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34

 

Later that night, Schwartz and Pella lay in Schwartz’s bed. Even with some postgame painkillers in his system, even with the deadness that entered his legs after a game, he’d never had trouble before. Pella tried to coax him as they kissed, her fingertips trailing lightly along the flap of his boxers, but it was no use. “It’s okay,” she said. “Why don’t you tell me about it?”

“About what?”

“You know. Henry.”

“It’s bad,” Schwartz said. “I’m starting to worry that it’s bad. The last couple of games, he seemed to be getting over it. But today—today was bad.”

“Are you sure he’s not hurt? Maybe he hurt his arm and he’s afraid to tell anyone.”

“His arm’s fine. You should see the throws he makes at practice. Or even in games, on the bang-bang plays. When he doesn’t have time to think about it. His arm is a triumph of nature.”

Pella said nothing. The stertor of Meat’s breathing came softly, almost soothingly, through the wall. “It’s always the easy plays,” Schwartz said, “the balls hit right at him. You can see the gears spinning: Am I gonna screw this up? Maybe I’m gonna screw this up. I just want to grab him by the shoulders and shake it out of him. He’s creating this whole problem out of nothing. Nothing.”

Pella nestled closer, again passed her hand against the front of his boxers. In the three-quarters dark of the bedroom he could see the extra-dark protrusion of her nearer nipple beneath the sheet. There wasn’t an inch of her body that he didn’t desire. She didn’t like her legs, thought they were short and stubby, her ankles too thick to be feminine—sheer stupidity, from Schwartz’s point of view. If anything he wanted there to be more of her, more and more Pella to anchor him to the world.

Since the first time they’d had sex they’d never not had sex. But tonight it wasn’t happening. He was too tired, too tense, had popped one too many pills on the ferry. It was bound to happen eventually, this slip toward domesticity—was a normal and natural and even potentially comforting development, but Schwartz could tell this wasn’t the night for it. Pella would think they weren’t having sex because he was worried about Henry. That was the last thing he wanted her to think, even if it was true.

She had said it was okay, but here she was, persisting. She slid her fingers inside the flap of his boxers and tickled the crease where his pelvis met his thigh. Schwartz tried to feel it. Missiles, redwoods, the Washington Monument. Come on, he thought, one time.

He had a few stray Viagra in the bottom drawer of his broken-down dresser beneath his jeans. No shame in that, was there? Sometimes—okay, usually—you were drunk when you brought someone home. Sometimes the girl was too klutzy, or too shrill, or just plain not that sexy. Sometimes you needed a little extra. Part of the relief of meeting Pella was the way he responded to her so fully, so fundamentally—he’d forgotten the pills were even there. But he wished he’d taken one tonight.

Pella withdrew her hand to his belly, outside his T-shirt. Schwartz searched her little sigh for evidence of exasperation—he found some, but if you corrected for paranoia it might as easily have been a yawn.

“It’s a block,” she said. “Like writer’s block. Or stage fright.”

“Yes.”

“Maybe he should be seeing somebody.”

“He is seeing somebody,” Mike said. “Me.”

“You know what I mean. A professional.”

Schwartz bristled. “Henry wouldn’t go for that.”

“He would if you told him to.”

“It would scare him. He’d think there was something wrong with him.”

“Well, isn’t there?”

“He’ll be fine. He just needs to relax.”

Pella’s fingers brushed his boxers again. “Maybe you should relax a little.”

Schwartz flinched. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What’s what supposed to mean?”

“About me needing to relax.”

“Nothing. You just seem kind of tense tonight.”

It was the tonight that got Schwartz. He’d been tense all month. Hell, he’d been tense all his life. What was so goddamn remarkable about tonight?

“I’m not tense.”

“Fine,” Pella said. “Whatever.”

The smallness of the bed enforced an awkward closeness. Schwartz was wedged between Pella and the wall. In lieu of a shade, a dirt-gray sheet hung down over the window, barely dimming the lights of the neighbor’s garage.

