The Endless Visit
Fiction by Richard Burgin
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Incredible how easily she fell in with him, let him have his way with her. Too horrible to think it was because of his money or that money was even a primary factor, but what else could she think? She knew she was attractive, or attractive enough not to have to have an affair with someone twice her age, so what else could it be? Besides, she'd already accepted a number of gifts from him and now Walter was talking about taking her to Rome and Switzerland. Worse still, lately she'd been fantasizing about his money while they made love and worrying that he somehow knew it. It was irrational to think he could know her thoughts but she worried anyway. Walter was a clever man who couldn't be fooled for long. He'd made his money in banking and the stock market--had inherited some from one parent and was waiting for the rest from another. It was ghoulish his waiting around for death to happen so he could get still more money, yet there she was sleeping with him--a man as old as her father (assuming her father, wherever he was, was still alive)--so wasn't she as bad or worse than Walter or for that matter Barbara, who in essence was doing the same thing herself? Barbara was, in fact, looking steadily at her now, staring at her with huge blue eyes a hypnotist would kill for. It took Carla a few seconds to realize Barbara had come to one of her rare rest stops and was waiting for her to say something.
"You knew what it would be like. Whenever you see her it's always the same," Carla finally said.
"No, this time it was different."
"How? How was it different?"
"This time it was just incredible--It was like no time had gone by at all since the last time I went to Florida. Like it was all part of the same endless visit."
"Okay, so you want to tell me?" Carla said, running her fingers through her hair. It was long and dark (the approximate color of Barbara's) and hung down straight below her waist. Barbara did the same thing a moment later to her own hair.
"If you don't want me to or--"
"No, no. Go ahead--"
Barbara smiled for a second, then closed her eyes and drew in a breath (while Carla quickly checked her watch). They were sitting on facing chairs a few feet apart at the far end of Barbara's loft. Her finished paintings and paintings-in-progress were hung all around them. Garish, melodramatic abstracts that looked like dismembered animals or worse, as far as Carla was concerned.
"This time she not only turned me down cold about the money--even though it's nearly Christmas--I expected that, but this time there wasn't even a pretense of any interest in me."
"That's par for the course," Carla said.
"No, no, I usually get a pretense but this time nothing at all about my life, nothing about my paintings either, of course. Yet she had obviously spent an absurd amount of time on her makeup to impress me. When I commented on how nice her living room looked she said, 'I still think all my best assets are above my neck, don't you?' as if she were afraid I was calculating the worth of her adored antiques that were crowded all around us. 'I still have all my own teeth,' she said, 'I have very few wrinkles--just a few around my mouth and none on my forehead, and look at my hair--at my age most women's hair begins to get thinner but mine is getting thicker and longer.'"
"She moved forward a bit in her chair the better to show me her face. I sat forward too and stared at my mother. It was funny but despite the painted-on look of her hard red lipstick and her marmalade orange rouge, the total effect wasn't bad--made her look as if she really had tricked time and really would always look pretty and never too old."
"It sounds like you're hallucinating her instead of seeing her," Carla said.
"No, no, I hallucinate nothing--I see her all too clearly. Believe me. It wouldn't be the same every time if I didn't see her clearly."
"Okay, okay. It was just a thought--So go on," Carla said.
Another little intake of air like a fish, and Barbara continued. It was not going to be a good listening day, Carla thought. As soon as she heard "Florida...mother...painting" she felt like saying, 'I'm experiencing my own déja vu here, Barbara, my own endless visit. Is the purpose of my life to listen to your same story after I've already spent the whole day working for you?' But, of course, she said nothing and kept trying to look interested.
People always assumed she was a good listener, but why? Maybe it was just the look on her face, just something a little pale or unaggressive about her. Because speech was, like everything else, about aggression. You talked because you talked first. You got the power of talking because you seized it. It was the contemporary version of the western gun duel. Whoever drew first and shot, killed the other with their speech--only it was a slow death through repeated verbal assault. And people didn't just talk, they confessed. They told her about their incest and drug addiction and fantasies about children and, in Barbara's case, her unrecognized artistic brilliance and her hatred for her mother, the narcissistic miser. Then the last few months also about Joan, the latest young lover to have left her, and then on to the entire ontology of her lesbianism.
