Whitney wakes, jogs for twenty minutes, showers (using the special buffing cloth and deep cleanser recommended at the salon), and eats a breakfast of sliced strawberries (vitamin C) and Total bran flakes (100% of the daily recommended allowance). She brushes and flosses her teeth. She dresses in light, breathable clothing: linen pants and a blue blouse, the latter of which highlights her eyes. She rides a bus (environmentally friendly) to the University of Colorado, and arrives early.
While she waits for Professor Dugan, she digs from her book bag a prioritized list of items to be accomplished during the day. She stares at the inventory, but cannot read it. Tears blur her vision.
Extracting a pen, she withdraws a small leather-bound notebook. Flipping to a blank page some one-third of the way through, she writes in her careful hand, I’ve learned that I can turn away. And still, it haunts me.
In the corner booth of Pints Pub, Whitney and Caroline drink beer from silver handled mugs. They are comfortable in sleeveless shirts, hair pulled back in identical blond ponytails. There was a general buzz of commotion when they arrived, shouted hellos from various acquaintances, but that has died down now. Only Caroline appears at ease.
Whitney leans closer to her friend, to be heard over the miscellaneous bar noise: the din of voices, the cracking sound of balls smacking against each other on the pool table. “I’d better make this my last,” she says, referring to the beer gripped in her hand. “I’m already thinking about calling him.”
Caroline tilts her head. “Tell me you’re kidding.”
“I know I shouldn’t. I know I should hate him.”
“After all he’s put you through?” Caroline asks. “I can’t believe you’re saying this.”
“I know,” Whitney says, miserably. “I’m weak.”
“Yes, you are,” Caroline says. She looks appalled.
“He was just so passionate.” Whitney toys with the crumpled wet remains of a cocktail napkin. She feels the hot sting of tears, but blinks them back. “And there was this idea I had, that I’d finally found someone I could be happy with.”
“Another person can’t make you happy,” Caroline says. “You have to make yourself happy.”
Whitney nods, but she’s not sure she agrees. Everyone mouths this, of course. She herself says this from time to time. But is it true? She and all her friends seem happier when they are in love. Even her brother. He went from moody and distant to downright friendly when he was dating Shelly.
She’d like to ask Caroline about an idea she’s been toying with, a thesis she calls, “The Secret Joy of Just One Thing.” But Caroline, Whitney sees, is disgusted with her, and in no mood to talk about anything.
Whitney’s strongest memories of Steven are almost all connected with his bed, where they spent most of their time. It was a beautiful bed, king-size, high off the ground, with soft white cotton sheets and half a dozen pillows. His bedroom was on the top floor of an old Victorian house, and there were windows you could swing open, looking out on a courtyard garden full of roses and peonies. His paintings were everywhere, his books. As their life together continued, her books too began piling around his desk and bed. When they weren’t making love they would lay together, arms and legs tangled, listening to music. Or he would read to her in his beautiful deep voice and she would close her eyes, listening to his heartbeat in the spaces between the words.
Open to anything. Oblivious to everything else in the world.
Whitney has returned to school, after a four? six? month hiatus. That’s what she calls the time period during which she failed to attend classes and, frankly, rarely left the house.
On campus, she appears the picture of a doctoral student. An academic, like her father (who had to pull a few strings to have her readmitted). She cultivates this image consciously. A mask, or shield, of sorts. She wears thick-framed reading glasses. Her fingers are often smudged from ink and she carries a heavy load of books everywhere. A collection of what was, at one time, illegal to read in this country: James Joyce, Nabokov, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller. And law books, of course. She is writing her thesis on the feminist response to the evolving law of obscenity.
Beneath her shield, she feels hunger seeping across her skin, spreading like an ink stain.
“I wish I knew the meaning of life,” Whitney says. “What is our purpose here?”
“Who knows,” Caroline says. She taps her lighter on the tabletop, as though bored by the question.
“It’s interesting that no one cares about such things when they are in love,” Whitney observes.
Caroline raises an eyebrow but says nothing.
It is Friday night, but neither girl knows the exact time. They are content to be here, be seen, in their usual spot, Pints Pub, full of dark wooden booths, slow moving ceiling fans, and huge windows overlooking the architectural horrors surrounding City Park.
As usual, the place is jammed. Ladies’ Night. Wine and beer, half price. For Ladies.
I suppose, Whitney thinks, that we qualify as Ladies. She sips her wine, a Refreshingly Light Chardonnay. A thought is snaking its way through her mind. She sees its humorous possibilities. But she can’t be bothered, frankly, to make a joke to Caroline about it.
She watches a group of rowdy men standing by the bar, comparing them to him, as she always does. But catching herself, she ticks off, in her mind, the following list of reasons why she must not ever call him again:
1. Hopeless philanderer
2. Alarmingly poor personal hygiene (wrinkled shirt seen pulled from hamper and placed on body after sniffing armpit)
3. No job. No prospects to obtain one
4. Often wears no underwear (again, lazy about laundry)
5. Diet consists entirely of foods suitable only for children under age of ten
6. Obsessive personality unhealthy for her own thin hold on reality
“What are you thinking about?” Caroline asks. “Not Steven.”
Whitney sips her wine, and considers sharing the list with Caroline. Honestly, she couldn't care less about all but the first and last item. The last item is the source of endless theorizing on her part. But the first, his endless philandering, his flirtatious behavior with her best friends, his actual sleeping with other women just hours after she left his bed so soaked with sated lust that her heart ached, is too painful to think about. She finds herself wanting to surround it with petty complaints.
