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FICTION: The Pavilion of Former Wives

The tone of her voice plus the substance of her remarks were provoking, but B did what he could to keep his poise. He felt no sympathy for her, though he stirred the ashes of former affection hoping to find an ember.

Editor’s Note: This is the complete short story from Jonathan Baumbach’s upcoming volume of short stories, “The Pavilion of Former Wives,” to be published by Dzanc in 2016. Look for additional stories from this collection in the Sunday Berkshire Edge.

*     *     *

One morning over coffee, a personals ad in B’s favorite intellectual journal grabbed his attention. He wasn’t actually reading the journal — he was thinking of what to do with the unsubscribed day ahead of him — when his eye, notoriously eager, arbitrarily browsed the ad. Its come-on line was, “WHY FLY TO HORRORS THAT YOU KNOW NOT OF.” Why indeed? The ad argued that a new relationship was likely to be as bad or worse than former disasters which might have been prevented through the wisdom of retrospect. It advocated visiting the digital Pavilion of Lost Loves at The New London County Fair, where in a secure and protective environment, the seeker could revisit past relationships and rediscovering where they had hit the skids, possibly make right what had once gone terribly wrong.

“Crap!” said B, though later that day he got his car out of the high-rent garage where it spent the better part of its cloistered life and drove through oppressive traffic and seemingly endless road repair to New London. As it turned out, “Pavilion” was a misnomer. The whole enterprise — and not easy to locate among the snarl of the fair — consisted of a small booth attended by a somewhat dowdy woman of uncertain age. Behind the booth, there was a closed door leading to an enclosure perhaps not much larger than a closet. After B presented himself, the woman, a Ms. Clover (her identity attested to by a nametag over her right breast), her thick hair in a tight bun, her glasses with pink transparent frames, said that she would be his guide on his trip into the domestic past. First, though, she had some questions for him. Names and dates mostly, basic information. His answers, some of them lies, were typed into the round-screened computer in front of her with a kind of energized slow motion.

“Is it only relationships with former wives that you wish to revisit?” she asked.

“I guess,” he said. “I hadn’t planned on anything else.”

“We can do as many as 5 former lovers in a session,” she said. “There’s no extra charge.”

He hadn’t thought about the charge. “How much is this going to cost me?”

She studied him a moment before answering. “Ninety-five plus tax. You can use your debit card if you like.”

“I hadn’t planned on spending that much money,” he said.

“That’s too bad,” she said, looking at him with what he took to be regret. “I’m offering you our off-season rate.”

B considered returning to his car, which was on the far left side of the supplemental lot and making the long trip through oppressive traffic and thwarting road repair to his lonely apartment with nothing to show for the time already invested in the enterprise before him.

Ms. Clover pretended not to look at him while waiting for his decision.

“Did I mention,” she said, “that the entrance fee is fully refundable less tax if you’re not a hundred percent satisfied with your experience at the pavilion.”

“I think that’s good policy,” he said, “though I don’t remember you mentioning it before.”

She gave her wrist a pantomime slap. “What were you thinking, Julia?” she said to herself. “Where was your head? If I didn’t mention it, and I will take your word for it on this occasion, you have the right if you choose to take your trip down memory lane, as we sometimes call it at the Pav, without the usual charge.”

B felt the penalty for her mistake, even though he was the beneficiary of it, was excessive.  “I think I should pay something,” he said.

*     *     *

After he unlocked the door with the key offered him, he warily stepped into a room very much like the bedroom of the house he lived in with his most recent former wife. The details, the colors of the bedspread, the paintings on the wall, were remarkably close to the overall picture memory offered. He briefly wondered how they were able to get it this right on such short notice.

After a moment, an attractive woman who didn’t quite resemble his third wife (though dressed in her clothes) entered the room. “I thought we agreed that you would stay downstairs,” she said. “Isn’t that what we agreed on?”

It struck him that he had played out a scene very much like the one he had just wandered into, though he had only the vaguest recollection of how he had responded to his wife’s demand that he exile himself. He had probably made some equally obnoxious remark in return.

“What are we fighting about?” he asked in what he thought of as a conciliatory tone.

“We’re not fighting,” she said. “We’re just staying out of each other’s way. If you insist on being up here, I’m going to stay downstairs.”

The tone of her voice plus the substance of her remarks were provoking, but B did what he could to keep his poise. He felt no sympathy for her, though he stirred the ashes of former affection hoping to find an ember.

“Well,” she said, her arms folded in front of her, “are you going or am I going?”

He had to shake himself to remember that this was not the real thing, merely a clever simulation. Still, it was as painful in its own way, or so he suspected, as the first time around, which until this moment he had been pleased to forget. Anyway, since he was here in the spirit of melioration, he strove to be reasonable. “I’ll go downstairs,” he said, “but first tell me what I’ve done that seems so unforgivable to you.”

She shook her head and stamped her foot. “Don’t be such a woosie,” she said. “No one respects a man who doesn’t stand up for himself.”

“Is that why you’re angry at me because I don’t stand up for myself? I’m trying, don’t you see, to make things better between us.”

“But that’s not what you’re feeling, is it?”

