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September 23, 2022 Fiction

Two Stories

Alex Higley

Two Stories photo

Amvi

Originally published in Cardinal (2017)

This is a story I would never tell my wife. But, when some version of the following does reach Beth, I’ll say, “We don’t live in Chicago anymore,” and hope that fact radiates with meaning, illuminating how much life we’ve lived since all my most notable mistakes took place, how many consecutive calm years we’ve had in the interim. I’ll tell her, “I can’t remember the last time a woman gave me a second look.” And every word of that is true. Truest of all: this is a story I would never tell my wife.

East to west the 152 always had flight attendants on it. I’d be on the bus headed to work in the pink morning and see women already in the navy uniform, the scarf and pantyhose, the full makeup, focused, aloof. Conservatively sexualized, with one black rolling carry-on and a purse that could zip shut. There were many of these women, the male variety less common on this bus, and so, not unlike if I was downtown when the ballerinas were released into the city dusk, wearing their civvies on the broad sidewalk near the park: sweats, high cheekbones, pouts, and disinterest; I tried to stay calm.

Off work, west to east on the 152 towards the lake, sun not yet down, I was trying to stay calm, but it was seven o’clock, late July on the north side, I had the next three days off, and no plans. The Cubs were out of town, Cincinnati, meaning there would be less to deal with on the streets. The air was staticky. In the days before it had been storming in the afternoons and middle-night, but on this night it seemed the rain would hold a while longer. And I was trying to stay calm, but she, Amvi, who I did not yet know was Amvi, was reading a book I could speak about, McGuane’s Ninety-Two in the Shade. Since the time of this story, I’ve conflated what Amvi looked like with the actress Archie Panjabi, from The Good Wife. I believe this conflation is justified. I’ve tried to blackbox Amvi’s face, this story, all particulars, in fear they would appear to me while I slept, and I would unconsciously speak the name “Amvi” aloud in our conjugal bedroom, be forced to sit up and explain myself. Or worse, and more likely, be reminded quietly in the morning and in full daylight, look Beth in the eye and offer some fragment of the truth.

To be clear: saying a name aloud in my sleep and knowing my wife will learn some totality of this story are separate fears. The latter, inevitable.

Trying for calm: Amvi, still a stranger, was seated a row ahead at the window, reading. The bus was humid, mostly vacant, its lighting bluish. The seat next to me was empty and the seat next to Amvi was occupied by luggage. I thought she was a flight attendant. Her chaste skirt, collar, the earrings she lacked, that I imagined it was her ritual to remove post-flight. Her copy of the McGuane was paperback, the beautifully spare Penguin edition, with an almost entirely white cover, and a bit of sun and a palm tree in the upper right. Amvi had her hair in two long braids that reached her clavicle.

I leaned forward, “Have you seen the movie?”

“I have no interest,” she said, without turning around.

“In movies?” I asked. She smiled.

“McGuane directed it. Warren Oates, Burgess Meredith. It’s fun.”

“Haven’t. I like Warren Oates,” she said. Gallatin Canyon had been recently published and I told her that it contained what I thought was McGuane’s best work. She nodded in a way that gave away nothing. And then our conversation became not so much wish fulfillment for me, but instead, proof that everything is real. That there was a professional woman who could casually talk about Badlands, Two-Lane Blacktop, Peckinpah, The Penguin and the wonderful black shirts his henchmen wore bearing their names, “Sparrow,” and “Hawkeye,” and then move through those topics to others, and by “others,” I don’t mean she spoke about herself. I had to ask to learn anything about Amvi. She told me her father was a film professor in Bloomington, and that her mother was a librarian. That both her parents were from Lucknow, a city that I told her I didn’t know. I hadn’t yet been to India at the time. Still haven’t. I told her everything I knew of India came from Louis Malle. This confused her because she only knew Murmur of the Heart and Alamo Bay.

“Maybe three million people live there,” she said.

She picked up what I now saw was not luggage but a violin case and held it on her lap. I sat down next to her. We spoke our names to each other for the first time and I understood the possibility of seeing her in less of an outfit, in her own apartment. Her apartment, because it would be on her terms. Amvi had been making the rules between us from the first word. From even before then. My place was out of the question.

