Pretty girls who never wear lipstick: Richard dreamt about them for years. Sometimes he would know them from real life; other times they would be girls he never knew. In his dreams there was always the silent recognition that the girl would suddenly disappear but with the understanding that their unspoken relationship could be resumed any time. For the remainder of the dream Richard would long for her.
In the morning and throughout the day, the girl would linger as a muse in his imagination, watching him in curious and silent admiration of whatever he was doing or thinking. Without saying anything she spoke to him and he understood, in that same dreamlike quality where two opposite things occur at the same time. The talks, such as they were, offered soothing affirmations of his life, with no judgment imposed.
Last night he had dreamt of Debby, who he had known from college and had come close to marrying. Before the dream, he had been awakened at two in the morning by the sound of his wife, Andrea, crying in the bathroom. The conversation that followed was left unsettled, but with a vague and intriguing promise of a resolution later in the day.
It was then that he had the dream. It was similar to other dreams he had about girls from the past who had long been missing from his life. In the dream he and Debby had met once again after many years. In the dual-nature of dreams they were in a house that he didn’t recognize but it was familiar; it was where she lived now and had never lived there. There was a mutual understanding for what would happen next but which didn’t happen. Their relationship had ended but was still going on, they resumed something that was both temporary and permanent, he wasn’t really with her, but they had never parted.
Now as he sat drinking his morning coffee in the kitchen, Andrea came into the kitchen, cradling their small beagle in her arms, and handed it to him. ‘Don’t forget, you have to take Sherry to the vet this morning.’
‘I know,’ he said, taking the beagle from her. He felt Debby watching him.
‘Don’t ask me if I’m all right,’ she said. He looked down and said nothing, petting Sherry’s neck and back. ‘I’m not mad,’ she said. ‘I have to go. I’m going to be late. Doing the same old thing.’
She turned around at the door to the garage. ‘I’ll think about what you said. I know that you’ll come through.’
‘And if I don’t?’ he asked.
‘I know you will,’ she said.
The vet's office was hidden, tucked away off the main two lane road on the outskirts of Sonoma, in a little alcove of trees. It was just before an obscure road called Sperring Road that he had passed many times and wondered about but had never been on it. The vet's wouldn't open for fifteen more minutes so today was the day to see it.
The road was narrow and pitted. The houses on either side looked like farmhouses. The road curved and disappeared into vineyards and tree-covered hills. He passed a small light blue one-story house, where a woman was putting clothes out on a line.
‘Come on, pup,’ he said, tugging at the dog's leash. She leapt at a lizard, small and the color of mud. The woman looked at the dog and laughed a soundless laugh. He guessed she was in her forties like him. Her smile was wide, and slightly crooked.
‘Her name Pup?’ she asked.
‘No, it's Sherry. I just call her pup.’‘Her name may as well be Pup then. Sherry's a nice name, though.’
Richard looked down at Sherry, now looking at him, her mouth open in a toothy grin. ‘Sherry has never quite fit her,’ he said.
She nodded and went back to putting clothes up on the line. Her face was pale and slightly wrinkled, but he could see that she had a simple beauty that he always found attractive.
She hung up a man’s shirt. Could be her husband's, could be her son's, if she has a son; could be her boyfriend's, he thought, but probably not.
He imagined what her husband looked like: someone who was always sure of himself, who did all the right things in life, knew all the right people, knew how to get ahead. He knew how to make his wife happy.
After dropping Sherry off at the vet’s he drove on the two lane road out of town that led to the highway, Debby seeing what he saw and listening to his thoughts. In the unspoken one-way conversation he told her about how the lower branches of the trees were all an even distance from the ground, looking as like they had been trimmed and how someone had told him that they were like that because cows and other animals in the fields nibbled the branches. He told her about how he sometimes felt out of place living in the country and how he and Andrea had thought that moving to the country would give them different perspectives, and a healthier outlook. But they still had to work and the working world still went on in the same tiresome ways.
When the two lane road merged with the highway, he told Debby about the conversation he and Andrea had had at two that morning.
She said she had her period. I said I was sorry. We’ve been trying for a while to have a baby. I said we would try again.
‘How long do we keep trying? Until I reach menopause? All we do is work doing things that no one cares about. We’ll end up being boring and working at jobs we hate. We’ve done nothing for the world. What do we have to look back on?’
I said nothing.
‘If you had married Debby, you probably would have had children.’