It was true that B was angry at her — hadn’t he been provoked? — though trying to keep his edginess from getting out of hand. “How the fuck do you know what I feel?” he asked.

She laughed. “I like you better this way. For a moment, I remembered what it was like to like you. …Look, don’t get your hopes up.”

“Is that what I was doing?”

“Just don’t get your hopes up.”

His anger at her slapped at the back of his head, pounded his chest, stomped on his toe. Was this the way it had been? B took a deep breath, petitioned for forgiveness, while she raised the level of her abuse. His cumulative anger, the unholy extent of it, frightened him. He imagined himself shaking her violently, pieces of her coming loose. Instead he picked up a rickety chair and smashed it against the wall. Though the flying chair had come nowhere near her, she visibly flinched.

“Was I being a woosie then?” he asked, the question choosing him. He felt embarrassed and aggrieved by his tantrum.

“No,” she said, “you were just being an asshole.”

It seemed to him that exile almost anywhere, upstairs, downstairs, the next county, outer space — wasn’t that why they got divorced? — was preferable to being in her company. Though he could no longer remember any of the details, he knew for a fact that they had once lived together amicably, had once in fact for an extended period of time been devoted to each other. And then what? It must have taken a while to reach this extreme point of disrepair in their marriage, bad feelings turning to worse and worse and worse. In any event, the paradigm of hell they were reenacting was clearly beyond salvage. B considered escaping through his original passage of entry, though a more complex instinct trapped him in the room.

What he did next was not premeditated or if it was he successfully short-circuited any awareness of intention. He sat down on the bed and put his head in his hands and let his eyes fill with tears as if they would have it no other way.

She studied him from wherever she was in the room or so he sensed; he could just about feel the weight of her glance on his back. The next thing he knew she was seated next to him, an arm draped around his shoulders. “I’m sorry you feel so bad,” she whispered, a secret perhaps from the self that hated him. B resented the superiority implied by her pity.

A sound of inchoate fury, a growling sound he had never heard himself make before, emerged from his throat, startling them both.

“What?” she asked

He had no answer, had no idea what was at stake in her question. “I’m all right,” he insisted despite compelling evidence otherwise. The comfort he took from her arm on his shoulder filled him with self-loathing. There was no longer any need to deny her charges against him: he was a woos, as she claimed. His head drooped against her shoulder in acknowledgment of woos-like defeat. Worse still, he had a hard-on with its own private agenda. His deepest wish, willfully unacknowledged, was to move into her womb and never leave. Enraptured by her embrace, he was blissfully immobile, though also desperate to get away. The word love sat on his tongue like a blister.

“It’s not you I hate, it’s myself,” she said. “You see that, don’t you?”

Lost in himself, he had no idea what she was getting at but her words nevertheless released him. Abruptly aware of his prick’s agenda, he kissed her neck to foster its cause.

“I don’t want that,” she said, taking back her arm.

That was when he got up from the bed. “The hell with you,” he said under his breath.

In the next moment, they were as far away from each other as the room allowed.

A few minutes later he was again standing in front of the Pavilion of Lost Loves facing Ms. Clover who seemed to have found her way back to her former dowdy role. If he weren’t still in despair over his revisited disaster, he might have been impressed at the lightning speed with which Clover had effected her costume change.

“What went wrong?” he asked her.

“I thought you knew,” she said. “Look, I hope you won’t take this the wrong way but ..”

“But what?”

“Well, not to make too much of it, you fucked up.”

B was momentarily taken aback, but resisted offering any of the various barely credible defenses that immediately came to mind. “You know what,” he said, “can we do this? I’d like to revisit this relationship 15 years earlier. There were difficulties then — in fact, I was still married to someone else — but that was the highpoint of my relationship with wife 3 as you call her in your notes.”

“We can do that,” she said, “but in the interest of full disclosure I have to say if you visit wife 3 again it will count on your record as a visit to another lost love. If that’s acceptable, I’m prepared to proceed. Are you sure that that’s what you want?”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes.” And though in the next moment he experienced a few twinges of regret, perpetually wary of getting what he wanted, he held his ground. “I think so,” he added.

“After I go through the door, I’d like you to count slowly to 300 before making your entrance. Okay?”

“I have a watch,” he said, checking his wrist to verify his claim. “You’re asking me to wait five minutes, isn’t that it?”

“For best results,” she said, “please follow instructions to the letter. We feel that counting adds a necessary human element.” And then as she closed the door behind her, he heard her whisper “One …two… three…..”

B counted to 60, which was tedious enough, then let four more minutes tick off on his watch, then he counted to 25 before opening the door. He found himself at the bottom of a long stairwell and, not wanting to think about how Clover managed the trick, climbed up the four flights to the apartment his third wife lived in for a period before she was his third wife, and knocked at the door. He heard some remote signs of life in the apartment so that he knew that the lack of response was not an indicator of no one being home. He knocked again. “What is it?” a woman’s voice inquired.

“It’s me,” he said, which produced a laugh.

“Just a minute,” she said. He heard the door unlatch from the inside followed by the scuffling of steps fading into the distance.

“It’s open,” a faint voice called to him.

