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Bathtub Cheese


by Dewi Faulkner


“It's paper towel commercial sentimentality.”

“Huh?”

“That's what's making you feel bad, inadequate.  It's all that bullshit paper towel stuff you see on TV.”  Angela took a big, thoughtful gulp of coffee and tapped her finger against the pack of Marlboros leaning against the little bowl of half-n-halfs.

“I told you I don't want any.”

“And I told you quitting because you think it makes you a bad mother is absurd.  It's bullshit.  And you know what?  It won't stick, anyway.  It won't stick because somewhere, somewhere inside you, you know it's a bullshit reason to quit.  So next time, next time you really, really want a cigarette—and I mean badly, it will take you approximately four seconds to cut the heart out of that bullshit “set an example for my kids” crap with the precision of an anal-retentive heart surgeon.”

“Jesus ...what?”

“You know what I mean.  You're not paying me for my analogies.  If you're going to quit, you have to have a reason that you really believe in, something that will stick when the craving is unbearable.”  Angela lit up and took a good, long drag.

“And this is working swimmingly for you I see.”

“I have no desire to quit.  None.  And I'll tell you another thing ...”

“Hold that thought.”  Laura waved toward the waitress headed for their table, but she turned the corner before she could catch her eye.  Or maybe she turned precisely because Laura had caught her eye.

“Fucking lazy bullshit immigrants.”

“Christ, Angela!  She just didn't see me.”  Laura almost reached for a cigarette.  Almost.  She took a deep breath and rolled her neck around in a slow, careful circle.

“Still sore, Laura?”

“No ...I mean, no.  You know, it's nothing compared to what he's ...” She looked down at the table, then her hands, before letting her gaze drop all the way to the floor.  She pulled herself forward in the booth until she could feel the table pressing against her stomach.

Angela reached across the table and grabbed Laura's hand.  “Hey, hey ...stay with me here, all right?  We don't need to get into this until you're ready.  There's no hurry.  You've got me all night if you need me, and there's no reason this can't wait a few days ...or even a week or so, if you need to sit with it for a while.

Laura nodded and shook her head.  She pulled her hand back across the table.  She smiled, a little.  Angela pulled on her cigarette before stubbing it out in the ashtray.

“Isn't that a little wasteful?”

“The day I force myself to finish a cigarette when I don't want to is the day I'm addicted.  Cigarettes have no inherent worth -- they're a waste of money, the ultimate indulgence, if you think about it.  Once I spend that money, it's gone.  Whether I smoke and savor every last ounce of tar or throw the whole fucking pack away doesn't matter.  I smoke what I want, how much I want, at that moment.  Sometimes it's four cigarettes right in a row, sometimes it's one puff.  And who am I hurting, anyway?  The goddamned nicotine-deprived children in Africa?”

“Am I allowed to tell you how much you annoy me sometimes?”

“Please, Laura.  Do we have to have the whole bullshit rules discussion again?”

They stared at each other a moment, not saying a thing.  Laura noticed that even in the ugly, putrefying light being cast by the dingy halogens on to their back corner booth, the one they always seemed to get, right next to the stupid kitchen, Angela still looked impossibly beautiful.  Angela, her eyes moving across Laura's soft, pale features, noticed exactly the same thing.

Laura looked up at the ceiling, and tried to roll her neck again.  She winced a little, and specifically avoided the look she knew Angela was giving her.  She reached for the bowl of half-n-halfs and set about building a little pyramid.  “You were saying something about paper towels?”

“Laura—

“You said I didn't have to get into it until I was ready.  You said it yourself, just now.  So please,” she looked up from her three-row deep artificial creamer temple and met Angela's eyes, “please tell me about paper towel commercials.”

It seemed like one of those moments where two people should bust out laughing, both at the intensity with which such an absurd statement was uttered and also to break up the tension.  But neither of them laughed.

