The Hammock Half
The difference between my life in Tennessee and my life in the big city amounted to hammocks.
I said this slowly because he looked drunk— likely dim prior to drunk— nonetheless a certain shade of peculiar which seemed attractive. From a distance at first, and now, up close.
He drove ambulances and his name was Thomas but everybody called him James. Just cause.
I looked at him as if that was impossible. He looked at me as if struck by tedium. I looked serious. He looked sodden. He smiled but it was wet. I smiled but it was a sneer. He looked at my lips. I looked to the left. He asked if I knew how to play an arpeggio on the ukulele.
I wanted to know if we were going to sleep together even though I knew we would, I still wanted to know explicitly, laid out clear as the subtitles in a French film that translate it for you. The action being one language, the words another. Words which qualified the actions—his arm brushed against my thigh—words on the prowl like revisionist historians in stuffy sweater vests.
He said I could call him Thomas or James—one name just as good as the other—and I felt this to be a form of coyness on his part, a hard-to-gettish play. A play, a ploy, a sodden boy. How would we get to where we were going?
I said the suspense was killing me. Which did he prefer? But not why. A why would lead us far away. His fly still zipped tight.
I’m shy, I admitted. He leaned against my shoulder for confirmation. He said it’s okay call me James it’s what everyone does.
Is this what everyone does?
It’s what everyone does.
If it’s not romantic love, then it’s your move, he said. As if it was a game hence the play, the ploy. His eyes were wet and I could feel them like Friday night subway gazes lubricating my movements, slowing me down.
In the room, people shushing and pushing and leaning like sculptures in a scrap metal yard, the sound of rust on rust. A harem of abandoned high heels near the couch left by dilettantes who had not yet learned the technique of walking away. Never leave your heels.
Elaine waved her arms in sad pinwheels. She spoke stridently about her toddler’s ballet class and the women who didn’t work but came to watch their daughters dance.
One of the women is always gabbing with another woman in her tennis group and I wish they would shut up so I could watch my daughter in peace. I hardly get to see her you know.
Because I work. Full-time.
Mark asked how Elaine was enjoying private practice as compared to the residency. A glass broke in another part of the room.
It’s fabulous. My patients bring me handmade presents. I love the one-on-one, the talking and relating to others.
James had gone to refill our drinks with poison. Faces wilted in the scent of aggressive flower perfumes.
Maybe that woman in ballet is just trying to be friendly, Mark suggested. His face was tanned, slender, sophomoric. Mark was perpetually relaxed.
Nonsense, Elaine scoffed. That poor woman is just jealous of me because I made something of myself and she spends all day fussing over her toddler. I am a doctor, you know. I have a career.
James tottered between chairs mid-stride. I hoped he could still get it up. My mind was transfixed by later.
Wellllll, drawled Mark, My wife stays home with our kids and she thinks working moms are jealous of her for that. Because they have to define themselves outside the home.
Nonsense, Mark. Your wife is a hoot. Where is she tonight anyway? Is she keeping the nest warm for you?
Elaine’s voice strained with sarcasm. I looked at her legs and thought about sisterhood—all the sniping and judgement and invisible conflict. If I didn’t get laid tonight, I might slit my wrists. Or at least begin a new series of watercolors.
The things I wanted to know could not move in a straight line.
Elaine laughed too abruptly, the laugh of a half-convinced fan. She and Mark’s wife were both fiesty women who spoke their minds and now they spoke from opposite sides of a fence created to keep them from bonding together. Being a feminist, one could not help but cry a little. Some early Elvis Costello song people performed karaoke.
James asked if I liked karaoke. And then he kissed me because it was as good a reason to kiss as we could find.
Alliteration being a good reason for anything.
Soft, slippery lips that tasted sweet but crept about like slugs. I thought of children’s theatre with marionettes and Ingeborg Bachmann and Geraldo Rivera. I thought I felt something but it was his hand between my thighs and the bass.
Is this okay? James whispered in a sober, very serious tone.
I said it was fine but I wish there was a hammock underneath to keep our feet from touching the ground.
He said he could make a hammock. If I wanted. If it was okay. He would. For a moment, our necks craned like turtles circumventing their shells for a deeper kiss.
How could you make—a hammock?
My breath came in spurts. Elaine slumped on a stool her left foot missing a heel.
I watched James fumble with a red chenille blanket from the sofa, his knuckles white from tying knots, and the abrupt frenzy of moving hands gave rise to the feeling that we were going somewhere.
James smiled, his eyes faded gray flannel. Do you feel okay?
I feel like we’re going somewhere, I said.
His laugh melted into the bass, the mirth of background sound. When James hoisted me into his makeshift hammock—really a blanket hanging between his arms, one corner tied to his wrists—I said maybe this was substantial, the thing with the hammock and how suddenly undrunk he seemed while walking across the crowded room. There was some incense from Bangladesh and tiny white strings of LED lights.
There were faces in various phases of developmental intoxication, bodies in various phases of undress. I thought of Stalingrad—which I never visited—and then Leningrad where my ex-boyfriend was born, and other things as my face sunk into his shoulder to avoid farewell conventions. Later. Yeh later.
James carried me down six flights of stairs and then across uneven sidewalks. Without speaking, he carried. Without speaking, I was carried. Who knows how long he hammocked me. Who knows why streetlights become fireflies when you squint, the traffic sounds like crickets and we could be anywhere else but this big city. We could be in a place with doormats that said Welcome Home.
On his bed, we talked about pine trees and the ghost of childhood bedtime. He removed my shirt and skirt carefully. Are you okay?
I was. Maybe better than okay. Not worth saying. The difference between bullets comes out marginal in the flesh.
They were Cherokee moccasins. Laced to mid-calf. If I let him remove them, how would this whole thing end? How would I get away? One shoe here, another shoe there, a girl pooling herself together.
I’ll carry you, he said. And so I laid back in the hammock and admired our sway.