Issue #9: Fiction Selection
Read the Sky
So. I spot Gil Henrickson in the paint aisle at Home Depot while I’m looking for some wood stain for my Adirondack chairs. It’s unmistakably Gil, only an older and fleshier version of him. We haven’t seen each other for many years, not since a quick glance at our law school graduation in Boston, where I spent much of a long, dull ceremony trying to avoid him in a throng of future lawyers. We were in a cavernous auditorium at the time, a space otherwise reserved for dog shows, fitness expos and self-help gurus hawking their own books.
Gil and I had met at the beginning of our first semester, when we had a Torts class together. Then we found ourselves part of the same study group. This, as I say, was a long time ago, in what now feels like someone else’s past life. I was hardworking and ambitious in law school, with a sure mind for facts and research, valuable commodities in that particular environment. I was pretty back then too, in a conventional, even-featured way, like an ingénue on a soap opera. My looks have since faded considerably, so I don’t really feel it is conceited to describe my younger self in this manner. As for Gil, he might not have shared my scholarly abilities (he had to study harder for lesser grades) but he was tall, square-jawed and cheerfully handsome. He had the look of gleaming competence about him, as if it came in a bottle and someone had doused him with it. This was on top of being sincere as a cub scout and oh so charming.
Perhaps it was inevitable we would gravitate toward one another, given our good looks and compatible styles of flirtation. Anyway, that’s exactly what happened. We began our romance almost immediately. What I remember most clearly about Gil are the things that he wasn’t. He wasn’t smarmy or cutthroat or mean-spirited like other men I’d known in my life. And he wasn’t like some of the other law students we knew either, the ones who mainly wanted to be lawyers to make money and boss secretaries around. Gil simply admired the legal profession, liked the rules and order of it.
I once joked with him that he approached his life using the same square corners he applied to making his bed, everything tidy, fitting together. That kind of persona was good for me to be around for a while, like fresh air or exercise. It might have been good for anyone. Gil had a warm nature and an uncomplicated faith in the world. His eyes were a deep, lucid blue, which reminded me of summer skies and picnics by a pristine lake.
He had four younger brothers who still lived at home in Minnesota. Sometimes one of them would call when I was with him in his apartment and he’d put me on the phone to say hello. I imagined whichever sibling I was speaking with had the same broad-shouldered sweetness and easy nature as Gil. Maybe there was something in the atmosphere out there, some drifting pollen of goodness.
Gil didn’t know much about my own family. He knew I was from a shabby town in upstate New York because I’d volunteered that much and he gathered I was not particularly close to my parents because I never spoke of them. He was right about that part. My mother and father divorced when I was eleven, each remarrying a new spouse right away and then going about the business of creating other families almost instantly, as if their own marriage, and my singular presence in it, had been a lengthy, failed tech rehearsal. Throughout most of my teen years, my role in these new chaotic households became that of babysitter, dishwasher, camp counselor. I felt I should punch a time card when I departed one home for the other. It was in this perpetual state of blunt familial annoyance that I met Lucas. We were juniors in high school. Lucas was a new boy in town, a mercurial boy with problems of his own. We felt we understood each other because of our shared unhappiness and in the fashion typical of misunderstood, hormonal teenagers we became inseparable.
After our graduation we moved in together. Our boxy, dark apartment was a fourth floor walk-up in a multi-family house. This was in the same town where I had grown-up and where we had gone to high school. Lucas worked for his cousin’s construction business and I had a part-time job in a bakery, while taking classes at a nearby college. I was pursuing a degree in elementary education, but rather listlessly, with no real thought to my future. Lucas didn’t like the idea that I was going to school at all. He frowned upon any pursuit that took me away from him. (I had a night class or two.) The signs had been there from the beginning, of course, but I had chosen to ignore them—maybe because I saw possessiveness as an improvement over indifference, which had been my experience before Lucas came into my life.
