Chapter 2 of Another Beach Another Bar -
A Plan for a Tan
Chapter 2 - En la oficina
Karen switched off her electric typewriter, pushed the calculator into its corner, and covered her keyboard on thirty-nine. She was leaving early today. She had a trip to prepare for.
She glanced at her telephone. No lights glowed. She knew it was safe to tell her boss, Jean-Jacques Comeau, good-bye.
Smoothing her slim skirt around slender-enough hips and brushing back her straight-as-stick hair that she wished was curly, Karen approached the opening in the wheat-colored modular wall unit. This modular wall that separated her work area from Jean-Jacques. The two of them knew they did not rate an office with a door.
OK, boss, I’m leaving. For my little vacation. It was Thursday. Two vacation days on Friday and Monday gave her a four day weekend. Any longer would have been unaffordable. Actually the trip was not in her budget but Karen was going anyway. She wished she was drunk now. But that would have to wait.
The graying Frenchman looked up over the red reading glasses Karen purchased for him last week. When he concentrated intensely on the data he proofed daily, he seemed to have trouble switching gears. He looked tired.
Jean-Jacques continued to stare at her apparently without hearing or seeing her for a couple of seconds. Then he blinked his eyes several times.
Karen, you’re leaving. Yes, yes. Have a good time. Be careful.
He smiled in a fatherly way. Karen already had a father, but she wouldn’t have minded having Jean-Jacques as an older brother.
Yes, we’re always careful: no driving because we’ll be drinking, no mopeds because we’re uncoordinated. Just major beach sitting, tanning, and dancing at the club.
Ah, to be young again.
Jean-Jacques rolled his eyes, pursed his lips in his best Maurice Chevalier fashion and looked exactly as if being young again was the last thing he wanted. Karen felt pretty tired of it herself.
Thirty-something is not considered that young any longer, boss. See you on Tuesday.
Tuesday. That’s such a short vacation, said Jean-Jacques
Say la vee. If we stayed longer we’d spend all our money on beer and the company would be without a staff, she replied in her thickest southern drawl. The two often teased each other about their accents.
Jean-Jacques smiled again and bobbed his head. Then he pointed at his temple as if he had a sudden thought and reached for his drawer. He pulled a sealed envelope from his desk drawer.
I almost forgot. Here’s something for your little vacation. Do not open it until you are on the plane. Take very good care of it for me.
Karen stepped closer to the desk. She had been standing near the modular opening to the office. Taking the white packet she wrinkled her forehead, raised her eyebrows, and looked at Jean-Jacques. She had a feeling it was money.
She opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her off.
It’s just something for you to have a good time, he said, waving a hand toward her and the envelope. Then he added rather casually, A friend of mine will be down in Cozumel diving on Saturday and staying at a hotel near yours. Inside is an old photo of us she wanted. Would you leave the envelope at the desk of your hotel? You can see her name is already written there. I wouldn’t ask except the mails are so slow in Mexico, things become lost ...
He continued to peer at her over the half glasses.
That’s sounds easy enough. No problem. Why don’t you just mail her the photo later, though, when she’s home? Karen asked, shrugging.
He smiled a bit sadly, Karen thought.
Oh, she is married now so we only communicate by telephone from time to time. Her husband is extremely jealous.
Karen nodded. That’s all she had to hear. Jealousy often intruded its painful spikes in a single woman’s life.
Then I won’t open it at all, she promised.
Oh, you must. There is something there for your trouble as well. Hush money, in a way.
Please, Jean-Jacques, that is not necessary.
He waved her to silence.
Just take it, and be careful. I know you can scarcely pay for tuition and books and groceries for Andy. And you deserve a nice vacation. Now let me finish staring at these figures before going home to my lovely wife.
"I don't know what to say," Karen protested weakly. She certainly could use the money.
Jean-Jacques already looked intently back down at the computer screen and Karen turned to retrace her steps to her area. She placed the white envelope in her purse, pulled on her red blazer, and made it to the elevator in time to ride down with Miles Gordon and another dark-haired man she did not recognize. Karen said hello, but Miles stood in the corner staring at his shoes and apparently did not hear Karen’s greeting. The other occupant smiled in response and said hello.
Karen faced the front of the elevator and thought, "Poor man, he seems so lost all the time. I'm glad I didn't get his secretary's position."
