Art by Bob Dornborg
"Danny DeVito and I," my husband corrected.
"No, you weren't in it," I said, half-joking, half-mysterious to color the conversation in more light-hearted terms than I perceived them. Last night was the third dream in a row. "He was so short and stocky."
"He is short and stocky." His focus returned to the paper.
Robert wasn't getting it; he only heard the words, not the meaning beneath them. In the second dream, Danny DeVito's tree trunk torso was wrapped in my arms, our still-clothed pelvises were grinding, the floor was hard and cool.
"He had a brown car."
"No one has brown cars anymore. They don't make them." He yawned.
"Maybe this one was old." It was brand new. I guessed if you wanted a shiny brown—almost bronze—Rolls Royce, someone would make one. I didn't say it was a Rolls. Maybe I should have. I was reluctant to say too much, but it felt like I needed to say something.
He sighed. "Maybe. Brown. Yellow. They used to do those colors. God."
"It was erotic."
He squinted at me. "A brown car is erotic?"
"The dreams were erotic."
"Dreams?" he drew the "s" out to accentuate the plural form.
I nodded. I don't know if he saw. I had the feeling my life was starting to change.
"There was more than one? How many?"
"I don't know. Maybe three."
He turned over in bed to face the ceiling. "Dreams aren't something to take literally, they're just images. Your mind having some fun with you. I'm not worried about you."
Mary, who had once been on the way to becoming my best friend, had a theory everything can be divided into twos. For instance, there are two types of people in the world, she said, those who liked the Stones and those who liked the Beatles. The smell of gasoline and the smell of tar. Sometimes her endless list of divisions is handy. In any case, you'd be surprised how contagious that sort of thinking is. The one that fits Robert particularly is—he's worried about you, or he's not. When he's not, it means somewhere inside he's satisfied all is well, he feels safe and in control. When he worries, it means something hit a chord he can't handle. After he left for work that morning, it occurred to me maybe it was more significant when he didn't worry.
Danny DeVito pulls up in a bronze car and walks into my office, a nearly empty storefront with a huge picture window looking out onto the sidewalk. Never mind I have a mere Masters in English and disregard the fact that the only thing I know about law is if you never get sued, you're ahead. He was a criminal, and I was his lawyer. I was his lawyer, and he trusted me. He was out of jail on the mere fact that why shouldn't he be, he was Danny DeVito, the guy you loved to hate to love, or vice versa.
"So. You're my lawyer." He looks me up and down. "Nice lawyer." I'm taller than average and the dream remained faithful to reality here. Danny DeVito of course, is shorter—and stocky. He seems solid and self-assured. My husband's tall—one of the few men I know taller than I am—thin and good looking in a conventional, square face, shock of dark hair, brooding eyes kind of way. Robert never seemed so rooted, could never see me from the ground up, with such ease. To put it bluntly, no one had ever looked at me the way Danny DeVito did in the first dream. In the dream, I can hardly breathe. Yet, I feel so remarkably safe and so horny I can hardly stand it.
I hand him some very legal-looking documents which, apparently, had been written by me. My clothes—high heels, stockings, light silk two piece suit, the color of blushing apricots, well-fitted, very well-fitted—weren't like anything I own. Not only don't I own anything so, so professional, I've never even imagined trying on something like that. He reads through the documents speedily, grunts a sexy "looks good" at them, and, before he leaves, he reaches up one gloved hand and eases it between the suit jacket and my skin—and I moan, and the moan wakes me.
Early in our friendship, Mary, the one who clear-cuts the world into this's and that's, informed me I had married a romantic. A romantic, she said, was a man who thought the smell of a woman after another man was sexy.
"I didn't know there was a smell," I told her. I was trying to be honest. I wanted her to be my friend.
Her eyes widened. "A smell. Of course there's a, well, there isn't literally a smell, but to him there was. Don't you see? That's what makes him a romantic. Someone who roams the streets sniffing at the autumn air when the neighbors have their fireplaces going though he never burned wood in his own. A lot of angst, a little bit of sex. Mostly sniffing. All nose. A real drag." She sighed and took a drag from her cigarette.
I told her Robert wasn't like that. I didn't tell her how once he described women's bodies as part of "the earth's curvature, the shape and swath of what kept blood beating in men's hearts." How he held freshly baked bread as though he were having an orgasm. Or that the sex part of our lives had been diminishing lately, as if a giant Michelangelo hand had come down from the sky, clapped it on his libido and kept it there. I told her the one obvious thing about him, and I was pretty sure it didn't fit the romantic category.
"His problem is he assumes he knows things about people, quickly, in a glance." This was connected to his worrying or not, I later realized. It was how he decided whether or not to worry.
She wanted an example.