We would be together for three turbulent years, and despite some feeble attempts to free myself, my boyfriend’s lopsided grin and vague promises to change drew me back to him more often than I’d now care to admit. I believe that Lucas considered us to be two halves of the same person or perhaps he thought we actually were the same person. I became wedged deeper and deeper, like a tenacious splinter, into the muddled life we shared. In the end, the weight of his expectations nearly flattened me, and yet for a long time I carried Lucas with me, like a tumor nestled within the body that turns out to be, upon discovery, an unborn twin, what they call a vanishing twin, complete with hair, teeth and cells.
He was skilled at crushing me with his glances and frosty silences, but eventually he moved on to the usual ways and put me in a hospital. I denied everything to the doctors. I was terrified about what might happen if I turned Lucas in. I told them I had tripped down some backstairs, though my injuries were not consistent with such a fall. One nurse, a tiny middle-aged woman with a downturned mouth and color-damaged hair, was so frustrated with my lies she kept slamming stuff around as she tended to things in my hospital room. I had a badly broken arm and one of my fractured ribs had punctured a lung. She glared at me with a mixture of sympathy and indignation. I was later informed she was the one who barred Lucas from visiting my room, had practically put him up against a wall. I was told Lucas left the hospital furious and reeling, hollering obscenities. An hour later, speeding in his car on wet streets, he lost control and crashed into a telephone pole, killing himself in the process. I’d like to think I would have gotten away from him on my own, but I’ve come to believe that the outraged little nurse might have saved my life.
Later, after finally earning my undergraduate degree, I took the LSATs as a lark and was surprised to learn I did quite well on them. It felt like a harbinger. I was being shown a path, the way eager children are in certain fables. I sent in my law school applications and took out some school loans. I left my old life and landed in Boston where I had been accepted to a well-regarded law school. By the time I met Gil, I felt released and wiped clean.
As it turned out, Gil and I each had apartments on the outskirts of the city, in the same grim area. Gil had a basement studio with security gates on all the windows. My own place, a mile away, was slightly larger. It was located over a Thai restaurant, which always smelled of Pad Thai noodles and the desperation of its unhappy and overworked staff. Neither one of us came from any money. Gil and I had full-time jobs during the day and attended law school at night, studied on the weekends. When we went to bed together, sometimes all we did was sleep, even at the beginning, for the sheer exhaustion of work and school. We’d curl around each other like cats on a sunny window ledge. But when we did have sex it was always suitably hot and satisfying, Gil being industrious and accommodating in that area too.
Gil worked as a paralegal at a large, top-tier firm in downtown Boston. Though I was a more promising student, I hadn’t been able to land a job like that. Not even anything in the legal field. I found work as a receptionist in a travel bureau instead, back when such places were common. It started to sting, this difference between us, how Gil’s work was providing him with old boy connections which were furthering his career, while I was directing calls from harried people looking to book Club Med vacations. Gil counted on his good fortune the way other people anticipate water from a tap. He also had that fearless leader quality. My own existence felt haphazard and brittle by comparison. I didn’t like this difference between us.
I’d begun to take notice of some other things too.
There was a woman Gil worked with, a woman I’d met briefly when I came to meet him for lunch one day. She was an associate there, at his glamorous firm, and she had an airy name–Eloise, which seemed to fit. She had an elegant neck and was rather poised and affected like the old movie star Audrey Hepburn. Eloise wore pearls around that elegant neck and had the studied posture of a storybook princess. This was probably not the kind of person who would ever find herself answering phones at a third-rate travel agency. One evening at Gil’s apartment, as we were getting ready for bed, I began to needle him about this prim, confident woman. I implied some relationship between them that I knew did not exist.
“I suppose your Eloise thinks you are slumming when she thinks of us together.”
I said this for no other reason than because the idea of getting us into some kind of trouble suddenly felt unstoppable, like the tide. I wasn’t actually jealous. I never had been jealous, never in my whole life.
“Slumming? My Eloise? What?” Gil responded.
“She seems to have her eye on you is all I’m saying.”