For something to do on the ride down, she unwrapped a stick of gum and slid it into her mouth. It was a replacement for cigarettes. She’d quit smoking when she was pregnant with Andy. Sometimes when she felt stressed, or in this case excited about the trip, the urge to smoke would come over her. The chewing took her mind off the craving. She tried to do it discreetly, however, moving her square jaw minimally. That was ever since a stranger in a bar recently commented to her that she was a good-looking woman except for the gum. Why she cared what a total stranger thought bothered Karen. She shouldn't care. But she did want to appear civilized and cultured and she knew popping and chewing gum did not look classy.
Karen’s sister, Rae, said that Karen flattered herself that she’d had the smoking habit and managed to break it for only one reason: to hold it over the heads of others who couldn’t quite kick their addictions.
Reformed smokers are so self righteous, Rae commented.
Rae could be truly abrasive at times. But Karen loved her sister and put up with the prickly attitudes.
Karen cautiously drove her old Camaro out of the parking garage. The ramps and the low ceiling always gave her an off-centered feeling. She exited onto Louisiana Street, turned left onto Pease, and headed for the entrance ramp to I-45. A bank sign flashed the time and the date. She remembered it had been five years, almost to this day in February, that Jim had packed a plastic garbage bag with all his clothes and left Karen with their baby. The stupid moron had met a slightly older, slightly richer, slightly less independent woman at one of the bars where he played his red Fender electric guitar and sang Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.
Betty Jean, or the "slime whore," as Karen affectionately came to call her over the next few months, drove a yellow Cadillac. Ol' S. W. supplemented her income at the phone company with a small cocaine dealership on the side. It was insulting that Karen had known her for God's sake. However, she had been too buried in child care, her studies, night school, new job, and resentment of Jim to worry about losing him. Yet she had not been totally surprised.
"Karen, I want to leave you," Jim said, looking at the ceiling fan over the bed instead of her and Andy, their sleeping son.
The little family had often
reclined together until the baby fell asleep on the four-poster bed. the bed nearly overwhelmed the bedroom. The small, white frame house boasted fairly large bedrooms but not big enough to accommodate the bed and other furniture. They had lived in a bigger house during the fourth and fifth years of their marriage. Then she and Jim, after a miserable year of living in the suburbs and fighting traffic to downtown Houston every weekday, had opted for a smaller house closer to work. An improved location, of course, meant losing some space. Still, they preferred avoiding the drive in the horrendous masses of cars.
Anyway, Jim's announcement caught Karen slightly off guard. With only a slight intake of breath, she replied without consciously realizing her own response, "I know."
But she had known, somehow. Karen never believed people, or more specifically any woman, when they said they were totally ambushed emotionally by their spouse's infidelity. How could they not know?
Not long before Jim's "emancipation proclamation," Karen had confided in her friend Iris, "Something's got to give. We're so miserable. We don't talk. He plays with the band every weekend, I work all week, Andy can't go to the nightclubs on Friday and Saturday night. Then Jim sleeps all day on Sunday and never even looks at us. And he blew the whole hundred and fifty dollars he made playing at the VFW hall on a gram of coke. Then he just snorts it up his nose to go to work. He could at least party on that stuff."
Karen shook her head and stared at the headlights coming from the opposite direction.
"You've done it, too," Iris commented, regarding the cocaine usage. Iris turned her red Mustang convertible off I-59 to wind down the feeder road to the Firehouse. They were going to see a local band play, The Sisters Morales. Andy was with Rae. Jim was playing at Eddie's Country Ballroom in Alvin. Karen could have gone to see her husband play but opted to spend the time with a friend instead. Talking helped.
Karen readily admitted to recreational drug use. But that had been in her past. Andy, work, and school engulfed her time now.
"Yea, but only on a weekend when Andy’s gone and we're having fun or at least making love. But I'm not doing it anymore. It's too expensive, and I have to pay for books and tuition."
"How come you don't get addicted to all these drugs everyone says are so dangerous?"
Iris never touched anything stronger than beer or an occasional margarita herself.
"I don't know. It's a control thing. I'm in control. I can’t let go enough to become addicted. Sometimes I wish that I could, that there was an excuse to have someone else take care of me."
Yea, then you could go into rehab and get money for reeducation. Two of our friends did that, Iris replied dryly.
They said nothing for a few minutes while Iris concentrated on the wild traffic on Houston's Southwest Freeway.
Then Karen spoke.
Jim tells me I look disappointed all the time. That's one of his reasons for staying out so much, he says. Do you think I look disappointed, Iris?
Iris shrugged and said, I don’t know what that means. Your eyes are always sad. A little.
I wish I felt like working on that. That’s not good for Andy to see me sad all the time.