“You aren’t a flight attendant,” I said.

“I never said I was,” she said. “But I like how often you admit to knowing nothing.”

This was before note taking was a task done entirely on phones, and so I had Amvi’s address on the back of my brother’s business card. At the time he detailed luxury cars in Denver. On the front of the card was a black Ferrari in profile, stripped of all identifiable marking, but unmistakably a Testarossa. Below the car read: “BRAD” and under that “303-766-3902.” The back was blank. Amvi’s Roscoe Village address was scrawled on the empty side. I had an unopened pack of one hundred of my brother’s business cards on an upper shelf in my closet that I’d requested as a birthday gift. The fact that Brad actually gave me such a gift explains my brother well. His name was not always “Brad.” He’d renamed himself for what he termed “business purposes,” and none of the family was able to prove him wrong because he was making money. Much more than when he’d been Robert. Now that he was steadily earning, the name-change had birthed a mantra he often repeated, “Process is nothing. Work.” His revisionist claim was that this mantra had led to the name change and not vice versa. I’d tried to refute his logic and Brad repeated the mantra to me as a counter. I’m not sure he’s wrong. And I was standing on the bright street, after ten at night, holding Brad’s business card, thinking about nineties sports cars and their relation to the kind of moment I was currently having, looking up at a rugged three-flat where the card told me Amvi lived, when she opened the front door.

She’d changed into a loose, white sleeveless top. Of course, seeing her pull this top over her head and shake her hair out would have been ideal. Her hair was no longer in braids and when I crossed the threshold I could tell she was fresh from the shower. No perfume, just soap and residual warmth emanating. Her lipstick had changed color to red. Amvi put a hand on my chest and asked for collateral.

“Collateral?”

“We’re still strangers, aren’t we?” she said.

I still didn’t know what she meant. I gave her my whole wallet. She looked behind my driver’s license, told me she was checking for photographs of other women, saw none, told me “either way would’ve been fine,” and silently tallied the seven ones and single ten dollar bill, and started up the stairs. My phone was vibrating in my pocket and without looking, I ignored the call. I followed her to the second floor watching my wallet in her hand. It’s not that I didn’t trust Amvi, trust didn’t enter my thinking at all. I wasn’t thinking. I only wanted to know what was going to happen. How long it would last.

The apartment had a large creaking front room overlooking the street, one bedroom off a long unlit hall, then another bedroom, Amvi’s, in the back near the kitchen. The wooden floor was in narrow strips like a worn bowling lane. The place did not feel lived in. There were piles of what appeared to be “work” all over. A thin tabletop with sloughing stacks of papers was at a window facing an alley. Set in front of the street window, a desk chair. Across the street was an antique dealer that Amvi said operated by appointment only. Flanking the antique shop was a dog groomer and an abandoned storefront. Dark, uniformly renovated apartments above. This front room suggested a stakeout. Amvi said her roommate, who was not home, did pharmaceutical research. I nodded through this explanation of the clutter and reached into my pocket to again decline a call. Her roommate, she told me, was the daughter of a family friend.

“Doesn’t that make her a family friend?” I asked.

“It does not,” Amvi said.

The apartment’s walls were blank except for Amvi’s bedroom, of which I was only allowed a glance. She stood in the doorway barring my entrance and simultaneously flipped on the bedroom light. The room was yellow. I saw a huge black and white Willie Nelson poster over her bed, young Willie shirtless and in braids, like Amvi had worn earlier. And there were Chicago Symphony Orchestra posters, small, cheaply framed concert advertisements, maybe five, grouped on the near wall. Amvi tossed my wallet underhand on to her pillow, and led me back to the front, where she carefully lit candles on two windowsills and a coffee table.

“I’d rather have the TV on in the background instead of music if that’s OK,” she said. She put on a Humphrey Bogart movie that was half over, Key Largo. Amvi told me the movie had been on several times recently and she’d read a little about the real island, “Frost has never been recorded on Key Largo.” We sat on the couch, me in the middle and Amvi on the far end, her legs tucked underneath her, and I was having trouble understanding what was expected.

Again, my phone went off, again, I didn’t answer.

“Looks it,” I said.

