Dottie was pregnant. I was a math instructor at Seattle Community College. There was an Indian summer that September, not a drop of rain until the 20th. One warm and windy day I took my 5-year-old son Philip to Lincoln Park with a kite.
The kite got caught in the branch of a madrona tree, the red plastic and the long white tail conspicuous amidst the decaying brown and yellow leaves. There was no way we could get it down, and Philip cried all the way home regardless of how much I tried to bribe him with promises of ice cream and a new kite.
Not surprisingly, Philip forgot about the kite that afternoon, but I noticed that I could see it from our living room window. I imagined the snapping sound it made in the strong September wind.
It was the winter of the worst pain I have ever experienced, and I looked out each day into the park and stared at the kite. It stayed caught in the branches of the madrona tree all winter.
Then one day in late May as the spring colors were emerging everywhere I looked out the window at the kite as I did every day—as far as I could tell—the kite was not in the tree.
Dottie walked Philip to the Gatewood Elementary School to his kindergarten class each morning on her way to work as a bank manager. On the morning in October, 2007, a Monday, she was crossing the corner of California Avenue SW and SW Frontenac Street, when a 1984 Ford pickup came barreling through the stop sign off the steep hill on Frontenac and right over my pregnant wife and 5-year-old son. The pickup’s acceleration was stopped by a car parked at the curb westbound on Frontenac. The driver of the pickup looked in his rear view mirror at what he had done, and at other pedestrians staring at him in shock. His pickup was still running. He backed it away from the car he had run into and sped away. He was arrested later.
I followed the advice of my financial adviser in a fog, remembering little. I put most of the money I received from the settlement into an IRA account he had established, and the rest into savings. I hadn’t returned to work since the accident. I had till then been conscientious about our finances and ordinarily would have paid attention to what my IRA was doing. But I didn’t care about money anymore. I didn’t have a family to worry over.
One day I went for a walk in the park. I realized I was where the kite had been caught the previous September. I looked up at the madrona tree and was surprised to see that it was still there, but just the cross bar. The red plastic and the tail had either worn away or blown off.
I felt something beside me. I turned my head to a tall woman, nearly as tall as my six-feet, a black and white mid-sized dog sitting beside her. She was looking up where I had been looking.
“What is it?” she said.
“I’m looking at the kite caught in the branches of that tree.”
She looked again, squinting. “It’s been there awhile.”
“My son and I got it caught there last September.”
“And you’re still trying to get it down?” She smiled at me. It occurred to me abstractly that she was attractive. But she frowned when I hadn’t smiled or laughed at her joke.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m annoying you.”
“No…No, you’re not…It’s just…”
“It’s a long story.”
“I have time.” The smile was back.
I had once been accustomed to women flirting with me, but hadn’t paid attention since my family had left me. Women were no longer there.
“It’s a long sad story.”
“Tell me over coffee.”
I hadn’t told anyone my story before.
We sipped our lattes somberly. We were at Café Ladro on California Avenue. People sat around in clusters, reading books or tapping away on laptops.
“There’s a group that meets here on Wednesday nights,” I said. I don’t know why I said it—just to break the silence, I guess.
“Yes. The topic is current events. It’s open to anyone regardless of political orientation, but I’ve yet to hear anyone speak favorably of the war in Iraq, or George Bush.”
“I’m not surprised.”
There was another pregnant pause.
“I don’t know what to say,” she then said. “No one has ever told me anything so horrible.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a teacher.”
“I’m a teacher too. Or I used to be.”
I told her.
“What do you teach?”
“Then we wouldn’t work.”
She smiled. “You just said a joke.”
“I was only thinking out loud, I guess.”
“You were seriously thinking that because you teach math and I teach English that we wouldn’t be compatible in a relationship?”
“Something like that, I guess.”
“Why should we ‘work’ at all? We’ve only just met. We’re just having coffee. You think this horrible thing that’s happened to you would make me want to fuck you?”
We were sitting on stools at the east window. There were three stools and the man sitting to the right of us looked up from his book for a second. I looked at the book. It was Paul Theroux’s novel My Other Life. I had read it. It was a strange book. The protagonist of the novel was a man by the name of Paul Theroux.
“Have you read anything by B. Traven?”
“Why are you changing the subject?” she asked.
“He wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
“I know who he is. The Death Ship.”
“He went out of his way to be anonymous. No one knows for sure what his real name was.”
“You’re grieving. That’s it.”
“No, I’m making a point. You teach English. I read literature. Or at least I used to.”
She laughed, and looked into her empty coffee cup. “Let’s walk.”
She untied her dog from the bicycle rack outside and we strode north on California Avenue.
“What’s his name?” I said about the dog. I hadn’t yet even asked her name.
