Anita & Me: A Storybytarkatony©
I met Anita Frank at Modeling Class, an idea borrowed from the world of painting. Basically, like in the visual arts, students study a model but rather than draw, they write about what they see and then share their work for critical evaluation with others in the class.
Anita's badly pockmarked face was crimson red as she mumbled the words from her notebook: ‘Don't you ever wonder what a person's body looks like under the sweater? Whether they have tattoos or birthmarks or scars. How much fat. Whether it's an in-ie or an out-ie; the kind of underwear. The body tells so much about a person. How can you not speculate? Why just absorb what you see through your eyes? What's that? It's just what a person wants you to see. Why not speculate on what might be under the clothing? Isn't that a lot more interesting, so much more fun?'
Three weeks later Anita and I ended up in the same coffee shop after class.
"Tell me something?" I asked. "Last week you wrote about the model's face. This week you wrote about her hands, but three weeks ago you gave us a prolonged lecture on the need to look beneath her sweater …"
"It was dumb."
"It was a dumb thing to write. I came late to class; I didn't know we had to read out loud what we had written. That night, for the first time in my life, I thought I'd try to be assertive. I was trying to be artsy. I was trying to pretend I knew what I was talking about. It was stupid. I blushed for a week. When you and Ann made fun of me I almost quit the class …"
"We didn't make fun of you," I objected.
"I saw the way you looked at each other …"
"I was looking at her tits," I laughed, "Like you suggested."
She clearly wasn't pleased. "What do you mean, like I suggested."
"You said it was OK to try and look beneath the sweater. So I did." Then I added, "And I have."
When Anita took a deep breath, her large breasts swelled against her baggy shirt, then she shook her head in disgust and reached for her purse.
"OK, sorry. Don't run away. Finish your coffee." When she settled back in her chair she was looking at some spot in the corner of the room as I studied her face. I was surprised at how different she looked now compared to the first time I'd seen her. Then, I thought she was aggressive, sure of herself, in charge, in control. She didn't look that way now. Far from it. Tonight, she looked nervous, lonely and scared. "What do you do for a living?"
She still looked at the spot in the corner. "Office manager for a construction company."
"That's your last name, isn't it, Frank?"
She nodded again.
I was impressed, it was one of the biggest construction companies in the state and by all accounts getting bigger fast. "I'm a bored-to-death corporate lawyer. Any wonder why I come out to a writing class?" Then I tried to draw a smile out of her, "Any wonder why I rush to take the advice of a woman who tells me to write about what's under her sweater?
"Let's not talk about that any more, OK?"
"Too bad, it was fun, a hell of a lot more fun then writing the fine print of contracts. Are you going to ask me to dinner?"
The words just hung there for a moment — I was as surprised by them as she was. "You want me to ask you to dinner?"
"Yes." And I did, I wanted to get to know her, there was something about her that I found really appealing.
She hesitated, she seemed to be searching for her decision in her coffee mug. "When?"
"How about Friday night."
"How long have you lived here?"
"Three years." She was standing at the stove, stirring.
I looked around. The place looked almost unlived in. None of the chairs seemed indented with use; the remotes were on top of the TV and stereo. There was no sign of use of any kind. "How many hours a week do you work?"
She laughed, "About 80. Why?"
"Just wondered." I picked up my beer and as I walked over to look at a painting I took a quick look into her bedroom and was surprised to see a large and full book case with two stacks of books piled before it. "You like to read?"
"I majored in Philosophy. It's ready." Then she added with a what sounded like a laugh, "I hope."
While she spooned the stroganoff onto the plates I opened the wine I had brought. "Thanks for the invite," I saluted her with my full glass.
When she smiled she didn't look at me. "You invited yourself."
"And I'm glad I did."
"Say that after you've tasted the creation."
"You don't cook?"
"Seldom.," then she shrugged, "Well, never, really."
I tried some. "It's good," I lied.
"Lucky I can read."
"You write well, too."
She continued looking at her untouched food, saying nothing.
"You're supposed to say thanks."
"You're welcome. But you do. You're the best in the class. By far. I'm the worst." I waited for her to look up and object, but she didn't. "I see you don't disagree."
