February 1, 2002
Cynthia left him for a movie star
by Ramona Barckert
ynthia left me for a movie star.
She packed her blue duffel bag right in front of me. I watched her fill it up with tiny tank tops and frilly skirts. She packed her sexy underwear too, stuff she hadn't worn for me in a hundred years. The bag had a gaping hole on one side, held together with six safety pins. It did not look very secure at all.
I lay on our lumpy bed mattress and listened to her say over and over again that she absolutely had to go. I have to go. I've got to find him. I have to.
Dressed only in boxer shorts and slippers, I stood in the front door of our bungalow and watched her go. The duffel bag bounced against her hip as she skipped down the driveway. I worried that she might strain her shoulder. Cynthia had packed a heavy bag.
I drank cold beer and sat on our orange swirled couch with its worn covers and the faded scent of Cynthia's vanilla perfume. I watched the dust dance along the floorboards. I expected her to come back at any minute. I listened for the painful grinding of my car engine approaching.
The only thing I heard was a thumping - low thumps followed by higher-pitched clangs. Our new neighbor, who lived in the duplex beside us, was bouncing a tennis ball around in her driveway. Sometimes she ricocheted the ball off her garage door.
The thumping of that tennis ball started to take over my thinking. It bounced over one thought and then another. It took over the curl of Cynthia's smile and everything else. All I heard was that repetitive thumping and soon, there was nothing else.
Cynthia was sixteen when we met. On the inside of her locker door, held up by a heart-shaped magnet, I spotted a photo of a boy who looked just like me. I asked who it was but she just smiled shyly in reply. Cynthia was wearing flip-flops that day, the thong kind that separated your big toe from all the others. She had blue glitter on her eyelids and pink barrettes in her hair.
And I, with my ratty Converse shoes and still-developing forearms, fell right into her. She was a refreshing pool, blue-green, cool and inviting. Cynthia danced with me, even though I couldn't dance at all, and she whispered she loved me, though I saw her eyes fall away.
Two weeks after graduation we eloped. Those first mornings together I woke up before she did and watched her sleeping. She exhaled heavily through her wide, open mouth and inhaled softly through the fluttering skin of her nose. I forgave her for everything.
I forgave her for selling my cherished high school baseball equipment because the curtains in the kitchen didn't hang quite right. I forgave her for getting fired from job after job, making it necessary for me to work double shifts at the factory. And although we were drowning in credit card debt because there were things she just had to have, I never said a word of complaint.
Cynthia believed no job could satisfy her need to be whole and fulfilled in her work. Spraying perfume or peddling beer products at street festivals would not fulfill her in any way. Cynthia said her dream was to be a poet. In the eight years I've known her, I've never seen her write a thing, not even a shopping list.
My brother Gregory called when Cynthia had been gone for three days.
'You're an idiot,' he said.
'She'll be back soon.'
'You're not a great thinker. You're not rational,' he said.
'I think you have the wrong number,' I said and hung up on him.
The thumping went on and on, she never seemed to stop. She bounced that ball from mid-afternoon until the sun went down, and sometimes she bounced it well into the darkness of the evening. I heard every bounce, every thump. They got louder and harder to hear, like little bombs going off all around me.
I also forgave Cynthia for the time she got drunk and slept with my cousin Gary. She said that it had just happened, that she didn't mean it and Gary kept handing her beers. I sat on the couch while she paced back and forth. She shook her hands as if she was a magician trying to conjure up the words. My hands slept in my lap.
'I just didn't know what was happening.'
'Sit down, Cynthia.'
'It's just - it's just - oh.'
'Cynthia, calm down.'
'No! No! It's just -.'
Cynthia's eyes darted around the living room. Her shoulders caved in towards her chest, like she was afraid the walls were moving in on her. 'You're such a brick.'
'You're a brick to me.'
I did not understand so I leaned forward and grasped at her arm as she paced by me. I missed. 'I want you to stay still for a minute, Cynthia. Stop flitting all around me. I can't think with you flitting all over.'
I tried to grab her again, but she lurched away from me. And she wouldn't listen.
'You're a brick.'
Again and again. She said it so many times. It rang in my ears. I'm a brick. I'm a brick.
Something hot, furious and unknown rushed up through me. Cynthia paced by me again, her hands shaking back and forth. I leapt up from the couch and grabbed her elbow. With violent force I yanked her arm and we both fell back on to the couch. I caught myself but Cynthia didn't. Her head snapped backwards and smacked the wall behind her.
Her skull smacking on that concrete wall was the most horrible sound I'd ever heard. My stomach churned.
But Cynthia didn't bleed or bruise. In the end, she didn't even develop a goose egg. She just sat there, with her head bent back and her eyes staring up at the ceiling. I forgave her right at that moment. I vowed never to say another harsh word to her. And to never refuse her, whatever she wanted.
The knocking was quick, sharp and unrelenting.
When I opened the door she stepped back a bit as if she wasn't expecting the unshaven, pajama-clad guy she got. All I saw was the bottom half of her body. I noticed the rolling of her hips and the round swell of her stomach. She had large hands with pink, thick fingers. They were folded on top of one another and resting under the curve of her stomach, just in front of her pelvis.
