Lines & Curves by Sarah Saltwick
He loved the box like this: in the afternoons and evenings, on the couch, one hand on it, the other free for what was necessary. He lingered on the corners. The Box was the color of a cinnamon tree, less red than the spice but just as warm. Before it belonged to Max, it had gotten a scratch on one of its sides. He liked the scar side to face him. Their first night together, he took it to bed and it fit perfectly in his arms. As he knew it would. Years had passed but still they shared the same bed.
Today was Sunday. Sunday was the day he got out, went places that weren’t work or home. A picture caught his eye in the paper, a hurricane glass lamp. On sale. Sunday, a bad day for shopping but still. He did want something new for his bedroom. He placed the box on the couch, where it stayed while he was away.
Tessa was tousled and late. Another open to close Sunday. Sticky kids, anxious wives. Negotiations. The sale event crowds were the worst, they just looked for scratches and dents, trying to get another mark down. They’d buy boredom if was half priced. She returned three runaway rolling chairs to the office section, only to have two grabbed by twins. She started to go after them or to find their parents but then she saw him. A man, good looking, definitely good looking but more than that, a man of stillness. Watching her favorite lamp. The one she had in her own home. He had broad shoulders, russet hair that wouldn’t lay flat. His shirt crisp, definitely ironed.
“I’ve got that in my bedroom.” she said.
“Excuse me?” he said.
“I’m Tessa. You want some help?” She extended a hand. He didn’t take it. “This is one of my sections. You like that lamp? It’s our best.”
“You should help someone else. I’m not sure how to describe what I want…”
“What?” Max turned a little pink.
“We get a lot of guys in here after a split. They want to make their space their own. You’ve got a ring but you’re alone.” Max did not like being looked at like this. On display. For clues. He felt extra worried about what his face was saying.
“Are you like this with everyone?”
“Like what?” Tessa said. This had always worked before. One way or another.
Her face fell. Max was instantly sorry. Everything about her seemed visible, her interest and disappointment, loud but confusing. He touched her arm to shake her out of it. It worked. She gave him a small private smile.
“Let’s find you a lamp. I’m Tessa. Oh, I said that already, well, I still am.” She held out her hand. He took it. He heard himself say, “I like that name.”
He left with two perfectly wrong lamps and her phone number. The lamps were too heavy, no sense of light or air. They would have been good for other people but not him. Max put the lamps in his closet and lost the tiny piece of paper right away. He watched an old horror movie with the box, something with Gregory Peck.
Max watched numbers and the weather. He studied earthquakes which could only be studied in the immediate present or the past. There was no effective prediction system. He was working on a theory (instruments in deep water recesses), everyone in the field was, but still, his days in Menlo Park were numbers and weather. When he worked at home, he kept the box in his lap. He had looked for other people like him. Done online searches. He found a woman in love with a ferris wheel. He stopped looking after that. What sense does it make to love something you can’t hold?
Tessa slept with a man she would remember to her married friends as Gary Los Angeles. A man who wouldn’t stop talking until the morning after when he wouldn’t say a thing. She slept with Terrance who had the constellation Cassiopeia in his freckles. She pointed it out afterwards, coming back into his room with two glasses of water (he was a germaphobe) and hoped it would bring them closer. She had Pegasus on her right side. He stopped calling after she didn’t wash her hands before eating a tuna salad sandwich. There was nothing dirty about my hands, she wanted to call and say, they were clean.
On Saturday, Max was in the parking lot of the furniture store. Tessa was leaving. They stopped when they saw each other. Somewhere a car honked at them, Tessa waved it away.
“What are you doing over here?”
“Looking for a table.” Max said and then regretted. “I thought you might have some ideas about tables.”
“But you’re leaving now.”
Max stood there. In the street waiting. She wasn’t done talking with him, he could tell that much.
Tessa noticed the blue of his eyes and didn’t ask about his not calling. Instead she said, “You like mini golf?”
He didn’t dislike mini golf. “Sure. Why?”
“It’s not a table emergency is it?”
Max turned out to be great at miniature golf. He got a hole in one at the first hole decorated like the Arabian Nights: tigers, a genie lamp and a greying palace. The third hole was terrible, just a bored looking monkey and misleading angles. They decided to skip it. By the sixth hole, a mermaid with a swinging tail and a devilish smile, he was clearly ahead.
“Are you letting me win?”
