by Frederick Barthelme

Cheryl was fourteen years younger than me and a hundred pounds lighter, my new girlfriend of a month. She'd bought a carving knife at K Mart, a serrated cut-anything deal like guys demo on TV slicing aerosol cans and sawing finger-size bolts that hold flywheels on generators. She was playing with this knife, cutting things for fun--a book I liked, a shoe-polish bottle--and waving the blade at me to make a point, which was that I shouldn't have been messing with my brother's wife Susan the week before while my brother Knox was out in California on his annual visit. She was right, of course. The playing around didn't amount to much more than teasing, some little body wrestling, but I regretted it already, for the right reasons and the wrong ones. Cheryl regretted it, too. There wasn't anything I could do about it, though, and I was trying to get it behind us.

"You haven't told me everything," she said, training the knife tip on my chest. "Not the whole story. Knox told me his side, and his side makes you guys look slimy, especially you. At least Susan was upset about him going off to California."

"The whole deal is I said I'd always liked her and one thing led to another," I said. "That's all." I waved and reached for a banana that was turning black on the counter. "At least we had enough sense not to go to bed."

"Yeah, that's a big deal. Thanks. Besides, how do we even know that? Can you prove it? What if you two just agreed to say that and stick to it? How would we ever know any different? Why don't you just say how close you got, in detail, describe all this rolling and tumbling shit, and that'll be that. Just go ahead and tell me."

"I don't want to do that," I said. "I don't see that helping anything."

"Blah blah," Cheryl said. "It's really great being your new friend. Really. If I'd known what you were like I'd have stuck with the last bozo I was with, that fat one with all the hair down his back."

"C'mon. Susan and I go way back. We like each other," I said. "There's this natural affection. We just let it get away from us a little."

"Yeah, a couple hundred times. You tell me you have to stay over because she's nervous, and I just buy it. I'm over here watching TV. Jesus." She shook her and took another swing in my direction with the knife.

We were in the kitchen. It was tiny, things were tight. Cabinets were full of cookery, spices, electronic aids. Her stuff was all over, stuff she'd just brought, packed in, crammed onto the counter tops.

"It wasn't anything," I said.

"Yeah? What, you hugged, kissed? That it? Never got your clothes off, right?" She swerved the knife at my shirt, then my pants, then did it again not seeing that I was headed for the refrigerator, and accidentally caught my cheek. I got a slice from my ear to my chin and forward.

I was surprised more than hurt, startled by blood scattering down my neck. The cut wasn't deep, I couldn't imagine it being deep, but it stung and bled crazy. I grabbed a paper towel roll and used the whole thing to mop my face.

Cheryl screeched for a second, holding the knife out in front of her, then suddenly stopped, as if realizing she was in some kind of fright movie act. She said, "Are you all right?"

"I think so," I said. "It's not that bad I don't think."

"I'm really sorry," she said, her body curling down on the word, as if to demonstrate how sorry she was.

"Not that bad," I said. "It wasn't that hard, was it?"

She got another roll of paper towels and reeled off big swaths she used to wipe my shoulder and shirt. I bent over the sink, dropping blood onto the metal.

When the phone rang I said, "Will you get it?"

"I don't want to answer," Cheryl said. "What if it's Susan? What if it's for you?"

I wedged her aside and reached the receiver mounted on the wall by the kitchen door. "What?" I said into the handset.

I listened for a second then shut eyes and handed the phone to Cheryl. "It's your mother. Tell her you sliced me up and we've got to call the hospital."

I leaned over the sink again, watching the blood, which was slowing some, thread its way into the running water and slide fast into the drain. There were white specks in the drain and I couldn't figure out what they were. I was trying to think what we'd eaten that would end up these tiny white bits in the kitchen sink, and at the same time I was soaking towels in faucet water, pressing them to my chin.

Cheryl was calm on the phone, chatting with her mom. All the time she kept wiping at my neck. She said, "I just cut Del accidentally with this knife and it's bleeding some but we don't think it's that bad, at least we hope not." Her mother must have missed it, and Cheryl repeated it right away, louder. "I just accidentally cut his face with a knife. We were playing around and I cut him. He's bleeding now. We probably have to go."

She listened another half minute, then hung up the phone. "You ready? We'll go to St. Christian's, O.K.? They have an emergency deal."

"Urgent Care," I said. "They're quicker." I had my head turned sideways, cut side up, trying to stem the bleeding.

"Yeah, but they're like vets," she said. She was leaning on the counter next to me, twisting her head around for a better look. "They're going to have to stitch the hell out of this."