"Okay. When we first met he told me a TCBY was opening up in our little town. Did I tell him I hate frozen yogurt? Maybe that was one of my mistakes; I know I'm not perfect and that he's not a total disaster. We still go there on my birthdays, and I order a shake because it comes in an opaque cup and he doesn't see I'm not drinking it. Doesn't that make me the romantic?" I asked.
"It makes you..." she hesitated.
"Well, I... I think it kind of dooms you. But maybe not." She ground a butt into an ashtray with a yellow thumb brightly contrasting with an all-black ensemble. "I don't know... at least he's not a terrorist."
"Terrorist?" I mouthed. Her opinions combined with my attempts at honesty were turning this into a lesson in futility.
"They're the ones who are so sexy, and they know it; they tear through you— through women—they chew through your soul all the way to your crotch."
"I didn't know my soul ended at my crotch."
She raised an eyebrow.
We had lunch together almost every weekday ever since, until the friendship was over.
I bought the suit on a whim. It was very similar to the one in the dreams.
"You don't like it."
"Don't say that. I just said I can't imagine when you'll wear it. You can't go to work in it. You said so yourself."
If I wore the suit I'd found on sale at Macy's, everyone would stare until I shrank to the height of Rhea Perlman. In the dreams, Rhea was mysteriously missing. No one could find her. Danny DeVito was being held on suspicion, but there was no proof although everyone was upset. I twiddled the snappy seam between my thumb and forefinger. "It's brushed silk. It was on sale."
"Don't get defensive." He sounded weary. The suit annoyed him, and Robert disliked being annoyed. "Besides, it's not you. I hardly recognize you in it. Are you okay? Should I be worried?"
I returned the suit. The saleswoman didn't want to take it back at first, as it was final sale, but I told her my husband hated it and was threatening to divorce me. Twice divorced herself, she said as she processed the refund.
Meanwhile the dreams kept coming. Every third night or so. Still the same story line, we met to sign papers and review what was known so far: Rhea had disappeared one night without a trace, there were no phone calls or letters or anything, he claimed over and over he didn't know where she was. Whether he missed her or not—if he was saddened by the hole her absence made—never came up. At the end, there was a sudden and mutual groping, humping, rolling around panting, face licking, neck gobbling, and we hadn't even taken off our clothes.
I had to talk to someone.
"How weird," Mary said as she scooted her butt to the back of the chair and leaned into me for maximum listening comfortability. "Where do you think it's coming from?"
"Well, then, where is it going?"
"What do you mean?" Where could dreams go? I thought.
"How's married life?" she asked without looking up from her salad.
Mary was also an adjunct at the college, but in sociology. On the side, she painted loopy, color-drenched canvases of women—fat, whimsical, and pale in the midst of all that abstract color. She painted for herself she said, for her sanity. She was a good audience, listening with the intensity of one of her paintings. Thin herself and nondescript, she was a little older than I, straight and single. And a good friend. Usually we covered work topics—the unfairness of the overworked and underpaid, gossip about colleagues, laments about troublesome students. Occasionally, we tentatively peeled a raw layer and hoped the other would forgive the stench of self-pity—her desire to be a full time artist or mine to return for the Ph.D. The more we knew each other, the less personal the conversations became. Never so personal as the Danny DeVito dreams.
She knew my husband slightly from faculty meetings or seeing him around the art studios where they let her work with her faculty pass. He taught part-time in the Art Department, where they treat you like a guest celebrity in a visit that had turned into three years. Sometimes, we toyed with the idea of house-shopping. Visiting artist—a title and some respect. He was supposed to be different: underpaid, stressed and testy—because of his art, not because he was overworked and underpaid and maybe doing the last thing (or second to last thing) he'd really like to be doing, although my husband a lot of the time enjoyed the teaching. The students kept him honest and fresh, he said. Anyway, she knew Robert slightly. I hadn't mixed them together; they wouldn't get along. He'd find her fussy and outspoken—she'd, well, I don't know. I didn't want to put myself in a position where I'd have to find ways to defend him to her, or her to him for that matter.
"I bought a suit remarkably similar to the one I wear in the dreams," I replied. "But I returned it. Too dressy."
She shrugged. This wasn't a great topic for us; she disapproved passionately of my wardrobe.
There were two kinds of people in the world she believed—those who know clothes make the person and those who think what you wear doesn't matter. If she were as tall as I, she insisted, she would wear colorful, flowing, delicious items that looked fantastic on models but lousy on mere mortals. It wasn't a conversation we could have any more, not after sharing the dreams. I paid for lunch that day although usually we just split the bill.
