I was still caught up in the delusion that he loved me when this petite but forceful woman showed up on his doorstep and said, “I’m Iris,” flinging me a dismissive look.
She had mastered this move, this barging in and owning a place through sheer presumption and entitlement. Not that she looked particularly rich or as privileged as I felt, a senior at a private college, my destroyed/reformed family back home in New York. She was pretty, with sharply defined features and long, straight jet black hair and she had nice clothes. High heel pumps, a straight skirt and silky black blouse.
A cab backed out of the driveway as she entered and pulled the door shut behind her. She worked. She was a professional, and on a college campus it was like seeing a rare bird. She carried herself as if no one had or ever would own her. Like she had earned it all.
“Who are you?” she said next. I guess she had to make up for her lack of height with a left shoulder thrust forward, head bent down with eyes cast upward like a doctor looking over her bifocals, but surely she wasn’t a doctor, and she didn’t even wear glasses. She was older than me, probably thirties like he was, and she made me feel small, which truthfully wasn’t that hard.
Minutes before, and all morning before she walked in, I was busy pretending I owned the place. I was making myself breakfast in his kitchen. Cracking eggs into one of his never completely clean pans. There was a permanent level of scum in his house due to his large grey cat that shed everywhere and the fact that he didn’t seem to care about cleaning. “Dirt is good for your immune system,” he once told me when I asked if he ever thought about hiring someone because I knew he would never get down on his knees and scrub a bathroom floor. I didn’t think he would get down on his knees for anyone or anything. But it didn’t get in the way of me loving his dirty house. I loved it because I could pretend it was mine.
He was away. He never told me where he was going or when he’d be back. He just called and asked if I would take him to the Cleveland airport, which I always would because it meant a fast drive in his Rx-7, dinner at our favorite Mexican place in town and the keys to his life, including the Rx-7. It was a stupid car and I almost preferred the VW Rabbit he traded for it, but it was fun to drive.
I didn’t answer.
“Is John here?” She dumped her big bag on the worn out chair that sat nearest to the door. It was where he talked on the phone and checked his messages and it held the imprint of his body, the smudge of his work clothes. He considered himself a post-modern artist and as such had devised a way to write an elusive novel by leaving new chapters as his outgoing message on his answering machine. Listeners would respond with their own fictional versions of his story. He spent a lot of time in that chair.
I knew she knew he wasn’t home. I knew she knew that my presence meant he was away. I knew she probably knew him better than I did and that she had probably guessed I was in his snare.
“What are you doing here?”
Iris waltzed past me into the dining room where John had all his books and papers piled on a big table and on into the living room turning her head this way then that, taking it all in. “Nice place.”
“Are you being sarcastic?”
I was starting to like her already. She seemed curious and free, like a cat, though she carried herself more like a bird. Head perched high on her neck, observant, able to fly. She had brought a bag like she was planning to stay but she obviously hadn’t told him. I was wondering what her plan was. I was staying in his house. She couldn’t.
“Want to smoke?” She sat down on his couch, a grubby grey affair that might have once been white.
I sat down opposite her on the one piece of nice furniture. A leather chair he said his father made. A simple wood frame with a brown leather piece hung on it like a hammock. You could slide down or sit up if you wanted. I had spent time in it, smoking pot and watching TV.
She poked around the large ashtray on the coffee table for a roach clip and pulled a lighter from her purse.
We got high. We smoked cigarettes. Mostly she talked and I said “uh huh” every once in a while. She told me stories about places she worked, men she had slept with, cities she had traveled to. It was a glamorous life and I couldn’t see why she would come to his dirty little house to find him without telling him she was coming. She avoided talking about him until she asked, “So are you sleeping with him?”
“Yes.” I was too proud of that fact to lie. I had been lying for two years to all my friends and my family when they asked, all of them convinced I must be sleeping with my college professor. It was like having two lives. The truth, that I was having a secret affair which was strange and often felt like the lie; and the lie that I was just a normal girl going to college and dating students, which often felt like the truth. Because I was doing that too. And John was so elusive and hard to pin down sometimes I felt like I was imagining the whole thing. Our whole life. He would never say we had a life together but the truth was we did. And yet, Iris’ presence managed to negate it and make it feel like a fantasy I was having by myself.
She looked at me pitifully. “Has he told you about the others?”
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
“Well I don’t claim to be an expert on his love life, but I do know he still sleeps with his wife when he sees her in Detroit, and I know he still sees the girl who graduated from here and lives in New York now. I know there’s a professor here, in his department that he sees, “she paused for effect,” and then there’s me.”
I was dumbfounded. He told me he and his wife were separated and I knew they were friends but he said she had a boyfriend now. I knew the girl in New York and that one made me upset because even though it wasn’t surprising, it made his recent trip to New York tainted. It was supposed to be a work trip. He was supposedly meeting with galleries there, though I had a feeling he was exaggerating about which ones. But the one that got me, was the other teacher. There was only one female teacher in his department. She was middle aged and frumpy. It couldn’t be her.
Iris looked at me. She must have seen where I was. How demoralized. She must have known anger was next. “Let’s go somewhere sweetie. Let’s find some food or something. Sound good? You got the keys to that poor excuse for a car?”