Nathan Leslie

Laying Out

Allison is laying out again.  Clouds cloak the sun.  There are things I want.

“You can catch a lot of rays even if it’s overcast,” she says.  Her voice is monotone, bored.  A stainless steel traveling mug of iced green tea rests next to her head.  She says she drinks it for the anti-oxidants.  When I ask her what those are she says:  “I’m trying to relax here.”  Point taken.

I sit and watch her.  She’s my wife so I guess I have the right.  I watch her flat belly rise and fall.  It is as flat and hard as the sidewalk.  Flat as dirt.

“I’d rather be alone,” she told me once.  This isn’t what I had in mind by matrimonial union. Under the oversized sunglasses she flashes me that same look.  Her sunglasses are so large they almost cover the expanse of her entire face.  Allison’s skin is the color of our cherry kitchen cabinets.  If she stood in front of them she’d blend right in.  When she’s not laying out she’s at the tanning salon.  I don’t get the appeal.  I think of the worst:  suntans, melanoma.  Allison doesn’t care if our friends and neighbors think she’s vain.

“I just enjoy the warmth on my skin,” she tells me.  “It feels good, Paulie.”

“Hey, so I was thinking,” I say.  I pull my socks up.  It’s lunchtime.  I’m in my blaring red uni.  I run the copy center in the strip mall across the street.  This is one of my perks—lunch with my wife in the summer.  She’s a teacher, so she’s off July and August.  I try to avoid jealousy.  In my mind I’m wearing a silk Armani suit, a tux.

“Yeah,” she says.  I notice she doesn’t have a sci fi book next to her.  Allison only reads sci fi.  She reads books in Klingon.  Allison is semi-fluent, but these days she has a difficult time finding anyone to practice with.  She used to walk around the house talking in Klingon:  “Nugneh.  Nugdag ‘Oh puchpa’’e’?”  Hello, where is the bathroom?  I wonder if Klingon will someday become a dead fake language.  The Trekkies are aging.

“Wanna head to Ocean City next weekend?  Spend the night then head back?”

Allison clears her throat.  She clears her throat a lot.  I find this annoying.

“Nah,” she says.  Even through her satellite dish sunglasses I can tell she’s not paying attention.

“I just thought that—”

“You know how I feel about being away from Popsicle.”  That’s our Papillon.  “I mean, I’m just trying to have a low-key summer.  We could jog together if you want.”

“The beach is low-key,” I say.  I lean forward in the lawn chair.  I can feel my face beginning to flush.  Allison’s narrowness just aggravates me. 

“Well, you’re too open-minded.  There’s nothing you won’t say no to,” she says.  She’s staring at a blade of grass jutting up through our weathered deck.  “How about that?”

“I’m getting lunch,” I say.  I don’t offer her a thing.  I try not to slam the door or bang the silverware; I don’t want her thinking she’s got my goat.  My movements quicken anyway.  It’s just over one year into our marriage and I’m already wondering if we should seek help.  A counselor I mean.  Therapist.  Whatever they’re calling themselves these days.  In the abstract Allison is a good person.  She’s moral.  She just needs a good clean shove in the right direction.

* * *

I hate my job.  That’s another thing.  For $11.25 an hour I basically make sure the nine college kids we have working for us aren’t ruining us.  This is easier said than done, especially during the last month of each semester.  That’s when usually a third of our employees turn over.  This means I fill in.  It also means I rarely spend time with Allison during the academic crunch in December and April.

It’s my own fault:  I know that.  I could have finished college, but it just didn’t appeal to me in the short term.  I was never sure what the connection was between the history of Korea, say, and a job.  I can be stubborn as the next guy.  The fact that I don’t even possess my associate’s degree is embarrassing when I am in the midst of doing my daily business.  I hate processing resumes—all those degrees, all those awards.

Allison said the same thing many years ago (we met in college before I dropped out)—that I should see it through.  Part of me wonders if she lost respect for me when I quit; she stayed with me but kept me at arms length from a few of her “intellectual” friends.  But then I’m not so sure how much any of this matters now:  Allison cut those ties, developed others, took up Pilates, aerobics, jogging, weight-lifting, swimming, tanning.

Sometimes I wonder if Allison feels as if she’s settled.  She could do better.

When Allison isn’t tanning, she’s exercising.  Every day it’s a different activity—hard to keep them straight, honestly.  The only one that’s regular is jogging—which we do together.  Each morning at six, rain or shine, we’re jogging up and out of The Bottoms, then down Meadow Haven Way, and up to the gate itself.  Meadow Haven is there as a constant reminder:  this is what real success looks like.  Then we jog along the access road that parallels the fence.  The road is for maintenance and security, but as long as we don’t try to gain entrance into Meadow Haven proper it’s no skin off their back.  The road loops all the way around the gated community, then back to Meadow Haven Way.  It’s a nice loop.  I love the sound of our feet pounding the pavement in unison.  Honestly, if we didn’t have jogging I’m not sure we’d be together.  God help us if I twist an ankle, pull a groin muscle.