“The going media trend is to show supposed “real life” mothers.  Instead of the glowing, pearly, starched-to-perfection actresses that played moms in the ads of the 50s and 60s--even the 70s, really--there is this supposed push to show mothers as they really are, warts-and-all, no sugar coating, no gloss, no air-brushing.  But the problem is,” Angela reached for another cigarette and tried, really hard, not to get lost in Laura's face, “the problem is that the evil incarnate advertising assholes know that in order to sell all the stupid bullshit swiffery-douchey-chocolatey-jiffy crap they've been paid big bucks to foist off on the homemakers of America, these women still need to feel really shitty about themselves.  After all, if you don't feel totally inadequate, why the hell would you buy something called a swiffer?”

“I figured it was the paper towels that were ruining my life.”  Where was that waitress?  It wasn't that Laura wanted to leave, sometimes looking forward to these nights with Angela is what got her through the week, it's just that once the bill is on the table, she has the option.  And the payment thing is still unclear.  Laura is never sure, at the end of the night, exactly how much she should pay Angela.  She's never charged her more than her regular 55 minute fee, but still...

“You didn't let me finish.  In order to look progressive, in order to give the appearance of understanding what it's like to be a down-in-the-trenches real-life mom, the ad dickheads give the commercial moms carefully selected embarrassing flaws.  Laura kicked her foot against Angela's.

“Sorry.”

Angela brushed her foot against Laura's, on purpose, pretending she was just adjusting to give Laura more space.  “There, is that better?”  Laura didn't say anything back.  “Let me ask you a question.”  Angela finally got around to lighting her cigarette.

“Okay.”  Laura couldn't believe how badly she wanted a cigarette.  And a beer.  Two beers.  Three.  Three beers and a whole mess of cigarettes.  She remembered an old boyfriend who used to take her to really nice restaurants just to sit at the bar and drink fancy, imported beers and smoke fancy, imported cigarettes.  Heaven.  They used to drop so much money on beer alone, that the manager almost invariably brought them a free drink, or dessert or something ...where ever they went.  Once, during an especially lovely, twinkly, fully buzzed evening, Laura's boyfriend held his beer and cigarette out in front of him and looked lovingly from one to the other.  “There's no way this stuff can be bad for you,” he said smiling at Laura, “this stuff, this stuff is medicine.”  Medicine.  So much had changed in Laura's life.  Maybe too much.  Now the medicine that Laura took on a regular basis was just plain old doctor-prescribed medicine.

“All right.  What's the most embarrassing, shameful secret you've seen revealed on a commercial targeted at stay-at-home moms.  You know the ones that run during daytime TV.”

Laura smiled broadly.  Angela played with the ends of her short, braided hair.  Laura noticed the gesture.  It was out of place.  It looked nervous, hesitant, not at all in keeping with Angela's confident tirade against the evils of mainstream advertising, not in keeping with Angela at all.  Laura stopped smiling.  And what she said next, what was meant to be sarcasm, funny, came out weak and hurt.  “Are you suggesting I watch daytime TV?”

Angela looked up from her split ends.  Now that Laura had stopped smiling it was a lot easier to look at her.  “I'm sorry, I didn't mean ...

“I meant that to be funny.  Sorry.  I didn't mean to ...I totally watch daytime TV.  All My Children.  Every day.”  Laura brushed Angela's foot again, and this time it might have been a little on purpose.  “Okay, hmmm ...the most embarrassing thing for a TV commercial mom.  I think ...okay, I've got it.  There was one where the mom sent her kid to school with his shirt inside out and mismatched socks.”

“Oooh, that's a good one.  See, the one I was thinking of was this one where the mom was using paper towels that didn't absorb any of the various liquid messes she was confronted with throughout her busy day.  So, instead of doing whatever she could to avoid a stain on the carpet, couch, etc., she just covered the spot with a rug, or blanket, or something.  And then, of course, at the end of the commercial she wisely switches to the superior brand of paper towels which makes sopping up gooey, wet mess not only easy but delightful.  And then, the kicker--"

“--at the end of the commercial she ‘accidentally' knocks over her toddler son's grape juice on to the floor, just because it has become so fun, so joyous to beat those nasty stain-causing liquids at their own game.”

“So you have seen it.”

“No, it was just a very educated guess.”

