Serialized Fiction: Monsters, Part 2

August 10, 2016

 (Part 1 was published Aug. 3 if anybody needs to catch up.)

 

       “What’s the occasion?” said Matt.

       “Spring?” said Joan. “We made it through another winter. I bought champagne!”

       She had a Yogi-Bear-looking picnic basket and Matt wondered what she planned to feed him. Joan was never famously domestic and when she ate in generally lived off quick, trashy stuff like Rice-a-Roni and other foods from boxes or cans.

       They sat on the grass in the sunshine.“Where’s the prince among men?” he asked, watching as Joan opened the basket.

       “Family business, he said,” Joan intoned wistfully.

       “I take it you still haven’t met the alleged family?” asked Matt.

       “No.” A single, bleak syllable that made it clear Joan would have preferred to have given a different reply. She turned her attention to the basket. “Look! I brought chicken. You like Colonel Sanders?”

       “Who doesn’t?” This was before the focus on fat and cholesterol; even doctors liked the Colonel “What are these green things?”

       “Jalapeno peppers. You can’t eat fried food without jalapenos.” She demonstrated: a bite of chicken, a bite of pepper, then a bite of biscuit to kill the pain.

       Matt tried it. “Oh, my God!” He felt that his head was about to explode. It was 1968 and Mexican restaurants had not yet made their way eastward. Matt had never tasted a jalapeno before.

       Joan laughed and gave him a Kleenex to blow his nose.“You get used to the heat and then you can’t live without it,” she said. “I eat them for breakfast.”

       After they ate, they focused their attention on a group of young people on the grass focusing their attention on being hippies. This was just 1968, remember, and nobody had gotten really good at it yet. It was a self-conscious business of smoking marijuana, going barefoot in any weather, and perhaps making out in public.

       Matt, oddly, didn’t disapprove of hippies. He watched them as other generations had watched gypsies, a bit wistfully, with the understanding that their lives were less constricted than his. And on the whole he approved of the peace movement associated with the hippies. A guy who’d done pre-med with him hadn’t immediately been taken into a med school and the draft had gotten him instead, and shortly after that a bullet in Vietnam. It had made the war more real to Matt.

       Joan noticed him staring. “Bunch of rich kids on drugs,” she said.

       The disapproval was funny coming from Joan, with her long hippie hair and her little hippie sandals. It was incumbent on Matt, with his short doctor hair and his Congregationalist background, to take the other side. “But think of what the hippie movement is contributing,” he said. “The antiwar movement. New art. Free love.”

       Joan snorted. “See any of those jerks stopping war? They’re just playing guitar and getting high. As for the art, Andy Warhol sucks. As for sex, people have been doing it for two million years. My mama – ”

       But Matt was spared whatever comment Joan was about to make about Mama, because suddenly Joan shut up. Her mouth was still open but she wasn’t talking. Her eyes were staring and she was absolutely still. It was as if she’d been turned into a pillar of salt.

       “Joan?”

       She didn’t react. Matt resisted the impulse to take her pulse. Instead he turned in the direction that Joan’s eyes were staring, and for a moment he turned into a statue too. What Joan had seen, and Matt now saw too, was Haakon. Dressed casually now in jeans and a crisp white shirt, looking tall and handsome –

       With his arm around a spectacularly beautiful girl.She had silvery-blond hair that fell below a sculpted chin. She had ice-blue eyes. She was tall and slender and wore a short blue silk dress that exposed several yards of showgirl legs.

       And she looked about ten months pregnant.

       The beautiful girl and Haakon had been hidden by the cluster of hippies and now they were heading away from it, down to the path around the pond. They were walking away from Matt and Joan too, but when the beautiful girl spoke they just managed to catch her words: “I need you so much right now, darling.”

       “Dahling,” she said. She had an English accent, too.

       Haakon whispered something they couldn’t hear, but it must have been the right answer because the beautiful girl nestled her head against his shoulder – she wasn’t that much shorter than he was – and his arm tightened around her and they proceeded down to the pond, clinging together, without ever swiveling their heads around to notice Joan and Matt at their picnic. They made a striking couple.

       Matt just sat there with his mouth open, watching to see how Joan would take it. And Joan just sat there with her mouth open, too, for the longest time.

       Then she said: “Family business.”

       Matt said: “Go talk to him. He’s just down at the pond.”

       “And say what?” she said. “ ‘I don’t believe I’ve met your wife’?”

       “You don’t know she’s his wife,” said Matt.

       “And I don’t know until the kid is born if it’s got his nose. But in the circumstances it’s probably safe to make some assumptions.” Her face looked like an airplane crash. “Such as I may be the stupidest human being alive. Do you know, I never once went to his apartment? He said he liked my place better, his had been ‘tarted up,’ that’s what he called it, by decorators as part of a building contract. He said it embarrassed him.”

       “But you called him at home,” pointed out Matt. “Didn’t you?”

       “I don’t know where I called him! Either he picked up or there was an answering service. You know how dumb I was? I thought that meant he was important. What it really means is he’s a rat with a wife and an heir in utero.”

