You’ve Changedby Sam Katz
We were in the criminal court in Chinatown and Melody wasn't happy about it. She was serving as my counsel. I'd like to think she'd come to provide some sort of support, but that wasn't the truth—I'd tried to touch her during the subway ride over and she'd brushed my hand aside. There was no getting around it. She was out for blood.
The courtroom was a bare, white, fluorescent space. There were dark wood benches like pews for the offenders and round back chairs up front where Melody sat with the other lawyers. Who knows if she could've stayed with me? I didn't know the rules. After it was finished, she led me out into the hallway. "You're done," she said. "Now pay your fine."
I thought she looked pretty but didn't say so. She had on a light grey suit that brought out the pale blue in her eyes, and black heels that made her calves constrict in a manner that suggested formidability. I usually missed her in the mornings when she was still fresh, before she trudged home in old sneakers with the wear of work all over.
"Thanks," I said and patted her on the ass. "Thanks, babe."
She sighed then kissed me below the ear. I saw her check to see if anyone was watching. "I'll see you at home, buster," she whispered. "Now go pay up."
When I got back to our apartment, I opened a can of beer. A scene from Leaving Las Vegas came to mind, the one where the bartender says, "You know it's only ten in the morning," and then buys Nick Cage a round. I didn't particularly need a drink, but given the circumstances—drunk and disorderly—it seemed appropriate. Anyhow, I hadn't been up this early in weeks, and it felt like the right thing to do.
I finished the beer and opened another. I pulled a yellow legal pad out and began writing about what had happened that morning. At the cashier's window I'd started talking with a kid I'd recognized from the courtroom. He was a grungy long-haired punk who looked more redneck than city trash. "You think about fighting the fine?" I'd asked him.
"You take the fine," he said. "Unless the cop fucked up, you take the fine."
"Saw the lawyer lady kiss you back there," he said. "She gonna strap it on later? Give you the business?"
I was well in the shit by the time Melody returned that evening. After the third beer I'd moved onto bourbon—never a good plan before the sun goes down. When she came into the kitchen, she gave me a parental look. I put my arms around her and kissed her neck. "How about a little post-trial discovery?" I said, taking big handfuls of her.
She looked at me. Her eyes were bloodshot and her hair awry, fat walnut-colored curls springing back to life. "I can't believe this," she whispered. "I can't fucking believe you."
She broke my grip and went to the bedroom. "Mel," I called after her. "Melody," I said, laughing.
The next day was a Saturday. We hadn't talked anymore the previous night. I'd slept on the couch in my clothes. She woke me around noon. Her arms were crossed, her hair tied back in a bun. "Let's get some coffee," she said.
We were sitting by the window of this organic java joint.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"How do you mean?" I said.
She didn't like going to the chains. Since she'd studied abroad in Ecuador, she only drank free-trade coffee. It was something I'd always liked about her, her stubborn idealism, something she'd preserved from her time working with grassroots organizations before words like policy and regulation turned her away.
"Getting drunk in the middle of the day? Is this something I should start to expect?"
"It was only one time," I said. "And besides, I'm a writer, not a lawyer."
She moved her head and a blast of sunlight hit my eyes.
"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked.
She stared, waited.
I said, "You've changed. That's all. This whole lawyer thing has changed you. There, I've said it."
She looked down and closed her eyes. Another blast hit me. "You were in law school too once upon a time," she said.
"I was," I said. "And you weren't."
She looked up. "Someone had to grow up."
"I didn't want to say anything," I said. "I'm sorry I did."
She took a sip of her coffee and squinted. The crow's feet that had begun to show on her face creased into deltas of tiny canals. She'd always been afraid of changing, of becoming a punch-line, and I played on that instinct like a chord from a nostalgic song.
"I haven't changed so much, have I?" she said.
For the next week, it was like when we'd first started dating. There wasn't any talk about trials or exhaustion. There were no twelve-hour workdays. Each night we listened to Morrissey records, shared a bottle of wine, and before we went to sleep made love with both of those things in us. By the time the weekend came around again, our life had regained its familiar rhythm. Melody suggested we go to dinner at a new lawyer acquaintance of hers. Normally I'd have voiced my misgivings but with all the goodwill floating around I agreed it was a good idea.
Todd Hickson had recently moved to the city, and lived in an Art Deco apartment building on 88th and Amsterdam. His wife, Kelly, a cheerleader type I wanted to give it to in the most resentful way, greeted us at the door. "I'm so glad you made it," she said. "It's blustery out." She rubbed imaginary chill from her arms.
We gave her our coats and Mel handed over the nine-dollar Pinot Noir that had caused us to be late.