The next morning we’re out there, as usual.  Allison is telling me about the book she’s reading, Pirates of the Crab Nebulae

“It’s about these scallywags who take over the Brillingsbong’s space cruiser.  They kidnap Princess Fittswirt and slaughter her subjects, but little do they know there is an inter-galactic enforcer hot on their trail.  So exciting.”

She goes on and on.  Allison loves to recite her various sci fi.  I feign interest.  This is better than usual:  Allison is typically tight-lipped about her books when she’s not jogging.  When she’s done I decide to broach the subject once again.  It’s been a while. 

“Allison,” I say.  “I want children.”

She turns her head.  I watch her pony tail bob as we run.  I watch her neck muscles.  She emits an ironic laugh. 

“There is no way you just said that,” she says.  “Point blank, I mean.”

Allison is opposed for a slew of reasons.  I want to be a father.  I want something to pull us together, and morning jogs are not enough.

“Well I did,” I say.

“You know where I am on this,” she says.  “Do you think anything has changed?”

I want to take a stand, offer her an ultimatum.  I want her to understand my priorities, that I need validation too.  Then I immediately feel idiotic, wussified.  Instead I just run.  My feet pound the pavement.  Running as fast as I can, I pull ahead.  Fight or flight, I think.  My pattern hasn’t changed.

She has cited money, health, need for independence, lack of interest, fear.  None of these really matter.  I wish I had an ally.

It takes me a few weeks but I find identical pills—small, oval, white.  I have to slide the pharmacy clerk two hundred bucks.  He says he could lose his job over this, if anybody finds out.

“Don’t worry,” I say.  His tag says Vlad.  He’s tall and gangly with droopy hair and a wide scar on his neck.  I give him my cell phone number.
By the end of the next week he has them for me.

“What are they?” I ask him.

“Sugar pills,” he says.  “That is all.”  The bottle looks just like the other one, even the label. 

We meet behind a Dunkin’ Donuts and he gives me the bottle.

For the weekend I make the switch when Allison is out doing the breast stroke at the gym.  I switch every pill in her container.

The next morning we make love.  I make sure I build up the romance, let it develop just right.  I’m determined.

I’m at work that afternoon.  I remember hearing about the women who lie to their boyfriends that they are on the pill so that the poor suckers get their girlfriends pregnant and are then forced to marry.  I suppose I think of myself as a kind of copycat.  I don’t have to be original to be right.

When we make love I push myself in as deep as I can, deeper.

I’m in the basement sitting on Allison’s rowing machine.  I’m surrounded by other exercise machines—elliptical, Stairmaster, stationary bike.  The small, cramped basement in our townhouse is filled with her exercise equipment.  Shit stains from Popsicle litter the wall-to-wall carpeting.  I wonder what our son will think of all this.

Part of me still thinks Allison is an addict.  On the web I’ve read up on the kinds of endorphins exercise releases; for some reason it can be habit forming.  The body gets used to the rush.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that Allison is fit, tan—she’s easy on the eyes.  She could have a worse habit.  Still, she tends to take things too far.  Not me.

“I just like being healthy,” she told me once.  “I mean, the better care I take of my body, the longer it will last.”

I think of tennis shoes—how eventually no matter how good the shoe, the tread wears down.  Mechanical breakdown.  I want to tell Allison she’s just postponing the inevitable.

“Do you think you’re lonely?” Allison asks me at dinner.  We’re eating KFC out of the tub, drinking Orange Fanta.  As a result of her exercise regiment Allison feels she’s entitled.  We chew on celery sticks as a healthy side dish.

“I can’t believe you just asked me that,” I say.  “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Are you?”

I gnaw on the brittle crust of a thigh.  The meat is dry, but the skin is greasy.

“Are you?” I repeat.

“Sometimes I feel alone,” she says.  “Yes.”

We spend that evening in separate rooms.  She reads a new sci fi book:  The Scythnian Asteroid Belt.  I watch a program on the French resistance, then flip to a sit com.  I clip my fingernails.  The regular sound relaxes me.

This isn’t a story about right or wrong, and it’s definitely not a story about me.  This is a story about the family we are and the family I want us to be.  Call me an idealist.  After a month of sugar pills and eleven bouts of sex I’m fairly certain I’m on the right track.  Two months later, Allison puts her head in her hands, elbows on the kitchen table.  It’s pine—Ikea.  I know.  It’s night.  I’m trying to fix our jammed garbage disposal.

I try not to smile or betray any inkling when I pat her back, stroke her hair.  Her face looks drained of color.  I’m ready for the news, for the acknowledgement, the hand-wringing.  Her acceptance.  Her bending.

“I have no idea what happened,” she said.

“What are you talking about?”

“I had to do it, Paulie,” she says.  “Just had to take care of it.”

My heart plummets into my gut.  I feel dizzy.

“That doesn’t exactly explain it for me,” I say.

“I had an abortion this morning,” she says.

I don’t know what to say or do.  I sit down in front of her.  The table between us is long and wide.  The hard light on it.