Mary's face was quiet and gray like rain, so gentle and unimposing you almost didn't know it was there unless you were looking for it. I think it was what drew us together in the first place—the fact that, in her mind, we're opposites. I was in sitting on the floor of the local public library in the nature section. I'd seen a PBS program earlier that week with a memorable description of how hammerhead sharks remain coupled after sex as they fall from the water's surface and don't come apart until they hit bottom. Robert wanted to know more and asked me to look it up for him since libraries scared him. Mary approached me there and asked what I was looking for. Then she told me I had married a romantic.
"I was the one who saw the show and told him about it," I'd said. Indignant contradiction was a lot for me.
"But he's the one who wants to turn it into something else."
She told me she sometimes painted. She'd seen me around before and had hoped for an excuse to talk to me. She would give her eye teeth to be as tall as I was. She called my long hair a shining glow and asked me to have lunch with her. Once, she asked if she could paint me. Before I said anything, she dismissed the idea; she didn't work well from live models and besides it wouldn't be fair. I didn't ask what that meant. She never mentioned it again, nor did I, although I still wonder how I would have fit in with those round, dark-haired, pale women she painted.
Now, here she was at our usual lunch table, glowing herself. Her eyes hadn't flashed like such prisms since she told me about the affair her chairwoman was suspected of having with her kid's kindergarten teacher. Supposedly, they'd been spotted outside a daycare center passionately embracing in a car, and the really scandalous thing was their respective children were in the back seat at the time. I personally didn't believe the woman was capable of doing anything so awful to her kid who, since the loss of daddy less than a year ago to a used car salesman from the next town over... I sat down and shoved my bag under the table. I couldn't imagine what she was going to say.
"I can get his number," she hissed loudly beneath her breath.
"Number?" She must be offering me counseling. Before Robert took the job here, my last friend, Janet, had tried the same thing, going so far as to make an appointment for me. She thought it might at least help me write the dissertation. Robert thought I shouldn't bother. Canceling it was one of the last things I did before we moved.
"Danny DeVito's." Mary banged her cup on the table. A floating coffee person arrived.
"Shh... Are you crazy? What are you talking about?" My heart was pounding after her fist, pounding right into the table.
"I have a friend who has a student who has a parent who works in the industry. That's what they call it. I bet we can get his number." She sat back like a new penny drenched in sunlight. "You can call Danny DeVito."
I had no answer.
"Why not? Why not? You have nothing to lose. At the worst, it'll stop the dreams. At best, you'll get an autographed picture, and you can pin it up over your desk." She paused. "Do I have the best and worst confused?"
At worst, I could consummate the affair begun in my dreams, the dreams I feared and cherished, the dreams chewing through my abdomen and suspended in a vice-grip from my crotch. At best...
"Hello? Hello? Is anyone there? Hello?"
I hung up. It might have been him. Or a servant. Or Rhea's lover. Rhea could be having an affair with a man who dreamt about her—a tall, gangly man whose wife no longer really, maybe never... and what would I say anyway? Hi, you don't know me, but I'm your lawyer. Well, I'm not your real lawyer, but we've been having hot and heavy sexual activity, still unconsummated, for weeks now in my nonexistent office. They don't give offices to adjuncts anyway; we have to use the communal faculty lounge, although we have desks we can use, but we're not supposed to leave anything there overnight. Even unconsummated it's been so great—so rough and tumble and friendly. So provocative and hurried and forbidden and nice. Gentle. Easy. Uncomplicated. You're a criminal and I'm supposed to defend you. You leave me breathless. I wouldn't tell him he might have killed Rhea.
I was in front of everyone's favorite pizza parlor, a red building standing alone at a quiet intersection. The pay phone was mounted outside on the wall near the entrance. I dialed again. The line was busy. Maybe it was time to stop the dreams. I thought this might help. I was about to redial when Mary's chairwoman drove up. The notorious pizza parlor rendezvous—pizza cheese, hot and clingy, all over each other's...
I punched seven random numbers.
The door opened out. I was in her way. "I'm sorry. To go." I smiled and pointed weakly at the pizza parlor.
She smiled back, a confused look on her face, kind yet weary. I was still there when she emerged with a large box and a bag holding sodas, plastic utensils, and an exuberance of paper napkins. When she got to her car, she put the packages on the roof and waved at me. I waved back, the phone dangling from my unused hand.
In one of the dreams, my mother popped her head in, but when I said "Ma, get lost, it's me and Danny DeVito" she backed out wordlessly, and I didn't feel like her little bad girl caught the way I did when I was a teenager. Then, she kept coming in and I still kept sneaking in boys. This was exceptional, and in the dream she knew it. Are you really Danny DeVito, I could say, and, if so, have you been having trouble sleeping at night? Maybe we could just consummate and get on with our lives?