I told her it never would have worked, but she went on as if I hadn’t said anything.
‘I know you don't believe in God,’ she said. ‘But I really think that this is my punishment. I think how I was pregnant with your child ten years ago. I keep thinking if I had gone through with it, our child would be ten years old. Our lives would have been entirely different.’
She said that sometimes she thought I didn’t care. I said I did care and she said ‘Tell me something to make me feel better, that everything will be all right.’
I knew from similar situations that nothing I could say would make her feel better, but I said we should think about adopting.
‘We’re too old,’ she said. ‘People who give up their babies for adoption want young parents. We should have done it when we could. No one is ever ready. Would you have married me if I had had your child?’
I said yes. She asked me if I loved her and I said yes. ‘How do I know? I want proof.’
I asked what kind of proof she wanted.
‘Tell me something tomorrow that will make me feel better.’ Back to that again. With that kind of task one can either succeed admirably or fail spectacularly.
‘You’re very spiritual even if you don’t believe in God,’ she said as encouragement and added that she thought I did believe even if I didn’t know it. ‘Tell me something that shows I believe in us—something that would make me happy.’ I was silent as I was thinking.
‘It doesn’t have to be right now,’ she said. So I held her until her breathing became rhythmic, and she fell asleep. I lay there thinking about what we had just said. I fell asleep and had my dream.
What his firm did -- an environmental consulting company -- was no longer as critical to Richard as it was when he was in his thirties and thought anything was possible. Over the years since that magic period in his life he had come to believe that life was shaped by what he called ‘renaissances’—periods of success and confidence that served a purpose specific to that time. In one such period, his senior year at college, he had met Andrea—both had worked at the same consulting firm.
I've always suspected that my marriage was the product of a good period in my life that I'll never recapture. I sometimes wonder that maybe what made the relationship good then is missing now. Then again, I may believe that by stating this it lends itself to immediate contradiction.
He and Andrea were now in their forties. He had worked at a few such firms; Andrea now worked for the state water board. He stood in his office and looked out the window. It had rained during the night, and now in the sunlight, white vapors of water rose from the parking lot. The door across the hall was closed as it usually was almost every morning when his boss was talking with Mike, a top marketer for the firm. Knowing the culture of this company for which he had worked for five years now, he had come to believe with some good reasons that closed doors usually indicated bad-mouthing of someone. As a reaction to this, Richard closed his door.
His boss was a man who knew he was good looking. His wife was a psychologist who no doubt contributed to his tendency to pronounce analyses on people’s behavior. He was probably a nice person if he wasn’t your boss, Richard often thought.
A knock on the door brought him out of his reverie. Luann stood in the hallway. She had auburn hair, and her eyes were heavily made up so that they looked wider than they were. She was in her twenties—a recently graduated chemical engineer in a firm that did no engineering. She was young enough to still sit on chairs with her legs pulled up on the seat, like a teenager on the phone.
‘I don't wanna work today,’ she said.
‘Is that why you’re here?’ Richard asked. ‘Well, I don't either,’ he said, and waved her into the office. ‘I need to complete your performance evaluation, don't I?’ He opened a file folder on his desk. ‘I was reading what you said about what you'd like to be doing on the self-evaluation form.’ He read aloud what she wrote: ‘In a pinch, I could design a distillation column, but we don't do that here, and I'm not sure I'd want to anyway.’
Luann laughed a high pitched giggle, her hands covering her mouth like a little girl. ‘I guess I should have been more serious,’ she said. ‘But it’s true, though.’
‘Well, the environmental business isn't always what you’d expect,’ he said. ‘Anyway; you won't be here forever. We just have to pretend you are and write the evaluation accordingly.’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘It's so hard to fill out that stupid form that asks what your future goals are. Who the hell knows?’
‘I don't even know what mine are,’ he said.
Luann laughed loudly at this. ‘You’d never know it,’ she said.
‘It’s an illusion,’ he said.
‘How did you get into this business?’ she asked.
‘I’m not sure. How does anyone get into any business? How did you get into it?’
‘I wanted an engineering job,’ she said. ‘But I couldn’t find any. I thought this firm did engineering. I mean it isn’t bad, it just isn’t what I expected.’
‘Exactly. Sometimes we’re where we want to be. I’ve come to the conclusion lately…’ He hesitated. ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the time, we’re not.’
‘You’re not like most bosses I’ve had,’ she said.
‘How many bosses have you had?’
