Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Inside the liquor store, Lawrence wiped his loafers and shook the rain from his coat sleeves. Half a pizza was waiting in his refrigerator at home. After a week of tests, hours spent coffined inside the MRI machine, he’d planned to pick up a six-pack, but now that he was here, surrounded by the phalanxes of bottles, he headed for the whiskey.
He chose a decent bourbon, then squeaked across the linoleum to the counter. There were three people ahead of him. The woman at the front was taking her time, examining the shelved cigarettes as if they were prizes at a fair, while the clerk watched, as bored as a carnival hand.
Lawrence was counting the ceiling tiles, estimating the store’s square footage, when someone tapped his shoulder with a bottle. He turned and saw Jimmy Lupton’s side-swept blond hair and tidy teeth. They’d bowled in the same league a few winters ago, when Lawrence was still married to Diane. Jimmy used to moonwalk whenever he got a strike. Lawrence had disliked him for that — not for the moonwalking itself, but because it had always made Diane laugh.
“I thought that was you,” Jimmy said, smiling. “I’d know that bald spot anywhere.”
Lawrence extended his hand, but Jimmy was holding wine in each of his. The men clinked bottles instead.
When Jimmy asked how the hell he was, Lawrence mentally inventoried his symptoms: The numbness along his jaw. The quiver at the edge of his vision. The headache, blooming from the back of his brain, where the tumor was rooted like a tulip bulb.
“Fine, fine,” Lawrence said. “Still selling copper?”
Jimmy said he was. A Japanese firm had bought the company, though, and now his hours were shit. “Might be time for something new. Know what I mean?”
Lawrence nodded, but he didn’t know, really. He’d worked in the accounting department at Ford since he’d graduated from college fourteen years earlier. He alternated between the same two suits every week, still wore the shirts and shoes Diane had picked out for him.
At the counter, the woman settled on a pack of menthols. Before she left, she removed the plastic wrapper and gave it to the clerk.
There were still two people ahead of Lawrence, and Jimmy was looking at him, waiting for him to speak, so he nodded at Jimmy’s wine bottles and said, “People are more likely to buy French wine if the store’s playing French music, and Italian if the store’s playing opera.”
“No kidding,” Jimmy said, reading the labels. Both men tilted their heads, listening for music, but there wasn’t any.
“With German folk songs, it’s beer.” Lawrence had read this in a magazine at his neurologist’s office. “When the scientists talked to the customers afterward, they said they hadn’t heard a thing.”
“I wonder what happens with techno,” Jimmy said. “Everybody hunts for amphetamines?”
Lawrence tried to think of a witty response, then gave up and shrugged. It baffled him, how the Jimmys of the world walked around with comebacks and conversation starters holstered at their hips. Once, Lawrence had spent most of a cocktail party sitting on a piano bench, feigning interest in the sheet music. It was February, but on the drive home, Diane had opened her window. What do you want, she’d asked, the cold whirling her hair onto her lipstick, a teleprompter?
Jimmy glanced at the counter, and Lawrence suspected he was gauging how much longer he’d need to carry the conversation. Lawrence was cursed with the deceptively plump, pink cheeks that made him seem like a man who could tell a good joke. He was also quite tall. At parties, at meetings, even in the company cafeteria, others looked to him when conversations waned — an instinctive response, like noticing a lighthouse on the horizon — and he constantly disappointed them.
“How’s your sweet Diane?” Jimmy asked suddenly. Lawrence figured he’d just remembered her name.
“We’re not married anymore,” he said. “Well, Diane’s married. Just not to me.”
“Shit, Lawrence. Goddamn.”
“She has a baby boy. I saw him on Facebook.” Lawrence attempted a smile, but whatever he did with his face made Jimmy look at him as if he were a duckling, trapped in a storm drain.
The line moved up, and the men were quiet. After a second, Jimmy glanced at Lawrence’s bourbon and said, “Hey. You got plans tonight?”
Lawrence considered lying — saying, I have a date, or, I’m having friends over — but every option sounded too unbelievable, so he said no, he didn’t have plans.
Jimmy said he was headed to a party. The woman he was after would be there, a brunette with eyes so blue they made him want to weep. He could sure use a wingman.
“Oh, no thanks,” Lawrence said. He wouldn’t know anyone, didn’t want to intrude.
“It’s only a few blocks away. You’d be doing me a favor.”
Lawrence pictured his recliner, where he would endure the evening with a plate of pizza, a glass of bourbon balanced between his thigh and the armrest, just him and the ache in his head. His surgery was scheduled for the end of next week. The tumor was technically benign. The doctor had compared its presence in Lawrence’s brain to having a drug-addicted rock star as a tenant. It was disruptive now, played its guitar too loudly and spilled beer on the rug, and they needed to evict it before it caused real damage. Generally, the eviction was without incident. But there was always a chance the tenant might break a few things — Lawrence’s peripheral vision, his ability to raise his eyebrows — on the way out.
