Some Problems, Cha-cha-cha by Fiona Maazel

BOMB 104 Summer 2008
Issue 104 104  Cover

I have some problems and here is one: My friend who’s a vegetarian, I forgot and bought her a rotisserie bird, which I dismembered on her coffee table at three a.m. Grease pearling on my lips and fingertips. No regard for the indecorousness of the thing. Me and my bleating heart. I had a leg in hand and one on deck before I recognized the look on her face. A hybrid look, and I’d seen it before, less on her than my lover, who had spent the last three years sacking my self-esteem and apologizing for it. Equal parts remorse and sack, and so for the umpteenth time that week, I was laid low.

And to think I’d had desires. A few days earlier, I’d applied to teach inner-city kids how to tap dance. You had to provide your own shoes and studio, so really what they wanted was a person of means whose pedagogy they’d brook for a shuffle or two. This lover of mine, he’d read my application and made comments on the doc, on screen, which is how efficient our rapport had become. I did what he said and emailed my hopes, only I forgot to turn off the editing function, which meant his notes were visible to the HR lady who, if she was touched, never let on. I got an email back with my letter attached and when I rethought his notes from the HR’s vantage, they said, in essence, you are not good enough for me. This lover, he never loved me. I saw him tonight. Talking to a woman who, it turned out, was crying, maybe because he was sacking her self-esteem, too, but more likely because this was the woman he’d thrown me over for and now she was getting that inchoate feeling you always had with the lover who never loved, that you adored him in proportion to how much he was going to wreck your life, and that the more ruinous he seemed, the more adoring you got. I walked in on this crying—how was I to know?—and then walked right out. This lover and I, we parted six days ago. I said, Let’s regret nothing. Let’s not be mad. And he said: I’m not mad at all.

Two days after refusing me the job, the HR lady left a message. Wanted to talk, she said. Follow-up. My vegetarian friend, who was actually a vegan, insisted I go. She was picking chicken from the shag of her carpet with tweezers.

“Maybe they’ve reconsidered.”

“Maybe they called my bank.”

“Maybe,” she said, “they did both.”

The HR lady was sororal, at least on message, like she knew I’d taken a hit and wanted to make it right. Maybe even to teach me something about self-regard that I would alchemize into the best advice I ever got. My vegan friend, whose name is Carol, she said: There are giblets in my shag. I was three fingers into a whole new arena of self-love when you rang, and now there are giblets in my shag. Do not belabor, just go.

My friend, Carol, is the only friend I have. But apparently, in the aftermath of seeing a woman cry on your ex-lover’s shoulder—and could it be worse? she had the most beautiful, weepy eyes—you abjure the niceties and belabor the rest.

I slept on the futon with Proxy, who is Carol’s dog, one of those city dogs you can fit in your purse—not a philandering, lothario dog with no standards, but a dog who simply knows the smell of meat and from whence it came. Carol, whose sense of humor is less morbid than uniformly inappropriate, got Proxy the day after her brother died of idiopathic heart failure while driving, and then killing, their parents en route to a mall in New Jersey. This was two years ago and the dog, for the imprimatur of his name, probably does as well as the next guy, if not better.

I am okay with letting it drop, that is how my lover tied it off, our three years no more than a niggling carp between friends. Let’s just drop it. In my cover letter to the YMCA, I said I was good with children and responsive to the yearning malaise of those teen years when more than tap, you wanted to look good and more than looking good, you wanted to be goodbecause how many opportunities were you going to get to suss out your talent and plumb your worth? The lover’s marginalia? I’d let this drop. I wonder now if he was practicing.

Carol shuffled into the living room. Her hair was in low pigtails. Flannel pajamas sized for a man—she’d pinned the cuffs but would not hem—which she wore every night since the accident. They were her brother’s. They smelled like groin. I sat up and made room. There was coffee enough for nine cups, one for me, eight for her.

“When’s the appointment?” she said.

“It’s not an appointment.”

“What will you wear?”

“No idea. But I guess these fishnets won’t do.” I strut my leg and examined its girth. There wasn’t much net left. I’d worn this hose to the party last night and done it some violence on the way here.

Carol tilted her head back and upturned her mug above her mouth, tapping the base and fielding the drops with her tongue.

“I’m exhausted,” she said. “Back to bed.”

It was a Friday morning. On a subway platform nearby, people were waiting in loafers and pumps, six and seven deep.

“Your job?” I said. “Last I checked, you had a job.”

“Exhausted,” she said, and stared bleakly at the TV, which was on and touting news of the day’s drama in countries whose problems were so insurmountable, we could not care less.

“Famine,” she said. “Blah.”

I grazed Proxy’s spine with my nails. He was on the futon with chin and paws flush with the cushion like he’d been faceplanted in the mud during recess and never found the wherewithal to get up.

