Gus and Diane
Bikram was cancelled, the sign said, apologies. There was nothing to be done, Gus saw. A lesser man might have broken down.
He must’ve been sitting on the bench for about ten minutes when the door from the stairs opened, and a handful of middle-aged men and women in sweats and tee shirts trickled through the hall to the studio across from his, which had always been empty when he’d gotten here for his 5:15. They looked awkward and sorrowful, like understudy souls who’d never expected to be called.
Gus followed them into the studio. A short, dumpy instructress with sandy-grey hair stood by the mirrors.
‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ he said. ‘What class is this?’
‘We’re the Tai Chi Society, New York Branch.’ She looked mildly affronted.
‘I usually do Bikram across the hall,’ he explained, gesturing vaguely over his shoulder. ‘But it’s cancelled. I don’t suppose I could try–ah–Tai Chi?’
She appraised him, shrugged. ‘It’s an intermediate class, so you might get lost, but you can follow the class in the mirrors, and I’ll be up front. Ten bucks for a drop-in.’
He pulled out his wallet, handed her a ten.
She pocketed it. ‘Pleasure to have you. Find a spot anywhere you like.’
Gus moved to the back of the studio. He bent to touch his toes. Upside down, he saw a willowy woman with long dark hair and froggish eyes enter the studio. Her tight black leggings suggested toned legs. Behind her stood a teenage girl so like her, Gus had to assume it was her daughter. The willowy woman’s eyes met his between his knees.
Diane’s miscalculation grew more evident with each passing moment. Her Tai Chiers were dingy and moth-eaten, overlooked and beaten-down. She had sensed this before but never seen it so clearly, reflected in the gentle disdain coloring Francesca’s face. Diane blushed for their outmoded clothing, their loneliness, the way they sucked at their classmates for some sense of community before returning to empty apartments and cheap takeout dinners for one. It was clear that her daughter saw this and felt sorry for her, looked at her in surprise but not disbelief.
But the class was starting. Diane saw no way of sending Frannie away. There was nothing she could do but watch the scene seep outward like a stain. Nor could she stand still, now that the class had begun its set of danyus. The stupid squats only condemned her more.
The teacher was announcing the break. Time had passed. A vague recollection of sitting at her desk, imagining how she would introduce Frannie to Elaine, to Sandra, and to Bob plucked at Diane. She had envisioned each of the encounters, how each set of eyes would light up with their vision of Frannie. She made herself walk over to Frannie’s chair, but she couldn’t meet her eyes. Diane could sense the others hanging back.
But Bob, the oldest in the group, was ambling over. It had been Bob to whom she’d shown Frannie’s picture last week. He’d told her about his grandson’s cello lessons, and she told him how Frannie kept everything going at the school paper. You should see the way she has these senior boys running errands, she’d told him; Frannie could make tigers dance.
‘Is this the famous Francesca?’ Bob held out his hand. ‘Robert Deutsch. A pleasure finally to meet you. You should hear the way your mother talks. She’s so proud.’
Francesca shook his hand. ‘Nice to meet you.’ Her lips curved into the form of a smile.
Bob seemed uncertain how to proceed. ‘Well, I’d better go get some water. Have to hydrate these old bones.’ He patted his hands against his slender ribcage. ‘See you around.’ The floor creaked steadily beneath his retreating tennis shoes.
‘It’ll be pretty much the same for the rest of the class,’ Diane said to Frannie’s knees. ‘Why don’t I catch you at home?’
‘Didn’t you want me to meet people?’
‘You saw Bob. Most of the others I wanted you to meet aren’t here today,’ she lied. ‘I should’ve checked. They’ll be so jealous when they hear Bob got to see you while they weren’t around.’
‘Okay,’ Frannie said. She picked up her bag and coat, gave a last glance at the room, and left.
It had been bad, no doubt about that. Gus had been there only thirty minutes and already he could see how the girl’s presence had dampened the class.
He found the willowy woman sitting on the bench in the hall. Her head leaned against the wall, her eyes on the ceiling. He sat down.
‘Kids these days,’ he found himself blurting. ‘I once brought my son to Bikram. Still haven’t lived it down.’ That was a complete lie. Liam had loved it. He’d been impressed with Gus’s tree pose. Everyone had loved Liam.
She turned to look at him with her sad frog eyes. They were somehow very beautiful. He imagined seeing them wake up in the morning, in bed beside him, or flickering beneath their lids as they darted in dreams. He wanted to buoy them. Was that a transgression? He wasn’t sure, but he didn’t see how it should be. It was basic human decency. Licking a fellow traveler’s wounds. But he realized he’d embarrassed her, by letting her know he’d witnessed her shame.
‘How old’s your son?’ Her voice was lilting.
‘Sixteen. Just started looking at colleges. It’s a nightmare.’
The woman smiled. ‘Francesca – that’s my daughter – she’s fifteen. I guess college is already lurking for us, too.’ All of a sudden, she threw her palms to her face and moaned. ‘God, that was terrible! Could everyone tell?’