There was supposed to be a passive power in listening but Carla never felt it. Instead it was like playing Ping-Pong with your hands strapped behind your back. It was a constant attack during which you could do nothing as the words kept hitting you one after another like Ping-Pong balls. Where was the power in that?
It was the same with Walter. They were at the bar in SoHo, he was a nice-looking man, but much older. Yet somehow he dared to start talking--drew his gun first, as it were, and it was all over. Not just for that night but for their whole relationship. The pattern had been set and that was it. If there were going to be any deviations from it, any surprises, he would provide them. And so he did, although they were always below the waist surprises. Things he would do to her, things involving his below the waist life. But she was never surprised above the waist--in her mind-- by him or Barbara either. When would she, Carla, surprise someone else? What was keeping her from interrupting Barbara and saying, 'Enough said, Boss. I've got to be going now.' Or maybe something a little less direct but ultimately leaving, at least or deciding when she would leave, so she could attend to her own life where Walter was waiting for her. If only there were some way to make Barbara stop or just disappear but she had great difficulty interrupting her or Walter either, just like she had trouble interrupting her own mother when she was alive or even talking to her own father before he left for the west. She thought about him disappearing into California like a termite inside a house and shuddered.
"My mother found a new obsession! " she heard Barbara say. It was as if her volume button had suddenly been pressed, as if she were somehow part human, part TV.
"It was early, yet she wanted to take me to dinner to 'a classy new restaurant' in Gulfport near the pier," Barbara continued. "Since she'd never spent more than eight dollars on me for any meal, my curiosity was piqued. First, as a kind of hors d'oeuvre, she wanted to show me her condominium clubhouse (which, of course, she'd already shown me several times before) where my father used to play bridge, then the streets of her beloved Gulfport.
"We walked along the sidewalk parallel to the town beach. My mother told me for the umpteenth time about how my father loved to walk down this sidewalk with his shirt open. She invariably talked to me about him as if she were describing a very important man I barely knew, as if I hadn't grown up with him and seen and known his habits for myself. I admit the man jumped to fulfill her every whim, but 1'd still had my own relationship with him, hadn't I?
"We walked onto the main street of the town littered with pseudo art galleries and junky stores--places called 'Top This Boutique" and "Van Gogh's Art Gallery." Of course my mother said it was all charming and elegant and asked several times to go to the art galleries but I said no. She'd never once gone to New York to see any galleries with me despite my many invitations, much less ever visited my loft to see my paintings. When it came to my work, she only saw the paintings I'd give her as presents, all of which she more or less hid in her home. Actually, my mother had never visited me once since I moved to New York. She always got me to visit her where she could set the agenda simply because she'd pay the fare. Wait," Barbara said, taking a big breath, "I need to slow down. I can hear myself whining like a monster."
"It's okay. You don't need to go on if you don't want to," Carla said.
"I just want to tell you about our lunch at the great La Cote Basque," Barbara said sarcastically, "the town's most pretentious restaurant. That's where it all happened. From the outside it's ambiguous looking, a white one story with a wine-red sloping roof. It could be anything without its big red sign to tell you otherwise--a local museum, a whorehouse, anything. You step inside and it's so nonsensically dark, you feel like you've literally gone underground. The candles are just strong enough to see the absurd Christmas colors that dominate the place--fake roses everywhere and cheap white lace and a stucco ceiling with hideous fake green plants and baskets of plastic fruit dangling from it like rows of sagging breasts. Except for the walls, filled with bad copies of impressionist paintings, you'd think you were in someone's basement or fallout shelter. "My God, I'm in 'Wayne's World,' " I thought, as I was ushered to my seat by a waiter in a ridiculously tight tuxedo. Around us in the half-filled room were a series of soon-to-be corpses dining serenely. I looked at the menu beside the pseudo-silver-colored place mats and then I understood my mother's urgency in getting there. It was still early enough for us to qualify for the Early Bird Special. I scanned the prices: the most expensive dish was a roast lamb for $7.95--at least it was $7.95 until 5:30 in the afternoon and it was only 5:07, so her streak would stay intact."
"How much money did you say your mother was worth?"
