Chapter 6: TRENTON, NEW JERSEY (Part 1, 2, and 3)
I am alone in our Cranbury house, on my bed, crying uncontrollably. I’ve just devoted the past half-hour to emptying my closet. I was searching for myself, littering the bedroom with reminders of who I had been. Remnants of me ornament the floor, dresser, chair, and my bed; and I am sitting amid every bit of who I was, fingering articles idly, but mostly staring at the dresser mirror, framing me, hardly able to see my reflection through my filmy eyes, really not wishing to look at me, but drawn by the compelling necessity of liking me again.
Hatred consumes me. I hate Volkswagens. I don’t actually despise the car, but what it symbolizes—me as I am now. I am huge. My belly protrudes and I can’t avoid seeing it no matter what I am doing, whether standing, sitting, or lying. It always looms below me and depresses me. I’ve been pregnant for seven months and happy in my state until now, because today I know how Richard really feels about me.
This morning, I made his breakfast, as I always do. He appeared at six, as he always does. I sat across from him, as usual staring at the newspaper, which has become a fixture over the past month, as much a part of the kitchen as the clock on the wall, the tick-tock of which was, as usual, the sole sound.
Finally, finished, he rustled the paper, folded it precisely, and set it carefully on the table. He regarded me. He smiled, a cool, mechanical curving of his lips.
He said, “Babe, you know, you’re beginning to remind me of a Volkswagen.”
I replied, startled, “What?”
Rising, he clarified, “Your girth.”
He may as well have bashed my head with the toaster for he could not have knocked me into more of a daze. I sat stock still, aghast. I watched him walk with his plate to the counter, where he set it next to the sink. It was simply too much trouble, or maybe too considerate, or a breach of his definition of duties, to rinse the damn thing and put it in the dishwasher.
Wearing a robotic grin, he strolled to the hall, to the closet for his overcoat. “Come on,” he said, not bothering to look at me, to check my reaction, “I’m joking, Babe.” Then, “You’re not losing your sense of humor, too, I hope.”
Had he glanced my way, he would have seen me reddening, the outward sign my blood pressure was straining my poor tired veins and arteries, already roughed up badly by my pregnancy. He was gone, the door slammed behind him, as I gasped for air and tottered on my chair, fighting to regain control of myself, afraid I’d soon sprawl on the floor, baby injured, maybe fatally, and mother-to-be helpless for hours until the malefactor, my husband, returned to the scene of his insult.
Here I am, then, in my bedroom, in my bed, amid my debris.
I am the size and weight of a small car. I am not even flesh and blood, but a machine laboring at one task, presenting Richard with a child. Here, there, and everywhere is who I was. The sweet, adoring newlywed who capered around Hawaii in coral shorts. The jazzy little girl who danced summer parties in Creek Falls in a red sun dress, staying awake all night talking up gales with Angie and Rosemary. Why did I keep the dress? To remain in touch with myself, my girl self. Maybe I’ve always been this way, a person who lives in the past. With me on the bed is my charcoal suit, remembrance of the teacher I thought I might be, until Richard declared I shouldn’t work, that I had another job ahead of me, more important: wife, nurturer of his career, mother, diminishing myself for the good of the nascent family.
I’m crying over sacrificed ambition, but I am on the verge of laughing, too, at my plight, at Richard, who has inflicted it on me, at myself for allowing him to. I am there in full, the relics of a life hoped for, a story written in department store couture.
Reclining on pillows against the headboard, hiding from the mirror, I ponder Richard’s degradation of me: I am a Volkswagen. But Richard is not joking, for when I review the past several months, the truth is apparent. He has treated me like a car he sometimes tinkers with. He doesn’t make love to my anymore. He works on me. He sees I’m out of tune and he rectifies the problem with a quick fuck. He sees I’m a bit sluggish and he compliments profusely, falsely; it’s like an oil change at the quick lube: efficient and fast, the job done in record time, and cheaply too. I seem dull to him; he buffs with a little gift, dime store jewelry, supermarket flowers, little considerations that aren’t, not really, just items to make him feel good about himself; they have nothing to do with me. For what am I but a machine, a not very cute bug.
My little motor is chugging hard and sending current through the wires of my body, sparking my belts and pulleys, my muscles, and I shift in bed, and I glance unavoidably into the mirror, where I gratefully don’t glimpse myself but, frightfully, see, instead, a nemesis from the past. Julie gloats at me with obscenely red lips, with a lascivious wet tongue clucking against artificially white teeth, head bobbing, eyes wide and bright and moist, mirthful at my expense. I rub my own eyes hard and red and am sick again at myself now reflecting back, a sad, miserable case of blotched skin and snotty nose and bloodshot eyes and rampaging hair. My crimson eyes speak to me and confirm what I know: Richard is cheating on me. I’m not a woman, not the girl he has known since Creek Falls, not a wife, not the soon-to-be mother of his child; I am inanimate, a hunk of matter, blind, he believes, to the obvious.
What a pitiful situation. I’ve suspected him for months. You can’t live with a man like Richard and not know his foibles, especially in the department of sex. Richard is omnivorous and insatiable. Before my pregnancy, I could not keep out of bed, or off the floor, or the dining room table, or the backseat of the car, or any flat surface that presented itself. Indoors, outdoors, Richard craved me. He is—was—a generous lover, a lover of long, lingering kissing and licking and stroking and languorous undulation. He wanted me to be happy, to be filled; he seemed deliciously unselfish, champion of my satisfaction: He wasn’t sated unless I was. Sometimes, I admit, it was simply too much for me, too much of a good thing. I couldn’t keep up, but I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t deprive him of his pleasure, the duality of release and pleasing me. But sometimes I just had to fake satisfaction to keep him happy. There was much I could complain about, but never that Richard did not or would not please me sexually. Until I announced my pregnancy. And even then sex went on and did not diminish until I changed physically. When my belly blossomed, my breasts enlarged, the veins in my legs thrust to the surface; when I metamorphosed into the Volkswagen, sex drove away. And the question plaguing me, the question I work very hard at dodging, the question is: What is Richard doing for sex?
Once, we discussed masturbation. We were at Rider in the student union drinking coffee and talking about everything and nothing. A loud conversation broke out at the next table and vulgarities flew, among them jerk-off artist. It was purely friendly argument and Richard and I laughed along with the debaters. Later, as he walked me to my dorm, as I worried about him in Olsen A atop the coeds on the second floor, I asked, timidly, “Have you ever, you know?”
“Know what?” he asked, innocently, like a fresh-faced who stumbles in on his parents in the throes.
I heat with embarrassment. How could I have asked such an indelicate question, the answer to which I really did not wish to know?
Before I finished the thought, he was following on with, “You mean beat my meat, stroke my pole, whack off, jerk off, pull the putz, that sort of thing?” I had to stop walking and throw my hands over my face to hid from him and his words.
Gently, he tugged my hands from my face. He was smiles and cheer. “You wanted to know.” I couldn’t decide if he was purposely crude or wickedly funny. I chose to believe the latter. “I learned from the old man the minute I walked in the house with a hard-on, don’t waste the seed.” He observed me closely and my already hot face flamed. “Consequently, Babe, I’ve been a very frustrated young man.”
It hit me like an accusation.