A short story by Judy Clement Wall
The problem with women’s magazines is that they are crammed, cover to cover, with things to worry about. One minute, you’re smoothly navigating your life, negotiating deadlines, meeting commitments, making the world a better place, and the next, you’re panic-stricken, worried that you have, in fact, contracted “The One Disease Your Doctor Probably DOESN’T Know About.”
I’ve stopped reading women’s magazines. I know how they are. When they say that I can look beautiful in just five minutes, what they really mean is, “Look at our genetically gifted model. If you had her eyes, nose, lips, skin, hair and cheekbones, this 5-minute beauty plan would work for you, too.” When they tell me that I need to change my self-image because my body is amazing and deserves to be loved, what they are really saying is, “Turn the page, sweetheart. Our Supersonic Ultra-power Green Beret Boot Camp Workout is your only hope.”
So, here I am in the dentist’s waiting room, and there it is on the table. I should ignore it, grab the Time that lies just above it or the Newsweek to its left, but I don’t. I understand the risks when I pick it up. I have no one to blame but myself if this turns ugly. On the other hand, I am strong and well grounded. I have come a long way from the time I stood naked in front of a full-length mirror trying to assess my body type so as to get the most from my Special Pullout 30-day Detox Diet and Exercise Plan. I am beyond that – married, mother of two, home owner, dog owner, systems analyst, survivor of three corporate layoffs and a voluntary retirement program. What could this frivolous publication possibly say that would make me doubt myself? I am woman. Hear me roar.
I open the magazine, and all through Diet Don’ts, Toddler Tips and The Seven Secrets of Successful Women, my resolve holds fast. I am entertained, but unaffected.
The receptionist, a young woman named Robin, opens the window in front of her desk and apologizes to me for the wait. She has pale skin and purple lipstick and looks to me like a very attractive drowning victim. “We had an emergency, and now we’re running behind,” she says. “You know how these things are.”
I open my mouth to respond, but she is already closing the window, cutting off all communication, leaving me alone with nothing to do but return to my magazine.
Page 29. The Love Test.
“Is your man still crazy about you?” the magazine asks me. “How deep is his love? Are you swimming in an ocean of passion, or stepping over puddles of romantic faux-pas? Take our test and find out whether you should pucker up or pack it up.”
Have you ever had one of those moments? You’re standing at a fork in the road with every fiber of your being telling you to go right, then you go left? That’s me right now, heading left, ignoring my better instincts as I take a pen out of my purse and start answering questions.
The first few are easy. Yes, Doug always remembers my birthday and how I like my coffee. No, he never leaves the toilet seat up, never makes tasteless jokes about my mother.
“Does he stop to listen to you, even during football season?” the magazine asks innocently.
I hesitate, pen poised above always because I’m sure he would, you know, if I had something important to say. And if it wasn’t a 49er game. And if the score wasn’t too close. And if I waited until halftime. I shift, uncomfortably, in my seat, bite my lower lip, study my shoe. I mark sometimes.
“Does he surprise you with romantic gestures, a flower in your briefcase or a sexy email?”
I tap my pen on the page, watch a man in a charcoal suit come through the door, cross the room, talk to Robin. I wonder if goosing me in the kitchen while I’m trying to make dinner counts as a romantic gesture. Robin tells the man to have a seat. I tap, tap, tap, consider the question’s full range of meaning, the subtle nuances of the words surprise, romantic, gesture. Tap, tap, tap.
I think of last Christmas when Doug had a little too much fun at an after-hours office party. He and his best friend, Jack, faxed me copies of their butts. It was definitely a surprise, clearly a gesture, but I’m not sure it qualifies as romantic, even under the most generous interpretation of that word. Tap, tap, tap. The man in the charcoal suit frowns at me over his John Grisham novel. His eyes drop to my pen and I stop, mid-tap.
“Always, sometimes, never?” the magazine presses.
I decide I better come back to this one.
“When you’re out on a date, does your guy hold your hand, does he gaze into your eyes, whisper in your ear, kiss you no matter who’s looking?”
Hey, no fair. Plainly, that is four questions, not one. It’s also seriously biased in favor of couples without children, couples for whom dating does not require limitless reserves of energy, detailed planning and precision timing. Last year our babysitter turned sixteen, got breasts and a red Ford Mustang, then discovered dating. She hasn’t been heard from since.
We’re parents. We’re disadvantaged. It’s hard to gaze into each other’s eyes when your seven year old needs math help and your five year old is poised on the edge of the coffee table, straddling his Nimbus 2000.
“When buying you gifts, does your man shun practicality for romance? Does he get you what you need, or what you really want – jewelry, lingerie, a weekend getaway for two?”