       Or possibly two, thought Matt, who had assessed the gestation with a professional eye. But he leaned forward and took Joan’s hand. “You really are dumb if you just sit here and imagine the worst,” he said. “Go after him. Confront him. Make him explain.”

       “What good would it do?”

       “You could anyway break his nose! It would make you feel better,” said Matt.

       “I’m never going to feel better!” said Joan. “I’m a piece of shit! I’m the other woman! I’m the town pump! I’m so cheap, you don’t have to pay me!”

       “Shit, Joan.” Matt looked around him. “For Christ’s sake calm down.”

       “Do you know what I did for him?” said Joan. “Can you imagine?”

       “I think mostly,” he said. He put his arms around her and pulled her against him. “What I couldn’t see I could extrapolate from the sound effects.”

       That made her laugh and then of course she started to cry. “I loved him. I wanted to marry him.”

       “I know,” said Matt. He held her tight and rocked her back and forth as if comforting a baby.

       “I knew it was all wrong at Christmas,” sobbed Joan. “I mean, San Juan? I knew he didn’t want me to meet his family. I just didn’t know how much of a family he had for me not to meet.”

       “Hush,” said Matt miserably, rocking. Her nose was against his chest and he could tell it was running. He didn’t mind, really, but they were both so unhappy he couldn’t see the point of prolonging the scene. “Let’s go home now.”

       She pulled back from him, suddenly seeming almost calm. “But we haven’t drunk our champagne.”

       “You just want to get drunk,” he said.

       “And your point?” She had brought beautiful long-stemmed flutes and she poured them full. The champagne had gotten warm and Matt didn’t like it much, but he stayed and sipped it to keep her company, not knowing what else to do.

       “The eccentric Englishwoman, Theodora?” she said. “The fairy godmother? Do you think she even, like, exists?" Matt honestly didn’t know. “I mean,” said Joan earnestly, “it was all like a fairy tale, wasn’t it? The handsome prince, the truckloads of money.”

       Matt didn’t say anything. It was too near what he’d always felt.

       Joan giggled drunkenly. “You know my favorite part of the story? It was the twin. Imagine two Haakons. I had some pretty kinky daydreams about that one.”

       “Shut up and drink your champagne,” said Matt.

       Joan drank her champagne but she didn’t shut up. “I was dying to meet Theodora and the twin,” she said, “only I didn’t want to seem too, you know, eager. I wondered if Haakon didn’t introduce me because I was, too, like, poor. Too, you know, nobody.”

       “You’re not nobody,” said Matt. “You’re talented and smart and funny, and besides that you’re drop-dead beautiful.”

       “Next to her, I look like a toad,” said Joan.

       This went on until all the champagne was gone and Joan was too drunk to resist Matt’s insistence on going home. He got her across the street to the apartment building all right but then she kept stumbling on the steps until finally he picked her up and carried her. She didn’t weigh anything – at first – and he lugged her up the stairs while she provided a running commentary.

       “This is like my first date with Haakon,” she told him. “I was wearing those little spike heels? Without any backs? They call them CFMs, that stands for – "

       "I know," said Matt.

       "You know, I wanted to be taller. I mean, like, if he wanted to kiss me? Anyway I tripped on the CFMs coming up the stairs and he picked me up and carried me, it was just like Gone With The Wind. I’d told myself I’d play hard to get, I didn’t even know him, right? But carrying a girl up the stairs is a surefire way to get laid.”

       “I’ll remember that,” said Matt. He’d reached the second landing and gravity had reasserted itself. Joan was no longer the featherweight she’d been. “You think you could walk now?” he said.

       Joan wound her arms around him. “Not if you want to get laid.”

       Matt was really shocked. “You’re out of your mind. You’re hurt. You’re vulnerable. You’re shit-faced drunk.” But he started up the last set of stairs.

       “You’re nice to me.” Joan aimed a kiss at his mouth and caught his chin. “You think I’m pretty. You said so.”

       “Of course I think you’re pretty,” he said. “Everybody thinks so. That doesn’t mean they want to sleep with you.”

       “But you do, don’t you?” she demanded. Matt was not going to answer that one. “Don’t leave me alone, Matt,” she crooned. “Not tonight.”

       “I’ll be right across the hall if you need me. Stop that!”

       But Joan with the strength of the drunk had pulled his face down to hers and was kissing him for real Matt staggered and they bumped into the wall. He leaned against it, feeling supremely sorry for himself. All those bags of groceries he’d carried up the stairs for her and all those bags of garbage he’d carried down. Now he was having to schlep the girl herself and by now she weighed a ton. It seemed only fair there should be a little wish fulfillment in it for him.

       So for a minute he let himself enjoy it. He kissed her back. Then he carried her the rest of the way up the stairs and put her on her bed, and somehow she was still kissing him. He knew he ought to go.

       Of course he didn’t. All night long, Matt knew it was a terrible mistake, but nevertheless a good many wishes were fulfilled.

       Matt woke with a pounding hangover and twenty minutes to shower, dress, and present himself at St. Mary’s. At least it left no time for awkwardness or recriminations. Joan didn’t wake. He kissed her sweet red mouth one last time and ran like a gazelle.