But once Jim made his announcement and exited with the promise to return for the Harley-Davidson in two days, "in control" was not the way Karen had felt. Well, maybe she felt a little in control when she and Rae accidentally locked the motorcycle with a Kryptonite security bar and then "misplaced" the keys for about two months. Jim's face blazed crimson with anger and effort as he tried to saw through the lock. Karen felt badly. Though not that badly.
So Karen had subconsciously noticed her failing relationship and finally admitted to Iris some vague feelings that things weren't right. But knowing that a marriage had problems and actually ending a seven-year-old union were two separate issues. Issues that Karen had dwelled upon in her rare free moments. To find a way out of or a way back into their marriage seemed as impossible as Jim actually taking the step to pack up, or bag up, as it were, and leave.
"In a way he was brave," Karen had thought.
At least, at first it seemed brave for her husband to make the break. Slowly the realization grew in her mind, however, that he'd had someone he thought he loved to run to. Betty Jean owned a nice house from her first marriage and a luxury car and had an illegal but large income. Betty Jean had all kinds of other amenities to offer including large breasts and a drug supply. Karen, on the other hand, had the overwhelming, lonely responsibility of Andy, the old house, and a mindless job with no future. All this in addition to small breasts. And she was trying to complete an associates degree at the community college.
She dropped out of the University of Houston to marry Jim. Or, more precisely, if Karen wanted to be cruelly honest with herself, she quit the university because she couldn't think of a single job she wanted to do the rest of her life. Therefore, her education had no direction because no one told her she could change her mind later. She took three semesters of core courses, failed to pick a major, and figured she'd take a year off to decide.
That year off stretched into a decade. Now, ten years after high school and still in the same place at Sapphire Oil Company, she finally found some direction: teaching. Teaching sounded like the best bet. Creativity, professionalism, not to mention free time: June, July, and August and two weeks at Christmas. The time off appealed greatly in contrast to the eight-dollar hours, nine to five days, only-two-week-vacations-per-year job she'd been working since leaving the University of Houston with two more years to graduate. Karen was a firm believer in more time off when more money was not available. She'd seen her friends, Iris and Adelia, work for the big bucks and complain they had no time or energy left for spending it. Besides what Karen liked to do didn't require too much financial gain. Reading, running, maybe a trip or two a year with Andy sounded better than what she had now.
It was natural that teaching would work out for her. It offered no prestige and little wealth, but she would actually touch the lives of human beings. Karen certainly remembered every teacher she'd ever had. The professions that really offered the bucks: medicine, law, business, absolutely turned her off. While brain surgery seemed like the financially prudent thing to pursue, it wasn't her. She'd made her choice. Only Jim's abandonment had drained her funds and she still had at least another year to complete a BA in education.
Karen's careworn mind needed a
break. After retrieving Andy from day care and taking him to buy his after school treat - a chocolate ice cream cone this time - she gratefully drove on to her familiar driveway.
"The fifth anniversary of your freedom from marriage needs celebrating," she told herself.
Plus, her thirty-third birthday lurked menacingly in the near future. She and her gang were going to Cozumel, Mexico, for a long weekend and forget about everything for a few days.
"Leave it to me," Karen later continued in her musing, as she packed her bathing suit and a towel for the trip, "to pick a public service career and to wait until my life is over the hill and totally unmanageable to decide to finish my degree."
While she folded laundry, the clock radio played softly so she could hear her child in the next room. He made gun and missile noises which she worried were not healthy. The phone rang. In white sneakers, she crossed the small room, the same bedroom in which Jim had made his announcement about leaving five years earlier.
Karen cradled the phone to her ear as she continued to fold underwear and shorts for packing.
Music blasted through the receiver. She listened as her friends Iris and Adelia shouted at her over the den of the Firehouse that she should come meet them for drinks. The Firehouse sat right at the corner of I-59 and Fondren. Parking was usually a problem.
"I'll be there when I'm finished packing. I have to take Andy over to Jim and the Slime Whore's too," Karen replied.
"What?" Adelia, the drunker of the pair shouted.
"Give me half an hour," Karen screamed back.
"We'll be drunk in an hour," yelled Iris.
"You're drunk now," Karen said.
"What?" Adelia had grabbed the phone.
"Wait for me. Do not leave,"
Karen yelled again, scaring the dog and startling her five-year-old.
Karen hung up and shook her head.
"Mama, that was too cloud," said her boy.
"Too loud," she corrected with a smile.
