It was a slow weekend and the wife was bored so she started a fight. It wasn’t the sort with flying furniture and words, but the muffled, seething kind where tone of voice and body language and what’s not said conveys more than words, and the silence feels like sucker punches. She started with a strange spiel about how I’m being too nice lately — too nice to be trusted — which struck me as about right because overly nice people are usually the angriest lying freaks you’ll ever meet. But on the other side of the equation, some folks you can’t trust whether they’re nice or not. Then again, women are crazy and who knows what they’re ever really saying because cutting through a woman’s crap is like deconstructing a battleship with your teeth.
The whole thing made me confused and sort of hungry, so I called Carlos and arranged to meet him for lunch to commiserate and discuss the matter, to see if we could arrive at some sort of conclusion about the meaning of it all.
It was oneish on a hot Saturday afternoon in August. I didn’t shower or shave or brush my teeth or gel my hair to make myself socially acceptable, so I got to the diner ahead of him. I saw my reflection in the door’s glass: I wasn’t put together too well. Inside, the crowd was a sea of gray heads, which is a good indication of where you can get good food, cheap.
I was looking for a place to sit when the owner recognized me and rushed over with a hand extended, smiling. I delivered his soda products when he first opened, and there was this big hullabaloo because he tried to pay me for a $1200 invoice all in ones, which I refused to mess with and after I threatened to take all the product back he ended up writing a check, cussing me the whole time. But that was awhile ago and we’d made up since then. “Hello, Mr. Superman!” he said with a thick Arabic accent, putting a hand on my shoulder. His cologne could strangle people. “What brings you to see us today my friend?”
“I just need a cup of coffee, Kahil. Someone’s meeting me. We’re philosophizin’.”
His respectably huge eyebrows curved with wonderment and worry as I settled into a booth near the back. Then as if he’d arrived at The Secret of Life he pointed at me and said, “I’ll get Nadenka!” In his mind, I guess Nadenka was the cure to whatever ails crotchety American males. She’s a waitress, Ukrainian I think: bleached-blond, curvy, tall. We get a load of Eastern European girls in this area and most of them are nines-out-of-tens for cuteness but nevertheless awful. They come to spend a summer working at the beach, buy a lot of kitschy American crap (made in China) and sport whorey American fashions (made in China) before flying back to Russia to wed bear-like alcoholics and get thick, wrinkled hides from the harsh winters I suppose they have over there.
“I don’t need any women right now,” I said to Kahil. “I need black coffee, stat.” He didn’t know what stat means and neither do I, but he hurried off and came back grinning with black java and said, “Enjoy, my friend.” For a moment I considered that maybe Kahil still harbored secret hate about the spat at our first meeting, and maybe he’d spit (or worse) in my coffee for passive-aggressive revenge. But I drank it anyway and the steam was fogging up my glasses when Carlos tore through the front door and put a hand over his brow to scan the place, which was odd since he was now indoors and hadn’t taken his sunglasses off. Eventually his eyes adjusted and he rushed past my table without saying hey and disappeared behind the mens’ room door.
A couple minutes passed and he came back, sliding into the booth and sighing with relief. “You know what men like?” he asked. He pushed his shades up into his gelled black hair.
“Besides that, fool. Competition. Men are competitive. Being competitive inspires dudes, brings out their best. That’s part of why going to church doesn’t usually appeal: there’s no competition.” It was a hangover from our last conversation, when we were discussing why men generally don’t like going to church. I wasn’t too interested right then, what with all the emotional pain and confusion with my wife that morning, but I agreed with him a little. He said: “You know, like sports and politics and racing and construction and investing and all that stuff. Men like being in it to win it. Action. But they can’t win in church because there’s no competition, no goal to score, no finish line, no way of keeping track of who’s winning or losing. So they end up just sitting there like a warm blob.”
It was true really. Christians aren’t encouraged to do much. American evangelicalism is a perversion: you’re basically supposed to attend church, vote Republican, try to be nice, and apologize when you aren’t.
Kahil was working the cash register up front now. He wasn’t like that – a do-nothing – you better believe. He was keeping score here in Great Satan America. He probably had a tally of how many virgins Allah owed him in the afterlife.
