The Habit of Intimacy (a short story in three parts)
by Becky Schwartz
A Habit of Intimacy- Part One

It was a cold November evening and the raindrops were nearly frozen. They fell with sharp pinpoint clicks against the windshield and Frank pressed his weight a little harder on the gas pedal without noticing any significant acceleration. He leaned forward and, pressing both palms to the steering wheel, squinted into the streaky grey distance ahead. His glasses were foggy on his face and he took one hand from the steering wheel to push them up his nose. Frank's glasses were gold-rimmed and oval and his nose was beak-like on his thin face. His long skinny body filled up the small car; he sat pushed all the way back in the driver's seat, curved his shoulders and reached out for the steering wheel with loose, half-bent arms. He gripped the wheel hard and blinked several times. The yellow lines on the road blurred by and he was flustered by his inability to see them.

Frank hadn't wanted to go out because he'd heard that it would rain on the radio that morning, but his wife had told him, "Frankie, you have to go pick up the holiday ham at eight pm; that's what time the reservation is for." Quickly shifting his gaze without moving his head, he eyed the ham which was settled in the passenger seat. He turned back to the road with a small smirk as he realized that he enjoyed driving with it far more than he ever had with his wife. The ham was leaning casually against the door; Kelly generally sat rigidly upright, her eyes moving from the road to Frank's foot on the pedal, not knowing which she found more threatening. Frank glanced over at the ham again and wondered why they were even having ham. He had never heard of anyone not eating turkey on Thanksgiving but this year, Kelly just had to have ham. "Frankie," she said with a fist at her hip, wagging a long, slender finger at her husband, "I'm just so bored of turkey. I've never liked the taste of it and I think ham's a lot more classy anyway. Turkeys are so cliche and a beautiful pink and brown ham would match the new dining room set very nicely." Frank stared at her, dumbfounded by the idea that one might want one's food to match one's furniture. "Women," he thought. Then, staring at his wife's outfit and the way her shoes matched her fingernails which matched the ribbon in her hair and the stripes on her shirt, "Where do they come up with this stuff?"

Facing forward, both hands still on the steering wheel, Frank shifted in his seat. "If that ham ends up matching anything it'll be those candlestick holders she drags out every year," he thought, raising both eyebrows and looking upward briefly. The candlestick holders were heavy, black metal. Kelly not only didn't know anything about cooking, she actually hated to do it. Frank could never understand her insistence on preparing elaborate meals for special occasions. Several times a year, on holidays, their anniversary, his birthday, Frank would find himself choking down some misshapen distant cousin to a meal and looking up at his self-satisfied wife incredulously, he wondered if it could really be possible that she didn't know or if she was doing it on purpose, if she was punishing him for something. He would wipe his mouth, set down his napkin and smiling with nervous eyes say, "Thank you for cooking, dear." And he would suspect that deep down, his wife really hated him. "I know I wouldn't feed that to anyone I didn't hate," he would think.

Thanksgiving was the worst because they always had guests. This year, Frank had tried subtly suggesting that they hire someone to help and Kelly had laughed and said, "Now why would we do a thing like that when I'm entirely capable of cooking a nice meal myself." Frank had just looked down at the floor and shrugged a little, remembering last year's lumpy, watery mashed potatoes and the look on his mother's face when she had brought the fork up to her mouth. Frank, at one end of the table, had made the mistake of drowning everything in gravy imagining, for some reason, that even Kelly couldn't really ruin gravy. He had been reaching, wide-eyed, for his water glass seeking desperately to wash away the thick coating of salt that was causing the inside of his mouth to burn, when his look of horror met a similar one above his mother's slowly moving mouth. The two of them had shared a rare moment of silent sympathy.

Kelly had deferentially seated Frank's mother at the other end of the table and placed herself on the older woman's right. Her own plate was empty because she never had any appetite when she was finished cooking and she was sipping at a glass of white wine and watching the progress of Frank's mother's meal. "Is everything okay, Eleanor?" she asked anxiously when she saw Frank's mother set down her fork and bring her hand up to her chest, closing her eyes and swallowing hard. Eleanor flung open her eyes and smiled with immediate warmth, "Of course, sweetie. Everything's lovely." Kelly shyly parted her small, pink-painted mouth around her big white teeth. "I'm so glad you like it," she said.

Kelly's own mother had died as a result of a congenital heart defect when Kelly was too young to remember her and Kelly's father had eventually married a tall, hurried corporate attorney with little interest in children. Once, Kelly had sat down on the sofa next to Frank and, for no apparent reason, sighed and said "You're so lucky to have grown up in a house with a real maternal influence." Frank had smiled at her, exerting great effort to keep his eyebrows perfectly level and his smile completely free of irony. "Yes, dear," he had said. "My mother was very good to us." And he had turned his attention back to the news on the television, knowing that he hadn't quite succeeded in seeming sincere, but knowing also that Kelly wasn't subtle enough to tell the difference. He always allowed his feelings to flicker freely about the corners of his features without ever expecting Kelly to understand anything he left unsaid.

Kelly's stepmother hadn't come to last year's Thanksgiving. Kelly's father had arrived alone refusing to offer any explanation for his wife's absence. Kelly had fussed over her father, a retired surgeon, removing his coat for him and escorting him to the armchair in the living room and after bringing him a drink had asked in a high voice, "So how's Linda doing, Dad?" Dr. Meyers had responded, "Linda's great. Linda's always great, because she knows how to keep herself occupied." Then he had addressed Frank's mother who had just come in from the guest room where she had gone earlier to lie down, "Do you know what kills people, Eleanor?" Eleanor hadn't bothered trying to hide the smirk with which she had responded, "No I don't Tom. Have you managed to work it out?" Dr. Meyers had continued without seeming to notice her tone. "Boredom," he had said. "People die when they run out of things to do."

Frank's mother liked Kelly. "She's a good girl, Francis. You're lucky to have her," she had said after meeting Kelly for the first time, nodding approvingly with her lips pulled tight across her face. Frank had always thought he'd marry someone unconventional, an artist of some kind who was interested in politics and literature. He had imagined himself with a small, shy girl brimming with undiscovered talent; but he married the first woman who went to bed with him because the whole encounter was so nerve-wracking that he didn't want to have to go through with it again. Kelly had seemed satisfied with his performance and that alone was enough for him to marry her.

Frank sighed and remembered that night vaguely, skipping over the most important parts and seeing only scattered images of Kelly's stubby legs and small, pointy breasts. It had been a long time since he had thought about college but driving always jumbled his usually controlled thoughts and things started sneaking out without his noticing. Memories would swirl around as the car aimed ahead and Frank always felt it odd that he was physically moving and time was passing but his body was very stiff and still. Driving in the rain made Frank unbearably nervous. He wasn't a very good driver in general; his mind would veer off in any direction, he would lose focus on traffic, the road lines became a fuzzy haze and his car would eventually begin veering off as well.
Posted by: Becky Schwartz

Prose (October 5th, 2005)