Issue 102, Spring 1987
Felice lay on the shag carpet, a wet towel across her face. Beneath it, she pressed the telephone to her ear. Her husband answered on the first ring.
“Poor connection,” Herb said gloomily. “Why didn’t you call last night? You must have been bushed.”
“The time difference.” She closed her eyes, but immediately became dizzy and had to open them. ”You were asleep.”
“This is a very poor connection. What’s that sound?”
“‘Song of India,’ darling.”
“Play it for me.”
“I hear a siren,” Herb said.
She pulled the towel off her face for a moment, listening. “That’s right,” she said. The bedspread didn’t quite reach the carpet, and under the bed Felice could see crumpled tissues, hairpins, emery boards, puffs of dust caught in the shag. “In this town they never stop.”
“Tell me what you’ve been doing.”
“What I’ve been doing,” she said. “What I’ve been doing?
The Fairfield County limousine to LaGuardia picked up passengers at the Holiday Inn, and Felice and Herb Kahn had been there a half-hour early. She sat, guarding her shoulder bag and overnight case, while he went at once to buy her limousine ticket. By nature, both were prompt—more so every year, Felice thought, as though they always expected, with a faith that grew firmer the longer nothing happened, some stupendous event.
She had married Herb in college. He looked, said her roommate—a towering Texas girl who, with shamelessly shining teeth and gums, called him “Hebe” even to his face —as though God had made him to model subcompact cars. A lovely miniature of a man, no taller than Felice, though she was the shortest girl on her corridor. As a “late-growing” child and now a small adult, she had always been frightened by reckless human bulk and height. Herb danced with an economy, an implication of motion, that made more strenuous dancers look silly, sometimes singing the lyrics in a voice surprisingly deep.
He played the flute and mortified her once by doing it outside her dorm—“Song of India,” and afterward, to her complete agony, “Habañera”—ignoring the shrieks as dozens of girls threw open their windows. Out of loyalty, she had not retreated from her own window, though she could hear only scattered phrases of his music amid the laughter and calling. She endured it in furious shame—the hardest thing in her life, she still thought—until at last he disjointed his flute, wiped out its bore, returned it carefully to its padded case, and walked away with his tidy stride. When she agreed to marry him, it was because he seemed capable of anything.
She had been wrong about him, though. Herb wasn’t capable of much, and had the simple cunning, the slavish patience, not even to try. And she had been wrong about herself, because she was happy with him despite his being content with so little. It was true that even today, prematurely pepper- and-salt, he’d have played his flute outside her window, naked or glued with ostrich feathers, he’d have twirled his hand in the fire —a scene Felice sometimes visualized, waiting to fall asleep —to win her or keep her. But apart from her, what he loved (it turned out) was to play handball at the Jewish Community Center and then sit dreaming in the steam room, to bake dill rolls and poppy-seed loaves, to read the biographies of polar explorers. The difference in religion didn’t bother her, except that, through what seemed a kind of laziness, he didn’t even believe in his own. She had not been able to become pregnant. She was allergic, said her doctor—in layman’s terms, allergic, he explained —to Herb’s sperm.
Now, finally, they were trying to adopt. Their lawyer often warned her to expect nothing, but just as often maddened her with hints that “something” could “materialize” soon. Materialize! Genes, Felice saw, were merely an idea of a baby. Cell by cell they became flesh. What an idea, said Herb, as they drove past a parochial school, where uniformed children played dodgeball behind a high chain-link fence. What an idea. Where did she get it? Was that Italian? Hugging her sister’s clever children, squeezing their hot shoulders at the beach, until they twisted out of her hands to shriek and gallop in plumes of spray, she knew you could really go crazy.
Herb was coming back across the lobby of the Holiday Inn, her limousine ticket in his hand, to where she sat with her luggage. She saw him glance quickly around: Gilbert hadn’t arrived. Gilbert was her boss, the kind of man she’d always assumed she’d marry—an energetic Sicilian, attractively ugly, good dresser, with slim hands and feet. Happily married to a three-hundred-pounder. Felice often imagined, so vividly that she found herself holding her breath, a scene in which the wife smothered the mistress in flesh. But far from being violent or bitter, this lady, who came in on Saturdays, was an angel, and also, Gilbert had hinted, knew better how to please him in intimate ways.
Now there was no going back to when, with jokes and looks and scents, a single button left open, they had made each other feel that anything was possible. Now, even flying with him to a travel agents’ convention brought the sadness that Felice had lately felt in all experience, the knowledge of its end firmly scheduled. Her and Gilbert’s hotel room was probably already reserved by the couple who would stay there next. She wished she could comfort Herb, who (she was certain) knew what was going on, with her belief that none of this would matter.
She moved her bag aside to make room for him on the lobby sofa. Herb sat down and folded her fingers around the limousine ticket.
“Thanks,” she said. “You don’t have to wait.”
“No,” he agreed. “Look, I’ll phone you if anything comes up”.
Materializes, she knew he meant. “I’ll call you,” Felice said.
“I’ll call tonight.”
“Only if you want. I know you’ll be bushed.”
She leaned her head toward him, they kissed softly, and she touched his lips with her fingers. “Have a safe trip,” he said grimly. Then he left her. As he pushed his way out through the swinging glass door, Gilbert was just coming in, his mouth open in surprise or laughter. Herb held the door for him, and Felice saw the two men reach forward—her lover reach down, her husband up —to shake.
Her voice, close to the receiver, was full of breath, and Herb felt inappropriately stirred. In the background the sirens were continuing. There were other, roaring noises that he couldn’t interpret but didn’t like. He stood, pacing with the telephone receiver, the length of its cord and back. “I haven’t been doing anything,” he said. “Working. Have you gambled?”
“Won close to four hundred dollars,” Felice said proudly.
“The croupier gave me such a thoughtful look.”
“How’s Gilbert doing?”
“Partying. What time is it? Every afternoon—”
“I hear a loudspeaker.” Herb stepped too far, pulling the telephone off the table. It crashed to the floor and he snatched it up in fright.
She was still there. “Listen,” he said. “Can you walk? How
much did you drink, anyway?”
“Is there a fire or something?”
“Apparently,” she said, sounding embarrassed. “I’ve been asleep.”
Herb glanced at the door, touching his hip pocket to make sure his wallet was there. For a moment he felt, in the muscles of his calves, that he could step across the country and save her. He smashed the wall with the heel of his palm and heard plaster rattling down softly between the studs. “What floor is your room on?”
“Don’t be mad, please.”
“Is Gilbert there with you?”
“Play me something. Play ’Habañera.’”
“Would Gilbert enjoy that?” he asked. “I imagine he’s quite fond of opera.”
The touch of the man who must be sleeping with his wife stayed on Herb’s fingers and palm like an intuition, oddly precious. He managed the steering wheel with his other hand as he left the Holiday Inn (the airport limousine, stretched by some cartoonist, was just pulling in) and drove to his office. Herb owned and operated the Herb Kahn Messenger Service. He’d always considered that pretentious: naming a business after yourself. But other possibilities had seemed still more so. Speedy Messenger? Lightning Messenger? Nakedly hopeful business names depressed him, like anything else obviously meant to seduce.