Kathleen asked, “Why are you hiding me?”
“What do you mean?” She had interrupted him while he had been extolling at length upon the virtues of Howard Dean and mourning the fact that, despite Dean’s obvious superiority, John Kerry was winning Democratic state primaries left and right. He paced the room while she sat still in an old chair, but they both wore shoes with their pajamas. The wooden floor was so run-down that socks weren’t even guaranteed protection against splinters. He handed her a cup of coffee the way he knew she liked it, with lots of milk and a little sugar. She didn’t drink coffee the way he did. She was a gulper. He liked to sip it slowly as he paced around the room, talking politics.
She straightened her shoulders and turned her face toward him—she looked like she would have stared him down if she could have. “You know what I’m talking about.”
He walked into the kitchen to put some bread into the toaster. “All my friends know you,” he said, returning to the living room, “and they are the important people.”
“So you’ve admitted it. You are hiding me from your family,” she said. “Anyway, your friends just think of me as your girl friend. I can’t really talk to them.”
“That’s how my parents would think of you, too.”
“But your mom is a teacher. Aren’t teachers supposed to seek out individuals?”
“They’re supposed to.”
“So why are you hiding me?”
David sighed and tried not to feel irritation with her for asking, for making him dig it up from behind the news stories and political theory which kept him engaged in a larger, more important world than that of himself, his family. He shrugged before he remembered that she didn’t see that, so he put the shrug into words, “I dunno.”
“But there must be a reason,” she insisted, tossing her head in a way that made her silver hoop earrings dance. They were sitting side by side on the sagging leather couch. The couch was aging, and large pieces of its dirty, wrinkled hide were torn back, exposing grayish stuffing within.
He could feel anxiety bubbling up, despite the cigarette he was smoking. Women, he thought, are all the same. If you don’t say what they want to hear, they nag you until you do. He jumped up and began to pace the living room again. He had always preferred pacing, even when he felt relaxed. It helped him to think. He could see Kathleen turning her head to follow his movements. “My mom’s just really obsessive and asks all these questions, that’s all. She fits every Jewish stereotype ever.”
“What stereotypes?” Kathleen asked with interest.
He smiled then. “She’s cheap to begin with,” he said. “Both my parents are cheap, actually. They’re the sort of people who haunt garage sales and Walmarts.”
Kathleen nodded. The toaster rang, and David walked into the kitchen to remove the bread and to spread hummus on it. He handed Kathleen the plate, then put more bread in for himself. “You’ve inherited it,” she added.
He knew it was true. He shared all the food he had with her but had never bought her a gift. Gifts were too complicated, involved too much forethought.
“And Mom’s just really nosy. She’d ask me all these questions about you.” He didn’t know how to explain to Kathleen his need to keep her to himself. It had taken him eighteen plus years to get his life to a comfortable distance from his mother, and now this girl wanted to ruin it.
“But she should ask those questions,” Kathleen said. “You’re her kid. At the risk of sounding corny, she brought you into the world. And it’s been a year, David.”
“A year? Since what?”
“Since we’ve been together.”
Sin #2, he thought, forgetting dates. David would never understand women, girls. He didn’t even want to.
“What about your dad?” she asked. “You never talk about him.”
“Oh, he’s okay. But my parents travel in a set. Anyway,” he said. “Go into my room just for a few minutes, okay?” They moved into the hallway, but she stood still then, her arms crossed in front of her, pretending she was stubborn and wouldn’t move. David waited it out. He knew that stubbornness flared up genuinely on a few occasions in her, and he was willing to bet this wasn’t one of them. She would be as scared as he was but for her own reasons. His guess was confirmed by the expression on her face, a look that wavered between wistfulness and worry. “Please?” he pressed her. “I just can’t deal with them today. Please?”
“You say that every time.”
“I know, but please? I mean it.”
“Okay,” she said.
“It will take just a few minutes,” he said to console her.
“No,” she said, “no, that’s not fair to them. I’ve been here all weekend. Don’t rush them out, please?”
The word didn’t cast the same spell on him that it seemed to on her, but he said, “Okay, okay.” He glanced around the tiny bedroom, junk everywhere: piles of clean and dirty laundry, computer parts and crates of records. The doorbell buzzed its alarm. He watched for a second as Kathleen lay down on the old bed, which had aged centuries after months of fucking. It was the only cleared space in the bedroom. He saw her expression of unutterable sadness. Even when she cried, she didn’t look this miserable. She seemed smaller somehow, and he kissed her on the forehead, trying to communicate a made-up pang of remorse for making her unhappy, even though he knew that what he was really communicating was relief that she had given in again. “Here,” he said, switching the fan off, “this way, you can hear our conversation.” Then, remorse forgotten, he quickly shut the door and dashed down the stairs of his apartment building to let them in.