I watched the old couple sitting across from us. The old boy kept putting his hand on hers as they spoke softly and smiled at one another. It was sweet and not at all like most older married couples, who tend to revile each other. I said: “So tell me how you propose to make church more competitive. What would we compete for? I mean you can’t just go around complaining without having some kind of –“
“Why are you being such a prick to Sikki?” Carlos demanded. My coffee was getting cold. I tore open one of those teeny cups of half-and-half and poured a few drops on top and watched them blossom white into the blackness.
“What makes you think I’m a prick?” I said. “Why should you always assume that I –“
“Because I know your history, dillhole. I know you’re always –“
“You don’t know,” I said. “That’s just it about you. You don’t know jack. This is one of your big weaknesses but you think it’s a strength. You’re clueless sometimes.” The half-and-half was flowering beautifully toward the edge of the mug. Its shape was like something from deep space, its soft and silent expansion looked like the origin of the universe or something.
His brown eyes narrowed. “What’s a weakness?” he asked.
“Thinking you know things about everyone, thinking you possess some super-intuitive enlightened sixth-freakin-sense that gives you clairvoyant insights into the heart and soul of every person on the planet.”
“Bullshit. I don’t –“
“Like they’re all alcoholics or impotent or got bullied when they were kids or have a third nipple or whatever. And when you’re right maybe half the time – which is just the law of probabilities at work, like a horoscope or one of those false prophets folks stain their undies over – you gloat and out comes your chest like no man ever born can stand before your wisdom. And you can put your hand down and stop denying reality because yes you do. You should write a column…’Dear Carlos’ or ‘Swami Carlos’s Astrological Musings’ or something like that.”
“Bullshit! I have a gift.”
“Yeah well hey — you were right about me. I do have a superfluous nipple. But like always you were only half right because I in fact have two extra nipples. Ha!” I started acting stupid and stuck my tongue out and twisted imaginary nipples on my chest for sarcastic effect.
“Hello guys,” said Nadenka, who was standing behind me on my left. She gave me and my chest a curious glance. “May I start you out with something to drink?” The way she talked was how I imagined Dracula’s daughter might sound.
Carlos was ready to order his meal: he got pancakes and eggs and sausage links with orange juice. I ordered a glass of milk, a refill of coffee and a Number Two. Nadenka didn’t write anything down. She nodded and smiled kindly — she had no problem serving four-nippled freaks — then she about-faced and her curly brown ponytail swung side to side as she walked away.
“A vampire, that girl,” I said, “way she snuck up like that.”
“Fool,” Carlos said. “What’s a Number Two?”
“I don’t know. Number Two is whatever comes. Like life. Don’t you know life is one big mysterious knobby Number Two?”
“Fool. Why you fighting with your woman?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It was a fight about nothing — aren’t they all?”
“It wasn’t even a proper fight,” I said. “It was a not-seeing-eye-to-eye or something less than a real fight.” I stripped the paper off a straw and was trying to flatten it out and roll it into a spiral. “You know those status messages I’ve been sending to Facebook every day? The ones where I put some reason I love her?”
“Well somehow that went wrong.”
“I knew it would,” he said.
“You did not,” I said. “Step off that. I haven’t even told you in what regard anything went wrong. You’re just making stupid assumptions, like always. I should just leave you hanging.” I rolled the paper into a nice tight spiral. I unwound it and started over. He put his back to the wall and lifted his legs onto the bench. Once I was sure he was shutting up and letting me talk I said, “She didn’t have a problem with the things I was saying in those messages. She had a problem with the fact that I’ve been saying them all along, even when I was in love with someone else.” I let that sink in. He nodded. “So, I try to do something nice for her and sort of force myself to think about why I love her and the whole thing blows up in my face like nuclear freakin Afghanistan. So I feel a little damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I can see that, but I see her point too.”
Nadenka appeared with our drinks. The whole relationship thing was a maddening trainwreck in my head and I was talking too much with my hands and bumped my glass and spilled milk all over my side of the table.
Carlos’s eyes widened. He looked at me like I needed to be tranquilized. Nadenka hadn’t even finished refilling my coffee. “I’m gesticulating wildly,” I admitted to her. “Could you bring some napkins? We’re sloppy Americans — you better keep an eye on us.” I smiled and studied her face for any reaction, but there was none: she just said of course and turned toward the kitchen through the swinging doors.
“Something’s always wrong,” I said. I sighed and tapped a finger on the table.
“That should be in a song or something,” he said.
