In Search of Biswas
by Yvette Ward-Horner
Yvette Ward-Horner lives in the Rocky Mountains, where she is working on her first novel. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, Necessary Fiction, Cantaraville, Writer's Bloc (Rutgers), Clapboard House and The Writer's Digest 78th Annual Competition Collection. Find her online at www.yvettewardhorner.com.
My husband, Leo, loved me far too much. His face when he gazed at me in the silent evenings wore the patient, imploring expression of a good dog left out in the rain. And, like a good dog, he never barked, but simply sat on his haunches prepared to be saved. I didn't want to save him.
Leo brought me chocolates often. He thought it was romantic. They were usually truffles with sickly centers, and the boxes sat untouched in the pantry near the rice, leaking shreds of purple tissue paper. He brought me flowers on Fridays, but they were always the kind that died quickly and made my eyes itch as they drooped toward the ground. He brought home Jake, a co-worker, one day and that was much more interesting. It was the first thing he'd done in years that got my attention.
Jake had blonde hair that curled on his neck, and he sat on the couch with his arms and legs wide open. He looked at me as if he knew I didn't like truffles. All of his features were big and arrogant—his hooked Norse nose, his jutting chin, his eyebrows like the wings of a fierce blonde eagle. Sitting near him, Leo was stiff and slender, the word fussy ironed into the crispness of his pants. He crossed his legs and took up minimal space, sitting perfectly still.
Jake fidgeted. If he wasn't speaking, he jiggled his foot or drummed at least one finger and sometimes four on any available surface. He laughed a lot. He thought I was funny. He flashed his big straight teeth when I cracked a joke and his sea-blue eyes turned bluer, like water deepening.
We finished a cheap bottle of Merlot between us, bouncing our jokes back and forth across the table like old friends. Leo sat quietly, listening. We talked about Naipaul, about Bend In The River and The Mystic Masseur. At Jake's request I flooded the room with jazz. Leo didn't like jazz. His face took on a long-suffering expression. He didn't like wine much either, and he wasn't fond of Naipaul. I adored Naipaul. I thought him the greatest writer of the last century. I found out that Jake had not read A House For Mr Biswas. I became passionate.
"I'm going to get you my copy right this minute," I said. "I'll give it to you. A gift."
"It's in a box," Leo said quietly.
"I know which one."
It had been three months since we'd moved into this tiny apartment and all of his stuff was unpacked and put away. My boxes still lined the closets and the hallway and even the perimeter of our bedroom. Many of them were full of books. I had packed the books alphabetically by author and noted the authors' names on the outside of each box. There was a box in our bedroom labeled Maugham--O'Connor. I invited Jake to come and help me look.
He stayed close behind me as we walked down the hallway to the bedroom. We retrieved the box and pulled it out in front of the window. The window was stuck half-open again. A light breeze came in through the dusty screen and rippled the edges of the pale green curtains. They were pure silk. I'd found them on display at the neighborhood thrift store.
Jake ripped the box open for me and then leaned against the wall, at ease on the floor, golden and intense as a lion. His gaze roved thoughtfully over the big squeaky bed where Leo and I spent the warm nights not making love. The thin quilt with its cloying blue swirls was a gift from one of the great-great-somethings in Leo's family. Great-Aunt perhaps. It was handmade. Shoddy. Whoever the great-great was, she had let something come between her and the making of the quilt. She hadn't given it the attention it needed. The sight of it irked me. Leo treasured it.
I pulled Of Human Bondage out of the box. The tip of my nose grew warm with pleasure.
"Some people would say I'm mired in the classics," I said, running my thumb over the pages. The warm scent of old book drifted up to my nostrils, as comforting and cozy as the smell of gingerbread.
"Mired would be the wrong word," Jake said. He looked back at the bed. "You don't have a headboard."
Surprised, I glanced over my shoulder. It was true that we did not. But hadn't we owned one at some point? Yes, and we had sold it because of the angry way it banged against the wall. Years ago. Back when Leo was still urgent and deep, his silence the silence of a poet. I sighed.
"Long story." I handed Bondage to Jake. He took it carelessly, I thought, glanced at it briefly, put it on the floor. His mind was elsewhere. I rooted through the box. Biswas was at the bottom. I pulled it out, stroked it, smiling at the memories it stirred. When I looked up, Jake was watching me intently.
"You like your books." It was a statement of fact.
He reached out and took Biswas away from me. He didn't look at it. He held it against his chest the way some students cradle textbooks. I looked at his thumb on the cover, the big square nail pressed against the curly title. I tasted the wine in my mouth. We gazed at each other.
"Let me take you out to lunch next week," Jake said.
# # #
I had never cheated on Leo before. Until recently I'd prided myself on being the kind of woman who never broke her promises. I wasn't sure why I'd changed. Even as I lay pressed beneath Jake's hard body, breathing the salt of his skin and the man smell of his sheets, my thoughts drifted to Leo and I wondered what he would do if he found out. Or what he would not do.
"You're not the right kind of woman for him," Jake said afterwards.
"I was once," I said. "Or he was. The right kind of man, that is. Something changed."
Jake said nothing, sprawled on his back naked with the white sheet twisted around his legs. There were no curtains in his bedroom. Only wooden blinds. I had never considered the possibility of a bedroom without curtains.
"Have you started Biswas?" I asked.
