She stirs, knowing that she's stranded somewhere in the midst of another long, sleepless night. Betty Jean peers into the darkness, feels the restlessness move her body, tug on her mind. Exhausted from being on her feet all day, she still can't seem to drive the sound of exploding bowling pins out of her brain. Time and again, in a black-and-white half dream vision, the ball slams into the pins and Checho is there to set them up again. With his brown eyes. With his small fluent hands. As a teenager, when her Mama drove her to her job as a cashier at the McDonalds on Military Highway outside Portsmouth, the last song she heard on the car radio — whether she liked it or not — was always the one that stayed in her head. Stuck there all day long. The calls for more double cheeseburgers and the ring of the cash register became mere background noise to some horrible Tony Orlando and Dawn song, or worse. "KNOCK THREE TIMES on the ceiling if you waaaaant me," over and over again. "Twice on the pipe — CLANK! CLANK! — if the answer is nooooo."
Now her mind is working that way again. He is the song.
She thinks about him. Considers what it would be like to feel him lightly kiss her ribcage, descending, and her earlobes, to be close enough to look directly into his eyes and see unblinking honesty, to see the passion she has witnessed from smoldering Spanish men only in music videos. Or movies. Or on the street when some dark-skinned, curly-haired Latino boy calls out to her, imploring her to turn around, but when she does, finding that he is looking past her, through her, at some fawn-eyed girl young enough to be her daughter.
Each time, it brings back the old feelings. Feeling disappointed. Feeling old. Feeling overlooked, forgotten.
Being poorly matched. Badly married.
She is angry at herself for feeling this way, for fixating in the darkness on a man who hasn't said more than a dozen words to her. Why can't she get his face out her mind? This wouldn't have happened a few years ago when Jay paid more attention to her, when she paid more attention to him, before the anger came, tapping her on the shoulder each day, hoarsely whispering to her, never leaving her alone, telling her what a fantastic asshole she is for staying with a man who seems unwilling — or incapable — of giving her what she wants.
Giving her attention. Honesty. Giving her the security of a little house outside the city with horse stalls and chickens running around the backyard. Remembering, taking the time and the effort to remember. Remember where her sweet spot is. To know, without being told, that she likes to be kissed and nibbled behind her left ear, that she dislikes flowers, cherishes surprise parties.
And give her babies. At least one. A little Betty Jean.
She knows men mature late but this was ridiculous. Her husband did not wear a wedding ring, did not even make the smallest effort to even act married. Instead of embracing her with both hands, protecting her, making her feel secure and loved and wanted and happy, she always has the feeling that he kept one hand free. Free to shake a friend's hand. Or make a grab at some passing ass in his mind, some passing female notion.
God, is this what marriage was supposed to be about? Waiting for your life to get started while most of your friends were having babies? Was it supposed to take this long for your husband to grow the fuck up and finally say to himself — and to you — "This is the one!" Ten years and she still isn't sure he believes it. With Jay, everyone and everything seems to be more important to him than she is: His friends. His job. His family. His fucking weekend golf matches and evenings at the gym. It seems they rarely do anything together these days, except fuck and eat and take walks and see an occasional matinee. It just isn't enough!
But at least the boy doesn't have a drinking problem. Not like her Daddy does. That she wouldn't stand for, she saw what it did to her Mama over the years. And while he sometimes does drugs — pot or coke or crystal meth — it's only when someone passed him something at parties. That she can handle.
She remembers the first time they did cocaine together. Back in Norfolk. On Jay's advice, Betty Jean bought a gram from her friend, Wildman Tony Conklin. She brought it home from work late one Friday night. Jay sat on the bed and showed her how to cut the lines evenly, using the rusty straight razor like a practiced pro as he pushed the powder around her cosmetic mirror. She snorted one line, sneezed, didn't feel anything and wanted to save the rest away for later. That was Betty Jean: She was always the saver of the two. Jay's job was being the consumer. Somebody had to do it, he said. Or life just wouldn't be fun.
"Baby Ducks," he said to her. "Coke is a mass quantity drug. That means you have to consume it in mass quantities. We have to do all this Coke right now and sit here on this bed and see where it takes us."
And so they did. They made love all night. They talked and laughed and he talked about their futures, and she popped the zits on his back. Finally, lying still together, they waited until dawn, for the corner breakfast diner to open. They ate Carolina omelets and drank a whole pot of coffee. Then they did their laundry and saw two successive matinees without even getting tired. She loved Jay so much that day. She tapped into his energy, stayed beside him stride for stride. Until they crashed for 22 hours straight and she missed work because of an incredible headache that lasted another three days and she told him she never wanted to do Coke again.