“You haven’t won yet!” Tessa’s ball was hit by the tail right into a small pond of brackish water. Tessa looked at Max. He looked at the ball. He realized she was waiting for him to pull it out. As soon as he walked over, she said “I can get it.” He fished it out with his club.
“Do you like your job?” Max asked, his first real question.
“Yeah. Well, I’m good at it. Not at all of it. But the important parts.”
“You can sell things.”
“It’s harder than you think. Sometimes I wish I was better at something more important. Like what you do. Numbers and science and the environment, mystery. – It’s exciting, it’s got to be.”
“It is. Makes for some long nights.”
“There’s a lot we don’t know about the earth. We should know more. We live here.”
Tessa laughed. A small frown crossed Max’s face, a flush of embarrassment. “No – I’m not laughing at you – I just know what you mean. You just make it sound personal – like the world is a person you could know. Like it’s simple.”
“Simple? People?” They both smiled at that and walked back towards the castle.
Max won easy. “It’s okay, I’m an excellent loser.” Tessa said. He smiled but then saw it wasn’t a joke. Just a fact. He said the first thing he thought of. “This would be a good place to be if there was an earthquake.”
“Yeah? Doesn’t feel very solid.”
“It is. And there’s lots of doorways. Ground level. Not claustrophobic.”
“Not like a bar.”
“All that glass. Small spaces too. People.”
“Do you think there is going to be an earthquake?”
“I can’t actually predict – “
“Max.” Her hand was on his hand. Smiles on both their faces. She leaned in. “Let’s get a drink.”
This girl. Easy and strange.
They had two drinks each before the DJ started. They left, Max walked her to her car but she didn’t get in. Then they just stood. “It’s late.” she said, watching the moon.
“I should have called you.” he said and meant. Somehow she had put on lipstick. A pink shine. Max felt a shake spread from his chest to his hands. He wanted a plan. He took a small step.
She took one too. They leaned in, smashed noses and then she tilted her head and their bodies made sense. She kept her weight in her feet, her hands light on his chest.
Tessa had never been kissed with such care. Like she was something new and unexplored.
Later was worse. Caught in her bed, too many sheets, no plan. Colors and textures everywhere: black, pink, orange, silver, leather, stone, wood – he went to the bathroom and locked the door. Too much for one day.
“It’s because you’re married, isn’t it?” Tessa said from the other side of the door. He washed his hands again, soothed by the simplicity of the soap.
“Yes.” he said and waited. It seemed a strong reason.
“Can you come out? So we can talk face to face?”
He opened the door. She was naked on her bed, with the moon behind her. Her bed was a nest, high off the ground, surrounded by books and pillows. There was a small ladder up to it. “If you want to go, go.” This line usually proved successful in getting men to stay.
She didn’t. He put on his shoes. He gave her a sorry instead of goodbye and left. Barely looking at her.
In his car, Max rolled down his window and let the city be as noisy as it liked. At his home, at the door, holding the handle he felt something new inside him. He went in. He took off his shoes like always. He sat on the couch, next to the box, not touching it yet. Not like always. What rules had been broken? All or some? None? Some, he decided and went to take a shower. He caught his smile in the mirror. He looked like someone else. After the shower, he brought the box into bed. They slept nested together, the wood growing warm from his touch.
When a man left, Tessa made a sweet rice mush. She started her rice cooker and got in the shower. Washed her hair with just conditioner to keep the bounce in her curl. Then she put on her blue and white robe. She read stories she had read before as the rice finished. She mixed in milk, brown sugar, cinnamon, walnuts. She climbed up to her bed and dangled her legs out the window. She rented this loft, inconvenient and expensive, for the windows and high ceilings. And storage space. It was a temporary situation turning permanent. She leaned against the window frame. She ate. Tonight felt worse than usual. She felt guilty. She never felt guilty.
Bryan was terrible in bed, no harmony. He touched her absently, not noticing the difference between her shoulder and thigh. The particulars of her body seemed a distraction. But she enjoyed the quality of his mattress and the homemade bread his wife made. Bryan and Francesca had an understanding. Tessa saw Bryan for a few Saturdays while Francesca sold bread and honey butter at the farmer’s market.
Max couldn’t stop remembering her. Her voice. Why don’t we name earthquakes like hurricanes? Have you ever been scuba diving? Would you jump out of a plane? When are you lonely? Have you been to Alaska? Are you happy? What kind of fish would you be? What’s your favorite season? He had told her everything he knew, surprising himself with his answers. Do you like dancing? He had even said yes to that, without knowing why.