This time they did both laugh, a happy, long laugh.  Both because, it was a fun, funny conversation, but also, maybe, because there was still a little tension.  And maybe this time the tension itself was a little bit fun.

“All right, all right,” Angela stubbed out her cigarette, which she had smoked all the way down, thank you very much, and reached across the table and grabbed the ruins of the once mighty half-n-half monument.  Laura drummed her fingers on the table and looked at Angela's cigarette butt, slowly wisping itself out in the ashtray.  She stared at Angela and flipped her off.  Angela laughed and passed her the pack.  “I told you it was a bullshit reason.” 

Angela reached across the table and lit Laura's cigarette, flicking the smooth brass top up with one clean jerk of the wrist, and closing it just as swiftly.  For a moment everything stopped, for both of them.  Sometimes lighting a cigarette for someone is just lighting a cigarette for someone.  But sometimes it's not.  Sometimes it's a quick, stolen glance slightly obscured by that first puff of smoke.  Sometimes it's Bacall and Bogey.

Laura heard a slap against the table and looked up to see the waitress, one hand on hip, the other pushing their bill toward them, wanting to know if there was absolutely anything else she could get them, more coffee, perhaps?  More free fucking coffee refills you cheap fucking assholes?  She said that last part with her eyes instead of her mouth.

“No, we're fine,” Angela said quietly lighting another cigarette.  Laura took a big drag of hers.  It was weird to hear Angela say anything quietly.  The waitress forced a service-sector smile and told them she would leave their cups just in case they changed their minds.

“Thank you,” Laura said after the waitress had already walked away.

Laura pulled on her cigarette again.  She touched her neck, and shifted in the booth.  All of a sudden her body felt wrong, her skin was too clammy and sticky against the crappy leatherette booth, her stomach felt gritty with smoke and caffeine, and her neck hurt almost as bad as right after it happened.  This was all wrong.  This was so wrong it was embarrassing.

“It's time for me to get to what happened with Alan.”

“Look, Laura.”

“Really.  I want to.”

“Let me finish what I was telling you first.  We were laughing and having a good time, but it was good work, too.  You were letting go of some of your anxiety about the kids.  I know this sounds crazy, but you lighting up that cigarette was a big step.”

“You lit it for me.”

“Laura--

Laura spoke quietly, slowly.  She had to get this out, so she could get Angela focused.  If Angela's mind was somewhere else, she wouldn't be able to help Laura figure this mess out.  Maybe she wouldn't even want to.  That's the way Angela worked.  “I was having a shitty day.  Fighting with Alan, my mom was on my ass, and I had just got the call that my freelance gig was ending three months early.  I needed a cigarette.  I needed more than one.  The kids were in the bath, but I had to get to get them lunch.  They hadn't eaten in over four hours.  They were hungry.  They were grumpy.  They were calling me to get them out of the bath.  But if I got them out, it would be hours before I could go outside and smoke.  There was no way I was going to let Josh and Wendy see me smoke.  So, I fixed up a big platter of snacky-type food, finger food: goldfish crackers, apple wedges, raisins, nuts, slices of cheese, baby carrots, that kind of stuff.  Then I grabbed one of their little chairs and went into the bathroom.  I set the chair in front of the tub, set the platter on it, and told the kids because they had been so good that day I was going to let them have a special picnic bath.  They seemed to buy it, and I promised them a popsicle if they ate at least the cheese and carrots.  Cheese in the bathtub!  Can you imagine anything more disgusting, more unsanitary?” 

Laura put out her cigarette and started fiddling with the cellophane around the top of the pack.  “Anyway, I left the door open, went out back, left that door open, and smoked three cigarettes, trying the whole time to stand close enough to the open doorway to hear them, but not so close that smoke would drift into the kitchen.”  Laura stopped and looked at Angela, hard.  “That's my most shameful mom secret.  And if all I see on TV is women horrified that their paper towels don't absorb or their laundry gets mismatched, how is that going to make me feel about what kind of mother I am?  If I don't spend time with other parents, and I don't, and you know that, how am I supposed to keep myself from buying into the bullshit?”

