She had looked forward to his phone call, had looked forward to it from the second he had promised it. She had looked forward to it so much that when it came, an hour late, she hadn’t the heart to say anything at all. Why, she reasoned, why begin with hostility? Although if it had been her, she knew that she would have counted the minutes and then been afraid to call so promptly, would have waited exactly twelve minutes, made the call exactly twelve or eight minutes late so as not to look as though she cared so much. She had expected it to be a conversation of planmaking; who should travel to see whom and when, but it was not. It was light and quick, and he did not ask her again to come, and when she asked him to come, he shrugged with his voice and said he was so tired, his day had begun at three that morning and he was absolutely going to stop by his friend’s house (a birthday, a hello) and then go back home and sit and watch a movie and rest. She conveyed none of her disappointment, or so she hoped; she hoped that none of her disappointment had been conveyed, hanging up the telephone. How old-fashioned she felt, with a phone bounded by a curly cord. There is so much more nuance with a phone that has no button to beep! off. One can slam down a phone receiver with ferocity, one can put it down gently as a loving sigh, careful, so careful not to hurt a dear one’s ear, one can put it down gently as a spring loaded factory of pained restraint, just as the one holds back tears before the gentle click, holds them back until that click and then lets them flow.
Not that there would be tears here. He sounded happy. That was at least something. It was something that could be held constant. She had actually been hoping that he would again ask her to come. She had actually been considering it, considering gathering up her things and herself and jumping on a train, settling in for the miserable, depressing two hours on a miserable, cold train to him. Had he asked again, asked maybe three times, she would have done it. Hugging her arms, she felt a chill go through her. Would she take the shower now, as she had been planning? She had put it off for an hour, waiting for his call, waiting, in order to avert the dreadful happening of his calling while she was indisposed. And now the call had come and she felt inertia like a sticky grease mucking up her joints, dripping down and collecting in a thick brick in her stomach and she no longer wanted to do anything now.
Now. There was the question: what does one do now? To her right sat a pile of hardcover books, seven of them, all smelling of the library. She had to read their indexes and skim and study them. To her left, strewn about the floor, lay other open materials; textbooks; economics; histories. She had to read those, too, and not just look at them. She had been looking at them all that wasted weekend. It was wasted for want of him. Wasted for want.
She had thought, when he went away for the weekend, that it was really a relief. She was sure that with him gone and absolutely no possibility of seeing him for two and a half terrible days, she would be more productive. It would be a trial; life without him. (She went to her computer, pulled up a train schedule, and just looked at it, carefully.) But she had been less than productive. Had been awfully wasteful of time, laying about with bottles of orange juice and open books and a tired, vacant look that she hated, found so unattractive and the opposite of useful. She kept looking in the mirror all of Saturday, looking, checking, to see if it had gone, the look on her face that she hated and had no control over. Sometimes it was there, sometimes it flitted through her entire body, but each time she looked, each little time, she found a new blotch or freckle or hair or line, and thought she might punch her fist through the glass.
Her fingertips smelled of cigarettes, and she thought how he would be unhappy about that and not pleased with her when he found out that she had been smoking too much, and he would find out surely when he put her fingers between his lips the way he did, so she should not go to see him. But now the thought had her. It was in her head firmly. How to go about it, how to see him, when. The train schedule was unforgiving. There was a train in fifteen minutes, and then another a full hour later. She would miss the first one, certainly. Which gave her a whole hour and fifteen minutes to catch or not to catch the next one, which had the power to deliver her shortly before one AM. It would cost her a dollar and fifty cents for the subway, and then another five dollars or six maybe for the train, and two hours of her time, time with which she would most likely do nothing anyhow. She never could remember the times, the schedules, how much the price of the tickets. She ought to know them by now. But the trains, the train rides, they were things that she always tried to put out of her mind. Going, it was easy; the time was obliterated by her first sight of him, swept aside by the business of being amazed, by the task of enjoying the shattering of her inner monologue and the waiting and the weight before he gathered her in the bend of one arm, and the breaking anew of her heart.
Leaving was different. They did not usually part happily. At least, they did not usually part the way she would most have liked: kindly, free of stresses and worries. (She noted the clock. That first train would be leaving the station in just a minute.) No, their usual parting was much worse. The waking was lovely, but bound by a membrane so thin that the wrong thought would break it, tear it completely; any thought of, What time, or, If I were she, and she would plunge into a mood so grim it was absolutely counterproductive and drear for both of them. And entirely her own fault. For whose thoughts were they? Who else could have power over her thoughts, and how, how possibly could she think to blame him? They would have some words, and kisses, and then she would have tears, and an awkward untangling of hair, and a hurried drive polluted by music that would make her so unbearably angry, and then a train to catch. Always a train to catch. Sometimes he would thrust a twenty dollar bill into her hand and tell her to buy some breakfast, though he would be gone and her train would leave her with just time for a cigarette out of his sight and she would have no time left for even a coffee and he would not eat it with her regardless. And that is all she wanted in the mornings, really. To wake up with him, feel his skin, and have breakfast with him. It was almost stupid, how little would make her just—happy.
She was used to crying on the train, leaving. She always chose a window seat for this, so that she could curl up into a corner and not be disturbed. The last time she cried for two hours, the whole way, and when the trip was done and she had to stand she realised that they had not bothered her except once when she thought she heard the conductor say, Miss? Miss? No, they had left her alone and hadn’t made her pay, and her next thought was that she ought to give him the twenty back since she didn’t feel hungry for breakfast—-breakfast, it was nearly time for lunch—-she felt nauseated and sick actually, and they hadn’t even made her pay. The ticket, she was almost sure, was something like six-fifty. The last time, her walk was unsteady after the ride; she’d been sitting on her legs funny and she could hardly walk, but she thought about whether they charged tax on those tickets and how much and tried to count the pillars on the platform because when she was counting things she was usually alright.
This unhappy cycle of arriving and parting was what made her question the worthiness of the entire endeavour of knowing him, of keeping his company. And this same unhappy cycle was what made her sure, absolutely, that she loved him, and that this was a great love. It was not, ultimately, in the evening’s first kiss, or the look in his eyes, it was not in the tears that ran down her face like an all too willing faucet when he made love to her, not her body only but made love to her, it was not any of those things that convinced her. It was the leaving. It was the leaving and it was the pain of the leaving, and with it, the fact of her unavoidable return to it. She pursed her lips in stoic resistance to a smile. No matter what he did and failed miserably to do, she knew it, and it did not matter a bit, and she would always be back and waiting for the same thing, always on the schedule of the commuters in his town. Work begins, for most people, before sleep ends, on the 8:31 on platform B.
It was a morbid thing, to think of him this way, to think of him as a general of war, or a scientist or doctor, doctoring his women, transforming their rhythms to match his, to match those of small-town city commuting working men who no one knew. Crushing, regimenting, and all while making them feel utterly free and alive, but only for a few hours and then smiling as he crushed, sighing as he crushed. An endless parade of women punching the clock; she knew how tiresome it was, to always have someone in love with you; it smothered and bored, and made you unforgiving as an eighty-hour week. She always wondered if her convictions were correct and if there really was some spark of intellect and spirit that made each person unique. It was a nice thing to attribute to oneself, uniqueness, but the blood she would coax to her wrists was not singular, her tears not original. They were understandable, something he understood, had seen before. She racked her brain, she couldn’t sleep for thinking: what could she give to him? Yes, it had been some time, he’d consoled her once, watching, pressing her close, since he’d been with someone like her, who cried.