“And how do you figure that?” Gil answered.
He was grinning, as if waiting for the punch line to some joke.
“She chose you for the research on that big helicopter litigation, didn’t she? Remember how happy you were about that?”
“I’ve only just started there, Natalie. I’m grateful to her for the opportunity. Who wouldn’t be?”
He paused, staring into my eyes, with that customary sweetness of his.
I glared back at him.
“You can’t be serious,” he said.
“Think how much she could do for you,” I snapped. “Think how much you could do for each other.”
Gil sighed. Then he reached out and tried give me a consoling little hug, but I slipped out of his grasp. We’d been together nearly three months by this time. There hadn’t been an unpleasant word between us before that moment, so when Gil started to comfort me about this woman, as he tried to charm me in his self-assured way, it irritated me even more–even though I knew I was making this all up.
“Are we really going to fight about this?” Gil asked.
I’d finally gotten his full attention. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
“Why not?” I said.
I felt dizzy with conjured outrage.
And that’s when I accused Gil of actually fucking the woman. He stood there with a slapped back look on his face. I suppose Gil was seeing me for the first time, or at least some version of me that was now bleeding through in this unexplainable way. Soon I was pulling on jeans and a sweater, grabbing my purse and coat, and storming out of the apartment with Gil chasing after me in his boxer shorts, trying to make sense of what had just happened. I didn’t turn around, but I envisioned him following me up the basement stairs in his bare feet, scratching his head at my behavior.
On the sidewalk I kicked a trash can. It was late November and I cursed the cold night. My anger was swollen, cresting. I had taken Gil by surprise, which pleased me some. I walked and walked, blindly, furiously, without any thought to where I was going or of the strangers streaming by. After a while I calmed down. I came to a telephone booth outside a convenience store. This was, of course, before cell phones of any kind. I might have still gone back to Gil, apologized and picked up where we left off. But I found myself inside this booth, fishing in my purse for change.
On the wall next to the phone there was nasty graffiti about some woman. It said she would do all sorts of sexual things if you’d only call her number and ask. Her number was written there too. I thought of contacting this poor, maligned person and telling her what some sick, rejected creep had scrawled about her. But I dialed Gil’s number instead. I used an Irish accent. I’d become acquainted with an Irish girl where I bought my coffee in the morning and she’d often complain to me about the brutal New England weather and the Boston weathermen who she referred to as, “liars, cheats and thieves.” She always had scathing things to say, but in her gorgeous, lilting accent they sounded like love songs.
I thought of the coffee girl when Gil answered the phone on the first ring. I lifted her voice, like a scarf around my throat.
“Gilbert Henrickson, please.”
“This is Gil Henrickson.”
“This is Nurse Catlin Mahoney over here at Somerville Hospital. I’m calling to inform you of an accident. A young woman was brought into Emergency a few minutes ago. Hit by a car.”
“What?” I heard Gil gasp.
He gasped when we made love too, when we’d catch a rhythm together.
“Yes, an accident, I’m afraid. We found your name on her person listed as an emergency contact.
Let me see . . . her name is Natalie. Natalie Carson. Are you acquainted with such an individual?”
“Christ!” Gil shrieked. “Is she okay?”
I was shocked by the terror in his voice. It stopped me for a moment.
“Is she okay!?” he shouted again.
“I’m afraid her condition is,” I paused, weighing all the conditions available to me and then I said, “grave.”
Before he got off the phone I gave Gil directions to a side entrance of the local hospital, though I’d never even been there before.
I made this up too.
“Hurry, mister,” I said. “Please hurry.”
When I came out of the phone booth, I saw that the street was suddenly peaceful and dark and the sky was quite clear. I looked up at what I could see of the stars, but being so close to the lights of Boston, it wasn’t much. I remembered that Gil and I had driven to New Hampshire once and gone to dinner at a seafood restaurant on the coast. Afterwards we had walked along the beach, watching the night sky, with Gil trying to point out the basics to me, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, the North Star. Apparently, he and his brothers had been interested in astronomy back in Minnesota. They had a telescope in their backyard. This sounded quite wholesome and did not surprise me in the slightest.
