Dawson / THE OPPOSITE OF MAYBE
They’re making love on Saturday morning—almost finished, but not quite close enough to the finish line to really and truly count—when the phone starts its earsplitting chirping right by their heads.
Jonathan, who had been lying on top of her, with his face contorted in what she was sure was ecstasy, groaning, “Rosie, Rosie, Rosie . . .” now comes instantly to a halt. His eyes dart to the telephone on the floor next to their mattress, and she says, “Ohhhh, no you don’t,” and they both start laughing. They know he can’t help it.
“No, no, no!” she says, and tightens her grip on him, still laughing. “Not now. Don’t get up to see who it is.”
“But I have to know,” he says mournfully.
“But why? You hate the phone. And you already know you’re not going to answer it.”
“I know, but I have to see,” he says. He bites his lip and gives her a sheepish look. “Come on, let me check it.”
“All right,” she says. “Go look, you big lug. But come back.”
He leans so far over the side of their mattress that he nearly falls onto the floor on his head, still tangled in the sheets. And then, laughing, he has to catch himself and walk on his hands until he can pull himself out of the wreckage and get upright on the floor.
Sex as vaudeville, she thinks. This is what they never tell you about long-term relationships: how you’d just die if you were ever shown a video of yourself trying to have ordinary, household sex on any given day. And how it would still be worth it to you.
He scrambles for his glasses and then peers down at the Caller ID, absently scratching the hairs on his belly. Last week he turned forty-five, and when they went out with friends for his birthday dinner, he proclaimed—in a toast, yet—that he had now officially become older than dirt. (Rosie, only a year younger, had been surprised to hear this.) Raising his glass, he had laughingly announced he was losing his eyesight, his hairline, most of his optimism, and just about the last shred of his vanity.
Now, watching him as he mindlessly pulls off the condom that has been hanging on for dear life and flings it across the room to the trash can, she thinks he really might have been serious.
The condom does a graceful midair arc and lands with a splat on the lampshade on her dresser. If it had been a gymnast, the Russian judge would have given it a nine. It definitely stuck the landing.
She looks at his face. He’s handsome still, no matter what he says. He has brown hair—okay, thinning somewhat and streaked with gray now—but his smooth, tanned face has hardly any lines, only a few crinkles around his wide brown eyes, which just now are scowling at the phone. That’s the trouble, she thinks: in the last two years, he’s looked perpetually dissatisfied. Maybe that’s what he was talking about on his birthday, how he doesn’t care about life the way he used to.
“It isn’t Soapie who called, is it?” she says. She has to go see her grandmother later today, and it would be just like her to call up at the last minute and try to change the plan. Especially since today is the day they are going to have The Big Talk—the “wouldn’t you really feel much safer with a home health aide” talk that Rosie has been putting off. She’s even secretly arranged for a potential aide candidate to show up—a wonderful British woman who claimed on the telephone that she knows precisely how to relate to “women of a certain age,” as she put it. So this is all orchestrated and it has to happen.
“Nope,” says Jonathan. “The culprit is somebody named Andres Schultz, and he’s from area code six-one-nine,” he says. “Do you know him?”
“No. Not for me.”
“Let’s see . . . six-one-nine is . . . um . . . San Diego.”
“Oh my God,” she says. “Do you really know all the area codes? Seriously?”
Of course he does. Numbers have always attached themselves to him. And also, he’s a collector of antique teacups—the kind from the dynasties in Asia and Europe, not from little girls’ tea sets—and he’s in constant touch with collectors from everywhere. It turns out there’s a whole subculture of wacky obsessives just like him, always on the Internet, comparing, blogging, judging whose collections are the biggest and the hottest, and gossiping about who’s been written up in the journals. It’s a world she never knew existed.
By now the call has been shuffled off to the land of voice mail, but Jonathan still stands there watching to see if the message light is going to come on. When it doesn’t, he says, “Shit. No message. Who could this guy be?”
“It might have been a wrong number, you know,” she points out. She sighs. “But why don’t you just call him back and find out, so we can get on with our lives?”
“No,” he says. “I don’t want to talk to him. I just can’t believe somebody from San Diego would call here at nine thirty on a Saturday. It’s six thirty in the morning there. What is he thinking?”
“I have no idea. But do you know what I’m thinking?”