“That’s a Warner Brothers backlot,” Amvi said.

The formality of being walked around the entire apartment, as if I was a slow-witted relative, coupled with having my wallet stashed on her bed was making me uneasy. My thoughts had stayed in the bedroom, clearly. The wallet signaled a return. Right? She was being playful, yes, but I’d witnessed similar behavior reveal itself to be empty. Bloodless ploys. The candles had given the room the smell of cut grass. Admittedly, I was out of practice.

“You aren’t a flight attendant. You do play the violin. CSO?”

Amvi smiled and it became obvious to me as she smiled I was in no position to even ask questions. I knew too little. “No, she said. Viola. I’ve subbed for the pit orchestra on some of the musicals that run downtown. Twice. I’ve done that twice. I give lessons–”

My phone buzzed in my pocket. Amvi said, “Pick it up,” and gestured with both hands. I stood up and walked into the long hallway that led toward the kitchen and her bedroom.

It was Brad calling. He told me that Beth had called him and didn’t care if we were in a fight, didn’t care what anyone had said, but to get her phone number blocked was fucked and she would not stand for it. To call the phone company and list her number as one that I would not be receiving calls from, was fucked. Brad said Beth had called him fifteen consecutive times until he answered, and demanded that he call me, and to keep calling until I picked up.

“Fifteen’s a real number?”

“After a couple, I wanted to see how long she’d go, but I got scared counting.”

“Why didn’t she call me from another phone?”

“How would I know that?” Brad asked. “Go home. Deal with your girlfriend. She said you stayed last night at Parker’s. Go to Parker’s– Parker? – and get your bag, or whatever you took, and go home.”

We hung up. I walked into Amvi’s bedroom and picked up my wallet from her pillow. I took out my library card and slipped it into her pillowcase. Under her pillow. I frisbeed an expired AAA card into her closet. My thinking wasn’t clear. There was no thought. “She started it,” was a sentence I had in mind, but this was an isolated imperative with lots of air around it. In the living room I fumbled through an apology to Amvi, told her I had to leave, I’m sorry. I was speaking too loudly. She nodded coolly from the couch seeming to understand my limitations and impending mawkish return to another woman. When I looked to the second floor windows from the street, the candles were still going. It seemed possible to go back. The rain continued to hold.

*

To say in my exit I purposely supplied a way for Amvi to potentially show up at our door would be a lie. That I wanted to create some dormant threat. That I’d hoped as we cooked dinner, or came in from a walk with the dog, she’d appear. Calmly at the door. But, when I would picture it, we come in with the dog and Amvi’s already in the apartment. She could have started with my name, the knowledge that I lived on the north side, the bus I took home from work, and then maybe convince a Merlo or Sulzer branch employee to match my library card to an address, well, it is possible. One can imagine a bribable AAA customer service representative. Beth would remember the fight without much prompting. She would remember how we laughed as I got the woman who worked for Verizon to remove her number from my blocked list. How the woman had told us she handled this exact situation several times a day. How we’d been on speakerphone with the woman together to let her know we’d reconciled. It was important to both of us that she knew we were fine. Blocking a number is easier now. You don’t have to call anyone, it’s all in the phone.

But I don’t believe I was extending an invitation. If anything, I was signaling a return I wasn’t capable of making. But not consciously. Like I said, there was no thought. So often in my life, there has been no thought. The instinct, cause that’s what it was, I believe, was to remind myself that the mistake I had made and was making was real. That as unreal as taking the bus to work and glowing skies can seem, as unreal as meeting a woman who can talk about the movies you can talk about can seem, in a different sense than I meant it earlier, everything is real. If the first understanding is something like: everything is possible and already occurring, the second is: I no longer had a library card.

The fragment I’ll offer if I have control of the telling is that I met a woman on the bus, we talked on the bus is all, the day after I stayed the night at Parker’s all those years ago, when we fought about the plane tickets for your brother’s graduation. I’d called your brother a cross- eyed pussy. Of course, we were fighting about lots then. Fighting about fighting. And if in the night I speak Amvi’s name I will tell you it was girl I went to elementary school with. From Peru. And if I have no control over the telling and you hear the whole thing as I am telling it now, I’ll say I regret nothing, and am wrong often. And that we don’t live in Chicago, and that no woman even notices me anymore. And you’ll say you believe me, and that none of that bothers you. And this last part you won’t say, but it’ll be a look you give me, because you understand where my thoughts have been and for how long, and why. And your look will explain my fear, my guilt, your look will say, “She’s still here.”

