Norma turns the water on and spits into the bathroom sink, watching the foam swirl its way down the drain. After dinner, she figures, when Steven's had time to relax and have a few beers, she'll tell him about it then. She pauses and looks around the apartment one last time before leaving, feeling that she has forgotten something, but she can't think what it might be. Then she closes and locks the door behind her, and starts down the stairs.
Inside the bookstore, the gentle whirring of a ceiling fan slices through the air efficiently, raising little puffs of Norma's hair as she sits with a small group of people at the back of the store. She shifts in her chair, uncrossing her legs and lifting them slightly, because they are sweaty and sticking to the edge of the seat. She accidently kicks a man who is standing near her chair. "Excuse me," she says quickly. The man nods his head, and smiles politely before she has time to look away.
"Do you mind if I sit here?" he asks.
Norma hesitates, then stammers, "No, not at all. I came by myself, anyway."
What a stupid thing to say. She squirms and pretends to search for something in her purse when he takes the seat next to her.
"Is this your first time at one of these talks?" he asks as he settles into his chair. He leans slightly, so that the sleeve of his shirt brushes against her bare shoulder. It tickles, but she is too nervous to move. She holds her breath and nods, afraid that if she opens her mouth, she will say something ridiculous again.
"I didn't think I'd seen you before. Mostly, you see the same faces in this place. I'm a regular. I try not to miss any of the lectures they have, and this speaker, in particular, is very dynamic."
"I'm afraid I've never heard of him," she says. She thinks she should offer some explanation for her presence -- he'll wonder why she's here at all. "I was curious," she says, trying hard to grab something before it gets away. "I thought I might learn more about some of the dreams I have, and honestly, I think maybe I just wanted to try something new." Her eyes feel hot and glazed over, defocussing as a bright, scarlet eruption spreads over her face like a stain.
The man smiles again, apparently unfazed by her babbling. "Well, good for you," he says. "The idea of understanding our dreams is fascinating, don't you think? So full of possibilities." He looks directly at her as he speaks, and she thinks of the smiling, bald man she saw on the Phil Donahue show last month, when she stayed home with the flu; a peaceful-looking monk from Tibet or somewhere, she's not sure exactly, but the glow of tranquility that had radiated from his face had made her feel better.
A woman stands up and begins introducing the speaker, a softly rumpled-looking man with a bushy red beard.
"Dreams are like a psychic blueprint," he begins. "A map to guide us on life's journey."
Norma watches as people nod their heads in agreement. A current moves through her, stinging, shooting little jolts of electricity just beneath the surface of her skin. It's exhilarating, being surrounded by people who are open to new ideas. She wishes Steven could understand this, or her mother, who always sides with him. "Men need to be taken care of," Ruth had said once, when Norma complained about Steven's indifference. "Look to yourself, Norma. If you were meeting his needs he might be more interested in yours."
As Norma listens to the lecture, much of what the speaker says is confusing to her, so much information to absorb -- images and symbols, the meaning of it all -- but there is something comforting in the sound of his voice and the soothing way his words rub up against her brain, the way a cat feels when it brushes back and forth, moving languidly in and around your legs. "Think of your dreams as a kind of absolution," he says. "A liberating force that comes from within."
A liberating force. Norma says it to herself and hears the sound of the words reverberating inside her head. She thinks about the family room in her parent's basement, where she and Steven had stayed for more than two years. A dreary, windowless room, with dark paneling and a thin layer of red, simulated brick linoleum covering the concrete floor. They'd slept on a sofa-bed that they unfolded each night, the way you might open a letter. Only it always said the exact same thing.
The basement had a separate entrance, as Norma's mother had been quick to point out. "You two can come and go as you please; it'll be just like having your own place." But every day, Ruth would clack loudly down the basement stairs -- "I heard you arguing with Steven earlier. Don't you think you should be more supportive? ... What are you doing after work? Are you coming right home? ... Gee, I'm feeling kind of tired today, Norma. Do your poor mother a favor, will you?"
Norma knew, finally, that she would suffocate if she continued living there, and she pleaded with Steven to let her look for a place of their own. Anything, it didn't matter. In the end they had both settled for the apartment. There would be no house. She understood that. They had not been able to save enough money -- her fault. First there had been the pain, then trips to the doctor, expensive tests, the hysterectomy -- no insurance. All that money spent. Now there would be no house because she couldn't stand living with her parents another day, and of course there would never, ever be any babies. They didn't even talk about it anymore.
"Well, what did you think?" the man next to her asks. She realizes, suddenly, with a fleeting, almost imperceptible sense of sorrow, that the lecture is over.
"I thought it was interesting. I'm glad I came, though I'm not sure I understood everything he said."
He is standing by his chair, hesitating, looking at her. Norma is not sure what she should say to him. That she's grateful for his interest. That it felt good, but now she has to go home to her real life?
"Would you like to go somewhere and get coffee or a sandwich -- talk about dreams? My name is Jim Duncan, by the way."
"What? Oh. Norma, my name is Norma Keslor." Norma blushes again. God, yes. She'd love to have coffee and talk with him. "I'm sorry, I can't. I have a job I have to be back to in twenty minutes."
"Some other time maybe," he says, still smiling.
"Yes," she says, and turns towards the door.
