You are never as lonely as when you are lonely in the company of your lover. I know I’m not the first to say that. Thomas used to say, “Another duckbilled platitude from my funny valentine.” On the other hand, Thomas said I could synthesize information quicker than anyone he’d ever encountered. They made me assistant manager at the music store where I work when Thomas told them that. Thomas has clout in the music world.
The first time we met was when he walked into the store one week before a big interview he had to do. He asked me for everything we had from Diana Krall. He was chewing a stir stick. His hands dashed around, pushing his glasses up with one hand while he yanked on that stir stick with the other.
I walked up and down the jazz section, pulling from here and there and the next thing Thomas knew he was standing in the aisle with an armload of Diana Krall solos, duets, and the miscellaneous liner notes of other artists who had worked with her.
“God, you’re, uh, you know your stuff.” As he spoke, the stir stick fell out of his mouth and hit the floor. Staring down at it between his feet, he looked devastated.
I wanted to pet the scant hair on his oddly round head. The thing with me is nervousness—other people’s nervousness, that is—I find it very calming. A stutterer slows my pulse down to about thirty, I swear to god. Perhaps it’s a maternal instinct of some sort.
I wrote him a list of other related notables we didn’t have. He could download them from iTunes, I suggested. Thomas shook his head. Like a smoker, he said, he enjoyed the ritual: it was like unwrapping a little gift—the sight of that fresh, shining CD. I printed my name on one of the store’s business cards. “Call me if I can help.” And I gave him a new stir stick from our coffee station.
He came back looking for me the next day.
Thomas interviewed highfalutin people for the arts section of the biggest magazine in the country. I was so impressed in the beginning—a big-brained guy like Thomas taking a shine to nobody-me. I had just cut off all my hair to about an inch from my skull. I used to have crazy curly long hair. For years I had been the girl with the hair, and I decided that that was getting me nowhere. I wanted to be wanted for something harder to come by and harder to lose. Be careful what you wish for.
I should have known something was wrong whenThomas sucked back the better part of a twenty-sixer of Glenlivet before he could kiss me the first time.
I met the watchmaker when my Timex broke; I was embarrassed to take it in because it was just a cheap old drugstore thing. But the watchmaker took it all very seriously, opening up the back, turning its face to his own, his hands brushing its. Seeing him touch my watch there on the glass display counter lulled me, as though he were brushing my hair or whispering fingertips along the inside of my elbow. Eyelids thickening, jawbone slack, I thought I might fall across the glass into his arms.
When he was done, I smiled, relaxed and dreamy. It was just a simple thing, he told me. Handing him ten dollars, I felt slightly desolate, anxious about there being no coins in the transaction, nothing that might bring our hands closer.
I went home and knocked on Thomas’s office door.
“Working,” he grunted.
Thomas had asked me to move into his house three months after we first touched. Yes! I said. I thought he was crazy about me, that I was turning him into a mad, impetuous lover.
“I’m thinking of having a bath,” I told him now. “Do you want to join me? I could add some bubble bath and make us a couple of mojitos.”
“Working!” It wasn’t quite a shout, more like a cry from between gritted teeth.
I put my hand on the door, let my fingertips trace the grain.
In the bathroom I turned on the hot water in the tub. I fingered my hair in the mirror and wondered if I should let it grow wild and tangled again.
I opened the cupboard over the sink. Picking up Thomas’s prescription, I rattled the few little blue pills on the bottom. They had worked at first. Perked him right up down there. At first. Then nothing worked. I added in some sexy showers and lingerie, hot oil massages.
He was embarrassed, apologetic. “It’s just stress,” he said.
I tried to talk to him about it. He doesn’t like to discuss sex. “It’s prurient,” he said.
“Is that bad? ” I asked and laughed.
He threw me a look of distaste, sucked back the rest of his seventh can of Coke that day and chewed on what was left of his plastic straw.
They say there are ways to tell if a situation like ours is emotional or physiological. I woke in the night once and reached for him, ran my fingertips along his hip, the inside of his thigh. It was only a few moments before he was raring to go. He woke to find himself in my hands, my mouth, to see me sliding back up the length of him, and as his mind cleared, he shrunk back and pushed me away.
