Norman Justice Is Dead
October 10, 2011
All year we are on the floor, in the room, me and the man with the wife in New York. It’s a high room with a hard floor, strung up in a tall block of buildings near the lake where I once used to hang glide.
We lie here on this hard floor, eat snacks from Dick’s Fine Food Quick Stop on Fourth. Corn beef on rye, ten tins of nuts, wax cups of warm gin. Wax cups of wine, warm cubes of blue cheese. Smoked trout on Ritz.
Do you know how it feels to be sad, he says.
I move the gin near the nuts, the nuts near the rye. A nut spills, leaves a salt stain.
Well, I’m here, I say, but he looks past to the lake.
My wife is so sad, he says, no love in that one. All day she drinks grape drink in upstate New York. Slumped down in those soft chairs, waiting for it all to be fixed. Like she looks for tricks to fix us in goddamn cans of grape drink.
He slides off my bra, it is teal. It lands on the hard floor, makes a slip sound.
She must look for tricks in all the wrong cans, I say. I kick a cube of cheese.
A shell of a life, he says, and drops his pressed pants.
There are no soft chairs in this high room by the lake. I think of the soft chairs in upstate New York where the wife slumps in seas of grape drink, sunk in soft drinks. Here, we drink hard drinks on a hard floor up high and talk of how sad she must be in New York.
He is a poet and he is famous. He has been paid to come here, to this room, to write the poems. They are self indulgent and disarmingly good, in a way that makes us both proud and sick.
Hand me a trout cracker, he says.
I’m shaving, I say from the bed, where I’m reading an article on small birds.
You’re something, he says.
Hm, I say.
Do you love me, he asks.
Hm, I say.
He continues writing, forgets the trout.
I finish the article. I feel no different about small birds than I did when I started reading, and this surprises me.
When he speaks to the wife in upstate New York, he stands in the glass shower, water off, pants on. It’s a large shower, he shuts the door. Vacuum-sealed, he says. I stay in the room, look out the window, watch the hang gliders over the lake. Rifle through his trinkets, rub too much lotion on my legs and when it won’t rub in, I wipe it on my shoulders. Flip the TV on, off, on, off. Toss nuts in a tin. One nut in the tin, I say. Two! Three! There are nuts on the floor.
Often, when he is off the phone, we have silent sex, forceful, mute boxers on punching bags. Often, when he is off the phone, he sprawls on the bed, acts wounded. I think of being a child, my mother grabbing my arm to stop me from acting out. You’re abusing me, I would say, clutching my arm in angst. She’d roll her eyes. Call the authorities, she’d say, call the fucking authorities. This child is being abused.
He spreads the new poems on the floor. The floor hasn’t been swept.
There are crumbs, I say. Watch the crumbs.
They’re drafts, he says, already a mess. Now tell me, which do you hate the least?
I shake my head, watch the poems. He touches my back with all ten of his fingers.
Which do you love the most, he asks.
I sigh. This one, I say, holding up an oil-stained sheet. This piece about the composer.
They’re all about the composer, he says.
This one, I say, the stained one. I love this stained one the most.
Thank you, he says, and kisses me, and I kiss him back. Later that night, around midnight, when we have left bed, we go to the bar and eat ham sandwiches with whiskey to forgive ourselves for being us.
I’ll never love a cheater, I say.
I’d never cheat on you, he says.
Well, you’ll always be you, I say.
You’ll leave me when I leave her, he asks.
I suppose, I say.
This doesn’t make sense, he says.
No, I say, not at all.
He is talking to his older sister on the phone. He puts his finger to his lips, I listen.
I need to end it, he says, but I’m worried. I’m worried how she will handle it.
He is lying on the bed, face up, staring at the ceiling. I am on the bed, lying face down, staring at the floor.
I’m worried for both of us, he says.
You’ll feel bad for a while, the older sister says. Maybe a long while. You’ll feel bad until it feels worse to feel bad than it does to feel better. Then, you’ll feel better. But that may not feel good either.
I dislike feeling bad, he says.
I nod to the floor and they laugh out of tune on the phone.
He works at the desk. I work on the bed or on the floor. Do you want the desk, he asks.
No, I say, I like it here.
We work and then stray to each other, and work, and stray, and when he doesn’t stray I wonder why he doesn’t and when I don’t he wonders why I don’t.
He’s thinking of the wife upstate, I think.
She’s thinking of my wife upstate, he thinks.
We picture the wife upstate drinking grape drink, alone on either side of the room.
In the pictures the wife upstate is generic, blonder and more childlike than I had hoped. I pictured her curvy and dark-haired, pictured her like another wife I knew. In the photos they are at a wedding in a garden, there are roses and there is white patio furniture. They are standing with another couple. I point at the woman in the other couple.
That woman has beautiful hair, I say.
That woman is very talented, he says, a painter.
And then I say, your wife is pretty, and he says thank you, I suppose she is.
I remember another man with a wife who didn’t want to leave her because of their dining room table. It’s such a nice table, he said, and I know she’ll take it. I can’t imagine the dining room without it that table. It’s a piece of art.
It’s ugly, I told him. It was clear and white and plastic.
He shook his head. It was expensive, he said, from a gallery.
The man left the wife and the clear table to marry the mistress and her wooden table. I like it, I told him. It looks more natural.
He shrugs. It’s ok, he says, but the last one was worth a lot more. I miss that old one.
Of course, I say.
The poet touches me like he knows touch very well but has never been touched before.
Everything is a lie, I say, but I’ll believe it anyway.
Later when I talk about him I’ll say, he was a lover. They are different, those men who love and those men who are lovers. You know what I mean, I’ll ask my friends. The women will nod. The men will look perplexed and stir their coffee. Do you miss him, they’ll ask. They won’t wait for the answer but I’ll say, I don’t not miss him.
I think, already, I don’t not miss everything about him. It’s like this, in the air, with someone who is someone else’s.
The morning we leave the room he is wearing his robe. It is early, the sun is half up. Mostly down. I am naked in bed with the sheet wrapped around my left leg. I dislike the robe.
Do you want this, he asks, touching the cloth near his chest. I can’t take it in my bag. It won’t fit.
It won’t fit in mine either, I say. He leaves the robe.
Maybe someone else will want it, he says.
I doubt it, I say.
Occasionally I go in the closet with soda water and sugars. Soda water, six packets of raw brown sugar.
Why do you do that, he asks.
Because I need to get away.
So leave, he says. Get away.
No, I reply, I want to stay.
So don’t go in the closet, he says.
Why don’t you just work with me, I reply, then I take my soda and my sugars and sit up against the closet wall, try to stretch my legs as far as they go, make my body take up more space. I roll empty sugar packets into balls and place them on my limbs like Chinese cooling stones. When I come out, it’s dark, and the air smells like lack thereof.
Welcome back, he says.
Thank you, I say. Nice to be here.
Jessica Chrastil is a writer based often in California and sometimes in New York. She is currently completing an MFA at California College of the Arts. Her work has appeared, or will appear, online at elimae and La Petite Zine. A small book, norm, will be available from plain wrap press this fall.