Things I Should Have Done series
by Cherise Wolas
THINGS I SHOULD HAVE DONE #1
I should have left my ex-husband at the altar after the screaming match we had the day before we married. A fight so vicious I still recall my fingernails scrapping the hardwood floor as I tucked my head between my knees, fearing an actual blow headed my way, imagining how horrid to be a battered woman with a Ph.D. The day before our wedding I was curled like a comma in a corner of our new dining room, with wrought iron light fixtures like torture devices from the Middle Ages. A place I hadn’t wanted but he had, because, he’d said, my apartment was “too you,” by which I decided he actually meant we needed more space to live in utter happiness. When I agreed to move, I imagined that in this large, slightly musty old duplex, the new bedroom, our first together, would be a haven, our life filled with sunny sex on Sundays, crunching on Butterfinger bars naked in bed, creating our gorgeous future story. The apartment I had left for him had clean lines, varnished pale wooden floors, whitewashed nooks and crannies, noisy birds in the rubber tree outside the bedroom window. That apartment called to me the day before we wed. Crushed into the corner, behind the table, fearing the blow, I imagined being back home again, snailed in a pale grey suede chair, staring out into the dark night, sipping Pernod on the rocks, listening to soaring music in the star-dusted room, still yearning for the day we would wed.
THINGS I SHOULD HAVE DONE #2
Stacy and I were about to cast off in her skiff when two merchant marines showed up on the pier. Flirtatious Stacy, in her bikini top two sizes too small, beckoned them with a big smile. They walked over fast. I wanted dry land, to be on the pier, heading away. In the boat, Mario sat next to Stacy and Luigi next to me. Six months at sea, they were newly on leave, set loose in Marina Del Rey. They were Italian and young, but at least a decade older than us. I knew I should leave. Truly, I wanted to go, but could not bear being viewed as unsophisticated and unadventurous. Until the early evening, I was pleased I had stayed. But then it was night, and there was a motel room key, and a second-floor motel room door, and a dingy room with two queen beds covered in rusty bedspreads. Overlooking the marina’s tar road, water and boats in the distance, sat a battered table seared with burn marks, tattered magazines under a cheap glass ashtray that read Jolly Roger Motel: The Place For Fun. The darkness scared me, as I sat in the chair at the scarred table. Stacy fell onto Mario, the two kissing on one of the beds. Mario hoisted Stacy’s enormous tanned breasts out of her small sundress and up into the moonlight. Her fat brown nipples were wet and glistening, erect from Mario’s tongue. Stacy’s hands snuck down his pants. His pants pooled around his pale and hairy ankles, and I started to turn away, truly, but Mario’s quick movement, flipping onto his back, kept me fixated, horribly, on his penis, uncut – I knew the difference – standing upright, swollen and throbbing. Her hand gripped, slowly started to twist. I heard Mario groan. Luigi sat on the other bed, watching me watching them, then licked his lips and gestured for me to join him. I turned away and stared out into the moonlit night. Luigi sighed then cursed me in Italian, rapid, angry, muffled. I knew what he meant. When the room grew electric with Stacy’s groans, I turned back. Her mouth, a perfect round wet O sealed onto the tip of Mario, the aural puckering intensely loud in the silence. Her mouth went down, then up and off, the sound like a plastic lid ripped off a sweaty container. Then she started over again. I left the room and sat outside on the motel stairs and wished: that I was girl who smoked, that I could call home, that I was brave like Stacy. When I can’t sleep I think about the sparkling water, laughing and flirting with Luigi, kissing him in the skiff. Luigi didn’t touch me, didn’t grapple me prone onto that second queen bed, didn’t force me, didn’t take a single step towards me, while I sat fixed in that chair at that window. He must have felt cheated and misled, cock-teased, considering the way the afternoon began and how the evening played out. When I can’t sleep, I think about the teenage girl in The Painted Bird, raped with a Coke bottle in a sunny field, and wonder how I allowed myself to end up at the Jolly Roger. I am still a virgin, and that is okay with me. I never hang out alone with Stacy anymore. Sometimes I think it’s because I do not trust myself.
