Getting past people’s knees to your seat is not easy. It is not graceful, and no one feels good about the contortions involved. Frank and Loretta were headed toward two free chairs, and Loretta wished this was taught in elementary school: how to add together “people milling around” and “chairs in rows” and get something logical and efficient. A technique you could use throughout life.
“Excuse me, thank you, thank you, excuse me, sorry, oh I’m so sorry, excuse me.”
They reached their seats and sat down. On Frank’s left was a new colleague; new to him at any rate since he was the new hire. A handshake, as they told each other their names and their professional fields. Hers: literature. His: history.
Frank leaned back, revealing and introducing Loretta, his wife, and the two women shook hands in front of Frank’s chest. Loretta made note of the older woman’s white hair, pulled back in a short little ponytail. How unusual. In an older woman.
The evening’s program was a welcome to the start of the college’s new academic year. Welcome to new faculty, welcome back to the others.
Frank’s and Loretta’s day had been long, with unpacking and all the big and little decisions of a new home. They had had a little trouble finding a babysitter for their children. Everyone was friendly, though, and the speaker up front, someone from the administration, was so clear and helpful, soothing even. Loretta looked around the room. The light from those magnificent chandeliers was very bright, wasn’t it? The room itself was getting quite warm.
Another speaker replaced the first.
Before she felt it, Loretta could sense Frank’s fatigue. His body began to relax, to slump a bit in the seat next to her, and then she felt his arm and shoulder lean against hers. Frank was a good napper; he could do it anywhere. He had once left the table during a dinner party they were hosting and was gone long enough for the guests to notice. Excusing herself, she’d found him asleep on the toilet, looking as relaxed as if it was a feather bed. Here, this evening, though, was not a good place to nap.
She squeezed his arm through the wool jacket he was wearing, hard enough to feel him stiffen, straighten up, and square his shoulders. He looked straight ahead, acknowledging nothing, and cleared his throat quietly. Loretta wondered if the older woman had noticed anything, but she decided not to sneak a look.
It was so exciting to be here! Loretta told herself. Sort of a new start, although she wasn’t sure why she might need one. They’d been married only seven years, had two little girls, had lived in three houses in two different states already, and now here they were with all these interesting people to get to know. Exciting and nerve-racking, both. She had still not resolved how she felt about certain important things, like marriage and motherhood. Which was ridiculous. She knew that. They were not things that could be “figured out.” They had to be experienced and taken one day at a time, and she had to be open to that. Being open seemed vital to success, and she did want all this to be a success.
Oh dear, Frank was starting to lean again. He’d crossed his legs, an achievement in the limited space he had, but done in such a way that his leaning this time was away from her and toward Dr. Ponytail. Now Loretta took his arm, and both squeezed and jerked it. Frank started upright and turned to look at her through his glasses, groggily. Damn. She knew what this meant; he had tasted sleep and was longing for it. This was going to be work.
She laced her arm through his, snuggly, and clinched things by grabbing her own wrist with her other hand. If anyone was looking at them, she thought, they certainly must look like a very loving couple. And of course, they were, she quickly said to herself. Very loving. Although, to be honest, her husband was a bit of a mystery to her. They were so very different in their backgrounds, but they shared this: both were working hard to be free of those backgrounds. His parents were academics from the Midwest, a foreign land to Loretta. That’s where people were on the judgmental side, true, but were generally thought to be good folk although as boring as could be. Her parents had divorced when she was a child; her father ancient and her mother vivacious, each dedicated to high causes of their own, but neither, really, to the vocation of parenting. Come to think of it, Loretta was still working on understanding not just her husband, but most everyone, and why they were who they were. It was very tiring work.
Frank’s legs were still crossed, but the foot that rested on the ground had somehow scooted back and was under his folding chair. This was putting him in a precarious posture, configured like a top that spins on its single point. When the next wave of fatigue crept in and washed over him, the situation began to unfold.
His torso listed toward Loretta, linked as they were, and she planted her feet on the floor, the better to stay upright herself. He was dead weight by now, and that was giving him momentum. She extricated her arm from his, and released from that stabilizing support, Frank, hovering over her thighs, began a silent counterclockwise rotation.
It was a slow-motion nightmare, like being in a car wreck. That had happened to her once, and she recalled the distortion of time.
She too leaned forward and wrapped both arms around his torso, pivoting her weight to her right foot, trying to correct course and to line him up with his own chair. Her mind flashed on the Fireman’s Carry, something she’d heard of as a child. Was this it? If it was, she had even more respect for firemen.
She felt his body following her lead to the left and then, an instant later, realized the extent of overshoot. Dear God, he was on his way, and in a moment his face would be planted in Dr. Ponytail’s lap! She might be a freethinker (the ponytail), but that would be pushing things.
Loretta braced her feet on the chair in front of her and put her entire upper body strength into the effort of raising Frank upright. She was gratified when his back thudded heavily against the chair, and he woke just as applause filled the room. The program was over; it was time to go home. Around Loretta, people were rising from their chairs, collecting their things, turning to say good night to one another, waiting more or less patiently for the way out to clear.
Frank stood up, she stood up, and Dr. Ponytail stood up. The two women caught each other’s eye. Loretta impulsively pushed her folding chair back just a bit, allowing Frank to pass in front of her and start alone down the line of empty chairs. She looked at the other woman, who was looking at her with a friendly smile.
The woman said, “Please, call me Kit. We’ll be getting to know each other, I’m sure. And thank your husband for the entertainment he provided this evening. So many different ways that situation could have ended.”
Loretta stared at the woman. Realizing that her mouth was slightly open, she shut it quickly. No human being, none she knew at least, would have ever said that. It was so lighthearted, as if these situations were just stories. And it didn’t matter how you handled them. As if, Loretta thought, being curious about what might happen next was more important than dealing with it. Like you could hang your hat on curiosity.
And then she found she was smiling back at Kit, and saying, “Thank you very much.” And at that moment, she realized she really, truly meant it. She was thanking Kit for offering her something new, something Loretta hadn’t encountered before. She just couldn’t make out quite what that thing was that she was being offered.
She would work on it.