"Over two million in her Solomon Brothers account alone. Who knows what she has in the bank? And almost all of it because of what my father gave her, not that he ever knew how stingy she'd be with me. Anyway, I was eating my utterly tasteless Early Bird Special, certainly not planning any kind of confrontation when she starts complaining about how she'd like a grandchild and I'm thinking, 'You don't even pay attention to me and I'm your only child, why would you want another person to ignore?" except I knew the answer to that--it would be something else she could brag about to her condominium neighbors while she sat around the pool. Of course she'd nagged me about not having a child hundreds of times before but I mean I'm 38 now, I'd officially come out to her the year before, even written her a long letter about sleeping with Joan, among other things. Does she not only not listen to me but also not read or remember my letters either? Still she hadn't said any ultra provocative thing yet. I mean, I was used to the grandchild remarks. Instead, she went on flitting from one area of conversation to another (her health, her money worries, her nosy neighbors) and I really believed I was going to make it without exploding when, apropos of nothing, she suddenly said, 'Are you still painting, Barbara?'
"She may as well have said, 'Are you still breathing?' She may as well have said, 'Who are you? I've heard a rumor you're alive.' Something broke in me then. It was like I didn't really exist, like I had suddenly disappeared and there was nothing but air where my body should have been."
Carla kept her eyes on Barbara but stopped listening. Walter was already in her apartment by now. She had her own melodrama to worry about. She'd even thought of interrupting Barbara and telling her a bit of her own story, 'I've got a 54 year-old boyfriend waiting in my apartment with a Viagra erection' could be her opening line. 'So I've got a limited amount of time to get home, capice? I mean I really have to be leaving now.' But once Barbara got going on one of her monologues it seemed impossible to stop her, and she'd already stayed almost 15 minutes past the end of her workday. Even if Barbara gave her a little extra or paid for a cab, it just wasn't fair. If she was going to be treated like an in-house therapist (always potentially on-call) she should be paid like one. She shouldn't have to also do the secretarial stuff too. She could feel herself starting to get angry. What, after all, was the big crisis here? Yes it was sad that Joan dumped her, sadder still that Barbara kept chasing girls who were too young, but everyone gets dumped and was it any sadder than her pathetic situation with Walter? As for the money, Barbara knew she'd eventually inherit it, which was more than she could look forward to. Although she was 11 years younger than Barbara, Carla was already a de facto orphan. So what was the great tragedy here? That because she couldn't get the loan she wanted from her mother, Barbara had to teach a class or two in a prep school and couldn't devote all her time to her deluded painting career? Was the tragedy that she still had to teach? Didn't Barbara have her Carla to do her filing and type her letters and listen to her stories? She would never have any of that. The only way she could afford a loft like Barbara's was--Walter, who was waiting with his penis up in the air until it would finally pirouette down to earth in an hour or so. She'd really have to interrupt soon. But what was this? Barbara Boss was crying now, had had a veritable orgasm of self-pity, her face already wet with tears.
"Are you okay?" Carla said, surprising herself by putting a hand on Barbara's shoulder. Barbara nodded while sobbing softly.
"You sure you're all right?"
"I'm okay," Barbara said, blowing her nose noisily. "I'll be right back, I've got to pee."
She watched Barbara get up and leave for the bathroom. She was glad she'd touched Barbara's shoulder and acted nice. It seemed when she acted nice she felt less angry. She didn't really like it when she thought dark thoughts about Barbara, called her "Barbara Boss" or worse to herself. Besides, in any long-term sense, Barbara wasn't really the problem. If she weren't Barbara's servant it would be somebody else, wouldn't it? Never had she been able to do anything but servile work for others. She had tried to be a photographer but if she were really honest with herself, the trying had been mostly in her mind. She'd left art school, then community college after a year, and every relationship as soon as the possibility of living with someone presented itself. On the one hand she kept getting involved with men but they all disappointed her or made her angry and eventually either she or they were unfaithful. She was faithful only as a servant, it seemed. She was faithful to Barbara, worked for her, and listened to her resentfully after hours and also felt uncomfortable because of the lesbian thing, sometimes very uncomfortable, though Barbara's occasional passes were ambiguous, never overt.