Angela went to her braid again and smiled.  “Wow.  I guess I really have let this go on too long.  I've outlived my usefulness.”

Now Laura reached across the table.  Angela pulled her hand away, but Laura grabbed it again.  “No.  No, Angela.  You're a good therapist.  You have helped me,” and for a few seconds all of it flickered in front of Laura's eyes: the shrinks, the meds, chopping off her hair, the bottles of pills that had to be locked away, missing Josh's first day of school, “you saved my life.”  She looked up at the ceiling, trying to balance the tears on the bottom rim of her eyes so they wouldn't spill over.

“Laura, don't do this.  This isn't good for you.  Especially not now.”

“He might never see again, Angela.  Do you really think that is something I should avoid dealing with?  For ‘a few days, or even a week or so?'  My neck hurts, Angela.  I can feel it, all the time.  Even when I avoid Alan, even when I don't look at him.  Even when I run away, make excuses to get out of the house--spend hours here with you, I can feel what happened.  All the time.  Even when I'm not thinking about it, I'm feeling it.”

Angela slowly pulled her hand out from under Laura's.  The only other couple left in the place stood up and put on their jackets.  A waitress looked over her shoulder at Laura and Angela's table and whispered something to another waitress.  Did they just laugh?

Laura felt her cheeks flush.  Angela scratched her forehead, pushed a few loose strands behind her ear, and folded her arms.  She leaned back in the booth.

“He was choking you, Laura.  Choking the living shit out of you.  You were asleep, relaxed.  How much work had we done at that point, how much had we had to slog through just to get you to the point where you could sleep without meds?  And all of a sudden you were snapped awake, not by a bad dream, or imagined sound, or any of that familiar stuff, but by your husband's fingers cinched around your neck.  By the feeling of your head being whipped from side to side against the pillows, then the headboard, and then the pillows, and back and forth. And you started to claw around in the dark, trying to find his face, trying to push him away.  And while you were still able to breath, before you started to black out, you pleaded with him to stop.  You said your name, the kids' names, over and over again, hoping it would shake him out of it, hoping it would make him let go.  Hoping it would wake him up”

Angela stopped for a moment.  Laura was staring at the floor.  “Do you really want me to go on?”  Laura nodded, but she didn't look up.

“And then you realized you were going out.  You knew you were dying, not because you were in unbearable pain, or your life flashed before your eyes, but because all of a sudden the pain disappeared.  You felt okay, relaxed.  All your panic about the kids, if they could hear what was going on, if they were going to come into the room and see this, what would happen to them if they had to live a life with a dead mother and a murderer for a father, all your terror dissipated.  The kids would be fine, you knew it.  You could just let go ...” Angela folded her hands and leaned across the table.  “But because of who you are, because of the type of mother you are, you shook yourself out of that peaceful death.  You used that last wisp of life not to try to breathe, or speak, or even close your eyes.  You used it to protect your children, protect them from a life without a mother.  You were already dead Laura, and still, somehow, you made sure you didn't die.  Not for yourself, for them.  For Josh and Wendy.”  Angela looked down at the table.  “And for Alan, too.”

Laura wiped her eyes and covered her mouth.  She thought of Alan, the bandages, how he had to teach her step-by-step how to tie his tie so she could help him get ready for his first day back to work.  She thought of how his eyes had felt against her fingertips, wet, but resistant--harder than eyes should be.

She saw the waitresses looking at them again.  She hid the side of her face with her hand.  She thought of how Wendy had buried her face into her shoulder, crying, because Daddy's face was too scary.  His new eyes were scary.

“And that's why paper towels and socks and even cigarette picnic baths don't matter, Laura.  You are a good mother.  You are a good wife.  If you can fight to pull one positive thing out of this horror show, it should be that.  All that doubt, all that terror that your family would be better off without you ...now you see, you saw for yourself it isn't true.  You spent years dangling,” she lowered her voice to a whisper and leaned forward, “at the fucking edge, how many times did you almost go through with it?”  She sat back and spoke up, still trying to be quiet, still remembering how ashamed Laura was of that part of her life.  “How many times did you almost kill yourself because you thought your children would not survive with you for a mother?”