I had glanced at the nightstand before we slid into bed, hoping to see Biswas there with a bookmark sticking out of it. It would have turned me on to see it, to know that he was reading it at night. Instead there was a stainless steel clock and a 6-pack of Trojans. We had used two of them already. I tried to quell my sudden uneasiness, brought on by the blinds, the gleaming clock, the rubbers, the book that wasn't there.
"Let's get a coffee," I said.
# # #
We went to Midge's, a coffee shop that Leo and I had frequented heavily when we first moved to the area. I felt guiltier about being there than I did about the sex. We sat crammed together at a tiny round table in the corner, Jake nudging me with his elbow when he sipped coffee from his thick-rimmed stoneware mug. Our mugs didn't match. His had a green leaf painted sloppily in the center and mine was plain. I stared at his leaf, remembering that when Leo and I had come here, our mugs had always matched.
There wasn't much to talk about. I watched Jake's eyes glide over the young barista's body as she carried mugs of coffee around the room. She was thin and perky with two blonde braids and a wide pink smile. Her denim shorts exposed a long expanse of tanned thigh. Jake's eyes got bluer as he watched her. I sipped my coffee, thinking about Leo, recalling the long conversations we'd had in that room. He always kept his eyes on my face, his head bent forward, listening hard to every word I said. He had read Biswas, I remembered. He hadn't liked it but he'd read it anyway just because I asked him to.
And then he walked in. The suddenness of his being there was like a magic trick. I gaped at him in disbelief, too surprised to fear what would happen next. He didn't see me. He went to a table by the window with the comfortable air of a regular. I realized that he had a woman with him. A beautiful woman. Her yellow dress was romantic. She wasn't wearing a bra.
I held my coffee cup in front of my face as if it could shield me. Jake was still distracted by the barista. I watched Leo talking to the woman in the yellow dress, his whole attention focused on her, his expression serious. I imagined his hands on her body. I looked at him as though he were a stranger, a man with a life I knew nothing about, a man who used both eyes to look at the woman he was with. He took up more space in Midge's than he did at home. His white t-shirt hugged his body. He was wearing the watch I'd bought him for his birthday.
"Holy crap," Jake murmured in my ear. "Isn't that Leo?"
"He's with that chick?"
"So I assume."
"Holy crap." Now he sounded amused. "What should we do?"
The woman put her head in her hands and seemed to be weeping. Leo leaned across the table. His face said he wanted to hold her. I couldn't stand it anymore.
"Excuse me," I said to Jake and pushed my chair back. I walked across the room as calmly as possible. Leo didn't see me until I was standing at his table staring down at him. The woman looked up at the same time he did, with tear stains on her face.
"I'd like to have a word with my husband," I said to her, crossing my arms on my chest.
She looked embarrassed. She wiped her finger under her eyes.
"No problem," she said stiffly. "I'll go freshen up."
I watched her walk toward the restrooms, tall and tanned and lovely. A few of the other customers watched as well. I tried hard to restrain my indignation.
"So it's come to this," I said.
"What do you mean, honey?"
I put my hands on the table and leaned over Leo.
"You've got some nerve," I said. "I have to admit I'm impressed."
I stared into his brown eyes, mud-brown I had called them; seeing them properly now for the first time in months, I remembered that they were gorgeously flecked with gold.
"Why don't you sit down?" Leo said, giving me a strange look.
I looked over my shoulder. Leo followed my gaze back to the table in the corner. Jake studied the ceiling, tapping his fingers together, making a mouth like he was blowing imaginary smoke.
I looked back at Leo.
"I fucked him," I said, nodding towards Jake. "It seemed like the right thing to do."
"It probably wasn't," Leo said, drawing his eyebrows together.
"You've got no room to talk."
I felt flushed suddenly. The insides of my thighs were warm. I wanted him to grab me, to wrestle me home, to ravish me on the floor, biting my neck. I wanted him to punch Jake in the face. "You and your—your paramour."
"Are you referring to Rebecca?"
"You tell me."
Leo looked exasperated. "I suppose you've forgotten Rebecca," he said.
"Why should I remember her?"
"She's my cousin's wife, dear. You met her at the family reunion last year."
I hesitated, biting my lip. Was this some kind of trick? Surely I'd remember a woman as gorgeous as Rebecca?
Leo sighed. "I guess you were pretty drunk," he said. He stared at the silk pansies on the table. The twirly vase was caked with dust. The barista hovered behind me like a wasp and I glanced at her with irritation.
"In a minute!" I snapped.
Her mouth fell open. She glared, blonde braids quivering.
"I'm sorry, just one more moment," Leo said, but she turned her back on him and stalked off to the counter.
I looked to see what Jake was doing. He was gone. His empty coffee cup was balanced on top of mine and he hadn't pushed his chair back in.
I deflated. It was the last straw. Leo gazed at me. Muddy brown eyes, full of worry.
"Did you really sleep with Jake?" he said.
I considered. I heard the restroom door open. Rebecca was adequately freshened.
"No," I said. "No, I made it up. I'm going home now. See you tonight."
I left quickly, before he could ask me anything else. I went straight to the bookstore on the corner of 12th and bought a new copy of Biswas—a trade paperback with a pink and red cover quite unlike the one I had owned before. Then I took it home and put it in the box marked Maugham--O'Connor in the bedroom, and I buried my face in the green silk curtains and wept.
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