“The language of friendship is not words but meanings.”–Thoreau
Sunday passed quietly with Fred in as sunny a mood as the clear blue sky. He spent most of the day out back folding a layer of compost into the vegetable beds; he was always happiest after a successful day of hard work outside. Ike, too, had spent the day peacefully, with cartoons in the morning and football in the afternoon, all of which were the backdrop for a thorough reading of the New York Times, which he had delivered to the house every Sunday. He never changed out of the sweatpants and old Nine Inch Nails concert T-shirt he slept in.
Fred hummed as he made dinner—a pot of split pea soup that had been on the back burner all day—his hair still wet from the shower, wearing a gray sweatshirt and plaid pajama pants, and of course, bare feet slid into the ubiquitous bunny slippers.
Ike smiled. He’d run into Constantia in the kitchen yesterday morning when he staggered downstairs for a cup of coffee. She had been wearing one of Fred’s blue oxford shirts, her bare, manicured toes with red nail polish kicking against the stool rails. It was late, maybe 11 o’clock, but she had coffee and peanut butter toast.
“He’s got eleven books on Debord,” she said, waving an orange book cover in his direction.
“That many now?” Ike said, pouring a huge mug full of coffee. “Do you understand any of that?”
“Here and there, but I never expect to understand everything in a book the first time I read it.”
“Sounds like a lot of re-reading.” Ike let out an enormous yawn.
“Fred seems to find a lot in this. I keep thinking I’ve seen something, something breathless in it—and then I’m lost again.”
“Maybe you’re not the one who’s lost.”
She went on without a pause. “There’s Castaneda up there, too.”
“Unh?” Ike remarked around a mouthful of cereal.
“Yeah, weird, don’t you think? I can’t see where they’d be compatible…”
“I wouldn’t know,” Ike said, hastily swallowing another mouthful, hoping his pervasive ignorance would put an end to the line of inquiry.
Fred joined them a few minutes later, fresh scrubbed and clean-shaven as always. They hung out, the three of them, talking and eating, for an hour or so, relaxed and easy together. Ike decided he liked her, even if she was a bit much with all the “sweetie” and “dear.” He was no fan of that kind of stuff, except maybe from his mother, or really old ladies, and only if they were your great-aunt or something. Placing his mug upside down inside of his bowl in the sink, his sign to Fred that’s he’d wash them up later, Ike begged off for a shower, hoping against likelihood that there’s be any hot water left. Constantia got dressed and left not long after, for an evening shift at West Penn. She said she’d call on her break and she did. Fred seemed happy then, and only got happier as the weekend flew by.
So, Monday saw them headed for the bus, and Fred was full of glowing energy. The work day had been fine, uninspiring, of course, but relatively painless, and he and Ike headed home together at 5:50 on the 56E. It was chilly; the weather was shifting by noticeable degrees toward winter. The evening star blinked brightly above the blue horizon.
The day had been better than fine for Ike. Around 10:00, Amanda came down to his desk to talk some more about the façade issue. She loomed over him as he leaned back in his chair, and they talked almost like equals; it reminded him more of a good studio with a mentoring professor than being in the presence of an architectural paragon. He’d spent the rest of the day thinking about the problem she set him, drawing at his desk, books piled around him, trying to work out an idea he wanted to present to her in the morning. He’d probably spend a few hours on it this evening. A thrill was rising inside him, coalescing, like wild, electrical charges he was gathering in his hand, a crackling ball of lightning at his command. Never had he tasted this feeling of mastery so sharply; it was heady.
“Mmm!” Ike groaned with desire, as they followed the sidewalk downhill toward the Casa . “I smell food.”
“Probably next door, Tom’s got the grill out. His barbecue always smells most savory.”
They were both taken aback, however, to find Constantia on the porch swing waiting for them.
“Hi, guys!” she said, lifting a large, brown paper sack. “I’ve brought Chinese.”
Ike looked at Fred for confirmation.
“How unexpected,” Fred said, trying to put a cheerful sound into his voice.
She got up and bounded over to Fred. “Well, hon, you don’t have to be so miserable about seeing me.” She stretched up, waiting for a kiss, and under the circumstances, he felt obliged.
Ike had the door unlocked and was turning on lights.
Fred was too busy with something in his head to enjoy either the immediate gratification of an instant hot meal or the pleasant softness of the woman hovering around him. Ike was mostly amused at his friend’s struggle to keep up with his girlfriend.
“I can’t come over tomorrow,” she was saying, sucking a shrimp from between her chopsticks, with which she now gestured as if they were an extra set of fingers. “I took an extra shift, you know, to help out with a short staff. Gotta do your part, right? Communitas Felix!” she said lifting her jar. Ike drank, but Fred didn’t join the toast.
“Constantia,” Fred said at last, gazing steadily at her as she dug into the depths of her take-out box of noodles. “It was most generous of you to have brought dinner, though I must admit, I forget having made the invitation.”
Ike’s fork stopped half way to his mouth.
She jabbed her chopsticks blindly into the box, glaring at Fred.“You don’t want me here? Is that it?”
The pitch of her silky voice was rising.
“I stated that I did not expect you.”
“But why not? I mean, you want us to be close, right? That’s what all the fooling around Friday night—and Saturday morning—was about, wasn’t it? Or perhaps I was just your second choice when that fat chick didn’t show?”
