Prose
The Habit of Intimacy Part 2
by Becky Schwartz
Frank straightened his shoulders and pressed his back firmly against the seat cushion. He put his hands on the wheel at ten and two o'clock like they had taught him to do in drivers education class. Every time Frank felt distracted or had to yank the wheel to one side to catch himself from crossing the line, he would straighten up in a similar fashion, tightly grab the steering wheel and think, "Ten and two, just like they taught you in class. Now, check the mirrors," and he checked each mirror with a look of careful concentration. Then, he would always think about his driver's ed teacher, Mr.Culligan, and how he had come in one day in a neck brace, with a cast on his left leg and crutches shoved up under his moist armpits. The class had laughed but Frank had just stared in horror. He didn't like these machines and he didn't trust the people who drove them. Whenever he was in a car Frank felt, entirely, the weight of his life and all it meant to him and he hated to admit that he felt himself alone and empty in that clunky machine and if he died in it, he would die alone and wrapped in aluminum and metal. His wife would probably be more upset about the loss of the ham and her school ring which she kept dangling from the mirror.

Frank didn't notice himself slowing down unitl the car was moving at a near-crawl. He leaned into the steering wheel and squinted ahead at the accumulation of traffic that rolled endlessly before him. The rain clattered on the car's outer surfaces and the windshield wipers periodically scrunched smears across the glass. He breathed out through his mouth and muttered, "What now?" Images of the possible answers flashed rapidly through his mind and Frank felt comforted to imagine someone else's vehicle as a smashed roadside heap, steaming as the cold rain evaporated off its hot metal while he sat safe in still traffic listening to the steady breath of his car's heater. Speeding through the rain, he had felt himself in the grips of a dangerous chaos that sooner or later must claim a human life. Now, he felt that he had been passed by. It had gotten someone else. Frank reached for his face and used his knuckle to lift up his glasses, then unfolded his finger to rub it into his eye. He moved his hand back to the steering wheel and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel's side.

He wanted, as he often did when he was out anywhere, to be home. He felt, from the moment he stepped out through the door of his house, a hurried rush, a need to be quickly done with the day's business and back again as soon as possible. He didn't find himself craving his particular home when he was away, the flower-printed sofa and the maroon cloth armchair, the lingering presence of last night's Chinese carry-out, mixing with the faint permeating scent of Kelly's Summer Raspberry shampoo; but he felt himself exposed and like a mouse caught in the middle of an open area when the lights are turned on, he scurried panicking toward some dim, familiar corner without stopping to think of what that corner might contain. No sooner had he tumbled back into the often-breathed air of his house and rested himself against the well-known pressure of the sofa, sensing the cloying essence of fake raspberry settling into his nostrils, than he again awoke to the old discontent and dissatisfaction. He jiggled his leg, got up to get a glass of water and peered out the window until he heard Kelly's flat, slightly nasal voice asking, "What are you looking at, dear?"

In the six years since he had married Kelly, the thing that had taken the most getting used to was the constant need to account for his actions. "What are you thinking about, dear?" "What are you reading?" And if he was studying some piece of malfunctioning machinery as if he might be able to fix it, "What do you think is wrong with it, sweetie?" Each time, Frank would be taken aback by the question and then, realizing that he had no good answer, would scowl in annoyance and say, "Nothing." Kelly always knew what she was doing and why she was doing it. Frank remembered having once found this charming, or at least fascinating. He had been relieved to discover that she knew just how to fill her time (and his too if only he would let her). It had seemed to him a specifically feminine trait. All of the sudden, all the hours he had spent lounging in irritated idleness, wondering what on earth there was to do, appeared no longer to be a personal failing, but part of some cosmic plan.

Frank and Kelly had met in their junior year of college. In high school, Kelly had been effortlessly well-known and Frank had been effortlessly well-liked. After three years of college, both had finally gotten used to not really having any friends. Freshman year, Kelly, excited by the adventure of starting college, had been disconcerted to find the girls on her dorm floor exactly like the ones she had known in high school. In her initial confusion, she had pulled away from them and been quickly branded a snob. She had spent the year alone, biting her nails and reading novels in French and when eventually, she acquired a circle of acquaintances, she had already lost the habit of intimacy. Frank had always considered himself a loner and not realizing that he needed the society which had surrounded him unsought in high school, he hadn't bothered to seek it out in college. His few friends were collected haphazardly through the inevitability of proximity, classmates and roommates who didn't really know anything about him.

Without girlfriends to tell her, Kelly had forgotten that she was attractive and was gratified by Frank's repeated, baffled discovery that he found her so. The first time Kelly had wrinkled her nose and giggled with a rodent-like revelation of her four front teeth at something he had said, Frank had started and then remembered that, once, many people had found him funny. Kelly felt Frank to be not quite up to some ineffable standard and Frank was quite honest with himself (and sometimes others) about finding Kelly a little stupid. They existed in a mutual state of consciously satisfied compromise. After graduation, Kelly had stayed on to get her master's in French and made vague plans to eventually move to Paris. Frank had gotten a job as a network administrator for a company in another city. Neither expected to be able to maintain a long-distance relationship and they came to a silent agreement to not discuss the matter. It was also without discussion that Frank found a job closer to Kelly and called her on the first day he was back in the area and that Kelly, upon completing her degree, abandoned all thought of Paris and instead found work as a translator and interpreter with a local company.

Frank looked out the driver's side window at the tall concrete lane divider. He saw a blurry sky as he peered over his fogged glasses; loose, dark clouds moved lightly through the thickening air. Frank shivered, aimed the vent toward his face and turned the heat up a notch. He recalled sitting alone in the apartment he had rented before he suddenly found himself crossing the country with an obscure ambition to marry a girl he didn't know. He remembered the bare walls and the empty refrigerator in the shining, scentless kitchen and the sensation that his presence there was temporary. His apartment had felt like a hotel room. He couldn't accustom himself to the roughness of the carpet or the pattern of the tiles in the bathroom. He had assumed that the feeling would pass; but even after weeks had gone by, he hadn't gotten used to the place. He had always eaten on as few dishes as possible and washed them immediately afterwards. Even when he had drunk a glass of water, he would rinse the glass and place it upside down on the drying rack right away. He hadn't arranged his furniture or put away his belongings. Everything had sat wherever there happened to be room for it. In his living room, there had been a sofa, a chair, a coffee table, two small tables and a lamp. He had seen these things form a unified whole in other people's homes and in store catalogs, but in his living room they had just sat side by side as though they had wanted nothing to do with one another. And Frank had lived among them rigidly, politely, like a guest.

He hadn't known anyone. He had been distantly polite with the people he had met; he had appeared self-sufficient. He had gone to work and simply done his job. Every sentence he had spoken had been strictly professional. He had passed his co-workers in the halls with his head bent down, sensing them only as moving bodies and never individuating their forms. Sometimes, someone had stopped and looked at him, the new guy; but Frank had hurried along like he had somewhere important to go so no one ever spoke to him. Every day, he would climb the narrow concrete steps which led up to his apartment building and the doorman would greet him, "Good evening, Sir," and Frank would nod his head with a slight recognition and shuffle across the red carpet of the lobby.
Posted by: Becky Schwartz

Prose (November 26th, 2005)