That night on the beach, Gil told me that sailors used to look to the sky for navigation before the invention of scientific instruments. This was something I already knew. But it seemed impossible to me because as hard as I tried I couldn’t even spot the easiest constellations. I had no knack for it. Now on the sidewalk in Somerville, outside the phone booth, I stared up for the longest time, waiting for something to emerge from the heavens. I stood there waiting, which was pointless, because I still couldn’t read the sky. I don’t remember how long I waited there or what happened next, but I must have eventually turned my attention back to the world around me and found my way home.
I’m not sure what Gil did after he received my phone call. I would never know if he actually rushed to my imaginary bedside or when he figured out that I had fabricated the whole thing. I do know he never spoke to me again after that night. This seemed reasonable and astonishing at the same time. He quit our study group and I avoided him at all costs from then on in school. I did not try to approach him or offer any apologies, because I didn’t have the words back then to rationalize what had transpired that night.
Later a package would arrive at my apartment. It contained the items I’d left behind at his place. It was all carefully packed – a skirt, two sweaters (neatly folded), my civil procedure notes, a box of tampons, my toothbrush, even my pens and paper clips that he’d sealed up in a food storage bag. There was no note, but the handwriting on the outside of the package, showing my name and address, was written in Gil’s
I would become a tax attorney at a good firm, with lovely offices in the Prudential Center. My legal work has been lucrative and rewarding. It has held my interest anyway, though it doesn’t feel quite like a calling, a word some of my colleagues have used to describe their own careers. I live in a leafy suburb, thirty minutes from downtown Boston. I own a cozy bungalow on a cul-de-sac, near some playing fields and a slow-moving river. I am single by choice. Some years back I became involved with one of my married clients. It was a relationship that suited us both and lasted, in its fitful, secretive fashion, for over a decade, until he retired to Palm Springs with his wife. I haven’t had much curiosity since then in romantic entanglements. I have a few close friends in town who know me only from the life I lead these days, a life they might view as serene or perhaps even a little dull–book clubs, summer sailing on the Charles, home improvement projects like the one today that sent me to the store for wood stain.
The Home Depot is only about ten miles from where we went to law school and it surprises me some that Gil has stayed in the vicinity. I’ve never Googled him or tried to track him down on Facebook, but I would have bet that he’d gone back to Minnesota where his family was from. As I watch him, I think about his little brothers, who I used to speak with on the phone. It occurs to me that they are no longer stargazing youngsters, but middle-aged men, and probably not so sweet anymore either.
I watch Gil for a long time in the paint aisle, foolishly wondering what he is planning to paint. When he stops browsing and moves in my direction, I feel a sharp jolt of adrenaline. As he draws closer I realize I can finally talk to him after all these years. I can apologize for my unthinkable actions that night–the worst behavior of my entire life, that puzzling compulsion to sabotage my own happiness and to irretrievably harm another person at the same time. The festering byproduct, the strange fallout (I’ve come to believe) of my time with Lucas and that earlier abuse. The chance to maybe explain all this and make it right feels like a great gift.
I cross into his path and stop.
“Gil,” I whisper.
This is all I can muster. I am barely breathing.
Gil Henrickson gazes straight at me. I notice a crosshatch of fine lines fanning out from his familiar Windex-blue eyes. At first he stares blankly and then there is a click of recognition in his jowly face. I can’t quite read his expression at seeing me again, but I know it resembles nothing like joy or happiness. He moves his lips as if he is about to speak, but then appears to think better of it. He weaves around me then and walks off—leaving me alone in the aisle, without so much as a backwards glance.
Bill Gaythwaite is on the staff of the Committee on Asia and the Middle East at Columbia University. His work has been published in Subtropics, Grist, Alligator Juniper, Lunch Ticket, and Crack the Spine, among other journals and anthologies.