 

Eartha Kitt

The difference between camp and kitsch is that camp knows death and kitsch doesn’t. Don’t laugh. People can be sorted into these two teams but the assignations are fluid and often the sorting is done wrong. Categorization can be influenced by upbringing, too much sun, poor eyesight, sobriety, religiosity, hunger, striving, false idols, a lack of knowing any classification is afoot. Often a kitscher will recognize a camper incorrectly as one of their own; so often the search is for one’s self in another. Kitschers have heaven, swaying fields, maybe even God. Campers have dirt.

My wife is neither; I am always one or the other. Of her beliefs, I couldn’t tell you with any certainty. She knows death though. Has lost a mother and a grandmother, not in that order, one death each time she was pregnant. I wouldn’t know what that is like. Maybe I can’t tell you of her beliefs but I will give some of who she is with the following two-word sets: colossal reticence, unwavering mom, weary partner.

You get these questions as a parent. Difference between big and bigger, giant and huge, large and very tall, taller. You make up answers, you say words, you attempt to say words and stay in the present, saying words, attempt to physically plant yourself close enough to be heard by the little ears, and not have your head, hands, thoughts, feet, anywhere else, or moving in a way that is drifting into the next. You fail. I fail! I say words walking into the next room, towards my phone, to find my coffee, my beer, the dishes, the rag, the remote, my beer, and I say the difference is negligible. Either word works. Any words work. And yet, I definitely have a belief on that subject, and it is that usually the words don’t work. When a word does work, it is because it is the right one, and not the wrong one. The wrong ones exist. Very much so.

A question I got as a husband is how I could watch Batman, meaning Adam West’s, while being accused (she would not use that word) of cheating. Infidelity is actually what she’d said; “emotional infidelity.”

“Why does that matter?” I said, solemn like a boy.

“I think it makes most sense, what I’m saying is, turn off the TV.”

I did and then reflexively tried to linger in what had already been said, talking about whether Julie Newmar or Eartha Kitt onscreen would be more appropriate for this conversation, obviating Lee Meriwether, instead of answering the initial actual foray into conversation: “Do you think texting another woman all day, regardless of what is being said, is emotional infidelity?”

These words did not sound like her own. She’d either discussed with a friend her dilemma or searched words like “emotional betrayal husband,” or “texting another woman limitation,” or “phone cheating no sex no pictures” or both. It was both. I could sense her attempt at complete preparedness in the quality of her attention.

My wife was wearing what she called “no face” meaning her hair was in a low ponytail, no makeup, her bedroom glasses, and not recently showered. A lesser woman would dress for the conversation. Our kids were in the room, on the far end of living room, a space that was divided only by their gymnastic-padding furniture standing on its side to form stunted tunnels, and assorted pillows stacked like deep frame Wonka set pieces. Their music was going and we were sitting much closer than normal, so if they could hear us, it would have been the joint revelation of a superpower.

She waited for me to be done with my bullshit.

“Are you cheating on me?”

“If it feels that way to you. That’s what matters. I’m sorry.” Her face reflected the two word sets and another: substantive doubt.

She said, Ok.

I turned the TV back on. Burgess Meredith was grinning and waddling. I tried to remember where my phone was. I glanced toward the kids, they were immersed. Knowing what to do, how to be, is nothing. Like intentions. Mistakes layer in a relationship and form new land, terra firma, and the problems with that reality, its solidity, are myriad. Many live in denial that their lives have changed, that the land they live on is new, unsteady, of their own creation, but also absolutely real. I’m sure. Don’t mistake recognition of change, of missteps and passivity, as wisdom. Recognition is nothing. I have the ability to move towards her. I won’t do it. I’ll try to invent a middle way, a set of behaviors, that will seem to her to be my apology; but that won’t ultimately change anything. We’ll continue on hazily. The only difference in people that matters is that some know death and others don’t.

 

image: Joshua Hebburn


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