The Fourth River

Fiction: “Wish You Were Here,” by Geeta Kothari

By on December 1, 2011

The night is endless, with one request after another, songs they can’t play, songs they won’t play.

“No,” Red Puppy says to the bride’s mother, a troll in a green dress with a sash. “We don’t do ‘YMCA.’” He makes it sound like a choice; in fact, the band only knows about twelve songs, and ‘YMCA’ isn’t one of them.

They are in the basement of the Legion in St. Catharines, the place Stu left behind twenty years ago, when he followed his girlfriend Elizabeth to University instead of following his father to General Motors. Red’s on bass, with Stu on lead guitar and Kenny on the drums. Pook, who plays piano, is at home with a migraine. Pook’s real name is Faroukh, but no one’s called him that since the first grade. The band was Red’s idea, a bunch of old geezers getting together after work for fun. Only Stu doesn’t have any work. He has a credit card bill a mile long, and an unfinished dissertation, also a mile long if you laid out each perfect sentence, none of them adding up. He is forty years old. He has a full head of hair, a new Fender Stratocaster, and a new girlfriend named Nina. Life is good.

They run through “Brown Eyed Girl” again. Stu figures only Nina will notice, and she will think they’ve played the song for her. She is that kind of girl, the kind who imagines meaning behind songs on the jukebox, the waxing and waning of the moon. Here, at the Legion, Nina is as exotic as a Bengal tiger running loose on St. Paul Street. She’s a big girl, tall and strong. She wears her hair loose, a smooth sheet of black against her white t-shirt. Her skin is taut, a perfect canvas for the full moon tattooed at the base of her neck, right where it meets the shoulder. The moon is outlined in blue, with the face of a woman and the profile of a wolf etched in it. Sometimes Stu can’t see the difference between the wolf and the woman.

“Your new girl’s hot,” Kenny says from behind his oldest son’s drum kit. He has lost most of his hair and his belly hangs over his belt. “She from India or what?”

“Nina? She’s from Mississauga,” Stu says. She would hate him for saying that; she tells everyone she’s from Toronto.

Kenny loses the beat on “Achy Breaky Heart,” but no one notices. The bride’s sixty-year-old father grabs Nina and forces her to dance with him. When the song is over, Stu leans his guitar against a chair and bends over to retie his sneakers. None of them are wearing suits, and earlier the bride’s mother gave Red a handful of clip-on bow ties, which he left in the men’s washroom. The bride’s brother asks for something by the Jonas Brothers.

“Who?” Stu looks at Red. Red still has long hair and a handlebar moustache. He doesn’t look like the father of three, but if anyone knows what a Jonas brother is, it will be Red.

“Hey,” Red says. “This guy,” and he points to Stu, “didn’t invest in this beautiful instrument to play that crap.” Red grabs Stu’s guitar and shakes it at the kid. “Go back to the playground. Get a life,” he growls.

Stu doesn’t want to think about his new red guitar. He most definitely does not want to think about the way Elizabeth held the credit card bill away from herself, as if it smelled like something dead. He could hide many things from her—the notes that refused to become a dissertation, the days spent in the library Googling song lyrics, scanning eBay for the perfect guitar, anything to get away from the empty page, as blank as a full moon. But he could not hide the credit card bills, the ones she paid because she was the one with the job, she was the reason they lived in a condo on Harborview, overlooking the lake and not the highway. She was the hardwood floors, the 600-threadcount sheets, the fancy scotch and the Belgian beer. When he left, he told himself he didn’t need those things; he had not had them before, he could live without them now.

And he could live without Elizabeth’s worried look—the furrow in her brow as she examined her profile in the mirror, sucked her stomach in, and said, “I always look pregnant.” He could live without the books by her bedside, Getting to Yes, and Now Discover Your Strengths. She had left The Procrastinator’s Handbook on his side once and claimed it was a mistake.

