Joyland

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The Things They Said

by Kelli Deeth

edited by Kevin Chong

Kelli Deeth's new collection of short fiction, The Other Side of Youth, is available now from Arsenal Pulp Press. This story was originally published on Joyland in 2010.

Courtney peered into the rearview mirror and Michael was gone. She knew he hadn’t abandoned her, that he had only gone in to pay for the gas, but that kind of sudden disappearance grabbed her in a delicate spot in the lining of her stomach. And then just as suddenly, the thunk of the door opening and the huge, firing electricity of his presence. It was early in the morning, and she felt things more.

They had crossed into Colorado in the dark, so she was just beginning to see it, the hardness of it. They were on their way to Michael’s step-father’s funeral in Parker.

“All done?” she said.

“All done.”

Michael squeezed her hand with his strong, warm fingers. She liked it when her hand was taken suddenly, it relieved her of some stress she wasn’t aware of until it drained away.

When they were on the highway again, Courtney said, “I want you to stay awake.”

“Why do you need me to stay awake?”

“I stayed awake for you,” she said, though she could not account for long stretches of the night. She remembered trying to knit a scarf, and then simply thinking. Was she born the way she was, or was she warped by need? What would it be like to have a different name? She had finally said to Michael, “If you didn’t know me, what would you think my name was?” At first, Michael didn’t want to play the game, but when she persisted, wouldn’t let it drop, he said, “I would think it was Naomi.” But she knew that was his favourite name- his answer had nothing to do with her.

She added, “I don’t like driving alone.”

“You’re completely capable of driving alone.” But Michael reached into the compartment between the seats and pulled out his Plutarch, Makers of Rome.

“What’s Plutarch talking about now?” Courtney said.

“Same old.”

Michael put the book face down in his lap. “I was just thinking,” he said.

“Thinking what?”

“That we’re going to be okay.”

“Are things not okay?”

“You know what I mean.”

A couple of weeks ago, Courtney told Michael that every decision she had ever made had been the wrong one, and that she didn’t know what the right ones were. The main decisions of her adulthood had been to earn a master’s degree in philosophy, to marry Michael, and to never bear children. She couldn’t say what was exactly wrong with her choices, only that she was beginning to feel buried. What she said was cruel, but Michael held her and let her grieve her mysterious grief.

“Do you believe me?” Michael said.

“I believe you,” she said, because it was the only thing to say. Though all of her decisions had been the wrong ones, she could not exist without Michael.

He began to read to her, what he did to stay awake. His voice was bold but sensitive, like someone reading on the radio. She was sure that if he had lived a thousand years earlier, he would have been an orator, wandering dusty streets, beloved of his followers.

***

They arrived at the motel in the middle of the afternoon.

Courtney turned on the television, found a tennis match, then sat on the end of the bed. There was the sound of water pouring into the tub--Michael always took a bath after car trips. Finally, the water stopped. The tennis match almost hypnotized Courtney.

“Courtney?” Michael called.

She waited for him to call her again.

“Courtney,” he called again. “Get in here.”

His voice pulled her to a standing position. She found herself stepping stiffly towards the bathroom.

She sat on the toilet lid and watched him take his bath, as he liked her to do at home. It was one of the times he did not like to be alone.

“What’s going on?” Michael said.

“I was watching tennis.” Michael’s short, dark hair was wet, and when it was wet, she could see more clearly that he was balding, the bright, almost babyish pink of his scalp. His nose looked bigger, too; the end, which lifted up slightly, was more bulbous.

“You don’t like tennis,” he said.

“When I was younger, my dad wanted me to be a pro, but I was too lazy to practice that hard.” But after she said it, she realized that really she had longed to disappoint him, to become a problem he would have to endlessly solve.

“You never told me that.”

“I never thought about it until now.”

“So he wanted you to be a pro.”

“He got it into his head that I would be good at it, and I pretended to like it.”

“Your dad’s an asshole.”

“Why does that make him an asshole?”

“He should have asked you what you wanted to be.”

“I never wanted to be anything,” she said. “That was my problem. He was trying to help me.” But she didn’t want to talk about that, her confusion, her sadness, her father.

