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Spring/Summer 1997, Volume 14.2

Fiction

 

James Knudsen

I'm Not Here


James Knudsen (M.F.A., U of Massachusetts) teaches in the M.F.A. program at the University of New Orleans. His stories have appeared in
Denver Quarterly, Beloit Fiction Journal, Louisiana Literature, Puerto del Sol, Sonora Review, Kansas Quarterly, and others.

 

He said he'd seen Gregory over at the university and it had reminded him that she was "out there." By that he meant that she was single now, probably available for a date, and Susan couldn't deny it. She spoke softly into the receiver as she set the phone in her lap and swiveled her desk chair around so that it faced the back wall of her office. "So how's Gregory doing?"

"Looks mighty thin, but I didn't talk to him. Like I said, I thought of you."

"I'm touched," she said, not knowing whether she was or not. She was more concerned with what she would say when he asked her out, which he was sure to. Tom Pasker. She hadn't seen him in six years. That was three years before she and Gregory separated, five years before their divorce. She hadn't thought of Tom since that sorry weekend after Gregory left when she'd imagined her way down the halls of the department checking each office for available men. She hadn't really been looking to get involved with another professor, but it had been something that helped her fall asleep.

"So I was thinking about lunch," said Tom. "A glass of wine. Someplace dark and Chinese."

She switched the phone to her other ear and swiveled back around. "With me?" Susan swallowed and realized that the lump in her throat was back. It was her body's way of telling her she'd been put on the spot.

"Yes, would you like to?"

"Where?"

Sitting in her car outside the Sunflower Splendor, Susan tried to remember exactly what Tom Pasker looked like. He was short and usually wore thick-heeled shoes. She remembered him in tight jeans frayed where his knees popped through, black pocket T's and a scuffed leather jacket. Since his classes were at night, he'd gotten away with wearing these clothes to teach in. She figured it was some macho thing—he didn't want his students making him out to be some professorial wimp.

Gregory had called him "half pint" and thought he was full of himself, always showing off for someone. Gregory hated anyone he thought was full of himself though Susan didn't see how he was so different. Part of breaking free of Gregory had been realizing she'd adopted his assessments of everyone and everything. Maybe Tom was worth a second look. Anyway, she'd been starving when he called and Chinese sounded perfect.

She was about to tell the hostess she was meeting someone when she heard the voice from the phone, "Susan?"

She turned to the doorway of the lounge where a man in a gray suit held two glasses of wine aloft. "Tom?" In an instant she decided it was the round tortoise-shell glasses that were throwing her; then she thought it might be the close-cropped hair. "Hi, there." She stepped toward him, dodging the tassle on a low-hanging lantern.

"I took the liberty," he said as he gestured with the wine glasses. She followed him to a booth that was already set with menus flattened across the plates.

When he'd set down the glasses, he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. It was as if they had been close once, and were renewing something. All she could remember of him socially was the occasional faculty party and Deanne, the tall girl he'd been living with at the time. Deanne had been totally different from her and the other faculty wives and girl friends, willowy, with eyes always checking some horizon beyond all of them. Someone had claimed that Tom had met her at the racetrack where she hostessed high-stakes poker parties in a private suite beneath the stands. Someone else that she'd graduated from one of those trucking schools advertised on late-night TV, but the idea of Deanne putting some big rig in gear was too funny. Susan remembered her as gorgeous and always eating. She must have starved herself for days before those parties.

"You look great," said Tom, sliding into the booth across from her. "Something evidently agrees with you."

"Thanks," said Susan figuring she'd consider the compliment later in front of a mirror and see whether she accepted it. "You've changed quite a bit."

"Look like a solid citizen, don't I." Tom took a laughing sip of his wine as he fished in his pocket for something. He brought out a green plastic box from which he extracted a soft pack of Camels. She remembered finding a box like that after one of the parties she and Gregory had given. She'd had no idea what it was for and had thrown it out with the plastic cups and paper plates. No one had ever asked about it. Tom had been at this party without Deanne because they'd just split. He'd taken one of Susan's friends home and she remembered feeling a twinge of envy over being in a relationship just starting out.

Tom looked up as if to ask whether smoking was okay, then lit one before she could think to nod. "I'm doing public relations part-time these days," he said. "I was doing it full-time but had this itch to teach again. That's how I happened to see Gregory this morning. They gave me a couple of early classes."

"That's interesting." She knew it was a dull thing to say but she couldn't concentrate on anything but how different Tom looked. Was he hiding behind the gray suit or had the jeans been his true disguise? She took a sip of wine. "So how did you find out that Gregory and I split up?"

Tom smiled. "I have my sources."