I'd gone from relationship to relationship to relationship. In retrospect, I know they were more or less just one relationship: boys, young men, then men, all a little less smart than I was, yet good-looking, always tall, basically kind. Doomed, I wafted from one to the next, operating on automatic. Until I met Robert. He doesn't think I'm perfect and how lucky he is to have me like the others did. He sees my need and room for improvement, and I know it.
On the third ring, I hung up. In my car, I tucked Danny DeVito's phone number into the middle of a novel I had started three months ago, a library book long overdue.
"One more since I saw you. He rubbed fresh strawberries on my wrists and licked them off." Although it was actually more rather than less personal, I had taken to telling only the racy details of the dreams. I left off sharing what could only be called the plot, the narrative building and connecting each night's activity. As far as Mary knew, it was all sex. Not true.
The court date was set. We met several times to rehearse the defense. It was simple and straightforward: he wasn't where the prosecution said he was on the evening in question, the evening Rhea disappeared. He was in a pet shop buying a pair of fish to replace the ones that had died in his tank. He kept a fastidious environment; too many fish and the whole thing turns rank. He was in the shop for almost two hours. We had witnesses: the clerk who'd helped him, and a woman who'd been there with her son and had recognized him. On the day of the defense, I was nervous as hell. He was calm because he trusted me and tried to calm me with those strawberries, but that only inflamed the rest of me.
"Look," he said finally, sucking chunks of red off my fingers, "you have to pull yourself together. I could go to jail for this."
"You're right," I said. I took a deep breath, straightened my jacket, lifted my head till I towered over him, and patted his shoulder. "Let's go."
The sweet berry smell followed us into the courtroom. The prosecution was good, but we had those witnesses. I was cool and calm and so articulate I think I may have been speaking a foreign tongue. The judge was impressed. The jury—twelve women of assorted shapes, sizes, and colors—all interestingly enough wearing the Macy's suit, the one I returned—were impressed.
Then, the prosecutor pulled a fast one on the cross exam. "Why," he asked, "did it take two hours to buy two fish? Since Mr. DeVito is such a fish aficionado"—the jury laughed, they couldn't resist—"it should have taken no time at all." We hadn't covered this. It had never occurred to me to ask. If I hadn't been so busy basking in his desire for me maybe I would have done a better job. Danny DeVito reddened. It didn't become him. Some of the jurors fidgeted. I fought a desire to run.
The judge, who I suddenly noticed was also wearing the suit, but in black, cleared her throat.
"We're waiting for Mr. DeVito to answer the question."
"I," he stammered. "I..."
"No further questions," the prosecutor chirped.
Mary waited patiently while I reviewed the trouble in my head.
Finally, she spoke. "Oh god. No, not the dreams. I'm not asking you about the dreams. I mean, did you call? Did you call him?" she tapped out the words one at a time with her teaspoon.
She let go of the spoon. It hit the floor and stopped inches from the next table. The two women sitting there watched it reach them, then went back to their own heated discussion.
"Oh my God. You called... Did you speak with him?"
I struggled to reign in a nervous smile, but failed. "Eventually."
"What do you mean eventually?" She nearly hissed at me and could barely sit.
"Well, I hung up when a man answered and then a woman answered and I hung up again and then I got him."
"And..." She had wrapped her arms around her black jacket as though she was the one who had fallen through a crack in a frozen lake and prayed to be pulled out.
"Well, I told him. He laughed. He said some things. He thinks dreams are important. He'd had some dreams that had helped him sort out his life."
"Danny DeVito said that!" If she hadn't already flung her teaspoon, it would have surely soared a little higher, maybe high enough to smack one of the women at the next table. "I knew he was intelligent. I just knew it. There was a study recently, interesting stuff, more than you'd imagine, about possible correlations between abnormal physical attributes, such as weight or height, and openness to... Oh, never mind, I'm sorry." She looked at me to see if I was upset.
"Then what happened?" she asked.
"We made an appointment to meet."
She held onto the table to keep from throwing her lunch, identical to mine, of grilled chicken salad over a bed of soggy poorly washed chopped greens, into the air after the teaspoon. "Oh my god. And..."
"He's very nice."
"You met? Where?"
"We didn't actually meet."
"But you said..."
She looked angry. "You... why? Why?" The words choked out with cigarette smoke and lingered over our salads.
"Because I realized this was about me, and I needed to figure it out myself."
"What did he say when you canceled?"
"Oh, he was very nice about it. Said he completely understood. Said if he ever needed a criminal defense lawyer, he'd be sure to call me."
"Didn't you tell him you were almost halfway to a degree in English?"
"Yes. I told him I had a Masters. I told him a lot of... He was making a joke. You know. Danny DeVito? Making a joke?"
We finished that lunch in silence. The bill came, and it sat for a long time before she picked it up, calculated my share and put down her money without looking at me.