“I like it here,” she said. The low mountains perturbed her at first, but then they began to pull her, as if by some peculiar, horizontal gravity.

After the bath, Michael and Courtney lay on their separate sides of the bed. Sunlight pressed at the curtains, but Courtney insisted that both of them lie down and rest before dinner, since they were up all night. She didn’t want Michael falling asleep early, when she would probably still be up, feeling her blood move at a quicker pace.

Something else was on television now, a documentary about Picasso. On the screen, briefly, was a painting of a woman and a young child, both figures contorted with longing, gripping each other strangely. She could not hear the commentary, and then the image disappeared. Now a man sat in a chair and spoke to an invisible interviewer. Courtney reached over Michael’s body, found the remote on his end table, and pointed it at the screen, pressing the red power button. The quiet room buzzed around her. Courtney couldn’t sleep or rest without the television. When she was younger, she lived her life downstairs in front of the television while her mother lived upstairs in the living room. Her father had lived somewhere else. Why was Courtney thinking about her father? He wasn’t ill, and he wasn’t so old yet that she had to worry about him having a heart attack. But lately, when she was doing the dishes or riding the subway to work, she wondered how she would feel if he died, if she would feel like something had been ripped away from her, or if she would feel nothing, because he hadn’t lived with her, and father was only a word. Her friends had fathers who lived at home, so she knew what they looked and sounded like. They shaved in the mornings, they reached into their pockets for money, they handed over car keys with warnings; they said, you be home on time, you listen to your mother, you’re going to get it. Courtney’s father was something else, a distant participant in her life, dropping her off and then driving away to the tenth floor apartment where he lived alone; he was a man who had helped her into the world but who was not a father. In the summer, he would pull up in her driveway in his white tennis shorts and red polo shirt. For a couple of hours on the court, he became her fierce, unmerciful opponent, but she couldn’t become his. When she spiked her balls out of bounds, and then stood there limply, defeated, he would shake his head and say she was like her mother. She had the physique and stamina for tennis, he said, but she didn’t even try. Afterwards, she sat in the passenger seat, silent and guilty as he gave her tips on serving. Within minutes, they parted like-- like what?

Michael looked asleep, his eyelids closed and gently fluttering.

Courtney got up quietly, went to the window and pulled the harsh blue curtain open. Their room was at the back of the motel, so she had a view of the almost empty parking lot. All through the trip, she worried the car would be stolen. The blue rented Nissan still sat beside a pickup truck. In Toronto, she hardly ever saw pick-up trucks and more often saw gleaming cars that she and Michael could not afford. Cedars blocked her view of the strange, arid, reddish mountains that penetrated her mind early this morning. She didn’t want to go to the funeral. Michael’s mother, Elizabeth, would look for ways to hurt her, as she always did. And Courtney didn’t want to see a dead man. Even though the death of Michael’s step-father was no great loss for either of them, the necessity of attending his funeral and facing his corpse did something to her, shook her, caught her at an angle where she was surprised to find she bled. People you might never have found the energy to love died, before you were ready. Her father would one day die, without ever having become in Courtney’s mind a father. Her only hope for a normal mourning was to somehow deceive herself.

“What do you say?” Michael said.

Courtney jumped, then she turned. Michael was on his back, smiling, his arms behind his head.

Courtney said, “Sure.” She was tired, but she didn’t want to miss an opportunity to be close to him; he gave off heat and her skin drew it in, held it for hours afterward.

***

Courtney and Michael were driving to the steak house, even though they could see it from the parking lot of the motel. The sign, Tom’s, written in orange flames, revolved, turning Courtney’s stomach slightly. Still, there was something about this place, the dry, evening warmth, the almost disgusting amount of sun, that gave her hope for something she couldn’t put her finger on.

Their waiter was a teenage boy. His name tag said Justin, which was a name Courtney liked, with its suggestions of dignity and self-control. First, he brought them water and bread. Courtney studied his forearms--he was not a child, but he was not a man. His forearms were thin, but muscular, lightly haired. Courtney experienced the soft, yet crushing maternal feeling she always did around a boy or girl she might have been the mother of.