"Oh?"

"Someone told me at the time it was happening, but at the time it was happening Deanne and I were trying to make it again so I really couldn't think of calling you."

"No need to apologize." The wine seemed to be dissolving the lump at the back of Susan's throat. "I really didn't want to go out at the time. I told Gregory I'd probably never go out again."

"But here you are."

"Yes, here I am." Susan wondered if Tom thought he was her first date. Actually, she'd had a few. At the moment, in fact, she was seeing someone who'd even mentioned marriage. Leonard was slightly overweight and always rumpled. He'd made a terrible first impression on her and she figured on others as well, but he was sweet and had given her financial advice that would bring about the kind of stable life she'd never had with Gregory—if only she could keep up with the savings plan, if only she had the courage to invest.

The waitress took their orders. Susan pretended she hadn't decided what she wanted until she heard what Tom was ordering and could determine his price range. On the drive over, she'd decided to pay her own way because she didn't plan to lie about Leonard and wouldn't want to leave Tom with a bad feeling about a date that never had a chance of leading anywhere, but suddenly she wasn't so sure. This Tom was different from the one she'd pictured on the phone. He'd changed.

"Well is Greg married again?" Tom settled back into his side of the booth looking like a contented husband waiting for his wife to bring dinner. Susan wondered if he ate there frequently. He seemed so pleased by everything, so at home. She looked off at the lava fountain with its tiny jade Buddha surrounded by burning votive candles and imagined the waitresses praying there before the restaurant opened. Some people prayed at bedtime; Susan prayed in the morning before any damage could be done.

"No," said Susan, "he's not married. He's been involved with someone for years, a high school teacher he met in some summer workshop he was running." She didn't mention that he'd left her for the high school teacher because when she'd explained it that way to Leonard he'd told her to stop putting herself down.

"Does it bug you?"

The lump in her throat was back, so Susan took another sip. "Should it?"

"I've seen Deanne around with this trashball from the track, and I think if that's her taste what does it say about me?"

"This woman Gregory's with looks nice to me. I don't think I'd mind being compared to her."

Tom put out his cigarette. "I love you women because you're able to say things like that. It's remarkable." Tom watched the waitress passing their table and seemed disappointed that she hadn't brought their food. He suddenly seemed anxious—asking her questions yet monitoring the rest of the room at the same time. It was a little like Gregory's habit of eavesdropping on other people's conversations rather than participating in their own. "So have you been seeing anyone?"

"People here and there." Susan felt terrible saying this. Leonard would be so hurt if he could hear it, but really he was too sensitive. Overly rumpled and overly sensitive. She and Tom were just having fun. She looked off at the ficus tree in the corner. A tangle of white lights twinkled among the leaves, and it made her think of her last Christmas with Gregory. He hadn't wanted a tree, so she'd strung lights on their schefflera. She'd fixed prime rib and plum pudding, as always, and he'd said he wasn't hungry. She hadn't even realized that anything was seriously wrong. The next Christmas, after he'd gone, she'd arranged the lights around her dining room mirror and fixed herself a plate of crackers and cheese. It had felt like a just punishment for having been so stupid. She looked at the ficus through the wine left in her glass and thought it was beautiful.

"After Deanne, I dated this girl who was in one of my classes." Tom lit another cigarette. "I mean I held off all semester because I knew no one would take it right, but it was great having her there in class because I knew she liked me too and it was like we both knew we had this wonderful time ahead of us once the grades were in." Tom stopped and and smiled as the waitress placed domed plates of Kung Bo shrimp in front of them. Susan could see that he enjoyed being served—it suited him. He waited until the waitress was gone before picking up his story. "Going to class just got so sweet toward the end. I thought I'd die from lust."

"So where is this girl today?" Susan cut him off.

"She's out of state getting her Master's."

"But what happened?" "We had lunch." Tom looked around as if he were fixing the exact time and place in his mind and frowned. Susan wondered if he'd brought the girl here. Was this where he always brought his girls? "She talked on and on about casseroles you could 'do up' with soup and rice and how you could make meals 'extra special' by spreading toast with margarine and then sprinkling it with garlic salt."

"What brought this on?" It was a flip question; Susan could guess how Tom Pasker could overwhelm a college girl.

"I told her she was exquisite. I think I frightened the hell out of her."

Yes, I would've died too, thought Susan, but what is the hidden message in this story? Should I avoid giving him recipes? Be prepared for an assault of compliments? "So how did the date end?"

"She was explaining the tricks of ironing some kind of skirt when I stood up and grabbed my jacket. I hadn't even figured out what I was going to say, but lunch was over if you know what I mean." Susan wondered if he was referring to his leather jacket or a suit jacket. What were men thinking as they prepared to walk away? Had Gregory taken his high school teacher out to lunch the day their program ended? "Was she exquisite?"