He waited out clear hot days of nothing, studying the data from Chile, Alaska, Sumatra, Japan. He brought the box to work. No one seemed to notice but it felt wrong enough for him to stop. He brought the box to a movie theater, resting it in his lap. It was something warm and pleasant. Steady. Constant.
One month later, June, he called. Tessa hadn’t deleted his number, not yet, but had changed it to No – Strange Max Married. He was right after No – Sloppy Bryan. She answered.
“It’s Max.” Max paused. He hadn’t worried about not being remembered. But she didn’t say anything. “I bought two lamps, we went out – mini golf?”
“Are you still married?”
“I was wondering if you would like to go with me to the Botanical Gardens. The Climbing Roses are in bloom.”
“Roses are my least favorite flower.”
“But these climb.”
Max wanted to hear her laugh, it was the reason he had finally called.
“Are you still married?”
“Things have changed. Since I last saw you.”
Every day, getting dressed, driving to work, talking to strangers, Tessa told herself that she would stick to her own rules. Max waited. She liked the way he could be quiet without being silent.
“Tell me about her.” she said.
Max walked into his bedroom and shut the door. “She’s classic. Nice lines. Dependable. Generous too. Kind. Steady. We’ve been together, it feels likes ever but sometimes there’s a distance…” Tessa thought about hanging up. Max continued, quick. “She’s very different than you.”
“You’re full of life.”
That was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her, married or otherwise. Tessa laughed but it wasn’t the one he had been waiting for, it was sad, involuntary.
She wouldn’t go to the Gardens, not right away. They went to Philz Coffee and talked about weather patterns and end tables. They went to Tootsie’s at the Stanford Barn and talked about college and high school. Caffee Carrello and travel. She had been to Australia, he had worked in Japan. Starbucks and family. Both only children. Mothers both gone. He told her about the Earth’s core, how it was liquid. He told her trying to reread A Journey to the Center of the Earth, his favorite as a child, but finding it impossible to imagine the story with what he now knew. She listened. It was Sunday. “Let’s see some roses.” she said.
Max had been going to the San Francisco Botanical Garden since he was young. Tessa, never. They took the lakeside path through the ancient plants, past the Himalayan Rhododendrons, the fountain full of children, to the climbing roses. The roses grew up trellises and had names like the Fourth of July, Apple Blossom and Will Scarlett.
“Look.” Tessa said, “Here’s Little Girl and Hurdy Dury.” She laughed, delighted and warm.
“I’ve got Buff Beauty and Captain Thomas.” Captain Thomas was a buttery yellow, about the size of Max’s fist. Tessa came closer to the flower and then closer still. Max kissed her first. It was easier this time. Come to my house, he thought. And then said.
She wanted to see his house, desperately. She had a picture in her head: a house of order, Bolivian Rosewood, Django Reinhardt playing on the stereo. She imagined cheese and Sauvignon Blanc in the fridge. She imagined books. She couldn’t picture the influence of a wife.
Max opened the door and took off his shoes. Tessa took one step and stared. Smiled. Took her shoes off too and then ran to touch the bookcases. There were five, all maple. She picked up a small statue of a running horse. A photo of Max in Japan. A ceramic vase painted a rich velvet blue. She touched the coffee table, maple and glass, with thin spider legs. The legs exploded from the base to give the impression of floating. She ran her fingers across the back of his cream curving couch, lightly. “This is quite a piece.”
“Took some saving.”
She nodded. “Worth it.” The box was there, on the couch. Tessa was about to sit.
“Do you want to see the kitchen? It’s got the best view.”
Tessa followed him. “Ocean?”
“If you get on your toes.” Max demonstrated. Tessa tried too, using the counter for support. “I see it! Right there – a little blue, is that it?”
“Yes. At least, I think so.” This close Max could smell her. It wasn’t like flowers, not even sweet but fresh. Complicated. He touched the buttons on the front of her dress.
“Can I use your shower? I feel sticky from walking around all day. Hot out there. You don’t mind, do you? I’ll just be a minute.” She went into the bathroom and leaned against the door. The bathroom was perfect, of course. She turned on the hot water. Got in. Stayed in. She had always liked showers, how water feels like it sounds.