That was ten years ago. She hasn't seen that side of Jay since.
Now, in bed, she hears his breathing, feels him twitch. At least she has somebody, she thinks. She isn't lonely and looking like Darlene or Peaches. Dragging home a succession of strangers to her bed, only to wake up unsatisfied and alone. Jay always tells her he loves her. He just never shows it. She knows she loves him. But each passing week, with each disappointment, each emotional slight, she is unable to summon the will to keep loving him as much.
Their marriage, she admits to herself, is moving toward an emotional maelstrom.
She thinks of the book by a Latino author living in nearby Oceanside. She thinks of his retelling of his rich Spanish family history included a parable of a emotionally-wounded wife explaining to her husband that her love for him was like a beautiful rose. In the beginning, it had bloomed red and lush and unfettered. But with each time he hurt her a new thorn had grown around the rose, protecting it, guarding its beauty from further pain. In the end, the rose was still thriving, still blooming, still fully alive. But he couldn't touch it, could not still get to it. The thorns had grown too thick.
She had told him this, told him that she felt just like that rose, felt her love being choked off. He listened quietly and looked sad. He actually changed for a few weeks. He came home right after work and let her choose the restaurant entree, let her pick the video. He tried. But then the old Jay slowly returned.
She opens her eyes as he shifts in bed, turning violently as though stirring from a bad dream. Jay always sleeps as though he were competing in some all-night triathlon. He never stops moving — tossing and rolling and scratching his ass and farting and coughing and clearing his throat. Every night without fail the fitted sheet get pulled off his side of the bed, until he finally ended up on the bare mattress and wakes up sweating, cursing as he rises to replace the sheet in the darkness.
Most women she knows are lucky enough to have found men who crave their touch at night, who sleep close, as one, like those spoons in the kitchen drawer, women who wake up to find their men hard, behind them, awake. Not her. After their lovemaking, Jay usually retreats to his side of the bed, hugging his pillow at night like some nearly-middle-aged man who needed a Teddy Bear. He says he needs his space. Ha! Stupid girl. Can't she understand what he's been telling her? She jokes with him about it, calls it his hug-a-pillow, his down-feathered soulmate, but some nights she just wants to rip that fucking pillow from his grasp and say "Me! Hug me! Remember me, asshole?"
Lying there, hating him, loving him, unable to fully understand him, unable to trust him, or to leave him, she feels the soft rhythm of the strokes and realizes he is masturbating, that her husband is bringing himself off right there in their bed, next to her, without waking her, without probably even thinking about her.
Well, this is certainly a first, she thinks. Sure, she's caught him masturbating before, usually in the living room late at night, and has always thought it was kind of funny, even though she gave him shit about it. It's just the way he gets embarrassed and apologetic, which was really something different for Jay Gleeson, Mr. Shock Value.
There was the night she caught him in the living room playing some cheap record that came with one of his porno rags. There he was, listening to the scratchy sounds of a woman giving a blow job, sprawled on the couch, working himself into a frenzy. Actually, she thought he looked kind of cute, so intense, so concentrated. And the way he jumped when she called his name. Had the boy been 20 years older, he would have been dead from a heart attack.
The last time wasn't so funny, though. Jay had brought home a Brad Pitt video and a porno tape.
"It's a double feature night," he told her. He fell asleep before the second movie and the next morning kept trying to get her out of the house for 20 minutes, suggested she go for a quick run or a walk along the beach.
They were going on a bicycle ride that morning and he finally sent her to the gas station by herself to inflate her bike tires — something even Jay wouldn't do. She got halfway there and decided to turn around, just to spite him. She knew what he was going to do. Back home, she burst through the front door and found him there naked, in the middle of the hardwood floor, jerking off to his girlie movie. She laughed when she saw him, but it was nervous laughter. Later, when she was alone, thinking about him in the shower, about his body and his feathery touch that night they did cocaine, she cried.
And now this.
Suddenly, in the blackness, she feels him lean over and kiss the tip of her nose and she instinctively moves to brush away the tickle. There's a part of her brain that wants to talk with him, to touch him back, but there's a sense of hurt and disappointment that holds her back, that grows a new thorn.
So she feigns sleep, mumbles a few sounds as she stirs and tries to drive the hurtful image from her head. She stays there next to him, silent and still and suffering, sensing his movements as though they were her own, knowing that on this night something has changed inalterably between them, that her lover and her husband has finally chosen to take his passions elsewhere, to a place where he simply cannot be loved as much as she cherishes him right here. He has strayed to that unaquirable mistress in his mind.
And she worries about what will come next, hopes that their upcoming vacation to Britain will somehow, finally stop the distancing.
Write "Ellavon" at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Released: March 31, 1998