"That's great news."

She said, "I didn't mean to do this, you know. I was just playing around. I wasn't playing around about Susan, but the knife stuff . . ."

"You didn't mind sticking me."

"Oh come on. Like I really want to slice your face in a million pieces."

"O.K.," I said. "You didn't mean to hit me."

"Later I want to rip skins off rabbits and stuff. That's me. Carjack some Cherokees, O.K.? Spit at people, crash store windows, whatever. I want to be modern, sleep with my brother's wife, you know."

"Fine," I said. I was bleeding, but it was slowing down. "Can you hand me a towel?" When I pulled the paper towels off the cut blood only bulged out, making a line down my face, dripping off. I pointed at the cut. "Would you get with it? Are we going to the doctor?"

"Fine," she said. "If you think it's necessary."

I was mopping with the towel she'd handed me, going into the next room looking for my shoes.

"I'm sorry," she said, following me. "I'm nervous, I think. Are we going? What're we doing?"

"Have you got keys?" I said.

She shook the keys.

"O.K., let's go," I said. I was at the door.

Cheryl was driving, fast but not too fast, whipping her head back and forth checking cross streets. "I didn't really cut you," she said. "Maybe if I was Mexican, I'd have cut you. White trash, cut you. Middle class, no. Too many jobs, too many cars--I can't cut anybody. Unless I go crazy, and then I can cut shit out of whoever--there'll be an explanation. If I'm not crazy I can only screw around in the kitchen and nick you a little by accident." She stopped and tilted her head looking at me. "You know, this might look pretty good after a while. Before it heals up."

"It's going to look like a cat scratch," I said.

"Way too big. You're getting lots of compliments on this at the shop. They'll regard you with a new respect, maybe even fear. It's just what you want."

At the emergency room a tiny doctor, an Asian, took a look at my face, then looked at Cheryl, then back at me and just shook his head. His black hair was shivering. He pointed to some plastic seats in an examination room. "I'll be back," he said. "Keep the towel on it."

Then he left. Cheryl sat at opposite end of the room. It was cool in there, lots of aluminum and shiny steel.

"How's it feel?" Cheryl said.

"It doesn't feel," I said. I took the towel off, tossed it to her, then unspooled paper towels from the roll she'd brought, folded them, dampened them under the faucet.

"If you're thinking I did this on purpose you're crazy," Cheryl said. "I just wanted you to know that. I don't like this Susan stuff at her place, or in the fucking elevator, the two of you riding up and down like teenagers watching the sun go down, but I'm not crazy."

"I told you I don't think it was on purpose. I think you slipped."

"Right," she said. "But that was stupid for you guys to do that in the elevator."

"I was leaving," I said. "She didn't want me to leave."

"What's this, no fault sex? How do I know that's where it stops? Wouldn't you rather have this really open relationship, tell each other everything--that way it'd be easy for the other guy, you know?"

"We have that," I said. "I told you everything."

"Sort of. I'm thinking seriously open. Who I think about when I masturbate. Everything. It'll be great. We'll tell the truth. We'll tell more truth than anybody ever told before."

"Fine," I said, pulling the towels across my face.

"And we won't have to pay too much attention, because everything will be up on the surface. We won't have any peculiar or difficult thoughts, either, you've got to promise that. It'll be like CNN."

"C'mon, Cheryl. Settle down, will you?"

"Let's go on Arsenio, anyway," she said.

"What?" The bleeding was slow, almost stopped. I smeared it with my finger, then blotted with the towels.

"He's Black, he's modern, he's happening, he's huh-huh-huh." She made the grunting noise and did that business circling her arm.

"He's canceled," I said.

She slumped on the stool. "I know. He's bad meat. He's over--I know that. It's fast out there. What do I think, they're going to wait for me?"

"Jesus," I said. "Put a rag in it, O.K.?"

"What a romance this is," she said. "Here we are in the middle of the night at the hospital, and you're telling me that. What is that?"

"You're babbling," I said. "We're trying to get my face fixed and you're raving about Susan and sex and I don't know what."

"Hey," she said. "It's not sex, I got plenty of that." She got up and leaned against the wall of the exam room, popping her shirt snaps, loosening her pants, and slipping her hand down under the zipper. "All you have to do is watch. Every man I ever met wanted to watch. Get over there, stand this way, stand that way--"

I shut the door and stood in front of the little glass porthole so nobody could see in. "Please, Cheryl. Christ. What's wrong with you?"