“Are you okay?” Max said. Maybe this was typical, but it seemed odd for her to be in there so long. She opened the door, wearing one of his towels. She looked like something caught in the rain, under her eyes a shiny black of mascara and liner. “I didn’t mean to rush you.” Tessa wiped the make up off her face, staining the towel. She didn’t notice. She looked determined.
“You’ve got be loyal to what you believe. Your commitments.”
“You don’t understand, it’s different than you think.”
“You have that ring. You think about her when you’re with me. You must. No matter how nice things are with me. However nice they seem, you’re not really there, not all the way.”
Minutes ago things were easy, now they were hard. People. Always changing. He wanted to go into the living room, feel what he knew.
Tessa started to get dressed. “Sorry.”
“Wait.” He took her. Right into his arms. As if he had done it before. She fit. She felt good against him. His clothes came off easy and then they were on the bed and there was plenty of room, he was kissing her everywhere, easy and she was laughing and grabbing for her purse, getting a condom. The warm span of their bodies. She wrapped her arms around him. Everything became movement.
Afterwards, she went to the bathroom and he looked for the right shirt. He felt hungry and tired and confused and awake. It had been a long time since he had felt so many things at once. He pulled out a striped oxford nightshirt and then a tee shirt. He considered.
In the bathroom, Tessa washed her face with warm water. The sex had been good, connected, a little quick but still, it was something. Special. No, she didn’t want to call it that. Now there was just the question of sleep. Tessa shook off the other questions she had. She looked in the cabinets. No tampons, no stray bobby pins. She came out of the bathroom.
He sat there, on the edge of the bed, looking like please. Please stay. She wanted to hear it. But he just buttoned up some fancy pajamas shirt. Tessa waited.
“Should I go?” she finally said.
“What? No. Stay. If you’d like.”
But the minute he got in bed beside her, it felt wrong. He would never sleep like this, too much heat and too many limbs. “You take the bed.” he said. “I’ll sleep on the couch.”
“You aren’t going to sleep here?”
“No. I’ll sleep on the couch. That’s better. We’ll both sleep better that way.” He kissed her and closed the door behind him.
In the morning, he was in the kitchen making too much food. Eggs and grapefruit and cereal and toast and waffles? “This should all be ready soon. I wasn’t sure how long you were going to sleep. Coffee?” Yes, all she wanted was coffee and an explanation. She went to get a mug. She opened the cabinet and there were four perfect double wall Bodum cups. She leaned in and really looked. Nothing from college or fundraisers or white elephant parties. Nothing with animals saying funny things. Give me the coffee and no bunny gets hurt. I love ewe.
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
“Your wife. Where’s your wife?”
“Not in there.”
“Does she live here?”
“It’s complicated. We’re not going to be walked in on, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“You still wear a ring.”
“It’s -”, there were so many things he could say, none right, “a symbol. Of a part of my life.” It came out like a question. He took the eggs off the heat because they were done. He put the toast on the plates because that’s where it went. He turned the waffle iron off because he could see waffles were wrong.
Tessa walked around the living room. Vibrating with questions. Max saw how much space she took up, how the room was smaller with her in it. She got close –
“Don’t – “
“What is it?”
“Please don’t -”
Too late. The box was in her hands, she was opening it rough, the lid fell out of her hands, on the floor, her hands went inside and pulled out a ring. Impossibly shiny.
“Put that down.”
She put the ring back.
“No, put it down.”
“What’s going on?”
“Put the box down.”
She brought it closer to her frame. “Max, calm down. Breathe. Talk to me.”
“Let it go.”
“You’re talking about this?”
He took the box out of her hands, put the lid back on and held it tight. He turned away from her, his body hunched over it. She had never imagined him like this, territorial. “Max, what’s going on?” He wouldn’t look at her. “What’s so special about that box?”
“I love it.”
She thought she hadn’t heard him right. But he said it again and again. “I love it. I love it. I love it. I love it.” She interrupted, “You love a box?”
“I love this box.”
He was quiet.
“You’re not married?”
“There’s no other woman. But I love this. I have. For years.”
Everything narrowed. Tessa sat. “I want to hold it.” she said.
“You can’t.” He was holding it so tightly. If it had been made out of something else, it would have broken into pieces. He loved it, she believed him. What a thing to love.
“Does it have a name?”
“It doesn’t need a name.”
“What does it do – let me hold it -”
“Why?” Why wasn’t she leaving? Why was she looking at him like he knew things she didn’t?
