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Suburban Surrender

January 24, 2010 by · 3 comments

Roger Conner Jr.

Photo: banoootah_qtr

James and Anita lay on the bed, flat on their back with not a stitch of clothes on. This was first time they had done this in years, maybe since college. It was a cool night for July so the air conditioner was off and a soft breeze moved ever so slightly through the open window of their suburban home. James could feel the soft caress of the moving summer air sensual and alive on his forearms, making him feel as though he were somehow connected to the universe, to nature, and to the moment.

This was to be, by agreement of James and Anita, a special night, perhaps the most special night of this couples life. James had brought home a couple of bottles of wine, the expensive good stuff, a can of caviar, and a brown paper bag containing a small bottle, and had told Anita simply, “I’ve got it. Let’s make it special.” Anita had shown her displeasure with the price of the wine and food, but James had gently rebuked her, “It doesn’t matter now does it?” He had also brought home a deli tray of special foods of the type served at a classy party. No cooking and cleaning tonight, no distractions.

James ever so slightly stroked Anita’s forearm with his fingers in a gentle attempt to engage her attention, and she looked at him and smiled softly with sleepy eyes, seemingly at peace.
James spoke first. “You know, we have a special opportunity here, to do something many couples never do.” He paused to give her time to reply, but she said nothing so he continued, “We can communicate in complete openness…nothing to lose right?” He paused again, but she simply smiled, so James continued speaking, soft and low, almost ceremoniously. “I am pretty sure my parents never did.” Anita finally spoke. “Mine either”.
“What do I want to tell you Anita that matters? You’re the one thing I got right, my perfect choice…but now I have led you to this dead end.” Anita finally spoke, “No, we did what we could do, there are no guarantees…it’s been good.”

James did not want to have to argue against her on this point, but openness required him to. “No, you can’t make the argument …if you had not accepted me, you wouldn’t be here, your life, who you are, would have taken a completely unknown path.” She giggled a bit, somewhat upsetting the seriousness of the moment and said “Yeah, like an alternative future universe, one of the infinite possible strands that could have changed with any different outcome…I could have been hit by a car crossing the street this morning, or bought a winning hundred million dollar lottery ticket, or married a wealthy businessman when I was young. You could play that game out forever, couldn’t you, ever the science fiction fan, my cute little science nerd.”

Now he smiled. She had never called him that, not openly, even though he knew she had always thought it. What a geek he had been in college, an excellent student but shy and lacking confidence, his fellow technicians his only social network. He could have never asked Anita out, it was she who made the approach. She had seen him sitting on the green with notebooks and a scientific calculator and had walked closer and closer to him on successive days, looking over his shoulder and seeing pages of complicated equations. Without even announcing her name, she pulled up courage after a few days and walked right up to him and asked “Can you do algebra?”

She might as well have asked him if he was capable of speaking. He spoke algebra as a second language and often thought in it. Anita on the other hand was failing in her algebra class. Her heart belonged to the arts. She thought in terms of obscure impressions and visuals, emotionally intelligent and artistic, moody and sullen at times, she was a stoic at heart. To James she was the poetic beauty he had always dreamed of, his emotional and erotic connection to existence and he began teaching her simply to keep her around until he could figure out what to do next. He was terrified one of the popular guys would see her and swoop in for the steal.

James had nothing to fear. Within a few days it was Anita who was following him around. He was a gentle and kind teacher, almost loving, and expected little. For him, holding hands and pecks on the cheek were treasures and any romantic advances would come from Anita. She worked slowly and gently so as not to terrify him.
James thought of those days, the final years of college flying by, him never alone. He had never even noticed being alone before he met Anita, it had been a natural state to him. Looking back, he could not imagine how he had survived it.

“Remember the first times we slept together, we were like a pair of kittens.” They both burst out laughing. Anita had never heard him describe it that way. “I had no idea what to do, I just wanted you all over me.” They both recomposed themselves, still laughing with tears in their eyes, and then James went soft again, speaking gently. “You were always in charge you know.” Yes, she knew. She had been as gentle a teacher in her area as he had been in his.
The years began to race by. The wedding like so many millions of them every year, the little starter jobs and apartments followed by transfers, better jobs and promotions as the age and the culture seemed to build each next step on the road just as they arrived to need it. Those were the green times then, there was no worry about money or debt, they had all they needed in those best younger days, and both liked their work.