I didn't tell her I had described myself and my favorite place to go to be alone, a lush little secret of a park tucked between two busy boulevards where I used to stop every day before Mary and where I sometimes have gone since so he could find me if he needed to. I had been joking too, a little, but I told him about the small town where we lived—not far from L.A., but far enough to be podunk, about the work I did trying to change lives by reading mostly wonderful books with mostly uninterested people, about my long yellow hair I hadn't cut since middle school, and how I was much much taller than just about everyone, how I wore flat shoes but resisted slouching because I was trying not to apologize. He empathized. We laughed. I told him how I told my husband about the dreams, and he corrected me because I'd said "me" instead of "I"— corrected me, the English teacher without the validation of a Dr. before my name. That was when Danny DeVito suggested we meet. I'd agreed, but I couldn't fall asleep that night, and, when I finally did, I didn't dream at all. I woke early the next morning. The lines on Robert's face were relaxed, and, with his eyes closed, I couldn't see him passing judgment as he sized things up. He looked so vulnerable when he slept.
In the midst of all the dreaming and indecision, about three weeks into that incredible month of dreams, an important change came for Mary. Someone had resigned unexpectedly from her department, opening up a tenure track position. Everything began to change for her literally overnight. They gave her an office of her own. They even had a guy from plant ops come over and hang her posters. She started to shop her dissertation—a lengthy and detailed treatise on the changing paradigm of 'family', worldwide and post-modern—around university publishing houses. It seemed so well-suited. I was happy for her, but it was a little painful to be ousted from the relatively superior position I had been enjoying of late. Before her rise in status and position and before my Danny DeVito dreams, we were more or less equal, both adjuncts, both with a string of relationships behind us, though she'd remained adamantly single. She was hoisted into the headier realm of mandatory faculty meetings and departmental nonsense. At least it had been nonsense to us when we'd shared our disdain of the fully employed.
She tried not to let the alteration matter, but she wouldn't eat in the student lounge anymore and stopped wearing jeans. I didn't say anything. I was hoping she wouldn't leave me behind. At least I think I was. Then she asked us to a dinner party to celebrate, my husband and me. She was full of plans and concerns about this event. Danny DeVito and I were left in the dust.
"I'm inviting everyone in Sociology. I have to. Even Mr. Potato Head."
I raised an eyebrow. "But we hate him. You do I mean." I was the one who had named him. He had a round head, dark rimmed glasses, and a painted on mouth rambling about his work, about which she'd gone on to me at length. It wasn't much of a stretch, but still it was pretty funny. It made me feel proprietary.
"I'm in for the whole nine yards — even Mr. Potato Head." She sighed, but I think she was close to relishing the idea of Mr. Potato Head in her living room proclaiming how if you studied the potato you could understand the workings of the human race from the beginning of colonialism.
"You'd better serve Lays..." Mine was the only chuckle.
"Mmm... I'm thinking about catering in. I don't know. I could probably hire a couple of students to help. I don't know yet. Is bringing in Chinese tacky?"
"Or even better. Fish and chips."
She was thinking about it right in the middle of our lunch. She never learned I hadn't had a dream in two days—since she'd received the news of her promotion, oddly enough, and the longest stretch so far. It wasn't quite as much fun without someone to chew it over with. That surprised me. I used to be such a private person. And if she deserted me, I'd tell who? Whom.
I considered not going. Crowds intimidate me, and the entire Sociology department would be there. Granted, that was only four or five people, but with spouses and maybe even grown or not so grown children... What would I do, talk to Mr. Potato Head about the sexy opening scene of The Tin Drum? What would we do with Simone de Beauvoir or Max Weber or whoever it was they were worshiping now?
We went after all. I couldn't risk losing the one friend I could talk to. I was counting on her being her old self when some of the glamour cleared. Robert barely objected. I was surprised, but we hadn't been out for a while and he was in between projects. He was more available when at loose ends.
It was a Friday evening, and we wore our best non-jeans, non-dress clothes, a bottle of wine in tow. It was stuffy inside and bright. Everyone smiled and seemed to know how to carry themselves. Everyone seemed to have read the script but me. I had never caught on to social intercourse. Before the Danny DeVito dreams, when I couldn't sleep, I made up this trick of imagining a dark, quiet house. It was completely empty. I don't know whose house it was, maybe no one's, and I'm upstairs, naked, and I creep down the stairs and the stairs have unbelievably bright, plush, pink shag carpeting and the air is perfectly warm and I feel free. No tall, taller, tallest. No smart, smarter, smartest. The air is the perfect temperature, and I can feel it stroking me, sliding through each pore of my body. I always fell asleep before I reached the bottom of the stairs and slept deeply.
