I Love A Rut

When it's been raining nonstop like this, I sometimes find myself walking around my studio apartment, following imaginary diagonal pathways until I come right up against an off-white wall. Then I'll turn and discover a new path, until eventually I get to a window, with the sound of rain on the glass just like the tapping of fingernails on a desk. I scan the street for something unfamiliar, but it's all the same outside--even the purple and red flags on top of the restaurant across the street still hang there, sad and dripping wet. The rain is beginning to seep into my windowsills in dark, sooty streaks. As if five days of rain weren't bad enough, now I'm going to have to clean.

I've finished with my exercise for today, which involves going downstairs to get the mail. Really, I do try to breathe in and out properly, lifting my knees high as I journey up the four flights. The stack of mail is about six inches high, which I can stretch to last several hours, if the requests for donations are really detailed. Not to mention time spent figuring out which parts of the junk mail are recyclable. This is how I fill a Saturday morning.

I've been trying to sew new curtains for my apartment, blue and white ones. Actually, "new" curtains isn't quite right, since I don't have old curtains, just not-so-cheerful white shades. I'm using my mother's old Singer, and it probably would work very well if I knew anything about sewing. I think it's the thunder, though, that keeps making it sew off course.

When the phone rings, I count to five, so as not to seem overanxious, before grabbing it and saying hello.

"Good morning, Holly dear. Busy?" It's my mother.

"Hello-Mom-no," I say, like a mantra. I pull the fabric out from under the machine's needle. It's sewn to itself in a couple of places.

"Well, I called to ask you to join your sister and me for lunch today," she says, and I think I hear nail-filing in the background. "My treat," she adds, as if waving a Baby Ruth over my head. Come to think of it, I'd really like a Baby Ruth right now.

I turn to my stack of mail and start opening. It's good to have something to distract you when you're talking to your mother. So you don't say any of the less positive things you may have thought of in thirty years. Not that our relationship is bad, but sometimes I feel it's best to keep part of my brain occupied while dealing with family.

"I thought I'd just stay in and do some things around the house," I tell her, not exactly lying.

"Well, I'm sure your apartment could use a little tidying. What's that ripping sound?"

"Oh, I'm opening about a week's worth of junk mail," I say. "Looks like I may have qualified for about $250 million in prize sweepstakes."

"That would be nice, dear. Then you could buy a new dress, for special occasions like lunch with your mother and sister."

Now I think I hear her shaking a bottle of nail polish, that little ball inside hitting the glass. My mother refuses to allow anyone else to do her nails. I refuse to stop biting mine.

"Yes, well," I start, "you'll have to settle for the old, shabbier me. At least until Ed McMahon calls."

"I really think you should come to lunch," she says, "so that you can listen to your sister brag about her engagement. If we don't listen to her, she'll bother total strangers with it, you know." She's right, of course.

"I don't know," I say, "I had to listen to the other five engagement stories. Let her tell it to strangers. That's what subways are for."

I examine a large padded envelope in my stack of mail, shaking it, hopeful it will be something wonderful I ordered from a catalog and have forgotten about. Something paid for. Inside, I find a corkscrew, no note, no receipt.

"By the way, Mom, you haven't sent me any kitchen utensils lately, have you?"

"No, why, is there something you need?" My mother can be so sweet at times.

"No," I say, "I just came across something that seemed sort of out of place."

"In your kitchen, what a surprise," she teases. "Anyway, I also called to include you in our dinner plans for tonight."

"Dinner, gee, I--"

"Ronny and I are going to that new little French place near you in the Village, and we just happen to have reservations for three. Very hard to get, chance of a lifetime!"

My mother has recently begun dating, or at least dining with, a very tall gray-haired man who insists that I call him Ronny. Ronny sounds to me like a name for a three-year-old. Still, it's good to see Mom dating--and eating--these days. My father left three years ago to go live in Texas with Sophie, his third cousin twice removed, or something like that. They started chatting at the family reunion and have been together ever since. None of us likes to talk about it.

I excuse myself from dinner, though. Ronny, I know, likes to stab his fish with a fork, hold it up, and yell "Caught ya!" Seems he likes to fish.

"Sorry, Mom, busy tonight." An out-and-out lie.

"Oh? Do you have a date? Not that it's any of my business, but it is Saturday night, you know. Date night for millions of young people. Or so I've heard."

"I think that's just a nasty rumor promoted by women's magazines and toothpaste companies," I tell her. "I'm fairly sure that most of us are far too busy to date on Saturday nights, what with all those magazines and toothpaste ads to look at."

"So you'll be by yourself. Eating cold leftovers by the TV, no doubt."

Actually, I'm out of leftovers. "No, no," I say, "I'm going to have a good hot meal. Here, I'm taking some food out of the freezer right now."

