The disaster book
by Bill Gaythwaite
Glen doesn’t even think about going after her. For one thing, they have ordered food and someone needs to be here to pay for it. Besides, this is not the first time Eileen has stormed out of the apartment after a ludicrous argument. Glen doesn’t think she has much faith in him. Though this is cause for alarm, he also finds it a little exciting. He’s never had to work so hard with anyone or at anything. People have always looked up to Glen ― in school, in sports, on the job. He knows he is endowed with something called leadership quality. He has courted this reputation, built it carefully, like a log cabin, but occasionally the obligation overwhelms him, and he feels up to his neck with it. It’s rather tiring to always be so dependable. He grew up under comfortable circumstances in the Midwest. His father was a wealthy meat packing executive. Eileen resents the lack of adversity in Glen’s life, the tone-deaf privilege of it. She often mentions the dissimilarity of their backgrounds ─ as she did earlier this evening with that crazy stuff about the Titanic. When she’d gotten home from work, Glen had been reading a book about shipwrecks. Books about disasters are Glen’s guilty pleasure. He had told her about how roped enclosures had been set up on the ships that had rescued the survivors of the Titanic; and how the survivors had been split up on the decks by class, separated into first-class and steerage and so forth.
“Even after all they’d been through?” Eileen had said. “Outrageous!”
After a moment she had continued.
“You do realize that you and I wouldn’t have been behind the same ropes.”
Glen had laughed, which was his first mistake. Trying to jolly Eileen out of whatever point she was trying to make had only made her angrier. Everything he said after that made it worse, until she had grown so irritated with him she had charged right out. This was happening more and more. Glen believes Eileen is intentionally instigating these skirmishes, doing her best to push him away. She refuses to trust his reflexive optimism and his breezy certainty. It’s as if she is trying to get out in front of any future disappointment by planting land mines in a well-traveled road.
Eileen has brought up the difference in their backgrounds on numerous occasions during the six months they have lived together. She has told him that she grew up in a poor area of Pennsylvania, in a tiny house plagued by mechanical malfunction and structural problems. With its worn stucco exterior, leaky roof and peeling grey trim, the place reminded Eileen of an old man at the end of an indifferent life. The family (it was just Eileen and her parents) didn’t live far from a river, but closer still to the gelatin factory that had polluted it. The house smelled of mildew. There were cobwebs on the ceiling. She had shared many unpleasant memories of growing up there. She told Glen how the hot water heater had been broken for years and years, so as a child and teenager, she had to heat pots of water on a stove in order to take a bath ― which she did every evening because she was fastidious about her own cleanliness. Her father was good-natured, but unreliable and chronically unemployed. Her mother worked as a cleaning woman for some wealthy people in Harrisburg. Eileen had few friends. Some of the kids in school (who were only slightly better off) would pass her in the hallways and say cruel things about her parents and her tumbledown home, displaying a stupid and cartoonish villainy.
Her mother was not interested in bringing her cleaning skills home with her from work and Eileen couldn’t keep up with the mess. Her parents accepted their environment without complaint and seemed to ignore it all as some might turn from a crime in the street. They tolerated the house the way that it was ─ with its cracked plaster, taped up windows and mismatched furniture. The unsorted junk mail balanced perilously on the window sills was a source of mild amusement to them. The clutter in the house had reached reality show levels by the time Eileen had left for art school. She’d fled there, she said, as if she were deserting a battlefield.
Now it is ten years later, and she rarely sees her parents, though she tells Glen they are not unkind people and have always followed their daughter’s progress in the world with warm, if somewhat distracted support. As a result, Eileen has often felt ashamed of her flight. Glen wants to meet her mother and father. He sees himself marrying Eileen one day. There will be a visit to Iowa too, where he will show her his old playing fields and the schools he attended. His parents (he imagines) will be astonished by this moody and complicated woman with whom he has decided to share his life.
Eileen has told Glen that originally she wanted to be a portrait painter. The art school where she’d gone, on a full scholarship, was quite prestigious. Her critique sessions there bordered on the enthusiastic. But the artist’s life had ultimately seemed too risky and unreliable to her. She kept imagining herself squeaking out a grown-up living sketching caricatures at amusement parks, as milling crowds jeered at her work. She transferred to a small liberal arts college near Philadelphia at the end of her sophomore year, received a marketing degree and then moved to New York City. Eileen’s old artistic ambition now feels like a book out of print. That’s what she has told Glen, though she still admits to an occasional throb of regret when she attends a gallery opening or passes a particular art supply store in the East Village. Eileen works as an account manager at a small advertising firm in Soho, where she has handled some interesting brands and expanded her resume, but her career hasn’t really added up, or so she says.
They met at a memorial service for a mutual friend who had been killed in a freak accident. Glen had asked Eileen out for coffee in the vestibule of the East Side church where the memorial had taken place. They were standing in front of an old photograph of Evan, blown up to poster-size. Evan was smiling broadly, looking into the camera, while rappelling down a rock ledge. He’d died the previous month after tripping down some subway stairs. It was embarrassing to say they’d hooked up under such unhappy circumstances, so they usually told people they’d met at a wedding reception in Woodside.