“Toad the Wet Sprocket, year of our Lord nineteen-hundred-and-ninety-four.” I placed the paper-spiral wad in the palm of my hand and flicked it at Carlos’s head. It missed, though.
Nadenka reappeared with a large white dishtowel. I expected her to pitch it down on the table and let me clean up my mess — which I would have done — but she didn’t. She lifted what was left of my glass of milk, placed the cloth over the milk-ring and sopped up the entire puddle. Carlos and I watched. She did it with gentleness and feminine grace, like a mother cleaning the dirt out of her baby’s skinned knee. Wipe, fold, wipe again. She was careful not to spread the milk around or let it fall into my lap, which I probably deserved.
The food arrived a few minutes later. The diner emptied out as lunchtime turned to afternoon. We left Nadenka a fifty percent tip because we were full and happy and because Carlos said to me, “Slob customers like you make her life hell.”
When we walked out of the diner, the sun was hot on our shoulders. I suggested we go for a drive. Carlos said that’d be cool, but he didn’t want to take his Mustang because it was low on gas and he didn’t feel like filling it. We had to go to a grocery store near the diner to buy some trash bags so I could clean out the passenger seat of my car, which was cluttered to the window with pizza boxes, candy wrappers, paycheck stubs, unpaid bills, aluminum cans and crumpled water bottles. I stuffed all of it into a Glad bag without thought or discrimination and pitched it into a dumpster behind the store. After calling me white trash and expressing shame and humiliation at having to be seen going anywhere with me, he finally got in the car and we drove off under a vague notion of trying to find a decent cup of coffee.
We tooled up to ocean highway through Rehoboth and Dewey Beach down through the state park, where we glimpsed the Atlantic Ocean on one side of the road and Rehoboth Bay on the other. There was a big sign warning motorists not to run over baby turtles making their way from one side to another, but there was grisly evidence in the road of many unfortunate mishaps. Bethany Beach, Fenwick Island, the miles passed until we were in Ocean City, Maryland. I parked near the Carousel Hotel on 119th Street. We got coffee at Dunkin Donuts and started crossing over the dunes. A couple of girls passed us near the top, sweeping us with their eyes. Carlos said, “I like hanging out with you because the girls look up at you and not at me — it keeps me humble.”
“I didn’t notice them,” I lied. “Besides, they probably just think we’re gay.”
We crested the dunes and walked toward the water. It was gorgeous everywhere, soft clouds and shining water and hot sand. Men were tossing footballs and Frisbees around, women in brilliant bikinis were lying in the sun, reading, talking to each other, little children were splashing and shrieking in the surf. Everything was beautiful. We stopped about fifteen feet from the water and stood there a long time in the sun, sipping coffee, silently taking in the scene.
“Here,” said Carlos. He was emptying the pockets of his cargo shorts, handing me keys and his wallet and packs of gum and all kinds of stuff. When he saw my hands were getting full, he started transferring things directly from his pockets into my own.
“What the heck are you doing?” I said. He took off his shirt and pointed at the water.
“You going in?” I asked.
“Yep. You coming?”
I shook my head. “Who’d hold your gum?”
He stooped to pull off his shoes and socks, and faced the Atlantic. He waded slowly. “It’s freezing!” he yelled as the water reached his waist. The happiness on his face was like the unmasked glee of the little kids splashing nearby. Then he dove and disappeared under a shimmering wall crowned in diamonds, engulfed in blue.
* * * * *
It was late when I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. The moon was waxing gibbous, shining through our bedroom windows. It would be brighter the next night, and the next, until it was full and resplendent, that ancient moon we take for granted, the eye that blinks once a month and pulls the waters to the land twice a day, making endless waves speak like the labored breath and lovers’ prayers of Earth’s inhabitants.
Sikki was awake. Since it was late I figured she’d be pretty mad. The moonlight cast a spell of sapphire over the room. I undressed, pulled the covers back and got in bed next to her, eyeing the curves of her chest and hip in the dim light. Her skin was warm and fragrant. I lay my head on her breast, listening to the music of her heart, exploring the sheets for her hand. When I found it I tangled our fingers and closed my eyes. If she was still angry, at least she didn’t pull away.
I apologized for being thoughtless, and for leaving. I thought of all the things I feel about her that language can’t convey in the constraints of three little words, but I whispered them anyway. I held her, lashed myself to her moorings once again in the quiet gleam of the shifting moon. I drifted to sleep, thanking Heaven for granting me an anchor.