In a sudden desire for honesty, I move into my small kitchen and open the freezer, which is frozen over by a solid block of ice. A noise escapes from me.

"What was that?" Mom asks. "I'm afraid to think what may be in that freezer of yours. You shouldn't eat anything over five years old, you know dear." I think I hear my mother giggle.

Quick thinker that I am, I grab my newfound corkscrew and start hacking away at the ice. After all, there could be ice cream in there.

"So is there more, Mom? Or would you just like me to leave the phone by my ear and you can pester me awhile?"

"Well, I wanted to remind you to be nice to your sister when you see her, like at lunch, if you'd agree to come."

"Did you call the waiter and ask him to be nice too? How about the maitre d'?"

"My next two calls," Mom says.

I take a big swing and knock off a piece of ice. Unfortunately, I think I've hit Freon, too.

"What's that hissing sound, dear?" My mother once heard my watch ticking when I was seated three people away from her at a Mets game. She asked me if I couldn't muffle it somehow.

"Hissing?" I say. "Must be a bad connection. The rain. Thanks for all the invitations, Mom."

"What are mothers for? Bye dear," she says finally. "Wear a coat."

I stuff the freezer door shut, and a chunk of ice falls onto my socks.

• • •

After sewing my curtains to my bathrobe, I decide to go to lunch. I'm sure my mother expected no less.

It's a neighborhood place not far from my apartment, and when I walk in I'm thrilled by the smell of hot soups and stews coming from the kitchen. A young woman with well-applied lipstick leads me to a table where my sister, Janie, waits, flipping through a Brides magazine. I really love my sister who, at twenty-six to my almost thirty-one, is just under five years younger than I. She sits there with her dark blonde hair curling politely but not obnoxiously, in that way little sisters with perfect hair often seem to do. My own hair, brown and baby-fine, refuses to curl in any way, polite or otherwise, although on this rainy day, each strand feels as if it's headed in a different direction. Still, seeing her, I'm reminded again that I often very much want to pull on the left side of her hair and drag her around the room in that affectionate yet commanding way I had as a child.

Janie looks up. "Holly, I'm engaged!" she says, waving a sparkling right hand in my face. It's a large ring, even by Janie's standards. And she has standards, because she really has been engaged five times before. I think she has a long-standing subscription to Brides.

My sister holds an important position in a gallery downtown where the artwork is made of glass. Large, ambiguously formed glass sculptures that all seem dangerously breakable to me. I'll admit I do admire the way Janie flies around the gallery on high heels. At openings she's always telling me to mingle, but she doesn't seem to realize I'm really just afraid to move.

"Congratulations again," I say.

"Now listen," Janie starts, "I know I'm early. I realize that, so don't start in about my always being early. I'm not always early, I'm just early today."

"I'm glad that's settled," I say. "Where's Mom?"

"She's late.

I notice my mother coming in behind the heavily lipsticked girl, who is now staring at her well-polished nails as she leads Mom in. Even the lipstick girl doesn't have to watch where she's walking, which makes me wonder about my sense of balance. But before I can think too much about it, I get a look at my mother's outfit as she takes off her coat. She's wearing a little sailor suit, a cottony white blouse with a blue bow tie, a split blue short skirt. Mom brushes kisses against both of us. I catch Janie's eye, and Janie makes a "Hmmm" sound and writes something down in her daybook, the one I gave her as an engagement present several times back.

"Sorry I'm late," Mom says, smoothing out a napkin, then smoothing back her unmussed hair, which is a natural-looking shade of light brown somewhere between Janie's dark blonde and my brown, "enhanced" she always tells us by her hairdresser. "There's just so much to do these days. Have you ordered? You really could have gone ahead and ordered."

Janie and I seem to both be staring at the blue bow.

"You both look very nice," Mom says.

"You look, ah, nice, too," I try.

"Sporty," Janie comes up with.

"I thought we all agreed today was going to be casual?" Mom asks, although it feels a little more like a dare.

"You're right," I say, giving in, "and you really look-"

"Casual," Janie says, "perfectly casual. Nothing wrong with that."

I pick up a menu that isn't quite large enough to hide behind. I knew there was a reason I usually avoided this restaurant. I'm hoping no one will comment on my appearance, which consists mostly of very old black leggings I wear all weekend long, even though they often pick up all sorts of fuzz, although I'm not sure from what. On top I wear an equally old sweater that I think is fuzzy on purpose, and since it's a dark gray, it hides all types of smudges really well. Janie sits dressed in a better class of casual wear, a light blue sweater with tiny flowers on it, and light creaseless pants that I'm sure I'd get dirty in the first minute. Hers look surprisingly clean. I watch as my mother orders the marshmallow and cranberry soufflé, and Janie orders the Surprise Seafood Stew. I order a plain green salad and bowl of vegetable soup, then notice them staring at me.