Since moving out of the dorms he’d only occasionally brought a girl back here—better to go to the girl’s place, with all those pillows and photo albums and unguessable scents, the fresh sheets on the bed and the carefully labeled class binders stacked on the shelf. In the room of a girl at a place like Westish, the presence of family was almost always palpable, not just in the framed photographs but in the careful replication of a childhood room, updated for post-adolescence; the holdover stuffed animals, the condom box or plastic pastel birth-control wheel left in plain view in tribute to the parent who wasn’t there to object. Those absent families soothed Schwartz; for a few hours, he imagined them as his own.

“He should see a psychologist,” Pella said. “A behavioral therapist. Someone who deals with athletes. He wouldn’t have to free-associate about his mother or anything.”

“Maybe that’s what he needs. To free-associate about his mother.”

“I’m being serious,” Pella said.

“So am I,” said Schwartz, but he wasn’t. For some reason Pella’s attempted intervention was really pissing him off. He tried to find a softer, more sincere way of speaking. “Okay, a therapist. But who’s going to pay for that?”

“Couldn’t Henry’s family help out? I mean, he stands to make a lot of money, right? It’d be an investment.”

“The Skrimshanders don’t have money to invest,” Schwartz said. “His dad’s not a college president.”

“I didn’t imagine that he was.”

“I’m not sure you can imagine anything else.”

“Don’t pick a fight with me! Why are you picking a fight with me?”

“Sorry.”

They lay in silence for a while. Finally Pella said, “I’ve been planning to sell my wedding ring. Henry could use part of that money. As a loan.”

As soon as the words left Pella’s lips, she knew that they were a mistake. It was a genuine offer, genuinely meant—but it came at precisely the wrong time, and she could already tell by Mike’s face how it would be interpreted: She was trying to insert herself into his relationship with Henry. She was implying that she, or a therapist, could help Henry where he could not. She was brandishing her superior financial status. She was reminding him that though they both had crackers and tea for dinner, she didn’t have to.

“Henry has enough loans,” he said.

“Then I could just give him the money. Or give it to you, and you could arrange it with the therapist. Henry wouldn’t have to know how much it cost.”

“I’m sure it would cost plenty.”

“Well,” Pella said, “it’s a pretty expensive ring.”

Something flared in Schwartz’s chest. He’d Googled Pella’s husband, had seen the photograph on his firm’s website: The Architect leaning back from his drafting table, mechanical pencil in hand, fixing the camera with a tight, tolerant smile. He looked like a dork in his cashmere sweater and neatly groomed beard, but he had money and read Greek and was married, for Chrissakes, to Pella. However much she disparaged him, he was part of a world of casual privilege that she could return to at any time. “I’m sure it is,” he said. “I’m sure it cost a fortune.”

“You want to know how much it cost?” Pella matched the sharpness in his voice and raised it one. “It cost fourteen thousand dollars. Does that make you feel better?”

“I feel great,” said Schwartz. “I feel like fourteen thousand bucks.”

“Ha.”

Down the block someone was dribbling a basketball. Each bounce reverberated through the corrugated drainpipes that cut beneath the ends of driveways, connecting one section of culvert to the next. “Forget it,” Schwartz said. “We don’t need your money.”

“I wasn’t offering it to you,” Pella said. “And anyway I don’t know why you’re being so contrary. If Henry hurt his elbow, he’d go to the doctor, right? And you’d make sure he had the best doctor money could buy.”

“We’re not talking about Henry’s elbow. We’re talking about his head.”

“It’s an analogy,” Pella said, as if he might not have heard the word before. “And a fair one. But you’re not trying to be fair, are you?”

Goddamnit, Schwartz thought. If only they’d had sex everything would be fine. The Viagra was right there in the drawer by the jeans; so close and yet so far.

“Would it upset you,” Pella said, “if Henry saw a shrink and it helped?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“You can’t be afraid that it won’t help—that would be absurd, because nothing else is helping. You’re afraid that it will help. What scares you is that he’ll get drafted and go pro and be fine. Better than fine. He’ll be happy as a clam and he won’t need you anymore. But as long as he’s at Westish, as long as he’s a mess, then you’re still running the show.”

Schwartz stared up at the dirt-gray sheet that the breeze was making billow and dance just above his nose. “That’s bullshit.” It was bullshit, he knew it was bullshit, but it was plausible bullshit, and to hear it spoken aloud sapped the air from his gut.