Divorced for a year and a half, Lawrence spent most weekends alone. Diane had been the center of his social life. After she’d left, married the U.S.-history teacher whose classroom was next to hers, he’d fallen easily into solitude. Occasionally, a bout of loneliness sent him pacing around his neighborhood at night, peeking shyly at the couples and families, illuminated in their windows like museum displays. Mostly, though, he accepted his isolation — the way, he imagined, a turtle accepts its shell.
But in the days since the doctor had circled the shadow on Lawrence’s scan, an uneasiness had afflicted him whenever he was by himself. It was insufferable, to be the only one who knew what was incubating beneath his skull. But who could he tell? Diane, who was busy suckling her baby and musing about the Cuban Missile Crisis with her history-buff husband? His accounting coworkers, who’d stopped inviting him to happy hour, since he’d declined so many times?
Now, in the liquor store, Lawrence scrutinized Jimmy Lupton’s face. Normally, the pity in Jimmy’s eyes would’ve embarrassed him. Tonight, though, Lawrence was grateful for it. “All right,” he said. “I’ll go, if it’ll help you out.”
The rain had let up, but a stream full of twigs and leaves was flowing alongside the curb. Women in cocktail dresses stood on the house’s front porch, smoking and rubbing their bare arms in the dark. Jimmy said hello to them as he and Lawrence climbed the steps. One woman asked Jimmy how his ankle was, and the others laughed.
“Never better, ladies.” Jimmy opened the door, then said to Lawrence, “If you sprain your ankle in a conga line, they’ll never let you forget it.”
In the foyer, Jimmy introduced Lawrence to a Chrysler attorney who was retying his wingtips on the staircase. While Jimmy and the lawyer reminisced about somebody’s wedding, Lawrence wandered to the living room.
Everywhere, people danced and sloshed their drinks onto the floor. Suit jackets and high heels were strewn across the furniture. Stacks of cake-smeared plates covered the coffee table. Streamers vined the chandelier. On the mantel was a handmade sign that read, Happy Birthday Heidi!
“I didn’t know it was a birthday party,” Lawrence said when Jimmy came up beside him. His tumor throbbed with the music and voices. He suddenly felt like he shouldn’t have come. “Who’s Heidi?”
“Beats me.” Jimmy raised his wine bottles. “Let’s have a drink.”
Every year, the HR department filled a jar with lug nuts and asked employees to guess how many it contained. The person with the closest estimate won a month’s worth of movie vouchers. Lawrence held the company record for most wins. Now, edging past a pair of men who were standing before the empty fireplace, holding their cigars beneath the flue, he scanned the room and guessed there were thirty-seven people inside.
A dozen or so more cavorted in the kitchen. Among them, Jimmy found his blue-eyed woman. The top of her hair was pulled into a pouf, and a fresh stain dribbled down her dress. He introduced her to Lawrence as “Her Royal Highness, Maureen Lewandowski,” then asked if she’d condescend to drink with a couple of peasants.
There weren’t any clean glasses left, so Jimmy took three coffee mugs from a cupboard. He filled them with ice and Lawrence’s bourbon. Maureen held her mug with both hands, pretending to blow away steam. Jimmy knocked his against Lawrence’s and said, “Rise and shine, big guy.”
“We just sang to Heidi,” Maureen said.
Jimmy said Maureen must’ve sounded like an angel. She rolled her eyes and took a sip.
Lawrence asked which one Heidi was, and Maureen pointed to a woman sitting on the counter beside the sink, her legs swaying. Loud men were clustered around her. She held a champagne flute and wore a long white dress. Her hair was feathered with humidity, and as the men jostled each other, she draped hunks of it over her lip like a mustache.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” Maureen said, “but she’s married.”
The husband’s name was Sam Maxwell. He had inherited his strong chin and clear-coat-manufacturing company from his father. He raced a sailboat called Detroiter, and was currently standing in the doorway with a woman, whispering as she laughed into her hand.
“It’s called ‘Flower Child,’ ” Lawrence heard the woman say. He watched Sam smell her thin, perfumed wrist, then looked across the kitchen at Heidi.
Slowly, Heidi finished the last of her champagne. She wiped her lipstick from the glass with her thumb, and something stirred inside Lawrence. He glanced at her legs, silhouetted behind the fabric of her dress. When he looked again at her face, she was staring at him.
He jerked his gaze away and took a long swig of his drink. He didn’t let himself look in her direction again — not even when she slid off the counter and left the room.
