“Do you think we should invite Ron and Karen?”
David heard a sudden clatter of the phone drop, and then, “Are you still there?”
“Yes,” he said, glancing at the dashboard to check the time. He would be at least an hour early.
“Sorry,” she said. “Maya is getting into everything again and Josie is insisting on watching ‘The Little Mermaid’ for the fiftieth time today.”
“You were saying?” he asked, and was hoping she would forget, but also knew she would call him back a minute later to have the same conversation over again.
“Ron and Karen… I don’t think they’d get along with Charlie and Denise,” he said.
“Hmmm…” She paused for so long that he became immediately irritated.
“Amanda?” He had to restrain himself from barking at her. He imagined her standing in the kitchen, fixated on the television, which was always on, but muted, forgetting she was on the phone.
“Sorry… I’m thinking. I think it’ll be fine. There should be enough people that the four of them won’t even run into each other.”
Then why the hell did you even ask me? he wanted to say.
“Okay then,” he said. It was tiring to play this game: Amanda would already make up her mind about everything, but then ask him for his opinion out of some sort of courtesy, a phony gesture to leave him with the illusion that what he had to say mattered.
“I have to go,” he said. “I’m almost there and I have to look at the directions again.”
They hung up. Realizing he was nearly hunched over the steering wheel, David leaned back a little, and moved his shoulders back and forth to ease the tension rising in his upper back. He was a mile away from the exit, which was only a few minutes from the hotel.
He wondered about Emma and if she had started listening to the tape he had sent her. At first he planned to write down everything he had wanted to say, but thought the better of it. He remembered himself as someone who was once spontaneous, and wanted to preserve that image of himself when he thought of her.
He tried to remember in detail everything he had said on the tape. I should say right now that I want to be with you again. Sleep with you – whatever that may sound like – that was not something he had planned on saying. Maybe you didn’t have the heart to tell me in your email that you didn’t want to see me. Maybe I’ll be sitting in the lobby of a hotel waiting for you and you won’t show up – that part he had thought out. A disclaimer, to let her know that he was in fact, a very self-aware person. That his desire to see her after meeting only once fifteen years ago was jarring, even to him. In retrospect, the tape was a sputtering mess of confessions and a detailed portrait of the mundane life he had somehow succumbed to.
In his email exchanges with Emma, David rarely spoke of Amanda and their two daughters. This was conscious, and serving as a way to re-create the insular universe they had once experienced that evening years ago. When Emma mentioned Matthew in her emails, David found it difficult to respond with any sort of comment. Unlike himself, she had seemed to find someone she valued, wanted to be with.
As he drove off the interstate, the town of Syracuse appeared with its quaint stores and majestic buildings. He saw the Sheraton Hotel and pulled into the parking lot. It was an hour before he could check in, and two hours before the time they would meet. He and Emma had not discussed any sort of arrangements for reservations, but it was understood that they would meet in the lobby at five o’clock. She was driving from New York, and he from Portland. They had first said they would drive halfway between both points, but David had insisted on taking the longer drive. When she said that it wasn’t fair that he drive seven hours and she only four, he said he was stopping off to see an old friend along the way. It was a lie, he knew, but was embarrassed to admit that he welcomed having the time away from Amanda.
David sat in the parking lot, watching the townspeople walking by. Most of them wore down parkas and gloves, and it reminded him that the chill of the season had finally come. Two days before this trip, he and Amanda had taken the girls to the shopping mall to buy them new winter coats; they had already outgrown the ones from the previous year.
It is so strange to know that you have married and settled down, she wrote in one of her emails, you were the last person I would have imagined to do that. He had winced upon reading that. When they had first met, David was only twenty, and lived a reckless life; his parents had thrown him out of the house and he spent his time drinking and sleeping on friends’ couches or in the beds of random women he picked up at bars. He worked part-time as a barista at the local coffee shop, and had dropped out of college after his first year. He looked back on those years of his life the same way he had lived them: with exhilaration. Now, he only drank occasionally, had quit smoking shortly after meeting Amanda, and had given up red meat. Yet he was more unhappy than he had ever been. He missed his old life, and envied Emma the freedom that he no longer had. Despite their lengthy email exchanges and the tape he had spoken on – for fifteen minutes, which was a long stretch, given it wasn’t a conversation between two people – he had been unable to convey to her that his life with Amanda and the girls had just happened. He hadn’t planned it. Going back to school to get a degree in philosophy – that was clearly his decision.
He and Amanda first met on the steps of the main building on campus. She was reading a book that his professor had recently assigned in class, and without much thought David started asking her questions. Perhaps it was the weather that afternoon, the clear cloudless sky in early November, and the brisk wind that whipped across the campus, that made David feel more academic, and, well – unfettered, he supposed – and that had lent Amanda an air of wholesomeness he had not encountered at the bars he caroused in. She wore her hair in a neat, shiny ponytail, the sun reflecting her auburn highlights.