Carla got up from her chair and walked toward the bathroom. It occurred to her that there were razors and sleeping pills in there. She also knew that Barbara (who'd been robbed once and mugged twice) kept a gun in the closet by the bathroom. Barbara had actually told her where it was. Should she check to see if it was still there? She suddenly felt a great anxiety that she hadn't listened more carefully to Barbara and, as if to compensate, placed her ear to the door and listened as closely as she could. All she could hear was Barbara peeing, as if her stream of urine was the only sound left in the world. It was odd to be listening to something like that and odder still that again it made her feel sorry for her. Then the door suddenly opened--Carla barely able to avoid being hit in the face by it.
"Hi," Barbara said, looking surprised of course.
"Hi," was all Carla could manage.
"I'm sorry for all the histrionics."
"I was worried about you. That's why I sort of followed you."
Barbara squeezed Carla's hands for a second. "Thanks for worrying. I've got a perfect solution for both of us," she said, walking into the kitchen part of the loft. Carla followed behind her looking at her watch.
"Can you hold these?" Barbara said, handing her two glasses. "I'll take the vodka and tonic. We can drink it in our chairs. "
As soon as they sat down Barbara said, "I really am sorry that I broke down. Breakdowns suck."
"Don't worry about it," Carla said, gesturing with her free hand. "I'm really sorry this happened to you--again."
"In all of the world you're the only one. "
"What?" Carla said.
"Who's sorry--for me. Who listens to me. Not even my shrink listens like that and she charges $150 an hour--so will you have one drink with me?"
"Sure. Okay. I'm gonna drink it kind of quickly, though."
"The better to get to the next one," Barbara said, laughing.
They clinked glasses and finished nearly half their drinks in one swallow. Carla liked the buzz and finished the rest of hers as if it were lemonade.
"Seriously, you're an extraordinarily sensitive person, you are," Barbara said, pouring her another drink. Carla was oddly moved by the compliment, especially coming from Barbara, who was so reluctant to give them generally. Yet there was something unsettling about it too. Also unsettling was the image of Walter in the back of her brain, like a stalled oarsman in a boat race trying to move forward, so she took her second drink and finished it almost as quickly as the first.
More tributes followed from Barbara. She was talking and drinking fast and continuing to look at her steadily. "It's meant so much to me to have you here these last few months. To have someone to talk to like you. I, I don't ever think of you as an "employee," you know, I really always think of you as my friend."
Carla looked down at the floor, feeling vaguely nervous but there was nothing there to look at so she raised her head again. Barbara was still looking right at her.
"I know I've become kind of dependent on you lately--especially since Joan left. I know I've been talking a lot. I hope I'm not taking advantage."
Carla made a little inadvertent shrug, mumbled, "No," then held out her glass, which Barbara filled quickly.
"I just want you to know that I do appreciate you. I do. I think I'd do almost anything for you because you're such a fine, feeling person. I also think it's so incredibly unusual that such a beautiful gift is inside such an attractive package."
Carla took another swallow and tried to unravel the metaphor. Her soul was the gift she supposed and the package would be her face and her body. Yes, that was quite a compliment--maybe the best she'd ever gotten--a genuine above-the-waist surprise. 'Thank you," she said.
"Can I just give you a hug for all that you've done today and all the other days?"
Carla stood up to receive the hug. How could she refuse to hug her boss? Barbara held her tightly, trembling with emotion. "Carla, I don't know what I'd do without you."
So I'm being hugged and kissed now. What's next? Carla thought. It felt basically the same as when Walter kissed and touched her so why make a fuss?
"Should I stop now?" Barbara whispered in her ear. Carla found that she couldn't speak.
Incredible how easily it all happened then, how easy it was for Barbara to take her by the hand and lead her to her bedroom complimenting her the whole way, a-mile-a-minute. And then the undressing, the orders, and everything else. Even while it was going on, she tried to understand the reasons why she was letting it happen. There was the alcohol, of course, her anger at Walter, and also, more than anything, some inner desire to do something radical, outrageous.
When it was over she turned away because she didn't want Barbara to see her face, or to kiss her and call her "baby" or anything like that. For once, Barbara seemed to understand her feelings or else wanted the same thing herself, which wouldn't be surprising. She knew Barbara's type--lots of surface emotion and neediness, but not much interest in giving too long to someone else. Whatever it was, Carla got away with just a couple of quick hand squeezes.
"What a day!" Barbara said, propping her head up with her pillows.
"Really," Carla said.