"I don't even know where Todd got to," Kelly said. "What would you all like to drink?" I looked around at the high ceilings and wood floors, the sleek lines and stainless steel; Kelly must be loaded, was my guess. Mel certainly wasn't pulling in Upper West Side money. It was a bourbon night if there ever was one.
I heard a toilet flush, then a strong jet of water that put our old pipes at home to shame. Todd came in from the hallway. "You must be Chang," he said. "I've heard so much about you. Too much. You're all Mel talks about."
Todd was a tall, fit, angular guy with curly blond hair. A boarding school man, I figured, from his Bulgari watch, the practiced matching of his pale yellow shirt and blue argyle sweater. He gave me a sturdy shake then led us to a black leather couch set, where we all settled in—two and two.
"I hope you didn't have any trouble getting past Sylvester down there," Todd said, proudly. His cheeks were flushed. "He's an old one but he's wily."
"He was fine," Melody said. "He seemed to be expecting us."
Todd deflated. "Good," he said. "I guess that's what we pay him for."
Mel continued: "I just love this neighborhood. If we ever save up enough to leave Queens, I'd love to live around here."
Ambulance sirens screamed through the open window.
Todd said to me, "So I hear you're a writer. What do you write about?"
I crossed my legs and leaned back. "Nothing special really," I said. "No genre work, though, no mysteries or crime stories or anything like that. The real stuff."
"The real stuff?" he said.
"I write about you," I said. I was sure Melody's eyes were on me.
He cleared his throat. "I don't know what you mean."
"I don't mean you, really. Not exactly. I write about average people. Normal people. Domestic situations."
He bobbed his head.
"For instance," I said. "Right now I'm a writing a story about a man whose wife saves him from drowning in the East River."
"I see," he said. "I think I know what you mean. I think that's great. Have you published any books yet?"
"I've got a few stories out there," I said. "In some reputable journals."
"That's great," he said.
Kelly came in with the drinks. I took a healthy gulp of mine and slid the glass down on the coffee table next to a small stack of magazines— The New Yorker, Food and Wine, New York Magazine—and a tray of cheese and crackers.
"So Todd," I said. "Where are you from in the world? I'm picking up a slight accent I can't quite place."
Todd blushed and Kelly slapped him on the thigh playfully.
"Go on. Tell them."
He gave her a sideways glance.
"He's from Indiana."
Mel crunched down on a Ritz. "I didn't know that," she said, trying to cover her mouth.
"Yes, yes," Todd said. One too many yeses. "It's true. I'm a regular ole country bumpkin. I grew up on a farm. Milked the cows and everything."
Kelly patted his large hand.
"An industrial farm?" I said, searching out a piece of cheddar.
"No," he said. "Really just a modest thing. Just big enough for my family. Well, almost. But then, I do have a big family."
"He's the youngest of five brothers," Kelly said.
Todd put his hand on Kelly's thigh and squeezed. "Aren't I lucky to have such a loquacious wife?" he said, and winked at her.
I felt something on my leg and jumped. Curling around me was a calico cat with a face like a comedy/tragedy mask: half white, half mahogany. It purred and stared up at me, its two eyes incongruous from their differing backgrounds.
"That's Garfield," Todd said. "Don't mind him. He's just saying hello."
"After the President," Kelly said, as if correcting someone.
Todd said, "I thought you put him in the bedroom, sweetheart."
Kelly ignored him.
"Well," Melody said. "He looks like a nice cat."
"Nice cat," I said. I'd never liked cats. I'd been raised on dogs.
I looked to Melody. She was sipping her white wine, ogling the apartment. Kelly was on the edge of the couch, her hands going at each other in her lap. I finished my drink and saw that Todd had done the same. We made eye contact.
"Another?" he asked.
"Sure thing," I said.
As he shot up, Melody finally said, "I love your place, Kelly."
"Thank you," Kelly said. She blushed. "Thank God Todd is doing well now. I'm so proud of him."
She gestured to a space on the wall where two framed diplomas were illuminated by spotlight.
"Things were tight for a while," she said. "But we're finally out from under his college loans." She paused. "Of course, there's still the law school loans, but Todd said he wanted us to live in a nice place. That was the point of all this." She glanced toward the kitchen. "I'm just a small town girl too. I'm from Kentucky. But he insisted on it." She put her hand by her mouth to shield the sound. "I think it makes him feel like he fits in here," she said. "He's always worrying about that sort of thing."
Tom Petty came on.
Todd came clinking back, looking pleased with himself, and handed me my drink. He said, "So what's my wife been telling you about me?"
Melody and I smiled.
"Nothing too embarrassing," Kelly said. "I was just telling them how proud of you I am." They looked at each other in a way I had forgotten a couple looks at each other.