‘I guess you’re the only one,’ she said.
‘Well, you’re right though. I’m not like most bosses. My breach of professional conduct is always done professionally. That said, I’ve got to get to something before my boss gets mad at me,’ he said pointing to the computer screen. ‘I’ll finish your evaluation by tomorrow, I promise.’
For much of the rest of the day he tried to get work done, and was partially successful. Later in the day after finally abandoning efforts to finish something he cleaned his desk off so it would not be cluttered when he came in the next day. He looked at Luann’s performance evaluation form once more and decided to work on it tomorrow.
On the drive home, he thought about what it would be like to have a child, and what it would be like for that child to be living in the country. He had lived in big cities all his life, as had Andrea. If he and Andrea succeeded in having a child, the child would know the country differently than they did; the animals, the birds, where the hidden dirt roads were. He wondered what their child would be like, and thought about what he could possibly say to Andrea to make her feel that he believed in both of them.
I suppose I may be in a renaissance without my knowing it. I was thinking about that when I was talking to Luann. I wanted to tell her that in the long term, we end up where we’re supposed to be. And in the short term we have to look at it as being in between and that somehow everything will work out, and everything will be just fine. But it just would have been meaningless.
I think my renaissance now is trying to have a child. That’s my purpose, whether it works out or not. I sometimes wonder whether my desire for a child is because of Andrea’s desire. That if she didn’t want a child, I wouldn’t want one.
She thinks I’m spiritual. I don’t know whether I believe in God or not. Sometimes I do. Other times I'm skeptical. Most things are beyond our control. I sometimes think there's a reason for things happening the way they do, that someone or something controls them. But then I just don’t know. Actually, I envy people who believe in God.
I remember one time when I thought I believed in God. It was two years ago when we were on vacation in Italy. We were in Florence, inside an ancient church when it started to rain. Other tourists came in from outside for shelter. We stayed for about ten minutes but it didn’t look like it was going to let up, so we decided to walk back to the hotel. We didn’t have raincoats; just an umbrella. It was raining buckets. We stepped outside and immediately heard the rain pounding on the umbrella. We were the only ones on the street; there were no cars, and no people. As we walked across the street perfectly sheltered from the pounding rain, for one brief incredible moment we thought we could make it to the hotel perfectly dry. I felt like we were being protected. It was a wonderful belief.
Yes, maybe I could tell her about that.
He stopped at the vet’s on the way home to pick up Sherry. ‘She’ll be a bit woozy from the anesthetic,’ the vet’s assistant told him. He picked up the beagle and kissed her on the head. When he got to the car, he put her on the seat next to him and she curled up in a ball. He pet her as he drove home.
The sun would set in another half hour. Though there was still some light in the sky there would be small traces of daylight before darkness set in. It was mid-January so the days would slowly, imperceptibly be getting longer. He sat on the couch in the living room, rubbing the little dog behind its ears. Andrea wasn’t home yet; it would probably be another hour until she arrived. He thought about the day—a day like any other day, indistinguishable from the rest.
He felt a sadness that had settled in his stomach. And in the next moment, his thoughts went back to the rainstorm in Florence, as Debby listened once more.
The rain continued to pound down on the umbrella. Any hopes we had of remaining untouched by the rain disappeared after about a minute when strong winds blew the rain under the umbrella. By the time we reached the hotel, we were completely soaked.
In our room we laughed, and took off our clothes. The room was filled with an eerie light from the storm, making Andrea’s lips purple and unearthly. We looked at each other. I looked at her face until it was no longer recognizable, and what was left was a person who I thought I had never seen before, like looking at or hearing a word for so long it no longer makes sense. What was left was a pretty girl who never wore lipstick. I decided that here was her real beauty, the essence. In that moment I thought that I might not remember what she looked like, that I wouldn’t recognize her anymore.
Debby was no longer there. He wondered what kind of mood Andrea would be in when she came home. The house was starting to get dark, so he turned on some lights. He had a vague idea of what he was going to say when Andrea came in. Something to do with the rainstorm in Florence of knowing where they were, of people’s real beauty. Maybe what he wanted to say to Luann: that we are sometimes in between, not where we want to be, but that somehow everything will work out. And everything will be just fine.
About the author
Barry Garelick has written non-fiction pieces that have been published in The Atlantic, and Education Next. His fiction has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Cafe Lit, and Fiction on the Web. He lives in Morro Bay, California with his wife.
Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)