"Well, you were certainly the best part of it."
'Thanks," Carla said. She would not, no matter what, compliment her back. She'd done enough for the woman already, goddamn it.
"So, tell me what you're feeling? Are you surprised?"
Barbara gave a little laugh. "Was it--different? I mean, this was your first time with a woman, right?"
"Yes," Carla said, turning to face her with what she hoped was a Mona Lisa--type smile. Finally she said what she knew Barbara wanted to hear, but felt angry for saying it. It wasn't even true; it had actually been kind of like being with Walter--like eating food without much taste. But why should sex really be any different with a woman (or at least with this woman) just because the female dictator had a different set of genitals?
There was an uncomfortable silence until Barbara finally said, "I'm feeling like I've been really selfish keeping you so long and you've just been too kind to say so."
"I should make a call."
"Of course, I've kept you too long--though I can't deny I'm really glad I did," Barbara said with a smile, followed by another hand squeeze. "Can you just wait a minute. I want to give you something before you go."
"Sure," Carla said. Barbara put on her panties as she got out of bed but walked through her loft bare-chested, her large breasts 'already sagging like a middle-aged woman's,' Carla thought. She quickly put on her own underclothes thinking that Barbara would maybe give her a nice sweater or else a bottle of perfume. It was good that she realized she'd have to give something, that she'd just had her last free one. In the future, if this happened again, she would have to pay in cash, and not $25 either, but $50 or maybe $l00--she knew Barbara had it, no matter how much she complained. She had a bathtub of fifties.
Just before Barbara returned, she picked a sentence to use to say 'thank you.' Barbara was walking towards her from the far corner of the loft carrying something big. Without her glasses Carla couldn't tell what it was but didn't want Barbara to see her wearing them. Then the sun started to come in through the main window, lighting Barbara up for a few seconds like some kind of illuminated angel. The next thing she knew Barbara--all smiles now--was handing her one of her abstracts filled with loud, swirling, vomitous colors. The painting was four or five feet high.
"For you," Barbara said, handing the painting to Carla, who didn't even want to be near it, much less touch it. She felt tricked, but still managed to smile and say the thank-you sentence she'd practiced.
"This is one of the first paintings I did in this loft, so I'm a little sentimental about it," Barbara said, with her blue eyes glowing. "But I think it still holds up and I really want you to have it. It's called 'Oval Romance.'"
It's called eating someone for nothing, Carla thought, but still was able to say something nice about the painting, and then sincerely thanked Barbara for the canvas cover that Barbara slipped over it. At least no one would see her carrying it. Now it was just some big, mysterious clumsy thing that she hoped could fit in her cab.
"Christ," Barbara said. "I can't believe I have to pee again. It must be something you do to me--excite all my bodily fluids," she said, touching Carla's cheek and laughing. Carla forced a smile. "Why don't you make your call while I'm in the bathroom and then I'll say goodbye," Barbara said as she left the room.
Carla looked at the phone by the bed but wasn't tempted. It was too late to call Walter now and offer any normal excuse and she didn't have the energy to tell him a preposterous health emergency or death-in-the-family type lie. Besides, what was Walter? Just another boss, like Barbara. Maybe, since it had to end anyway, she wouldn't call at all, either that or tell the outrageous lie later. She only knew she couldn't see him, or call him right now. Everything had somehow become different. The only thing that was the same was the anger she was feeling for not having left Barbara earlier, for enduring the whole thing, especially going to bed with Barbara--where she'd acted like Barbara's slave with the additional, almost certain result that she'd ruined her job. Because now it would either turn her into a prostitute, if Barbara were willing to pay, or if she refused Barbara, she'd probably be fired and sooner rather than later--which would make her need Walter again. Impossible not to hate Barbara then for getting her half-drunk and tricking her into bed where she'd humiliated her and then, the final insult of that hideous painting.
She sat down on the bed, closed her eyes, and tried to think it all out of existence. There were times, once a long stretch of time earlier in the day when Barbara was talking, when she hadn't heard a word she'd said. If you concentrated well enough you could do amazing things with your mind, even select what you heard or saw--at least, she could. So that now while she went to the closet in the hallway, took the gun and walked into the bathroom where Barbara was flushing the toilet she focused completely on a childhood walk by a stream she took with her father. Just the two of them--one of the few vivid memories she had of him. That vision lasted till she fired the gun and even then she managed to see nothing--maybe just a split second of Barbara's face which she instantly erased. Then, for a while, she didn't know where she was.