Carol said I had to take him to the doggy gym. “Penance,” she said, in case I felt like arguing, which, it so happened, I did.

“He’s lethargic. I don’t see him jumping hoops today.”

“That’s not lethargy,” she said. “In this house, we call it something else.”

“I see,” and I gave her a little squeeze on the shoulder because while I don’t know how to be affectionate, I know when it’s required. She hoisted her pajama legs above the knee. The skin of her caps was textured like rind. It’d been two years since her last date, I was sure.

I said, “You know the lover who never loved me still lives a block away from the gym, right? He’s at my place.”

She stood. I noticed veins in her neck I’d never seen before. Piping. Livid. “You have got to stop calling him that,” she said.

“You think boyfriend’s any kind of improvement? Or Lewis? Who’s named Lewis?”

“What’s wrong with boyfriend?”

“Pigeon hole.”

“Well what did you call him when you were together?”

“Strudel Poodle.”

“I’m going to throw up.”

“I’ll get the leash.”

 

Proxy does not want to walk. We don’t make it halfway down the block before he’s belly flopped on the asphalt. He looks like one of those rugs in your uncle Bob’s hunting lodge, only Proxy’s the size of the catch you’d find in the rug’s gut. I do some yanking and pleading and begin to find in this process kinship with how most of my relations transpire. Finally I just scoop him under my shoulder, which is where the kinship ends. First the gym, then the Y. I don’t want to be tardy. I’ve balled my fishnets and stuffed them in my bag. It’s cold enough for the skin of my legs to pill, but not so bad that strangers will be missing my tights. Recently, I’ve come to realize that people can find in most anything evidence that you’re crazy.

The dog’s passed out atop the net in my bag. I worry there’s going to be a strangling, which might give the dolphin lobby a jolt, but which won’t do anything for me.

I look left, I look right, and hug the walls of every building as we proceed.

The gym is windowed on two sides, presumably so the dogs can behold the world from a distance. I rush in the door and make for the back because while the windows are letting the pets see out, they are also letting the lover-beloved see in. He passes this way a lot. Even used to come home and tell me about it.

The gym maitre d’ frees the tote from my shoulder like she’s undressing me, one strap at a time, except for the part where it’s the bra she wants and not the person underneath. Probably, I get this a lot. I do have money, after all. She sets the bag down and encourages Proxy to show himself. He doesn’t. I say the dog’s depressed, she says, “That’s not what we call it around here.” I notice a shelf of vitamins and an open cabinet of charts—health records—that seem alarming and heuristic, only the other dogs look fine.

The D’ wants to know where’s Carol. My phone rings and it’s Carol. The gym supplies its clients access to webcams perched throughout the facility so that if you’re on business in Morocco and your dog’s on a Moroccan poof in New York, seeing is believing. She’s watching us from home.

Carol says, “Proxy’s just lying there. He looks dead. My boy, what a love.”

I tell the D’ Carol is home sick. And to Carol I say, “The webcam isn’t giving you the big picture.”

“I don’t want the big picture.”

“Right.”

I make for the window while the D’ busies herself with a kibble medley that looks suspiciously like Purina, but which she’s ladling into plastic baggies and sealing with festive ribbon. “Antioxidants,” she says, and gestures at Proxy, who’s shaped himself into a croissant by the wall.

Carol says, “Buy me a bag, okay? And stop staring out the window like that.”

I say, “Since when am I the star of this show? Watch your dog.” But I know she’s seen it on my face—a hybrid look of my own—and I am embarrassed. I’d been stalling. Scrubbing the dogs behind their ears. Asking the D’ to explain why a toy-possessive dog isn’t eligible for gym membership, while a sluggish, I-wish-I-were-dead dog gets the royal T. She said maybe it was time for me to go, time to walk the animals, only she failed to mime the words and the dogs went nuts. All, of course, but one.

Truth is, I’d been waiting for my lover-come-back-to-me to press his forehead to the glass. Splay fingers and fog up the view and to tell me about it later. If I looked pretty last night, today I had the blush of the hybrid, which is like the glow of TB only less ironic. Last night I had no idea I’d be seeing him, today I had dread and longing and the look in which these poles are consolidated, the look Carol is saying she knows all too well, for when you’d give anything to see your people walk through the door except that if it happened, you’d be lost all over again because it can never be the same.

I say, “Carol, enough. I’m hanging up now.”

She says, “But I can still see you either way.” And: “Oh, Christ, here comes trouble.”

And to think this whole time I’d been going, If my lover-Lewis walks by, make sure to note his receded hairline with distaste. Regard the way his skin’s turned putty at the neck. Acknowledge that if we were supposed to grow old together, he had started first. Crow’s feet. Screaming pores. Early-onset cataracts—just the hem of a cloud on the margin of each eye but foretelling of a comprehensive and obdurate fog that is the segue between being old and looking it. Old, old, old.

