I've been working on an essay today about introversion, pulling some of my old blogs together and reflecting on them. I have three stories that need rewrites, but I felt like starting something (sort of) new. I can't figure out where to start blogging in 2012, so here's an old story about two introverts who find each other, published obscurely in print in 1999. I think I still like it.
Raymond's next-door neighbor, Brigit, stands in his driveway. He lowers the window of his car, extends his arm, and tries to shoo her out of the way: "Move, Brigit, OK?" When she doesn't, he drives around her and parks diagonally in the garage of his condo.
"I went to the community college, like you told me," she shouts as soon as he opens the car door. "They sent me to some center."
"The Center for the Learning Disabled," he says in a level voice as he walks toward her. She needs to be reminded to keep her voice down. She has trouble with volume control.
"How did you know that?" she whispers. Her blue eyes blink in slow motion, and she slumps a little. A head injury she received about two years ago has confused her thinking, and it depresses her when other people understand and remember easily. Raymond has spoken to her doctor and knows that her prognosis is uncertain. She may remain as she is, or she may get better, even much better. When she told him that her ex-husband left her days after she came home from the hospital, Raymond was outraged. In sickness and in health may be too big a promise for some people to keep, but at least her husband might have stuck around to find out which it was going to be.
"I called ahead to the Student Placement Office, remember?" he says. "That's how I knew about the center." He called the center, too, earlier this afternoon, to talk to the counselor who met with Brigit. Recently Raymond has involved himself--just a little--in Brigit's affairs. He has encouraged her to believe that she has some control over her condition, that she can work at getting better. He hopes he is right to have done this.
"Yes," she says, "Right. The man at the center talked to me for a long time and made me an . . . appointment."
Brigit is aware that people she meets for the first time assume she's always been stupid, or crazy. Raymond believes she's better off knowing this, because in addition to seeming either slow-witted or unbalanced, Brigit is simply beautiful, the most beautiful woman Raymond has ever met. She looks like the blonde Charlie's Angel, the second, small and neat one, not the first one with all the curly hair. Raymond watched reruns of this show, dubbed in Spanish, as a kid, when his parents were missionaries in Caracas. Unfolding in another language, the plots seemed complicated, but the mixture of lust and malice on the crooks' faces came across plainly enough. Brigit isn't up to springing any brilliant surprise plans as the Angels did. She isn't going to outsmart anyone, not now, maybe never. Over the last year and a half, since they have been neighbors, Raymond has come to care for her, but even he has dreams in which her limitations are--is there any other way to put it?--convenient.
"I've got a slip of paper here somewhere with the day and time on it," Brigit says. "The appointment's for a test or something. Where is that damn paper?" She reaches into each pocket of her jeans once, twice, three times. "Did you know there would be a test when you told me to go? I can't find it." She grabs Raymond's wrists, panicked. She tends to do this, touch him like this. Does she do it with other people? That, all by itself, could get her into trouble. Or does she do it just with him?
"Stop saying I told you to go, Brigit. I suggested that you go, that's all." He doesn't want her to become too dependent on him. So far he's acted responsibly. When she's standing right next to him, when he can smell her, he has a hard time remembering they aren't on a level playing field. He would like to believe he's a decent person.
"Here," he says, reaching into the pocket of her pink cotton shirt. "The paper is pink, and your shirt is pink. Here."
Why did he do that? Brigit's eyes have lit up. She is radiant.
"The test is on Monday. Today's . . .Friday," she says. "It's OK about the test, Raymond. I don't mind taking it. If you think I should. I trust you."
That night they sit in the living room of Brigit's condo, on a floral sofa. They've had pizza delivered. Its grease-stained box sits empty on Brigit's coffee table. Raymond is past 30. He's eaten plenty of meals with plenty of women and slept with some of them afterward, teachers, mainly, from the school district where he works networking computers and explaining how to use them. These women have drifted away, or he has. He can think of one or two who would say that he has. He has heard that his name buzzes around the teachers' lounges, that women warn each other about him.
His sister, Caroline, who lives with her family across town, finds the idea that Raymond is some sort of Don Juan among the laser printers--thin and freckled as he is, never married--ridiculous. He doesn't see himself that way either, of course, but he resents Caroline's tone. He doesn't care for her tendency to make summary judgments and is afraid that he resists making important decisions in his own life because he doesn't want to be like her.
"It doesn't matter how you do on this test," he says to Brigit. "It's only so the people at the center will know how to help you."
She wants him to spend the weekend helping her get ready for the test. He could. The math teacher he's been dating is out of town. His only plans are to have dinner with his sister, at her insistence, Saturday night.
"The test does matter, Raymond. I don't want them to put me in a bunch of bonehead classes. I don't have that much time. I got another letter from the lawyer."
Brigit and her husband were married only four years. In view of her condition, she was awarded three years of support in the divorce settlement. She has not quite two years' left. Before Raymond suggested the community college, she experimented with part-time jobs. Several months ago, for example, she worked in a bookstore, at the register. Every evening she got off the bus that stops on their corner looking more haggard, more used up. In fact, the first time she and Raymond had a personal conversation, he was out in front washing his car when he saw her stumble down the steps of the bus and fall onto the boulevard strip. He ran over to help her up, but she needed to talk first, to lie back in his arms and tell him what had happened. A woman had run into the store with a sick baby, Brigit said, and she had given the woman the wrong directions to the hospital.
