Wednesday, January 16, 2013

SPE: "Sliced Carrots"

[For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Dara gave me this prompt: "The heart has its reason which reason knows nothing of." -- Blaise Pascal. I gave SAM this prompt: "If you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, you're still in the [expletive] tunnel." -John Oates]

She was cutting carrots to put into a salad. I hated carrots, but I never told her that, a first stupid little betrayal, as it turned out. I could see the salad ingredients in the glass bowl on the counter, the bottle of oil she was about to dress them with, the expensive salad tongs sticking out of the pile of greens and reds and whites and yellows. I could smell the bread baking, and marinara sauce simmering away. The smell of the oregano made my mouth water, and I felt a pang of hunger. I kicked myself mentally, for the thousandth time, for taking something that was perfect and precise and lovely and shattering it on the sidewalk like a spoiled child.

I was behind her, coming from the living room into the kitchen. I liked to watch her when she didn't know she was being watched. Her hair was tied up in a ponytail, her shirt still dark with sweat. Yoga, I thought, or the gym. She alternated, trying to keep her body as schoolgirl hard as when we met. I appreciated the effort, just like the way she always presented herself fully dressed at dinner. I was about to destroy her conception of the world, toss it aside like a subscription card for a magazine you'll never read, and I was noticing that she was chopping carrots on a dark black wood cutting board that I had bought her because some TV chef used it. It's funny, the things you notice.

I had lucked out, because Mozart was pouring from the Bose radio in the kitchen. I had prayed all the way home that she wasn't tuned in to NPR or one of those happy talk local news shows with the overdressed anchors. When I had confessed to the gaggle of reporters, sitting around my office, staring at me with mixed horror and fascination like I had just lost the World Series, I had begged them for a one hour embargo, which they mercifully agreed to, so I could be the one to tell her. I trusted them, but I knew how these things worked, too. Some bright intern puts two and two together, and puts it on Twitter, and before you know it, they are camped outside my door. That was coming, but I wanted to tell her first.

It was stupid, really. There wasn't anything I could do to cushion the news at all. It was what it was, and no amount of pretty speechifying would make it something else. Telling her first would allow her to have her meltdown here, in private, before facing the world. She could put herself back together, decide what her story was, figure out what to tell her friends, away from the eyes of the world. I had seen it happen before, to colleagues near and far, and what happened was the opposite of that. You were an instant punch line, subject to jabs everywhere from the talk show circuit to morning radio to the line at Starbucks. I had decided, since I had taken everything else, I could at least give her that small gift, a few moments to collect herself before I make her a spectacle.

I had been reading a book about the fall Imperial Japan, and how much they talked about saving face. Perhaps you had to be there, or maybe it is a peculiarity of that culture. But I never really understood the focus, the obsession, the single minded pursuit of appearance over reality. It was as if they believed that it appeared that they hadn't lost, then maybe they hadn't really lost? That seemed myopic to me. If you've lost, no amount of appearance mending will change the fact that you have been defeated.

I must have stepped on a creaky board, because she jumped and turned to face me. "Oh God! You're home. What are you doing home? I have to go shower! But you had that meeting today, didn't you? With the money guys from upstate?," she said, her words tumbling out like overeager puppies.

I did have that meeting, up until 3 hours ago. Robert, my chief of staff, had smartly stepped in and cancelled it the moment I told him of the firestorm that was coming. He looked at me, his eyes black and cool, and said calmly, "Did you love her?" I didn't know how to answer him. I stammered something, talked my way out of my other commitments, and was headed home in mid afternoon, 2 hours early.

I looked at her, her hand still on the knife, the pile of carrots ready to be scraped into the bowl. She was beautiful, I had to admit that. 30 years and four children left their marks, but she could still fill out an evening dress, talking the talk and walking the walk, that plastic smile now part of the outfit as surely as the understated pearls and the high heeled shoes. I had tossed it all away, everything that I knew, to chase a half remembered dream of a man I used to be. I looked at her face, a single strand of hair come loose and hanging in front of her eye, and I wanted to be anyplace else than where I was.

"Not that I'm not happy you're home," she continued gaily. "What happened?"

"It was cancelled," I said, my mouth dry.

"Oh," she said. She picked up the cutting board and scraped the carrots into the bowl. "Toss this, will you, while I grab a shower?"

"Sure," I said.

She left the room without another word. I set my attache case down and walked over to the salad. I picked up the tongs and began to mix the ingredients. There was too much, as usual- I would wind up taking a container full of it back to work, and throwing it out and buying a steak or a cheeseburger instead. I tried to form the words to tell her, to explain, to make sense of the haze of allegations and threats and innuendo and a young woman in a short dress that was about to sink its claws into my respectable little life. I tried to form the words, but instead I just jumbled the ingredients, carrots and cucumbers and lettuce and tomato and croutons, until they lay there, mixed and vulnerable and dry, under expensive lights in a home that suddenly felt very strange.