She was like, "Do this, do that, move this way, rub it, finger it, squat, bend over, twist that, squeeze it, hold 'em up, pull it this way, lick it, bite it, hold 'em apart, rotate, ride it way up, kiss it--every man I ever met. That's the kind of babbling I get. You're no different."

"I agree," I said. "Fine. Just get dressed, O.K.? Snap the little snaps."

"I don't know what happened to the old days when people felt things for each other, touched each other, cared for each other--I had better sex in high school that I've had since."

"If that's what you think," I said. "Just button up for the here and now, O.K.?"

"What, am I scaring you like this? Hey, we can tape it and sell it to Cinemax. We'll be ahead of the curve," she said. She closed her pants and started on the shirt.

"What's with all this?" I said. "Have we been sticking a little too close to The Week in Rock or what?"

"Well," she said. "Being modern is making a difference, it's having our voices heard."

"You gotta have one of the nine recognized voices to get it heard," I said. "And it's gotta be saying one of the nine recognized things. Outside of that you can forget it."

"There you go again," she said. "So what are the nine things?"

"Check your local listings," I said.

"See, when you say stuff like that you sound like Susan," she said, sitting again. "I mean, I can take a certain amount of cynicism, but after a while it's as phony as anything else. It's just depressing. Besides, I pick and choose the stuff I pay attention to. I don't buy it whole."

I opened the door and stuck my head out, then re-dampened the paper towels. "Thank God for that," I said.

We had been in the exam room about ten minutes when a nurse came in, took the towel pack off, dabbed some Mercurochrome on my face, pushed the towels back into place, and told me to go home.

"I thought he was coming back," I said.

"Who?" the nurse said.

"The doctor," I said.

"We saw a Japanese doctor," Cheryl said to the nurse. "Short guy? Black hair?"

Right then the Japanese doctor came in. "What's going on?"

I said, "I don't know. The nurse was thinking I was ready."

He said, "No dice. We've got to do a few small stitches. We're very well trained in stitches, but we've still got to practice sometime, don't we?" He grinned at Cheryl.

The nurse went to get some things he needed, and meanwhile he washed his hands in the metal sink, whistling something I couldn't figure out what was. He had me sit on a low white stool and cleaned the cut with cotton and alcohol, then shot my face in three places with tiny bursts of anesthetic from a yellow plastic syringe. When the nurse returned he took twelve black stitches at the front end of the cut along the curve of my chin.

When it got to be four in the morning and I still wasn't sleeping I decided to clean up the kitchen. I wiped the counters and the floor, rinsed the sink with soap, then alcohol, packed up all the garbage I could find in the house and took it out to the Dumpster that was at the back of the property, across the parking area from the building.

The street that ran alongside the condo dead-ended into Highway 90. It was a quiet, tree shaded, narrow street lined with a couple of old houses and a bunch of renter townhouses. There was a flash of heat lightning as I carried the garbage bags across the parking lot, and then the sky looked a calm, midnight blue. I flipped the two bags one after another into the Dumpster, and I was standing there looking distractedly around when all the street lights, and the porch lights on the buildings across the street, suddenly flashed off. There wasn't a noise, just the sudden withdrawal of the light--I could still see, of course, but the buildings were all faced in shadow, were almost silhouettes. It put me on edge, gave me a pleasant but slightly nervous feeling, as if something might be happening. It was like one of those movie scenes where the intruder cuts the power to the house where the woman is hiding before he goes in. It was silly to think anything at all about it, but the anxiety was pleasant, so I stood for a minute there on the blacktop, arms crossed, scanning townhouses across the street for a clue, a movement, anything out of the ordinary. There was nothing. I waited another couple of minutes, then started on a walk toward the highway and the beach. The air was peculiar, the way it just hung, motionless, drifting off the water, and the only sound was the faint hiss of little breakers running over rock jetties. There weren't any cars on Highway 90, and only one street lamp burned about a hundred and fifty yards down the road. I stood on the corner in front of the condos looking up at our place, the dark bedroom where Cheryl was sleeping, then walked out into the middle of the empty highway and crossed to the beach side where the sand was gritty under my shoes, then came back, looking all around, soaking up everything. With the lights out things seemed to have lost their power. It was like nothing was holding anything, the resistance was gone, that little pressure that's always against you, obliging you, keeping you in place. I thought about calling Susan on the telephone, about walking up the beach highway until I found a pay phone that was working and giving her a ring. That seemed like a good idea and I started walking. I thought if my brother Knox answered, well, I'd ask him how he was, and then I asked to speak to Susan. Just straight out. Just like that.

Copyright 1995
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