THINGS I SHOULD HAVE DONE #3
When I walked into the local police precinct to meet with a detective about the scope of my rights, I was thinking about Rocco, the adored dog of a long-ago life. Detective Miller said, “Based on these emails, the hatred is clearly defined. The NYPD views too much love or hate as verboten harassment. We take neither extreme lightly. We can nab this bastard for aggravated assault. If that’s what you want.” Arrest and jail time for an ex I tried never to recall. The skidding clouds tagged the sun, the wind stuttered in gusts; the atmosphere was heightened, freighted, weighted, and raucous, though, perhaps, that was just my insides. I could not picture his face. I remembered no husbandly actions. Memories of us in bed had evaporated long before the ancient dissolution. Conjuring him, I saw a storm cloud of vituperative hate and vitriolic rain; a weather system fueled by bastardized jealousy. Detective Miller said, “A night in jail might ice those fingers spewing keyboard hatred into the great beyond.” “Hell,” the detective said, “If his finances are fucked, could be two days or more before he is sprung.” I listened to the detective outline my options and thought: X ought to picture Rocco when next he triggered ‘send’ on another venomous cyber-epistle. We married at thirty and soon bought a dog. The marriage was impetuous; the purchase of Rocco was not. His breed was researched, his personality dissected. Deficient as a show dog, he was bought for a song. He smiled and peed when I entered the front door that, in a sunnier time, X and I once walked through together. Rocco was large, but imagined himself tiny, cushioned in the palm of my hand. He kissed my cheeks and licked the tears I used to shed. He was ours only a few months when a cross-country move was demanded for another fresh start. Released back to his breeder, Rocco was freed for pigeon runs and lilac-scented dirt rolls, avoiding Manhattan imprisonment. When I walked into the precinct, I remembered that day when X, on the sly, shipped Rocco like cargo to JFK — in his twisted way hoping furry love would save us. By then I knew, as I should have known long before, we stood no chance. Later, I learned of the purchase of food, bowls, toys and more, stashed in a closet. Much later, I learned Rocco smelled my scent and stood guard at my side of our frigid bed. In those lifeless rooms, in that small apartment we called home, for a single hour Rocco ate dry food and stretched out on the flimsy blackberry couch, shedding his white Rocco hair and a few yellow strands. Rocco’s big-body presence frightened X into yet another act that was wrong. That night, over pasta, he was pasty. Suddenly loving, filled with detailed plans for our make-believe future, unnaturally acquiescing to all my suggestions, I knew something was more than merely awry. Another night filled with a fight. At dawn, our past thoroughly excavated, he admitted what he had done: too big to keep in our small place, in the early afternoon he settled Rocco into a palatial home with owners honed to care for a pure-breed who knew how to love. Much, much later, I learned it was another one of his lies. He shipped Rocco three thousand miles for a long walk to Carl Schurz Park. I can imagine Rocco, a grin around his wagging tongue, tethered to a new leash buckled round his shaggy neck, his new collar engraved with his name. On the promenade, X tied Rocco to an iron bar with a view of the river. Secretive by nature, his get-away, however, was observed by a man out for a run, who tracked and trailed him forty blocks. A note left with our doorman was addressed to The Fucking Dog Abandoner. Sleepless and shaken by the previous night’s fight, the cascade of X’s excuses about everything, I left to earn my salary; sneered at, despite his love of draining the bank for his personal pleasures. The doorman handed me the envelope. Inside, the jogger’s note simply stated: You don’t deserve to live. Remembering all that, as I should have, I said to Detective Miller, “Just one more email from him, like all these others, and I will happily, at long last, send him to jail.”
THINGS I SHOULD HAVE DONE #4
Should I have shooed away the silky tangle of feline true love curled at my feet? Shut their bedroom door against them? Perhaps, maybe, I don’t know. We’d been reading the New York Times on a snowy weekend morning, and when my phone sang, Tom left to brave the cold for Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and plastic muffins I wouldn’t eat and he would eat too fast with an open mouth, failing to notice the trail of blueberry crumbs he left on my pristine white duvet. The front door shut behind him, I let the call go, and dove into the Styles section for the weddings slated for the weekend. I always sought out the intricate stories with interesting time-lines: six months from first meeting to altar via internet dating; childhood sweethearts, whose original spouses had died, embracing a second chance fifty years in the making. That kind of thing. When Tom returned I was reading about the featured marriage of the week. The wedding had occurred some time back, the black and white was platinum-hued; she was ethereal and winsome, he, handsome and beautifully formed. I could see they were madly in love. I looked up when Tom pulled off his sweats and sat on my bed in his underwear. He did not look fetching that way. We had been together a year, but I hadn’t yet figured out what didn’t work. His legs were squat, his chest too broad for his abbreviated height, his waist square despite a stomach flat from swimming. But he had a strong nose, eyes long-lashed and pool blue, a great head of hair. Still, I had to force myself not to judge his limited vocabulary, his heavy reliance on Howard Stern as his primary source of news, his tendency to pout. A romantic, he was extraordinarily pleased, jealousy-free, when other men looked at me. He loved me to my distraction. On Friday nights he drove a hundred miles to be with me. I appreciated the effort, most of the time. He had been talking rings, pressuring me to fully commit. In the featured marriage, the bride was an artist, a portraitist of miniatures. She had long lived in Soho, in a building of lofts, a pioneer when the area was still woolly, the drafty spaces unconverted, free of things like showers and tubs. Wildly successful later in life, to the journalist she admitted that she never possessed any innate ambition, and thought her refusal to overtly seek the brass ring had created demand for her work. She never married, had never come close. “A traditional life didn’t interest me, but I never thought that meant I wouldn’t have a husband and children,” she was quoted as saying. She was used to a single and singularly expansive life when she met her now-husband in what, now, is their elevator. She considered him her first proper date in fifteen years, although it was subtly implied that the artist had not foregone sex during those years. He was a businessman, two decades divorced, with a fortune and two married daughters with whom he was close. Newly retired and needing a “sea change,” he sold his expansive Park Avenue place. He instructed his broker to look below Houston. “It was serendipity that I bought the loft above hers.” By then, Soho had long been chic; his loft pricey. When he said, “Our relationship moved to the cycle of business,” it was noted that his eyes sparkled, his laugh deep and true. They met and, in four-month increments, cohabitated, conjoined real estate, crooned vows. She was just fifty and he was closer to sixty, but they looked fresh and radiant, with a certain élan. In the photograph, their bodies interlocked well. Immediately after they wed - a splash of a party -they adopted two children from two different countries that still allowed late parental-age adoptions. His first-issue daughters were already doting aunts. The artist’s painting was going well: “My brush now has a certainty hard to define.” He was trying his hand at writing a novel. Their adopted children, named according to their origins at birth, were wonderfully adjusted and precious. The formerly single artist, now incredulously married, was given the last words. “Early on, I decided to wait for the absolute right one. Having not settled, I was unchained when he came along.” When Tom, a lazy reader at the best of times, grew bored, he said, “If you put the cats out of the bedroom, I’ll go down on you.” It was something he did exquisitely well. I looked at him and said nothing. He adjusted the band on his underpants. When the cats pawed at my chest, I lifted the comforter and let them burrow beneath, into the warmth of my wishbone, and when they settled down, in for the long haul, I closed my legs around them.