Looking back James realized now what he had always been: A lower level technician, one of the millions of functionaries who kept the information technologies running. He did his part in one small corner of one small firm. He was ever the diligent student, learning more with each year of experience. Anita had taken a job at a local art museum, and had over a period of years became the youth activities director, writing and delivering arts classes to junior high school children. She was not going to get rich doing this, but it felt secure and fulfilling. She could see her young self in the junior high school girls, they so fascinated by what art said about the age in which it was created. Those were the green times then.

James sat up on the side of the bed. Anita lay on her back for a bit longer, looking at the light from the nightstand lamp reflecting from his pale bare back. He had never been able to tan well, even when he tried. Finally she sat up, sliding across the sheet to him, resting her face on his shoulder. She looked longingly at the caviar and crackers, and said “give me some”. He seemed confused at first, not knowing what she was asking for until he caught her eyes. He then took one of the crackers and dipped an ample scoop of the marvelous black caviar from the little canister and put it to her lips. After getting it in her mouth and savoring the rich musty taste, she reached for the wine glass and washed it down, moving it about in her mouth to enjoy the sensation. A thought then crossed her mind, and she asked James, “The food and the booze won’t mess it up, will it?”
“No” he said with a smile, “it’s much stronger than that.”

Her eyes scanned the room with its middle-middle class furnishings, probably like so many thousands of other suburban homes, straight out of the catalogs. It had been a nice house, they had been so proud when they bought it. The price had seemed good at the time and the payments not a problem if they both remained employed. “This is a good place” she said, almost as an aside, “We’ve been happy here. I would hate to blame it all on the house.”

James agreed. “No, it’s much more than the house.” He thought about the arc their lives together had taken, and the time after the top of the curve had passed behind them. The firm he had relied upon had began the descent gently at first, by attrition, not replacing technical staff as they retired or moved on, but then the descent had sped up considerably as positions were outsourced, moved out of the nation. The announcement came that a new group of investors had bought the firm, and the chaos and uncertainty became a part of his working life. For the first time in his adult career, fear was an ongoing condition of his employment.

Within a week it was over, as technical staffers were called one by one to the office of the department head, spoken to and escorted out the back entrance of the single story offices, never to return to the work floor again. James received a severance package, but given the house payment it was not nearly enough to cover the monthly expenses. Anita had been released by the museum only a few months earlier in a budget cutting program to assure the future of the institution. She was assured that she would be the first to return if conditions improved, but she and James knew that day would certainly not come in time to help them.

James and Anita had taken to looking for other jobs, but were shocked to find how things had changed in the world since their days of youth. Every other firm and institution seemed to have been reducing staff for months. The reliable employers who had once been seen as potential fallback positions were not hiring. This had seemed to happen almost silently. Neither of them had been followers of economic news. Their world had consisted of each other and work. They had methodically handled each day on the path the age had built for them without question. James had easily adapted to Anita’s stoicism.
“Are you sorry about who we are?” Anita asked. James tried to manage the question. “No, we’re okay. Just one more hopeful young couple not so young anymore I guess.” He paused and then said “You deserved better.”

She sounded slightly pleading as she spoke…”No, no, don’t do that, things are what they are. We promised not to blame each other.” James smiled silently recalling the sullen moodiness that had drawn him to her, ever the accepting stoic, martyr to things as they are.
“But we agreed, we can’t go back, right? I won’t drag you through being homeless and poor. I gave you the option. I wanted you to leave.”
Anita restated facts as she saw them: “No, that’s not a thinkable option. Whatever happens, it’s us together.”

James turned and looked directly into her face, her eyes glistening. After all these years the darkness of her eyes still caught him off guard, and when they were filled with tears looking into them was a sensual experience driving rare impulsive behavior on his part. Without thinking and without warning he pressed his mouth to hers and she opened her lips instinctively. The taste of the caviar was still in her mouth and for a moment the sensation was almost dizzying. He pulled back looking again into her watery eyes, knowing that he had known the best of being alive. Yes, it would have to be as she said, the two of them together, whatever was to be decided.

He leaned over the side of the bed and reached down to the paper bag sitting on the floor, and pulled from it a bottle. It looked like a prescription cough medicine bottle, the lamplight shining through the glass a honey brown hue, an almost mystical color.
Anita watched as he sat the bottle on the nightstand beside the food tray. He then retrieved a pair of slender wine goblets from the bag, and placed them beside the bottle on the nightstand. The nightstand was small and like his life, their life, it was beginning to run out of space. James removed the white cap from the bottle and then, as though pouring wine, he poured an equal amount of clear liquid into each glass, filling the glasses approximately half full. The light from the nightstand lamp glistened through the liquid making it look magical and delicious, liquid light capturing infinity.