"That's all right, dear," my mother says, "we're family. We won't make fun of the food you eat. Only the way you eat it."

Mom and Janie share a laugh as I wonder why it is that Janie, the youngest sibling around here, isn't the one getting teased. I try to boost myself by remembering that Janie has no sense of humor. Right now, she's showing Mom the ring.

"You certainly have a nice collection," Mom says to Janie, who does not believe in returning engagement rings. I guess you could call it teasing if Janie didn't take it so seriously.

"Well," Janie says boldly, "what shall we talk about?"

"How about men?" my sailor-suited mother offers.

"Maybe we should try something safer," I suggest. "How about the weather. Has anyone noticed it's been raining for about three weeks straight?"

"I don't want to talk about the weather," Janie says. "It's so depressing."

"Ronny finds the rain romantic," Mom says. "He told me it's as if it's just he and I alone together, with the rain protecting us from the world."

"Wow," Janie says. "He said that?"

"Two or three times," Mom says. "You know, he forgets."

"Well, now-" I try changing topics, unsuccessfully.

"Actually, Ronny and I are going to take a little trip."

"How exciting!" Janie says, always interested in potential new honeymoon ideas. "Where to?"

"We're going on a four-month African safari," Mom says excitedly.

"Four months," I almost yell, "isn't that a little extreme?"

"It sounds fabulous," Janie says, jotting something in her daybook again.

"It is," Mom says. "We'll be seeing over forty different kinds of wild animals up close."

"How close?" I want to know. Well, maybe I don't.

"We'll be sleeping in tents with mosquito nets over our cots, cooking in the wild, discovering nature in her truest sense," Mom continues. "At least, that's what the brochure says."

"I'll have to plan a long engagement, then, so you'll be back in time to help with the plans," Janie says.

"Oh yes, dear, the long engagements are always nicest." Mom rolls her eyes at me as Janie continues making notes.

Our food arrives, and my plain salad is covered with pink flowers. I'm not too sure what to do about this.

"Did you know," Mom asks us, "that there are about two hundred kinds of biting insects in Africa?"

• • •

I walk back to my apartment through every muddy puddle, just to hear the splosh noise, and settle in for a long afternoon filled with thunder and lightning, which can be annoying because it ruins the TV reception. I spend much of the day working on my curtains and watching golf. It's nice to think that somewhere it's sunny and there are large numbers of men in short-sleeved shirts. I get a big kick out of watching those men wade through the sand traps, like little kids trying to walk on the beach. Finally, I take a hot shower and imagine being in the tropics somewhere, where the rain is warm and misty.

To accompany my new mood, I put on an old South Pacific soundtrack I used to listen to as a child, and I pull out last week's travel section, where I'm invited to See Mexico's Many Worlds, Travel the Kona Coast, and Visit the Picturesque Paradise of Puerto Vallarta. I look around my apartment and suddenly see it as a white sandy beach, the uneven pieces of fabric all over the place as beach towels spread on the sand, my cup of orange tea a fruity drink with an umbrella. An ad in the paper insists that I "Enter Now" for a chance to win a $1,000 pearl necklace, and I grab a pen, ready to fill in my winning entry, sure that a pearl necklace is the proper accessory for an evening on the cool sand.

I hear a knock at the door. Someone delivering my pearl necklace, no doubt. Actually, it's Josh, to whom I used to be married. Yes, I married a man named Josh. The dark hair's a little curlier around his ears, but the face is generally the same. I used to take care of those curls personally. No doubt, Mrs. Mazzalo, my downstairs neighbor, let Josh into the building, as she's fond of chatting with all members of my extended family, even Josh. Not that I've ever mentioned the details of how we're not exactly related anymore.

"Hiya, Holly," Josh says, bouncing his head from one side to the other, trying hard not to look wet. "Rain getting you down?"

I swear, just then, there's a huge clap of thunder. Swear to God.

"Your timing seems to be improving," I say.

I let him in. He's stopped by a few times before, since the divorce. The rainy season seems to bring him out a little more often, I've noticed, kind of the way it does with worms. Although that may sound a little harsh. We've been divorced now for four years, after having been married an equal but longer-seeming time, and at what most people shook their heads at and called "such a young age," which for us was twenty-two, not that math is my strong suit. Still, there's no talking to college sweethearts who met sharing a table at the campus coffeehouse and felt that this was more meaningful than all the other meetings going on at all the other tables. I can still remember that thick coffee smell combined with the scent of canvas-covered textbooks, and that air of accomplishment you get from sitting next to someone with just the right shade of brown hair, not to mention matching brown eyes. Oddly enough, Janie was the one who tried the hardest to talk me out of matrimony, not that I can explain this in light of her love for all things bridal.

Josh pulls out a picnic basket he's been hiding behind his back.

