by Arlene Eisenberg
He polished my toenails red. He blew short, cool puffs from side to side, from the biggest piggy to the littlest one. But that’s not all he did. First he massaged my calves, rubbing baby oil into them, kneading with his fingers and the heel of his hand. Then he attended my feet, bending the toes in his palm, pressing his knuckles into the soles. He tugged my toes one at a time and stretched my arches, sliding my feet through his warm, buttery hands. Then he polished my toenails.
But that’s not what really happened. He didn’t do any of those things. Actually, he hardly touched me at all before he took my hand and placed it on himself. And soon, too soon, he was on top of me, pushing, until my head knocked against the headboard. Not a hard knock, but a knock just the same, again and again, until I whispered, “Move down a little, I’m banging my head.” And we went on like that for a while and I liked it, I honestly did. And that’s what really happened.
I was walking on ice. The other side of the frozen lake seemed unreachable. Sleet pelted my face and loose scarf threads stuck to my mouth. It was very, very cold. The tips of my nose and fingers went numb, although I wore thick mittens. When I finally reached the other side (because I feared I might not make it), dirty heaps of frozen snow and ice rested where the plows shoved it, and I crunched deep holes with my boots (the snow piled above my knees), to get to the front door. This was a dream, and it ended at the front door.
It rains all winter in Los Angeles. Many people don’t know this, and those who live here say it’s not so. But it rains, and torrents carve petroglyphs into bare hillsides, and throngs of weeds, dandelions and foxtails, sprout between the lavender and sage. And spiders. The city is besieged by spiders. Not big furry ones like in horror movies, but those with fine, long legs that break if you try to rescue them. They live in the bathtub and dance up the walls.
A bird flew into my chimney once and trapped itself in the fireplace. It flapped and flapped like mad, caged by the screen. It terrified me, so I fled. When I returned it was gone—flown out the way it flew in.
He came by again last night. Not the bird, but you know, him. Half moons dampened under his arms and he smelled somewhat sour. Not too bad, but even so. When he took off his shirt and let it drop to the floor I thought, oh, the dog’s going to love that. And he didn’t polish my toenails or massage my feet. What he did was pretty much the same as the last time, and it was okay. Not great, but okay.
When the sun shines and he’s looking a certain way, specks of orange shimmer in his eyes. I can’t look away, trying to discern the depth of those amber crystals. Are they on the surface, like paint, or do they sprout at the core and pierce the iris? I squint for focus.
“What are you staring at?” he asks.
“Your eyes,” I say, “I’m looking at your eyes.”
He grins bashfully and turns away. For a moment I feel love for him. Not a great love, but love all the same.
He sits on one end of the couch, I nestle in the other. When he’s not here, I read. Books about people, mostly; books they wrote about themselves. And short stories. The ones that tell what happens in a few hours, or maybe a few days. Not those that jump from year to year, or decade to decade, explaining the time between with a sentence or two. The space left out is too wide. My dream about the icy lake is the beginning of a story that ends in less than a day, inside the house, on a sofa facing the fire. And I am sitting there alone.
I plant cuttings and seeds in my garden. I like to watch them change as they grow, become confident, independent. To see them rise up after pelts of rain knock them about, or when the gardener’s heavy boots crush them. He (you know, the guy who didn’t really paint my toenails) sliced pieces of succulents from neighbors’ lawns with the knife he carries on his key chain. He presents them to me, green juice dripping onto his palm. (The part of his hand he kneaded my calves with, but not really. He never did that.)
He waits for me to return home. I am out with friends and we talk about him. But that’s not all we talk about. He smiles as I open the door and turns from the TV. I join him on the couch: he’s on his side and I’m on mine. My toes inch under him, but he stares at the screen as if he doesn’t feel them. Then my feet slide in—to the warm crease where denim meets upholstery.
“Did you see that left shot?” he asks.
Water cascades down the boxer’s face which is already oozing with sweat and blood. Giant hands shove the mouthpiece around and set it back in place.
“Look at this, you’ve got to see this,” he says. A head is pummeled. Brown hands separate them and they collapse on stools: one in his corner, the other in his. Soon they are holding each other like lovers.
Wildflowers bloom in the vacant lot across the street from the school. They are yellow and white. I sever the stems with my brother’s knife, but by the time I get home they’ve wilted. Even water won’t rouse them. So he brings me roses. A dozen violet roses and I say, “Where did you get them? How did you know?”
He smiles shyly and turns away, sunlight filtering through his lashes. I place the roses in a crystal vase and set it on the table. We eat dinner by candlelight, and then we make love.
No, that’s not what really happened. Nothing like that happened at all.
Arlene Eisenberg teaches Special Education in a Los Angeles High School and Memoir Writing at Pasadena City College. Her short stories and essays have appeared in several literary magazines.