bed and, quick as a snake, Ben’s warm arm swoops up and clamps down around me. After a moment I reach over and tickle his nose. He just twitches.
“I don’t see why I couldn’t give it a try,” Vivian says. “They have pictures in the plant catalog of the houses you can build. We’ll heat it and put in lights.”
I poke Ben in the side and he groans, then rolls over, freeing me. I make my getaway, pulling on my shorts and a tank top, and sit in my bedroom window. It has a wide sill and looks out at the courtyard, with a broad view to the north. In the east, above the fat squat block of the apartment building, I can see thin threads of color poking their way around the city skyline. In the spaces the lake gleams like mercury.
“I suppose I might kill a few of them on my first try, but well,” she begins to say, but I don’t want her to anticipate disappointment.
“I’ll help you pick out seedlings when I’m home. We’ll start with the easy ones.”
“It’s a two year Master’s of Arts degree,” she says softly. “You’ll do sculpture, painting, architecture, everything. You can specialize in Western art.”
Sitting on my windowsill I feel like a loose woman, cool wood pressing against my back and morning air on my bare skin. I can picture where my mother is standing, in the kitchen next to the green countertop, phone tucked against her ear, one hand on the glossy pages of her plant magazine and the other on her stomach, trying to sense where the tumors are growing, imagining them in 3-D, the shape of peaches, glowing orange against the deep shadowed cavern of her insides. Sometimes, when I was a kid and we were playing the telephone game, I’d come out from around the corner and stand behind her, swooping my arms. Can you see me? I’d demand. Can you see me waving at you? She’d peer into the tin can, squint shut one eye. Why, I can! she’d say. What a big wave!
“I love you, Vivian Marie,” I whisper into my end of the phone.
“Well,” she says after a while. “I suppose we don’t have all the museums and architecture and such here. And you wouldn’t be making as good a salary.”
“Who’d make sure you don’t kill all your orchids?”
“Oh, hush,” she says. “Your dad could help me. We’ll be all right.”
Ben, sprawled across my bed, one foot hanging over the edge, sleeps like a little boy, his lower lip tucked in a pout. My mother is alone in her kitchen but somewhere upstairs, behind her, my father snores in warm oblivion. The thing is, I like my job. There are art classes offered at the Institute. I love my apartment and the way the heater in the pool room whirs like helicopter blades in the winter. I love the glitter of Michigan Avenue, a roaring crowd in Wrigley Field, standing on Navy Pier with water on every side. There are a dozen ways the conversation with Ben could go, of course. But I want to believe that later I will run to the deli for coffee and oranges, maybe eggs and cheese for an omelet, and we will smirk at each other across my scarred kitchen table with the Sun-Times between us and this deep bronze color polishing the sky.
“Look out your window right now, Ma. I’m waving at you.”
She chuckles softly. “The airport tower is blocking my view.”
Of all the things I could sayI’m coming home. We’ll take it day by day. Everything is going to be all right, though that’s my dad’s lineI want to tell her about Ben, but it’s wiser to wait. When she meets him I want her to think of him as a prince, not as the man who ravished her daughter. I want her to look at me behind his back and say, ‘Richard who? I was so wrong, darling.’
So I don’t say anything. We just sit there breathing, her breath and mine into the tin cans and the tight knitted cord between us, with Ben’s steady breath in the bed behind me, and I can see the sun rising over the skyscrapers, lightly, swaying like a balloon rising into the atmosphere, like the first swelling notes of a song.