Thunder on a Clear Day by Eric Prochaska
published in Volume 10, Issue 1 on June 1st, 2003 For a moment, the sky showers thunder and I can't hear him breathing. No heartbeat. Only the slight swelling of his chest, which lifts the weight of my reposing head, lets me know he is still here, alive, with me. The sky above is clear. Mechanical thunder from a jet, which I see miles distant from its sound, lows through these skies often. Supersonic: like a teenage summer love affair. Then the beating resumes. Distant, but not like the jet. More muffled, as if hidden beneath avalanches of barriers, trying to let someone know it is there. The beating is quick, almost frantic. It's always like that, even when he sleeps -- especially when he sleeps. Becoming desperate in dreams, anxious in nightmares, I don't know. Maybe when he sleeps his heart senses that somewhere in that inconceivable pile of barricades there is a weakness, a path, and it clamors all the more vigorously for freedom.
Do I only imagine that his hair, his skin, still exude that faint odor of burnt motor oil, even on his day off? Waiting for him to wake, I reach over lazily and put the Tupperware lid back on the container of potato salad. So odd, that salad. Though I've always detested celery in my otherwise smooth potato salad -- the way my mother always made it -- as I made that batch I found myself slicing up the celery. Even as I was slicing it I thought that I didn't really want it in my salad, but I tipped the cutting board over the mixing bowl and pushed it in with the flat side of the knife, all the same.
The residue of the watermelon like Velcro between my fingers annoys me steadily, but I can't reach the cooler to dip my fingers in the melt-water. So I just close my eyes against the steady sun and wrap my arm toward his head, toward the hair I would run my fingers through, if they were not so sticky -- if I didn't fear waking him.
Shuddering abruptly, he awakes, forcing me sit up suddenly. It's nearly three in the afternoon on another Sunday, and although I am not working, I do not feel relaxed. I love his company, I guess, but sometimes I resent not being able to just be alone with me. He sits up, stretches a little, cracks his neck (I hate that sound), then reaches into the cooler for a beer. The can makes that crisp breaking sound when he opens it. He puts the can to his lips for a second, then pulls it away with a look of disgust and spits yellow liquid onto the grass, hitting the blanket we're on, too. "Warm!" he says, not yet to me, but to the surrounding animals, people, and trees which certainly have been awaiting his report. He tilts the can and impatiently pours the beer into the grass, watching with a scourging glare, as if he were punishing peasants for insolence. "Let's go get something cold to drink," he says, for the first time acknowledging my presence, though his eyes still haven't met mine. He gets up and heads to the car. Shaking off the grass and bugs and crumbs with a few quick snaps, I haphazardly bundle up the blanket, grab the cooler, and catch up with him. He's always like this when he wakes up.
He has more than one "something cold to drink." It is around seven and he's not himself again. Or maybe this is his true self, and the sober guy is an alias. Anyway, the beer has gotten to him, so we end up at my place. With the curtains drawn, it's somewhat dark inside, so the blinking red eye on the answering machine is prominent. As he heads through the bedroom toward the bathroom I set the cooler just inside the kitchen doorway, with the blanket on top, then kneel beside the telephone table and press the "Play" button on the machine. The first is just a wrong number, so I fast forward through the annoying tone. As soon as the second starts, even before I hear the voice, I hear the same wetting of lips that I always hear at the beginning of her messages. So my finger skims across to the "Stop" button. Mother. I don't need this now.
He's got sleep on his mind, but the last time his mind made a decision for him was before puberty. He seems to think he has to give me the lay-of-my-life every time we're alone. His front of super-confidence is just a coating to waterproof his weaknesses, I know. There I go again, pretending I can guess his psyche. Might as well guess people's weight and age while I'm at it, and at least I could charge a buck for the novelty.
So in his stupor he gets his pants off, but leaves his shirt and socks on, and fucks me with his eyes open only enough to know it's still light out. I can't say it's my favorite part of spending time with him, but there's no sense in trying to stop him. That'd only spark an argument about whether or not I like having sex with him, which I usually do. Men are so fragile.
Before he passes out in sweaty exhaustion and relief, he moans something about a perfect weekend. Maybe for him. Personally, I could still use that dose of peace that's been on back-order. I swing my legs over and get out of bed, covering him to the waist with the sheet. How is it that he can't get himself undressed, but all of my clothes are flung to the remote corners of the room? I take a white button-down from its hanger in the open closet and I fasten the bottom two buttons as I pick up my panties with the toe of one foot.