Ike dropped his fork and beat a hasty retreat to the basement. Time to get the hell out of Dodge.
“It’s no time to be irrational,” Fred’s voice was saying, as Ike’s feet hit the stair treads and it was no surprise to him that the next sound was a banshee’s wail of furious vengeance.
You never know, do you? She had seemed a really nice, easy-going girl. The only sounds he was hearing were female, and she wasn’t calming down, so either Fred was speaking quietly in the face of the storm, or he was not defending himself at all. Ike concentrated on building a cozy fire in the stove.
By the time the kindling was burning well, a door overhead slammed loudly. Fred peeked into the basement. “Want me to bring down some food?”
“You two settled up there?”
“Constantia decided to go home.” Fred disappeared for a few minutes and reappeared with jars and take-out containers.
Unburdening Fred of a large box of General Tso Chicken and a jar of elixir, Ike settled back into his customary chair. He was curious, but he wasn’t going to ask.
Fred picked around at some Szechuan Beef, depositing all the tiny red chiles in a neat pile on his plaid cloth napkin.
“I endeavor to speak with clarity at all times, to articulate my thoughts and to act directly. I do not believe that at any time did I say or mean that sleeping together was an invitation to move in.”
The idea of the girlfriend moving did not sound like a good one.
“Essentially. That was her interpretation of our intimate evening followed by the three of us sharing breakfast together. She seemed to have seen that as a signal of your approval of her being here, which by the way, she appreciated, more so than my apparently inhuman indifference.” He chewed over a piece of broccoli. “End quote.”
“Pardon me, Fred, but the bitch is loco.”
Besides which, what the hell did she care what he thought? If she was thinking ménage a trois, she was barking up the wrong tree.
“But why be cruelly vengeful toward Esmeralda?”
“Well, she is fat, you know. Just an observation.”
“And a judgment—though it was not that remark so much as it was that she called her a bloated transvestite vampire slut.”
Ike laughed explosively, spewing food over the coffee table. “Sorry, man. That was a good one, though.”
Fred was not amused.
“No, seriously—picture it. Wouldn’t Esmeralda be great in a John Waters movie? Like, think about “Cecil B Demented”—she would have been perfect as part of their movie star commando gang.”
Fred had never heard of this John Waters, whose movies did not sound particularly appealing.
“You don’t like her.”
“Honestly, I don’t know her. The thing is, some women can’t stand a man having female friends. Francie was like that.”
Fred withdrew his attention from his food to study Ike. This was possibly only the second time Ike had spoken of Francie in all the months he’d lived at Casa Hector. After a few minutes wait, it became apparent that no more was forthcoming.
“So you believe that she is jealous of Esmeralda?”
“She could have come out with it at least, in plain, direct English.”
“She probably thinks she did. See, it’s sort of like dreams—this is my theory, anyway—the way women talk. Dreams don’t seem to make sense a lot of the time: weird, disjointed things happen, you look like someone else, a teapot might talk, anything. But it does make sense; it’s a language, a visual, emotional, psychological pastiche language. Women are the same way. You, Fred, speak like a dictionary, each word used precisely and on purpose, and you listen to what you hear in the same way. That’s the mistake, because women use words as placeholders for emotional content. What was important for Constantia to tell you was something like ‘explosion—jealousy—Esmeralda—misery—rejection.’ As a rough translation.”
“You have expended some thought on this theory.”
“Francie and I were at odds more than I wanted us to be. I would repeat her words back to her and she said I didn’t understand. Yeah, I’ve given it some thought.”
“So ‘bloated transvestite vampire slut’ was her way of saying contempt—fear—hatred—jealousy?”
“Exactly. Like one of those big, long German words, like gesamptkunstwerk. Pack it all in one breath.”
Fred mulled it over as he finished a last morsel of beef and mushroom. “How do you suggest I convince her that Esmeralda is only a friend?”
Fred stared in a way that made Ike feel like re-stoking the fire.
“OK. Then you have to face the fact that you may not be able to. It might be she’s too competitive with other women, though you can go ahead and try. I mean, if you want to, that is. Take her out. Out-out, not movies at her place or the cafeteria at West Penn. Something she’d like.”
“I don’t enjoy forays into the Spectacle.”
“Is that what she likes?”
“She likes the Mall.” The contempt was unmistakable.
“Then take her to karaoke night at Gooski’s. It’s good for a laugh, even if you don’t sing.”
“Perhaps…You could come, and maybe Paulette would like to go—“
“Stop. You and her, alone. This isn’t junior high, Fred; you don’t need to hang out with a mob to have a date.”
Fred frowned, hunting around with his fork in the empty container. He much preferred a boisterous group than the full attention of a woman he was hoping to impress.
“She liked Gooski’s, didn’t she? Ask her to go see a band. Supporting local music is a spontaneous pleasure and not a media spectacle, am I right?”
Fred was amazed. “I am amazed. Your analysis and articulation of a central Situationist premise are perfect. As is your suggestion.” There was a pause. “IF I want to see her again.”
“Right,” Ike said neutrally, busying himself with the fire. It was always a burn dealing with that shit.
And indeed, Fred was not at all sure he wanted to indulge in the company of Ms. Andreolakis any time in the imaginable future. The too recent juxtaposition of the angelic sylph, the naked apsara and the fire-breathing dragon made him distinctly nauseous. He preferred to let it wait.
Catch up with Chapter 1-16 here.