“I’m thinking I want you and your sweet hairy self to come back over here and resume having sex with me.”
He makes a face. “I think Mr. Happy might have moved on to thinking about teacups, and you know how once he goes there . . .”
“Oh, I can persuade Mr. Happy,” she says. She sticks a foot out from under the sheet and wiggles her toes at him, smiling.
“Yeah, well, maybe once upon a time, but lately he’s become more temperamental. Also—well, frankly he has to pee.” He frowns, looks at the phone again and then back at her. “I tell you what: I’ll go have a serious talk with him, and then we’ll see what he wants to do about the situation.”
“Remind him that he actually likes this sort of thing,” she says, and watches Jonathan’s cute bare butt disappear around the corner of the bedroom door. He’s humming “Born to Run,” which is lately his go-to song for the morning pee.
“Hey, you know what?” he calls from the bathroom. “I bet this guy Andres Schultz is somebody answering my call for another Ming Dynasty cup. That could be good.”
“Fantastic,” she says.
They currently have thirty-eight teacups stacked up in their living room, nested in white, archival-quality boxes—teacups that will never again see the light of day. Apparently they have to be protected from sunlight, dust motes, and destructive air currents so they can last into eternity. Jonathan and those funny, obsessive guys he e-mails are no doubt saving the world from the problem of teacup extinction.
As Rosie has explained to their friends, every time Jonathan latches on to a new hobby, he goes a little—what’s the clinical term?—oh yes, batshit crazy. It used to be Bruce Springsteen memorabilia, then it was National Geographics, and there was a brief foray into German shot glasses.
Funny how you don’t see something like this coming, and how after a while, you don’t even think it’s odd. As her friend Greta put it, when you’ve been with somebody for years, all their little insanities start to blend in with the good stuff about them, and even if you’re annoyed, you find you still love the whole exasperating package.
Still, she thinks, it would have been nice if they’d remembered to unplug the phone.
He comes back and slides into bed next to her, still naked, but now holding his laptop. Evidently Mr. Happy vetoed more sex. Fine. She should probably get up anyway and do her exercises, get ready for the day, and for Soapie.
“Let me just see if Andres Schultz is one of the guys on the e-mail list. Because the question is, why haven’t I ever heard of him? If he has my number, then you’d think . . .”
“Jonathan,” she says.
“Do you think my grandmother is going to eat me alive when I tell her she has to get an aide?” she says. “Because I kind of do.”
This is yet another time when it would be so great if her mother were alive. Then she’d be the one to make all these arrangements and plans, take on some of the worrying. But Rosie’s mother died when Rosie was three, and that was when she went to live with Soapie.
Jonathan is clicking the computer keys and doesn’t answer her right away. “No, she’s old,” he says finally. “She knows she’s got to get help.”
“Yes, but she’s in denial,” says Rosie.
It’s true that Soapie is eighty-eight, but until recently she was the Betty White kind of eighty-eight, having her hair done twice a week and going to spas. It hadn’t ever occurred to her that she might have grown old. She’s still busy writing her latest “Dustcloth Diva” book, telling America how to keep its refrigerators spotless and its ceiling fans dusted. And she’s still cussing. Wearing makeup and peignoirs. And smoking. Possibly even driving, although she’s been begged to stop.
It’s only in the last few months that she’s started falling down and forgetting little things, like how you turn off the stove and where did she put those blood pressure pills, and why are the keys in the refrigerator. And there are other things, too: osteoporosis, blurry vision, bronchitis, some bouts of irregular heartbeat that have led them to the emergency room more than a few times recently. And Soapie, predictably, has reacted with outrage to the discovery that she’s made of the same stuff as the other humans after all, bones and blood vessels and capillaries that break down and turn rickety.
“You want to know what I really think?” Jonathan says, still clicking away. “I think she’ll be relieved. She’s probably deep down scared about the falls she’s taken lately, and she wants somebody to suggest some help for her. I think it’ll go fine. Better than you think.”
He’s wrong about this, of course, but it’s a nice sentiment. “I just hope she doesn’t hurt the home health aide too badly,” Rosie says. “She’s apparently a nice, cultured British lady. Her name is Mrs. Cynthia Lamb.”
“Maybe you should have hired Mrs. Cynthia Lions and Tigers instead.”
She strokes his arm. “Did you find Andres Schultz on the e-mail list or whatever?”