“A mix, I think. He was a stray hanging about the house without a collar. He was stinking and emaciated, his fur oily and matted. I was going to take him to the animal shelter, but I worried that he would be euthanized. He’s very gentle and laid back. I’m attached to him now.”
“If only they could talk.”
“The stories they could tell.”
“What’s your name?”
She looked at me, not saying anything. We walked some more, and then finally she told me her name, and some time later she told me her story.
She loved her first husband, but he got into cocaine and he changed. He was athletic when they first married, bicycling, tennis, running. But he lost interest in taking care of himself as he became embroiled in the drug. Soon he was mainlining a cocaine/heroin mix, then he lost his job, then he took up dealing to support his habit. She had long before given up on him, and finally moved out. The house belonged to both of them, but she just walked away from it. She just wanted out. It was a good thing she left when she did, because he got busted by a narc and the feds confiscated his house. He went to prison. Something dramatic happened to him in prison, because when he got out he started using again, but also started dressing in women’s clothing and having relationships with men.
She didn’t love her second husband and regretted marrying him on their wedding day. He was a narcissist. He collected women and spit them out. He made $300,000 a year selling Land Rovers and Jaguars, but he couldn’t keep them out of debt because he was a compulsive gambler, an alcoholic, and drug addict. He consumed everything and preserved nothing. The world existed for him to devour—food, liquor, drugs, cars, women. He was the first in line in buffets, his appetite insatiable. If he could leave nothing for anyone else it wasn’t enough to satisfy him. He couldn’t stand anyone in front of him on the road. He veered his Jag recklessly from one lane to the other, passing vehicles frantically, honking and swearing at other drivers who were always flipping him off. He wouldn’t stand in lines; if he couldn’t bully his way to the front of the line, he wouldn’t get in at all. He ruined her emotionally and materially. And when he had used her up, he discarded her for someone younger.
We were lying on Alki Beach in our bathing suits when she told me all this, the mid-day sun hot on our bare skin. I was up on my elbows staring out at Elliott Bay.
A barge stacked high and tight with cargo was being towed. She leaned over and kissed me, almost angrily rather than lovingly—hard and quick. I bent my head towards her as if asking for more, and she laughed and said: “We’ve been hanging out for two weeks and you haven’t even tried to kiss me.”
I said nothing, and she said: “Are we just friends?”
I said nothing still, and she said: “Even friends have sex on occasion.”
She kissed me again, even harder this time, her mouth hurting me, hurting my teeth.
She stood up pulling on her clothes. She walked across the hot sand and Bud and I followed.
In the car, she said: “I just want to fuck.”
We went to my house and made love. Afterwards I logically thought that I was in love with her, and told her so.
“It isn’t me you love, but something else.”
This made no sense to me. She went on: “To fall in love is to meld minds; it is a coming together of souls, something automatic without thinking, leaving us obsessed with each other, sharing experiences, a desire to be with each other constantly and eat each other up.”
I had poured two tumblers of red wine and handed hers to her. She looked at me and laughed.
“I don’t feel any of that towards you,” she said, cruelly.
We drank the bottle of wine and she said she felt like dancing. We drove down to Pioneer Square and the New Orleans where they had a southern blues band playing. I’m a poor dancer and I was surprised to discover that she was even worse, watching her ungainly moves out of rhythm under the dim lights. Dottie had been a good dancer and always made fun of me, saying I danced like a “white guy”.
We returned to my house and staggered to bed.
During the night when she thought I was sleeping, I felt her fingers graze my body.
I listened to her get out of bed and leave.
I was at her house one evening. We were drinking red wine. She drank red wine every evening, I had noticed, usually an entire bottle. She would pick up the empty bottle, shake it, and then stop drinking, as if disciplining herself to stop at that one bottle. On weekends, it was two. I had never been much of a drinker, but felt myself joining her.
She wrote, she told me, and had even had some short stories published in literary magazines. That impressed me. I told her I was proud of her. She replied that she wasn’t my wife, some object to be proud of like a trophy. She said that I don’t know what love is anymore, that the tragedy had blinded me to reality. At that point, I didn’t know that I had ever known what love was.
“You’re impressed that I’ve had short stories published but I notice that you haven’t asked to read them.”
“May I read them?”
“You’re only asking because I mentioned it.”
“Of course I want to read your short stories, published and unpublished. Why wouldn’t I?”
“I’ve written a novel.”
“May I read it?”
“You can read whatever you like,” she said, but made no motion to get it. “I want to fuck.”
Afterward, sitting up in bed sipping more wine, she said a strange thing: “I love you, but you don’t love me.”
I didn’t know what to make of this, and said nothing.
“Do you think I’m over-sexed?” she said.
I didn’t know how to answer that. It was getting so I was afraid to say anything.
“I think I use sex as a crutch,” she said.
“A crutch for what?”
