:: Article

The Cure

By Greg Sanders.

Rob’s sitting at his local bar, a place called Dee Dee’s on First Avenue and 4th Street, when two women and a man, all in their 30s, come in and take up the stools next to him, leaving an empty one to his right. They order a bottle of Rioja and throw their jackets on the stool between him and their group without asking if he is saving it for someone. He isn’t, but is it so obvious that he’s alone?
“Last night,” one of the women says to her friends, “I had this nightmare that I was raped by Darth Vader and his cock was huge.” She puts her wine glass down and indicates the size of his penis. She’s dressed in various shades of black and speaks with an accent, and she’s tall. “Then, next thing I know, I’m giving birth to all these little tiny Darth Vaders and they all have little black helmets and capes, but they’re also very wet from being inside of me, in my womb. Suddenly I’m not scared anymore and think how sad they all look, so wet from my insides. When I woke up I laughed. It is funny, right? No, I don’t want to know what you think it means.”
She looks over at Rob and smiles, momentarily including him in her group since, after all, he’s right there. Her teeth are imperfect, chipped, one discolored. With those teeth and her accent, he imagines her in an Eastern European ghetto somewhere, a tough and desperate woman who does what she must to survive. That accent—he can’t identify it definitively. Could be Czech or just as easily something different.
The second woman, an American who seems to be the girlfriend of the guy, says to the tall woman: “Jimmy was telling me about your extra, um, things…”
“Jimmy, why’d you tell her?” Then to the American woman: “I am not ashamed. Would you like to see them?”
“Very much,” says the woman. She holds onto Jimmy’s arm as if something terrible might happen.
The tall woman pulls the right short sleeve of her blouse down just beneath the armpit. “And there’s one on the other side…” and she does the same on that side, where Rob catches a glimpse of her small defect. “I have four, just like my mommy and grandma. I’m worried that when I have children these extra ones will swell with milk for my baby Darth Vaders.”
Contrasted against her pale skin, her black hair, eyebrows and irises give her an almost cartoon-like set of facial expressions. He notices her every eyebrow twitch and broken-toothed smile but doesn’t know what any of them really mean. Her lips are large and uniformly rose-colored, like an odd-looking piece of fruit. And the sight of that extra nipple, pink and no areola, put a little bead of sweat on his upper lip.
As he looks away, a bit embarrassed at having stared at her, he thinks he sees her turn her head toward him.
The bartender, Daye, has red hair pulled back severely and braided. Her pale scalp shows through in zigzags and there’s nothing to frame her diminutive, freckled face. She is pretty, and Rob knows she is kind, but he also knows for a fact that a baseball bat is hidden behind the bar and that she wouldn’t hesitate to use it if things ever got out of hand. He loves that about Daye and he’s always felt safe around her. She has also seen the stranger’s little nipple and appears to be fascinated. It seems, suddenly, that a strange sexual voltage is running up and down the bar.
“I’d like to buy her a drink,” Rob says to Daye.
Then he turns and puts his request to the foreign woman directly. “I’d like to buy you a drink. That’s quite a show you put on—I couldn’t help noticing.”
She looks at him, puzzled, as if he’s spoken too quickly for her to understand. “No, please don’t buy me a drink,” she says after waiting just long enough to make him certain of the answer. “But thank you for the kind offer.” She turns back to her friends. “I am trying to meet a man with four hands,” and they all laugh and Rob finishes his beer and orders another from Daye, who is blushing in sympathy for him.
“That’s something, isn’t it?” Rob says to her. “Four.”
She draws the pint and doesn’t say anything. Rob’s been coming here for a long time, and it used to be that he would take a stool, have a beer, and his wife, Angie, would soon arrive.
Daye wipes down the bar in front of him, places the beer before him, and then leans in, turning her back to the threesome at his side. He knows what’s coming.