'My ball bounced over into your backyard,' she announced, like a bank teller saying, 'next please.'
'Toss it over the fence, will you?' Her tone lightened and I looked up at her face for the first time. Her eyes were dark and moist, and her eyebrows were arched into perfect boomerangs. Below her stomach, her fingers wiggled with impatience.
'Sure.' I mumbled. Before I even let go of the doorknob she had vanished from the front step.
The yellow tennis ball sat buried in the unruly grass of my backyard. In some spots the fuzz had been pulled away and in others the patches were so worn I could see the rubber underneath. A ball like that could not have much bounce left in it. I rolled it from one hand to the other.
'Thanks.' She stood in her backyard, peering at me, her chin just reaching the top of the fence.
'What do you think about when you're bouncing this ball?' I asked. I rolled some of the fuzziness between my index finger and thumb.
'Um.' Her eyes drifted downward, 'I... make up stories, characters, scenes and then... later, I type the stuff up on my computer.'
'Oh.' I replied, 'I would like to read some of your stuff. If you want.'
'No thanks. I don't show my writing to anyone.' She shook her head and her thick black hair swung in response, blotting out her face for a brief moment.
I frowned. 'What good is writing that's never read by anyone?' I tossed the ball to her with too much speed.
She smiled and snatched the ball right out of the air - with one hand.
'It's good to me.'
Two weeks later the phone rang and she was out of breath.
'I'm still looking,' she said. She had driven the car to Los Angeles, where he lived, and gotten a hotel room. She took the movie studio tours and searched outside of nightclubs. She hadn't found him yet.
'It's in your head, Cynthia. You're not in love with him.'
'Don't you see? I have to find him... my stomach is burning for him.'
She started to cry then. I rolled my eyes but pictured her quivering chin in my mind. I clenched the phone receiver with every bone in my hand.
'You should come home right now.'
'I can't. My stomach is burning.'
'Where are you right now, Cynthia?'
I tried to calculate how much credit I had on our Visa and how much a flight to Los Angeles cost. I had no idea. I began to formulate a speech for Gregory in order to get a ride to the airport.
'I'm in the hotel.'
'Have you been feeding the cat?'
'The cat ran away.'
Cynthia sighed and her voice faded away. I knew that her tears were drying and she was preparing to hang up. She was done listening to me and I pictured her holding the phone receiver away from her ear a little bit.
'What hotel are you in?'
'I should go.'
'At least give me your phone number there.'
'I have to go, love you, talk to you later, and take care.'
For a long time I held the phone to my ear. My nostrils flared and my eyebrows twitched, as if I was still responding to someone on the opposite end. But I was just listening to the insistent dial tone, pretending to hear and pretending to respond to no one.
I banged the receiver down into its holder and caught my baby fingernail underneath. The pain pulsated down my finger and ripped into my palm. Behind me, the thumping shook every wall of my house. The floor jumped.
I picked up the phone and dialed *69. I asked the desk clerk for her room but she said something about all the guest information being confidential. I told her I was Cynthia's husband and that Cynthia's mother was dead. I was put through immediately. Cynthia's mother had died when Cynthia was eleven but the desk clerk neglected to ask for specifics. Cynthia answered with a breathy and curious hello.
'Don't bother ever coming back. I'm sick.'
And I hung up.
When I left the house I thought I was going to ask her to stop all the thumping. I was going to tell her it was driving me crazy. That was my only intention.
Even before she saw me walking up her driveway she caught the ball and stopped the thumping. She was not surprised at all, as if this happened everyday. That many times before, a man whose wife had fallen in love with a movie star came walking up her driveway.
'What's your name?'
'How old are you?'
'No. I'm really twenty-one. I just add ten years because it gives me authority,' Marla muttered. I was stung, not used to sarcasm at all.
She was lying on her right side, the bed sheets tangled in and about her legs. I was lying on my back staring up at the ceiling, my hands tucked under my armpits. I had a light sweat everywhere and desperately wanted a shower. I turned my head in Marla's direction and my cheek pressed against the wide, bare surface of her back. Marla did not respond to my touch. She just stared out her bedroom window at the side of my house.
I pulled my cheek away. It seemed inappropriate to try to cuddle, and it seemed wrong to try to talk. I wanted to leave. But it seemed undignified to scrounge around for my pants and the one sock that I'd managed to slip off in the hurry. I was not used to this. I had no experience with the formalities of casual sex. Cynthia was the only girl I had ever been with and that was always about love.
What I wanted was an earthquake to come and rattle the whole bedroom and split apart the ground beneath the bed. I wanted to fall into the deep, dark crack of earth and disappear forever.
Then Marla said, 'There's a light.'
'A light?' I jerked up from the bed. My head swarmed pink and yellow, blotting out my vision.
'Yes. A light in your house just went on.'
She said it like she would say 'next please', as if she was a bank teller.
Cynthia was standing in the front hallway. The duffel bag was leaning up against the wall; its safety pins gone. The tear gaped so wide now, I could see the corner of a T-shirt sticking out.
Cynthia turned to me and shrugged. I watched her shoulders rise up to touch the tips of her ears and then fall downward again.
And then she sighed. Her sigh was like water lapping against the shore, calming me, quieting me.
I was drowning. I knew it well.
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