"I suppose not," said Tom. "I just wanted her to be sure I was interested."

When Tom talked about this girl, Susan could just picture her. Creamy skin and dark hair with the sheen of polished ribbon. She looked like a grown-up version of a girl who'd been in a class she'd substitute-taught back when she and Gregory were first dating. Susan had been flustered her first day and couldn't find the roll sheet. "Who's not here?" she'd asked.

"I'm not," this little girl had piped up from the first row, and the boys in the back roared. The girl seemed frightened to have provoked such a reaction. She wasn't the class clown or anything; the words had simply slipped out. During the remaining two weeks Susan had substituted, she hadn't been able to coax another word from the girl. She'd asked Gregory how she could help her feel comfortable again and he'd badgered her for caring, "She's not your daughter or your little sister, for godsakes. She's a student." Sometimes Susan pictured the girl grown up so shy and afraid of provoking the wrong reactions in people that she was unable to form relationships that worked. Sometimes Susan just had to make herself stop thinking about her.

"So you're working for the Chamber?" Tom smiled. The wine had just about dissolved her lump and it amazed her to realize that she was in a restaurant with Tom Pasker. She broke off a small piece of fried won ton and smiled. If she could relax, maybe her appetite would come back.

"I'm mostly calling businesses and trying to sign them up. I'm not sure this is the job for me or anything, but I don't think teaching's for me either. I guess I'll just have to knock about in these liberal arts type jobs until something clicks." She had just dispensed with all of her job anxieties in a couple of glib sentences. She'd have to find out what kind of wine they were drinking.

"If I ever hear of anything, I'll let you know."

He hardly knew her, and he was being so kind. She nearly bowed her head in embarrassment. "That would be great."

Tom patted his mouth with the corner of his napkin. "Now you tell me about a date of yours," he said. "I told you my sorry story."

There wasn't much to say. She'd dated several guys one time each right after Gregory moved out. It was as if they'd begun waiting in line as her relationship with Gregory deteriorated. It wasn't two hours after Gregory had slammed out of the house the last time with a clean pair of underwear stuffed in a lunch sack and the yellow pages under his arm, that the first one had called. She'd stopped wearing her wedding ring to the office months before so it wasn't all that surprising he thought she was available, but it was amazing that he'd call her so soon after it became official. Men had a way of knowing when you were "out there." She only remembered them now because they were the first dates of her separation and she realized she might have ended up marrying any one of them, her state had been so precarious. A second date and she'd have been lost. These men must have sensed her unbalance because they'd never called back and for that she was grateful.

There had been an almost dateless lull until Leonard started giving her the long looks she'd later found out were infamous to others in the office. He was the Chamber's lawyer though actually the Chamber was just one of his clients, and she wasn't sure whether they even paid him for the few services he was called upon to give. He always seemed to be around, though. As he explained to her once, he liked the people in the Chamber office, and since most of his clients had him on retainer, he was able to finish much of his business by cellular phone on the way to work.

Susan reminded herself to relax, and since she had erased the particulars of those early dates from her mind, she began talking about Leonard.

"I went out with this guy once," Susan began slowly, afraid that she would betray the fact that she was still dating him, that in fact, he'd recently asked her to marry him. "I met him at work and thought he was probably the most dumpy man I'd ever seen. It was summer, and he was wearing this crumpled wool sportcoat over one of those Filipino shirts with the pleats and four pockets and it barely covered his pot belly." She felt herself warming to the story and nearly shuddered. Leonard deserved better, but Tom was smiling, ready to laugh. "He's he was seven years older than me but looked fourteen years older."

"So why did you go out with him?"

Because he wanted me so badly, she thought. Because he'd been around enough to actually know me and still wanted me to go. "He was pretty insistent," said Susan. "I guess I thought it would get him off my case."

"So what happened?" Tom had stopped eating and Susan began to feel pressure to deliver some fabulous punchline. She was ashamed, but now that she had Tom's attention she'd say anything not to lose it.

"We went to the opera, which I've never cared for, and it was being done in togas, so it wasn't even pretty to look at."

Susan saw Tom glance at his watch and wondered how she might jazz up the story, but it just wasn't that interesting. Gregory hadn't found her funny or lively enough either. That high school teacher was probably a riot. She would get Tom's attention back. She had to. After another sip of wine began to work on the lump in her throat, she began to shake with near silent laughter. She hoped Tom would think she was censoring something outrageous.