Robert seemed exceptionally alert and open, laughing and making small talk with an ease I barely recognized. I felt proud, yet I didn't seem to know him, or he had turned back into the man I'd met a long time ago—open and distant, familiar and foreign. Someone else. Someone else's. Which he was. When we first met, I sat in on his Intro. to Painting, a student and not a student, a woman in search of potential. I don't think I'm a painter, I wrote on the little white index cards he passed out on the first day; he said an encouraging word here and there but seemed more interested in my other interests. He was seeing a woman who stopped in from time to time. She had been a student of his, two years back. She'd left painting to explore glass sculpture. He said she was good but their philosophies were vastly different. He said she clung to her work. I don't think I ever understood what he meant. After we were married, I found a photo of one of her pieces—circular slices of glass piled one on top of the other. It looked incredibly fragile and bore the inscrutable name "Grammar."
Robert, as whoever he was, was all over that party; I could hardly keep track of him. There he was talking to two women, towering over them and making them laugh; then he was there, being regaled with some lengthy funny story by a teenage girl, someone or other's bright-eyed daughter, then the pièce de résistance, he's in a heated discussion with Mr. Potato Head. I went into the kitchen just in time to hear my husband say to Mary, "You like to cook. And you're good at it too. I can tell." He pointed to a generic spice rack her mother had sent her and which she never used but had recently set out for the upcoming parental visit. We'd joked about whether she should open the sealed bottles and sprinkle some prepacked spices and herbs out the window as a libation to parental deities. Mr. Potato Head came in and made such a production of getting past me I didn't catch Mary's response.
On the walk home, Robert was lit up.
"Did you know potatoes are poisonous?" He observed me closely as though I'd been holding out on him, and this might be cause for some worry. I did know, of course, because I'd heard select bits of the potato theory. Indigenous to South America, introduced in Europe in the 16th century. Europeans resistant at first, then converted, so much so that a mere 200 or so years later crop failure caused over a million Irish to emigrate to North America. A member of the nightshade family, masquerades in every American and European kitchen as our friend. The potential to make us ill. The potency of death. In short, a telling reversal and yet an analog, an enactment if you will, of the popular understanding of colonization. As far as I could tell, it meant contact (in the sense of contagion) is inevitable and nobody wins, ever. It hadn't occurred to me he might be interested.
"I told him about the opening scene of The Tin Drum. Remember, you made me read it." Robert said.
I tried to take this as a sign since I'd thought of that for party fodder, but all I could come up with was Danny DeVito as the lead in a comic remake. If the movie was a whisper to the powerful book's scream, the remake would simply chuckle. We could all use a chuckle, couldn't we? But Robert was drawing on something from the heady days of courtship before marriage had opened his eyes and mouth to my shortcomings; before my shortcomings had slipped through the heady cracks of courtship when anything is possible and all shines, when I suggested books, and—as long as he didn't have to go to the library to get them—he read them.
He went on about potatoes while I let other thoughts tumble around. What if he wasn't as bright and wonderful as I thought he was? What if all his ideas about me and what I should or shouldn't do were wrong? I couldn't tell him how we laughed at Mr. Potato Head, not when he was showing every sign of being revitalized. I wouldn't hear for weeks of how I'd shot him down, how unsupportive and counterintuitive I was.
For me, Mary's party had been simply painful. The one conversation I did manage to have was with the chair of her department who remembered me from the pizza place. She approached me. She asked questions. She did all the work. Perched on the couch next to me, she asked what was I working on, did I like the teaching, had I read the latest best seller to dazzle the academic world, the one about the woman who lost her children in a shopping mall and then went on to disappear herself, a literary thriller about identity and power and control. How did she have the focus for reading? I wanted to ask. No, I hadn't read it yet I had to admit, although I'd had it in my car for several months. Finally, I had a question for her.
"Did you ever wonder what it would be like to have sex with someone twice your size?"
It had just come out. I didn't plan it. Of course, I'd meant to say someone half your size. I guess I was thinking about bringing up those dreams, and I'd been drinking the wine we'd brought, refilling my glass to pass the time.
"I'm a sociologist," she replied. "I study issues of power and gender. I wonder about that all the time. Why do you ask?" She'd spoken evenly and with a straight face.
"I don't know," I said.
She put her hand on my shoulder. "Those rumors, they're not true. If that's what you meant." She stood up. "I'm sorry to have bothered you. You just looked kind of lonely sitting there. I'm sorry." She walked away. Any potential for friendship there was out the window. Besides, she would never have as much time for me as I would for her.
"Did you have fun?" Mary asked.
I hesitated. "At the party, you mean?"