Carol says, “You’re not in jail. Step away from the window,” and when I don’t move she yells into the phone with crackdown authority.

The dogs, for having been excited about their walk, are now made ecstatic by the jingle of bells slung over the front door-knob when my lover-disaster walks in.

He wants to know what I am doing here. I say, “Hi! Hello! How are you? Hi!” He is wearing a black and green striped scarf. Cashmere with a fringe. His lips are red with cherry balm and his hair a rowdy mess.

He says, “Well, look: About last night. It’s not what you think.”

I wave him off and say, “Hi! Funny running into you again!” and I think: You are doing great.

Carol says, “You’re about to cry! Resist! Be strong!”

He says, “Wait, are you on the phone?”

I hush the mouthpiece and say it is Carol, which basically means: Her family’s dead, so back off. Also: How about some dispensation, here? And finally: You jackass. You jackass!

“Well, anyway,” he says. “That woman last night—”

I put up my hand to stop him there. In my letter to the Y, I’d said, Tap isn’t dance, it’s an education! He’d cut the line and said some things, among them: Exclamation points are scenic and frivolous. Stay focused. So now I am focused and put up my hand, which means: Don’t lie to me about your smutty weepy girlfriend, period.

He asks about Carol’s dog. What’s wrong with her dog? “Jesus,” he says. And: “I’m sorry.”

I say I want to come home, which means he has to get out. He shrugs and says, “Here come the lawyers.” And Carol says, “Here come the lawyers,” because while me and the lover-squatter have been negotiating the extent to which we are going to war through the next few months, the D’s been saying: “I’m sorry, but Proxy can’t be here today. He’s depressing the other dogs. Look.” And it’s true, they are arrayed throughout the gym in stages of coma that bear no relation to the ebullience of yore. Still, I am not sure it is Proxy’s fault.

“We’re going,” I say, and reach for the lover-in-crime’s arm, thinking our evil vibe is the one thing we still share and becoming increasingly evil with the thought.

The D’ returns Proxy to my bag and drapes it over my shoulder.

Carol is saying, “I’m gonna sue the crap out of these people.”

And the lover says nothing because the lover is gone. I watch his backside recede into the day. His shoulders cant more than should become a man, but what good does this do me now.

 

At the Y, Ms. Wynkoop is waiting for me in her office, which is a janitor’s closet plus desk, which is itself a square of plywood on cinder blocks. She says they are remodeling, pardon the inconvenience. I notice her hands are chalked in dust and that this dust stands out exquisitely against her skin, a shade of black I have never seen on a person up close. Loamy black, black-forest-cake black, black I’m a little scared black. She asks me to sit. On the floor is a plug-in kettle that’s offering up hot water and those deposits of lime that accrue around the coils inside. In my Styrofoam cup is a tea bag, Splenda, and limey bits that outsmart my spoon as if they know when I’m coming.

Ms. Wynkoop looks about 60. Her hair’s white and Brillo’d tight against her skull and I feel like she’d benefit from a wig but would feel lesser for it. She thanks me for stopping in. Says, “I know this seems unorthodox so I just want to clarify up front that I did give the job to someone else. Oh, there’re no dogs allowed in this building.”

I am as startled as she is because Proxy has actually jut his head from the tote, like a mole nosing the fresh air. I do a little repressing and put the bag on my lap. I say, “I’m sure you hired someone great.” I think I say this in a questioning tone of voice because what the hell does this woman want with me, but she says, “We have, yes. She had more experience.”

I laugh and say, “Not much of an endorsement since I have no experience.”

“Yes, I noticed you said in the work section of your resume that you’ve been doing this and that.”

“Fawning,” I say. “Apparently, I have done nothing but fawn. Three years worth of fawning.”

“We’re not talking about the same thing anymore, are we.”

“No, we are. Just on a larger scale.”

Ms. Wynkoop has an equanimity that probably suits her to the rigors of her job, though just now her earrings, which are gold links, have begun to doodle about her neck with gusto. She’s shaking her head. Shaking and retrieving from a canvas satchel by her feet a folder in which is my cover letter and resume and, in red, the tell-all marginalia. I say, “Is it because I forgot to delete those comments? Because that means I’m sloppy? Because I certainly know enough about tap to teach kids, even if I don’t have, you know, computer skills.”

Wynkoop is still shaking. She says, “I was married to a missionary once. He died of malaria. Now I have three orphan grandchildren in Sierra Leone. Most days I have no idea who’s looking after them and I can’t even be sure they get the money I send.”

Proxy has been in pursuit of his tail for the last two minutes. His efforts are noncommittal and geriatric, which means that while I can feel him shifting about, the bag hardly moves.

“That’s tough,” I say and begin to wonder if maybe HR Wynkoop is asking me for money or to donate money or to help endow something with my money.