“What if I did that to you? ” he asked, as though I had crossed some obvious line. It was a violation, he said, a kind of rape.
It wasn’t until Thomas stopped touching me that I looked up the lyrics to “My Funny Valentine.” They aren’t kind.
I closed the cupboard door now, opened a drawer and rummaged for more dead watches. I found two.
After waiting three days, I brought in another. “Maybe it’s time I resuscitated this poor orphan too,” I told the watchmaker, “while I have the money.”
He asked if I could leave it with him and pick it up in the morning. I glanced around at the other people in the store, told him I could wait, that I’d really like—and I lowered my voice—to watch. His cheeks pinkened a little and he set my watch behind him on the shelf.
I offered to go and get him a coffee while he took care of his other customers. He nodded and did this thing where he averted his eyes, lowered them and then cast his dark pupils straight into mine for a full-on eyelock. It just killed me.
Slinking into his shop with the last of my watches, I explained that I’d found this one last summer at the park; I had put ads in the paper but no one had claimed it. With this third broken body, I had become obvious.
He read the engraving, jeweller’s loupe cuddled by his eye socket. “Madge from Jim 1940. Wow. That’s a lot of time.” He shook his head, the tarnished strap looped across the fingers of his right hand, while my eye hooked on the polished gold band on a single digit of his left.
“Do you think it’s worth hanging on to? Fixing, I mean? ”
“Well”—he peered more closely—“it’s gold fill. If it were karat, I’d say definitely. On the other hand, it is a good solid Swiss watch.”
He looked up at me and set his mouth a moment as though he had something serious to say. “I cannot fix it today.”
I nodded, looked down at the glass counter and imagined the closed door of Thomas’s office.
The watchmaker called me a couple of days later to tell me that Madge and Jim’s lost watch was breathing again: fixed. His voice sounded funny. He said he would be in for another hour and then he would be nipping out for a coffee.
“I’ll come by,” I said and hung up.
I stared at the phone. My skin felt ticklish for a few seconds, itchy with guilt bugs, and I scratched my arms hard before I walked past Thomas’s office. He was out but his door was open. Thomas isn’t fussy about privacy so long as he isn’t working.
I paused and looked in. Walking to the middle of his room I stared at the walls, his framed National Magazine Awards, his signed Chet Baker album cover, his signed Blossom Dearie. I breathed in the air, wishing for some answer to come out of its thinness.
I sat in his chair. His laptop yawned open. As I traced my finger over the keys, the monitor woke from sleep mode and displayed Thomas’s Facebook page. He’d been in the middle of a conversation with someone before he left. The last message displayed was his: “Don’t tempt me, you little fox. The things I could do to you, twist you into a slick pretzel and taste every part.”
Heat rushed up and down my neck. My guts shifted. I glanced over my shoulder, and back at the screen and then clicked the previous message. Her picture was there. She was young and wore a pink camisole with a black bra underneath, hoisting her little breasts up as far as they’d go. Her bangs hung in her eyes like something from the cover of Barely Legal magazine. Her message said: “You’re not bringing the Excess Baggage, are you? Tell me you’re going to come here alone and make me scream.”
Thomas was supposed to fly to Toronto next week.
My hands shook as I clicked back over the thread of messages. There were nineteen.
Before the last I went to the bathroom to throw up. When nothing came, I put a finger down my throat.
I sat down across from the watchmaker at the café next door to the watch repair shop. His face fell into a strange look of pleased fear. He said hello as though he were choking on it and told me he hadn’t brought the watch with him. That it was back at the shop.
My hands had not stopped shaking. My voice quavered when I said, “I don’t know why I’m here.”
“We could go back to the shop. I mean I could—Are you okay? ”
I nodded, eyes aching. “Allergies.”
“Maybe, you should have coffee.”
He glanced at the clock on the wall and then at his wrist and finally at the table. He ordered something milky with coffee and chocolate from the barista for me.
I stared at the froth when it arrived, my palms up on the table.
He peered at me and then down at one palm. “You have a tremendously deep heart line.”
I sucked a breath as he reached over, tentatively pushing the tips of my middle and index fingers down against the table and thereby stretching out my palm. He swallowed and his brows flicked up a smidge. I could feel him like a fork in the toaster. And yet the pain of him was a gentle, easy one, his fingertips jolting something warm and jittery up and through and down into my pelvis and down some more—the way I feel liquor on an empty stomach.