When the waiter left, Michael tilted his head and looked at her and then put his elbows on the table, brought his hands together. He studied her face, as if preparing himself for something, anything, she might say. But Courtney didn’t need to point out that they were out of place at the restaurant--they’d been through it. Others Courtney and Michael’s age possessed children who were six or seven years old, children who would be teenagers by the time Courtney and Michael were in their early forties. She thought a lot about numbers and her personal timeline--eight was the year she learned to never trust a feeling of peace, twenty-seven was the year she met Michael, forty was to come, then fifty, then anything or nothing, depending on the unknown will of her body. Thirty-seven was the year where still her decision could be unmade, reborn as something shocking and unrecognizable, like the brightness of the sun today. But Courtney had made the decision; it took everything she had to take care of herself; the child would starve, and she would watch it starve, as her mother and father had watched her starve. Courtney and Michael weren’t career people; Courtney worked in human resources at an engineering firm, and Michael fixed computers. They hadn’t chosen childlessness for money and power and prestige; Courtney wasn’t able to bring herself to go off birth control, to allow the worm of a pregnancy, the stream of hormones.

“I was thinking I could live here,” Courtney said.

“Why on earth would you want to live here?”

Courtney stared at him, her lips pressed together. Then she said, “Maybe a shake-up is what people need sometimes.”

“Does this have anything to do with all your bad decisions?”

Their wine came. The waiter--Justin-- was smiling, a secret, completely pleased smile that couldn’t have had anything to do with Courtney and Michael. When Courtney was a teenager, she worked in a lighting store and wandered in and around the lamps, thinking about sex.

After he poured their wine, Justin stood with his notepad. Michael ordered steak and Courtney ordered spaghetti, something she craved every couple of weeks.

He took their menus. He glanced at Courtney, a blank, unseeing glance. She was used to them, but not quite. The glances left her wanting to say something that nobody would stay and listen to, that she was an adult woman, not a defect, a chipped vase there was no place for on any shelf.

When he was gone, Courtney studied the tablecloth. It was white, with wings sewn into it. She moved her eyes from one pair of outstretched wings to another.

“You look like you lost your best friend,” Michael said.

“Everything’s fine,” she said. “I’ve made my decisions.”

“Yes, you have.”

She straightened, and the muscles in her back were full of dull pain.

“What you need,” Michael said. “What you need is to stop thinking your worthless.”

“I don’t think I’m worthless.”

“It’s like you’re constantly telling the world that you don’t deserve anything.”

“All I said is that I might want to live here. Your mother moved here.”

“My mother’s also crazy not to mention a raging alcoholic.”

“I feel what I feel,” Courtney said. “How can I help that?”

Michael sipped his wine, held the red liquid in his mouth a moment before swallowing. Courtney sipped her wine. She knew how to look around a restaurant and see nothing but blurs-- four or five seated at this table, that table, tables, tables. She would not make eye-contact with a woman with a child; the woman communicated in a radiant flash her inexplicable superiority. Michael always said, “Stop imagining things.”

Justin came with their plates of food, then left quickly. Michael cut into his steak, put a piece in his mouth, and chewed precisely. Courtney had lost her appetite. The spaghetti was a grotesque heap.

“What’s the matter?” Michael said.

“Nothing at all is the matter,” Courtney said. “And I don’t think I’m worthless.”

“You want to live here, we’ll live here,” Michael said. “We’ll leave all our problems behind. Ride off into the sunset. That’s what you want?”

“Maybe there was never any decision to make,” Courtney said. “Maybe I never had a choice about anything.” She looked up and off, into a chandelier hanging across the room; there was the perfect, awful rightness of what she said.

Michael stared at her. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. He cut into his steak again. “But if that’s the way you feel.”

“I had a choice about you,” she said, even though she didn’t. As the months of their courtship went by, she grew more and more attached, hooking her arm into his on walks to and from restaurants, holding him close on Sunday night, making him stay.

“Whatever you say.”

Justin came and asked politely if everything was okay and Courtney smiled and nodded and told him it was. He leant a temporary, almost burning warmth, and she wished he would stand there for a minute, so she could pretend to have ownership, so she could pretend that she had let herself be cut open, and then doted on him, never falling into her own blackness, the shadow of eight years old. He left, and she couldn’t watch him leave. She could never stand the sight of someone’s back, getting farther away, the sight of someone leaving her cold. Watching meant she was admitting the departure was happening, feeling and knowing the quiet terror of it. When she looked at Michael, she saw that his eyes were wet. She said his name, but he would not look at her. “Michael?” she said, and he put another piece of steak into his mouth.

***

The motel room felt like a box, too square, too severe. The walls pressed in and around Courtney, as the walls did at home, in the apartment.

Courtney and Michael leaned back against their individual pillows and watched television, a show Michael had put on. Three men and one woman, all in suits, debated at a round table, their hands lifting and falling, their mouths tensing and twitching, their shoulders bracing. On the short drive back to the motel, she and Michael didn’t speak, not with words, not out loud. But messages, as always, were passed back and forth between them. Michael, she knew, was sick of going over ground they had already gone over, opening cases that had been concluded. She had made the decision and he respected it. In fact, he felt the same way she did, he didn’t want to raise a child if Courtney didn’t feel she could be a good mother to it, if she didn’t really want it deep down. He promised her he was fine. Courtney could say to all of that, What if I can’t grow up?

Michael changed channels without consulting her and Courtney didn’t argue. He surfed, as he did at home, sometimes for the entire evening, never settling on one show.

In two days they would attend the funeral. Parkinson’s controlled the man’s body for years. Michael never really knew his step-father because his mother met him through a personal ad after she moved to Colorado. She had left her job in London, Ontario, because she wanted to show Michael’s father, who had gone on to have another family, that she had moved on, too. She dated and then married a man she knew would become immobile. The alcoholism had been there since Michael was four, a fact and nothing more, the terrible weather of his past, his young life. Elizabeth still called when she was drunk, to tell him she was lonely, that Bob was killing her, but since living with Courtney, he was getting better at not answering the phone, waiting days or weeks to call back.

For two days, Courtney and Michael had traveled together to go somewhere neither of them wanted to go, but had no choice but to go, because Michael’s mother, no matter how much she had wounded and neglected Michael--Elizabeth had once beaten him with a towel rack that she found in the basement--was still his mother. Courtney would be an observer at the funeral, and the most she would feel was pity. When it came to his mother, she would feel nothing else. When Courtney first met her, when Elizabeth visited Toronto, she was amazed at her pale, smooth skin; her blue eyes, magnified by her glasses. In her lilac pantsuit, she didn’t look like the woman who left Michael, the curly-headed child, no choice but to drag her off the lawn when she passed out. How had he found the strength? After coming back to the apartment after the restaurant, Elizabeth and Michael drank together on the balcony while Courtney watched a biography about Katherine Mansfield and then tried to read Romantic poetry from an anthology she bought for a class. She finally went into their bedroom. She was surprised to see Michael a few minutes later, going to bed, thanking her for giving him an excuse to leave his mother. Once they were both under the covers, Elizabeth opened their bedroom door, and sat on the end of the bed, at Courtney’s feet. She told Courtney not to feel bad that she was infertile, that this was the story of many women, and that it was a blessing really, when so many intelligent women became nothing but breeders. Courtney, who didn’t know then that there was no point in arguing with a drunk, said that she wasn’t infertile, that she and Michael had made a choice. His mother looked at Michael and said, “Is this true? You people have made a choice to live this way?”

Then Courtney told her to get out of their room. Elizabeth stared at Courtney, then stood and left. When the door to the second bedroom (their office, with an air mattress on the floor) closed, Michael said, “Did you have to be so mean?”

“Didn’t you hear what she said to me?”

“I heard what she said to you.”

Later, Courtney realized- she was paying for groceries-that Michael told his mother that she was infertile, to save them both from her disapproval, to make Courtney look like a tragic case, to ensure warm tides of sympathy.

Since then, no matter how much his mother wept into the phone, Courtney asked herself who such a mother was to even imagine that she had been a mother.

