Waiting for the 12:15 by Paul Myette
I counted black cabs, double-decker busses, and girls dressed to be shagged before sun up. Fifteen minutes. 34. 6. 28. I assumed Lara noticed me counting the girls, but I couldn’t be bothered. The night’s events had already divided us, making the half-yard of bench between her purse and my hand worth a much wider gap. Lara stared into the distance, as still as the air. It was thick and heavy on us, unusually hot for London. I sweated and wished I’d worn a more presentable undershirt so I could strip down without looking like a bum crawling from a pub.
I wished also that she’d start things already. As the angry party, she held rights to the opening salvo. I didn’t know what she waited for. Perhaps she wanted me to start, or to apologize straight off. If so, she ought to have known better. Most likely, she spent the time organizing the argument in her head. She does that, and it’s maddening, partly because her thoughts come out so rationally and partly because she never just loses her shit when we argue. At worst she resorts to sarcasm, but only if she’s truly angry.
“You didn’t try.”
She continued to stare straight ahead. To an outsider it wasn’t clear that she was speaking to me. The only other person nearby, an older woman apparently waiting for the same bus, shuffled a few steps away, uncertain what to make of Lara’s comment. I, on the other hand, knew who she was talking to and gathered that I was expected to reply.
“What do you mean?” If she wanted to start the row I felt she needed to start it properly and accuse me of something specific. Instead she kicked at the pavement and said nothing. I resumed counting. 39. 10. 33, the last five too old to be dressed like sluts. I added two happy couples to the count; they made me properly angry. A summer night in London buzzes with energy and opportunity. Things to see, foods to try, pubs where you can sit by an open window and have as many pints as you like because you’ll be taking the bus home thank you very much. The happy couples could enjoy these things. We sat, about to row over the fact that I had a shit time at a dinner party.
“You were determined not to enjoy yourself tonight. From the time I first mentioned this party you didn’t want to go and rather than do what any normal person would do, and try to find the fun in it, you decided to have a shit time just so you could be right.”
“You’re absolutely correct. That’s exactly what happened this evening. Also, I nicked a piece of Carol’s china for spite.” This was probably unfair of me, given that her accusation was true.
“Damn it Kevin, I want to talk seriously about this.”
We both paused. The old woman, clear now that Lara wasn’t talking to her, but clear also about what was happening, took another step away. I glanced in the direction of Marble Arch and wondered why it wasn’t better lit. I suppose this is why I don’t often win arguments with Lara. She uses the silence to compose her thoughts. I use it to muse about smallish London landmarks. Again she spoke first.
“I wanted to go in there tonight as a team. That’s why I tried to give you a rundown of who’d be there. It’s why I looked at you just before Carol opened the door, so you’d know I had your back.”
“That look was meant to tell me you had my back?” I stared, incredulous. She’d pinched my arm, which at first I’d taken as a good sign, her way of telling me we’d both have a shit time of it and then stop off on the way home for chips and a pint. Then she’d given me this thin-eyed, thin-lipped stare, like what you’d give to a toddler who just knocked over a display in Sainsbury’s.
“You’ll need to practice your looks then,” I replied, “because that one very clearly said, ‘I know you’re going to find some way to bollocks this up tonight and I’m going to blame you for anything that goes wrong.’ I’d actually been feeling solid before that.”
“Yes, I could tell by the way you spent the entire bus ride from Oxford to London listing all the other things you could have been doing with your night.” Sarcasm. Shit.
I countered, “That’s beside the point. Instead of just telling me you’ve got my back you communicate with your cryptic looks. The next thing I know the door’s open and Carol’s hugging me. Who fucking hugs someone they’ve never met?”
“You met her last year at my office Christmas party.”
“Well, then that certainly qualifies us as hug buddies. I hope she’s not offended that I didn’t grab her ass. Thank God I managed to grab her breast when I went to shake her hand and she moved in for the hug.”
I don’t need to be fully angry to lapse into sarcasm, but it helps. I continued.
“Of course I was off after that. I’ve already got it in my head that you’re going to be blaming me for any fuck-ups and within thirty seconds I’ve molested the hostess.”
“Something most people would have laughed off. Carol made a joke about it. You muttered something to your shoes.”