Thomas was back in his office by the time I returned. His door was open. When I came in he swivelled in his chair and came to rest, staring at me. He took a heavy breath.
We stayed that way a few seconds until I said, “Are you sleeping with her? ”
He shook his head.
“You’ve never said those words to me. You said it was prurient,” I shouted.
His body seized at the sound of my raised voice. He nodded. He put one hand across his eyes. “I met her once two years ago and she friended me on Facebook last month. It’s just talk.”
“Excess Baggage? ”
“It’s just a game. She wants to intern at the magazine.” He clasped his hands and began to crack his knuckles one by one. “I have a problem. You don’t know”—he shook his head—“the half of it.”
We talked until two in the morning. “Didn’t you ever notice the phone bills? ” he asked me.
I shook my head. “Calls to that little twink? ”
He shook his head. “1-900 numbers are blocked.”
When Thomas had first moved to Vancouver from Winnipeg, he was alone. He called 1-900 numbers. Each night, for hours, he was on the phone with a new voice, a new orgy of raunchy debauchery.
The telephone company contacted him after his first bill came through. He owed over three thousand dollars. “We’ve seen this before,” they said. They offered to block 1-900 calls from his use. Block temptation.
In the beginning, he paid to look at websites with bodies and sex, and then as the Internet opened up there was so much for free, he no longer needed to. He didn’t have to pay and nobody would ever have to know.
“It’s not like—” He paused. “I never touched anyone.”
“And can you, I mean, do you get hard like that? When you see girls ‘twisted into slick pretzels’? ”
He winced. “Don’t talk like that.” He looked at the floor. “I used to.”
For the next four days, the watchmaker and I met after work, at 6:15 exactly, for half an hour. We’d meet and swallow creamy, sweet espresso drinks and say very little. Neither of us told our secrets. Instead I would lay my palms out for him, letting him touch them, trace a course down my lifeline, a fingernail across fate. I let him bend my hands up, buckling the flesh on the insides of my wrists, counting the creases there and at the sides of my pinkies, pricks of sweat rising from the pads of my fingers—everything thickening, liquefying, nosing closer under my clothes, swelling to be touched.
Yesterday, he held one of my hands and it hurt, the fleshy part beside my thumb. It felt bruised and sore, deep inside like an overworked muscle. I said nothing; he felt it.
“Do you have a headache? ” he asked me, and I said I did though I didn’t. I just wanted the easy hiss of yes off my tongue right then. He said something about adrenal glands and pressure points, things I couldn’t quite make out through the fog of his pale smooth hands cradling the backs of mine, his thumbs kneading the ache in the bellies of my palms. His wedding band glinted. A moan nestled in my throat waiting for release, and it was then I could feel my soul lifting. Not in any joyous sense; it was as though I were losing myself, as if my soul were seeping away, and I started to cry. I didn’t know the watchmaker’s name.
Last night, Thomas said that he couldn’t go to a therapist. It would get out, he said, and spread like wildfire: Thomas Gary is a porn addict. He’d be a laughing stock.
I fingered my watch. Madge from Jim 1940.
Thomas slept in his office again. He left for Toronto first thing this morning.
After work today, I got into the car and drove past the café without stopping. If the watchmaker could really read palms, he’d have seen this coming, he would understand. I drove past the watch repair and the café and past the turnoff toward home. Wading into the thick traffic on Highway One, I headed east until I was lost—nothing but farmland and the odd strip mall.
I passed a sign that said vancouver zoo and aquarium, made a U-turn and parked.
I am at the zoo now and the sun is setting. It won’t be open much longer but I feel as if I am prowling, groping for something. I wish I had a child on my hand right now. Something in a size small with messy curls and a precocious mouth, a child who has just learned to talk a blue streak but doesn’t know yet how to censor herself.
I pass by the reptile pavilion, stopping only briefly before I realize I’m not interested in snakes. The cat cages don’t work for me either; their restless paws make my heart race. The penguins look too fishy and the fish too hungry. Instead, I am drawn to the monkeys, which normally I am not, but I don’t question. This morning I made a decision to have what I crave.