Maybe you need a job where you don't have to work with people, Raymond suggested. And Brigit replied, I love people, but maybe you're right. Really, though, said Raymond, it's just as likely that I'm wrong. Brigit had looked up into his face then. He wondered what she saw there.
"What's on this test anyway?" says Brigit.
"I'm not sure." Raymond didn't ask. The counselor he spoke to today did say, however, that based on his interview with Brigit, he might suggest the court recording program. She wouldn't do well at work that required thinking about several things at once, or setting priorities, but her small motor skills appeared to be intact and fairly good. And it looked as if, when she wanted to, she could concentrate.
"I'm not dyslexic," Brigit says. "The hospital people figured that much out. And I can read fine. Try me. Go ahead."
He doesn't really know how to help with the test. He might confuse her, make her do worse on it than she would have done without him. She puts her arm around him.
"All right," he says. He pulls away a little, opens the newspaper, points at random to an article. "Read that sentence to me."
"'A Chinese real estate and gambling mogul linked to laundered campaign money visited the White House at least 10 times from 1994 to 1996.'" Brigit doesn't stumble over a single word.
"Very nice. So if I asked you a question about that, could you answer it?"
"Maybe. I don't know." She puts her fingers in his hair. "Probably not." She looks unhappy.
"Well, tell me what you do understand."
"It's about the President and some laundry money."
"Laundered money," says Raymond.
She looks hard at him. He can guess what she's thinking. "And there's something about a Chinese mogul," she says. "That's not the kind of mogul you ski around, I'm sure of that. My husband and I used to ski, you know. All the time. I'm a good skier. What is this article about?"
"How the president may have raised the money he needed to get elected."
"Oh. Laundered money."
"Right." Raymond hopes she doesn't ask him to explain how money is laundered, because he doesn't know.
"So will you help me, Raymond?" She pokes him in the stomach. Her hair brushes against his face.
He'll have to be careful, that's all. He'll have to be very clear and direct. "I'll try," he says.
He and Brigit spend Saturday morning taking books off the shelf in his bedroom, most of them from his childhood. They take the books into the living room--he insists on that--and read a paragraph or two together, talk about it, move on to the next, or to a more complicated book. They progress from The Red Fairy Book to Where the Red Fern Grows to The Scarlet Pimpernel. He makes lunch, but afterward says he's tired.
She knocks on his door again at 5:00. "Feel rested?"
"We'll do more in the morning, Brigit. I'm busy tonight."
Her eyes brim with tears. He feels as if two very large hands are closing around his throat. This is how Brigit's tears register, as life threatening.
"It's my sister," he rushes to explain. "I'm meeting her for dinner." He adds, irrelevantly, "She's older than I am."
"Why can't I go along?" asks Brigit.
He wants to say, because Caroline will see right away that you are the kind of person who would ask that question. "You wouldn't like my sister."
"Why not? We'll get along great. You'll see."
"Brigit, please keep your hands to yourself during dinner," he says as they walk into the Chinese restaurant that Caroline has chosen. "My sister won't know what to think if you touch me all the time. And watch your voice. People don't normally shout in restaurants."
"I bet the guy who owns this place is a mogul," Brigit shoots back.
He's nervous, and that's dangerous around Brigit. He might say the wrong thing, feel the wrong thing. And Caroline will notice.
His sister raises her eyebrows when she sees Brigit coming but says only, "Pleased to meet you." Caroline is wearing canary shoes, a dress that's green and purple, jungle-printed. Like Raymond, she is fair-skinned and small-boned, but somehow she is equal to this outfit. She threw over their mother's churchy taste as soon as she left home.
They order dinner, Brigit with some difficulty since Caroline is busily updating Raymond on her catalogue business in children's clothing.
"I rented warehouse space and hired a guy to fill orders," she says. "And I finally caved in and hired professional models." She turns to Brigit. "I used to use my own kids as models."
Brigit says, "Oh, I love kids. Someday I'm going to have lots of kids. I'll have to get married again, naturally."
"Naturally!" says Caroline, cocking her head to one side.
Raymond thinks, maybe this is going to turn out OK after all. Caroline likes honesty, and no one is more honest than Brigit. Dishonesty was his sister's charge against their missionary parents. "Why don't you just give these people a list of everything they're supposed to think and do?" She meant their father's Venezuelan congregation, and the neighborhood women as well, to whom their mother was always giving advice on hygiene. "Control and coercion--that's what missionary work amounts to. Why not be up front about it?"
The waitress serves their hot and sour soup.
Raymond feels disoriented. Having Brigit there with Caroline has confused the past and the present. "Brigit's going back to school," he says hopefully.
"Oh? What are you going to study?" Caroline asks.
"Well, you know, I'm not quite sure. It depends. Whatever seems . . . interesting." Brigit examines her fingernails.