When she returned to the present she started putting on her clothes quickly, otherwise she worried that when Barbara returned she might think she wanted a second round. Where was Barbara anyway? When Carla looked at her watch she was shocked at how much time had passed and decided to walk toward the bathroom and ask what was going on. Perhaps she could simply say good-bye from the other side of the door. She knocked and said, "Barbara," but got no answer. "Barbara, are you all right?" she said two more times. She tried the door, which was unlocked, and walked into the bathroom. She didn't see the body that was lying between the toilet and the shower. Instead she walked out into the loft, calling her name more loudly. It was not a large loft and her normal voice could easily be heard from any part of it but she was yelling anyway as she quickly circled the floor, opening what few doors there were to try to find her.
She went back to the bathroom--looked in the bathtub in case Barbara were playing some kind of erotic game and was hiding there--but didn't find her. It was ridiculous, Carla thought. It wasn't as if you could lose track of a person here like misplacing a key. She looked out the bathroom window--there was no fire escape near it, nothing at all which Barbara would have used. She looked down again but saw nothing on the sidewalk, though if Barbara had jumped the police or ambulance would certainly have been there by now.
She circled the loft once more, trying to grasp what had happened. It wasn't as if she had fallen asleep--she definitely hadn't--so Barbara couldn't have left the bathroom, much less the loft, without her hearing. Besides, Barbara was half-naked when she went to the bathroom, was carrying no clothes, and definitely hadn't returned to the bedroom. But this was an absurd line of speculation since she definitely would have heard the bathroom door opening, not to mention the heavy main door to the loft which was still bolted with that extra deadbolt lock that could only be used from the inside. Carla looked at that small table in the hallway and saw that the apartment keys were still on it.
She felt herself go lightheaded as she walked through the loft again, but told herself it was important not to panic, that it would interfere with her concentration. Yet she felt absurd as she stared preternaturally hard without blinking, as if she were looking for an ant instead of a person.
At the end of her next circle, she saw the gun on the floor near the bathroom door. At first she was startled, horrified, but she was sure it hadn't been fired or else, of course, she would have heard it. It was probably dislodged somehow without her realizing it when she'd opened the closet door the first time Barbara had gone to the bathroom. She decided not to touch it. If she or someone else eventually had to call the police it would be better not to have touched it. Though who would call about poor Barbara? Her self-absorbed mother might not call for weeks--and Joan, her last girlfriend, had long ago left her. It was December now, Christmas vacation at Barbara's school, which wouldn't open again for a month.
She didn't know how much time passed before her attitude about Barbara's disappearance began to change. First her watch suddenly seemed as useless to her as a mole and she stopped looking at it or even being aware of it. Then her head started to hurt and she found herself walking back to the bedroom. She lay down on the bed thinking about other explanations for the disappearance. Words from Barbara's conversation came back to her. Hadn't she said, after her mother asked if she were still painting, that she felt as if she'd disappeared? Simply replaced by empty space and air. Could Barbara have somehow willed this?
Her headache began to subside. It was perhaps irrational to think that way, but the fact was Barbara had disappeared and it had to have happened somehow. Better, perhaps, to accept the disappearance and deal with its consequences than to try and explain it. What was life, after all, but accepting one improbability after another? You accepted that you were your parents' child, that you were a woman and had to act like one. You accepted your consciousness as if it were the air you breathed, and then you accepted your death, your eventual disappearance and the disappearance of everything else. Your own personal endless visit from death.Carla felt herself shudder and closed her eyes again. When she opened them it was because the sun had come out once more and lit up the room, which seemed to make her mood brighter as well. She felt herself smile. With Barbara's disappearance she was now free to leave the loft, but in light of her decision about Walter, there was suddenly no reason to leave right away. Why not see what it felt like to be rich and stay in a nice place for awhile? When she would leave, she thought she should probably take the gun with her and get rid of it. She was sure of that. But at least she wouldn't have to take that atrocious painting with her. That was a relief and a victory of sorts. As for deciding anything else, there was really no reason now to rush.