“Carol made a joke about it because she was in programmed hostess mode. Laugh off incident? Check. Make benign comment about guest’s pregnancy? Check. Feign interest in the work of guest’s husband? Check. She could write one of those etiquette books, make sure the ladies of London know the proper way to fold napkins when their husbands’ bosses come by for dinner.”
“Can you please stop exaggerating everything?” She stood up and pretended to read a bus schedule mounted to a lamppost. I followed her.
“Exaggerating? She made place cards.”
“What’s your point?” She turned back at me and I think her eyes flashed. Probably they didn’t, but you take my point. I should have known then to back down some, but clearly reading her signs is not my forte.
“There were twelve people. She hosted a dinner party for twelve people and organized a seating chart. But if you really want a point here it is. I asked for one thing tonight. You know I hate these parties and I asked simply that I not be left on my own to make introductions.
If I had to accept blame for not making an effort, she had to accept it here. Perhaps this was why she walked back past me and sat down beneath the plastic enclosure over the bench, the one put there in a token effort to protect waiting bus riders from wind or rain. Only the predicted rain hadn’t started yet, so really she wanted to protect herself from me? From arguing? She bent over and massaged her brow with her hands. She does this when she’s feeling completely frustrated. Against my better judgment I followed and sat beside her.
“You’re how old,” she asked me rhetorically, “and you can’t handle walking into a room and saying, ‘Hello. I’m Kevin.’ Is that really so difficult for you?”
“You can’t walk by a homeless person without dropping them a pound.”
Her look at this point simultaneously conveyed annoyance, bewilderment and an increasingly dangerous level of anger. She recovered enough to ask, “And your point is?”
“We both have situations we’re shit with. You see a guy sleeping on the sidewalk and become so wracked with middle class guilt that you start digging for money.” Admittedly not the strongest argument I’ve ever used. I can’t say even now that I know what I meant.
“And you once told me you thought it was cute, although that’s wholly beside the point as you still haven’t explained to me what this has to do with anything.” Her voice rose at this and startled the old woman.
“I do think it’s cute. I also think, given the hundred pounds a year that you donate to Oxfam that it’s irrational. Yes, I’m rubbish at introducing myself. Yes, it’s irrational. I think I’m as entitled to the odd moment of irrational behavior as you are.”
“Except in my case it actually does the world some good.”
“Yes, because if enough English bums can afford a pint of ale then we can probably end the Iraq war and get Simon Cowell off the telly for good.”
She wanted to laugh at that. I never told her I knew, because sometimes you want to save those little moments for yourself. Still, she wanted to. Her face did something that was a cross between a hiccup and hard swallow and she blinked twice as she held it in.
A moment passed before she asked, “Can you try again to explain to me precisely what makes the simple act of an introduction so difficult?”
“Were you never thirteen? Did you never walk into a lunchroom and worry that there’d be nowhere for you to sit, and feel your cheeks start to burn while you stood there holding your tray and scanning the room for an empty spot, hopefully next to someone close to your rung on the social ladder?”
“Yes, but I also grew up and I realized that nobody was watching while I looked for that seat.” She softened slightly. “Yes, I failed to introduce you around. I’m sorry, but that can’t have been the end of it. You became, and I can hardly believe this, you actually became more petulant after we arrived. It makes no sense. We went in. Carol asked you to put the wine on the buffet and you did, then you started talking to all the men. Please try to make me understand exactly where the problem lay. Make me think something other than that my husband suffers from an anti-social disorder.”
I thought hard and lost count of the cabs. She looked at me expectantly, another of her argument tactics. She doesn’t argue to win so much as she argues to settle the argument. She’s genuinely interested in understanding my point of view. She listens intently to everything I say. She doesn’t interrupt. She just lets me blather on until generally, I’ve made her point for her. Maddening.
I tried to think about how to make her understand, but I got caught instead wondering if there are little corners in every person where old emotions, or beliefs, or ridiculous fears get stuck like dust bunnies that you can’t quite get at with a broom. I wondered if anything Lara or I did could ever make it possible for her to reach into those corners. Probably not. How important is that?
“I didn’t play football.” I began.
“I know that,” she interrupted.
I knew she knew. She knew I knew she knew, and so I was frustrated and for a moment I wanted to make the argument about that, about her interrupting my train of thought. Nobody wins those arguments though, and for that short moment my better angels held sway.