She nodded. Mary was high from her success. It was a success. Her guests had seemed relaxed and warm and genuinely happy for her. Her puff pastry had puffed, and her catered-in Indian had impressed. Still, some of the glamour had settled. She called my generic office during office hours, and I'd agreed to meet her for lunch a week since her party. I had been spending the afternoons in the little park, my old haunt before her, walking home from there rather than waiting for her to finish up and drop me at my house.
"It was a nice party. You must be pleased."
She flushed. "I am. It's been wonderful. Everyone's been so nice. You know," she leaned toward me, "my chair's not having an affair. She's just lonely since her divorce. People are such garbage. Starting rumors because a woman is trying to meet new people and make friends and get her life together."
"I mean, she invited me to her house for brunch a couple of days ago. It was lovely." She wore apricot that day. It was almost deceiving.
"So what about you. Dreaming lately?"
"Not at all?" she asked unexcitedly.
"No. I... no"
"Do you find Danny DeVito sexy?"
"I don't think it's a matter of sexy."
She sat back and stirred her coffee very slowly. "I think it's a matter of feeling safe and trusting. In those dreams it's like anything goes with him and he won't judge. Like the one where you botched up part of the defense and when you went to sit back down next to him he slips his hand under your skirt. It's like he won't judge the way you say your husband always judges."
"Hmm..." I had slipped, telling her that dream.
"By the way, Robert made an impression on Bernie. He's xeroxing an article for him." Mr. Potato Head. Bernie.
"He can't. He's the defendant."
"Danny DeVito can't judge. He's not the judge. He's the criminal. Or the suspect, at least." I glanced at her. "The judge is a woman."
"Then maybe it's, maybe your husband is the... I don't know. I'm not a shrink. Anyway, I guess it's good you're done with those dreams."
Her face grew serious. Was she going to end the friendship now that the dreams, perhaps the most interesting part of me since she'd moved up, had ended? I could confess I found Danny DeVito incredibly sexy. There was something about the apparent ugliness of him, the rawness of his desire for me —undisguised, undigested—that made me feel incredibly sexy and made him sexy to me, made me feel I could do things with him I wouldn't dream of doing with anyone else. Any of this would give us something to chew on.
But, she was speaking now. "I have something to tell you. About your husband."
She was going to tell me how horrible he'd been, how he'd looked at the spice rack and figured he knew her. I was going to have to defend him after all. I looked down at my plate. It was nearly empty. I really thought I hadn't eaten anything. She was hesitating. Suddenly it came to me: I didn't want to have to defend him to her because it would force me to say what I really felt. I didn't want to do that. The room felt moist and uneasy. In the dreams, there were endless pages of words I used to defend Danny DeVito, words apparently written by me. I knew what to say about Danny DeVito, but my husband? The room dimmed as though someone had turned down all the overhead lights, and there was a buzzing. I braced the table with both hands. I suppose my expression didn't change, although the room was practically taking off like a low flying plane, because Mary kept talking.
"There's a rumor going around. I don't know if it's anything more. I overheard some students talking in the studio while I was cleaning out my locker. I don't think I'm going to have time to paint anymore, at least for a while."
"That's too bad," I murmured.
She shrugged. "Pay to play. Anyway, there's a rumor he's having an affair with one of his students."
"Him. Your husband."
I stared past her. My husband the critic, the nitpicker? The romantic? An affair? My husband who couldn't see past his nose? Except to point out a problem. Someone else's problem. My husband who forgot to have sex with his wife because he was trying to figure out what object to put next to another object on a piece of canvas, a square he'd left waiting there hopeful and forlorn for six months. A man who had begun investigating potatoes. A man who moved from one woman to the next, but never, as far as I knew, with any overlap.
"It's just a rumor." I said.
"Like with your chair. This world is full of rumors, isn't it?"
"I think I should get going now." I stood up. I wanted my height to drown her in shadow.
"I just thought you should..."
"Yes, I should. I thought you were upset because of the spice rack."
"Because of what my husband said at your party—about how it meant you were a good cook."
Her face lightened, settled away from the dark squint. "Oh, that. I thought he was kidding. He was kidding, I thought."
Before leaving, I dropped into the art studio. I watched for a while as he considered a lumpy pile of potatoes on the cold steel table. When I cleared my throat, he turned.
"Hi." He smiled, glanced at his watch. "Done already? God time flies."
He sighed. "I don't think anything's going to come of this. So what if they're toxic. We eat them anyway, don't we?" He moved toward me, hesitated, and sat on a metal stool a few feet from where I stood.
"Yeah, we eat them anyway."
He got up again and inched toward me. "Now I remember why I never go to those parties. Too distracting."
"Yeah, we eat them anyway."
"Silly. You look nice. Can you come home with me? We can make potato pancakes." He put his arms around me, shifted his weight from foot to foot.
