It went something like this:
Dear Ann: I recently married a mortician. Although I had previously participated in heavy petting, technically, I was still a virgin. On our wedding night my husband told me to soak in a cold bath until my body was frigid. He then instructed me to lie on the bed without moving while he made love to me. Is this normal? If not, what should I do?
Get out of the house, Ann told her. Immediately. And call the police.
Maybe Ann should have told her to get used to it.
Maybe I’m just bitter.
I dropped in on Grant one morning last week – unexpectedly. I should have known by his face when he saw me, by the way his eyes darted back into the house, by the way he hesitated before stepping aside to allow me to enter.
She walked out of the bathroom, one towel wrapped around her body, using another to dry her long, blond hair. She hesitated only a split second before a smile cracked her plastic-clear skin. You must be Sarah, she said. I’m Angela. I live upstairs.
Oh, she said. I know this looks bad, but it really isn’t. My own shower’s broken, and Grant was kind enough to offer me his.
I swung toward Grant. He held out his hands as if to say – See. No weapon. Her shower’s broken, he said, and then smiled nervously.
Angela emitted an awkward laugh. I’ve got to get to work, she said, and disappeared into Grant’s bedroom.
I gaped at Grant in disbelief, but he just shrugged, turned away and busied himself with pouring coffee. Her shower was broken, he repeated. What was I supposed to do? Don’t start making a big deal about it, Sarah. Nothing happened.
I was still standing in the middle of the kitchen staring at Grant, who was half leaning against the counter playing with his coffee, when Angela returned in tight jeans and a white tank top that screamed, “I don’t need a bra.”
She thanked Grant and gave me a quick, cruel smile as she manoeuvred her way out the door.
Without a word I walked into Grant’s bedroom. The unmistakeable smell of sex hung in the air like a mushroom cloud. I suppose I should have been more understanding; it had been at least thirty-six hours since we’d made love.
I walked back out to the kitchen where Grant was now seated at the table, reading the paper, trying to look nonchalant. So? he asked. What are you doing here at this hour? I wasn’t expecting you.
Jesus, Sarah, he said. It’s no big deal. She lives upstairs. He spoke as if that made it all right.
Is this why you wanted me to wear a blond wig? So you could fuck me and pretend I was Angela?
The wig has nothing to do with Angela. The only reason the wig would turn me on is because you’d be the one wearing it.
What a crock.
As soon as Grant realized I wasn’t going to believe “nothing” happened, he changed tactics, tried his biological-determination theory on me. Men are different from women, he explained. Women are monogamous by nature. Men need variety. It has something to do with the hormones we get as fetuses, he said, but it has nothing to do with us, nothing to do with you and me.
Bullshit. Even Ann Landers would know that.
Grant phoned me at the studio that afternoon. Said he wanted a chance to explain. I told him there was nothing to explain, that he already had. It’s in our genes, I said. I’m just a woman. I want someone who won’t fuck other people. Then I hung up.
I phoned Monica to see if she wanted to play squash, maybe go for a drink afterward. She said she could do the squash, but she couldn’t drink. She’s pregnant – again.
This is the third time. She has the cutest kids. They hardly ever spit up on you.
I took care of them for a weekend once, so she and Dan could get away. It was great fun, up to my elbows in diapers and vaseline. Cured me from ever wanting my own.
So why do I need someone like Grant in my life?
He was good in bed.
Every move was calculated. He never came before I did.
Grant phoned again, later that afternoon, to ask about our tickets to a play the following night. I’d totally forgotten. I told him to take Angela, unless he was already tired of her.
Damn. I really wanted to see that play.
Monica says I’m in a rut. Says I pick the same type of guy every time. That’s why I end up getting hurt. Not because there are no good men out there. Look at Dan, she says.
I don’t have the heart to tell her Dan made a pass at me once – in their kitchen.
We were drunk so it didn’t really count. Later, he acted as though it had never happened.
Maybe it hadn’t.
Maybe I just imagined the whole thing because I wanted him to.
And maybe I am in a rut. Maybe what I need is a nice accountant who wants to replace his mother. Clean the dishes. Clean the house. Make the meals. Spend the week making a job list so he’ll have something to do on weekends.
So we will have something to discuss at the dinner table.
I really need a new kitchen, dear. How else can I keep making these wonderful meals?
Just get me a goddamn microwave for our Lean Cuisine and I’ll never ask for another thing.
Of course, I’m joking. Cooking is my life.
Grant phoned again the next day, to offer me the tickets. I said no.
I’m only trying to do the right thing, he said.
He’s only trying to play the martyr. This way, when he’s explaining our break-up to his friends, he can nod his head with sacrificial nobility and say: Naturally, I let her have the theatre tickets.
Yesterday, I went to Grant’s apartment, to pick up things I’d left there. He walked around moodily, followed me from room to room, kept asking why I thought this was necessary. Couldn’t we just talk, try to work things out?
Then the phone rang. I knew by his voice and the look of panic he shot in my direction that it was Angela. I was out the door before he could hang up, my arms full. I walked around to the back of his building and threw it all in the green dumpster.
There was a message on my machine from Grant when I got home. He said I’ve blown things way out of proportion. He asked me to call him when I’ve calmed down.
There was also a message from Monica inviting me for dinner. Her voice sounded sad and worried. I think she’s taking this harder than I am. She has a new book for me. Something about why women pick the men they do. She said it will help me out of my rut.
I didn’t return her call. I have enough to think about without worrying about her worrying about me.
There was a time, not that long ago, when all of my friends were giving me self-help books. I hadn’t realized I was in such a pitiful state. One book tried to convince me that I need not be depressed about my present situation, even though all of my friends are married and starting families. My time would come, it assured me. For now, I was to rejoice in my independence and take full advantage of the freedom it afforded me.
My favourite self-help book was given to me by Kasha. Kasha’s on her third marriage, drives a Porsche and has a seemingly endless stream of lovers. She has what she calls a healthy disdain for men and is deliriously happy.
The book she gave me insisted that life was not worth living without a good partner. It provided ten easy-to-follow rules on how to find this perfect mate. I could never get past the first rule: always be happy. It reminded me of a town of zombie-wives in an old movie I’d once seen. I think it starred Catherine Ross. The real wives had been replaced by cheerful, mindless androids; a town full of June Cleavers without opinions or passion. But, God, the men were happy!
Dear Ann: My husband wants me to be happy all of the time. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to get it right. I keep letting little things like global warming, ethnic cleansing, and his infidelity bother me. What can I do? – Tired of Thinking
Dear Tired of Thinking: Stop thinking. If that doesn’t work, try warm milk and valium.
My mother must have read Ann Landers. Only instead of warm milk she used alcohol. Suicide at a snail’s pace.
Dinner at Mom and Dad’s. My two brothers sitting opposite me, on the boys’ side, me alone on the girls’. Mom apologizing for the food that lay on our plates like a burnt offering while she swills down her wine like it’s the blood of Christ.
From the other end of the table my father booms out his jokes.
How do you cure a woman of nymphomania?
My brothers watch him expectantly, even though they’ve heard the joke a hundred times.
Mom scolds him good-naturedly, hides a smile behind her glass.
I try to ignore him.
Why’s a woman’s thing so close to her ass?
So you can pick her up like a six pack and carry her home!
My mother titters surreptitiously. Oh, Harold. That’s terrible.
That’s disgusting, I tell him, but he simply looks at me with pity that I’m not a boy and, therefore, cannot be expected to understand.
My brothers slap each other on the back and say: Good one, Dad!
After deciding not to return Monica’s call I returned to my studio, smoked a joint and uncovered my canvas. Large, black eyes loomed out from a pale, emancipated body. The figure had long fingernails that curled like a series of pig cocks (I had once been told that a pig’s penis was actually turned like a corkscrew and have never been able to shake the image). In the figure’s hands, which were extended toward me, lay a small, bloodied object, like a freshly slaughtered religious sacrifice. It wasn’t clear what the object was, but I knew.
Time to reevaluate my outlook on life, I thought, as I picked up a brush and prepared to paint over it.