I am defensive. “How do you know what I want?” I say. “I love my Deluxe Executive burgundy leather briefcase, my stainless steel Thermo-tech commuter mug, and my digital/analog combination watch, which, with the push of a button, can actually recite the time in three different languages.”
“I’m sorry,” the man in the charcoal suit says. “Are you speaking to me?”
I look up, startled, embarrassed. I start to explain but think better of it. He ducks back behind his Grisham book where no one questions the depths of his love, and I am rescued by the dental hygienist, a tiny woman with long, black hair and dazzlingly white teeth. “Anna?”
I stand, toss the magazine on the table in a haughty “I’m through with you, we have nothing more to say to each other” manner and follow the long haired hygienist into an exam room.
She tells me her name is Trini. She is experienced and efficient and, although she talks to me the entire time she’s cleaning my teeth – about a recent camping trip, her cat’s urinary tract infection and her brand new Honda CRV – she asks nothing of me and my mind is free to wander. Which it does. I am trying to remember the last time Doug did something truly romantic.
Ten years ago he proposed at the movies, hiding my ring in a container of popcorn. In the dark, I couldn’t tell what it was, but I knew what it wasn’t. Having recently read an article about a woman who found a tooth in her cheeseburger, I threw the foreign object on the floor. It rolled down six rows, stopping in a puddle of diet coke. Two ushers had to help us find it.
I have always fondly remembered that night, but as I think of it now, I realize it has all the markings of a romantic faux-pas.
The hygienist stops scraping. “Time for polish,” she says. “Do you want mint or strawberry?”
“Your teeth are in good shape.”
“Do you have them whitened?”
“You’re lucky. I have to whiten mine. I think the whiter your teeth, the younger, more vital you look.”
I glance at her. She does look vital.
“Anyway,” she says, “yours are beautiful. You should smile all the time.”
I thank her again, dismayed to realize that she may have just uttered the most romantic words I’ve heard in months.
I drive home, racking my brain. There must be something. My marriage can’t possibly be this devoid of romance. I pass a bus stop where a teenage girl sits on her boyfriend’s lap. At a stoplight, a shiny young couple walks by, fingers interlaced. The light turns green, but the car in front of me doesn’t move because the driver is busy kissing the passenger. I honk the horn, a bit savagely, notice the Bee-Gees on the radio singing, “How deep is your love?” I turn them off, breathe deeply, try to shake the feeling that I’ve wandered into some sort of Valentine’s Day Twilight Zone.
By the time I get home, I’m convinced that Doug is romantically challenged, and that I must be too, because I never noticed his deficiency until now. I pull the car into the garage and imagine him waiting for me, wine glasses in hand, wearing nothing but a smile.
Instead, I find our five year old, Sam, sitting alone on the bottom step of the staircase. I know this scene. He’s in timeout. He’s been crying but now he’s only faking it, whimpering so that no one forgets he’s there. He’s playing with his shoelaces but when he sees me, he finds his second wind and begins to wail, loudly, an inhuman sound like the tortured last cry of a wild animal before just before death. His screams bring his father and sister running down the stairs.
“What is it? What’s the matter?”
Doug stops when he sees me, understanding instantly, no words necessary. Lindsey, our seven year old, probably figures it out, too, but she doesn’t stop. She hurls herself down the stairs, calling her brother’s name even as she slams into him. They crash together onto the tiled landing. There is just the briefest moment of silence, of stunned indecision, before Sam starts to cry and Lindsey tries to push him off her, and then they’re both yelling and even the dog starts barking.
Half way up the stairs is Doug. He’s almost smiling, the way he does when he isn’t sure if it’s appropriate to laugh. “I remembered to pick up the kids,” he says.
I nod. At my feet a shouting match has erupted over the fact that Lindsey can’t get up with Sam on top of her, and Sam can’t get off her because his back is broken.
“Should I take them back?” Doug asks.
I laugh. He motions for me to come up, and I notice his shirt is half untucked, his khaki pants are stained with what appears to be grape Kool-Aid. In his hand, instead of wine glasses, is Lindsey’s math book. Pink is on the stereo upstairs. Doug holds out his hand. The dog rushes past me, the kids scream, a wrestling match ensues, but in the instant our fingers touch, I think maybe I can feel something – not an ocean of passion, exactly, but a current that flows between and around us, a rhythm below the surface of our lives. He whispers hello and just before he yells at the kids to “stop and desist this instant,” he kisses my forehead, pauses to look into my eyes. In fact, I think you could, if you were inclined to make such distinctions, say that he is gazing.
“Real Life” was originally published in the Spring 2004 issue of Eureka Literary Magazine