She had that kind of slightly plump whiteness that needed only bare arms or stockingless legs on a new spring day to look suddenly, even startlingly, naked. Her eyes, round, slightly protruding, a pale blue and rather watery, stared into the shop window at the little black dress, so strangely out of place among the bright pastels. The smooth baby-pink edges of her heels made a little sucking sound against the soles of her backless shoes as she went inside. Why did she want this dress? Why did she want to wear this piece of mourning on this bright spring day? It seemed right. Who–or what–had died?
It was a fit. Slinky, clinging, but very modest, really. A highnecked halter style, no cleavage, but bare-shouldered. It looked rather good. The saleswoman seemed impressed. “Oh, your shoulders look fantastic!” It was only eighty dollars. She’d wear it to dinner that night with Patrick. Gorgeous Patrick, so intelligent–a columnist for the Atlanta Constitution, known and admired by everybody. He was a defender of women’s rights. His column on abortion was still quoted by Jenn, her roommate: “When those men in those red beanie caps and long dresses around the Vatican have to experience the pain, the agony, of any woman in childbirth, they will have the right to speak about abortion…” Something like that, anyway. To be Patrick’s partner, his lover, was cause for self-congratulation. It gave her renown, being seen with him, having people know that they slept together, that she was his choice, his woman. His woman? What an expression. She surprised herself again.
The little piece of black cowered in the bottom of the hot-pink plastic shopping bag. Yes, it was a mourning dress, even if it was a sexy one, her own response to spring. Spring always depressed her. Bright green budding leaves, tulips shouting their red, rows of singing yellow jonquils–full of exuberance under sprays of pure, blinding- white dogwood, so full of promise, so full of empty promise.
“I don’t see anything.” Dr. Cooper drew his head back, turning on the light above the examining chair. “I don’t know what the problem is. When do you see this cloudiness?”
“All the time.”
“Not just in the morning when you wake up–or when your eyes are tired?”
“No. Actually, I see more clearly when I first wake up. It’s later that this white fogginess seems to creep in, coming from the edges towards the center.”
“Well, I can see no cause, no clinical cause anyway. I could prescribe a moisturizer for your eyes, but you’d do just as well with something over the counter. Try that for a while and see if it improves.”
That was a week ago. Her vision had not improved; in fact, it was worse. She looked at the Bradford pear trees lining Kay Boulevard as she walked back to her Decatur apartment. That was it–the stupid pear trees. They were a hybrid, very popular with landscapers because of their perfectly formed, consistently shaped branches, their white blossoms in spring, and mainly because they bore no messy fruit. They were the problem; with their white clouds of blossoms, they were encroaching on her vision. White cloudiness around the periphery, steadily diminishing her sight, so that she could see only what was directly in front of her, taking away the context for her vision. And every day, on her way to work, shopping, wherever she went, she had to navigate her way through these hybrid white cloud trees.
She twisted her frosted martini glass between her fingers. Patrick was late. He was often late. Was he still angry with her? There wasn’t any particular reason she knew of for his being late tonight. Yes, he was probably late because he was still angry. She watched a businessman eating alone at the table in front of her, apparently not so impressed by his dinner as to put aside the folded-up newspaper he was reading. Was he reading Patrick’s column? She wondered why she was more curious about what the man was reading than about why Patrick was late. The man shoved his plate aside, removed his glasses and wiped them with a napkin. She could see what he was reading–the stock market pages, not Patrick’s column.
Yes, he was angry–still. She tried to muster some anxiety about that and found that she was unable to, that Patrick’s anger had been relegated to the side-clouds, ever receding from her view. For the moment anyway, as she watched this unknown businessman in his gray suit, pale blue shirt, and striped tie, for the moment, she even had some difficulty remembering the scene that had angered Patrick last week.
“I just don’t want to.”
“But I do it for you.”
“Yes, I know–but I don’t want you to.”
“I guess I don’t like it.”
“That’s ridiculous–you’ve always liked it.”
“No, I haven’t. I just knew that you did.”
“But you like it when I do it for you.”
“No–no, I don’t like that. I just knew you did.”
Oh, yes, he was angry. Bemused by the striped tie of the businessman, she wondered if Patrick was more angry about the possibility that he’d “read” her wrong than he was about the argument. She guessed it would be irritating to find that after a year of frequent sex, he had not been sending her to the stars after all. Anyway, she tried very hard to bring the subject into her focused thoughts, but it wouldn’t go; it stayed on the foggy edges, and the businessman’s tie, the frost on the glass, and now the burnt orange cocktail napkin consumed all her attention. Burnt orange with Matisse-style lettering: Johnny’s. A trendy place, very popular. Lots of noise. It seemed that all “good” restaurants these days were noisy, with waiters yelling at busboys, at cooks–who were, often as not, cooking on an open grill in the dining room–dishes clattering, lots of noisy bustle, customers talking, laughing loudly. She hated eating in a noisy atmosphere. She hated Johnny’s, actually. How could that man read in all this noise?