After a month of dating, they had moved in together. And a few months after that she had suggested one evening that they get married.
“What do you think?” she said, smiling, as she stood by the stove, stirring the pasta sauce. She said it as if they were giving into whimsy and buying an expensive couch they couldn’t afford.
He had thought to himself, yeah, why not? She had said it so simply that it didn’t trigger the usual panic he felt when he thought of marriage. They got along well, she was not a particularly demanding person, and wasn’t uptight in bed.
They hadn’t been married a year and David had recently been hired to teach as an adjunct when she asked him about having a baby. He recalls the conversation now as if it had been a haggle.
“In a year,” she said.
“Amanda, please. I’m not ready yet. In a few years, okay?” he said.
“How about in a year and a half?” she said.
“I was thinking in like, three, because maybe by then I’ll have a full course load, and my salary will go up.” In reality, though, his concerns were not financial. He had not considered children, and the immediacy with which she was suggesting such a drastic life change felt unnervingly familiar. However, when she had proposed to him, he had found it quirky, and liked perceiving them as a spontaneous couple, in love, running off and getting married. He wondered what would have happened had he said no. He wondered if he would have endured the same conversation, and if it would be the time frame they would have quibbled over or the why of it.
“Can we just wait a bit and talk about it again?” he asked.
It was no matter, because it was only months later that she had come to him, with a plastic stick in her hand and two little pink stripes across the little window that indicated she was pregnant.
“I’m sorry, honey,” she said smiling, as she went over to him and wrapped her arms around his waist. “I know you wanted to wait. I never got off the pill. I guess it can happen, though.”
And what was the point of protesting a second child since they already had a first? When he thought about it – which he tried not to for very long – it felt like he had been part of a larger agenda, of which, he was aware only now. He didn’t remember the exact moment it had occurred, but David realized with keen awareness how estranged from himself he had truly become.
Emma would not have crossed his mind if it hadn’t been for the weekend that Amanda took the girls to her parents’ house further up north. It was the first time in the three years since the birth of his first daughter that David had found himself alone, and surprisingly, bored. He went to the basement and unearthed the guitar he used to play in after he’d dropped out of college. After a few strums, the tips of his fingers began to ache against the stiffness of the old strings, and he stopped. And then he found a small shoebox filled with old concert tickets, guitar picks, and letters that Emma had written to him after they had met.
He had poured himself a glass of wine and sat on his living room couch, slowly reading each letter, bewitched once again by Emma’s innocence and desperation. He remembered the evening they had met at a party in Maine, where Emma’s friend Catherine had invited a few people from their drama class. He had seen Emma immediately when he walked in with her long brown hair parted in the middle, large brown eyes so startling that he had to force himself not to stare, and the sweet awkwardness in the way she sipped her beer. He had decided that being direct would the best approach.
“Would you like to have some wine with me?”
“Okay,” she had said.
They disappeared into one of the bedrooms and stayed there until the next morning. For the first time, he spent an evening with an attractive girl without having any intention of sleeping with her, and hadn’t.
“I’m lucky to be here,” she had told him. “My parents are very strict.” She explained how they were immigrants from Poland, and fearful of Emma becoming too Americanized and independent. She was almost finished with high school, yet had very limited social interactions aside from the drugstore she worked in around the corner from her house.
“I practically don’t have parents,” he had said, and told her about the strained relationship he had with them, the misery of watching the unraveling of their marriage and their hatefulness towards one another.
“I wish my parents hated each other enough not to notice me,” she had said. “Or loved me enough for me to feel love for them.”
They eventually lay down on the carpet and stared at the ceiling, the glow of the small beaded lamp casting light on their faces.
“I’m eventually going to move out,” she said. “I have to figure out a way, but don’t know how. I got accepted to Brown University, but they want me to stay home and go to a local college.”
He had slowly reached for her hand, and closed his eyes.
“You can get out of anything,” he had said.
“Do you think so?” she had asked. Her voice was small, yet hopeful.
“Definitely,” he had replied.
He gave her his address the next morning, and hoped she would write him as he watched her drive off. Their letter exchanges were more like diary entries compiled over weeks of writing. David would run the risk of being late for work and stall at home, waiting for the mail to arrive. He tore open her letters with the same zeal that a child opens a Christmas gift. Yet he waited for the right moment to sit down and slowly read, when there would be no interruptions or distractions.