When Glen first introduced Eileen to his friends, after a pick-up basketball game, they were immediately unimpressed. He could see it on their faces. They found her drab and negligible. They watched their language in front of her. It was awkward all around. The friends even seemed to turn their disappointment on Glen, as if it was his duty to present them with a Victoria’s Secret model. But they were only idiots he played sports with and so their opinions didn’t matter much.
“Your friends don’t seem to like me,” Eileen had said in a satisfied tone as she and Glen were walking away. “They treated me like a schoolmarm.”
It was clear she loathed them too.
“Sure they liked you,” Glen said, but he could tell she knew he was lying. She held few illusions about herself and for this reason perhaps he feels very protective of her.
For the record, he thinks she is beautiful, even if she doesn’t think so herself. She’s like women he’s seen in oil paintings, slightly aloof, with delicate features and great bones. The kind of looks you appreciate over time, an eternal loveliness. Every time they make love he feels engulfed by her, overwhelmed to the brink of hot tears, an extraordinary and embarrassing development at this point in his life. He’s nearly thirty.
Glen tells himself all this crashing about, like the strange argument this evening, is a phase. Eileen is only testing the relationship. He imagines she’s doing it the way tree lights are tested at Christmas, one bulb at a time, and this is not so bad. At least she finds it worth the effort. You have to earn trust, his father always said. Lately, Glen is trying to do just that. He’s been hanging back a bit, trying to appear preoccupied, feigning nonchalance. Glen knows his ever-present good humor sometimes grates on Eileen’s nerves, like static on a car radio, but he wants to appear calm, like he’s not planning any sudden moves. And he’s not. As a young boy, he used to watch his cousins (they lived on a horse farm near Sioux City) train very young colts, getting them used to wearing halters and saddles. It could be monotonous work. Endless circles in the paddock, tightening one notch of the girth and then another. Building a relationship, Glen believes, is not unlike this, a painstaking business. He wants to explain this to Eileen, but he is afraid she’ll miss the point of the story and think he wants to control her, or worse yet ─ that he is comparing her to a horse!
When he saw her at Evan’s memorial service, arms folded, slightly bent over, as if against a cold wind, he felt a fierce need to comfort her. It was only later that he realized this was how she often held herself, as if she viewed her existence as a rainy holiday, a disappointment, something to endure. His own life feels almost dull by comparison. The smoothness of it embarrasses him. He has to remind himself that he has a very demanding job as a controller for a major non-profit. He’s not some vapid trust fund baby.
If his father is partially responsible for Glen’s good looks, his genetic gifts, then he is considerably more to blame for his son’s cheerful disposition. Moodiness was not tolerated in the Swanson home, and it was scorned everywhere else. Glen’s father sprinkled dinner conversation with saccharine homilies, fractured proverbs, other bits of unsolicited advice. You never get a second chance to make a first impression; Let a smile be your umbrella. Indeed, the business of imparting homespun wisdom was taken as seriously as a church sermon. Debate was rarely tolerated and neither were wisecracks about faulty umbrellas.
Once, when Glen was eleven, he’d thrown his bat after striking out in a Little League practice. His father came off the stands and pulled him swiftly from the field, lecturing him in the parking lot for twenty minutes on the merits of good sportsmanship. It was explained in hushed tones that this embarrassing display had reflected poorly, not only on Glen, but on all Swansons past, present and future. This was Glen’s most daunting lesson ever. For a while after that, he imagined disapproving Swansons lurking everywhere — behind trees, in the back of closets, crawling under the bathroom stalls at school.
It wasn’t really so hard to remain cheerful and easy-going. Put your best foot forward; Laugh and the world laughs with you. Everything fell his way ― friends, grades, girls. There wasn’t much to be unhappy about. Glen was, in fact, confused by grim, troubled people. They were exotic, as alarming as Communists must have seemed in the 1950s, and so he avoided them. As he grew older, he dated the type of woman who drew smiley faces on notes to the mailman. He surrounded himself with overaged frat boys. For years, a friend’s unexpected solemn tone, a woman’s tears, reduced him to feeling like a lost sailor, craving guidance, hugging the shore. He never knew what to do in such situations. Usually, he blushed or looked to the floor. He began to suspect he had no depth.
Then he met Eileen. He was, he had to admit, feeling particularly sensitive that day because of his dead friend. At first Glen believed he was approaching Eileen out of a missionary’s zeal. He would save her, bring joy to her heart. She had looked so fragile standing in front of Evan’s wrenching portrait. He pursued her over the next few weeks. There was something bittersweet about this pursuit, almost melancholy, but in the end he was left with a vague desire simply to make things right. He somehow convinced her to move in with him.
Early on, when she was complaining about a deadline at work, he used one of his father’s clichéd expressions in an attempt to alleviate her stress.
“It’s always darkest before the dawn,” he’d said.