A waiter looked meaningfully at her. They wanted her to order, they wanted this table, they were wondering if her date had stood her up. She ordered another martini and studied the yellow rose in the center of the tiny black lacquered table, dainty and delicate, looking oddly contained in a sleek stainless steel vase. Patrick had sent her a dozen roses last fall from New Orleans when she’d had the abortion. He was there to write a piece on the racism of the Bush administration being responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. He hoped for a Pulitzer on that one, but there were too many others like it, too much competition. There were two dozen deep red roses. Jenn put them in her bedroom on the dresser, but she moved them out to the living room. They looked like blood, a great blood clot. Just a blood clot, a living one, yes, but just a clot. When Patrick called, she told him about the Women’s Clinic, how they told her it would be painless, how excruciatingly painful it was, how there were little cell-like rooms all in a line down a long corridor, each one just big enough to contain a treatment table, a stool for the doctor, and a vacuum apparatus. So many, many little rooms, the doctor rushing down the corridor to spend a few minutes in each little room for the procedure, like an assembly-line operator. She thought Patrick might want to write about it–no one ever did, so he wouldn’t have the competition he was having with the Katrina disaster and Bush administration. He wasn’t interested, though. The steel vase was like a piston chamber, but where there should be a piston, there was a rose.
Three tables away George Paccheo was drinking with two companions, getting drunk by the sound of the raucous laughter. George was a friend of Patrick’s, gregarious, one would call him, politely.
Twenty minutes. Very late. Why did Johnny’s line the walls with mirrors? Did they think everyone wanted to watch themselves eat? On the wall opposite she could see her milk-white bare shoulders on each side of the black halter dress, her light brown curls dipping into the white neck. But the clouds were closing in; she could only see her black dress, the black table-top, and the rose, all the rest was consumed in fog. The businessman between her and the mirrored wall was smiling, reading the comics. The picture of such a seriouslooking man reading comics made her smile too.
George was very loud. He’d spotted her, waved, and yelled a greeting. She smiled and waved back. She didn’t like George. He was a sports writer at the Constitution, and she didn’t like sports, so she always thought that was the reason she didn’t like him. They simply had nothing in common. She was a copywriter for Houghton- Mifflin, not an exciting job, she knew, but a job. At 33, she should have advanced in the publishing business by now, but she lacked ambition. Her work was adequate, sometimes quite good, but she was always passed over for promotion; worse than that, she didn’t mind.
She saw Patrick turning the corner from the entrance alcove. He could see her but he didn’t look her way; instead, he stopped and chatted with someone, then moved to George’s table, where he stopped and talked for a while. She began to wonder if he’d seen her. Yes, he had, he knew where she was, how long she’d been waiting. Patrick was going to break off with her, she realized suddenly. For a moment, a little pain hit her heart. He was gorgeous, fashionably gorgeous. His black hair was combed behind his ears and met the top of the collar of his gray tweed jacket. He wore a white teeshirt underneath and faded jeans. His perfect white teeth flashed in the middle of the dark beard stubble. Why were men doing that now? Why were they not clean-shaven? It was fashionable to have a day or two’s growth on their cheeks. Patrick was fashionable. The businessman in front of her was clean-shaven, unfashionably smooth cheeks.
Oh, damn. George was coming to the table with Patrick. Good Lord, he was staggering, really drunk. Why would Patrick bring him to the table in that condition? Damn. She focused on Patrick’s face, the clouds closed in.
Beard-stubble brushed her upturned cheek, a waiter darted to the table to take Patrick’s martini order, and then everything stopped.
“My God,” Patrick said, “you look fucking gorgeous.”
“Hey,” said George, “the question is does she look gorgeous fucking?”
Patrick grinned and sat down in the chair next to her. George drew up a chair opposite her–then changed his mind. Water filled her lap as the bud vase overturned. George leaned over the table and his tongue was in her mouth. The table tilted, the martini glass overturned and rolled to the floor. She could no longer see anything at all. She drowned in helpless revulsion. The clouds covered her.
The unexpectedness of violence–not its noise–stilled the air, thinned it, making breathing difficult. Table and chairs were overturned and George was on the floor with a gray-suited knee on his chest, blood gushing from his nose. Patrick was standing a few feet away, his mouth hanging open in dumb surprise. No one moved. The sudden silence seemed to paralyze the room. She sat as she was, looking down at George, at the gray leg. The waiters stood frozen. There was no movement anywhere until the smooth and ruddy cheek turned to look up through wire-framed glasses to where she sat, still and silent, waiting. And long afterward, when she tried, she could never explain or even understand how it was that his eyes banished all the clouds from her own, so that she saw everything at once with laser-like clarity–how she knew in an instant that whoever he was, she was; whatever his name was, it would be her own. She belonged to him.
Dena Hunt is an adjunct instructor at Valdosta State University in Georgia.