His mysteries seem so near the surface when he sleeps. His eyes become gentle, forsaking the piercing glare always found there when he's awake. His brow relaxes, and everything seems calm, inviting, tender. . . vulnerable. I feel I could reach in and encounter that beating something that so desperately wants out. Or extract one by one those blockades, barriers, and battlements that permeate him. But I know better. I only suppose I know what I'd find, but can't be certain. It's only my fantasy. He's not mine to manipulate, anyway. Just a man. Just a good time. Just someone who will leave, not because of me, he'll say (although I know better), but "because of his job." Someone who wants to be a lover, but not in love. Who wants to know my everything, but does not know the meaning of "share." Who wants to know my everything not because he cares, but because he supposes that I want to tell him, and he wishes to humor my desires as long as possible. Without remembering my favorite flavor of ice cream, or my hometown, or why exactly I dropped out of college. Without caring who the last man was, or when I plan to settle down, or why I cry when that certain song is played. But asks me all the same, as if I had some need to expose my soul to him before sleeping with him. As if I needed to feel pain before pleasure, which, if it ever is pleasure, is only fleeting, soon to be replaced by the longing that it truly is: no more than a contribution to the scar tissue on my heart. Confusing me me into thinking that he's sincere, that he's the first one who won't leave. But leaving me with a lump in my throat some morning until he's driven out of sight and I can cry like I need to. That's what I really need to do: cry. Cry for all the bridges I've burned, always on accident, so young in my life, and the mistakes I feel can never be erased. Cry because he's just a man, but he seems so childlike, and I want to help him, hold him more than anything else, and comfort him and tell him it's all right, but I know I can't. Because he's just a man.
I pull the door until it starts to get tight in the jam, then leave it ajar that much so the noise of shutting it completely doesn't bother him. If I wake him, there goes my quiet time alone. Stiff, once-upon-a-time shag carpet now resists my bare feet more like a cross-stitch piece which weathered a hurricane. Flat, matted patches here and there among the overgrowth of wild yarn. Could it ever have been plush, or anything less than abrasive? Rentals. Layers of other people's paint; cheap carpet the landlord found at a garage sale fifteen years ago; windows that don't open right or close securely because of those generations of paint; smudges on the plastic frames around the light switches and outlet plates -- some of which are white and some beige; dust along the top of the baseboards, which are typically the same color as the walls -- often white -- like they were being weather-proofed or preserved together, and which further foreground the dust because it's the only seam along the smooth scar of accumulated paint from floor to rain-leak-stained ceiling.
I don't risk turning on the TV and waking him, but just put in a CD and play it low. The answering machine's red numeral and blinking eye plead for my attention as I pass, panties still in-hand, to the kitchen. Sorry, but you just want to ruin my peace. No matter how harmoniously I strive to accompany Annie Lennox, anyone within earshot can only hear a timid woman with bare feet flat against the non-acoustic grit of Linoleum in a kitchen with cupboard hardware too rickety to pose as a sound booth. As the water heats up in the microwave, I put on my panties and sit at the table, legs drawn up from the cool floor. Tilting my head back, I capture the proper angle and see in the rain-stain over my table the scene of a horse galloping up a cloud of dust. When the microwave bell rings, I wish I'd stopped it prematurely, just so as not to risk waking him. He'll be asleep most of the evening, and then won't able to sleep tonight, but that'll be his own fault. He'll whine about being too tired for work in the morning, but I'll have slept right through the old war movie he'll find on some cable channel, and I'll go to work fifteen minutes early and won't have to hear about it.
Walking tenderly on the brown and gold pine needle carpet's worn path back into the living room, I smoothly stir the spinning island of cocoa under the water's surface. I could drink hot cocoa on an Indonesian beach in August. It's relaxation in a mug, for me. But a hot mug. So I set it on the glass-topped table between the rocker and the rattan catalog-ordered couch that I hate. It looked so cozy -- and was an affordable way to help fill up the living room -- but when you sit in it, you're cast back so you can hardly get out of its cup-shaped cushion. You have to really be planning on staying there awhile to make it worth the effort of getting back up. The dully-dust-coated magazine covers glance at me from their plastic cubicles -- those milk-crate style, stackable ones -- but fail to grab my attention.
Pulling the curtains open I see the breeze has picked up and is buffeting the high wildflowers across the road. The walls pale to a shadow of white as the sun falls behind a cloud. Even when the sun reappears, the room stays somewhat dim because the sun is over the trees now. The day is winding down. Through the sheers I watch the neighbor's cat hop up on my car's hood to sunbathe. If I had clothes on, I might open the door and scare it away. Then a couple walks by on the sidewalk, looks toward the house, and I wonder if the man, whose glance lingers, can see my breasts from there. Still, I don't button up the shirt. Let them look. What would you say to that, Mother? That's why you called, right? To remind me to straighten out my life? Well maybe someone should remind you that it's my life.
Without purpose, I ease into the rocker. The sheepskin cover is matted on the seat, but still softer than the carpet, and warmer than the sleeping air around me. The kitchen clock's tapping both defines and overpowers the taciturn ambience between songs. Lackluster. That framed print has got to go the next time I move. I'm sure I thought it looked fine before, but now its drabness (in fact, it's even cornily drab, like a parody of dullness) dominates the wall, which would be more interesting with only the nail's own shadow hanging in lieu of the picture.
Jesus, it's exhausting trying not to look at that damned little red light. Come, come, come, come, come, come, come, its patient mantra repeats like blown kisses. No, no, no, no, no, I think, picking up the cocoa, giving it a last swirl and hugging it near my neck to feel its warmth.