"Have you every really regretted something you've said?"
"I hadn't, not until three weeks ago when I gave the class that dumb lecture about …"
"I thought we weren't going to bring that up again."
"But you were right, you know. Life is a lot more interesting if you try to look beneath the obvious." She didn't say anything. "You don't have a tattoo, do you?"
"You wear practical underwear, don't you. I didn't think so at first, after that lecture. But now I do."
She was still studying her food, "I'm practical."
"The acne was bad."
"Doesn't do much for the confidence."
"Or the cooking."
When she looked up, the confused look on her face quickly spread into a wide smile. "Awful isn't it?"
"Yep," I said, pushing my plate away, "Pizza or the Colonel."
"Well it's not going to kill you."
She seemed to think about this for a moment then said, "How about Chinese?"
We had an hour to wait before the food would arrive so I asked her if I could look at her library. I was sitting on her bed paging through a tome when she came in and stood next to me. "You read this?" I was holding a modern copy of Issac Newton's Principia Mathematica.
"I read bits of it, now and again."
"When was it written, five hundred years ago?"
"It was published in 1687."
I looked up at her, fascinated. "What do you get out of it?"
"When Newton wrote that science was just emerging as a discipline so when I read it I'm transported back to the beginning of scientific study, just like when I read Plato I'm taken back to the beginning of written rational thought. Somehow it's reassuring. It's as if there really was a beginning to knowledge; that knowledge is finite; there is something quantifiable to learn."
I closed the book and studied the cover. "What are the chances there's anyone else in the world reading a copy of this right now?"
Anita took the book from me and put it back on her dresser, "I'm not so much reading it, as paging through it."
I didn't know why I did it — I certainly hadn't planned to. I stood up and kissed her on the cheek.
It was more a push then a punch but the words were clear enough, "GET OUT. GET OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW."
I did, as quickly as I could — I could see from the terror on her face that this wasn't the time for rational talk.
I had no idea what to expect when I dialed the phone the next morning and I had no idea what I was going to say. "Can I have some Chinese food for breakfast?"
It was warming in the oven when she let me in, the place smelled of it and I felt nauseous. "I've changed my mind. Do you have any eggs?"
She left me at the doorway and when she went to the kitchen I sat down on the couch I had vacated less than 12 hours before.
"I'm sorry." She was standing in the kitchen doorway with a carton of eggs in her hand.
"So am I."
"Bit of a disaster wasn't it?" She was studying the egg carton.
"What? The food, the conversation or the kiss?"
She turned back into the kitchen and I picked up a magazine on construction supplies from the coffee table and paged through it until she called me to the table.
"You scared the hell out of me last night," I said, as I tried a tiny morsel of the egg.
She was nervously forking her eggs around the plate and said nothing.
"I'm a lawyer. Things like that can end up in court."
She still hadn't looked up. "Is that why you called?"
I was quiet for a moment, "I wanted to apologize, too."
While I looked at her, she studied her fork as it pushed at her scrambled eggs. "You shouldn't have to. It was me. I just got scared."
"Why? A simple kiss on the cheek. It wasn't like I groped you …"
Her fork froze for a moment, "This is all new to me. I'm a nervous wreck. I over-reacted. I'm sorry."
"What's new to you?"
She took a quick look up at me, smiled awkwardly, then returned to studying her fork. "Everything. You. In this place. Cooking for someone. What you did. Like I said, I don't have a lot of confidence."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
She got to her feet and went to the stove and scraped her eggs back into the pan. "I want to apologize."
I moved beside her and when I tipped my eggs into the pan she laughed. "No, they were fine, I'm just not hungry." I put my plate on the counter and asked, "Can I hold you?"
She put her plate on top of mine and poured a glass of water from the tap. "Do you want one?" When I nodded she handed me the full glass, poured another for herself then walked into the living room and sat on the couch. I sat down beside her. "I haven't the first clue of what to do. I have no experience in this. I'm scared." Then she looked up at me and gave me another grimacing smile before looking down at her knees. "I'm fucking terrified."
"Do you want me to go?"
She took her time answering, as if she was turning the question over in her mind. "No."