‘Could’ve been worse.’ He hoped she wouldn’t ask him how. He wanted to buy her a drink or a hotdog, no funny business. She felt somehow familiar, in a déjà vu sort of way, déjà connue. They were old shoes together, an acquaintance away from old friends.
People were filing back into the studio. Break had ended. Neither of them moved.
‘I can’t go back in there,’ she said, flatly. ‘But you should go.’
He shrugged. She was right, obviously. But he didn’t want to. Anyway the studio door was closing. So he stayed, and he hoped she would, too.
‘Sometimes I’ll dream I have some incurable illness,’ he found himself saying this time, ‘something really horrible, zero hope. I’ll be so devastated in the dream, the closer I circle the drain. I’ll be angry, wronged. Suddenly I’ll have a will to live I never even suspected. Then, just when it’s been made triply clear that I’m a goner, I’ll wake up. I’ll be completely sweat-soaked, my pillow wet with drool and tears, my heart racing. I’ll really have to pee, and I’ll know I’m alive. That ever happen to you?’
‘Not like that,’ she said. ‘But I’ll dream that I’m old and on my deathbed. I’ll know I’ve got only a couple more days, maybe hours. And I’ll realize I’ve done it all wrong. I’ve lived too tentatively, cautiously, had more to regret missing than repent having done. I’ll kick myself, rail against my earlier selves. Then I’ll wake up, and I won’t be there anymore. I’ll be in my own bed.’ She shrugged. ‘I’ve had that dream since college. It gets more depressing every year.’
‘I haven’t had that one, yet,’ he said. ‘I’m probably too impulsive. Though maybe not. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?’
She looked at him like he’d touched her. He made sure his leg was far enough away, but he kept his eyes on hers. ‘I guess having Frannie. I didn’t like any of the men in my life, but I wanted a baby, and I knew it’d only get harder later on. So I went to a doctor, picked a donor, started saving money for her college education, built a crib.’ She shrugged. ‘Sometimes I worry it was selfish.’
‘What’s selfish about that?’
‘It was all about me. I do the best I can for her, but sometimes it feels inadequate. I don’t know.’
‘That’s ridiculous. Your daughter got one hell of a hand.’
She laughed, trying to make light of it, but her eyes glossed up. ‘That’s charitable of you. Of course you don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, but it’s nice to hear, all the same. I hope she feels something similar.’
‘She’d be crazy not to.’
‘Huh. Well, what about you? Isn’t it your turn to divulge?’
He felt like he was in college, passing a beer back and forth with a girl at a party, each of them disclosing a tidbit of personal information with each sip, enjoying the buzz and the way their lips played tag on the metal lid.
The affair with Erica was not his craziest thing. She was his biggest cruelty, his only crime. But she was just the person who had stepped forward and recognized him as the person he’d almost forgotten. She thought he was funny and sexy and looked forward to seeing him. The surprise had been vertiginous. He hadn’t lusted for Erica. He just hadn’t been sure he’d be able to sustain that version of himself on his own.
‘I got an indoor snow machine once. We were living in San Diego and it was Christmas, no snow. I thought it’d be funny. My wife almost asked for a divorce.’
‘That’s your craziest thing? I expected more.’
‘That’s refreshing. Most folks have stopped expecting anything from me at all.’ He frowned.
‘I can’t imagine that’s true.’
‘Can’t you? Think about your deathbed scenario, or my illness one. Some subconscious part of ourselves delivers up these wake-up calls, these little slaps in the face, and we do wake up, we think gee, what a dream. But then what? Do we change anything? We maybe think our cereal tastes extra nice in the morning. But then we go on, carefully plodding along in the same trajectory. I don’t know. Don’t mind me. I just don’t know.’
‘But what to do? I illustrate children’s books for a living. I do cereal boxes now and then to make some extra cash and buy my daughter nice clothes. I have my plants, my fish tank. I hate fish, but the building won’t allow pets, and I can’t afford to move anywhere that does. I try to give my daughter a good life. I read, watch movies, go to museums. When I can, I travel. I try to understand what’s going on in the world.’
‘What about friends, people?’
‘I see people when I can. Most of my old friends live elsewhere. I like some of Frannie’s friends’ parents, but we don’t always hit it off. Sometimes seeing them just leaves me low.’
He wanted to ask about love but worried that’d be too much. ‘I like to think if I knew what to do, I’d do it, but I’m not even sure I would.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘My favorite part of the day is eating breakfast. Smushing avocado on toast, covering it with a boiled egg. I eat it with my hands. But then it’s done, and you’ve got a whole day till you can do it again.’
‘Try it with lemon sometimes. Gives it an extra oomph. Plus vitamin C.’
He looked at her. ‘I’ll try that tomorrow.’
‘I’ll have it, too.’ She blushed. ‘I guess I’d better be going. Can’t hide here all day.’ She fumbled for her bag, got up. ‘It was nice talking to you – ’
‘Gus,’ he said.
‘Diane.’ She held out her hand, and he clasped it, let it go.