by The Bald Man
At first Claire believed that she and Terry deserved each other -- they had things in common -- and at times she even felt flattered to be with him.
She thought back on their fourth date: He had taken her to dinner at his parents' house. It was a large, cubical Spanish structure with wooden balconies on every second story room, a red tile roof, and stucco walls. An avocado tree dropped extraneous, unpicked fruit on a hill at one side of the house; it was too fructuous for its own good. There was a red brick porch at the back of the house with steps that touched upon a lush, manicured lawn. In one corner of the lawn grew a rounded orange tree.
At the far end of the lawn was a bench, where the couple sat. An oak tree arched above the bench, covering them with warm shade. Somehow it seemed warmer under the shade. A boulder with a hollow on top of it rested beside the tree. The hollow in the boulder was filled with dark water; it was intended to be a bird bath, but now mosquito larvae hatched in it.
Terry told Claire that he had so many memories attached to that yard. "You're stepping into my past," he joked. He pointed out an iron fence that he had painted, and a row of now tall trees he had planted.
During dinner Terry's father looked at his son and the new girlfriend he was excited about, and smiled. They were all drinking wine; Claire had just turned twenty-one. Her anxieties about meeting Terry's parents were allayed; she could tell they liked her.
Terry and Claire were similar mostly in things they couldn't see: they shared all the standard neuroses inflicted by a society based on the need to keep people buying compulsively -- neuroses about personal worth, and self-sufficiency, along with a wandering inclination to their ambitions. They were also similar in their need for education in romance, and -- more him than her -- the need for sex.
From this angle the seedling relationship was entirely formulaic and unexceptional; 'they' could have been any couple from that age group, afflicted with the same emotional burdens and destined to endure the same disappointments and disasters -- along with the occasional sunsets and moments of rich joy, which are ultimately diluted if not completely smothered by the emotional dust of hard-learned realism. But the initial period was all attraction, sharing, and mutual enhancement.
At first they were good for each other. He drew her out of her habitual introversion, encouraging her to be more responsive to her own impulses and desires. It could be said he helped claire become Claire. This may sound trite. But somewhere, at some time, the same metamorphosis probably takes place for everyone.
Claire was good for Terry as well. He was more aware of her benefit than she was of his. The second time they slept together, Claire lay awake for an hour after the post-orgasmic Terry had dissolved into dreams. She sat up against the wall beside his bed and stared out the window at the night air and stars; they were all she could see, and the nocturnal imagery evoked a subtle dancing energy inside her. She felt, for the first time, like a partner in a true Relationship.
This would not last long. At some level Terry began to feel like too much the beneficiary; if Claire could give him so much, he must be inferior. At moments when he was able to truly penetrate himself, he realized he felt inadequate -- both intellectually and creatively. This was tolerable because brains, he thought, matter only up until the point where charm and intuition and take over. Besides, Claire was not conceited about it.
Claire was annoyed by Terry's way of being compulsively social. "Terry, why do you always have to be going someplace? I mean, look at this apartment; it's a perfectly good place. Over here there's a balcony, and you have a brand new VCR you've never even used. This place could be Home to you if you didn't have to spend every waking moment at the cafe, or the billiards joint, or your friends' houses."
They were in the dining room. He stood with his arm resting on the back of a chair. "Claire, if you don't like my friends you can say so."
"Who said anything about your friends? They're fine, but I'd like to be alone with you once in a while. I feel like I'm having a relationship with Terry and Company. The only times we're alone is when you want to have sex. I'm just hoping you never decide to get into group sex." When Claire became angry she would start yelling.
His voice only became quieter. "Claire, I Like to be social."
"Well, I Like to eat candy bars; that doesn't mean I've devoted my life to chocolate. Don't you understand that it might be good for me if we could be alone with you once in a while?"
He sighed. "To do what? Sit around and talk?"
She used a fist for emphasis: "Yes! Or anything where we're both conscious, and not spun into delirium with lust."
"Well, maybe we have different ideas about what to, you know, about what relationships are for."
"Of course we do! Don't be such an idiot. That doesn't mean we can't make mutual compromises."
He was silent, and would not talk to her for several hours. They were both lying in his bed.
With her frustration unresolved she could not get to sleep. She found herself staring out the window. The night poured in chilly and dark.
"What are you thinking about?" His voice surprised her; she hadn't known he was awake. She didn't know how to answer: she had been thinking that he was getting repetitive. And unexciting. Sexual excitement vanishes after intercourse; when you give it to someone they use it like a palm full of liquid soap, then three minutes later it's gone.
"I'm just looking at the sky." She could feel him turn to look out the window with her. He moved closer to her, and eventually put his arm over her side. Having sex that evening was like walking up a steep city hill, with nothing to see from the top but smog.
