RUMPUS BOOK CLUB EXCERPT: A LOVE STORY BY DAVON LOEB
An excerpt from The Rumpus Book Club‘s February selection,
THE IN-BETWEENS by Davon Loeb
forthcoming from West Virginia University Press on February 1, 2023
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A LOVE STORY
Sometimes they played tennis together. I bet he still thinks of it often, and maybe the sun remembers it too—the way it would shine on her skin, like it was shining on her. And her skin did look best in the month of May, her birthday month, and he bought her a present to match her racket. He might surprise her on the next serve. She was rather terrible at tennis, even though she swung as if she thought she was Billie Jean King, and she was not Billie Jean King. So, he always let her win. Match point Harry and she’d twirl, her skirt spinning like an umbrella top. He’d hold his breath, try and capture the moment, capture her smell, capture her happiness. And even then, her perfume made flowers outside the fence pollinate and attracted bees that buzzed nearby. And Harry held his breath longer, to keep her in—maybe hold it forever if he could. She said let’s play again. They did play, even after the other courts emptied. And after that, when the Polos and Dockers and Benzes and BMWs all drove away, he thought about what he might say, reaching into his pocket like reaching into his chest and then kneeling to give her the present.
He thought about everything that led up to that moment. He thought about when they first passed the mouth mirror and scaler, when she was just his dental hygienist, she, who was working at the dentist office while finishing nursing school and in the military. He thought about how he always held the door for her when seeing her almost a mile away in the parking lot. So what if he was late for his first appointment. So what if the secretaries suspected. So what if everyone knew. He thought about the love they had made, as if breathing for the first time, as if breathing into each other, a resuscitation of sorts. He thought about the way her irises looked when their eyelashes touched, like all the soil of Earth planted somewhere inside her eyes—how the world would ignite and felt like it might explode following that next kiss. How he didn’t care if that did happen, if the world ended, as long as they were together—how it would all be worth it. She was worth it. And how on those tennis courts, he wasn’t sure if he was chasing the ball or if he was chasing her.
He would have finished an everything bagel with lox and passed the creamer to his wife, and she’d whisk her coffee to distract from discussing something important like bills and—also at the table—their twelve- and seven-year-old boys, who’d be excited about playing tennis sometime after school with their father. And they’d look the same, the man and boys at the table, all with light olive skin, curly hair, and faces without the strain and worry of things besides what’s simple, like burnt toast. It would be a normal Monday morning before driving to the dental office.
Before arriving at work, she would have already dressed her eight-year-old daughter and three-year-old son. Braided her daughter’s hair into billowy black puffs and brushed her son’s hair flat, and then sent them off to school and daycare. She would love them deeply, her children, down to the marrow. They would have smelled like cocoa butter and been smooth to the touch. Their skin, the same hue, a soft brown. She would have kissed them and then her husband, who she met sometime before while serving in the military. She’d be excited for work, wearing blue scrubs and sneakers. Her body would be young and beautiful, and her mind would be somewhere else.
It would be a weekday. It was always a weekday, and they planned it in advance, scheduling the same date off. They worked at the hospital together. He was a dentist, and she was his dental hygienist. And being together on weekdays meant they wouldn’t miss important time with their families; and this also meant that on weekdays, their families thought they were at work.
They wanted to avoid the adulterous clichés: lunch-break trysts, storage closets, hotel rooms, sedan back seats—for they believed and promised what they had was love and nothing less. So, they agreed it was important to be natural and normal and experience life with each other as if they were really with each other. And this meant being in public—doing things, activities, not just lunches in far-out towns. They knew plenty of people who cheated, but this was different.
If they drove in his car, they listened to Beethoven and Mozart cassette tapes. With his hands, he chased the rising crescendos as if he’d composed the songs himself. He wanted to tell her the history of the songs, about the tones and shapes of the instruments. He wanted to tell her all those things that he knew, but he didn’t. It might make him look older than he already looked. For they were very different, and no matter how much they loved each other, it was impossible not to notice how unalike they were. How could he not feel insecure? Listening to classical music was too appropriately matched with his grayed and receding hair. He could dye it, he thought. He could change it for her. He could wear the latest brands of clothes or buy a faster car—or do whatever else she wanted.
If they drove in her car, they listened to the latest Whitney Houston song, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” and she would karaoke to it the best she could, strong and candid and from her diaphragm. She wasn’t much of a singer. But she felt a sense of freedom with him, like driving in a convertible. She sang and she danced and was alive. Then, the springtime air blew through the hand-cranked windows, and the smell of her lotion filled the car. And they both smiled big, taking in those rare moments of having no worries: no concerns of unpaid bills, of children, of what arguments—those typical arguments—they were going to have with their spouses when they returned later as they tiptoed around the obvious unhappiness they felt whenever saying I love you to someone else.
They had little in common, and their taste in music was just one example. Maybe every time an old song played, it was a reminder of just how different they were. Sometimes while listening to the radio, she’d say my mom loves this song, and he’d shrug it off. She’d say I remember listening to this song as a kid, and he’d try to pretend not to know the words to whatever the tune. But he’d remember those songs and those years when he was younger. He’d remember Sam Cooke in the ’60s, James Brown, the Platters, Nat King Cole in the ’50s, the Andrew Sisters, Buddy Holly, Bing Crosby in the ’40s, Ella Fitzgerald, and Harry James, and he would remember the twenty-five years of living before she was even born. So how could she not think he was almost as old as her father, and how could he not think the same. It was a lifetime of difference.
From the outside, they knew not one eye would ever go unrolled, or someone’s two brows would ever unfurl, because the world and everyone in it would always be watching, judging, reminding them there was nothing normal, acceptable, appropriate to this thing they called love. He was married to a woman his age and a father of two. She was married to a man her age and a mother of two. And he was white, and she Black, and this was America.
On days when the weather was warm, they visited a nature center. It was quiet there, and they could barely hear New Jersey bustle—the cars idling, the impatient honks, the thick pollutant that sounded like water in the ear. It was their retreat, and nature blanketed them from everything outside the over two hundred acres of wilderness. Though people still stared and side-eyed. They mumbled things and said what they wanted to; but whatever those people said, some white and some Black, they didn’t care much, for they swore the sun shined just on them, as if one of those crepuscular rays from God. They said the whole thing was destiny and never mind what other people thought. In a way, they related to the nature conservatory, this beautiful thing just being miles away from the city and yet tucked away from the busy Tri-State. It was as if being in two different places at the same time. And this was often how they felt, while eating dinner or washing dishes at their homes, while in their beds with their spouses, while living every moment away from each other, as if lying, every day, under oath, an oath that said you are white, you are Black, you are married, your love is very wrong.
But at the nature center, they could see the Hudson River from different markers on the trails. They would stop, watch the waters travel, and talk of the future. They made plans. They agreed on who would leave whom first, where they would live, that her children would take his name—maybe a big wedding or just something small at the county office. What dreams they had, to run away and start fresh and new. Everything would be better. And then, even the Hudson seemed to smell like an ocean, and the water’s surface was clearer, bluer; and above that, the countless hemlocks stretched like giant paint strokes of different shades of green; and above that, two birds, like my mother and father, flocked together, and they too, dreamt of migrating.
Excerpt from THE IN-BETWEENS by Davon Loeb (West Virginia University Press, forthcoming February 2023). Reproduced by permission of the publisher.