"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

Mouth Full of Plaster

Mouth Full of Plaster

    From a step down the brick stairs outside his front door, I try for my first glimpse of him when he opens the door. I can't really see past my friends’ darting heads. Maryanne’s shoulder-length black hair is streaked with white, and bushy, blocking my view. Her daughter Clara’s reddish-brown hair is short and compact, but she’s a good six inches taller, so I see the red and green floral print of her blouse. The door's only partway open like he's trying to keep a dog in, and in fact, I hear a dog's toenails chatter on a hardwood floor. 

    I've come to the house of an eligible gay man whom my good friend Maryanne, a woman twenty-five years my senior, wants me to meet. David is a painter who last year lost his lover of twelve years. Maryanne and Clara tried to get us together before, after my boyfriend and I first split up. I wasn't in a mood to meet another newly single gay man at the time, so it didn't happen. Instead, Frank and I got back together for one last try before finally going our separate ways. We couldn't end three years in a day. I'm still not much in a mood for seeing new men, though I have made a few attempts, some of which even got somewhere before I started forgetting to call them back. 

    This, of course, isn't a date. Maryanne's just introducing us. A foursome is meeting for lunch on a Sunday afternoon in Vallejo, California, 1993. Maybe we'll get along. Maybe we'll like each other. You never know.

    David doesn't quite look at me when I follow Maryanne and Clara in, but his eyes do glance over me, and of course, I glance over him too. In a broad sense, he looks like me. We're both white (mostly). He has short dark hair and a dark mustache, as do I. Beyond that the similarities fade. He's shorter, I'm taller. His face is angular, mine round. His hair is fine and straight, the kind you can comb. Mine is thick and curly and not naturally as dark as it now appears because I have dyed it black, as I have my mustache, which is growing out blond. The isolated dots of stubble on his cheek forecast that he's not a very hairy guy. I register this with some disappointment since I have a fondness for chest hair. But I dare to think David might fall within my parameters. The bigger question is, do I fall within his?  

    Maryanne, Clara, and I carry the two pizzas and salad ingredients Maryanne brought from Berkeley into the kitchen, where Maryanne and David discuss whether to reheat the pizzas in the convection oven or the regular oven.

    I ask Clara if she made the triangular copper earrings she's wearing; Clara is a painter, like David. She’s taking lessons from David, in fact. David hunts for mustard and oil for Maryanne's salad dressing, for which she has won justifiable renown. He still hasn't really spoken to me beyond his first swallowed hello. I steal a peek at David as he helps Maryanne wash the lettuce for the salad and gets a salad spinner from the cabinet. He's wearing a white tee shirt that shows off arms and chest he's obviously worked on. I find this appealing but intimidating. Maybe I won't measure up. I'm just beginning to move beyond a young nerd’s skinny body after a couple years of exercising. I remind myself again I'm not dating, but at the same time feel quite happy to be considering possibilities. Between Frank and Natalie, it's been a long few years, and the idea that the future might be better makes me happy. This is fun.

    I chat with Clara. I know Maryanne better than Clara but have been getting closer to Clara lately. We've been talking about pizzas, then salad spinners, then about a roommate she once had who owned one. Now she is telling me about how she went to Japan to study pottery when she was seventeen.

    “My mother didn’t want me to go,” Clara says.

    “I was never so relieved,” Maryanne says, tossing aside her gray-streaked black hair.

    Clara gives her a startled, questioning look. I feel sure today is the first time she's heard this.

    “You were hitchhiking around Marin in see-through blouses,” Maryanne says, with desperate vigor, “and I couldn't stop you.”

    We all laugh. I can't quite see Clara doing that, though, and wonder what the other side of the story is. Maryanne pushes a shred of lettuce off her cheek with the back of her hand and turns again to David.

    I know something about pottery from Natalie, so I pick up Clara's ball and run with it. We trade around the names of famous kilns searching for the spark that will get the real conversation going. It doesn't quite come off, but it sort of succeeds anyway because there is a warm feeling building in the room that we all want to talk to each other. No one is here to lecture.

