I wash up and dry my face. Unsure of my expression. The mirror is different. The old mirror was oval, with a dull spot on the left, hung over a dizzying, pastel wallpaper. Now I see that the whole bathroom has been remodeled. Of course. It’s been what, twelve years or more.
When I was nineteen I thought one day we’d settle in like this, worry about things such as the color of the half bath, which, I guess is what I’m doing at the moment. I fix my expression and get back to it.
Allison’s parents’ have not been renovated. They still look to me with those same, this-will-soon-pass glances. Larry is a bit grayer, wrinkled. His ears look bigger and his gut more pronounced, but his voice still drips with that same locker room arrogance.
Allison. Jesus. How did this happen? A chance encounter. Last night. This?
Back at the table she gives me that big, blue-eyed smile. The one that still to this day flushes my chest while in its embrace. I go to sit down, knowing I should say something about the bathroom because it will give Glenda a chance to go on about the house. But I don’t. It’s part of our game. I can’t give her an opening. Instead Larry takes the reins.
“So Paul, Allison tells me you’re doing poetry?”
I’m doing poetry. He says it in the way you would say “finger painting”. But it’s to be expected from the good old boy prick. So I nod and play along.
“That’s right,” I say. Allison takes a man-sized gulp of wine.
She comes up for air and tries to steer things along. “Dad, Paul just had a reading at the Eason Center downtown,” she says, looking at me, urging me on just like she used to do. “He’s going to be at Gillen College tomorrow night.”
I nod graciously. True statement, Larry, and your daughter here is the subject of at least two poems. The fact that I ran into her at a bar—that we were both in town just after her engagement fizzled has got to be grading your nerves, huh?
Larry thinks it’s great, stabbing at his green beans. Really, it’s great.
The last time I sat down at Nana’s antique wooden dinner table I was making $5 an hour, having quit community college on my first semester to work a job at the car wash. Allison was still a senior in high school, and her parents didn’t–couldn’t quite hide the pain and embarrassment. Back then I took a furtive pride in the fact that I’d had sex with Allison in every room under their roof. Now my pride lays in the fact that after twelve years of comfortable sleep, I’m back, like an early-rising cicada, scooting up to my usual spot at Nana’s refinished table.
Glenda elbows her way back into the conversation. I clench my teeth. I’ve forgotten the way she makes a spectacle of holding up a hand, chewing her food and letting the suspense build as she swallows, wipes her face, sips her wine, then so delicately shares whatever insignificant nugget she has to offer.
“Oh that’s wonderful, Paul.”
If she says that she’s proud of me I will flip the table over on its side. Long ago Allison pointed out that my eyes flinch whenever she mentions her parents. She said it last night, naked in bed, the streetlight casting a perfect yellow shine on her breasts so that I could only squeeze her wrists to communicate. Because it was her. With me. Leaving me gasping for words.
Even when I thought I was in love with someone else there was nothing like the memory of Allison’s voice on my neck. The balance of play and power in her eyes that pinned me down so that I never wanted to walk again. Then last night a faint song I’d carried in my mind came to life, the lyrics of which rang out in my head while a spellbindingly gorgeous girl/woman/tormentor lay stark naked in a hotel bed and unknowlingly promised to forever haunt my life.
Now her mother talks poetry. Who she read in college. Sip. Chew. Wipe. Am I being paid? For the work I’d spent years honing. Bleeding. Reliving.
“…you know, I always figured you to be more of a dreamer than a, well…”
Allison reaches for the salad, her eyes pull me, guiding me like a beacon. They tell me not to listen to her mother. She’ll never understand. I look away, release the bend grip on my fork and nod. Watch the bubbles in my wine fire off like neurons in my brain.
Larry plods in about golf, as though anyone is interested. I slump, falling into my role of car washer. The triumph I ‘d expected to find, walking back in that old house with its new paint and new mirrors, taking my place as a counterpart, slips from my grasp. Allison’s eyes fall to her plate, and I’m left stranded at the table amidst tee times and manners.
Last night was just that. The dinner invitation at her parents’ house, my gullible accepting, wasn’t terms of a surrender. Hardly. Larry and Glenda’s comfortable smiles and composed gestures make it clear. This is a victory dinner. They know this is all I will ever have.
They know that love alone cannot win. That I will never talk vacationing with Glenda while rinsing dishes. Slice the ball off the country club fairway while her father chuckles to his buddies. I will never hold a title or job that meets the merits. And I will sure as hell never stand stiff and awkward with a man of the cloth while Larry walks arm-in-arm with his daughter down the aisle, nodding proudly to those in the pews. I am but a car washer. A poet. A dreamer.
I am a guest.
After dinner we step outside, her father’s handshake and her mother’s hug still in my grasp. I look past the fence to the pasture. The same mountains in the backdrop. The same trees are bigger, the same stalls around us seem smaller.
“Well, thanks for…this.”
She takes my hand and shakes her head. We laugh. A small laugh that gains speed. At bad decisions and disastrous dinners. At our past. When I’d sneak in to her basement. Late night phone conversations. Picking her up at school. When I washed her father’s Mercedes at the carwash in hopes to score some points.
But I can’t wash or write my way to her. Allison and I have bars. Drinks. Streetlights and sex. We will never have a Sunday service, proper dinners, or equestrian activities. I kiss her forehead.
“I’ll call you.”
She nods. I realize that it could be two days or ten years before I see her again. I hope her children have her eyes.
I find the keys to my hideous yellow rental car.
I turn, still clinging to some far off hope that it will happen. With a smirk she motions to the tree house, just off the porch.
Twelve years of silence passes. Summer. I rub my hip, where a wasp broke up our party.
“Of course. Still looks sturdy.”
A gorgeous blue smile. “Well, good luck. Tomorrow night and all.”
I nod. Then watch the girl I love walk back into her house, to talk vacationing in the kitchen.