For a while, Lawrence and Maureen and Jimmy talked near the refrigerator. The bourbon dawning over them, Maureen asked Lawrence about work — what he did for Ford, how frequently they gave him a new car. Her cousin worked for GM. They switched his car so often that he had to fly a flag from the window, so his first-grader could find him after school. Jimmy told Maureen about the time Lawrence had bowled a turkey — three strikes in a row. After he poured his third drink, Jimmy demonstrated how the team had encircled Lawrence, gobbling and pecking as he blushed.
Eventually, Lawrence sensed a shift in the tide of conversation. Maureen and Jimmy moved closer to each other, until his arm was looped around her waist, and she was holding her mug to her mouth, looking up at him. If one of them spoke to Lawrence — “Jimmy thinks he’s a real hoot, doesn’t he?” — it was only so the other would hear. Lawrence started to feel like he was a tree, and they were a couple, picnicking in his shade.
A good portion of Maureen’s hair had fallen loose. When Jimmy finally tucked it behind her ear, his fingertips dawdling on her neck, Lawrence searched the countertop for something to occupy his attention. He settled on a pair of salt and pepper shakers — ceramic octogenarians, the woman in an apron, the man in a cap. Lawrence was holding the old man, examining the brushstrokes of his slacks, when he heard a knock at the window.
He studied the people who were pouring drinks and wobbling around the kitchen. No one else seemed to have noticed. It was possible, the doctor had said, for the tumor to create phantom perceptions. Lawrence made a great effort to concentrate on the pepper shaker, but the knocking returned, louder this time, and he went to the window.
Through the glare, he saw Heidi. They looked at each other for a moment. Then she beckoned him outside.
Lawrence glanced over both shoulders. He tapped his chest — me? — and Heidi mouthed what he’d hoped she would: Yes, you.
Leftover raindrops fell from the trees and thrummed across the awning. Otherwise, the backyard was quiet. In the center of the patio, a love seat and three wicker armchairs were gathered around a cocktail table. Heidi sat cross-legged on the love seat. The pearly glow of her dress reminded Lawrence of sea foam, of wandering a beach at night.
He considered each chair, then lowered himself into the middle one. After he’d made sense of Heidi’s shoulders, her neck, her mouth and eyes in the dark, he said, “Happy birthday.”
“You shouldn’t have,” Heidi said, half smiling.
Lawrence didn’t know what she meant, until he followed her gaze to his hand and saw that he was still holding the pepper shaker.
His first impulse was to go inside, put the shaker back where it belonged, and flee to the safety of his condo. The tumor, though, launched whitecaps of pain through his head, as if to say, No, stay put. Maybe to pacify it, or maybe because Heidi’s damp skin was sparkling like a moonlit sea, Lawrence offered the little old man to her and said, “I didn’t have time to wrap it.”
Her laugh flowed through Lawrence’s brain and diluted his headache. When she took the pepper shaker, their fingertips touched.
“Every year, I ask Sam not to throw me a party.” Heidi inspected the shaker in the secondhand light, as if Lawrence had unearthed it from an ancient tomb. “And every year, he does.”
Lawrence didn’t know what to say, so he told her that everyone seemed to be having fun.
“Birthdays are so predictable.” Heidi set the old man gently atop the table. “Cake and presents and all that.”
Muffled cheers erupted from the house. They both looked at the bright kitchen window.
After the voices died down, Heidi said, “So. Who are you?”
He said he was Lawrence Barnes, that he’d come with Jimmy Lupton, and that he worked for Ford. “I grew up around here. Right behind the school. I would ride my bike as fast as I could across the soccer field and pretend I was on a horse.”
For a terrible second, Heidi stared at a puddle that had formed alongside the patio. Shame goaded Lawrence’s stomach. A horse! What a bizarre thing to say. He blamed the tumor, then himself, and waited for Heidi to rise and abandon him in the dark.
But slowly, Heidi smiled. “In middle school, I fell off my bike and chipped my front teeth. My dentist was on vacation — safari, I think. I had to wait two weeks to get them fixed.” She leaned toward Lawrence and tapped her tooth. “I looked like an old plate.”
“Do you still have a bike?”
She stared at the puddle again and said she’d given Sam a tandem for their anniversary. They took it to dinner once, and he got his pant leg caught on the chain. “He wouldn’t go near it after that. I walked back to the restaurant the next day and rode home by myself.”
Her smile was a little off, like she’d posed for a picture for too long.
“I’ve never been on a tandem.” Lawrence hesitated, then added, “I’d like to try it.”
“I wonder if you’re too tall. What are you, six foot six?”
Lawrence said he was a barefoot six-five.