His parents came once a week to bring him food. Kathleen would point out, “You wouldn’t talk to them otherwise.”
“Yes, I would,” he would say, but he wasn’t really sure. They were both tall with dark hair and deep-set brown eyes. Once he heard somewhere that people who were married as long as his parents were began to look alike, and he knew it was true in their case. But there were differences, of course. His brother had the straight hair of their mother, and his hair was only straight when he came out of the shower. As it dried the ends of it began to curl a little. Nevertheless Kathleen joked that his parents seemed to be one entity. She couldn’t picture them as separate people. Her mom had died when she was in high school, rendering her dad an individual. His parents, though, had been married without children for fourteen years, and he, the older of the two brothers, was now twenty-five.
Twenty-five, he thought, and the would-have-been starving law student. His parents were already in their sixties. He knew he looked like them, like a Jew. Kathleen called his nose scholarly once, which made him erect.
As he ran he thought of the very first conversation he and Kathleen ever had in person (they met online), in which she told him about her idea of elves living in the radiators in her dorm at school. “You can hear them hammering.”
“You’re a very odd individual,” he had said without thinking.
Her face dissolved into the unutterably sad look before she could turn away to compose her expression.
“In a good way, in a good way,” he amended hastily. He meant it, too. He remembered telling her in an email shortly after they’d met that his photograph was up on the matchmaking webpage, and she wrote back that she didn’t care, because she couldn’t see pictures. He hadn’t believed her. But from her letters he liked her immediately. She was a comparative literature undergraduate, finishing up her certification to teach English in bilingual settings so that she could get a Masters in special education. And, on the day he met her in person, saw the tall, gangling form of the girl in flowing, brown, woolen pants and a soft, blue shirt walking toward him through the crowded train station as he shouted verbal directions, he knew he wanted to know her “in the biblical sense.” After he knew her “in the biblical sense,” he liked the way she responded to his touch. That day, though, the day of his first compliment and their first misunderstanding, it took a good five minutes for her countenance to resume its composure, even though she chattered brightly.
“Now, David,” his mom said after he and his parents had made the climb up the two flights of ancient, creaking stairs. She made lists of things to worry about. She color-coded her worries like the federal alert codes. David could see the humor in this, but he still hoped that this week’s list would be short. “I got a library notice. They’re missing a book. Do you know where it is?”
“I think it was Wealth and Democracy or something.”
“Oh sure, I still have it. I’ll take it back this week.”
“Make sure you remember.”
“And have you been looking for a summer job?”
“Yeah.” He always forgot to look for summer jobs until July. He thought of Kathleen lying behind the closed door. She would have asked the same thing.
“Did you find anything promising?”
She sighed heavily. “Do you realize how much you make me suffer? You know Dad’s been out of a job.”
He could feel his stomach tightening. “Is that my fault?” he wanted to ask. Instead, he said, “I told you, I’ve been looking. Being negative isn’t going to help me look.”
“Then what will help you?”
“Stop nagging me.”
“But how can I stop if you’re not looking?”
“I told you I am looking.”
“All right,” his mother relented. “I apologize.”
“Apology accepted,” he said. He smiled then. “I’ll try to find something.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Look,” he said in an effort to change the subject, “look, I want to show you something.” He dug his wallet out of his pocket and produced from it a ten-dollar bill from 1950, which he’d found in the back of a cabinet earlier in the week.
“That’s interesting,” his dad said.
“Where’d you get that?” his mom wondered.
“Dunno,” he said, “but it says it’s redeemable in coins. Did they still have gold coins then?”
“At least silver dollars,” his dad said. “Honestly, I’m not sure. I was little then.”
“Oh, we should put this away,” his mom said.
“You take it then,” he said. “I’d be tempted to spend it.”
“Okay,” his mom said. “Let me make sure everything is correct. Everything I bought for you is in here.” She began rhyming off the things in the bags she’d brought with her: chicken, toilet paper, vegetables, and David nodded intermittently. He kissed her once, then walked with them downstairs.
When David returned to the bedroom, he found his girl friend completely encased in his quilt. He tugged at a corner of the quilt, and Kathleen pulled it off of herself. “You’re silly,” he said. “They aren’t the Gestapo.”
“You act like they are the way you hide me.”
“I didn’t tell you to smother yourself,” he said.
“I know,” she said in a little voice.
“You look upset.” He lay down on the bed beside her and put his arms around her. The bed groaned under their weight.
Kathleen was always telling him he needed a new bed, but David had a sentimental attachment to it that he couldn’t fully explain. She had bled virginal blood on this bed. “Virginal blood,” he thought. “Like I need to show it to the village or something.” She had said, “I’m not worth that much” after he’d asked her to have sex the first time, and he’d held her and told her how pretty and smart and funny she was. And he could see then how she hadn’t quite believed him but could also see his touching winning her over.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her now.