“Nope. No sign of him.”
“So, how about—?”
“You know. Sex?”
Silence, then: “All right. I think we can make something happen here.” He closes the laptop and puts it on the floor, and takes off his glasses. “Wake up, Mr. Happy! We’re going in!”
She puts her arms around him and wiggles into position, and he starts idly kissing her cheek, only it’s not great because they’re not lined up just right, and his big scratchy chin is hurting her face, and then the way he starts rubbing her back makes it seem as though he’s cleaning a fish.
Finally she says, “Stop a minute. Just stop.”
“What are you, the director?” He lifts his head and looks at her.
“What are you thinking about?” she asks him.
He hesitates. “Do I have to tell you the truth?”
“Well, actually,” he says with a sheepish laugh, “I was kind of thinking that when we’re done here, I’m going to Google Andres Schultz.”
She removes her arms from around his neck.
“You said the truth!” he says. “You’re not allowed to say you want the truth and then get mad about it.”
“You know,” she says, “I think it’s great and all that we’re so comfortable with each other that we can have all this crazy stuff going on: the hilarious Keystone Kops falling-out- of-bed thing, and Googling people and flinging condoms about the room—but sometimes, just sometimes, wouldn’t it be nice if it was . . . romantic again?” She touches his ear, the soft little lobe.
He blinks. “Romantic is overrated. Sometimes you get it, and sometimes you don’t. We get laughs and realness, which has got to be better over the long haul.”
“I know,” she says. “But can’t we shift gears? We used to be able to shift gears. I think once upon a time, the phone could even ring, and we didn’t pay any attention to it. Remember that?”
He says, “There’s nothing wrong with us. This is just life. Middle-aged life.”
“I know, and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but don’t you ever worry about us ending up like every other couple we know? You just know that Joe and Greta are checking their e-mail during sex, and that’s probably why Greta wants to kill him all the time.”
Greta has been Rosie’s best friend since they were kids, and even back in second grade, they promised each other that when they grew up and got married, their husbands would have to be best friends, too. Who would have thought that could actually happen? But it did. And there are two other couples in their main circle of friends, also: Lynn and Greg, and Suzanne and Hinton. The eight of them have all gone on vacation together and hung out at each other’s houses for years now.
But here’s the thing: even though they’re all the same age, the others have loaded up their lives with what Jonathan calls all the “unsavory entrapments of adulthood”: big-ass houses, SUVs, stock portfolios, riding lawn mowers, scads of children, and a considerable amount of domestic bickering.
Jonathan and Rosie are the holdouts, the crazy kids who never bothered to grow up and get married. They get teased that they’re hippie artist types, and that all they do is sleep late, have lots of sex, and eat meals that all qualify as either brunch or midnight snacks. Their four-room apartment is still furnished in what Rosie thinks of as “Early Grad Student”—bricks-and-boards bookcases, an Ikea couch and table, beanbag chairs, throw rugs, and posters on the walls. It’s cozy and comfortable and has a rooftop garden and a great view of the river, and yes, they’re happy here, but more than once she’s felt she had to defend it against the others, as if they maybe just didn’t try hard enough to get ahead. No, no, she’s explained. They picked this life on purpose. It wasn’t through laziness or by accident that they didn’t get married and start collecting silver and china and 401(k)s. And children.
Every now and then she can’t help pointing out that she and Jonathan actually do work very hard, and not just doing their art. Even though she did have some early amazing success and had some poems published in magazines, for years now she’s been teaching composition classes at the community college and teaching English as a second language in adult ed.
And as for Jonathan, he’d once been a promising potter—awards and prizes and reviews in the New York Times—and the two of them had a whole life traveling on weekends and summers going to art shows and craft fairs showing his work all over the country. But then about five years ago, he was turned down for some prestigious shows he’d always gotten into, and the shock of those rejections didn’t seem to wear off. She’d watched as he seemed to spiral down into a depression. He didn’t call it that, of course; he called it “getting realistic.” He said he’d rather have health insurance and social security benefits than creative genius, which was all bullshit anyway. He took a job in a mail-order ceramics factory, where he now makes figurines from other people’s designs.