"So what happened after the opera?" Tom sounded like he was posing a prepared question to one of his classes to see if they'd done their reading.

Susan considered ending the story quickly but that would require something invented, something she could not imagine. She tried another swallow of wine. "Well, what happened after had to do with the intermission. He bought me a beer and I just wanted to gulp it down. He told me I was too beautiful for beer. What was I supposed to say to that? I felt guilty and just sipped."

Tom checked his watch again.

Did he think this was as boring as a recipe? Was Leonard a mere ironing tip or was it that he couldn't stand to hear about another man? "Then this funny thing happened," said Susan loudly. Tom's head jerked up. "I saw this couple Gregory and I'd once been friends with. We'd stopped doing much together when Gregory and I started to fall apart and weren't telling anyone. We turned down their invitations and they stopped calling. Anyway, I wanted Leonard to disappear. I didn't want them to know he was my date, so I just went over to talk to them and left Leonard leaning on the railing of the mezzanine. When the end of intermission bell rang, I started backing toward Leonard and the husband called out, 'Maybe we could have a drink after the show.' I just smiled and nodded."

Susan could tell that Tom was really making an effort to keep looking at her, but he kept turning to check people out as they passed. A man about their age slid into the booth behind them and from the smile on Tom's face, Susan wondered if they knew each other or if the other man had simply given Tom an approving look. Men sometimes had a way of responding to each other—they hated or liked each other on the spot.

"So you went out for drinks? Did you ditch the guy first?" Tom asked.

She hadn't been able to think about that night much less talk about it. Why had she begun this story? "No, no. I couldn't go out with them. I grabbed Le this guy's hand and led him to an exit as far from where I figured this couple was sitting as I could find and practically dragged him down the stairs. He was so angry. He knew what I was doing. It was awful."

"So much for dating beneath you," said Tom, obviously thinking the story was finished. She wouldn't have told him the rest anyway. She bowed her head at the thought of how she'd cried and apologized and ended up making love with him in his car parked by Bayou St. John. It was then that he'd asked her to marry him and watching the lights from the houses blink across the water, she'd nearly said yes. But she hadn't said anything. It wasn't he who should have disappeared at intermission, she realized, it was she. She hadn't deserved to be there.

Tom had finished his lunch and was about to take the last sip of his wine.

"Do you ever think about Deanne?" said Susan, relieved to change the subject. She glanced at the picture hanging on the grass cloth wall beside them: a Chinese peasant peeked shyly from under a rose-colored umbrella and Susan suddenly wished she lived in a culture where women had traditions to hide behind like lavish fans.

Tom fell back against the booth with a thud. "Never."

Susan couldn't look at him. Gregory's absolutes had shocked her too. After they'd signed the divorce papers he'd half smiled at her and it'd seemed so bittersweet. She'd asked him if he had any regrets. He'd said no. This no had reverberated in her mind like so many doors slamming in succession down a corridor. She scanned the room suddenly feeling like they were being watched. The guy in the booth behind them looked away as if she'd caught him hanging on every word. Gregory would say she was being paranoid.

"I need to be getting back." "Take the afternoon off," said Tom generously, as if he were her boss. "I've got some wine over at my place."

His directness was stunning.

"It's Friday, Susan. And we're just getting reacquainted."

"It sounds lovely," Susan forced out the words, "but I've taken a few too many afternoons lately." She thought of Leonard and how he had asked her to dinner that evening and would take her some place nice, his tie badly knotted, one of his Filipino shirts blotched with stains from a rusty hanger. He'd been married once for less than a month, and his wife had left him. Without irony, he still referred to his life with this woman as his "finest hour." His sweetness frightened herif he cared about her feelings, she would have to care about them too.

"C'mon, Susan, I've already cancelled my classes," said Tom. Then he added softly, "You're dazzling."

You're exquisite, you're spectacular, thought Susan. You're delicious.

She had once looked at Tom and wondered what it would be like to be wanted by him, to have his scuffed coat lie at the foot of her bed. The plastic box he'd left at her house should've been a clue. He could leave things behind and never go back to look for them or think about them again. She realized now that he was the only one she'd come up with those nights she'd wandered the halls of the department in her mind. "I'm sorry," she murmured as she slid to the end of the booth and stood up. Tom stood up, too, and came toward her. He put his arm across her shoulder and smiled when she turned to him. "I really have too much work to do."

As the word "do" brought her lips into an O, he kissed her. She wondered who the kiss was for—it certainly wasn't hers. Had everyone in the restaurant seen them or was this simply for the solitary man in the next booth. She turned away and steadied herself against the table. Soon enough, she reassured herself, I will be out there in my car driving back to the office. It will be like I never was here at all.

 

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