Dinner at Mom and Dad’s. Mom apologizes for nuking the food too long. She destroyed two microwaves before my father finally threw out all of her metal cooking sheets.
As if she ever cooks a damn thing anymore, he said.
My brothers have moved out west where they own a paving company. Before I got married they would phone me at three in the morning, drunk, to see if I was getting any.
We worry about our little sis, one would always say.
Don’t use it and it’ll dry up, the other would always add. Then they’d laugh and say in unison: Good one, Bro.
Since they’ve moved out west they don’t use each others names anymore.
In my brothers’ place sits Peter, my first and only husband. He laughs politely at Dad’s jokes, and even tells some of his own, but they are political, and I know my father is disappointed in my choice.
So, it turned out, was Peter.
I want children, Peter said. You want to paint. They just don’t go together, do they?
I shrugged. Tears ran down my cheeks. I knew he was right.
Can’t you just be a Big Brother?
Instead of painting over the bloody blob that lay in the hands, I frantically added more blood, until it dripped down the figure’s gown and formed a pool of dark red on the ground beneath its feet. I knew if I stopped to think about what I was doing, it would never get done.
Behind the figure I painted a large building with flames licking up the sides.
I was almost certain who lay sleeping in the building.
Dinner at Mom and Dad’s. Mom does not apologize for the food. We’ve ordered in Chinese. My father tries to tell his jokes, but Mom no longer listens, and he knows they’re wasted on me.
Mom’s filling her glass and telling me I must have done something to drive Peter away.
We just wanted different things, I said.
Well, Dear. You must have done something. Men are different from women. They have different needs and desires. You’ve just got to realize that and accept it.
My father clears his throat and rises from the table to watch a ball game.
My father left my mother for the secretary in his construction office four months ago. Not long afterward, the telephone calls began: my mother threatening to kill herself. She would phone and I would rush over to her house, no matter what time it was. In the morning she rarely remembered calling me and would ask what I was doing sleeping on the couch.
Last night she forgot to call.
The funeral is postponed for longer than usual so it can be held on Saturday. This is for my brothers’ benefit.
Looking at my mother in her casket, I realize for the first time what a large woman she was. I’d always pictured her to be so tiny that I’m shocked to find I could have been so wrong.
After the funeral, after my mother’s exaggerated body has been placed in the ground, we return to her house to greet bereaved relatives and guests. When they finally leave, we sit down at my mother’s table and eat as we had as children, except in my mother’s place sits Charlene, my father’s new love.
It doesn’t take long for my father to begin with his jokes. Trying to lighten the mood I suppose. I shouldn’t really blame him. He hasn’t seen his sons for several years.
Peter was at the funeral, and although my father invited him to stay for the meal, and I assured him he was welcome, he declined pleading other commitments. I already knew about his other commitments and didn’t mind in the least. Perhaps she did.
Grant was nowhere to be seen. He may not have even known.
Dinner at Mom and Dad’s. Mom is no longer there. Charlene, her recently de-greyed, jet-black hair, tied back into a pony tail that I think looks ridiculous on a woman her age, is going on about how nice my mother must have been for so many people to have gone through so much trouble to prepare such nice food for the family.
My father is telling one of his jokes. Why does a woman have legs?
From nowhere the answers begin pouring out of my mouth.
So she can run away from a husband who’s fucking his secretary.
So she can kick a man in the crotch when he comes at her with a knife.
So she can …
I stop and look up at the astonished faces that stare, open-mouthed, in my direction.
But then my father clears his throat. That … that’s not it at all, he says. It’s so she doesn’t leave sludge marks like a snail.
Suddenly, the real answer carves its way into my head, and I feel it snake down my neck, slither forward toward my mouth where it exits in a barely audible whisper.
So she can walk from the ice-cold bath to the bed.
About the AuthorRonald Sparling is a Canadian writer and photographer who has been based in S.E. Asia for the past 16 years. His stories, articles and photographs have appeared in magazines throughout S.E. Asia and Canada. Currently, Sparling lives in Kuala Lumpur where he teaches photography at Sunway University.