THINGS I SHOULD HAVE DONE #5
I should have created a first-date questionnaire heartaches ago. My critical queries would have sought, in advance, answers aforethought. Daily, I think of Max, Evan, John, and Sam, and what I could have, should have, avoided. With Max: lengthy instructional tutorials about what he should do with my parts. With Evan: an argumentative year about my degree of relationship committal. I thought his move-in indicated my serious intent. Evan did not. “It took three months before you allowed my clothes into our bedroom closet.” When he said the word our, he punctuated, his pianist fingers quote-marking the air. I replied: “For the last nine months you have been fully ensconced in my closets and drawers.” He said, “That’s the trouble right there. You still think of the apartment as yours.” He was right; I did. And it was. With John: the pregnant discussion, eighteen dreamy months beyond our beginning, about why would I not desire a child half made from his sperm. Only dating four weeks when I laid myself bare, I was forthright. "You're divorced with three," I said, "your youngest just days from maturity, you'll soon be child-support free, but if we grew serious, a child, just one, has to be part of our picture." I would understand, I said, we could remain friends if further fathering was a no-go. He kissed my palms, it was prior to a mutual exchange of I love yous, but his intentions were clear. “Having a child with you would be magical. And, selfishly, I want a do-over, be the parent I should have been before.” The sex that night was tremendous. When my womb wobbled, and I said no to the hormones, we researched adoption. John was game. We went to the Hilton, to a baby fair he heard announced on the radio. The ballroom was crammed. Couples with tightly clasped hands and upside-down crescent smiles wandered the aisles, toe-testing the booths shilling adoptions, foreign and domestic, IVF, implantation, and more. We attended a lecture, heard adopters back for round two: “The baby is yours the minute you hold that bundle of joy.” Romantic and randy, we left holding hands. We Champagne-toasted our decision to adopt. Afterwards, a tad tipsy, we took a final turn around the baby ballroom. That last cockily satisfied saunter did us in. The surrogacy booth beckoned to John: his sperm, fertilizing another’s egg, carried by a third-party womb. “Why won’t you consider this,” he demanded later that night. “I wish it could be your egg, but, at least, we’ll have my sperm.” I said: “It costs something like a hundred thou.” Money wasn’t his issue. I said: “If you didn’t have three pre-existing children, of course I would consider it. But you already have fruit from your loins. For me, it’s critical that we stand likewise related, either both, or neither, to our child.” And, because it was true, I added, “A kid that’s half yours and half some other woman’s, isn’t what I had in mind.” If he hadn’t pressed me so mercilessly and for such a long time, I never would have said what I said: “John, I don’t believe your sperm possesses those indefinable qualities that would make a child remarkable. I’d rather chance the unknown.” With Sam: a late stage admission, some months in, about his predilection for cross-dressing. Divulged over drinks at a trendy Meat Packing bistro, he tried to lessen the blow. Since coupled with me, the urge had vanished, the pressure stemmed in some way. “But in fairness,” he said, “with the full disclosure our love requires,” he could not promise he would never dip into my things. It came as a shock, as did the timing thereof: Sam’s confession had followed, after celebratory sips of Bordeaux, an intricate, exciting discussion about the sort of engagement ring of interest to me. He had been browsing at places out of his price range, learning online about cuts, clarity, carats, and cost. The 4-Cs of the sparklers had excited and confused him. He wanted my input. “I want you to be deliriously happy with the rock that you wear.” Then he explained about his love of wearing stilettos, the swish of silky print dresses against his sinewy skin, the rush he got clasping delicate bras around his broad back. In the shower I think about my unwritten questionnaire. With Robert, at eight, I have another first date. I consider Robert’s reaction were I to request his thoughtful completion of the questionnaire and my analysis of his answers prior to our initial exchange of false information and the ordering of cocktails. The questionnaire would do double-duty. My advance culling, cutting, and discarding of Robert, if he proved inappropriate, would save us both from the heartache of falling in love. Before its birth, we could learn, we should learn, if our potential love’s destiny was to die.