“Are you sure that will work?” Anita asked flatly as though she were referring to a home repair accomplished with duct tape. He gave her a glance of mock annoyance. “Don’t worry, it will work, I’m a science major, remember? I told you I would handle the method. You’re the arts major, you handle the madness.” He turned and took hold of her arms and pushed her back on the bed, his head falling back to the pillow beside hers, looking directly into her eyes.
“Who do you want to hear about?” she asked, “Socrates, Boethius, Jesus…Marsha Norman…’night mother’?” She grinned, knowing they had talked about all of them many times before. After a moment of silence, Anita recited one of her favorite lines from Boethius,

“Is Fortune’s presence dear to thee if she cannot be trusted to stay, and though she will bring sorrow when she is gone? Why, if she cannot be kept at pleasure, and if her flight overwhelms with calamity, what is this fleeting visitant but a token of coming trouble?”
“We’re only going to get older…sicker. I’ve seen it before.” Anita remembered her mother, the treatments, the endless hope but the unspoken hopelessness as she was less and less able to do anything she enjoyed doing, bitter about the life she had missed, holding on for one more day, and then one more, and then one more. At least she had been allowed to die in her own home. Anita thought about what it would be like to be homeless in such a situation, dying on the street like a stray cat.

Each new day of life proving only that you could live through one more day without your art or your profession or your home, but for what? Her mother was a divorcee and Anita had not seen her dad in years. Anita’s mother had worked her young adult life to put her daughter through college…and all for this, to prepare her daughter for a profession that volunteers would be expected to do for free, unable to keep her home, and then dying alone of some unspecified ailment. Anita decided it was best to handle things now while she still had some control of her own destiny, and still had James. Her work, James, and a home, that was all she had ever really wanted.

Anita felt suddenly drowsy, her eyes drifting closed. Fragments of sentences circled through her mind…whether it is nobler to suffer the slings and arrows…eat drink and be merry…life’s a bitch and then you die…she smiled, she could feel the wine and food were beginning to hit her bloodstream, but she still wanted more.
“What’s in it?” Anita asked James, referring to the clear liquid in the glasses.
“Nothing you’ve heard of, a string of Latin words, like most narcotics.”

Her mind drowsily searched for a way out of the logic they had created for themselves. “If I thought we could keep the house, or even an apartment, it would be different”, she said with a sigh.
James was gently factual, “No, that’s not going to happen, we’ve lost that months ago. We have already decided all of that.” Even if Anita and he were to return to some level of decent income, they had no credit left and were down on the house to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. He again wanted to offer her the out…”You could find someone else, get out, or I could make it look like an accident and leave you the insurance, it wouldn’t be a bad deal for you then…”
Anita giggled at the thought…”Yeah right, I could put an ad in the personals or on the web…aging morbid arts major, prospective suicide seeks same.” She laughed out loud that suddenly seemed so funny to her, but deep inside she knew the thought of being separated from James made her ill, lost. It frightened her even more than the thought of death.

“People will say we were just weak.” It was another consideration Anita and James had discussed before and dismissed. They had no close friends, merely a few acquaintances. When they bought the home, one of the justifications for it was that they could entertain, but they realized soon enough there were no friends to entertain. People were busy, on the move, and just when either James or Anita came to know someone well enough to invite them to the house, their newfound friends would move away. They had finally decided they were happy with the company of one another.
James spoke now of Anita’s stoic view as they had previously discussed it: “Yes, but your argument still holds, we are just being strong. Do you believe it is going to get better from here on as we get older?”

Anita didn’t reply, but simply took his hand. They lay beside each other on their back again, holding hands and looking at the white ceiling. Perhaps another snack, some of the caviar would be good, it didn’t matter. Each of them glanced at various times over toward the twin goblets containing the clear liquid freedom. Anita wanted just wanted to hold hands for now. They could make love, eat, drink until they passed out, it really didn’t matter. They had each other for now, they still had their health, and with those divinely beautiful goblets on the nightstand containing infinity, Anita smiled as her eyes closed once more. They could decide in the next while, there was no rush. They still had the house for days, maybe weeks? There was nowhere to go, except the place beyond all places. They were freer now than they had ever been, as free as they would ever be.

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