       His scheduled twelve hours on duty stretched into eighteen because of a gruesome highway disaster. Then he had the luxury of a few hours’ sleep at the hospital before starting all over again.

       The champagne hangover battered Matt’s head and he felt constantly at the point of vomiting. Adrenaline and youth kept him going – that and a few choice memories that brought a subtle smirk to his mouth at odd moments.

       After the nap the hangover, anyway, was gone, and he felt a bit more himself as he soldiered into the second day. But when he was finally relieved, he staggered up the series of steps at the apartment building, fell into bed, and slept for a day.

       When Matt awoke, it was to afternoon sunlight and thoughts of Joan. In a way he yearned to see her, in another he dreaded it. He was prepared for a shamefaced brush-off – “Matt, I’m so sorry, it was the champagne” – but until he got it, he would keep his options open. Maybe there were about forty kids in his future. Well, he was going to be a doctor, he could afford them. Maybe his parents would actually like Joan. Maybe they would anyway learn to tolerate her.

       Maybe, at any rate, she’d let him do it again.

       Anyhow, the confrontation had to be gotten over with. He looked at his watch – 6 p.m., she’d be home. He pounded at her door and got no answer. It was a beautiful afternoon. The park? He ran down the stairs.

       She was on the sidewalk, kissing Haakon beside his car.

       It was the one thing Matt had not anticipated. For one thing, Haakon was enough of an Englishman to avoid public gropes. For another thing, Haakon was supposed to be history.

       But there he was with his hands tangled in Joan’s massy black hair and his mouth all over her face as if he were trying to eat her. There was nothing Matt could do but stare and finally Haakon came up for oxygen. He had the grace to look embarrassed when he saw Matt. “Sorry, mate.” But then he grinned and said, incredibly: “We’re getting married. Do come.”

       He got in his car and drove away.

       Joan was thrilled to the point of effervescence. “Maybe you could give me away, Matt? I don’t have a father, I mean I don’t know where he is. Or who. We don’t know where it’s going to be yet. Outside, I think, but not Catholic.”

       “Joan?” Matt took her elbow and led her into the park. “You’d better give me some background. For all practical purposes, I’m still at Saturday night.”

       “Saturday night!” She put her hands to her head. “That champagne! It looks and tastes like soda pop. How was I to know it was dangerous?” She looked up at him anxiously. “Was I disgraceful?”

       Matt stared at her. A second or two ticked past, taking longer than you’d think. “You don’t remember?”

       “Nothing past the second glass. I guess you put me to bed? Thanks, man, but God, did I feel awful in the morning – hung over but still drunk. I managed to take a shower but then I had to go back to bed until Monday.”

       Reality reorganized itself. Matt gave in to it. Girls like Joan gravitated to men like Haakon, not to the Matts of the world. There was no point making things worse. Hadn’t he been the audience all along?

       And really forty kids would have been a lot to feed.

       “I felt bad, too,” he said, “only I had to work. What happened with Haakon?”

       “I couldn’t bring myself to talk to him, so I didn’t answer the telephone. So last night he climbed in my window …”

       “Joan,” Matt reminded her, “we live on the third floor.”

       “You don’t know what he’s like.” She was evanescing again. “He can do things like that. Like Robin Hood. Anyway, I’d been dreaming about him and when I woke up it was all real. I made him stop – well, what he was doing – well, I was doing it too, but it was only because I was asleep.”

       “Ahem,” said Matt. “Why don’t we skip the details and cut to the chase?”

       “All right,” said Joan serenely. “Haakon proposed. I said yes.”

       “I got that part,” said Matt irritably. “But what did he say about the blonde you thought was his wife?”

       “You’ll never guess,” said Joan. “She’s not his wife, Matt, she’s the twin!”

       Matt stared.

       “It was all such a silly misunderstanding,” Joan bubbled on. “When somebody says ‘twin,’ I mean, you think identical twin, so I was always imagining another Haakon. But there are plenty of boy-girl twins and they’re one of them. I mean, two.”

       Matt considered it. “Funny,” he said, “he never mentioned it.”

       Joan shook her head vigorously. “No, it’s not all that odd,” she said. “They were always really close but he’s been so furious at her lately they weren’t even, like, speaking. See, she’s been making the hippie scene, which in her case meant doing a lot of drugs and getting knocked up by a folk musician who’s since left town.”

       Matt processed this. “I hope not at the same time? I mean, she’s not doing drugs during the pregnancy?”

       “No, now she’s living in a vegetarian commune where they bake their own bread and they even think caffeine is bad. It sounds pretty silly too but it’s not self-destructive and she and Haakon have made up. What we witnessed was the reconciliation.”

       “Hmm. What about the fairy godmother?” said Matt. “What does Theodora think of the love child?”

       “Oh, Theodora doesn’t mind at all about the baby, she thinks morality is for the lower classes,” said Joan. “She sounds, like, so cool! I’m going to meet her this weekend! She has a house on the northeast side and she’s flying in from Hawaii to stay until after the baby’s born.”

       It all sounded unlikely to Matt but what else was new?

To be continued next week ...

 

 

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