She picked Andy up and hugged him, kissed his soft, straight brown hair, and carried him to the mirror with her. She checked out her reflection. Her blond hair which she'd streaked a few weeks before hung about her smooth cheeks almost the way she wanted it too. She'd never gained back the weight she lost during the divorce and subsequent adjustment. It was fun having people ask her if she was on a diet or anorexic or something. It was their polite way of saying she was too thin.
"You're pretty, Mommy," her child said, squeezing her around the neck.
"Thanks, kid. I love you, Andy."
"I love you, too. Am I going to see Daddy now?"
"Yea, let's get your suitcase and take Red over to Ginger’s. We better get going."
"Are you going in the airplane tomorrow?"
"Sure am," said Karen with some excitement. She had not flown in years and had never visited a tropical island. She squeezed her son again and set him down. They pulled on jackets and walked hand-in-hand to Lola's house next door to drop off their little Sheltie dog, Red. The darkness at the edge of the porch light seemed deeper than if there had been no lights. The moon shone full and bright over the mother and child.
One thing Karen liked about her rather multi-cultural neighborhood was that the houses all looked completely different from each other. Lola's was a small house, like Karen's, with yellow aluminum siding and brown trim. Brown, wooden steps gave access to a small, covered porch. Lola, Karen's slender, dark-haired neighbor, answered the door in one of her usual negligees, the black one this time. The black nylon rustled comfortably as the neighbor allowed the mother-child-dog trio into the little home with yellow aluminum siding. Every time the white paint on her own house started peeling, Karen dreamed of aluminum siding.
"Would you like a drink?" Lola offered.
"No, thanks. I have to drive all the way to Jim’s which I’ve postponed long enough," replied Karen.
Lola's husband, Duane, waved from the couch, a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He wore jeans and a clean, white t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up exposing a tattooed heart on his left biceps. It said "Lola" in a curly-cue script.
Lola worked hard at the large grocery store in the neighborhood. She wrapped meat and made nearly twice as much money per hour as Karen did in her clerk position. Apparently the meat industry’s union took care of its employees. But Karen wasn't a union person either.
"Not a money person, not a union person," Lola had teased her the time she'd suggested Karen come apply for a job wrapping meat.
Karen wondered where Karen stood sometimes herself. Anyway, when she came home at night, Lola liked to get comfortable. Lola almost always wore some lacy, black negligee or red silk pajamas after six o'clock at night. The black made her look even paler. She and Duane usually cuddled up on the couch and watched television until 10:30. Then they went to bed and tried to make another baby. They had two daughters at the time and wanted a son. They'd been very kind to Karen during the divorce. The break up had surprised them just as it had everyone else.
"Oh, the girls will be so happy Red is here. We'll take good care of him," said Lola, cradling the furry bundle in her thin, white arms. "You're lucky to be getting out of this cold, wet weather."
"I know," said Karen. "We're going to have such a good time."
She hated having this conversation in front of Andy. She felt guilty for leaving him. She changed the subject.
"Are Ginger and Nicole already in bed?" Karen asked, knowing the answer. Nicole, the youngest, was fairly quiet but not Ginger. If the red-headed child was awake she'd be in the living room harassing Andy, trying to play fetch with the dog, or dismantling the garbage disposal. She was a seven-year-old, red-haired terror who had to be watched every second. Karen learned to keep her and Andy under constant surveillance when they played together. Otherwise, she found the furniture rearranged into caves, forts, and castles and crayon drawings on the wall. Once, Ginger held Karen's son captive under an overturned chair for an hour before Karen realized the two kids were way too quiet. Ginger never hurt Andy physically but, creative ideas raced through the carrot top's mind all the time.
"Yes, thank God," Lola sighed, "they've gone to bed."
"Thanks so much for dog-sitting," said Karen.
She gave Lola the food, the leash, and Red's tennis ball.
"Like I said, it will keep the girls happy. Lord knows they need something to occupy them."
Karen didn't like the sound of that. She started to give some advice about pet care but thought better of it. It was only for a few days. Red would survive. Besides she knew the advice would be politely received and totally disregarded.
"Thanks again," said Karen. "I have to take Andy out to Jim's and finish packing."
"I hope you meet someone nice in Mexico," called Duane from the couch.
Karen smiled and waved good-bye. She hoped she did not meet anyone in Mexico. Relationships were too exhausting. The neighbors said their goodbyes and the mother and son departed. The gum she been chewing tasted stale now. Karen spat it into the shrubs and dug out a fresh stick from the pack she’d slid into her jeans pocket.
Karen hoped she didn't meet anyone in Mexico. Relationships were too exhausting.