He held her close to him. Her long hair fell across his face. “I don’t want you to be upset,” he said, “but I don’t want you to quietly suffer. Come on, what is it?”
“I don’t like to be hidden.”
He remembered that his grandmother had come to America in her teens, that if she hadn’t come over, she might have been hidden or killed in her thirties. He might not have been born. It was difficult to imagine now, since his grandmother, ninety-five years old and very hard of hearing, was incredibly, stubbornly alive.
“It’s not forever,” he said. He had no desire to tell Kathleen about his thought. His grandmother had come over in time; they were here.
“I’m just worried you’re ashamed of me,” she said. “I’m a shiksa, and I’m blind. Which is it?”
“What kind of word is that? You’ve been reading too much Roth.”
“Definitely, but which is it?
“No, no,” he told Kathleen. He didn’t know what else to say to substantiate his denial of her accusation.
“I mean, would your parents hate me?”
“No,” he said slowly, “they wouldn’t.” He realized as he said it that it was true.
She turned away.
“Listen,” he said, “it’s not you. My mom is just so obsessive. You heard her.”
“I feel more empathy for her than you’d think.”
“What’s that? What do you mean?”
“You hide things from her, too. I mean, when did you ever look for a summer job?”
David had already met Kathleen’s whole extended family at Christmastime, and he shocked them by eating ham. Her dad, at least, was nice and didn’t ask many questions, even when David was alone with him. David was not ashamed of Kathleen as a non-Jew or as a blind person, but he worried that his parents might not see how she compensated, not immediately. She was so shy, and so were they. And he wasn’t sure he could advocate well enough on her behalf or if she would assert herself, should she need to. He had a cousin, Cousin Larry, whom he’d always tried to avoid, because Larry was, as he told his friends, “a little retarded.” He told Kathleen that Cousin Larry was “not all there.”
“But he is all there,” she’d said to him at the time. “He’s just different than most people.”
“That wasn’t meant to be read literally, my dear,” he told her, and she had smiled deeply into his eyes until he kissed her.
And, David justified to himself, Larry is annoying. He listens to Neil Young, and that’s one of the better musicians he likes. He says annoying, stupid things.
David prided himself on being a liberal. He supported inclusion. He was helpful and courteous when people needed assistance without condescending to them in any way. He could joke around about disabilities in a way more uptight people couldn’t. But he hadn’t expected disability to enter the fabric of his love life. (He had not expected to have a love life).
“Okay, okay,” he said the next weekend. “Are you sure you want to meet them?”
“No,” she said and nodded.
“No?” Hope flashed in him for a moment.
“You know I will.”
“Okay now,” he said, “we have to stage this right. Just sit at the computer, and do your work as they come in.”
“Okay,” she agreed. She looked like she might run into his room again. When the doorbell buzzed, she almost jumped out of her chair.
David ignored her and ran down the stairs. When his parents came in, they greeted Kathleen in bewilderment. “Oh,” he said, “that’s Kathleen.” They walked past her into the kitchen. As his mom ran through the list of things to worry about, he tried not to think about Kathleen, but all he wanted to do was to fuck her. He could hear her in the living room, banging on the computer keys so hard that he was sure she would break it. He wanted to yell at her to stop being melodramatic, but he didn’t want to call attention to her, that he cared in any way how she treated her computer. Meanwhile, his parents were too intent on what they wanted to say to wonder why Kathleen sat on the couch with a computer and headphones. And David, who already felt terror over still not having looked for a summer job, did not stop to point out this girl, this great change in his life and maybe in theirs.
“Have you heard from Larry?” his father asked with a wry smile.
“He wants to hang out with you again.”
David knew his father felt something like sympathy for him, that he, too, found Larry to be obnoxious. David had stopped hanging out with Larry ever since he had started going out with Kathleen. He felt a sudden burst of gratitude for her for having released him from that obligation. Had she known, she would, of course, have told him he needed to stay connected to his family, that they supported him, etc etc etc. But for the moment, this girl friend, who was causing his mind to race and his penis to harden, despite her fury, was rescuing him.
“Take care,” both of his parents told Kathleen as they left, and Kathleen told them to take care.
“You’re still hiding me!” she accused him the moment they were gone.
“No, I’m not. What do you mean?” He tried to embrace her. But he knew what she meant.
She pulled away from him. “I couldn’t just follow you guys into the kitchen.”
“You could have.”
“No, I couldn’t,” she spit the words at him. “Do you realize how weird that would have looked?”
“They don’t even know!”
“That I love you. Well, that I loved you.”
“I love you,” he said. “This was just a test run.”
“What do you mean?”
“They get into these cycles. They panic, then calm down again. New things get them all worked up at first. If they just see you this time, then it will be easier next time.”
“Like autistic kids?” Kathleen chuckled. “They’re afraid of transitions?”
He laughed. “Something like that, yeah.” Maybe I’m the one afraid of transitions, he thought, and I don’t have any kind of diagnosis.
“Here are the reasons I want to meet them in percentages,” she said. “Twenty-five percent of it is I want to know if anything happens to you.”
“Nothing’s going to happen to me.”
“You never know.”
“Okay, okay,” he said, “proceed.” He didn’t want to reopen that debate. (“Call me so I know you’re not dead,” she always said, trying to make a joke out of the worry.)
“Twenty-five percent is rank curiosity. Twenty-five percent is that your mom is a teacher, and I love to talk to teachers even if they can’t help me or anything.”
“Yeah.” All of his friends were like him. They talked about politics and philosophy. He could understand how lonely she might be with no one in his circle who knew much about literature or education.
“And twenty-five percent is that I want to know about your family, because…I don’t know…because you have a history. And getting to know them, even a little, will help me to know you better. Your friends can’t give me your past, only parts of the current you. Do you see what I mean?”
“I guess,” he admitted. He remembered how much he’d liked meeting her family, not so much because he knew them better but because he could ask her more questions about them and about herself. But, he reminded himself, her father wasn’t nosy.
“And twenty-five percent,” she said.
“Wait, you already reached a hundred,” he interrupted.
She shrugged. “I know. Make them all twenties then.”
“So as I was saying, twenty percent is that I don’t like the idea of being hidden. I mean, people with disabilities used to be hidden in basement classrooms, in institutions.”
David gasped as he thought once again of his grandmother in hiding. He suddenly understood and wished he didn’t. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to feel marginalized, but I should have known you’d take it that way.”
She kissed him gravely. “So next weekend,” she asked, “I’ll meet them?”
“Yeah,” he said. Anyway, he had a week to figure out a new way to avoid the meeting. “Next weekend you will.”
It was a gorgeously windy summer day, the sort of day during which David could justify turning off his air conditioning unit, knowing that the wind would sweep out the humidity, the closed in smell of days of cigarette smoking in a closed space.
He had still not found a job, was still living from the help of his parents and his girl friend who was interning a few days a week at a not-for-profit company which served people with visual impairments or with learning disabilities. “Learning disabilities?” he had asked her once.
“Like dyslexia, auditory processing, a whole bunch of them.”
“And listening helps them to read?”
“Listening,” she told him, “makes all the difference.” She said it mockingly, and he could guess, from her tone, her responsibilities: talking on the phone in that sort of voice, sending out mass mailings and emails, selling the company’s mission. The mocking, though it displayed outward, was turned inward toward herself. She made fun of herself for doing it, not because she didn’t believe in it but because she could hear herself repeating herself. “Do I sound like a broken record?” she had asked him once.
“No,” he told her, “except about my parents.”
She had laughed. “I’ve given up on that,” she said.
“No, you haven’t. You keep nagging me.”
“Yeah, but a way will appear for me.”
The Way materialized inevitably as David showered. David was the sort of person who promised to shower in five minutes and who took about 45 minutes. Sometimes, he would jerk off, but most times, he would stand in there and daydream. The water soothed him; it hid him from the world. Through the sound haze of the badly pressured water of fluctuating temperature, he heard the faint, awful buzz of the doorbell. “It can’t be them yet,” he thought. But then he heard feet running down the stairs. Kathleen.
David weighed his options. He could stay in there forever until they all finally left him. He could run out, dripping and naked, grab Kathleen by the ankles, drag her into the bedroom, lock her in there. But it was too late. He heard the enemy noises increasing, two sets of feet ascending the creaking stairs, Kathleen’s and his mother’s, and so he turned off the water, curious to hear the first few lines of a scene in which he could not participate. He heard his mother’s voice, “I remember you. You were typing in the living room on your computer. Do you live in the apartment?”
“No,” Kathleen said, “I am just… friends with David, so we were hanging out. He’s in the shower.”
What a lame explanation, he thought. Just friends? But his mother avoided it. “Still in the shower? Oh well, that’s like him. His brother is always so punctual, but David never did have a sense of time.”
“I know,” Kathleen said. “You need to add an additional fifteen or twenty minutes on to whatever time he says he’ll be ready.”
“Oh yeah,” his mother said, “I forgot to do that!” The two of them laughed in a way which excluded him. His face burned for a minute, but then David shrugged. He would never understand women, he thought. But he did understand them; he knew what they wanted. They wanted him to be there. David pulled on his boxer shorts, wrapped a towel around his shoulders like a toga and opened the door, shivering as the breeze touched his damp skin.
Kristen Witucki currently lives in West Virginia where she teaches English, creative writing and Braille to blind students. She lives with her husband James, her young son Langston, and her Seeing Eye dog, a black lab named Tad.