“I’ve always wished I were taller.” Heidi brought her knees to her chest. “I used to hang upside down on the monkey bars to stretch myself out.”
Lawrence told her he’d grown a full foot in high school. It had happened so quickly that his mother, who was about the height of a floor lamp, thought he had a disease. At breakfast, she would peer at him from behind her newspaper, assessing his growth. If she determined that he had elongated overnight, she’d hurry to the medicine cabinet in her baggy nightgown and return with a thermometer.
His father, however, had been delighted. He had sired the tallest Barnes ever to walk the earth. The spurts had rendered Lawrence as clumsy as a newborn calf, but his dad insisted he was destined for professional athletics. After work most days, he would change into a sweat suit and throw various balls at Lawrence in the backyard. Once, at the barbershop, his dad heard that a goldfish’s growth depended on the size of its tank. Trimmed hair still clinging to his neck, he brought a drill to Lawrence’s bedroom and removed his footboard.
As Lawrence spoke, Heidi asked questions and nodded and sometimes laughed so hard she had to wipe her eyes. He began to feel as though he’d lived in a submarine for years, holed up in the ocean’s depths. Heidi was drawing him to the surface. Soon, he might open a hatch and hear the gulls.
Two women stumbled outside. They saw Heidi and Lawrence and stumbled back in. When the door had closed, Heidi asked how long his parents had been married — thirty-eight years — and said hers had been together for forty-one. Her sister had been married for ten. Her brother for twelve.
“They all like Sam very much,” she said, looking at her lap.
“That’s lucky.” Sam’s name made a heat rush up Lawrence’s neck.
“Tell me, Lawrence,” Heidi said. “Are you married?”
“I was, for eight years. We’re divorced now.”
He watched Heidi fiddle with her engagement ring. She asked, “Is divorce as terrible as they say?”
Lawrence thought of Diane’s new husband, how he’d removed his shoes at the door when he’d come to fetch her things. Somehow, this was more insulting than if he’d tromped dirt on the rug. Lawrence thought, too, of the dishes. To “hold him over,” Diane had left one of everything. He’d never gotten around to buying his own set. Often, he washed his plate three times per day.
If Lawrence had been together with Diane, she would’ve come to his appointments, paced the waiting room during his surgery, helped him learn to use his face again afterward. Now, looking at Heidi, it occurred to him that he could tell her. Sit beside her on the love seat, guide her hand to the spot on his skull where the tumor lived. Perhaps she would hold his cheek to her sparkly, rain-kissed chest. Certainly, she would tell him not to worry, that everything would be fine.
But then Lawrence pictured Heidi, biking home on the tandem by herself, her husband’s seat empty behind her. It made him so leadenly sad that he stood, stepped around the cocktail table, and kneeled before her on the patio.
Heidi held the arm of the love seat. “What are you doing?”
“Climb on,” Lawrence said. He turned sideways and patted his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“You said you’ve always wanted to be tall. Now’s your chance.”
Heidi asked if he was insane, and Lawrence said he didn’t think so.
She held her hands over her face, then stood and pressed Lawrence’s shoulders, as if testing a branch. “What if I’m too heavy?”
“I don’t know,” Lawrence said. “We’ll die?”
Heidi stepped onto the love seat and lifted her dress to her thighs. Lawrence willed himself not to look. Gripping the top of his head, she swung a leg over his shoulder.
Lawrence helped her shimmy into place. He took hold of her ankles. “Ready?”
She said she was, and he hobbled to his feet.
“Lawrence!” Heidi squeezed his neck with her thighs and wrapped her arms around his face. “For the love of God, don’t drop me.”
“You’re covering my eyes.” Lawrence sauntered around the patio, laughing and bumping into furniture. Through the window, he glimpsed Jimmy and Maureen, kissing near the sink.
“Go into the yard,” Heidi said. “The awning almost knocked me out.”
Lawrence’s shoes sank into the soggy grass. With each step, muddy water splashed his pants. As he made a slow lap of the yard, Heidi’s grip relaxed.
“We could have an act,” she said. “Lawrence the Enormous and Heidi —”
“Heidi the Mighty.”
“Should we join the circus?” Lawrence asked.
“Not with those poor animals,” Heidi said. “We’ll go off on our own. A European tour.”
It was hard to balance, and the effort strained Lawrence’s head, but he kept circling the drenched lawn. He could smell Heidi’s skin. She was warm against his neck and her hands were on his cheeks and she was telling him about the crowds they would draw in Rome.
Chelsea Baumgarten’s short story “Lawrence the Enormous” [October 2021] captures a beautiful moment of intimacy — the sort that doesn’t need to lead to anything larger to matter; it’s powerful all on its own.