He can't hear her. She sits down on the closed seat of the toilet, peels the wrapper off a candy bar. "I am seventy-nine years old," she says aloud, and takes a bite. This is the beginning of what she wanted to say. Truthfully, she wasn't sure what would come next; she figured it would just happen, naturally. She examines the candy bar as she chews. She has always liked this, looking at food while she eats it. Makes it taste better. She wonders how they get that curly little swirl on the top of every candy bar. It's a nice touch, even though some machine did it and it is therefore not sincere. She crosses her legs, gently swings the top one, then leans over to the side to inspect it. She used to have great legs. "Oh, honey," Al had said the first time he undid her garters and pulled her nylons off. "Look at these gams." He had kissed her thighs, and she blushed so furiously she thought surely he'd see it in the dark. They were on their honeymoon, in a cottage in the Adirondacks. Her hair had been long and honey blonde, pulled back at the sides by two tortoiseshell combs, curled under at the bottom in a pageboy. The Andrews Sisters were on the radio at the moment she lost her virginity, her white negligee raised high over her breasts, one comb fallen off and digging into her shoulder, though not unpleasantly. She shook so hard when Al entered her he wanted to stop, but she wouldn't let him. "It's fine, honey," she said. "It just hurts." Her fingers were balled into fists against his back and she uncurled them, tried to relax. She looked for a place on the ceiling to focus on. She'd concentrate on that, take her mind off things.
"I can wait," Al had said. "Why don't I wait?" He'd raised himself up, tried to look into her face. But she hid herself in his shoulder, embarrassed and silent, then giggling.
"I don't think that helps, waiting," she'd finally said. "You just go on ahead. It's all right."
Afterward, they'd made a nest of the blankets and pillows, faced each other in the dim light, spoke in low tones of all the things they wanted to do: candlelit dinners every Saturday night, four children, the biggest Christmas tree on the lot every year. They touched each other's faces with the tips of their fingers, probed gently at the openings between each other's lips. At breakfast the next morning, Al had said Mavis looked different. More womanly. She said she'd noticed exactly the same thing.
He took her hand, she put down her fork, and they went back to the bedroom. Already they had a special language, Mavis had thought, and the intimacy grounded her, fueled her. It hadn't hurt so much the second time.
"Hey, Mavis," Al says now, banging on the door. "Jonathan wants to talk to you. He's on the phone. You'd better come out here."
Mavis walks to the door, straightens her skirt, speaks loudly into the crack. "Listen to me, Al. I just told you I want to have a week to myself. I'm not coming out to talk on the telephone to Jonathan or any of the other children. I wish you'd stop running off and just let me tell you about this. No need to take offense or to think I'm crazy. For heaven's sake."
"Jonathan is on the phone, long distance," Al says.
Mavis rolls her eyes. "Well, I guess I know it's long distance, Al. If he lives in California and we live in Minnesota, then obviously it's long distance."
"So what am I supposed to say? That his mother can't be bothered talking to him?"
Mavis sighs, thinks for a moment. Jonathan in the Bathinette, his baby fists waving, his palm-sized chest rising up and down excitedly. "Water," Mavis is saying. "Yes, it's water, darling." A kerchief is around her head. She is wearing red lipstick and open-toed shoes.
Quietly, Mavis says, "Go and tell Jonathan that I'm fine, Al, that I'll call him in a week. And don't you say anything else. I can hear you, you know!"
Excerpted from Ordinary Life by Elizabeth Berg Copyright 2002 by Elizabeth Berg. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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