“I didn’t play football. I don’t know what they talk about in those huddles just before the matches start, but I know that certain men do. They go to a party. They huddle that way, slap each other on the back and laugh at a good joke. Every now and then one of them glances back over his shoulder because he wants to be certain the world has noticed their huddle and that the world can’t quite make out what’s happening inside it. I’m never certain if I’m the butt of the joke, but I have to assume that I am, at least some of the time. I mean you’re either in the circle or the butt of the joke, right?” She nodded, waiting for me to bring it all back around.
“That’s how they were standing, huddled like that. I walked in looking to put the wine down and get back to you as quickly as I possible, when I saw that they all wore suits. Who wears suits to a dinner party in a flat? Nobody, except of course them. So now I’m standing in the middle of the lunchroom with my tray, and one of them sees me. Nothing came to me and so I asked where to put the wine.
Lara looked at me, baffled.
“The buffet. That’s where Carol told you to put it. Also it had about five other bottles, and wine glasses and an opener.”
“Yes, I got that bit, but everything stopped working for me at that point and ‘where does the wine go?’ was the about was the best I could do.”
Lara bit her lip, which meant a question, but it didn’t come right away. She thought on it long enough for me to wonder where our bus was and start the cab count again. I tallied six.
“Here’s what I don’t understand. Despite everything you’re saying, you made it into the huddle. I saw you talking with them. In fact, you continued talking with them straight on until dinner began. Yet when we sat, and I tried to show you some encouragement you scowled as though you wanted to tell me to bugger off.” When I try to convey what’s on my mind with a look, I’m spot on. “If it was so bad talking to them, whey didn’t you just leave them, or say something to me at dinner?”
“I didn’t leave because they never gave me a chance. I think they enjoyed the sport of having me there. I didn’t say anything to you because your friend Carol didn’t sit us next to each other, or even close enough where I could have said something.”
“She wanted people to mingle.”
“Bollocks. She read it in one of her Delia Smith magazines, probably the one where she learned to tie that ridiculous kerchief around the wine bottle. I’d love to have told you how I was feeling. I considered it, actually. Figured I could shorten the evening if I looked across the table and casually mentioned that your friend’s husband is a twat. I didn’t though because I didn’t want to wind up in a row on the way home. Glad I avoided that pitfall.” This pissed her off more. When she spoke again, her voice had an edge.
“So what happened then that was so awful that you spent the rest of the night staring out the window and refusing to talk to anyone? I believe you were about to put the wine on the buffet.”
“Yes, and I was comparing their suits to my khakis and my pullover and feeling every bit the pimply teenager, and this before I put our six pound bottle of grape juice down beside the rather more expensive bottles that everyone else brought.”
“Something I imagine nobody but you noticed.” She scolded me.
“I noticed it never got opened and it will probably gather dust in some remote cabinet next to a bottle of Pimm’s. Either way, before I could slink away, Matt waved me over to the group.” Matt was Carol’s husband. I didn’t admit to Lara, then or later, that as he waved me over I could not retrieve his name and that I began to regret not taking her suggestion that we make flash cards for the bus ride. All I could recall was that he made piles of money doing something at Canary Wharf. That he worked just high enough up the ladder not to have been affected much by the recession, but certainly high enough up to have some blame in it, and that he still played rugby on the weekends. All of this was enough to make me dislike him. It didn’t help that he stood half a foot taller than me, and had boyish good looks that probably earned him the odd comparison to Prince William. In addition to his name, I also forgot that the purpose of the party had been to celebrate his birthday. As such, I didn’t bother to wish him a happy one until after dinner when Carol came out with the cake.
I spaced out some, thinking about all of this. Lara nudged me to continue.
“So he waved you over and then what?”
“He began to introduce me around.”
“Yes, that sounds awful. I can see why you couldn’t stand it.” Twice with the sarcasm.
“He felt the need to begin his introductions by pointing out to his ‘lads’ that I work for the Daily Mail.” Lara rolled her eyes. She has no patience for the humiliation I feel over my job. We both spoke at once, her to chastise me for it and me to cut her off with a preemptive defense. Before either of us could make a second start, our bus finally pulled to the curb, fifteen minutes late. The bus kneeled. The door opened. The old woman took a step back preferring that we sit first so that she might choose a seat far away from us. Lara deferred as well and so I went first, climbing to the upper deck and sitting in the very front seat, staring out the large window, once more, at Marble Arch.