"Surely you must have some idea about what you want to study," Caroline says. "I mean, why go back to school if you don't have a plan?"
Raymond sees he has inadvertently raised one of Caroline's red flags.
"I was in a car accident, and then I had surgery," Brigit says. She pats at the hair that covers her scar. "It wasn't completely successful." She is beginning to look agitated.
Raymond hurries to explain that he's arranged for a test to be given to Brigit, for career counseling, tutoring.
Caroline's face darkens. He knows that look. She gives her own kind of test, and he just failed it. "I think I understand," she says.
"What?" says Raymond, more loudly than he intended. "What do you understand?" Caroline is a weight on his chest. He would like to throw it off. From the time we were little and crammed together, sweating, in those front pews, he would like to tell her, I have never liked you.
"You see," Caroline says to Brigit, "our family has a certain tendency toward . . . missions."
"Bullshit," says Raymond, hissing. "Maybe you want to tell people how to live, but I don't. Maybe you think--"
Brigit casts a fretful beam of something, possibly love, in his direction. He feels it on his face.
Caroline is looking hard at both of them now. "Forgive me," she says to Brigit. "I see that I've been . . . mistaken about your relationship with my brother."
Something worse is on the way. Raymond knows it. Caroline turns to him. "My God, Raymond, this woman is injured. Is your conscience on vacation?"
"You don't know anything about Brigit and me! Nothing!" He's shouting now. People in the restaurant turn to look.
Brigit stands up, lays her hand on his shoulder. He's not sure what she wants, but he pushes his chair back. She sits down in his lap.
"Don't be upset, Ray," says Brigit. "Everything's fine. I like Caroline. And she likes me. Don't you, Caroline?"
"Well, yes," says his sister. "Of course I like you, but--"
"See, Ray?" Brigit hides her face in his neck and whispers, "Everything is just fine!"
On the way home, Raymond can't stop coughing. There's a piece of food stuck in his windpipe. Brigit inserts her hand between his back and the car seat and tries to slap him. The car swerves.
"Stop that, Brigit!"
She settles for unbuckling her seat belt, scooting over next to him. Her upper arm presses against his.
"Think of nice things," she says. "Think of Disneyland. Did you go to Disneyland when you were a kid?"
"Yes." His parents had taken Caroline and him once, the summer he was nine.
"Think of the electrical parade," says Brigit. "Think of the teacups."
Disneyland had disturbed him. He wanted so much to relax and enjoy himself, to be a regular American kid. The park, so bright, perfect, flamboyantly fake, cried out for a holiday mood, a foolishness that his family never practiced but ought to be able to manage this once if they would only try. And he supposed they did try, his mother and father and sister, but they were lousy actors, and after a while Raymond just wanted to get the whole thing over with.
"I'm not a kid anymore, Brigit."
"Then think of something else then. Think of . . . kissing."
Kissing. She clearly said kissing. But her feelings may be as short-lived, as unreal, as a visit to Disneyland. He doesn't know who she used to be, or who she will become. It's not her problem that he's fallen in love with the person she is right now.
"Ray!" Brigit says. "You're not sick, are you?"
He's cold now, and damp.
"You can't be sick. We have to study tomorrow."
They pull into his driveway. He's asking too much of himself, that he help her without touching her, without helping himself to her. She's asking too much.
"You could be a little less . . . demanding, Brigit. I mean, I gave you most of my Saturday. You could at least say thank you."
She moves away, then reaches up and feels around for the overhead light. She's steely eyed, but trembling. "Never mind about the test, Ray," she whispers. "I don't need help. You said yourself the test doesn't matter." She opens the car door.
He grabs her hand. She has to understand that he didn't mean what he just said, that all along he has meant well. "Don't think badly of me, Brigit," he begins, then something else comes out. "Come inside with me, Brigit. Spend the night with me."
He jumps out of the car, runs around to the other side.
"Let's go in, Brigit. Please, honey. Let's go now."
He sits up in bed, his back to her, trying to think of what her skin feels like, to fix a phrase in his mind, so he won't forget. Like the sky, if you could touch it. Like an eyelid.
"Ray," Brigit says, "Did I ever tell you about my mother?"
"No, honey." He wants to make love again, right away. He wants the whole length of her body stretched out against his. He inhales slowly, shakily, tries to calm down.
"She wasn't pretty, not like me. When I got to be about twelve, and she was maybe 40, she always looked, I don't know, kind of swollen up, red and blotchy. After a while she looked OK again. I'll show you my wedding pictures. She looked nice that day. But by then my dad was gone.
"I used to watch her in the mirror when she brushed my hair. She'd stop and hold a handful of it or touch the skin on my face. She said I'd never have the same kind of trouble she had. No one would ever leave me."
How hard Brigit's life has been. "I won't leave you," he says.
"You might. I have to be realistic. I need to be able to take care of myself."
"I know you do. You need a good job," he says, "a career. I'll help you." Will you leave me? he wants to ask. "Tomorrow, we'll study."
"Thank you, Ray. You're a good person. I knew that right from the start."
Raymond lies back down beside her, breathing more easily now, more smoothly, as if suddenly, somehow, he is entitled.