I shook my head. "I have to stay. Papers to grade. I just wanted to, I just wanted to see how you were doing."
"Well, thanks. I'm back to square one. No pun intended. Oh well. So it goes. See you later then?" He stopped shifting.
"Yeah. We eat them anyway."
His laughter followed me out the door.
On the way home, I stopped at the park. It was empty except for one mother and her child. The child was sailing through the park, touching everything—the swings, the slide, the climbing bars—with one outstretched hand, but not stopping anywhere. The mother followed, moving more slowly and at a slight distance. Did she realize her hand was touching everything her child touched—a gentle, tentative swipe that seemed to carry a question in it? The child turned once to make sure she was there. Perhaps it was a game they played, their secret dance whose language I did not understand. I was almost tempted to follow along, just to see what it would feel like.
It wasn't true, what I'd told Mary. There had been one more dream, a dream in which I saved the day although it meant deceiving the judge and jury.
"Mr. DeVito, you went to the pet shop to buy two fish, is that correct?"
He nods. "Yes. That's correct."
"Not one fish and not three fish, is that correct?"
"Not five fish and not seven?" I felt charismatic. I felt manipulative.
"Your honor, this is not a Dr. Seuss book..." the prosecution objects.
The judge silences the tittering. I clear my throat and approach the jurors. Let them see my height, my expensive clothes. I know where this has to go. We won't lose. "Two fish. What kind of fish?"
"That's already been determined..." The prosecutor is beginning to sweat.
"Please let him answer the question." We couldn't be stopped, not when we were so close.
"What kind of gouramis?" I ask curtly.
Danny DeVito's vibrant face returns in all its gentle glory. He'd got my drift. We were going home.
"Your honor," my opponent interrupts again, "what does this discourse on fish have to do with..."
"Your honor, if I may be permitted to complete this line of questioning..." Courteous, yet presuming.
The judge nods at me. I repeat the question, and Danny DeVito, with a sense of timing made precise by years before the camera, says, "Kissing Gouramis." The jury exclaims, then sighs.
Every woman in that box thinks she understands. "I had to find just the right pair," he says. "I had to make sure they would kiss before I added them to my tank." He winks at me, knowing somehow I knew the truth, and that sealed our deception. I did know, from the book about hammerhead sharks, in which there was an appealing section on tropical fish. Gouramis' kissing is believed to be a form of aggression; it's something the males do, a kind of fish jousting for territory. Nothing romantic about it. But why disillusion a jury of well-dressed, uniform women who brought back a verdict of not-guilty in under three minutes? When he thanked me, we made a date to meet and finally, to consummate. The dream that hadn't happened.
If I had to defend my husband, what would I say? My husband, yes, he says things sometimes that are kind of stupid, but he's really not like that, and he's not having an affair, he has better things to do with his time. Like step back and complacently judge the world so he doesn't have to do much worrying? I was tired. Since the dreams stopped, I hadn't been sleeping very well; even the trick with the pink staircase had failed. I sat on the bench nearest the park entrance. I was truly tired.
Maybe there are two kinds of people in the world, those who confront their so-called loved ones if they're hurtful to them, and those who do not. What happens to those who do not? They don't wither.
When my father died, my mother went to Seattle after the funeral for the summer to be with her sister. I didn't want her to go. I didn't want to be left in our empty house. The first morning, I woke up and realized I was very hungry. In the kitchen, the sun was slanting across the yellow walls. The room was square and sparsely furnished, just a wooden table and four chairs. A clock, a painting. Two windows. From one, the clothes line was visible. I always found that comforting. A door let out into the tidy backyard. The silence that morning seemed to promise something important. I found English muffins in the cabinet and cheese in the refrigerator. I was nineteen. It was the first time I was alone like that, the first time I made breakfast only for myself. I sliced some of the cheese for the muffin halves, four of them, which I toasted in the oven two at a time. I poured a glass of orange juice and sat in the slanting light and ate. I had the feeling then that if I could do this, I could do anything. And I knew whatever happened I would always remember that morning.
Someone gently touched my shoulder. I knew it was him before I turned around. He smiled down at me. I smiled back. We didn't need to speak. I knew how he'd found me. He understood something about me, and that made the world feel the right size and shape for once. Averaged out, we fit better. I followed him. It was late afternoon. The sun was low in the sky, and a few clouds drifted by us. The mother and child were gone.
He chose a swing, the one lowest to the ground, and I took the one next to him, higher up, nearer the sky. We each settled in our own way, and with the deliberate push of our feet that brings apparent grownups all the way back to the first time, we were off, Danny DeVito and I, as though there could be simple intimacy in the world, as though husbands needn't be called to account and wives didn't dream of disappearing into the evening sky, swinging higher and higher, into the crisp, live air.