She’s put on reading glasses that hail from a local pharmacy. I can tell because they still have the tag on. She’s scanning my letter with her finger, looking for something. When she finds it, she leans back in her chair and reads aloud: “Tap isn’t dance, it’s an education!” Seems no one appreciated that line. “I notice,” she says, “that the person who edited this letter—”

“—My lover who never loved me, ” I say.

“Yes, that sounds right, anyway, I notice he’s written in the margin, ten percent of Americans think Joan of Arc is Noah’s wife. Where is your perspective?” She looks at me over her glasses while I thrill to the prospect of ragging on my ex in public, and smile accordingly. There’s even a trembling in my legs and lower abdomen, which I think is more excitement than I’ve had in months until Wynkoop’s out of her chair and trying to shut the door because that trembling was not my self-esteem’s prelude to a volcanic release after years of stress, but Proxy’s readying for a tote-break, which he’s executed with unprecedented vitality.

We are not even out the door before he’s ripped down the hallway and over-turned a can of white latex primer that oozes across the floor like yogurt.

I get on my cell phone and race after him. There are drawings in crayon and marker that festoon the walls, and, even though I’m running, I notice one picture of a face split in serrated halves and underscored with text—in a kid’s scrawl—that says, 2007.

Wynkoop blows by me and heads into the stairwell, which is penal without regret. The stairs are gated so you can’t jump the banisters, and the banisters have been fitted with Velcro strips to deter the kids from rollerblading down them. I put Carol on speakerphone. She says she’s on her way. I say there’s no need, we’ll find him. She says, “Then why did you call?” I bet she’s here in two minutes.

I imagine these kind of emergencies are common at the Y given the facility with which Wynkoop takes the stairs two at a time. I am hard-pressed to catch up. I can hear her shoes clatter and think the acoustics in this well must be murder when it’s full of kids. Then I realize only her shoes are making noise. Tap tap tap.

We skip the second and third floors because the doors to the stairwell are shut, and, last I checked, Proxy’s strength was still small breed. At the third floor, we step into the hall and flip on the lights. If the place is being renovated, there are no workers to confirm it.

“On strike,” Wynkoop says. “Underpaid, overworked.”

This explains the drywall on her hands. Wynkoop has been moonlighting. I say, “So you hired yourself to teach tap, as well?” She’d been walking gingerly, whispering with her feet, but barely.

“Busted,” she says. “I told them no one volunteered, but that they could pay me $10 a class.”

“How’s it going?”

“Horribly. Class is in five minutes, though. Can you find this dog on your own?”

I nod and say, “But are we done here? That’s it?”

She says, “Tap’s on the top floor, if you want to come see.”

I trot to the end of the hall, calling Proxy’s name. I get a text message from Carol, she’s in the lobby and closing in. I text my lover who never loved me and say I love him horribly.

Carol’s still in her brother’s pajamas, though she’s tucked the legs into snow boots. It’s not snowing, but never mind. She is panting.

“Find him?”

“No.”

We tour the floor, he is not here. The look on Carol’s face is purebred. Absolute panic. By the time we get to the top floor, she’s taken off her sweater and pajama top and tied them about her waist. I hear music. Something Latin. Congas, piano, flute. I hear Wynkoop going: Up, up, walk! And I hear Carol wailing for her dog. What I do not hear is my cell phone chiming news of a message back.

Carol leans against the wall. She passes the rear of her hand across her forehead and wipes the sweat on her pants and just as suddenly tears at them and her boots as if they are on fire. Soon, she is wearing nothing but tank and boxer shorts. She is cursing and saying what sort of horrible person loses a dog at the YMCA and then she is crying and saying she hates these pajamas, they feel gross, and can I just get rid of them?

We hear, in addition to Wynkoop and the Mambo, some cheering and hooting and laughter. I help Carol up and we approach the tap room, whose subject of cheer we can’t see because of the circle of kids. Kids in cargos and jeans and hiking boots, none dressed for tap because none actually come for tap. Like tap is what they need. I notice one’s got a cigarette behind his ear; he looks about 13. Another’s got an abrasion round his neck like he’d been strangled with a belt. I try to peer through them. They are clapping in sync with the music. Shuffle hop step! goes Wynkoop. And then a few kids move and I get to see what’s happening at last. In the middle of this circle is Carol’s dog. He is up on his hind legs and testing how it feels.

Fiona Maazel’s first novel, Last Last Chance, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in March.

Fiona Maazel by Justin Taylor
Fiona Maazel
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BOMB 104, Summer 2008

Featuring interviews with Meg Stuart, Karen Kelley and Barbara Schroder, Kalup Linzy, Peter Saul, Mike Davis, Boredoms, Will Eno, and James Timberlake.

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Issue 104 104  Cover