“Hope you don’t mind my bringing it up,” she says, “but I saw your daughter yesterday with her little play group at Tompkins Square Park. How’s she doing?”
“She still misses her mother. She’s stubborn, still doesn’t quite accept it.”
“And you?”
“The only thing that’s still screwing me up is insomnia. ‘Give it time,’ my shrink says, which is what he says about everything. I’ve seen him in here, by the way. Schackter, Ben Schackter’s his name. Balding guy, built like a robot, drinks gimlets.”
“You mean Benny?” she says, walking to the far end of the bar, “this Benny?” and she flicks the bar towel at an opened newspaper, a sort of bluff behind which Rob’s mental healthcare practitioner has been absorbed in the sports section. He peers out now. With his perfectly round face and closely shaved dome, he gives the impression of an unerring creature. He smiles, lifts his small glass to Rob in silent tribute, and then raises the newspaper to cover his face once again.
“Shit,” Rob says, “I told him I was gonna spend more time with Denise and less time, well, here.” He takes a look over his shoulder at the group of people, and at the woman again. After a short pause he continues. “Anyway, I was saying that insomnia’s still got its goddamn claws in me. And the bedroom is a little strange because Angie’s scent is finally gone. I mean entirely gone. For a while I’d been sprinkling her perfume around.” He takes a gulp of beer. “Which reminds me of why I came here tonight in the first place.”
With a clinking sound, he lifts a cloth sack from between his feet and places it on the bar. Then he begins to remove bottles of perfume, lining them up on the urethaned surface.
“This morning I thought, it’s really time to start clearing her things out. It’s been two years.”
“Has it been that long?” Daye says. “Jesus.” She eyes the perfumes. “These look expensive.”
“Yeah,” he says. “She was a connoisseur of fine fragrances.”
She grabs a small rococo bottle, opens it, and holds it to her nose. “What about this one?”
“She got it in Paris on a business trip.”
“Smells like oranges, but not. I mean, it’s also a bit musky. It’s really sexy though. Oh god, I’m sorry for that. How can you stand it?”
“For a while I was smelling these every morning,” he says. “Like I said, I’d even sprinkle the sheets with them. The doc over there will tell you that it’s not a good thing to do, healing-wise. I have to let her go entirely. So…these should be worn by someone and what I’m saying is, Angie would want you to have them. We didn’t have a lot of friends, and she always said how much she admired you. To be honest, I think she had a crush on you.”
Daye is silent for a few seconds. She seems angry when she speaks.
“Don’t take it wrong, but it’s a bit creepy. I mean, I loved Angie. Seeing you two come in here together put a smile on my face. The Happy Couple, you know. And it’s generous of you to think of me, but there’s no way I can take these.”
“Why not?”
“She’s gone, sweetie. She’s not coming back. Ever. Do you really want to come in here and be reminded of her whenever I wear this stuff?”
“That doesn’t bother me.” Robert leans in so that their faces are only a few inches apart. “I think you don’t want to be reminded of death. But these, these should remind you of life.”
“It’s just too weird for me. Someone else will love them. Try them out on this one,” she says, eyeing the woman who’s still holding court with her two friends.
“Not a chance,” he says, putting the bottles back into the sack.
“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure I like this trio that much anyway,” Daye says, obviously wanting to change the topic. “They’re all so goddamned self-assured.”
“Maybe,” he says, “but this one seems like she could suck the sorrow right out of my bones. I mean, look at those fucking lips.”
“I’ll call Benny over here cause you seem to be having some kind of breakthrough.”
“Don’t bother. I’ve got to get back to my girl. The sitter’s probably wondering where the hell I am.”
Out on the street Rob drops the sack of perfume bottles into a wire mesh garbage pale. Some of the bottles break and for a second the strong scents of his previous life overtake him and he stops dead in his tracks.

