At Thanksgiving I took a bus home not wanting to go home but my mother pleaded with me angrily on the phone and I knew it was a mistake but there I was, in the old house, the house of one thousand and one associations and all of them depressing, the smell of the roasting turkey sickened me, the smell of the basting grease, the smell of my mother ’s hair spray so I realized I wouldn’t get through it within minutes after walking through the door and that afternoon we were working together in the kitchen and I said excuse me, Mom, I’ll be right back and when I came back with the old photo album the palms of my hands were cold with sweat and I said, “Mom, can I ask you something?” and guardedly my mother said, for years of living with me had made her wary, “What?” and I said, “Promise you’ll tell the truth, Mom?” and she says, “What is the question?” and I said again, “Promise me you’ll tell the truth, Mom,” and she said, annoyed, “How can I promise, until I hear the question?” and I said, “All right. Did I have a sister born before me, given my name, and did she die? That’s all I want to know,” and my mother stared at me as if I’d shouted filthy words right there in her kitchen and said, “Alice, what?” and I repeated my question which was to me a perfectly logical question, and my mother said, “Of course you didn’t have a sister who died! Where do you get your ideas?” and I said, “Here. These snapshots,” and I opened the album to show her the snapshots saying, in a low, furious voice, “Don’t try to tell me this is me, it isn’t,” and my mother said, her voice rising, “Of course she’s you! That’s you! Are you crazy?” and I said, “Can I believe you, Mom?” and she said, “What is this? Is this another of your jokes? Of course that’s you,” and I said, wiping at my eyes, “It isn’t! Goddamned liar! It isn’t! This is someone else, this isn’t me! This is a pretty little girl and I’m ugly and this isn’t me!” and my mother lost it then as often she did in our quarrels, lost it and began shouting at me, and slapped my face, sobbing, “You terrible, terrible girl! Why do you say such things! You break my heart! You are ugly! Go away, get away! We don’t want you here! You don’t belong here with normal people!”
So I left. Took the next bus back to Sandy Hook so it seemed, when I went to bed that night, early, hoping to sleep through twelve hours at least, that I’d never been gone.
The following Sunday evening Mr. Cantry came to my apartment house. It was the first time the buzzer to 3F had been rung in the weeks I’d been living here and the noise was loud as the buzzing of crazed wasps. I wished I hadn’t known right away who it must be, but I knew.
Took my time going downstairs in my soiled POETRY POWER sweatshirt and jeans. And there was exactly who I’d expected. My ex-teacher squinting at me out of his shiny no-color eyes. He wore the trench coat with the flared skirt, he was turning his visored cap nervously in his fingers. “Xavia, good evening! I hope I’m not interrupting? Would you like to join me in a meal?—not at the Sandy Hook Diner.” He paused for my response but I didn’t smile, I said only that I’d already eaten, thank you. “Then to go for a walk? To have a drink? Is this a possible time? I saw you were not on duty at the usual place so I presumed to come here. Are you angry?”
I intended to say Thank you, but I’m busy. I heard myself say, “I could take a walk, I guess. Why should I be angry?”
I’d been cool to Mr. Cantry in the diner, the last couple of times he’d come in. I didn’t like him brooding in his corner booth watching me. Frowning-smiling like sometimes he didn’t actually see me, God knows what he was seeing. And the day before, some guys had been teasing me the way some of the regular customers do, passing around a copy of Hustler, I was supposed to catch a glimpse of these photos of female crotches in stark close-up as in an anatomical text. My part was to pretend I didn’t see, didn’t know what it was I didn’t see, my face blushing in patches. Hey guys, I wish you wouldn’t! My embarrassed downcast eyes. My wide hips, my hubcap breasts inside a SANDY HOOK PIER T-shirt and unbuttoned sweater. But it’s okay I’m a good sport. Not begging exactly, guys hate females who beg, like females who cry, makes them feel guilty, reminds them of their mothers. More like I was asking for their protection. And it was okay or would have been except there was Mr. Cantry looming up behind me, in his old teacher-voice and his mouth twisted in disdain, “Excuse me! Just one moment, please!” and the guys gaped up at him in astonishment not knowing what the hell was going on but I knew, I believed I knew, quickly I turned and tugged at Mr. Cantry’s sleeve and led him back to his booth and whispered, “Leave me alone, goddamn you!” and he said angrily, “They are harassing you, those disgusting louts,” and I said, “How do you know? How do you know what’s going on?” So I got Mr. Cantry to settle down and I returned to the men and they were laughing, making remarks, I more or less pretended not to catch on, just a dumb waitress, smiling anxiously and trying to please her customers Hey guys have a heart will you? so finally it worked out, they left me tips in small coins scattered across the sticky tabletop. And took away Hustler with them. But I was pissed at Mr. Cantry for interfering and would have asked him never to come into the Sandy Hook Diner again except that wasn’t my prerogative.
He was saying, “I hope you are not still upset? About yesterday?”
“Those customers are the owner’s friends. I have to be nice to them.”
“They are crude, vulgar. Animals—”
“And I like them, anyway.”
“You like them? Such men?”
I shrugged. I laughed. “Men, boys. Boys will be boys.”
“But not in my classroom.”
“You don’t have a classroom now.”