There was a long pause.
“Are you planning to sing or something?” Eileen had finally asked. She’d raised her eyebrows at him and was clearly, unabashedly amused.
It pleased him to amuse her. His father’s sayings, so pivotal to his own upbringing, didn’t touch her at all. She shook them off like wet snow. In fact, she once referred to Glen’s pep talks as those inane fortune cookie slogans. It excited him the way she made everything fair game. In many ways it freed him. He’d always been somewhat afraid to laugh at his father’s words of wisdom. As a grown man, when one of the phrases slipped out of him, sometimes inappropriately, at a business meeting, he’d cringe with shame. The words felt false in his mouth, but until he met Eileen he believed this was his problem, as if he were a comedian with dreadful timing. He didn’t want to admit that the words themselves might lack significance in the real world.
Now with Eileen, Glen’s life, for so long placid and mildly boring, seemed to suddenly transform, wash over its banks and change direction. Her gloom, he discovered, could be luminous, provocative and it cast wonderful shadows that spilled over him. He’d catch her watching him sometimes with such wistfulness that it tugged terribly at his heart.
It was not that Eileen was clinically depressed. She didn’t weep in front of the television news or have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, but she felt things, really felt them, gave in to slightly irrational fits of temper. Glen found this very brave. She was challenging, sulky, as tricky as a maze, though sometimes he wondered whether she was quite ordinary in this behavior, and that he, with his composed approach to the world, was actually the conspicuous one.
This thought did nothing to dampen his interest in her.
Her skepticism was always a surprise. For instance, they currently lived several blocks from public housing for the blind, an average ten story apartment building. It was not uncommon to pass sightless individuals making their way around the neighborhood with canes or service dogs. Once, on their way back from Trader Joe’s, Eileen stopped on the sidewalk and looked up at the structure.
“Why are the lights on in those apartments?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s a blind house. Why are their lights on?”
“Maybe they have visitors.”
“Almost every apartment has a light on. That’s a lot of visitors.”
“What are you saying, Eileen?”
“I’m saying it’s strange.”
“Like it’s a scam? Like they aren’t really blind at all?”
“I’m only saying it’s impossible to get affordable apartments in this city and I wonder what kind of screening process they go through.”
“I don’t know,” Glen said. “But it’s probably more than waving a hand in front of their faces.”
“You never know.”
“You should alert the media, Eileen,” he laughed. “I can see the New York Post headline now, Home of the Fraudulent Blind.”
“Joke if you want,” she said. “But stranger things have happened.”
Oh, the way she saw the world! He’d never been particularly suspicious of anything in his life, had happily accepted everything that came his way, like the perfect houseguest. Eileen, on the other hand, could turn a lost button at the dry cleaner into a global conspiracy, and sometimes this thrilled him, made the hairs on his arms stand up. He would, he knew, do anything for her. If only there was an earthquake, a hurricane, a tidal wave. He would prove it. But she’d find him foolish for having such thoughts, and patronizing for believing she needed to be saved and couldn’t take care of herself.
Glen puts down the shipwreck book to answer the intercom. He and Eileen had ordered from different restaurants and now both deliveries have arrived at the same time. This doesn’t happen very often. When it does, they refer to it as a daily double. Glen considers it good luck, the city dweller’s version of a four-leaf clover. He buzzes the delivery guys up, pays them, takes the food and spreads it out on the kitchen table.
Eileen hasn’t been gone long, but he wishes she were back. He wants to put all this behind them and ask about her day, hear some funny stories about her bipolar boss, who is also the chief strategy officer at her firm. The man keeps a baby doll in his desk drawer, to symbolize his inner child. He’s been known to brush its hair at pitch meetings, kiss its forehead. Eileen is a talented mimic and can weave a comic performance piece out of a typical day at the office, her interactions with the arrogant advertising partners and exacting clients.
Glen feels sloppy and ridiculous, but he truly misses her now.
In a few years, he tells himself, when they are settled and married and all this is behind them, they will barely remember this evening’s argument. It will be dim and meaningless to them, like a scrap of conversation between strangers overheard on the street. Glen sticks his head out the apartment door and looks down the corridor to see if the elevator is in service. Is she on her way back up? No? Shit. He closes the door, returns to the table, stabs at his food ― his father’s voice fluttering all the while through Glen’s head like an irresistible tune.
Into every life a little rain must fall; Trust in the world.
Bill Gaythwaite’s short stories have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including Subtropics, Puerto del Sol, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hashtag: Queer, Grist, and Oyster River Pages. He was a winner of Glimmer Train’s Best Start Contest, and his work has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. Bill is the Assistant Director of Academic Affairs at Columbia Law School in New York City.
— Bill Gaythwaite
"People have always looked up to Glen ― in school, in sports, on the job. He knows he is endowed with something called leadership quality. He has courted this reputation, built it carefully, like a log cabin, but occasionally the obligation overwhelms him, and he feels up to his neck with it. It’s rather tiring to always be so dependable. "