    We prepare food. We admire the pizzas Maryanne has chosen. Maryanne cuts her finger on one of David's knives as she slices avocados. He goes for bandages and comes back with a bundle of serious, thick white bandages. I can't help thinking that he probably is well stocked with medical supplies because of his lover's illness and wonder at the wisdom of meeting someone so recently bereaved. Someone has died here, and not very long ago. But time beats on, and today it's Maryanne's copiously bleeding finger on which we use first one bandage, then a second to blot slick blood. 

    Maryanne is stanched and David apologizes for not warning her how sharp he keeps the knives. 

    Sharp knives are good, she says, and then David is teaching Clara how to use the sharpening wand. Hold the knife at an angle so the burr resists as you slide it down the wand. Too great an angle and it does no good; too little and you pull off the edge. Clara tries it. On the second pass, she masters the angle, but not the motion. David shows her how to move the knife so the entire blade gets sharpened from end to end, not just in the middle, then how to repeat the motion on the underside to complete the sharpening. David is earnest and competent and a good teacher. I like that. 

    David announces his intention to put the dog outside and I tell him not to. I like the dog—a big panting golden retriever—and can tell David doesn't want to eject him to the backyard. This gets the first smile in my direction. We take the pizza and salad and dog into the sunny living room and sit down in the center at an art-deco table so dark that at first I don't see the patterns in it—random, yet not random—that say once this was a living thing. David's paintings hang on every wall. Many of them are views of the room we are in—the corner window with gray-gold sycamores outside, the pink marble top of the sideboard, the dappled mirrored surface of the table between us. His realism shows tremendous skill, filled with reflected light, iridescent surfaces, careful darknesses that give the illusion of depth. He’s given these objects greater life in their rendering on canvas than they have in real life. I don't have to pretend to like them.

    Maryanne starts pumping me about my life, even though she knows the answers. Where I grew up, that sort of thing. This is for David's benefit and I feel David listening, and want to say the right thing, but since you never know what that is, I try to relax and just talk. Clara asks me about my ethnic background and is surprised to discover that along with Estonian and various flavors of British there's a healthy dose of Mexican.

    “I didn't know you were Mexican,” says Maryanne.

    “Part Mexican,” I say. Apparently, I've kept it a secret.

    I elaborate and say that my great-grandmother scandalized her very Spanish, Catholic family by marrying my great-grandfather, who was a Baptist Indian from Zacatecas, though you'd never know it to look at me. They like that. Then they ask me about the Estonian part and so I tell them Dad's story, surviving Nazis and escaping to Western Europe, then America, thinking all the time how often I've told this and how little I want to tell it again, even if it is just a conversation starter. But of course David and Clara haven't heard it before so for them it really is interesting, and I get my reward when I turn the discussion to David and he tells how his mother from England was caught in a candy store when a German plane flying home from the blitz jettisoned its remaining load of bombs. The candy store took a direct hit and was shattered. His mother woke up with ringing in her ears and a mouth full of plaster. Just hearing the words makes me feel like I'm in the middle of World War II, breathing white dust, unable to speak. Maryanne warns him she'll steal the image for a poem, and he laughs. He laughs a lot, and heartily. I like that. I like that a lot. 

    He has more wine. I look at him again as he and Clara talk about painting. I look right at him, not sneaking a glance, but looking directly. Who is this fellow? He has leaned back and over a little in his chair, away from Clara, toward me, so he talks to her at an angle, his hand on the table as though to steady himself. His hand is delicate, yet taut. He is filled with that kind of strength that means he does things, he moves, he works, he thinks. I know now why Maryanne thinks he's special. I want to ask him questions, questions that can only come when two people are alone—what was your lover like, what has your life been like so far, what do you do on an average day, do you still think of his name and forget he's not here, do you think you could like a guy like me?  A painting of a blue-and-white porcelain figure of a young woman in a pretty dress—perhaps on her way to a dance—shines coy and orange behind him on the wall above the fireplace. Later he will show us more of his paintings.

    I drink my wine and consider him.

    He asks me if I want more, then leans across the table on his elbow and pours me a glass of red that sparkles. He asks me a question. He looks me in the eye. Light fills the room. 

Mike Karpa is a San Francisco writer who's lived around. He works as a Japanese translator, most recently at the Department of Justice in criminal investigations. His short stories and/or memoir have appeared in Tin House, Sixfold, Faultline and other literary magazines.

Cover photo by kychan on Unsplash

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