Pella wasn’t quite finished. “What you two need is couples counseling. Classic codependency. The neuroses and secret wishes of one partner manifesting themselves in the symptoms of the oth—”

“Oh, shut up.”

“I will, don’t worry. First I have to tell you something.” Her eyes softened in a way that surprised him. “David’s coming.”

David David?”

“That’s the one.”

This cast the whole evening—their failure to have sex, the arguing after—in a new light. Schwartz had been willing to take the blame, to offer up Henry and exhaustion and Vicodin as excuses. But Pella had her own thing going on. Look at her waltzing in here, kissing him, climbing on top of him, and then saying, It’s okay baby it’s okay, don’t worry about it, when really it was her own hesitation he’d sensed, her own body that was sending off warning signs. Really, she was worried about David coming. Or worse, glad.

“When?”

“Soon.”

“How soon?”

“I don’t know… maybe tomorrow?”

“Maybe,” Schwartz repeated. He meant to be sarcastic, but it came out sounding incredulous and pathetic. He tried again: “Maybe?”

“Tomorrow,” Pella admitted. “He’ll be here tomorrow.”

“Where will he stay?”

“In a hotel.”

“Where will you stay?”

She smacked him on the shoulder in a way that was supposed to be playful, but it had real force behind it. “Where do you think? At my dad’s.”

“Not here.”

“I can’t. Not tomorrow.”

“Because of your husband.”

“He’s only my husband because we’re not divorced yet.”

“So why’s he coming?”

“He’s in Chicago on business. Or so he claims. Anyway, it was stupid of me to think that I could slink off and that would be that. We need to sit down and talk things out. Closure, et cetera. He’s been calling my dad’s place ten times a day.”

“I’ll talk to him.”

“Yeah, right,” said Pella. “That’s just what’ll calm him down. If he knows we’re fucking around.”

“Is that what we’re doing? Fucking around?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I’m not sure I do.”

“What do you want me to say? Fine, we’re fucking around. Or were, until tonight.”

Schwartz wasn’t sure whether this was a comment about their failure to have sex or a declaration that they were breaking up. His phone, which was lying on the cardboard box that passed for a bedside table, began to skitter and dance. Pella stiffened from head to toe. There was no way he was going to take Henry’s call, not right now—but the fact of the call was itself the crime, and not answering helped nothing. The phone gave a final shudder and fell silent.

“I don’t know why I ever decided to come here,” she said.

“So leave. What’s stopping you?”

“Don’t worry, I’m leaving.” Pella was out of the bed, zipping her sweatshirt over her otherwise naked torso. Schwartz felt a blast of regret at the disappearance of all that beautiful bareness. She turned in the doorway with fire in her eyes. “You love to make life difficult, don’t you? Mike Schwartz, Nietzsche’s camel. The weight of the world on his big ol’ shoulders. But guess what? Not everybody wants to maximize their pain. Some people have enough trouble making it from one day to the next. I’m sorry I went to prep school, okay? I’m sorry I never worked in a factory. Sure, I dropped out of high school. I wash dishes in a dining hall. But that’s just slumming, isn’t it Mike? That’s not real, it’s not real suffering, it’s not the fucking South Side. For which I apologize. I’m sincerely fucking sorry my father went to grad school instead of drinking himsel—”

“I thought you were leaving.”

“I’m already gone.”

The bedroom door slammed, as did the front door. Then came the angry tambourine jingle of the front gate flying open and knocking back against itself. Schwartz turned on a light and tried to read, but he couldn’t concentrate, so he popped two Vikes that were earmarked for tomorrow and wandered out into the hall.

A thin crease of light came from beneath the shut bathroom door. The toilet flushed and Arsch’s wide pink body, even wider than Schwartz’s, filled the door frame. He scratched his balls through his boxers. “You all right?” he asked, squinting without his contacts.

Schwartz shrugged. He had to drag up words from somewhere deep within: “Could be worse.”

“Could always be worse.” Arsch disappeared into his bedroom and came back with a stack of his mother’s chocolate-walnut-ginger cookies. “Nuke ’em for a few seconds,” he said. “There’s milk in the fridge.”

