A short story by Phil Cline
She climbed up on his lap, snuggling her little bottom right down on him, her arms around his neck, giggling “my big, big man, my big sweetie O.”
Sonisay is happy today. A little flushed. Happy and indulgent. Again. Free with her kisses, her snuggles, her shy smiles, her little laughs at nothings.
He never said it out loud, but he always thought of her as his little porcelain doll. Oriental, fragile and prettily painted, artistically though, nothing natural about her. They met in San Francisco at one of the weekly street fairs. She appeared shy. He, worldly. He offered to buy her a cool drink at one of the sidewalk vendors. Then he offered to spike it with something a little stronger. She giggled and then scrunched up her face at the strong taste. Cute. That smile again.
She was magic for him given his time of life. And his being alone again. Took him back to the time before the troubles. All the way back to Saigon. Just a boy. Eighteen-year-old Marine. And the dark bars and all the little dolls sitting at the tables talking to soldiers. Then the countryside and the jungle and the secret patrols across the border and the bullets and bombs and boobytraps. Before he rotated back stateside. And the years passed. Then the loss. And the wandering after his wife passed. The bitterness. And then he found Sonisay. And she had worked for a while.
But then he started to sense things behind her delicate little happy moods.
Gary sometimes regretted his sensibilities. He had a way of picking up on patterns in people. He always knew when something had happened, and he knew if he just waited and watched, listened, it would not be too long until he figured out what they had done or suffered or endured. And what they might do. Even if he really didn’t care to know.
This extra sense in him had, since he was a child, operated independently of his wishes or his ambitions. In school it allowed him to avoid bullies and trouble. He just knew what was coming. It helped him stay out of the principal’s office. He did the bad things, the same bad things, as the other kids. But he was never caught. He often watched, curiously as they endured the sanctions for their misbehavior. They did the same as he but were almost always caught. He never was.
His anticipation, his reads, had made him a good center fielder in high school. He always knew where the ball would be as soon as the batter stepped into the pitch, the bat swinging. Even before the crack of the ball hitting the bat, he was racing in the direction he knew the ball would be hit.
And in the war, when a rustle in some bushes, having to move fast without thinking, and a step in the wrong direction could mean getting his legs blown off, he had always instinctively chosen the right direction. And made it back home. Intact.
Later in life, after the war, it had made him a good lawyer. He could read witnesses and other lawyers like a poker player reading the “tells” of an opponent. He could anticipate and follow their actions from their patterns. It gave him extra time and the confidence to adjust his own approach. They were inevitably surprised, often angry, forever resentful, at how he always seemed to be prepared for their tactics, for what they had thought were such clever strategies.
He also knew this sense of his could be a curse. Some things others were doing, one didn’t need or want to know. In fact, often if things were just left unknown, it made for a happier life. He had worked on suppressing, sometimes, what he was picking up on. He was older now and could live with a lot of things. Just take the good from a situation and not dwell on the undercurrents too much. Ignore them. “Be happy”, the song said. Don’t pay close attention and “Be Happy”, he repeated to himself, in the lilting cadence of the tune.
He smelled Sonisay’s hair. Always so clean, but still retaining the musky smells of the dishes she cooked. Cambodia. The home country.
In profile her lashes, subtly enhanced, blinked as if in a slow-motion film, the little glitter she affected on the eyelids flicking in the light. Her make-up made her more pale than natural, it was barely there, but there nevertheless, carefully restrained. Her lips had no fullness to them. None. Almost like they were the scars of a hungry childhood before the boats, and the endless paths and journeys from Asia to the dream, this land a dream, a fantasy, from the stories repeated to her so many times in the hungry transient huts, the warehouses, the docks. Dream and survive.
His hand strayed to her waist and she moved it up to her breast and burrowed down in his embrace. Looking at a small envelope in her hands.
“What is that?” Gary inquired, as he squeezed her small breast once and then returned his hand to her waist.”
“Just my tickets.”
“Ankle Chains. They have their concert tonight. Tonight’s the night. Going with Linda and Madison. They’ll pick me up about Eight. I have to go back to my bungalow now. I need to get ready.”
“Yes, I remember. You really like the music that well? All that loud screaming? I can give you all the albums. You don’t have to go to a concert. Lots of gang guys there. Tough crowds follow that band. Could get rough.”
“It will be fun! And you buy me so much already. I got these tickets on my own. From the office pool. You said it would be okay.”
“I did. But you should be careful.”
“I will, I will. I promise!”
There it was. A little panic in her voice as she sprang to her rebuttal. A little too anxious. She’s twenty-eight. School girls panic over the danger of missing concerts, not grown women, even little flowers like Sonisay.
He knew. He had been ignoring the signs for a couple of weeks, now. But he knew. His sense had noted the pattern, mapped the signs. His mind had been disciplined enough to ignore what he knew. But it was there. Now it was just figuring out who it was. Did he really want to know? What would it matter? She was going to move in with him next week. Be with him all the time. Be his, he supposed. Did it really matter?