She asks Caroline the following question: “What makes you - and by you I mean the collective you, I mean ‘one’ - happy?”
Caroline ponders the question, the smoke from her cigarette curling gracefully above the lit ember. “I’ve always believed that you take a little bit of satisfaction here,” Caroline holds out her hand, and squeezes her fingers in a pinching motion, “say, from work. And then you take a little bit of contentment there . . .” and the fingers of her other hand close in the air, “from your family, your friends, love interests, hobbies.” Caroline draws the pinched fingers of her hands together into a little spider kiss. “Add them all up, and together they make you happy.”
“That is a singularly unsatisfactory answer,” Whitney says.
Caroline makes a face at her. Disgusted again.
It is interesting that, for one who is so openly dismissive of Caroline’s formula for happiness, Whitney has modeled much of her life around this very idea. A pinch of this and a dash of that. School, regular outings with friends and family, music, various athletic hobbies. Her research, of course, and reading. A balanced life, is that what it is called? Or is she just scattering her energy everywhere, so thinly that nothing means anything?
Because her soul seems strangely empty.
She knows that her view of reality has been shaken. She has suffered an almost physical blow to her sense of the world. She has never been so drawn in, so passionate about another person that she’d literally abandoned all other aspects of her a-dash-here, a-pinch-there, perfectly balanced life. It’s left her questioning. Was it a horrible passion, to be so consumed by just one thing?
Well, never mind. Whitney no longer devotes her energy obsessively to any one person or any one thing. Certainly, she avoids anything that will overwhelm the senses with, say, purely physical pleasure.
Not that Whitney is entirely adverse to physical pleasure. She has a late dinner with Greg, a good-looking man with a practice in intellectual property (medical patents and the like). They return to her place. She presses against him on the couch, and he slowly kisses her, lifting her hair with one hand so that he may mold his palm to her chin, stoke the tender skin at the base of her throat.
Whitney almost cries out at the pleasure of it. Except, of course, that what she really wants to cry out is “Steven.”
Whitney and Greg have gone for a hike in the foothills of Boulder. The view is spectacular, and they spot baby deer chewing tender shoots of grass when they park his Volvo. Whitney barely notices, however, though she pasted a smile of enthusiasm on her lips. She was thinking of the last time she was here, not with Greg, but with The Other One.
Three days ago, he left her a note in her box on campus. Just five words. I miss you. Call me. She has thought of little else for the last seventy-two hours.
She tries, very carefully, never to think his name. There is danger in dwelling on the name of someone who has managed to burrow so deeply inside the marrow of your bones that you wake wanting to press yourself to his ghost, that you spend every unoccupied moment of time dreaming of his fingers cupping your belly.
It’s late, almost one o’clock in the morning. Whitney spent the evening with friends at the Starlight Lounge, where she happily drank sapphire martinis from a frosted glass and ate thin strips of raw fish dipped in cilantro and lime. But now she is home alone, her fingers smelling of lime marinade. She gives in to the urge to lift the phone and dial his number, her hand cupped over the mouthpiece so he cannot hear her breathing. She listens to the hollow ringing, and then the phone is answered, and that deep voice is entering her ear, familiar as the feel of her own teeth against her tongue.
“Who is this?” he asks, when she does not respond to his ‘hello.’ “Whitney, is that you?”
She gasps and almost slams down the phone, except she is vibrating with a thrill that her name came immediately to his mind.
“Whitney,” he says, and there is a distinct tone of laughter in his voice. “Hang up the phone, come over here, and let me make love to you.”
She doesn’t respond, but she clutches the pillow between her legs, pressing her body into the soft down.
“Whitney,” he says again. “Baby, I know it’s you. I know it took a lot to call. Let me make you happy. Make us both happy.”
Tears drop against her hand, still covering the mouthpiece of the phone so that he can’t hear her. She hangs up, realizing that if she did not, she would speak to him, and inevitably, soon be rushing over.
As long as he wants me, she thinks, I will want him too.
When she stands to flip off the bedroom lights, her limbs are heavy. As though her arms and legs are weighted by disgust. Not at him, she realizes. Rather, at how weak she has become.
Whitney is near the fountain on campus, shoes off, toes digging into grass, reading a particularly graphic, delightfully obscene passage in Naked Lunch when she looks up to see Steven standing over her.
“God, Steven,” she says. She slams the book shut as though she were caught doing something shameful, rather than research.
“Another dirty book, Whitney?” he asks with a smirk. “Wouldn’t you rather have the real thing?”
For a moment, she’s not sure what to say. The grass world beneath her tilts and whirls, the blue sky threatens to crash into her.
Finally, she manages. “Excuse me. I’m late for a meeting.”
She stands, makes a show of slipping on her shoes with her back to him, gathering her books. She is, in fact, so dizzy that she fears her legs might buckle beneath her.
A hand comes out to steady her elbow, and she looks up into his blue eyes. She finds no smirk at her obvious anxiety and discomposure, but rather a gentle curiosity, the type of look one might give a small panicky animal that is senselessly beating itself against a wall trying to escape, when it could simply fly by you or run off in another direction.
He steps back, drops his hand. With a shrug, he walks away.
She watches him go, and a sense of clearness, or certainty, descends on her. He has released her. She is free.
Copyright © Pam Mosher 2003. Title graphic: "Exit Stage Right" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2003.