The following Wednesday night he stops in at DeeDee’s, this time with his daughter, Denise, who he sets up with an electronic game and a Coke at the stool next to him. He asks Daye if she’s seen the woman from the other night.
“She came by Sunday and sat there in the corner. Drained a bottle of wine on her own. But I did a little work for you. Her name’s Clarissa and she’s Finnish. She lives out in Red Hook.” She hands him his pint. “She seems like a nutcase or something, though. Maybe just right for you.”

About a week later he’s cooking a chicken stir-fry for himself and his daughter when the phone rings. It’s Daye. “I’m not sure it’s a good thing I’m calling, but she’s here.” When Rob asks who, she says, “You know, your girl in black. So, you gonna come down before she’s gone? She’s alone smoldering in the corner.”
He seats his daughter in front of her favorite video. “I’m going out for a little while. Eat your dinner.”
“But what about yours?” she says.
“I’ll have it when I get back.”
“It’s got chicken in it.”
“Yes—and?”
“If you wait to eat it you might get salmonella.”
“That’s only before it’s cooked. And people get hysterical. Look here, I’m covering it. I’m putting it in the fridge.”
He looks up the number for DeeDee’s in the phone book and puts a slip of paper in his daughter’s hand. “Call me at the bar if something comes up.”
“Like what?”
“Like anything. Call if anything at all comes up. I’m two blocks away and daddy’s as fast as the wind on his feet. Now watch the movie. The hawk’s about to rescue the rat.”
“It’s an eagle,” she says, “and a baby capybara. Later the grown-up capybara rescues the eagle.”
Soon he’s at DeeDee’s and Daye is drawing a pint of his favorite lager. He sees the woman at the far end of the bar. She’s folding her napkin into a tiny pyramid and trying to balance it on the edge of the ashtray. She looks at Rob and smiles.
He goes over and stands beside her with his beer and asks her why she’s alone.
“I’m not allowed to be alone?” she says.
“Of course it’s allowed, you just don’t seem the type.”
He sits on the stool next to her.
Within a few minutes he’s leaning in to hear her speak. She speaks softly, choosing her words carefully. It makes no sense to him, the warm reception he’s getting now, but after a couple of more pints he doesn’t question it.
“Do you see how pretty Daye is, smoking one of my Dunhills,” she says. “They’re very expensive,” and she draws hard on her own. “I know about you. Daye explained how you lost your wife in an automobile accident.”
“Yes, it was a terrible, terrible thing to go through. But now I’m doing okay, actually.”
“Oh yes? And that’s why you left your girl at home while you come out to drink—to meet ladies?”
“I’m only human,” he says. “No more and no less.”
She takes his hand and circles her thumb on his palm. It reminds him of a school bus caught in a cul-de-sac. “You think your little girl will turn out well, don’t you? But when the time comes, she’ll seek out men like you—sad and alone, who keep their love crated in their souls. They believe that love can never be regained. To find it again would betray their dead lovers.”
“You’re fucking morose,” Robert says, unsure how seriously to take her.
“And you’re decent looking,” she says as she leans against him. Her breath is heavy with the smell of cigarettes and wine and reminds him of high school, and college, and his first years in the city. His wife tried to quit smoking but never could. Before her, his girlfriends smoked. Every single one of them smoked and he never has. He breathes in the familiar breath.
“I’ve got a little girl to get back to.”

***

Rob sits in a recliner in Dr. Schackter’s office. Sunlight streams down into the small room which is a half-story below the sidewalk. It’s around lunchtime and children from the local parochial school are playing outside, their shouts filtering in through the high horizontal windows.
“The sex is outstanding,” he says. “I mean she’s good and I’m good and as only you know”—he thinks of his wife because she had also known—“things weren’t always up to par in that arena. But this one I’ve met, it’s like I’m not me.”
“I usually tell people in your state to be patient. However, in your situation things seem to be falling nicely into place. I imagine you have some lingering guilt about beginning a new sexual relationship.”
“None,” Robert responds. “At least I don’t think so. Should I feel guilty about that?”
“Not necessarily. You seem fevered with this…what was her name—Clarissa?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” but Rob doesn’t remember mentioning her name to the doctor.
When he gets home from his session he finds Clarissa and his daughter sitting on the living room chaise looking at his photo album. Clarissa is holding a picture of him as a ten year old presenting his mother with a chrysanthemum from her garden. Of all the pictures, he thinks. “How is our friend, the good doctor?” she says, standing up and kissing him. “Has he told you that I am your cure?”
“No, he hasn’t exactly said that. It’s good that I’m involved though, but I’m to take it slowly.”
“I brought some things over,” she says, pointing to her backpack on the floor. “It’ll make it easier for me to stay over and no rushing back to Brooklyn for trifles all the time.”
“Well, I guess it’s good for you to have some stuff here,” he says. He looks at her backpack on the floor. Some of her long hairs are caught in the zipper.