“Well, get going. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She jumped up and giggled as he gave her little rump a firm slap.
“But don’t come over too early,” she said. “We will be late with all the parking and driving and talking.”
And she was gone.
He picked up the phone. Dianne. Healthy, farm fed, brought up on a dairy in the central valley. Dianne. It had been over a year.
“You doing anything tonight? ”
“Nothing at all. How about I come over. Fix you some spaghetti?”
Dianne was no hassle. Good at talking and good at shutting up sometimes. No sitting on laps. No giggles or long eye lashes.
She showed up. She went right to the kitchen. She prepared the food quickly and efficiently. Banging some pans, loudly mixing up the sauce, big spoon scraping the bowl. Serving it with slap and dash. Big hunk of French bread. Hard crust. Toasted a touch. The food was good. She gathered the dishes, dumped them in the sink. Ran water for them to soak and then plopped down next to him on the couch to watch T.V.
Later they undressed and made love. Mostly satisfying. Unhurried and without pressure and then she dozed off, her head resting in the crook of his arm, snoring quietly. She had said nothing about herself. He had not asked. He knew she worked hard at the store. Check-out clerk. Had a little girl at home probably being babysat by the grandmother. But he hadn’t inquired, and she hadn’t offered. He woke at three to use the rest room. The bed was colder. She had left without waking him.
At ten the next day, he drove across town. Parked on the street. Six bungalows arranged along a sidewalk, three on each side. Hers was the first on the right. He walked into Sonisay’s kitchen. Jess, from the bungalow across the way, was there eating a donut and drinking coffee. Good guy. A tour in Afghanistan. Would be going to the police academy in the fall. Gary had written him a letter to help him get in. He and Sonisay were both laughing.
She jumped up and leaped up into Gary’s arms. He was still strong. Could hold her up, but certainly not forever. He let her slip down his arms and she pressed her body to his as she slid down and gave him a quick kiss on the chin.
Jess watched, amused, a pleasant smile on his young face.
“Good time at the concert?” Gary asked Sonisay, as he moved to the refrigerator, got a glass of orange juice and joined Jess at the kitchen table.
“Oh God, we had such a great time! We laughed and sang, it was great.”
And she went on for some time, describing the band, the shouts, the cheers, the songs and the rock of the place. He waited patiently, watching Jess tapping the edge of his cup with the nail of his forefinger all the while nodding his head almost imperceptibly at Sonisay’s description. And her enthusiasm.
Finally, she ran down.
“So, who was there?”
“Oh, you know. Everybody. The girls and all the ones from work. And Linda and Madison got kind of bombed but we were all so laughing . . .”
Jess had stayed quiet.
Gary looked over at him. The nail quit tapping. He knew.
“You go, Jess?”
Sonisay paused in the middle of the kitchen. Then moved on to the counter. It was quick. But Gary knew.
“So, what did you do afterwards, did you dance?” And he saw Jess glance at her then back to the coffee mug. Tap twice on the edge.
“We danced a little, but we were home so early,” she said.
“You guys? You dance together? You two went dancing?”
“We were all dancing.”
But he knew now. And he felt tired of it all. Tired of her. Sweet. Young. Exciting. Exotic. But not anymore. That part had gotten old.
Gary got up, left his glass on the table, and walked out the side door just off the kitchen. Sonisay followed.
“Gary,” she called. “Gary, where you going? You all right? Come back in. We need to talk about the move. To your house. I’ve got the boxes. They’re in the other bedroom.”
Gary didn’t reply. He just kept walking. He had always preferred to disengage this way. Just leave. Just walk away in the middle of the conversation. Like leaving friends in a war zone and going home. Everyone knew their time together was over. And the reason. So why prolong it?
He just kept walking. She was still calling him. Jess was now standing just behind her. Careful not to be too close. In his mind, perhaps, it was still secret. Gary got in his car. Looked at her standing in driveway next to the side porch. He saw the tears filming her eyes. Jess looking at him, then her, then him again. Not quite sure what had happened yet. Gary just didn’t care that much anymore. He seemed to feel that way about lots of things these days.
He put the car in drive and pulled away from the curb. Never looked at them again. Just left. That was best.
At Dianne’s place he walked in the back door and there she was, bent over, wearing some old pair of blue panties and a tee shirt. Reaching in the washer retrieving items, separating them and slinging some of them in the open dryer next to the washer. An old Maytag. Its white paint scratched and peeling. Reliable. The sound of wet thumps hitting inside the steel tub.
She stood up and looked at him. She smiled. A little sweaty. No shower yet this morning. Hair dirty and a mess. She looked good to him. He could hear the T.V. loud in the living room. Cartoons with some inane song, kid’s voices, about turtles, he thought.
“Coffee’s on the stove, she said. Go on in the kitchen. Get your cup. I’ll finish this washin’ and be right in.
And she bent back over. He contemplated her big ass for a moment. No suspicious patterns over here. No feeling of knowing something was unsaid. He looked at her ass again and then walked in the kitchen to find his coffee cup.