Laura nodded and reached for the pack.  She pulled out a cigarette.  This is what she needed.  This is what she has needed since they first sat down.  Even before Angela first fiddled with the menu, going back and forth about whether or not she wanted to eat, Laura needed her to say something about what happened.  To play it back to her, to put it in a way that made sense, in a way that wasn't scary.  She needed to hear someone else say it.  And that someone else had to be Angela.

Angela went to light Laura's cigarette, but saw that her hand was trembling, badly.  Laura smiled at her, a little smile, the kind of smile that tries to fight its way out from behind tear-stained cheeks.  Angela took the unlit cigarette out of Laura's hand. 

She looked down at the table and twisted her braid around in her fingers.  How could she have let it get this far out of hand?  Every step of the way it had seemed reasonable.  Really, was it necessary to meet at her office?  Why not get out, have a couple cigarettes, talk in an environment where they both felt relaxed, normal.  Did their work really have to be done in such a clinical setting?  Just a little rule, no big deal.  And then the friendship, Angela sharing her life with Laura, letting her in.  An inside joke here and there.  What could it hurt?  If your dentist is also your friend, he can still give you a root canal ...shouldn't the same be true of your therapist?  Silly protocol, nothing more.  And then, letting Laura lean on her, rely on her more as a friend than as a therapist.  And at some point, only as a friend.  After Alan and Laura were taken to the hospital, Angela was the first person she called, and Angela rushed out of the house, in her pajamas, not as a therapist, of course not as a therapist, because that's not within the bounds of what a therapist does.  Slowly Laura's efforts to meet new people and make a few friends dwindled to next to nothing.  She had Angela.  And Angela let it happen.  Fuck, she thought to herself, I made it happen.

Laura gestured to the lighter, showing Angela her hands were no longer shaking.  Angela pushed it toward her, and Laura lit her own cigarette.  “It's over isn't it?”

“It's my fault.”

“This is an asshole thing to say, but, it's totally your fault.”

One of the waitresses coughed loudly.  Angela rolled her eyes.  “Hey,” she called to her, “I think I would like that coffee.”  Laura smiled and brushed Angela's foot under the table, this time, totally on purpose.

“You went to school, you got a degree, you have an idea how this works.  I assume there is a way this is supposed to work, and that this is not it.”

“Fair enough.”

“Nobody tells us, no one tells the person--the ‘thera-pee,' I guess--exactly what the etiquette is.  There's no manual, no pamphlet, no simple set of guidelines.  And you know what's fucked up?  It never occurred to me something wasn't right until tonight.”

Neither of them said anything.

“I didn't realize how you felt about me until tonight.”

“Laura, you don't--

“It's okay,” Laura snuck a glance at the waitresses.  She was embarrassed, ashamed.  And, as much as she wanted to deny it, she knew she wouldn't be feeling embarrassed if Angela's feelings were completely one-sided.  “We don't need to talk about this right now.  Frankly, I'm not sure I ever want to.  And since you're not my therapist anymore, you can't lecture me about how mentally unhealthy that is.”

Angela put her hands over her face and took a long deep breath.  She shook out her hands, rubbed her eyes, and folded her arms.  “Laura, this thing with Alan, it's going to be okay.  Not just for you, but for him, too.  I was hard on him, I know, when I first heard about it.  But those things are real, Laura, it wasn't him that night.  And I don't think I stressed that to you enough.  I should have, but ...you know, some sick part of me was hoping--Christ!  Could anything be more revolting than this?”

“Cheese in the bathtub.”

It was another one of those moments that called for a burst of uncontrolled laughter.  A good belly-laugh followed by head shaking and eye wiping, and a nice cleansing breath. 

But once again, neither of the women laughed.  But they did smile.  And Angela reached for Laura's hand at the same time Laura reached for Angela's, and they intertwined their fingers and held on.  And the waitresses stared, and the same one coughed, even louder this time, but Laura didn't hide her face and Angela didn't call her a fucking immigrant, and they both just sat, and breathed, and smiled, and didn't let go until they were both ready.      

 

 

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