Two Years and Seventeen Months by Luke Whisnant
In the first half-hour of their first date, a blind date arranged by a mutual friend, Rhonda asks Connor what he likes to do, and before he can put down his fork she answers her own question: “I bet you’re like a beach kind of guy, aren’t you, beach more than mountains, like you really love long walks on the beach--that’s how I am. There’s nothing I’d rather do than walk on a moonlit beach.” Connor thought Jesus Christ. A long time ago his father had told him to never order pasta on a first date, but Connor hadn’t spoken to his father in over five years, and feeling contrary and cranky and fed up with first dates, he had ordered Putenesca. He picked up his fork again and twirled a few strands of cappellini through the sauce and lifted it thoughtfully. Rhonda smiled, waiting, raised her eyebrows, blinked her brown eyes in slow motion, nodded at him. Connor chewed. Rhonda asked, “So you like the beach?” Connor panned around the dim bistro--the Chianti bottle candle-holders caked in rainbows of wax, the framed posters of Napoli and Roma and Mount Etna, the leering Chilean waiter wearing his “Eugene” nametag. He watched Rhonda raise a perfectly shaped eyebrow.
“No,” Connor finally said. “I don’t like the beach. And I don’t think anybody really likes the beach. They’re just being disingenuous. Conceptually the beach is an artificial construct, a kind of layering of cliché and perverseness designed for people who read romance novels or don’t really notice their surroundings. If people paid attention, they’d hate the beach. I don’t like it. I don’t like anything about it. I don’t like the sand. The sand gets under your contact lenses and in your socks and on the floormats of your car and in your transmission. I don’t like the flora and fauna--the odor of rotting fish or the stench of drying seaweed or the way those washed-up jellyfish look--they’re grotesque, like internal organs of crashed space aliens or something. I don’t like that note of hysteria in the seagull laugh. It reminds me of bag ladies. I don’t care for the much-vaunted ocean breeze--all that humid salt air in your hair and making your clothes damp and sticky, and smelling like diesel fuel and bird guano. I don’t like getting sunburned and I don’t like getting all greased up with sunblock and I don’t like seeing all those overweight middle-aged women in bikinis with their C-section scars showing or those beer-bellied rednecks in NASCAR caps and Speedos. I don’t like lying on a blanket on the lumpy sand and listening to white-kid hip-hop on some idiot’s boom box three blankets over. I don’t like little kids building sand castles or running along the beach with a plastic pail and shovel and I despise seeing dreadlocked Deadheads in their baggy tie-dye beachwear flinging Frisbees. And it utterly totally creeps me out to watch people body-surf.”
About halfway through his speech Rhonda had set her wineglass down; now she was running a finger over the top buttonhole of her brown blouse, which was unbuttoned three buttons. “Oh my,” she said in a pouty bimbo voice, and instantly Connor perceived that she was being ironic, that she’d seen through him and had understood that he’d just been showing off, and because he had underestimated her he felt suddenly and unexpectedly shy and embarrassed.
They were married four months later.
It was two years of bliss and seventeen months of ennui. Then a few weeks of fighting followed by a no-fault divorce. He knew better, he had known better all along. It was stupid. On their last night together they made a kind of love that was by turns sad and savage, a fuck of despair and anger and finally tenderness, and then Connor coaxed Rhonda into a bubble bath--lavender and vanilla, and he dumped in all that was left in the plastic bottle and threw the empty at the trash can without looking; then he lit a line of tealights and set them along the tub's edge. They had started the night drinking champagne, and Rhonda was drunk; it was the only way, she said, that she'd be able to get through the evening. They sat in the tub, both facing forward with Connor in back, and he pulled her back to snuggle against his chest; he wrapped his arms around her, cupping her breasts lightly. Rhonda sighed. "Don't do that," she said. "You're making this hard enough as it is." Connor let go and began massaging the back of her neck. "Let's not do it," he said, and instantly he couldn't believe he had said it; he'd been looking for a way out for months. But he said it again: "Let's don't."
"David," she said, "it's useless. Admit it. You love me, and I love you, and it still doesn't matter. You just don't like being married."
"Yes I do," Connor said, and he was lying lying lying. She had ravished him so thoroughly, and he had had more champagne than he thought, and now in the warm scented water found he could hardly keep his eyes open; he could not marshall his thoughts or come up with a cogent argument. All he could manage was to repeat "I do."
"You do not." Rhonda slid down further in the tub, bending one leg and lifting the other to brace against the tile wall. Her head was nestled under Connor's chin; he turned his cheek and laid his face against her hair.
"You don't like wedding cake. The icing is too sweet."
What the? Connor thought.
"You don't like married people. They're not cool enough for you. You don't like the kinds of cars they drive and you don't like the clothes they wear or the houses they buy. You don't want children, then you do want them, and then you don't again. You don't like sharing a medicine chest or eating breakfast together or having a joint bank account even though I make more money than you do. You don't like having to ask me if it's okay to change the TV channel, or what color to paint the house, or whether you can go out with Skeet and play pool with a bunch of college girls."
"Now wait," Connor said, but Rhonda didn't stop. "You don't like the idea of kissing only one woman the rest of your entire life. You don't like kissing me anymore because of that. Remember all that kissing we used to do? But now I can feel it, you're thinking, This is the last woman I'll ever kiss in my whole life, and you can't stand it. You don't like being married, Connor, that's all there is to it. You try, you really do, damn you, but I can tell you're faking it. Give me some credit for knowing you that well, at least."
"I am not having an affair with her," Connor said. "She's a friend."
"I believe you're not fucking her. Not kissing her, not fooling around with her. But you're in love with her."
Connor could not say whether this was true or not.
"Anyway," Rhonda said, standing, turning to face him; Connor brushed bubbles from her belly and very tenderly kissed her between her legs. Rhonda stepped back, slinging water, and one of the tealights hissed out. "Just a word of advice, David, for after the divorce comes through."
She reached for a turquoise towel. "Don't marry her."
"Jesus Christ," Connor said mournfully. "Why do you say shit like that to me? You know I'm not--"
But Rhonda was stepping out of the tub by then, her back to him, dripping on the candles. They went out one after another, Connor saw, until there was only one left lit.