Now, fifteen years later, David read Emma’s letters with something akin to sadness. When he compared them to her recent emails, she seemed to be a newer version of what he remembered of her, and he – a hollow, useless man, barely thirty-five years old. He read the last letter she had written to him, and it left the impression of a ghost he no longer knew: I wish I could be free like you. I feel so trapped, and I feel as if this will be my life forever. David lowered the letter, and allowed himself to cry. Her words seemed to be his own now.
He had turned off the engine long enough to feel the outside cold coming through. The sky had started to darken. Once again, he imagined Emma driving down the highway listening to his tape. He wondered if he should walk around a bit to settle his nerves, or sit at the bar in the hotel and have a few drinks while he waited for her. When he realized he wouldn’t be hearing from Amanda for the rest of the day, and was not expected to call her until tomorrow, the cloud of nostalgia dissolved into a sense of hope that he would see Emma again. He had told Amanda that his university was hosting a convention in Syracuse, and she had not questioned it. It did not bother him as to why she had complied so easily, nor did he care.
A cold wind gushed through the parking lot as David pulled his duffel bag from the back of the car. He decided to check in and have a drink in the lobby.
“What would you like?” The bartender was a young woman, most likely in her mid-twenties.
“A gin and tonic. Thanks,” he said.
David wished he had something to do to pass the time. After checking in, he had gone to his room, lain on the bed, and then stood up only moments later, realizing he should probably brush his teeth and wash his face. And, after that, he lay back down on the bed, flipping through all the stations on the television, nothing absorbing his interest. Every few moments he looked at the clock.
He tried to imagine what Emma looked like now. Perhaps she had cut her hair and wore a bob. He doubted she had wrinkles, but allowed his memory to conjure her young face and etch in faint lines where he thought it necessary. He also doubted that she had gained weight, and knew that if she had it wouldn’t matter. In the midst of his imaginings the phone rang. It was almost four-thirty – a half hour before they were to meet – and he cursed himself for not having his cell phone within reach. He ran over to the closet where he had hung his coat, rammed his hands in the pockets until he felt the weight of the phone, and without looking at the number, answered it.
“Hi. Sorry. I know you’re busy, but I wanted to ask you…” David swung his arm wildly across the room as if he was going to throw the phone against the wall, but kept it in his hand.
Amanda’s voice sounded remote and tinny, and he held it away from his ear, barely listening. He knew from the cadence of her voice when she was about to ask a question.
“So what do you think?” she asked.
“That sounds great,” he said robotically, not having a clue as to what he had agreed to.
“Okay, good. I’ll let you go. Have a good night.”
“Thanks.” He hung up the phone and still considered smashing it against the wall.
Now he sat at the bar, stirring his drink with a red straw, ten stirs to the right, ten stirs to the left, not drinking. Emma would appear in five minutes. He was counting on her not being late. He told himself it was too important for either of them to be. He did not expect to sleep with her, but thought they probably would. Albeit difficult, during the five years he and Amanda had been married David had never slept with another woman. The temptation had been there, but eventually he stopped looking after himself the way he used to. Despite the healthier changes he had made in his lifestyle, he had gained a few pounds, most of which, regrettably, rested in his mid-section. It had helped, though, in warding off potential indiscretions, and so he had done little to remedy the problem.
“Is your drink alright?” the bartender asked.
“It’s fine,” he said.
“Are you waiting for someone?” she asked.
He smiled self-consciously. “I am,” he said. “She’s supposed to be here any minute.”
He looked away and fixed his gaze at the revolving door. That was the main entrance to the hotel and that would be the doorway Emma would be coming through. He checked his phone to make sure he hadn’t missed any calls. Slowly at first, people started walking through the entrance, and David stared intensely, scrutinizing each figure in hopes that it was Emma. A line started to form at the reservation desk, and the empty bar stools David sat next to became occupied. He was tempted to save a stool for Emma, but thought the better of it; perhaps they would sit in the lounge area where it was quieter.
He sucked down his watered-down drink and ordered another. He could not recall feeling so out of place, so helpless. As a half hour turned into an hour, and then an hour and a half, David sat at the bar, watching the hotel fill up with people he did not know. Every so often, a brunette woman would walk through the door, and David would be halfway out of his seat to walk over. Each time he felt teased, silly.
It was almost seven o’clock. David saw the bright streetlights through the window and the tree branches shaking against the strong wind, and realized with a slow awakening that Emma was not coming. He felt as if he needed her letters with him, to make her real, to remind himself that it was not ridiculous of him to be sitting at a hotel bar, seven hours away from home, waiting for a woman he no longer knew. Instead of getting up and going back to his room, he sat and stopped waiting, allowing himself to feel the encompassing emptiness that he carried.
Halfway Down the Stairs – December 2011
To read Emma’s story go to “Almost There”: