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Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Thirteen

Tom once had a crush on a girl named Elizabeth. For a while they spent a fair amount of time together, but in the end she had very little interest in him. This sort of thing happens all the time, but he either wasn’t able or didn’t try very hard to forget about her over the years. He slept with a number of different women, but she was always there, from the beginning and thus always the first girl he loved. He probably wouldn’t use the word ‘love,’ but however youthful and immature it might have been, love is exactly what he felt. What he remembered was how beautiful she was. Even after he married Helen, Elizabeth was somewhere there at the back of his mind. What he no longer remembered was how exciting it had been to want to be with a particular woman so much, and how angry he’d been when he realized he’d lost her to someone else. Maybe he thought he might recapture that feeling when he met Julie, but that really wasn’t it. He’d lost something over the years while sleeping around as much as he had. Even if the sex had come relatively easy, he really had become cynical over so many years and so many women. What he saw when he met Julie was a beautiful young woman, but at this stage of his life it seemed like a chance to settle an old score.

Tom didn’t actually recognize this himself. Or ignored what he did recognize. Although it’s true that Tom had begun his career as a womanizer who had gradually developed the ability to ignore whatever guilt he’d naturally felt, with marriage that guilt had begun sneaking up on him.

Tom was actually very lucky when Helen came along, because she had very few illusions about sex. Or at least that’s what she thought about it. She saw sex as something everyone pursues as a part of a more comfortable life. Where Tom saw something to feel guilty about, Helen saw an opportunity. If Tom had said to Helen when he first met her, “I feel a need to tell you about my past; I’ve started feeling guilty about it,” she probably would have laughed out loud. In fact when he realized she was thinking about marriage, he’d thought about saying just that – he liked to be up front with all the women he went with. His awareness about the life she’d led had kept him from saying anything.

Obviously, she had slept with a few men herself over the years. It wasn’t as if Helen had never experienced guilt before, and it certainly wasn’t that she didn’t value honesty as well, but for Helen illicit sex was better understood with a sense of proportion. From her point of view, the dark side of sex involved prostitution; she had known people that had died because of it. Several of her friends had contracted AIDS, and one woman she’d known had been murdered and left in the woods for months before her body was found. It was other people who had good reason to feel guilty, and it really wasn’t sex that was the problem. In her opinion it was sex that bore the brunt of a lot of other problems. Tom had led a fairly comfortable life, for all his experience at Videosyncracy and the women who came through its door over the years. Helen had a different perspective.

Helen was in fact all too aware of the connection between pornography and the other ills of society, some of which she was unfortunate enough to experience herself. That’s why she wanted out. That’s why she had embarked on what seemed to some of her friends and cohorts the ridiculous goal of a more legitimate career in entertainment. Helen didn’t have much in the way of divided loyalties about this. She was loyal to Roger and some of the others she’d been in the business with over the last few years, and she believed in protecting some of the younger girls as well as she could, but she didn’t really consider this in terms of divided loyalties. She had her own ultimate wellbeing to consider and she didn’t see how this concern shouldn’t be everybody else’s as well. This was because she’d spent a lot of time where there was nowhere to go but up.

She was a loyalist and wanted to keep faith with those she had worked with over the years – the girls, especially, but Roger and some of the others in the crew as well. She stayed close to those who had helped her achieve success, and it wasn’t easy to get out of the pornography business after she became so hugely successful. That she could even think of doing so was because she’d done a lot more than most women in the business by taking time to learn skills that would have helped her do something besides porn. Tom was amazed at her ambition; it was ambition that afforded her the opportunity to bail Videosyncracy out of its financial woes. An essential quality of ambition is that it’s very difficult to drop. Tom would have been perfectly comfortable settling into his old routine at the store, or even retiring. This is because Tom wasn’t particularly ambitious; Helen was. Helen thought on a very big scale; as far as earnings go she thought in the terms of a city budget. Years ago she had realized that porn was the safest, quickest way of legally earning that kind of big money.

But her ambition had never been entirely about money. She wanted to get into legitimate moviemaking, and out of porn, but it was a question of what the terms would be. She also had a strong desire to help other people, as we know from the way she approached Tom. She dreamed of setting up a kind of halfway house to help other women transition out of pornography – she figured the men could fend for themselves. She’d gone so far as helping a couple of older girls with down payments on places to live, but that was about as far as it ever went. Helen learned that people have a hard time accepting help on someone else’s terms, even if she herself had terms less in mind than a simple suggestion to a couple of old strippers that they should start planning for a future that didn’t involve swinging around a pole. The trouble was that they just didn’t share her goals. As one woman said to her, “You might be able to get me out of porn, but you’ll never get the porn out of me.”

It didn’t take long for Helen to realize that the person she stood the best chance of helping was herself, and perhaps one other person that she cared enough about to spend most of her time with. After meeting Tom as she browsed around Videosyncracy, and especially after getting to know him through the profile she’d read in the Stranger, she knew that he was the easy going sort of man she liked to be with. It wasn’t difficult to develop a pretty good idea of what it was he wanted out of life and set about making it happen for both of them. She was even able to show Tom the possibility of a future that was more to his liking than the one he’d devised for himself. If she, like Tom, had grown too cynical for love, she still wanted a comfortable life for herself that looked more or less like other people’s lives. She knew from experience that monogamy was an ideal that most people could never live up to, so it was even she that suggested that they not waste too much effort in trying. Even if she felt threatened by other women, she knew that Tom, like most men, had a need for comfort that meant he would keep coming home. And of course Tom was getting older himself, and she knew well enough that there weren’t many women who maintained their appearance as well as she did. So their arrangement worked for a while, as long as Tom wasn’t too serious about the younger women he stayed out with. When Julie arrived on the scene Helen began to feel differently.

After a few months of waiting to see what would happen, she decided to take a more direct approach. When she got back from the gym one morning Tom was in the kitchen eating corn flakes and reading the sports page at the table. He gave her a cheerful enough hello and she responded by walking over and kissing him on the forehead. He was complementary as usual, saying “You look good.” to which she replied, “I feel sweaty. I’m going to jump in the shower.” She didn’t say so, but she was a little nervous and took a little more time toweling herself off while she thought about what she wanted to say. When she came out he was in the living room watching the Vivisection of Vera DVD he’d taken home from the store. She sat down on the other end of the couch and cleared her throat.

“You’re working at the store this afternoon, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” he said, still watching the screen. “Going in around 1:00.”

“Well…” she had a hard time starting.

Tom didn’t say anything, and Helen stood still waiting for him. After a while he had to say something.

“What’s up, Helen? Nothing wrong, is there?”

“No, no… nothing’s really wrong. But I’ve been thinking about something.” His eyes stuck to the screen as he slowly pulled his head around in her direction. He turned down the volume before setting the remote down on the big, oak coffee table in front of them.

“I know this might seem a little out of the blue, but I’d like to talk about this understanding we’ve had since we got married. The part about other people.” When Tom didn’t say anything she continued. “I’ve been thinking about it a little lately … I guess I just want you to know that I really haven’t been taking advantage of it all that much.”

She paused for a deeper breath. “Actually, I haven’t really been taking advantage of it at all.”

This was hardly a surprise to Tom: it had everything to do with why he was feeling so guilty. She’d hadn’t started crying and she wan’t angry. She didn’t try to manipulate him in any way, but she did tell him exactly what was on her mind. She didn’t give him an ultimatum, because whatever he decided, she wanted it to be a decision he made on his own. And though she didn’t ask, Tom picked up the remote from the table and turned off the television. He may have acted like the greatest husband in the world, but he still liked to think of himself as a good guy.

“I also want to say that I’ve always liked sleeping with you, and it seems like we haven’t been doing much of that lately. I miss it.”

Tom was speechless. What could he say?

“And who knows?” said Helen, “Maybe we’ll want to start thinking about children.”

Children? Had he heard her correctly? Now it wasn’t a question of embarrassment or guilt; he was too stunned to say anything. Helen had never said one thing about it kids before. What could he say?. He wasn’t sure how he felt; a mixture of outrage at being blindsided and guilt because he knew he was in the wrong. Maybe not wrong, according to their prior arrangement, but he’d been doing something that was obviously making Helen unhappy. Which was the more important standard? Helen had done so much for him. Tom was certainly listening, and sat there on his end of the couch as still as a rock. Helen felt her eyes beginning to get a little watery. She reached out toward Tom with one hand and grabbed a Kleenex from a box on the end table with the other.

“I really don’t want you to feel guilty, Tom, because you really shouldn’t feel guilty. We had an arrangement, and it was even my idea to start with. So I really can’t fault you for going out with other girls.”

“Helen . . .” Tom started to say, even if he wasn’t sure what he could say.

“No, no. Really… I mean I want to hear what you have to say, but I want to finish this thought first. If anything, I should be the one feeling guilty because I’m the one breaking the arrangement, or at least talking about changing our lives. I also want you to know that I didn’t originally make the suggestion thinking that I would come back, as I am now, and try to take it back . . .”

She’d been looking down at her hands as she spoke and continued to do so after she’d finished. Some of her hair, still wet from the shower, had fallen down in front of her face. She looked up at him after a moment of silence and pulled some of the hair back behind her ears.

“I wasn’t trying to trap you then, and I don’t want to trap you now. But I can’t help it. I want what I want, and even though I know it sounds almost laughable, I’d like to try being exclusive. I’d like to give monogamy try. I’d like for you to give it a try.”

He was dumbfounded. He kept looking at her knees without knowing what to say. He wondered how much she knew about Julie. He tried looking into her eyes when he felt them looking at him, but he wasn’t able to keep this up very long. It’s hard to look into someone’s eyes without saying anything, even your wife’s. Especially your wife’s, and especially when your wife knows you’ve been seeing someone else, no matter what the arrangement. He didn’t have any idea about what he ultimately wanted; all he really knew was that he was uncomfortable then and wanted to get it all over with as quickly as possible.

“Helen, really … it’s okay. I mean … it isn’t that big a deal.”

He tried to think of something more to say. He thought the best course was to be as definite as possible. And quick. “It’s done. It’s over. Don’t even worry about her.”

“But what about the girl you work with, Tom? What are you going to do about her?”

Tom hadn’t yet considered this. He didn’t want to admit anything, and considering something was tantamount to admitting it.

“I don’t know. I’ll figure something out. I’ll handle it.”

So there was Tom in his office a few hours later, beginning to feel pulled in two different directions. He felt that his loyalties were divided, even if both were only to himself. He tried to look busy with some paperwork at first, walking back and forth between his desk and the big black filing cabinet he kept in the corner, but after about forty five minutes of that he just leaned back in his chair and stared through the big glass picture window at the employees busy behind the counter. It started with a more appreciative consideration of the fix he’d gotten himself into. True, he’d been there before, but for a long time he hadn’t been involved with anyone at work, and definitely not during his tenure as owner. He sat there gently tapping a letter opener into his blotter, brooding. At 3:00 Julie started her shift, and Tom was trying to decide what he could say, if anything.

The truth was that it wasn’t just the awkwardness of the fact that he was sleeping with one of his employees. The difficulty he was experiencing then had more to do with the freedom he’d enjoyed for so long, and the fact that for all his adult life he’d been able to do pretty much whatever he’d wanted to do. Even if he were to break it off with Julie, what would he do in the future? Other women would come along. But he’d made his decision, and who could possibly be a better match than Helen? Especially since she really did seem to have his best interests at heart. He realized then that Elizabeth and all other younger woman represented the past, while his older wife was the future. He was surprised at how happy he was at the thought of this. He could grow old and married, like everybody else.

