Dressed for work in blue shirt and beige slacks, Bill opens our front door, but instead of stepping out of the Lansing apartment we now call home, he turns away from the threshold, points a finger at me and says, “If I find out you’re fucking Steve, I’ll kill you both.”
I shiver by the dining room table. “This is because I went with him to buy wine yesterday?” I ask.
It seemed like a harmless outing to me when Bill’s long-time friend Steve asked if I’d ride along with him to pick up more booze for a party he threw to welcome Bill and me to Michigan. It didn’t occur to me Bill would mind. I now realize he must have stewed all night about what he imagined Steve and I must have done in all of twenty minutes away from him.
“You two are up to something. I know it, and I swear you’ll both be dead if I catch you.” He slams the door on his way out.
His threat hangs in the air as I dash to the window, pull aside the sheet, a temporary curtain, and see a parking lot, gravel, a field of tall grass stretching to the horizon, a little road recently paved a thick, gooey black. Bill emerges from the building and saunters through the Indian summer morning to our orange Karman Ghia—stupid stick-shift car I never learned to drive. It didn’t help that Bill yelled at me for not releasing the clutch smoothly enough during the one lesson he gave me. There can be no jerky shifting around Bill, just like there can never be one thing out of place, not a magazine on the kitchen table, not a tissue left overnight in a wastebasket, not one shoe knocked out of its neat little row in the closet. But I can’t blame him for my driving problems. All of my troubles started long before I met him.
Bill towers over the car, thinning hair on top of his head resembling an old shirt shredded at the elbows. He opens the door, scrunches his spindly frame inside, starts the engine and backs out of the space. He doesn’t look up before turning onto the road and zooming out of sight. I sit for a few minutes to make sure he doesn’t return. Then I call Kathy in Chicago.
“Hello?” she says.
“Kathy, it’s me. Bill just threatened to kill me.”
“Really? Oh, Laur.”
“I don’t know if he would really do it.”
“That man is a loser.”
“I don’t love him.”
“I know. I know.”
“I don’t like being stuck here in Lansing either.”
“Listen, I’ll take the day off and come get you.”
“You don’t have to. I could take the bus or something.”
“Nonsense. This is what sisters do, you know.”
“Okay, okay … Kathy?”
“You’re a peach.”
“Just sit tight. It’ll be okay.”
I go to the kitchen to make some Lopsang Souchong tea, craving its smoky, bitter taste. I think about the last time I tried to leave Bill just over a year ago. I stayed in an apartment Mary Ruth rented with some friends. She was back in town to earn some cash before heading to law school in California. Venturing out with her in the evenings, I started to laugh again. Colors everywhere looked brighter. But then I saw Bill walking toward me in Lincoln Park one Saturday. I hadn’t considered the possibility of encountering him, even though we were living only four blocks apart. I panicked and stopped. The sight of him caused all of my optimism to go into hiding.
“Can we talk?” he asked.
We found a bench and sat down.
“How’ve you been?” His voice cracked, and his words snapped in around me, clicking me into a place I didn’t want to go. I wanted to get up and run away, but my body wouldn’t move.
“I’ve been fine.” I looked across the path at pigeons pecking in the grass.
“Laura, I can’t live without you. And you can’t live without me. It’s only a matter of time before you fall apart. You’ll overeat, get fat. You have to stop this nonsense and come home.”
The happiness I’d felt just moments before vanished, as though a malevolent wizard had waved a magic wand. Negativity rose from within and snuffed out my fledgling dreams. My forays into a new life seemed utterly false, a fantasy.
He reached for my hand. I let him take it. “Come back to me,” he begged.
I tried not to feel sorry for him, but I did. And I felt not a shred of compassion for myself, certain I’d been a fool to dream of a better life. I agreed to return to him.
Now, I hope I’ll be able to break away for good. I finish my tea and flit around, a clumsy ballerina leaping and spinning to the very real thought of escape. The apartment is flooded with late summer’s light, making it seem like a happier home than it is, especially since it’s a new building with no memories oozing from the walls, no secrets whispering through creaking furnaces and rusting pipes. I turn on the radio, and Good Morning, Starshine from the musical Hair, comes on. What a joyous song. I try to sing along, but my throat tightens, no sound comes. Still, the song’s optimism lifts my mood. I spin around the apartment, surveying each room for things I need to take with me. One bedroom, one bathroom. A narrow kitchen, more of an alcove, really, and an open L-shaped living and dining area. A few closets. Pretty sparce. We moved here only three weeks ago when Bill’s employer transferred him from Chicago. It doesn’t feel at all like home.
Kathy drives a VW bug these days, so there’s scant room for cargo. I slide open the bedroom closet door and pull out a handful of work dresses and throw them on the bed. I add a trio of blouses with open collars and puffy sleeves that were on sale at Casual Corner, my favorite long brown skirt, and a purple dress Mary Ruth mailed to me because she saw it in New York and thought it was perfect for me. I open a dresser drawer and yank a favorite pair of jeans that I’ve patched, appliquéd and embroidered to perfection. I add them to the heap, along with corduroy Levis, white hot pants, a few T-shirts, a fuchsia bikini and a couple of sweaters. I add underwear and nighties, a few scarves, a bright pink hat Kathy crocheted for me, a pair of wool gloves, and a little box of jewelry. I stuff all of that into a blue American Tourister suitcase. In a paper bag, I drop two pairs of shoes, winter boots, two macramé belts Kathy and I made together, and toiletries from the bathroom. Across the suitcase, I drape a jacket and a full-length wool coat. That’s it. I’m done in ten minutes. The dishes I’ll leave with the furniture. I don’t want to be reminded of eating with Bill when I go.
It takes about four hours to drive from Chicago to Lansing. That gives me plenty of time to think about how I went so terribly wrong. I turned twenty-three last week, and I’ve spent almost all of my adult life with a man I don’t love. This has been a time when America has opened up and exploded. People my age are so full of energy, so enthusiastic about being part of some great unknown, but certain to be better future. My peers have flocked to protest the Vietnam War, swoon at music festivals, break bread at communes, witness bra burnings, get arrested at sit-ins on university campuses. They’ve hitchhiked across Europe, fallen in love and moved to homesteads in the country, trekked to South America and the Far East. They’ve been growing in experience, growing in confidence, growing in possibilities.
I’ve done nothing but shrink. I wish I could erase the last five or six years of my life, live them over, the way I think they were supposed to be. It’s like I took a detour into someone else’s life. How could the person I’ve been all these years really be me? I take a yellow legal pad and ballpoint pen from a desk drawer, return to the window and sit down. I want to write Bill a farewell note but don’t know where to begin.
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