Courtney adjusted the pillow, so she was sitting up straighter, and Michael went to the bathroom. He had an elaborate, before bed ritual. He brushed his teeth, flossed, washed his face with a hypoallergenic soap, plucked any hair to be found in his nose or ears, then applied lotion to his shoulders, where the skin broke out in small, red pimples. Courtney was relieved that she and Michael had sex earlier, because she didn’t want to now. If they argued, even if silently, her naked body near his felt too vulnerable.

Courtney looked up at the ceiling. There was an oval light fixture with a pattern of curled up daisies on it. She tried to imagine that her father was already dead, that the news had come. If she could feel sadness, that would mean he amounted to a father and she amounted to a daughter, and that the hollowness she knew of as herself was only a memory, a brief experience, and that really she had lost nothing. She experienced a sensation of impatience as she waited to experience a sensation; then, she curled up, like one of the etched daisies.

When Michael emerged from the bathroom, he said, “I was a dick earlier.”

“No, you weren’t. I knew it was crazy. I just wanted to tell someone I had had the thought.”

“It wasn’t crazy,” he said. “You’re just sick of things. Everyone gets sick of things.” Then he said, “It’s not over until it’s over, you know.”

“It’s over for me,” Courtney said.

“You mean, the fat lady has sung?”

She wasn’t going to tell him again why, that Courtney couldn’t allow a child to be abandoned, to grow up like her, forming tentacles that reached for anyone or anything. She was lucky to find Michael.

“There’s lots to enjoy in this world,” Michael said. “We’re not going to be like everyone else.” He held his head up, in his usual show of pride and bravery.

“It’s not because I want that,” Courtney said. “I don’t mind everyone else. I like them.” She wanted to touch him, but kept her hands in her lap. In moments when absences were exposed, her body pressed against his could cause a kind of internal bleeding that she didn’t know how to stop. She didn’t mean to fail, but she had.

Michael took off his jeans and his shirt. He was turned away from her, facing the cabinet which held the coffee maker and bowl of chocolate bars, and where Michael had rested the two, electronic cards that served as keys to the room. Michael’s back was long and muscular, like a male ballerina’s back. She couldn’t see them now, but she knew from past exploration that Michael had small, white scars all along his spine. He said he wasn’t aware of them, and that he didn’t know how he had gotten them. One of the lies between them. Courtney lied too. She and Michael were joined, and where she took him he had no choice but to go, because he didn’t insist on anything, because he was afraid to lose Courtney. She could tell him she depended on him, but the words never came out of her mouth.

Michael faced her--he stood before her in his boxer shorts.

“Sometimes I think you’d be better off without me.” He flicked out the overhead light, so the room was dark, except for light from the parking lot that washed up against the curtains.

Courtney pulled her knees up. He always said this, that he was an anchor.

Another man, he told her, would have cured Courtney of her ill ease. Her answer was no answer.

Michael got into bed. He pulled the blanket up around his shoulders and neck, so she could see only the top of his head.

Courtney was still on top of the covers. She sat there, her arms wrapped around her knees. Michael quickly fell asleep, as he usually did after shutting out the light. His congested, jagged breathing giving his unconsciousness away. If she wanted to talk to him, she had to begin the conversation when the light was on; in sleep, he was irretrievable.

She crept over to the window, pulled back the curtain a little. The car was still there. The moonlight stroked the car’s hood. She had bothered Michael the entire trip with her irrational fear that their rented Nissan would be stolen. Michael told her that if it was stolen, they would manage. He would manage. But in her mind, she and Michael would be thrown into chaos. The threads of her careful web would come apart.

She wanted to ask Michael, had she robbed them of what most people seemed to live for, and all most people attained in the end, the simple joy of their children’s painful need for them? The thought, lighting up her brain.

As she stood there, she could almost hear Michael’s voice, a firm voice that would shake, like a young boy’s voice, when he was upset. He would say to be happy with who she was, to hold her head up, to be proud of the choices she had made, because she had made them with her well-being in mind. She and Michael were a family, and who was to say they were not? They were a family like anyone else, no one was missing, no one was wanted. The things he said to her and the things she said back, over and over; words whose meanings brought little comfort, no matter how true they might be, no matter how often they were said, who said them or who heard them, whose voice trembled or whose broke.