Terry alternated between feelings of sullen resentment and joyous gratitude for Claire. She thought to herself, I wish he'd just make up his damn mind. He noticed she was often irritated by him. This made him uncomfortable and nervous, and in that state he became inattentive and prone to error, which irritated her even more.
One evening they were going to a party -- he had talked her into it -- and he took a wrong turn. "Terry, will you pay attention? I mean have you suddenly decided to drive to Nebraska rather than the West Side?"
"Jeez! It was just a wrong turn."
"Well, if you were paying attention you wouldn't have made a wrong turn." He felt flustered and assailed.
"Yeah, of course, I know."
"Then why the hell did you -- oh, never mind." He noticed the next appropriate turn blur past. "Terry, for chrissake! What the hell is the matter with you? Stop being a moron!"
They had been sleeping together at his house every evening; despite the deterioration of their affection, this pattern lasted for some time; he wanted sex, and she did not like sleeping alone.
Finally this began changing. One evening she never received his usual call. She dialed his number several times but there was no answer. The next afternoon Claire asked why he hadn't answered the phone. She expected Terry to say that he had been so tired the day before, he unintentionally fell asleep before inviting her over. But when he seemed to evade the question, it struck her that he had been with someone else. She wondered if this was paranoid, but various discoveries would soon confirm her suspicion. One evening Claire offered to go to one of his friend's houses. He seemed surprised, but they went. Terry's friends looked baffled at her appearance, and they regarded her with some embarrassment. It was plain that they hadn't expected to see her again.
At one point during the evening, she overheard one of Terry's friends asking him secretively, "So how are things going with Tracy?" Claire wasn't surprised that he was seeing someone else, and that it was Tracy; they had been casual friends for months, and they had a lot in common. But what dawned on Claire was that he had been seeing Tracy behind her back for almost a month.
There had been several evenings when she asked him what he had done that day and he stumbled, then avoided a direct answer. And on one occasion Claire had found a woman's hairclip on the desk. "Where did this come from, Terry?"
"Oh, that's, you know, that's been there for months. From when my sister visited." This seemed impossible; she would have noticed it earlier. Later Terry would deny that he'd been seeing Tracy for so long, but Claire knew he was lying. It was pathetic that he needed to lie.
Claire felt disillusioned and hurt. This puzzled her; why did she feel hurt? She herself had considered seeing someone else on the side. And besides, why should she be bothered? She was rapidly losing interest in Terry. Things that used to seem fascinating and unique in him now seemed vexatious and trite.
Terry felt guilty about seeing Tracy, but reminded himself that if Claire was satisfying him -- if she were being as attentive a lover as he was -- he wouldn't need to see someone else. Still, he felt guilty, and he loathed himself for it. And he loathed himself for feeling anxious that she might confront him.
Claire lay in her own bed one night, staring out the window. She saw the dark slant of the neighbor's roof, and the moon was out. She thought of Terry in bed with Tracy. Did she ever enter his mind while the new girlfriend was there? Their relationship had not even officially ended. Officially? Whatever that meant. Why was neither of them motivated to end the lingering affair? Claire had the chilling thought that she was still attached to him. Why? Could have all those hours of intimacy have ingrained something on her that she couldn't just undo at will?
Claire turned on the light to go the bathroom. When she returned, she found her ten-year-old sister standing in the doorway in a nightgown. Her hair was mussed and she looked groggy. "Hi, Kim. What's up?"
Kim paused. "Do you ever go to Terry's house anymore, Claire?"
Claire was taken aback by this; her little sister sounded sad. "Yes, sometimes. Why?"
"Me and Daddy ran into him at the store today, and he sad bad things about you."
Claire felt strained. "All right, Kim. Go back to sleep now."
"I don't know why you keep seeing that chick," Tracy told Terry. They were sitting on his balcony together. He felt that she was pressuring him to end things with Claire. He was flattered, and he smiled.
"I mean I've seen you with her enough times to know that she's a total bitch to you. She doesn't deserve you at all."
"I don't know. I'll just, you know, let it die. I don't want to make the effort." He wondered if his lie showed; he was afraid she would make him feel horrible if he tried to end things conclusively. She still had emotionalinfluence on him, and this was manifest in his partial desire that Claire would become cool again; that she'd start being nice to him like in the first couple of months. This seemed impossible, and while Terry felt like he was cheating Tracy out of a real relationship, the sentiment for Claire remained. "You know, Tracy? Almost all the time we spend together, it's just the two of us. I never used to do that. I mean, just spending time alone with just one person. But I like it."
Dragon's Breath Magazine Copyright © 1991, 1997 Lip Think Press. All rights reserved.