A few months after that, he’d discovered the world of teacups and pretty soon he’d started collecting them himself. Hardly a fair substitute, from her point of view: rows and rows of neat, orderly boxes in their living room, traded for the messy richness of the wet clay, and the light in Jonathan’s eyes. They’d stopped traveling, too; no more vagabond trips to Mexico, no more camping.
She never would have believed things would go this way—that his love for making things from glorious, squishy, formable, tactile clay would evolve into something that’s merely stewardship of untouchable old artifacts. She tells him that when he’s not home, the teacups ask her to let them out; they beg to feel the coolness of wet, life-giving tea once again, or of human lips against their rims. Once she told him she’d heard one distinctly begging for even a Lipton tea bag.
“You’re jealous of them, aren’t you?” he said to her once, and he wasn’t even kidding. “I think you actually see them as rivals.”
“Yeah, they’re little Lolitas,” she’d said. “Thirty-eight little Lolitas. One of these days, you’re going to come home, and I’m going to have them all out on the table, all waiting to be admired and petted.”
“Please,” he’d said. “Don’t even joke about that.”
She looks at him now across the pillow, at the deep crease between his eyebrows, the lines etched underneath his eyes, and the way his lips are pursed in slight disapproval. His life is like one big fat NO. And what’s going to happen if they don’t even have sex to pull them back together?
“Do you want to get up and go get breakfast?” she says.
Maybe he hears something in her voice, because he says, “Not yet. I want to pretend it’s the past, and we don’t know about Caller ID or Google.” He moves on top of her and looks down into her eyes, cradling her head in his gentle potter’s hands.
“Impossible—” she begins, but he puts his mouth on hers and gives her a long, slow, unlikely kiss, and with so many years of experience, of habit, the automatic-pilot part of them takes over, and somehow, despite everything, the familiar rhythms begin again.
He gets up and gets the scented oil, and the air fills with the fragrance of roses and lemons as he massages her back. He sweeps her long brown hair out of the way, and leans down and kisses her cheeks and neck and that spot he loves by her collarbone, and by the time he has worked his way down, they are suffused with a drowsy passion.
Afterward, they lie there quietly, touching each other, watching the way the sun slants in, how at this time of year it’s beginning to catch the glint from the river down below and flash its wavy patterns above them onto the ceiling. In the next few months, she knows, the light will become sharper and will move all the way across the ceiling, jiggling and bouncing in the wake of the boats that will come. Another year will have gone by.
“Oh my God,” says Jonathan. He sits up. “Uh-oh. You know what happened? I forgot to put on another condom.”
The wavy patterns shudder on the ceiling. “You forgot?” she says. “How could you forget?” But she knows why. He’s not used to them. Mostly she uses a diaphragm, but a couple of weeks ago when she was washing it, she noticed it had a hole in it, but she couldn’t get an appointment for another right away, and so Jonathan said he’d wear a condom in the meantime.
She looks at him in dismay.
“Yeah. Well, we forgot,” he says. “You could have mentioned it, too.”
There’s something she’s supposed to do at a moment like this—go out and get some morning-after pill or something. Does she really have to jump up and hurry to a clinic? She’s got better things to do. He’s watching her, biting his lip again, waiting for the verdict.
“I think it’s all right,” she says after a moment. “One of the good things about being so damn old is that I don’t think I’m in danger of getting pregnant.”
“Why? When does menopause come?”
“Oh, it comes when it wants to. My periods are already weird. I think I’m halfway in menopause already.”
“But you don’t know?”
“You never know. It’s all mysterious with periods. They do what they want.”
“I don’t know how you women cope,” he says.
“Us? I don’t see how you guys get along with those things flapping around on the front of you. That’s way worse.” She looks at him and smiles. “Oh hell. Let’s just get up and go have some breakfast,” she says. “Okay?”
“Okay,” he says. “Could I Google Andres Schultz first, do you think?”
“Do you have to?”
He smiles at her, and yes, she sees how much it means to him that Cup Number Thirty-nine might be waiting out there in San Diego, might right now be sitting in a white box that will come and join the others in their living room. For a moment, she feels what it must mean to him.
She’s about to say it’s fine, he should go ahead and Google Andres Schultz, but then she doesn’t have to. “Nah, you’re right. I’ll wait,” he says. “Let’s go eat.”
Excerpted from The Opposite of Maybe by Maddie Dawson. Copyright © 2014 by Maddie Dawson. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.