"She's my rock," Todd said.
"I'm his rock," Kelly said.
I began chewing on my ice.
By the time we started dinner, I was four tumblers deep and Todd was right in stride. Kelly had prepared a magazine-franç ais dish of pork medallions and mashed turnip with three delicate spears of asparagus laid over top.
"This looks lovely," Melody said.
"Yes, lovely," I said.
Kelly waved us off and sat down. She bowed her head, clasped her hands together, and furrowed her brow. Todd looked at us and mouthed, "Grace," and we three waited for her to finish.
Kelly opened her eyes. "Sorry about that," she said. "I've been doing it since before I can remember."
Todd smiled. "I've gotten used to it by now," he said. "Do you two go to church?"
"Only for communion," I said, and Todd laughed.
We started in on the meal then. I pushed the spears off to the side of my plate, dipped my fork into the smear of baby food and tasted—too much sugar, not enough salt. I thought about what take-out I'd order later that night. Todd, poking around as well, seemed to be on the same wavelength.
"So who wants to get a pizza?" he said.
Kelly slapped his hand. "I figured I ought to give this fancy cooking a try," she said. "If it were just me and Todd, I would've just put a meatloaf in or something."
"Meatloaf would've been more than enough," Melody said. "That's probably what we would've done too."
Of course, she hadn't cooked a thing in months.
Todd twisted his body to the side of the table. "Garfield, get out from under there," he said, but didn't make any more effort. Garfield kept on.
"I think he likes you," Kelly said. "He doesn't usually stick to one person like this."
"We've been thinking about a pet," Melody said. "But we're both too busy." I didn't like the way she said busy. "Maybe someday."
Todd and Kelly looked at each other. Their faces pulled up in unison like marionettes.
"Well," Kelly said. "Cats are an easy pet to keep."
"Not like dogs," Todd said.
"If you'd like, you could try Garfield out for awhile."
"Right," I said.
"No really," Kelly said. Her eyes were wide. "He's a great, friendly cat."
"We've been trying to find someone to look after him," Todd added.
"Look at us springing this on you," Kelly said.
Finally, Melody said, "Why are you getting rid of him?" Garfield, as if complicit, rubbed against her. "He seems like such a nice cat."
"Oh, he is, he is," Todd said. "It's just that our situation is about to change is all." He looked at Kelly. She looked back.
"Go on," Kelly said. She turned to us. "He's so shy about it."
Todd blushed. He said, "See, we found out Kelly's pregnant, and as good a cat as Garfield is, you know how it goes with animals and babies."
"Oh, congratulations," Melody cut in. She grabbed Kelly's hand, squeezed it as if they were little girls on a play date. "That's wonderful. I'm so happy for the both of you." I could see the red creep up her neck to her cheeks in the same blotches that surfaced there after she'd come in from a run on a cold day. "That's wonderful," she said. "Really, I'm just so happy for the two of you."
I was looking around the room. Through the window over Todd's shoulder, I could see into the living room of the apartment across the way. A man was sitting alone in the dark watching television. The screen was throwing changing pictures across his expressionless face.
Todd said, "I'd love to have a boy. Of course I would. But I wouldn't mind a baby girl either. I know she'd be a beauty with her mom's genes."
Kelly raised an eyebrow. "Don't listen to him," she said. "It'll be a boy. He'll have Todd's eyes, that long chin of his."
Todd shook his head. "It'll be a girl," he said. "I know these things. I have a sixth sense for them." He raised one hand and covered his eyes with the other. "I see a blonde haired baby girl who'll come out jabbering right away."
Melody was smiling. I tried to smile. "You two are adorable," she said, petting Garfield. I looked at her. There was no fighting this. I stood up and raised my glass to the new parents to be. "Here's to the miracle of life," I said.
Then I waited for the night to end.
Melody pulled the car out of the garage. The cat was in a crate on my lap. "That was fun," she said. "Those two are something. They're nice people, good people." She cruised down Columbus Avenue and turned onto 59th Street. "We're going to have to pick up some more kitty litter tomorrow morning," she said. "Some more Meow Mix too."
I looked down at the cat. Its eyes glowed in the dark. "Babies," I said.
We stopped at a light. "Don't be a sour apple," Melody said. "Is it so wrong to be excited?"
The car hopped onto the Queensboro Bridge.
"What do you think our baby would look like?"
"I think it would look like the two of us."
"The two of us," I said. Garfield shifted in his box. This was the normal progression: get a pet, get married, have kids.
Melody opened the window and the outside came in. She was flying. The wind whipped by violently. Ahead Queens was resplendent, shapes of light against the black sky. I watched as it grew closer.