The first cage has the orangutans. I stop and watch them: frantically hairy, they stretch arms out to each other, to food, to the chain-link fence, to outside bodies. It’s a slow day at the monkey cage and only two other people are there: a woman and her bored boy-child who is whining, “Ma-a-wm. The sharks.” He needs to get to them before their official feeding time, he insists. His mother yes-es him, absently, but she is busy: she is engrossed. She’s leaning across the thin moat that’s supposed to discourage patrons from getting too close to the cages. It’s only about a foot wide, though, not all that discouraging. A young orangutan, barely her son’s age, has attached himself to the fence near her, one hand and both feet entwined in the chain link, the other hand reaching through, reaching for her. She ignores the do not touch sign and takes his hand. They stare at each other. He sighs a little, wraps his fingers loosely in hers and closes his eyes, then opens them on her, tilting his head. She kisses the fingertips of her free hand and touches them to his, and her son says, “Mom, I’m going. I’m serious, I’m going.” But she is transfixed. The orangutan’s mouth turns up and he looks grateful and loving and resigned in a way that he can’t find words for. The boy huffs and stalks away, toward the big-fish house.
Ten minutes later, the woman is still holding that dark hand, running her light thumb over the fur at his knuckles. He’s resting his lips on his own wrist, on his side of the cage. He looks as if he would squeeze himself through one of those two-inch diamonds in the chain link, as if he would gladly let her tear his hide through, limbs scraped off in the process, if it meant he could curl against her breast on the other side. Her eyes are welling and her son is long gone, watching big-toothed fish swallow chunks of flesh the size of dachshunds.
I am mesmerized. And watching them—her and the monkey—gives me a peculiar twinge: sympathy and jealousy all mixed up. And hunger: the real kind and the figurative kind. I suddenly want to swallow everything I come in contact with, and I wonder if I should have gone along with that boy of hers to commune with the sharks.
I am only four or five feet from the woman and the orangutan, when the zoo guy comes between us.
“Excuse me,” he says. “Ma’am! Can’t you read the sign there? Do not touch the animals and do not feed them; don’t touch ’em, don’t feed ’em. Understand? ”
She turns her head, eyes red and brimming. “I’m not feeding him.”
The orangutan doesn’t look at the zoo guy, just squeezes his other hand through and takes hold of the woman’s forearm, pulling her closer.
The zoo guy scowls. “Now, look what you did. These animals are very unpredictable and you riled him. It’s almost closing and now we’ve got to extricate your damn arm outta there.”
The woman gives the furry face a closed-mouth smile and smoothes the fingers on her arm. The orangutan takes sharp breaths and holds tight. She turns her head just a little, snuffles quietly, and says, “Please go away. We just need a couple of minutes. I promise I’ll be gone by the time you get back.”
“I’m gonna go get the primate guy. And Security. Bet your ass you’ll be gone,” he mutters. And he heads off in the zebras’ direction.
The woman looks back into the monkey’s eyes, tears sliding toward her jaw, and starts to sing, her voice cracking, “Lullaby and good night…”
The orangutan lets go of her forearm and reaches farther, straining his hand to her face. She leans her wet cheeks closer and lets him touch her jaw as though she is beautiful; as though she is the most wondrous thing he has ever seen, until they let each other go.
According to Madge and Jim’s watch, it’s nearly seven o’clock. An announcement comes over the loudspeaker: the zoo is closing in ten minutes.
I’m not ready to leave and I don’t know where I’ll go when I do. I feel as if there is just too much blank space around me suddenly. I need to sit a minute and collect myself.
Walking toward the duck pond, I move fast to wake up, get some adrenalin going, some fight-or-flight. I ball up two fists and dig my nails in and take a lot of sharp breaths and shake my head hard when the wrong thoughts come in, and I don’t care what kind of lunatic I look like.
My calves ache a little by the time I sit down on a bench—it looks brand new, wood stain, no slats, and sanded smooth as a pup’s ear. Sun hits the pond and droops lower in the sky, falling into an orangutan-coloured haze, and I take off the watch, set it beside me, whisper to it to go back home, where it belongs.
“Do Not Touch” appears in Billie Livingston’s 2010 collection, Greedy Little Eyes, published by Random House Canada.
This appeared in the June 2010 issue.