We were excited. It was like a lovers’ quarrel. I walked in quickened steps, ahead of Mr. Cantry. I believed I could feel the sharp stabbing pains in his legs, bearing the weight of his ungainly body.
We went to Woody’s, a café I’d seen from the outside, admiring the winking lights, a preview of Christmas. Through an oval window in a wall of antique brick I’d often seen romantic couples by firelight, holding hands at the curving bar or at tables in the rear. Once Mr. Cantry and I were inside, seated at a table, our knees bumping awkwardly, the place seemed different. The firelight was garishly synthetic and a loud tape of teenage rock music played and replayed like a migraine. Mr. Cantry winced at the noise, but was determined to be a good sport. I ordered a vodka martini—a drink I’d never had before in my life. Vodka, I knew, had the most potent alcohol content of any available drink. Mr. Cantry ordered a club soda with a twist of lemon. Our waiter was young and bored-looking, staring at Mr. Cantry, and at me, with a pointedly neutral expression.
“A person yearns to make something of himself. Herself. A being of distinction,” Mr. Cantry said, raising his voice to be heard over the din. “You must agree?”
I hadn’t been following the conversation. I was trying to twist a rubber band around my ponytail, which was straggling down my back, but the rubber band was old and frayed and finally broke and I gave up. My vodka martini arrived and I took a large swallow even as Mr. Cantry lifted his glass to click against mine, saying, “Cheers!”
I said, feeling mean, “But why should a person make something of himself?—herself? Who gives a shit, frankly?”
“Xavia. You can’t mean that.” Mr. Cantry looked more perplexed than shocked, the way my mother used to look before she caught on to the deep vein of ugliness to which she’d given birth. “I don’t think that’s an honest response. I challenge that response.”
I said, “Most people aren’t distinctive. Most lives come to nothing. Why not accept it?”
“But it’s human nature to wish to better oneself. That the inner being becomes outer. Not to sink into desolation. Not to—give up.” He spoke with a fastidious curl of his lip.
“Haven’t you given up, Mr. Cantry?”
This was a cruel taunt. I was aiming for the man’s heart.
But Mr. Cantry considered the question. “Outwardly, perhaps. Inwardly, no.”
“What’s inward? The soul? The belly?”
“Xavia, you shock me. This is not truly you.”
“If you look into a mirror, Mr. Cantry, do you seriously think that what you see isn’t you? Who is it, then?”
“I am disinclined to mirrors,” Mr. Cantry said, sniffing. He’d finished his club soda, ice and all, and was sucking at the lemon twist. “I have never taken mirrors as a measure of the soul.”
I laughed. I was feeling good. The vodka martini was a subtler drink than I’d expected, and delicious. Blue jets of flame raced along my veins. “Do you think much about death, Mr. Cantry? Dying?”
At first I thought he hadn’t heard, the noise in the café was so loud. Then I saw his stricken look. Almost, I regretted my question. In the flickering light I saw that his pallid skin, like what I recalled of my own, looked stitched together, improvised; as if he’d been smashed into pieces and carelessly mended. “Death, yes. Dying. Yes. I think about dying all the time.” He went on to speak of his parents who were both deceased, and of a sister he’d loved who had died of leukemia at the age of eleven, and of a dog he’d brought here to Sandy Hook to live with him, a cocker spaniel who’d died in August at the age of only seven years. Since this dog’s death, Mr. Cantry confessed, he’d had to face the prospect of, each morning, wondering where he would get the strength to force himself out of bed; he slept long, stuporous hours, and believed he came very close to death sometimes—" My heart stopping, you know, like a clock. The way my father died. In his sleep. Aged fifty-three.” As Mr. Cantry spoke, I saw tears gathering in his eyes. His eyes seemed to me beautiful, luminous; his moist loose lips; even the glisten of his nostrils. My heart beat quickly in resistance to the emotion he was feeling, the emotion that pumped through me yet which I refused to acknowledge. A mean voice taunted, So that’s why this guy has been trailing you. He’s lost his only friend—a dog.
I was fascinated by this ugly man who seemed not to know he was ugly. When rivulets of tears ran down his cheeks, and in embarrassed haste he wiped them with a cocktail napkin, I leaned back in my seat, and glanced around the crowded café, in a pose of boredom. Mr. Cantry’s nose was seriously running and he blew it at length in a sequence of tissues and by the time he was finished, I was well out of my sentimental mood.
I drained my vodka martini and rose to leave. Mr. Cantry fumbled to follow close behind me, swaying like a man in a dream. He said, “Xavia, I think you must know—I am attracted to you. I realize the difference in age. In sensibility. I hope I don’t offend you?”
There was a crush of people at the coatrack. We almost lost each other. Out on the sidewalk, in the freezing air, another time Mr. Cantry said, pleading, “I hope, Xavia—I don’t offend you?”
Pointedly, I didn’t answer. I’d thrown on my windbreaker and crammed my knit cap down tight on my head. The windbreaker was unisex and bulky and the navy blue cap made my head look peanut-small. I caught a sidelong glance at myself in a beveled mirror banked by ferns in the café window and winced even as I laughed. God, I was ugly! It was no exaggeration. Almost, such ugliness is a kind of triumph, like a basket you sink after having been fouled.