Wednesday, June 08, 2011


Mona settles into her seat at the concert seeking only familiar pleasure. Her life with Howard is padded by a series of rituals in these later years. The same concert series, tea afterward at the bar and grille,  Sunday morning sex after a good night's sleep. Howard has refused to abandon the patterns of a lifetime .Probably a good thing, too, especially in the case of the sex. It would just be too absurd, two out of practice sets of old bones flailing away, trying not to injure each other. Come on, surely there’s more to it than that? Mona smooths her platinum chignon with nervous fingers. She reminds herself that only last week she had been inexplicably moved at the paper fragility of Howard’s cheeks, how the unshaven spots nearly brought her to tears. In hindsight, the experience, like this predictable program, would be as thumbed through as the pads of the pianist’s fingertips, leaving no prints and no clues.
  Howard slips the fur off Mona’s shoulders, and she savors the envious glances from the other ladies who also dressed for each other. She fingers her sapphire necklace for a long, delicious moment, smoothed against the drape of her neck.
  Two rows ahead of Mona and Howard a father and son are talking. One is the photographic negative of the other: when the white-haired father turns to his dark-haired son, they show identical profiles--brow bones jutting at the same angle, noses a similar shape. Each feature in one face is answered in the other.
  Mona recognizes the men-- first in her body’s cells, a moment before her brain catches on. A tingle travels from the base of her spine into the roots of her hair. When the son swivels in his seat and fixes Mona with an absent stare she realizes with a shock that she had once slept with his look-a-like father. In that moment, she falls into her sealed off past, whirling through her own guilt. She lets herself be pushed once more onto the bed piled high with overcoats. She hears again the metallic clicking of the bedroom lock, thrillingly audible over the fragments of songs on the stereo and the clinking of glasses just outside the door. She hears, as from a great distance, Howard crack his party joke and mouth the punch line as her lover pulls her clothes away.  She swirls the red liquid of a Manhattan in her mouth as he sinks himself inside her.
  An elbow jabs Mona’s ribs, jolts her back to the here and now: “Isn’t that our neighbor from Flower Street?” Howard asks. “Look at that-- the old boy has a son. Looks just like him!” Mona nods dumbly, unsure of her voice.  “That’s him, isn’t it? I mean, that’s who I think it is, isn’t it?” The son makes a lyrical gesture just then, the same one his father used to make when he had something urgent to say. It's too much. Mona bolts toward the ladies’ room.
  Once in the porcelain privacy of a stall, Mona sits perfectly still, her fur bunched up around her face. I will not cry, she says, her voice in rags. That man was not worth it then and he is not worth it now. She opens her compact and dabs at her nose. She slaps it closed viciously. Slut. Whore.
     On the way back to her seat, Mona glances at the stage where the piano tuner is pinging an A that died too fast when struck. It should suffer more.
   As she nudges the company of knees to get back to her husband, she notices he has sucked in his stomach almost past endurance. He crosses his pinstriped legs pointedly, and draws a manicured hand lightly over his thick silver hair. And where might the object of his preening be? Mona quickly finds her, a vulgar little thing in tight satin pants, stretching with animal grace.
  Bustling into her seat, she waves away his weak ‘Are you OK?’ with an angry shrug. “I saw you flirting!” 
He slumps in his seat and sheepishly nods. “She’s quite over the top, even for you. One of these days you’re going to get in over your head”. She gives him a sharp slap on the hand.
The house lights dim and Mona can see Howard grinning in the dark. He had never minded her jealousy. In fact, he considered it romantic. She tucks her hand inside his as if for safekeeping.
  The young pianist bounds onstage and Mona tries to concentrate on him. But the foot lights illuminate the very thing she wants plunged into permanent dark: the sight of her former lover, back of his neck crisscrossed by lines time had burned into him. Pulling her hand out of Howard’s, she places it as gingerly on her lap.
    Music rises up like doves loosed into a clear sky, but
 the four or fifth time the pianist struck the A, it dies with a wooden thud. The pianist goes faster and faster, as if he’s a runaway horse or an old man’s fibrillating heartbeat. As the rhythm loses its structure under his fingers, Mona thinks, How can he do this to me? He crashes down on an ugly chord, buries it in a bloody pool of pedal.
   “We must go, right now!” Mona hoarsely whispers to Howard, clutching his sleeve. They step over the row of sensible shoes and slam the door on the young pianist’s last thunderous mistake.
  “I realize the kid was incompetent, but I don’t think we should have stormed out just because he made some slips,” Howard pouts in the darkness of the car.
  “I believe it’s going to rain,” he announces after a few seconds of silence. Hunched over the wheel, he peers at the drops already on his windshield. He switches on the wipers, the scrape a sound that never fails to infuriate Mona. “All that for a couple of drops?”
     They head for the local bar and grille. Howard pulls into a spot, turns off the ignition and fumbles with the lights. It is raining hard now, both of them in a bad mood. Still, Howard comes around to Mona’s side, opens the door and pulls her under their big umbrella, arm around her shoulder.
     Mona and Howard slide into their favorite booth in the restaurant’s only quiet spot. “Quite a night,” Howard says to the waitress, who doesn’t really care. “Tea?” he asks his wife.
“Why don’t you bring me a Manhattan,” she instructs the girl, ducking Howard’s surprise.
“You haven’t had one of those in years!”
  “Woman’s prerogative.” She flips open her compact. Her lipstick had been completely chewed off. She swivels open the tube of brilliant red and applies it to her lips. 
Howard’s voice reaches her like a tongue in her ear. “If I make the lashes dark/ And the eyes more bright/ And the lips more scarlet/ Or ask if all be right/ From mirror after mirror/ No vanity’s displayed/ I’m looking for the face I had/ Before the world was made.”
     Mona drops her lipstick and repeats the rest of the poem that Howard used to recite to her at her dressing table. ”What if I look upon a man/ As though on my beloved/ And my blood be cold the while/And my heart unmoved? /Why should he think me cruel/ Or that he is betrayed? /I’d have him love the thing that was/Before the world was made.”
    They reach across the table and hold hands like sweethearts. When the waitress comes by with the drinks, she set them down delicately. “How is it, after all this time?” Howard asks at the first sip.
  “Wonderful!” Mona offers him the cherry.
  “No thanks,” he said.
   “But you always liked the cherry from my Manhattans!”
  “Did I?” Howard scowls with the effort to remember. He scowls through the next several drinks, hile the tight spring of Mona's brain uncoil.
She has an urge to tell Howard things. The red liquid in her mouth tastes of secrets, wildness and betrayal, of never getting caught, never in a million years.
  She looks around for the waitress. She wants more, she wants to get drunk. Mona nudges for Howard to help her, but he is deep in thought now, and Mona shudders with a slippery foreknowledge of how everything will change once he begins to speak.
“I can guess who you fed the cherries to,” he says, his voice low and terrifying. “It was the neighbor we ran into tonight. It was him, wasn’t it? Because it wasn’t me. It was never me.”


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