She opened her hands. Calmly, she said, “Please. Let me try.” Max shook his head. “Let me hold it, I’ll be gentle, and then I’ll go. Okay? Just for a second. Please?”
He wanted her to go so he placed the box on her lap. Lid on. She closed her eyes. She placed one hand on it and then the other. She waited. She wanted something to happen so badly, she began to press into the box. “Gently.” Max said, soft. She felt nothing. Just a panic in her chest and a hunger for sweet rice. This is what he cares about, his love. An almost empty box.
And then nothing got louder. Sharp in her mouth. She could taste past disappointments. Failures. Bryan, Gary, Paul, Terrance, Ben, Kyle, Gabriel, Javier, Michael. Tom. Prom, her favorite song, her date getting a hand job somewhere. Being driven home with food poisoning, still being dumped. Tom. All the things she had left in men’s apartments. Her mother. Asking her why she wasn’t married. Her mother setting her up. A missionary with bad manners. Married to God. Tom. Her mother sick. The storage space under her stairs, filled with furniture she loved but didn’t need. A crib build by Shakers, no nails only dove tail joints. Her mother’s funeral. Alone. The parade went on.
Tom. The attic room he paid for, two blocks from his own home. Windows that didn’t open. Being available, clean and attractive from noon till 2am. Just in case he found a hour between the high school and his home. Or in the middle of the night when his family was asleep. Her 20th birthday, no party. Two years by a bed. Whispered promises of New York, Chicago, even Paris. Places where they could be together as a real couple. Whispers of you’re better. You’re better than her. We’ll leave together. Lying to her parents. Trying to get comfortable as someone else, the woman he wanted. A note and a check one January day. The note said sorry, the check said quiet. Tessa saw herself then. I haven’t changed. He would still know me and I would still jump, bend and beg.
“Tessa. Tessa. I’m sorry – come back.” No good. She stayed shut. Rigid. Her spirit had slipped inside of her, the light was somewhere he couldn’t see. He took the box out of her hands. Nothing changed. His heart was beating fast. He kissed her. Nothing happened. How long would she be like this?
“Tessa come back. Please!” He lay beside. He shifted and leaned until they fit together. Her head on his chest. “Tessa, wake up. You’re going to miss all the things you like. We can take a walk. I’ll make you more coffee. We can go to an museum. Bookstore. Tessa, I’ll take you dancing. I’d like to see you dance.” He said her name again, “Tessa. Tessa. Tessa.” It was terrifying this silence on her. It shook through him. He wanted her back. He wanted her to never leave.
She woke up saying “Let’s go, Let go, Let’s go. Let go.”
“Tessa!” Max grabbed her. “Don’t do that again. You okay? You were gone – I didn’t know what to do, do you want some water, are you hungry, is there someone you should call – I’ll take you home or you can stay, are you okay? – Tessa, it’s good to see you.”
“Where’s my purse?”
“By the door – are you okay? I’ll drive you. What happened? You don’t have to talk about it.” He was being loud but he didn’t care. She got up and walked fast towards the door. “Wait – talk to me for a minute.”
“Don’t tell me what do.” Tessa needed move around, she needed to go running, she needed to cut her hair, to eat a steak.
“You’ll come back?”
She looked down at the box on the floor. Top off, inside exposed. “I need to make things simple. I need to be a different kind of person -”
He held her wrist as she stood in the doorway. Not stopping her but holding her there. He said, “Don’t you change again.” How could anyone love anyone if all they did was change? “Be Tessa.”
Tessa looked at him hard. What did he know? She was the opposite of what he loved. He was another good looking mistake.
“I think I could love you.” Max said. Even with her angry look, he knew it was true. Even with the noise around her, especially with that. “I think we can fit together.”
Tessa looked at him, swallowing her smile. This impossible man believed what he was saying. And she could believe it too. Was that enough?
Sarah Saltwick is a playwriting and fiction Michener Fellow at the University of Texas in Austin and a graduate from Hampshire College. Her short play GROUND was a finalist for the 2012 Heideman Award at the Humana Festival. This summer, her play Rabbits was part of 2011 WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory. Her work has been presented, developed or produced by the University of Texas at Austin, Austin Scriptworks, Bristol Riverside Theater, Shrewd Productions, Last Frontier Theatre Conference, and Moving Arts in Los Angeles CA. She’s written plays inspired by video games,Texas, guacamole, Dolly Parton and more.