“It’s not as bad as a medium,” Dale said. I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I looked amused.
“It has a flexibility of form that lets you almost put yourself in the frame.” I thought about how hard you’d have to hit someone’s nose for it to bleed, remembering many times when I’ve gotten hit in the nose with a football, an elbow, a cabinet door. It would sting like death; but when I put my hand up there would be nothing there, no blood. Then other times I’ve woken up in the morning, needing to blow my nose, and seen it show red.
You shouldn’t think that way about your friends, though. They’re interested in different things is all.
“Dale,” I said, “let’s watch the previews. Kim isn’t going to be an artist. Neither am I, and she doesn’t like missing previews.” I thought about finding a pay phone.
“Damn straight,” she said, turning from me to look at Dale. “You know how I love previews. It’s hard to see how anyone could not take them seriously.”
“So watch them.” He was miffed. When he was younger and not around, I used to say, “Dale is not dumb—he just forgets things.” Once a teacher overheard me and told me to give Dale a break, he’s had a hard life. I don’t think the guy even knew him. He probably noticed Dale’s sideways-leaning nose, asked somebody for his name, and assumed the rest.
Dale crossed his legs in the other direction. “Simmer down,” Kim said. Dale smiled. I snorted. It was hard not to say something bitter, knowing that we were so close to a real realignment. In a couple days they would go somewhere without me and maybe mention it casually the next day. “Nicely trained,” I could have said, or “You’re so good for each other . . . ” This kind of thing always happens to me, I thought. This one time, anyway, at least I’m conscious of it.
The titles were flashy, a kind of teal blue against a fast-moving aerial shot of a city, probably L.A. It was the third movie in a month with an opening sequence like that, and I was sure nobody else noticed. Long panning, fancy titles, and local-flavored music in all three; tonight it was pseudo-punk, the way a McDonald’s commercial would do it. I almost stood up right then and said, “An Indian summer is a bummer for all of us.” No one would have any idea what I meant, but I could have explained it away somehow to Dale and Kim, as a gesture or a “Haven’t you ever felt like doing something like that?” display. I did that once before with Kim, though, so it might not have worked this time. No matter, since I didn’t say it.
I leaned back, savoring the stiff feeling in my back from slouching too long. I shouldn’t even have been at a movie. Two days before, I had left a message for my wife to call me: two days. Was that supposed to be a response or something? Anybody would call back by that time. I knew that until the call came I was going to keep lying awake, going back upstairs for a final look at the paper, opening the fridge, and trying to get to sleep before two. And during the day I wouldn’t be able to start anything that took more than ten minutes. I should have decided that she wasn’t going to call for at least a week and I would have felt a lot better, but only cretins can tell themselves what to believe.
Another cop love movie. Why was it supposed to be so surprising that cops have sex and get their feelings hurt? That was still okay with me, as long as nobody said, “Oh, Rick, I’ve been such a fool” or “I’m going to get to the bottom of this, Mister.” There are limits. But even when a movie passes the limits, I can feel good because it means I get to qualify my opinion for people and show my discriminating intelligence.
Time passed. The movie was fine, except I missed the scene of the big crime when Dale sneaked his arm around Kim and I went to the restroom to throw up, the first time in two years. Although I can’t stand the feeling right before, there’s a tangy sharpness in your mouth afterwards that is pleasant if you know you can rinse your mouth out soon. That’s how it was then. Ah, sweet bile, you take me away for a few minutes.
The movie wasn’t strong enough to make a change in atmosphere, so we had a normal conversation on the way home, as I recall. Kim said of the excess salt in soy sauce, “It’s not as if it adds to the flavor,” and Dale could only briefly restrain himself from talking of Lender’s bagels. I have sometimes gone weeks without referring to kosher food of any kind. Fortunately, there was no need for me to control the conversation because I was driving and couldn’t be dropped off first, no matter what.
Several things could have happened. Nancy could have come home too late to call, both nights—easy, with a job like that. And it was bordering on tax season anyway. The phone might have been busy the one time she called, too. Or she might not have gotten the message. The streets are full of people like her sister who promise to write things down and then forget. Of course, Nancy might call after three or four days and say, “Sorry, I just got so busy.” I couldn’t believe that was normal, and Dale and Kim both agreed until I took them home. It was good that they lived four miles apart. That was a help in the early stages.
On the landing I stopped to listen for ringing noises, stupidly. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen. There was a newspaper on my doorknob, which was okay because it was time to look for auto maintenance coupons. I wanted to get my tires rotated in case I needed to go somewhere on a long trip unexpectedly. “The Valley Times,” I said. “It was the valley of times. There is no time like a valley. No, I use the valley times parking, but tipping is hell.” I listened again, rang the doorbell. I could hear it fine through the door.
I used to think about strange possibilities. What if two people wanted to call each other and thought the exact same thing at the exact same time? They would dial at the same time, both get a busy signal, give up at the same time, try again, do the same, and never be able to talk to each other. Unless one of them worked in an office and had a two-button phone. But suppose they didn’t—whether they got frustrated and gave up, or didn’t, it would be the same, even if their minds were that close. They might pick a random time and suddenly start dialing: Okay, now . . . and it would be the same random time for both of them. You couldn’t get around that.
Firestone had a good price on a tune-up, but I didn’t need it. Or they would give me a free car wash with the purchase of four new tires, surely a compelling reason to spend two hundred dollars. If only I had an automatic transmission. It’s important to keep up with the newspapers. However, friends are not the best deal. You get: companionship, ears for your bitching, invitations. You also get: obligations, their bitching, and then they fall all over each other.
The phone rang. The first ring I sat through; on the second I walked to the kitchen, thinking (to say it would have been pathetic), “It obviously isn’t her. It’s a tape or somebody routine.” Midway through the third ring I grabbed it, deliberately. Dale’s voice said, “Hey, Nicholas, I just wondered if you had heard from your wife. I didn’t want to ask you at the movie because, you know.”
Thinking of two or three ways to remind him of what he owed me, I said, “I’ll let you know. It’d just be a weekend, and we’ve done that before.” I did not say, “Breathe, Dale, breathe in! You can’t forget that anymore. You’re welcome.”
Then he said, rushing the words a little, “Oh, Kim and I are going to do something together tomorrow night. I just wanted to make sure it was okay with you. That was the whole idea, right?”
“Do you know what to do with a rolling donut, Dale?”
“No, Nicky, I know. You told me before.”
“Fine,” I said. “You’re fine. That was the whole idea.”
When Nancy called the next morning—her sister hadn’t given her the message—I was charming as hell because I had lost my best friend to my other best friend and why would something else go wrong? We made up over a long weekend in the mountains, and now we have dinner with Dale and Kim every week, but I can’t figure out why being happy makes me feel so desperate.