“Thanks.”

Arsch scratched his balls some more, squinted. There was something comforting not just about his kindness but also about his physical girth, which suggested the existence of forces larger than Schwartz—forces that, if they weren’t quite capable of protecting Schwartz, at least didn’t need his protection. “I ain’t tripping ’bout no bitches,” Meat said, quoting the rap song of the moment. “I just worry ’bout the game.”

“Thanks,” said Schwartz again. Meat’s door clicked shut, and the bedsprings wailed mightily through the wall.

The house was abandoned again. Schwartz felt his way past the beer-pong table en route to the kitchen. What you missed about these bitches / Is they all can feel my fame. / My sick hits make ’em ticklish / Till they screamin’ out my name. God, the stuff you filled your head with, no matter how hard you tried. It wasn’t exactly Milton; it wasn’t even Chuck D. Really, he should make them switch the jukebox at Bartleby’s from hip-hop to poetry. Then you could drop in your dollar, punch up 10-08, “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” and soak up some Keats while you drank your beer.

The kitchen, compared to the rest of the house, was eerily immaculate, the sink shining beneath its sink light and almost restored to its original lima-bean color. Pella had gotten in the habit of scrubbing it every time she came over, and so Schwartz had taken to scrubbing it so she wouldn’t have to, and lately it seemed that even Meat had gotten into the act by scraping stains off the linoleum—old chewed gum from previous tenants, more recently spat tobacco—and rinsing out the garbage can. Schwartz microwaved the cookies for thirty seconds, popped one in his mouth, poured a quart of milk into a souvenir Chicago Bears glass, drank it down, and polished off the remaining cookies by the light of the open fridge. Arsch, that mensch, had bought a twelve-pack of Schlitz; Schwartz grabbed two and walked into the musty living room and sat down on the couch in the dark. It was a stupid idea, jukebox poetry, but he liked it anyway. He wished he could tell it to Pella, if only so that she could laugh at him and call him a Chicago conservative.

They’d never fought before; she was good at it, if the point of a fight was to injure the other person. Beneath his anger he could sense a faint counterweight of satisfaction at the knowledge that this kind of pain could happen, that a girl, a woman, could mean enough to him to hurt him, and this raised the possibility that Pella was right, that he preferred to suffer and was happiest while suffering. But that could only be true if you added “for a reason.” He liked to suffer for a reason. Who didn’t? But all his reasons were falling apart. He ticked them off in his mind: law school, thesis, Henry, Pella.

He wasn’t a kid from the projects anymore. If he drank himself to death like so many Schwartzes before him, or otherwise managed to screw everything up, he’d have no one to blame but himself. He didn’t have excuses. What he had were options, Yale Law notwithstanding. He didn’t get into law school only because he hadn’t applied to any of the hundreds of schools that would have him. He had all these tools, rhetorical and analytic and critical tools, tools for self-reflection, rich friends, references, respectability. Hell, he even had a thousand bucks in his jacket pocket. He went back to the kitchen for two more beers.

Pella could cruise through James or Austen or Pynchon at seventy pages an hour and remember everything, like she’d been born to the task. He loved to watch her do it, reading glasses perched on the tip of her nose, her thoughts independent of him.

She misunderstood his life. It wasn’t that he wanted everything to be difficult but that everything was difficult. Forget money. He wasn’t smart the way she was. The only thing he knew how to do was motivate other people. Which amounted to nothing, in the end. Manipulation, playing with dolls. What wouldn’t he give to have talent of his own, talent like Henry’s? Nothing. He’d give it all. Those who cannot do, coach.

A car drove slowly down Grant Street, pumping through its subwoofer the rumbling bass line of the same inane song Schwartz had just been singing. He forced himself not to remember any more words. He finished the beers and returned to the kitchen for two more. He spread his hundred-dollar bills on the coffee table, and there was a lighter sitting there, and he thought about it for a good long while, picking up a bill and waving the flame beneath it. The bill’s bottom edge darkened slightly, but he wasn’t quite drunk enough, or dumb enough, or something.

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