“To avoid issues. And I take it back, I don’t really love you.”
“I’m not like your husbands, you know. I’m not a drug addict, an alcoholic, or a gambler.”
“You’re very good to me.” She smiled warmly.
That night I awakened to find her astride me. She was moving over me rhythmically with her eyes closed, as if thinking of someone else, as if using me as a tool. I climaxed quietly and she carried on. I became flaccid and all I could think about was that I needed to pee. I fell out of her and she continued to grind against me until she finally had her orgasm. Then she collapsed beside me, panting, rolling away from me.
I looked at the time as I sat on the toilet. 4:00 a.m. When I returned to bed she was snoring. Her snoring kept me awake. I nudged her to make her stop, but as soon as I started to drift off she was snoring again.
I finally got up to fix coffee. I drank coffee and read the Seattle Post Intelligencer. It was October 27, 2008. The stocks had fallen 700 points the previous day because of the collapse of the banking industry. I had used to worry about such things.
When she rose and sat down across from me with her coffee, she said: “Do you want to date other women?”
“I don’t mind, you know.”
“I have no one in mind.”
I had fallen in love and since this love was not reciprocated, it filled me with disgust and despair—disgust with myself and despair with my seemingly impossible situation.
She was brilliant. I read her novel. I loved it. It was dark and ironic and full of betrayals and sexual aberrations, but I couldn’t put it down. The characters were eccentric, yet real. She reminded me somewhat of Carson McCullers, of whom all three novels were side by side in her bookcase.
We slept at her place that night and in the morning as I had awakened before her I sat up in bed and stared at her for awhile. Sleeping, she looked like an innocent child, her long brown hair draping her face, her skin smooth and relaxed. She looked as content as I had ever seen her. I loved her in such a way that caused me to question whether or not I had really ever loved Dottie.
Her house was an eight hundred square feet bungalow in the Admiral district, a few blocks from where she taught at West Seattle High School. She had a view of Elliott Bay and across from that to downtown Seattle.
Not surprisingly, her bookcases were stuffed to the brim, overflowing and filling every crevice. There was the usual: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Lawrence, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, Faulkner, Hardy—so on. There wasn’t much contemporary, but there was Bukowski, Kerouac, Updike, Cheever, and Carver. There were tall stacks of magazines as if she were reluctant to toss them out. Poetry Magazine, the New Yorker, Utne Reader, Vanity Fair, and literary magazines in which presumably were published her short stories.
Other than this clutter, the décor was minimalist, a leather chair and an ancient purple sofa that smelled of must, one antique end table, and a rickety old coffee table badly in need of a refinish. There was one painting on the wall, a print by Henri Matisse. Her small bathroom had a pedestal tub and sink, barely enough room for one person.
I sat and drank coffee in her tiny kitchen, staring out at the city, pondering my heartbreaking predicament. She was afraid of love; it didn’t take Jung to figure that out, the experience of her two marriages solid clues.
There was another trauma, one she related to me later that morning after she had risen and was sitting with me at her two person kitchen table with coffee.
“I met a man in a bar. He was very good looking and I had been drinking, so I decided to bring him home.
“I used my bathroom and when I came out he was naked and had an erection. I laughed, and I think he thought I was laughing at him because he was small, his penis rock hard but only four inches or so. But I wasn’t laughing at him—I was just laughing—you know? At the situation. But he hit me and I went down. I stared at him more shocked than hurt, and told him to leave. He made like he was going to hit me again and told me to take my pants off—nothing else—just my pants. I said no, and he made like he was going to hit me again, so I said okay, and took my pants off. Then he wrestled me around at my sofa and sodomized me, hurting my back so that I had trouble breathing and said to me, ‘How’s that cock feel now, you fucking cunt!’
“When he was done he casually dressed while I lay on the floor and sobbed. He said: ‘If you tell anyone about this I’ll kill you.’ And he left.”
“Did you call the police?”
“I was afraid. I really believed him when he said he would kill me. And I didn’t want to go through the humiliation of a court drama where it would be his word against mine.”
This story and her vulnerability made her strangely desirable to me. She looked at my erection and then at me. I wanted to make love to her to compensate for her pain.
We spent the day together. We took the bus downtown. We toured the Seattle Art Museum; they currently had an impressionist exhibit. We strolled through the Public Market and south on First Avenue to the Elliott Bay Book Company, and had lunch at the J&M Café.
At her place we lay eye to eye, our bodies touching but not speaking. She seemed unable to communicate any feelings towards me; there remained an emotional wall between us, an invisible web of disloyalty and reticence. We made no motion toward lovemaking. I experienced no sense of despair and anger anymore.
The next day we took Bud for a walk in Lincoln Park. I stopped to look up at the madrona tree.
“What are you looking at?” she said.
“The kite’s gone.”
I returned to teaching that fall.