On top of the stacked milk-crate shelves lies a letter, collecting dust since Thursday. If I don't read it another will come, and when I don't read that one either Mom will call to see if I received them. She'll give me the same lecture over the phone as in the letter. So I know that reading it and writing back would be the easiest way, but maybe if I ignore it long enough the words will become bored and entertain themselves by re-arranging into sentiments that wouldn't offend or agitate me. They'd talk about the weather, and the Senate race, and the new sit-com on Tuesdays. But nothing about me. No pointed, wiggling fingers, cataloging whatever might be wrong with my life and the way I live it. Let's face it: such neutral words will not likely come from her pen. Not until I've been canonized will the words be benign. In the meantime, all is malicious.
She doesn't even know about him. But she's seen them come and go and can guess. But I'm twenty-six years old, damn it, and I have a right to have sex. What would you say to that, Mother? Would you lecture me on the benefits of chastity?
No. I suppose not. That's not your style.
So what? Should I write you back? That'd be easier than calling you. But calling would get it over with sooner. I could just pick up the phone right now, dial you up and say, "Hey, Mom, what's your problem? Why do you think there's something wrong with my life? Because I don't go to church anymore? Because I dropped out of college? Because I'm having sex? Come on. What disappoints you the most about my life?"
And what would she say? Would she critique every mistake I've made over the last few years? No, she'd be reserved. "Honey," she might say, "we all make decisions we regret."
"But they were my decisions," I'd say. "It's none of your business. Why do you think I'm not happy? I have a nice place here." She'd never know it's only half true: she's never been to visit. "I have a good job at the trucking company. Not every college drop-out -- or graduate, for that matter -- becomes the assistant director of public relations for a national trucking company in only two and a half years."
And she'd say . . . well, she wouldn't cut me down. She never tried to cut me down. She'd say something like, "I know that, Dear. I've been hoping for the opportunity to tell you how well you've done."
Then I'd want to tell her she could have just called anytime, but she knows as well as I do that it's me who won't return her calls. So I'll drop that one.
"Is it college, then? Are you disappointed that I dropped out? Is that it? Well it wasn't a total waste, you know. I can go back anytime I want to and finish. I've been thinking about that a lot lately. I might take some night classes," I'd say.
Still, she'd be understanding. "That sounds like a good opportunity for you, Dear," she might say.
"So," I'd say, "are you upset about my personal life? I know you wish I'd get married, but I'm just not ready. So maybe the guys I date aren't husband material, but someday I'll change and the right kind of guy will come along. But why can't you accept that? Is it the church? Is it all that chastity bull that the Bible goes on about? Well, that's your god talking, Mother."
"My god?" she'd clarify, and I'd know I had her. "Honey, God is the same. For all eternity. He doesn't just go through phases like us."
And I'd be ready for her. "That's not true," I'd say, calmly. I'd want to frustrate and flabbergast her with this one. "God's changing all the time. A few hundred years ago, women couldn't be ministers, but now they can be."
"Honey," she'd say, too patiently for me to believe she was just trying to keep her temper -- so much it would make me want to chew the phone cord in half, "that's not God changing. That's people's minds. Yes, women can be ordained now, but skirt lengths have also changed in my lifetime. And even though our society has, for the most part, evolved into acceptance of these new ideas, that doesn't mean anything in relation to the immutability of God. Next year skirt lengths will probably change again. And the death sentence and abortion and drugs and the purpose of education will be hotly debated until after I die, too. But even if everyone suddenly agrees and the debate ends, it doesn't mean the solution was right or wrong -- not on any universal level. It just means we've reached consensus. And consensus is not Truth: it's merely justification."
And then I'd hang up. In my mind, at least. She always has to be right. And using words like "immutable." She'd change this into a religious discussion when it's really just about me living my life.
Drinking the cooling, last thick bit of cocoa, I take the mug to the kitchen and place it gingerly in the sink. As I return to the rocker, I pick up the phone and pull the slack cord from around behind the table, resting the phone in my lap, then closing my eyes to the music. One of those planes goes over and until the jet is ten miles away the only sound is the bombardment of waves of nothing against the ground -- like intentions tumbling and smashing from hopeless heights. I've missed part of my favorite song, but it doesn't matter: I have the feeling I'll be sitting here long enough to hear it come around again. I don't want to be in there, with him, not now. I don't want to go anywhere, do anything. Just sit and think about nothing, not even memories, and let things fall into place invisibly while I'm totally unawares. It takes doing that every now and then to keep going.
The sounds of him getting up, then a groan as he goes to the bathroom without shutting the door because he never shuts the door. I crane my neck and see him emerge from the bathroom in only his t-shirt now, pausing long enough to put some underwear on and open the window for the cool breeze before going back to bed. He'll be out all night.
Of course she'll call back. Leaving a message on a machine wouldn't satisfy her, and it doesn't tell her what I'm thinking. So go ahead and ring. I have some wisdom for you, too, Mom. You see, no one has what they want now. You have to be patient, because good things come to those who wait.