"Do you want me to hold you?"
She didn't say anything, didn't look at me but soon she moved towards me and lay her head against my arm and when she did, I wrapped my arm around her and gently pulled her into me. For the longest time I didn't move, but my mind was frantically working on a question. Should I? Shouldn't I? I finally did. "Was it the acne?"
"It isn't fun."
There was a long hesitation and when she looked up at me there was obvious confusion in her eyes.
"You don't have it any more."
"I have the scars."
When I lightly kissed the worst ones, the ones over her left eyebrow. She went rigid for a moment, pulled away a little then thought better of it and moved further into me and in doing so she took hold of my arm and squeezed with both hands. "Why are you doing this?" Her question floated into a long silence.
"Do you have a Polaroid?"
"A Polaroid? No. A digital. At the office."
"Can you get it?" I removed my right arm from her grasp and rolled up my sleeve, "I want to take pictures of this bruising. For the judge."
It took a moment for her to understand. She smiled and wrapped her arms lightly around my arm again, pushing her face into my shoulder. "I've made my last apology for the day." Her words were muffled and I used them as an excuse to tilt her face towards me and I kissed her again, lightly, leaving my lips on hers, waiting for her to respond. And she did, but very slowly, pressing her lips just a little into mine.
Her eyes were shut, squeezed shut in a tense squint, then as they began to relax I could feel a guttural groan against my lips and she brought her right leg over her left and leaned on me twisting her groin into my leg. Her arms were around me now, pinning my arms to my side in a painful squeeze as she forced herself against my leg. It was over in a few seconds and she collapsed on me, pushing her face into my chest, "Oh, God, I'm sorry."
I kissed her hair and chuckled, "I thought you weren't going to say that any more."
She moved away, to the other end of the couch and pulled a pillow into her face. She lay like that for almost a minute before she curled herself around her arms in a fetal position, "Please. Will you go?"
I was so surprised I didn't move, but she didn't either and she wouldn't look at me so I got up and walked to the door. "Can I see you tomorrow night?"
"I'll see you at class." I left.
It's fair to say that I don't really give a shit about anything. I always thought this indifference was because I had no history: an orphan growing up in a series of foster homes doesn't exactly put down roots, and anyway, I never had the time to care, I had always been far too busy doing. My 80 hour weeks now are almost a relief from the 100 hour weeks of working and studying my way through college. So I didn't really care about the consequences. I just knocked on the damn door as if I'd been invited.
"I'm a friend of Anita's."
The guy looked like Sonny in the Godfather. He just stood there staring at me so my first thought was that I had the wrong house. "She's here?"
Sonny nodded but didn't move.
"I'd like to see her," I said, surprised at my insistence.
He seemed to consider the statement for a moment before standing aside.
The foyer was large and brightly lit with some very interesting woodwork, which I didn't get a chance to study because Sonny said, "Down there to the end."
I descended the nearby stairs and followed a long hallway that ended in a large family room. About 10 kids of varying ages from about two to ten were seated on the floor, their eyes locked on her. Her voice was very masculine for a moment, then quickly feminine, then a child's. Her story was about a family living on Sampans in a Chinese harbour and I quickly became as lost in it as the kids when I heard the tiny voice say, "Who's he?"
Her shock was obvious. It took her a moment to put the book down and get up. She was a few feet from me when she asked in a confused, anxious voice, "What are you doing here?"
"Didn't you invite me?"
Her eyes left mine for the person walking up behind me.
"Ah, dad, this is Jim. I invited him tonight and … ah, I guess he's a little late."
I turned around to see an older version of Sonny but bigger and meaner looking. I stuck out my hand, "Sorry, I'm late, sir."
The man didn't take my hand, at least not immediately. He studied me briefly then searched his daughter's eyes for meaning, then, finally, he took the hand that was frozen in place between us. "Tony Frank."
He looked again at his daughter then looked back at me, "You're unexpected," he hesitated for a moment and added, "but welcome and just in time." He clapped his hands loudly, "Dinner's ready, kids," then he turned and led the pack of us down the hallway.