These happy thoughts didn’t mean he wasn’t anxious about talking to Julie. This would require actually taking a stand – not something Tom was very good at. The clock moved past two o’clock and he distracted himself by helping the employees shelve videos. When he’d finished with the shelving he caught a few minutes of the movie playing on the screen behind the counter: Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, from 1962. What a joke. At 2:45 he went back into the office and brooded again, waiting for the clock to strike three. When leaving the condo earlier, he’d vaguely imagined asking her aside for a private conversation. It didn’t take him very long to see that this was absolutely impossible. He had no idea what kind of reaction she might have; anything was possible. She would probably get hysterical – she was so young, after all, and so inexperienced in the ways of men and women. She would be devastated, and so she would raise all sorts of hell right there in the store, with all the other employees watching. She wouldn’t even try to maintain appearances. Crying, and going on and on about how much he meant to her. She would very likely become violent. He saw her then, running through the store and pushing over the shelves so that they fell like dominos. Then she walked over to the glass display case and began kicking it, shattering it, screaming and sobbing at the same time. She’d cut her leg, and was bleeding profusely. The employees were all secretly enjoying it, at least until the police were called in, while later they laughed amongst themselves for months, even years afterward. He was in danger of losing the store. He saw then that disgrace was inevitable. He couldn’t make the call; he was paralyzed. He was stuck, and as the cuckoo clock outside the office struck 3:00, he knew it. It was then that Sandy, a gaunt looking girl with long ponytails and granny glasses, stuck her head through the door and said, “It’s for you, boss. Julie on line one.”

He stared at the phone, somewhat confused and more than a little worried. But surely this was better than the scene he’d just contemplated. He thought about it a little more and felt a sense of relief. Perhaps she was sick. He didn’t need to bring up anything now. He couldn’t fire someone who was so sick she had to stay home. That would be heartless. He picked up the phone and said hello.

“Yeah, hello. This is Julie. I think you can tell by now that I’m not coming in. I’m not coming in ever again, cause it’s over, you big jerk. The truth is, you’re a creep, sleeping with a girl that’s half your age. And you’re married, too. You should be ashamed of yourself. What can your wife possibly see in you? And I think you should know that I know about you and my mom. So I won’t be at work anymore, but I expect you to give me a good reference wherever I apply, and if you don’t I’m going to sue your butt off. My dad is a lawyer, and he will make it a very, very big deal.” And then she hung up.

Tom really wasn’t feeling like such a good dog after all. What did Helen see in him? Helen saw what she wanted to see, which was whatever she needed herself. This wasn’t a mark against Helen, it’s just the way people are. What was strange was that for all his experience, he could now see that he wasn’t very good at handling women at all. Not at all. He realized that it was actually the women who were handling him.

Comments

  1. Tom is wrong about that last, of course. He’s a 100% participant. If not 180%.

    And yes, his women have also all been seriously co-dependent. Which doesn’t make Tom any less responsible — people generally *do* mannage to find other people who will put up with their own failings. The others, if more more worthy, also won’t have anything to do with them. I’m liking Elizabeth for this very reason, not least because of her name…

    Could she come back in at some point, briefly, to help him see the light?

    Story rings very real though, and maddeningly so. I find myself hoping that Tom’s eventual redemption (if he gets one) doesn’t have to come at the expense of any of these women. I don’t think co-dependence is very Christ-like. Helen should get an annulment (or even a divorce) and find a decint man. Julie should sue the hell out of him, ANYWAY.

    But that’s just me, another aging female. And in interest of full disclosure, I always found Walker Percy a bit sexist in this regard, too… though the author’s own flaws did (probably inadvertently) add to the punch of his narrative. Love in the ruins, indeed.

  2. Forgive typos, etc. I can’t find my specs this am!

  3. Quin Finnegan says

    Many thanks for reading, almostgotit, and especially that “maddeningly so”!

    You’re certainly not alone in your observations about Percy (nor the first to admire his work in spite of them).

    Since I’ve lately been so anxious to give the game away, a little disclosure of my own …

    I’ve certainly tried to channel the spirt of Percy in this novel, and even attempt a brief parody of what I take to be the Percy-ish Dr. Tom Moore character in Dr. Cervantes (Julie’s psychiatrist in other chapters).

    My own “Tom”, on the other hand, is meant as a parody of all those Milan Kundera womanizers, especially the “Tomas” in Unbearable Lightness of Being. I like to think he’s much worse, but then, yeah, redemption is possible.

    Your distinction between redemption and co-dependence is especially apropos. I hadn’t thought of the relationships between some of these characters in that way, but that’s exactly what I’m after.

    Perhaps I could hire you as an editor? Lord knows I’ve paid enough money to Glimmertrain over the years.

    In any case, thanks again for reading and writing!

  4. I’m currently editing someone else’s mss and about to get myself fired. At the moment, at least, I think I make a better kibbitzer.

  5. I missed this chapter by mistake.

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