Lara preferred that seat, claiming to like the view out the front better than that out the side. I had long since stopped arguing that the M4 offers no worthwhile view from any angle. Truthfully I like sitting there as well, although for me the thrill of it comes from the sensation it gives, in Oxford, that the bus is about to crash through the fronts of the buildings as it turns corners on streets never meant for such traffic. Only at the last second do those upper story windows slip away as the bus completes a turn seemingly impossible for a vehicle of its size. Despite our state, I went straight to that seat because it’s what we do.
“When are you going to accept that you are not defined by where you work? Would you write your reviews any differently if you were writing for the Times, or the Mirror or any one of a thousand other papers?” She was right of course, except that any of those papers would allow me to review better books. They wouldn’t run my reviews beneath headlines full of terrible puns. Worst of all to think about, in another paper, readers would read what I wrote, instead of skipping it over to find out what Victoria Beckham was seen doing in Los Angeles at the weekend.
“I’ll get over it when I can talk about how it used to pay the bills, or when cunts like Matt’s friends don’t automatically speak to me like I’m a half-wit once they hear where I work.”
“I’m sure that was just a result of your insecur…”
“Don’t blame this on me. Don’t do it. The short one, with the dark hair and the trophy girlfriend started talking about that new book, the Adam Smith biography, the one I finished last week.”
“I recall. You wouldn’t stop talking about what rubbish it was.”
“Well, he wouldn’t stop talking about how wonderful it was and how he hoped Gordon Brown had a copy, and that everyone ought to read it. Then he turned to me and said, ‘Don’t imagine you review books like that for the Mail though ‘eh Kev?’ After which, he punched me in the shoulder as if we were mates. So when you came to me at dinner all excited because I was making friends I got properly pissed because those wankers were so transparent that I felt you ought to see exactly who they were, that you ought to know there was no chance I was getting on well with them, and if you didn’t know that…” My voice trailed off.
Lara’s voice softened one notch. “And so you thought the best idea was to sulk by the window all night.”
“Well, I wasn’t stepping out to the balcony for cigars with the boys. I didn’t much care to talk about pregnancy cramps and I expect you’d have taken issue with my pulling a book off the shelf and reading. So yes. I stared out the window at the London skyline and waited for 11:45.”
Quarter to twelve was our decided departure time. Lara and I learned early in our relationship that it helped to discuss such matters ahead of time. This after she pulled me into a spare bedroom at one work party that ran too long only to have everyone assume we’d been knobbing instead of arguing about when to leave. Before we left the house this night we agreed to take the 12:15 (which turned out to be the 12:30) from Marble Arch, which meant we had to be out by 11:45.
Lara said nothing more. It started raining half way home. Big drops smacked against the windows in front of us and clouded up our view because there are no wipers on the top deck. A few minutes later, Lara slipped her hand into mine and leaned her head onto my shoulder and that was when I suspected the night was going to be okay. We didn’t resolve the argument. I never said,
“I’m sorry,” in part because I wasn’t, although I say it anyway sometimes. She never said it either, but her hand was in mine and I could feel her rings pushing up against my finger and so I felt better than I had.
It’s not all that important anyway, settling the argument. We’re married. We’re going to fight. I don’t mean to be funny with that. What I mean is that two people can’t spend their lives together and not argue from time to time. Sometimes one of them is going to be right and sometimes the other one is going to be right and sometimes it’s just not going to matter. The important thing is that they wind up on the same team more often than not.
We got off the bus on High Street. It’s a longer walk to our flat from there, but I like the look of High Street at night and convinced her long ago that it was nicer to walk, even in the rain. As we neared the yellow glow of a kebab van she looked at me and said, “Carol’s chicken was rubbish. I need some chips.”
I smiled, and paid. We stood inside the entrance to University College, ducking the rain and eating chips covered with greasy cheese out of a styrofoam tray.
Paul Myette teaches high school and writes whenever he can find time. He is a graduate of the Bread Loaf School of English and lives in Byfield, Massachusetts with his wife and his daughter.