Filed under: my husband
We still argue about how the story goes. As if memory, or our different memories, was an integral part of its meaning. What we agree on is that he burned me. And the culprit was the espresso maker or perhaps the very small size of the apartment where he lived.
243 W. 107th Street Apt. 2B.
He was the new boyfriend of a friend of mine from college. We—my boyfriend at the time and I—had been invited to their house for dinner.
My college chum was making coquilles Saint Jacques. I was late and my then-boyfriend was later, so I arrived alone. I had just started working as a receptionist at the Association of American Publishers; I was wearing my first cheap power suit and cheaper still nylon tights, which I had purchased that morning from Rexalls on lower Broadway.
I had on very high heels, too, which hurt my feet.
I came in and sat on a chair pulled up to the kitchen table, perched on the soft pine wood floor, pitted and gouged as was the fashion of most tenements. He was making coffee.
Someone said “Sheila meet Duncan,” and he turned around with the espresso maker in his hand.
Heat and liquid, liquid and heat. He must have taken it off too soon, because it bubbled over and a jet of dark brown poured into my lap, through the skirt of my (too-cheap) power suit; onto the nylons.
What color were they? Warm Toast? Burnt Almond? Sienna.
They melted and I screamed. No one really knew what to do.
He said, “Oh, my God! Let me look at that.”
I said “Go away.”
He said, “We have to take you to the emergency room.”
After this, the progress of the night gets somewhat confused for me. Like those stories that jump cut forward—leave out the boring parts where character “A” walks down a hallway or climbs a flight of stairs.
A group of us left the apartment; that must be what happened, because I remember walking up Amsterdam Avenue. And I remember noticing that he had a Roman nose—a perfect Roman nose—and wire-rim glasses.
I also remember that I couldn’t stand him. Like a kid who has banged her head hard, all I could think was pain, pain, pain and his fault.
He says he had to keep telling me to keep walking. He says I kept pleading: “Can’t we get a cab?”
But this not a good neighborhood for cabs backs in those days—the early 1980s. We walked ten blocks to Saint Luke’s Hospital at 116th and Amsterdam, the gateway. We all agree the emergency room was busy that night; almost festively so. We joined the long line in front of check-in.
Music was playing from a boom box—ah, the boom box—my favorite nostalgia item from the 1980s. The guy playing the boom box was just ahead of us. He was thin and wearing a beautifully patched and painted leather jacket.
“Don’t push me because I’m close to the edge,” the boom box sang; early Grandmaster Flash, the inventor of scratch, granddaddy of rap.
We didn’t notice for a few minutes that boom box guy also had a knife in his back.
“What are you here for?” said the impassive-faced clerk.
The boy with the boom box whirled around.
“Oh, my!” she said. “Well. Good thing you didn’t try to take it out.”
Boom box boy was whirled away with reassuring speed. The scene might look disorderly, but it was a hospital.
Then me: Burn. Third degree.
He—future love of my love—hovered helpless. Our other friends, acquaintances, dissolved back into the waiting room or went on a search of coffee or soda—at least that is how I remember it.
He says no, everyone was there, right there.
But he was the one who went with me behind the emergency room doors.
You know the drill—they take you to a room and leave you; they send you to another room and leave you. A nurse takes your temperature. Someone asks if you need pain medication.
What can I tell you about him? Only that he waited, a sheepish look on his face. He waited while I did not make conversation, merely glared at him from time to time.
“Sorry,” he said “I’m really really sorry.”
“That’s okay,” I sniffed.
Then the orderly did a funny thing. Perhaps he noticed the hostility on my side. Perhaps he couldn’t make out the intense concern on my husband-of-the-future’s-face. But he said, “Boy your husband sure feels bad about this.”
“My husband?” I shrieked. “He’s not my husband. I don’t even know the guy.”
But the word spread through the emergency room. “Your husband’s waiting,” smirked the pretty Dominican nurse.
“Hey, husband,” said the resident. “Make sure she keeps this bandage clean.”
And then the W-word appeared. “Hey wife, don’t let that man get away.”
“Hey Mr., your wife is all fixed up and ready to go.”
I had a bulky bandage that encased my left thigh; I had antibiotic ointment and a huge bag with “extra dressings,” and a list of supplies I must buy when “extra dressings” ran out. The burn healed, but it took six weeks and I still have a small patch, a ghostly scar of darker skin, which I like to think is the exact color of those cursed cheap nylons.
Warm toast, burnt almond, Sienna…
He remembers that the group of us walked slowly back downtown to his apartment, with much laughing and jumping up lampposts and peering in closed storefronts.
I remember just him and me, which has always embarrassed me a little. I remember noticing that his hair was actually black, not dark brown; eyes hazel—yellow-brown with flecks of green.
He spoke like a much older person. Like a professor. An air of kindliness mixed with a rare detachment. He was not a person, I thought, who would ever elevate a stagger into a grand fall.
The burn was somewhat grave, he said, but it could have been worse.
It hurt, I said. It really, really hurt.
I didn’t hate him anymore, but I wouldn’t have said I exactly loved him either. But a word—I think about this—a word can enter your bloodstream, a small, persistent contagion.
What I mean is I never met him again without thinking—half-consciously, treacherously—“husband.” He says he didn’t exactly think “wife,” but he didn’t forget it either.
A year later, he and my friend broke up. He moved back to Eastern Oregon where he came from. I began writing him. I said in my first letter it was because I had never been good at keeping journals—but I liked the idea of talking to someone with so little to do with me or my daily existence.
Five years later, he invited me to come visit him. He lived in Central Oregon by then—a small town called Sisters on the East side of the Cascades. I went and never took my return flight home. The fourth time I tried to change it at the small regional airport, the guy behind the counter looked at me and said, “Sweetheart, face facts. You’re never going to get on that plane.”
We married a year after that. The friend from town – the local jeweler- who performed the wedding, has never married any other couple. And we wrote our own vows, but being writers, self-conscious about the dreadful possibilities, we stuck pretty close to what people have always said: I promise to love you no matter what. I promise this even if it will often be strained, even if it will often prove debatable what that means, even if it is sometimes a lie.
Husband? Wife? If he were telling this story, the details would all be changed, except for the burn itself. On that we agree. He burned me; some orderlies made a joke, and everything
was decided for us.
Sheila Black is the author of two poetry books, a chapbook How to Be a Maquilladora (Main Street Rag, 2007), and a full-length collection, House of Bone (CustomWords 2007). A third collection Love/Iraq is forthcoming from CustomWords in Fall 2009. She lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico with husband, Duncan, and their three children: Annabelle, Walker, and Eliza.
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