A few Sundays later, Rob, blasting Miles Davis and standing on a high ladder, patches a small hole in the bedroom ceiling. Clarissa stands below him and places a hand on one of his bare feet as he concentrates on spackling. He almost leaps off the ladder when she touches him.
“Are you out of your mind?” He catches his breath. “Make some fucking noise before you do that. I had no idea you were even here.”
She hones in on the object of his work, a perfect circle the size of a dime, the outline of which is still visible through the wet spackle. “I’ve seen holes like that before,” she says. “Deep holes. Did you buy a hook strong enough to hold a man? Did you account for the torque caused by a swinging mass?”
He hesitates, looking down at her from the ladder, her smile no different than usual, which is to say wide, imperfect, entirely non-revelatory. And what the hell did she say about torque? Is she an engineer now?
“You have no idea how it was at first without Angie around. I thought about it, you know, but I don’t think I’d ever actually do it. Just drilling the hole. I mean it took me an hour to find the goddamn joist. That alone almost killed me. And I couldn’t get over the idea that Denise might be the one that ended up finding the body. I know it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.” He drops his voice. “Where is she, by the way? I don’t want her to know a thing about this. Do you understand? Not a peep out of you.”
“I picked her up from the park on my way here. She’s washing up and then we’ll dice vegetables for my vichyssoise.”
Rob steps down from the ladder and sits on one of its rungs. “Listen, Clarissa, how did you know about that?” pointing to the ceiling. “Nobody knows about it except my shrink.” He pauses and drops his head. “You’ve arranged this—meeting me,” he says quietly, as if nobody else were in the room. “This whole thing has been arranged. Yes yes, that would explain some things.” When he looks back at her, his eyes are red-rimmed.
She takes his hands in hers. “I am an expensive drug cocktail, so your insurance company believes. But I can stay here for a long time,” she says. “I can stay here forever if that’s what you need.”
“Hey why not, right? I mean hell,” he says, reddening, “let’s commit fraud and enjoy ourselves. Whose bright idea was it?”
“The bartender’s,” she says. “And then your doctor’s too. They said you needed help and, well, I needed something too.”
“The money.”
“And a place to live, and maybe a green card down the road. But now I like you too.”
“I don’t want you around my daughter.”
“That’s nonsense. I’m harmless. And with you she’ll never learn how to cook.”
“And Schackter agreed to all this?”
“He did the paperwork with the insurance company. He somehow gets reimbursement—for extra sessions and drugs or something, and then writes me a check.”
“And what does he get out of it?”
“His patient gets better and he has more time to see other patients.”
“Does he get you too?”
“No, he doesn’t get me. Only you get me.”
“He’ll go to hell.”
“Why? You’re happy, I’m happy, Denise is happy. ‘Screw the big brother, the man.’ I’ve heard you say that. Well that’s what we’re doing and it should feel…liberating.”
“Look, the only kind of therapy this is going to be for me, from now on, is physical therapy. You understand what I’m saying?”
“What if I like it? You’re such a gentle lover.”
“Not anymore.”
“You don’t scare me, mister,” and that night he was rougher with her but it exhausted him and afterward he stood looking at himself under the flickering light in the bathroom mirror, at his own unsure eyes. He had never been capable of violence of any kind. As a kid he practically teared up whenever someone stamped out an insect. The few times Angie wanted to see what it would be like to be tied up by him, to be restrained, to be done until she couldn’t breathe, as she put it, he couldn’t do it. And he kept putting it off, eventually telling her the truth—that he couldn’t bare to see her in that demeaned position. “Oh come on,” she’d said, “I’m asking you to; just play the role. It’ll be good for both of us.”
He came out of the bathroom, got back into bed and pressed himself against Clarissa. She was as he’d left her, facing the outside of the bed, her back to him. As he lay down he could see her blinking, lost in thought.
He ran his fingers through her hair.
“One thing I hadn’t realized,” she said, “you have strong hands, hands like vises. Don’t squeeze my arms so hard next time if you don’t want me to show bruises,” she said. “Or if you don’t care one way or the other, do.”
“I won’t then,” he said, still stroking her hair. “Will you turn around so I can see your face before I fall asleep?”
“No,” she said, “but wake me up when you’re ready to do it again. You don’t scare me.”
“Turn around,” he said.
“I’ll make you coffee in the morning,” she said, and soon her breathing settled and he knew she was asleep.
Streetlights down below on 10th Street were casting shadows of the Venetian blinds onto the ceiling over the bed. Murky parallel lines that were only ever affected in the summer, when moths circled the lights. But it was February now, the radiators creaked, his and Clarissa’s body heat was building up under the duvet and soon he knew he’d be drifting off too. But the shadows—he and Angie had shared the view of those shadows for five years and neither had ever said a thing, and why should they have?
“Look at the shadows,” he said now, trying to travel backward in time, hoping those words would transform the woman beside him into Angie, knowing there would be no response.
He began to drift off at last and imagined himself being lowered deep into the earth, far down, dropping into the dark warm embrace of the primal mother. Then he was moving toward the molten core, every square inch of his body compressed unbearably until he was no more than a thimbleful of inert matter, never to surface again.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Sanders is a sporadically employed technical writer living in the East Village. His short stories have been published widely, both in print and online, in places like Mississippi Review, LIT, Pindeldyboz, among others. He’s a fan of Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Chekhov, Stephen Dixon, Donald Barthelme, Flannery O’Connor, Borges, and Haruki Murakami.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 18th, 2007.