At five thirty, Norma climbs the stairs to the apartment. The afternoon at Cody's Hardware, where she works as a cashier, had been long and monotonous. Several times she had imagined herself taking off the awkward red vest she has to wear, like part of a silly clown costume, with its row of oversized, white buttons, and her name emblazoned over the breast pocket. She pictured herself laying it on the counter, and walking out, without a word to anyone, after five years of faithful service. Five years of hating the thin, metallic smell of nuts and bolts, and motor oil, and big rolls of link chain in various sizes, the stifling way the scent lays on top of the smell of dust and dirt blown around by overhead fans. Of course, Steven would be furious. Besides the money, he likes the twenty percent discount she gets on everything.
At the top of the stairs she sees Steven perched on the porch railing, still wearing his greasy work clothes, leaning heavily against the post. "God, it's hot today," she says. "How about I get us a couple of nice, cold beers?"
He makes no effort to respond, as though he might not have heard her. She can tell, though, by the little snapping sound he just made -- a kind of pop that goes off in the back of his jaw when he clenches his teeth -- that he's angry. He's had a bad day at work, or hell, maybe he already knows about her morning off. She wishes she could turn around and start over, go back to the day when she was nineteen and said yes. She closes her eyes instead. When she opens them, Steven is still sitting there. "I guess you probably had a tough day in this heat, huh? Why don't you take a shower, and I'll get you that beer."
But he just looks at her. His eyes are cold and seem darker than they used to be. He pushes his hands against the railing and slowly stands up. "I couldn't bear it, Norma, " he says. "I just couldn't bear it."
"Couldn't bear what? What are you talking about?"
Steven wheels around dramatically and points to the door. "I couldn't bear to sit inside and have to look at that unmade bed."
"You heard me," he says. "How long does it take to make a bed, anyway -- two minutes? I don't think that's a lot to ask." He turns and stomps inside, slamming the door hard behind him.
Norma is so stunned by what he's just said, she feels out of focus, as though she's been trying to look at something in the distance through the wrong end of binoculars. She stands on the porch, bending slightly, aware of her breath whistling up and out of her lungs, like a balloon with a pinhole being slowly squeezed. When at last she follows him inside, she stumbles against the edge of an end table and reaches down absently to touch where she has hurt herself.
"If you're thinking of apologizing, I'm not interested, Norma." Steven glares at her from the couch.
"You're kidding, right?" It's all she can think to say. "Steven, this isn't very funny."
"It's not meant to be. You owe me, Norma. You wanted this crummy apartment, so I got it for you. And now I come home, and I'm tired, and you can't even do a simple thing like make the bed." He peels off his tee shirt, and wipes his forehead with it.
Norma watches him settle back, watches him sinking into the massive brown cushions on the sofa, getting smaller and smaller, as though he were being pulled away from her, sucked into a deep, dark vortex in some other dimension. A momentum builds inside her, a force that swells, pushing aside reason. There is no reason, no sense to this latest sin she has committed. She had forgotten, she had simply not remembered what she was supposed to do. How dare she make such a mistake. How dare he notice. How dare he cast an accusing eye at her. How goddamn dare he.
"Then make the fucking bed yourself, if it bothers you so much." There. She hurls the words defiantly, as hard as she can, hoping they'll strike him in a vulnerable spot. But they bounce off his shoulder and hit the floor with a resounding thud.
He narrows his eyes, pulling them into angry, gleaming slashes. "What is it with you lately?" he demands. "All this garbage about dreams, and getting away from your mother. When are you gonna wake up? You're nuts, you know that? You don't even know what you want, do you?"
"You bet I know," Norma spits the words out. "And it isn't this."
"What then? Just tell me, what the hell is it you want."
"A divorce. Maybe I want a divorce." She says it quickly, getting the words out before she has time to change her mind.
"Fine," he says, and turns away.
"Fine." Norma repeats the word in a tiny, hollow voice.
Steven walks through the bedroom door with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. "This is all I need for now," he says, and pauses. It's the first time he's stopped moving since she said it -- that "D" word. He made a phone call to a friend, threw some things in his bag and now he's about to leave. She had thought he'd put up more of a struggle, hang around longer to fight it out. But this, this is too quick, too easy, as though he's just been biding his time, waiting for her to make this one final mistake, a slip of the tongue, and it's over -- one word, that's all it took.
"I'll get the rest of my things later, in a few days, when I know where I'm gonna be," he says. "We can talk about who gets what then." And suddenly he's gone. Just like that. She stares at the door for a minute, then looks around the room. "Not that there's a lot to talk about," she says out loud, wanting to hear the sound of something, if only her own voice.
Her words break up in the air, merging with particles of dust, and she watches them drift down along the last slab of sunlight that angles through the window. When she moves her hand through the air, she might be making the sign of the cross, or waving a magic wand. She's not sure which. Either way, the particles revolve in a frantic flurry of motion. After a while, the whirling dust slows down, stops spinning and begins to descend again. Norma walks over to the open door and stands, inhaling deeply. A sudden, short burst of wind brushes the side of her face. It feels good. Soothing. Like the splash of salmon pink that is spreading across the sky. Like a preview of coming attractions.
"Absolution" © 1992, 1995 by Mary Pierce Original graphics © 1995 by Jim Davis-Rosenthal and Canéla A. Jaramillo