I deliberately mixed myself in with the kids so I didn't have to answer Anita's questions and with everyone else I was herded into a Great Hall where the young were sorted to one end of the long table and the adults to the other, me to stand behind my chair beside Sonny.
I waited with everyone else while an old lady was helped into the room and when she was seated we all sat down. The table was about 20 feet long and five feet wide. Anita sat across from me and about four places to my right.
I don't have many rules in life but I do have one: when I walk into a meeting or a bar or a restaurant, I make bloody sure I sit in a place that offers the best chance for entertainment and enjoyment. Here, I was sitting in the wrong seat. The one I wanted was occupied by a man about Anita's age who could have been her brother. Over the din of competing voices I spoke to him, and when I did, the room fell silent. "Look, do you mind switching seats? I'd feel a whole lot more comfortable being beside the one who invited me."
The son looked at the father who sat still for a long, tense moment before nodding ever so slightly. We got up together and I patted him on the shoulder as we passed.
I was pretty much ignored for the entire meal, even by Anita who seemed to focus on a plate that she never touched. It was OK by me. It was mainly family talk so I didn't have anything to contribute anyway. But it surprised me. Even as awkward as it was, I liked being there, I liked being among a large family who obviously cared for each other. It was an entirely new experience for me. A good one.
"I thought you said you're a lawyer?"
It was Sonny's voice. I had left with the others and was approaching my car. "I am." He motioned to my wheels. I drive a 1976 beaten and battered Volkswagen. "Long story," I said, but it isn't. I'm 32 years old, I've been a corporate lawyer for 7 almost 8 years, I live in a rooming house with a washroom down the hall, my wardrobe consists of one suit and a couple of cheap jackets — and I have a pretty good whack of dough in the bank.
I followed Anita home and we walked up to her apartment together. "Why?" she asked, as she put the key in the lock.
I answered when we went inside. "Are you sorry I came?"
She took her jacket off and hung it up. She didn't look at me. She walked across to the kitchen, poured herself a glass of water and sipped at it.
"Are you sorry I came," I repeated, still standing by the door.
"What are you doing?" She seemed a little angry. She put the glass down and slumped over the sink, almost like she was going to be sick.
Luckily, this morning I had worked out my answer to that very question — but I had no sense that I'd be needing it so soon. But, under the circumstances, I didn't see where I had much choice so I went for it, and for her. I walked to the kitchen, put my hands on her shoulders, absorbed her sudden flinch and said, "I have something I want to talk to you about and, I guess, the time has come. Will you come and sit down?"
She looked confused and scared as I led her over to the couch and when she sat down I made certain I sat as far away from her on the couch as I could. This wasn't the time to be physically threatening.
I hadn't worked out exactly what I was going to say — as I said, I had no sense that I was going to have to say it so soon. And anyway, this wasn't a message I wanted to script. But I knew the gist of it: "You don't know me and I don't know you. But I want you." With this, her head jerked up and she searched my eyes for meaning, but just for a second, then she went back to studying her knees. "Please listen to me. Let me get this out. It's not easy and it's probably not going to make any sense to you. But I want to say it. Will you listen?"
She didn't say anything.
"Will you listen?"
"Why are you doing this?" The voice was of a lonely child.
I persisted, "Will you listen?"
She waited a long time before saying, "Yes."
"Just listen, that's all I ask." I went slowly. "I think I've told you I'm an orphan, an orphan almost from birth. I grew up living in foster homes. I've never belonged. Not once. Never. Not in homes, not in schools, not at work. But that's OK, I've done alright. I'm sane, reasonably balanced and I've worked hard and become successful. Terrific, except for one thing: my entire life has been about me, and only me. I'm not only the centre of my world, I am my entire world." I paused for dramatic affect. "The time has come for that to change, as I always knew it would. The time has come for a radical restructuring of my life." Here was my punch line, this I had practiced. "I want to give myself to you and I want to take you in return."
When she looked up at me her face was a mask of confusion, as if I hadn't made a whiff of sense. "What are you talking about?"
I got up and walked to the door. "I'm talking about giving you everything I have. Me. And I'm taking about taking everything you have. You. I want to belong. I want to belong to you. And I want you to belong to me. I'll come and see you tomorrow."