Stu hates the cheapness of the Legion’s wood paneled walls and linoleum floors, the long folding tables covered in paper tablecloths. Pink and white streamers sag from the dropped ceiling. Old men crowd the bar, in their shiny worn suits and cracked dress shoes. Stu sees the bride, spilling out over the top of her dress, her blond ringlets loose now, undone by sweat and the toll of dancing to “Brown Eyed Girl” three times. Elizabeth stopped asking about the dissertation. She stopped moving his students’ papers from the dining room table. She stopped leaving books on his side of the bed, and one day, when he looked, he saw there were no books on her side either. She cut her long brown hair and began wearing make up. At night, she crawled into bed after she thought he’d fallen asleep, and in the morning, she was gone before he woke up. At work, her secretary fielded his calls. It was her tone that gave it away, finally, the gentle insistence. “Let me take a message,” she said one day. “Please.”

And so, at the end of term, it was back to St. Catharines. After two weeks at Red’s, Stu moved in with a former student, charmed by the full moon and her black hair. Nina didn’t know the difference between a part-time instructor and a tenured professor, and she didn’t care how much money he spent on speakers or new strings.

At twenty-six, she already knows she doesn’t want children, and she definitely does not want to get married.

“Everyone needs a hobby,” she said. Hers is tattoos, a giant red spider caught in a green web on her left shin, a perfect Ganesha, the elephant god, at the base of her spine. But it is the full moon with its shape-shifting wolf-woman that Stu wants to kiss. It is, he thinks, the only part of her worth fighting for.

The night wears on. Two hours ago, Nina put aside a bottle of scotch for them, the cheap blended stuff that Stu hates. She hid it behind one of the speakers after he told her to charge it to his credit card. Stu feels the scotch burn in his stomach; he wishes he’d stuck to beer, but it is too late now, they’re on the second bottle. Stu tries not to think about the bottles of imported scotch he left behind or the heavy crystal glasses Elizabeth bought him for Christmas one year.

“‘Freebird,’” someone calls out. Six bridesmaids in red velvet cluster around the bride on the dance floor. Stu sees her head of loose curls bobbing, her face suddenly small and concerned. Does a person really need six bridesmaids? Maybe this is where he and Elizabeth went wrong, City Hall at lunchtime, the day after his comps. No parents, no bridesmaids, no presents.

What song would he play for Elizabeth? She’d agreed to wait until he finished—five years, six years, and now it was too late. There would be no child for them to marry off, no wedding to pay for. Elizabeth would never ask some guy with a faded red ponytail to play “Celebration.”

The band takes a break. The best man makes a speech, the speaker whines with feedback. The matron of honor flees the room with great commotion, a storm that draws everyone’s attention. Stu hears Nina laughing, watches a large man with a thick head of gray hair reach out and pat her shoulder, his hand lingering over the full moon.

“The old men love your girl,” Red says.

They play “Brown Eyed Girl” one more time. The reception ends. Stu and Red sit at a table with theirs guitars while Stu waits for Nina to finish cleaning up. Red looks like an aging Golden Retriever; in a year, his beard will be completely white. It occurs to Stu that his own hair is thinner, his waist thicker. He starts playing Pink Floyd. Red joins in. It is the song Stu has wanted to play all night.

This morning, when he tried to call Elizabeth at their home, the number had been disconnected. When he called her at work, the secretary answered. “Let me take a message,” she said, and he knew then, from the declarative not the interrogative, that there was nothing left to say.

Now, here at the end, Stu must face the fact that he loves his wife. No matter that she has dumped him, no matter that he is in another’s bed, no matter that the full moon he blames his troubles on is tattooed on the woman he blames his troubles on, that the empty second bottle he blames his troubles on was bought by the credit card he blames his troubles on, no matter that the phone he used called a voice he might remember, a voice evenly requesting a message, a kind voice that doesn’t really care.

 

 

 

Photo by Mark Kemp

Geeta Kothari is a two-time recipient of the fellowship in literature from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the editor of ‘Did My Mama Like to Dance?’ and Other Stories about Mothers and Daughters. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, Fourth Genre, and Best American Essays, among others. She is the Fiction Editor of The Kenyon Review and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also directs the Writing Center.