"Thought I'd bring a little sunshine indoors," Josh says. Honest, he says stuff like this.

"Well, that's very thoughtful of you," I say. "Corny, but thoughtful."

Josh starts unpacking little boxes that smell of the delectable spices you can only get from take-out.

Josh holds up a bottle of wine. "How's this look?" he asks.

"Very timely." Experience reminds me that Josh has great taste in wine, if only fair taste in clothes. His dull gray jeans are frayed at the bottom and fading in the seat in an almost endearing way. I just know his socks have holes in them. And his glasses are covered with spots.

"You wouldn't happen to have anything to open this up with?"

I give him a look and go to the kitchen for the new corkscrew that so mysteriously arrived only this morning. With no note. This is new, a technique bordering on the romantic coming from Josh. Josh planning ahead. Josh was never the type to plan romantic dinners or outings, preferring what he called spontaneity and what I came to feel was just a lack of effort. It's not that he wasn't romantic in his way, or, say, that he didn't surprise me with presents, it's just that he didn't like to give that much thought to them. Like the time he found a heart-shaped leaf on the ground at the last minute and handed it to me when I mentioned it was Valentine's Day. It's not that it wasn't a beautiful leaf, and I did press it, and I'll admit I still have it. And I did appreciate the gesture, plus the ability to spot a heart-shaped leaf just when you need one. It's just that Josh really believed it was more romantic this way--the less thought, the better. I guess I stopped seeing the romanticism in it. So this planning ahead catches me by surprise. I hand him the corkscrew and wonder how I could have missed his handwriting on the package.

"Would this do?"

"Now, that'll come in handy," he says, looking it over. "Gee, where'd you get that?"

"I can't imagine," I say. "It arrived unexpectedly."

"Good things often do," Josh actually says. He moves the furniture around to make a picnic site.

"We need a blanket to keep the ants away," Josh says.

"You underestimate my ants' determination," I say, but I reach for one of my drape fabrics anyway. It's washable, I figure. And it looks kind of cute on the floor like that.

"You knew I was coming," Josh says.

I pull a dust ball off the floor. "I've been cleaning all day."

We begin picking at hot pieces of chicken and cobs of corn. Josh reaches for my travel section.

"Planning a vacation?"

"No, just dreaming about someplace warm, with a beach and no rain," I say.

"We took a vacation at the beach once, remember?"

I don't. "Where?"

"On Long Island, you remember."

"Josh, we went in October. It was freezing." He couldn't get away before then, as he was desperately trying to finish yet another research paper. Another late research paper.

"You had that cute little red swimsuit," Josh says, reminiscing.

"Yeah, but I could only wear it for about ten minutes, and only while standing directly in front of the heater. We should have gone someplace warm, Josh."

"But we had the whole beach to ourselves, and the room was always warm. Always very warm," he says. "You just forget."

Maybe I do. "I remember missing our train."

"And staying an extra day!" Josh says. "And getting our kite stuck in the telephone wires."

"That was awful," I say.

"No, it was great." He seems convinced about this.

"It did rain every single day," I tell him, and I'm sure of this.

"Yeah," Josh says, "lots of rainbows."

I don't answer him for a minute. "Let's not talk about rain anymore."

So we don't. Instead, we turn on one of those Lifestyles of the Rich shows, not the original show, but a copy of it that features people who aren't quite so rich anymore. We leave the sound on low, and watch tan women water ski in a land far, far away, to the tropical music still playing on my stereo. Let's just say it's an evening of multimedia events, with no more talk about the weather, which becomes increasingly fair and mild, a tingling low-pressure zone, at least indoors.

When I wake up the next morning, I'm on my couch, wrapped in layers of blue-and-white fabric. Josh has gone, having left behind a plastic flower in the now empty wine bottle. I do wonder where he found such a thing, where he hid it in his clothing, which I thought I'd gone through fairly thoroughly. I wonder if a real flower would have suggested something more serious, or only more transitory. Maybe I should consider what all this means, exactly what the consequences are of being caressed through the night by a badly dressed mathematician, especially one I used to be married to. He has dropped by a handful of times over these years, but this is the first time he's caused a weather disturbance, let's say. And not an unpleasant one. And maybe one I'm ready to continue. Still, is it a starting point, a turning point, or one of those other points that are supposed to be so meaningful in life, the kind of things that family, friends, and therapists push you toward or warn you against, often at the same time? None of these thoughts stays in my mind for long, I'm afraid. I'm sure I should be much more concerned, but instead I go to one window and raise my shade, and streams of sunlight come blasting through, finally. I stand there a moment, letting the sun warm me through the pieces of fabric, which may someday cover the windows. Then again, maybe they've already served their purpose just fine.

by Linda Lenhoff
Chapter 1
Publication Date: September, 2003
Kensington Books