When he stepped inside into her loft space — an extended room with a kitchen tucked into a far wall — his not yet third wife was in bed reading a magazine or at least offering that impression. “I didn’t expect you,” she said. “I haven’t seen you in a while and I thought, you know, maybe he doesn’t want to see me.”

“I called to say I was coming,” he said.

“That’s true, you did,” she said. “I think there was something in the way you said it that made me think you wouldn’t come. Some reluctance as if someone were holding on to you when you were talking to me.” She sighed with notable conviction. “Sweetheart, how long can you stay?” She held out a ghostly hand in his direction, which he only noticed as it was being withdrawn. B had been looking at his watch.

“I have to go in about two hours,” he said. He sat down on the edge of the bed like a tourist.

“I’ve missed you,” she said. “Lie next to me. I want to feel you. How else do I know you’re real?”

The idea of making love to a stranger (Ms. Clover) performing the role of his former wife made him uncomfortable, though he had what he thought of as a commemorative hard-on. Moreover, the resemblance was compelling. He took off his shoes and got under the covers with her.

“Please hold me,” she said.

In the next moment, they were pressed against each other. She held on to him as if he were the only thing that kept her from drowning and eventually, his choices narrowing down, they fucked with a conflicting mix of caution and urgency.

They exchanged fluids, songs, and vows of love not quite in that order.

It was over and he still had an hour and a half left to his visit and so he asked her what she’d been up to.

“I spend much of my time thinking about you making love to your wife,” she said. “I tend to focus on things that make me unhappy. Other than that…. You deny that there’s anything between you and I believe you, or try to believe you. I won’t say any more because I don’t want to be a nag, but it’s hard for me living like this. It feels unreal to me.”

“I can see that,” he said. He wondered if it was possible to love someone and at the same time want desperately to get away from them.

“I live for the times we get together,” she said.

“It’s the same for me,” he said and while they were hugging he noticed that he had fifty-five minutes left on the duration of his visit. “Would you like to go for a walk?” he asked.

“Is that what you want to do? You were going to read me the first chapter of your novel.”

“It isn’t quite finished,” he said.

“So you didn’t bring it with you.”

“No.”

“I’m willing to look at it in an unfinished form.”

“I’ll bring it next time I come.”

“I don’t think we should see each other again until you’re free. I’ve been wanting to say that to you but it just seemed too hard not to see you. What do you think? When we come to each other let’s do it without any baggage.”

“It makes a kind of sense,” he said. He was still lying next to her and his prick indicated it was ready for another go. “It will be hard.”

This was not the particular day of this otherwise memorable period in his life he had hoped to re-explore.

“I don’t know if I can keep to it,” she said. “Do you think you can?”

When he bent over to kiss her, she turned her head away. “One last time,” he said, kissing her ear to plead his case.

“You’re going to have to be stronger than that,” she said. “We’re both going to have to be stronger to keep to our agreement.”

He got out of bed and searched the floor for his clothes.

“You don’t have to leave right away,” she said. “This may turn out to be our last time together. You still have some time left, don’t you?” She patted a spot on the bed, an invitation to return. He avoided looking at his watch, though he sensed his time was short in every sense. It was her habit to be seductive moments before he had to leave in the hope of prolonging his visit.

He was going to say that it would have to be quick, but he censored himself to avoid provoking her displeasure. When he sat down on the bed she removed his blue-striped boxers which he had only moments before reacquired. She went down on him, though barely long enough for his vacillating prick to reassert itself. Then she parted her legs like the red sea and he entered her like a grieving survivor with aggressive good faith and divided heart, an unacknowledged part of his consciousness wondering how he would explain himself on his belated return home. Eventually, B aware of time’s unseemly haste, rolled over to allow her the top position. She sang her song before he did and he made an effort to focus on his receding pleasure. “Are you all right, my love?” she asked, which was the question that brought him off.

After a few moments of controlled impatience, he whispered that he really had to leave as much as he would prefer staying with her. Had to leave.

“Then stay,” she said, still on top of him, her arms around his neck.

He was tired, he was beyond tired, but he released himself, kissed her on the top of her head and slid out from under her.

“It won’t kill you to stay a few minutes longer,” she said.

“I can come by Friday morning if that’s all right,” he said.

“That’s not all right,” she said, holding on to him from the back as he tried to dress himself.

“Then it’ll have to wait until Monday,” he said.

“No,” she said.

“No?”

“We’ve agreed not to see each other until you’re free,” she said. “Isn’t that what we agreed?”

When he got out the door, forty-seven minutes later than the time he had set himself earlier in the evening, he was almost pleased at the prospect of not seeing her again until he remembered he had married her a year and a half after her resolve to stop seeing him and that they had actually lived together for 12 years.

In the next moment, he was standing in front of the pavilion booth, facing the prodigious Clover, who was prepared to take him on the third of his five allotted visits.

“That’s okay,” he said to her. “I want to waive my rights to the other visits. I’ve had enough, though this is no reflection on your service. You people (he wondered where the others were) were as good as your ad promised.” He shook her hand, not knowing how else to say goodbye.

“Well, thank you for coming,” she said, handing him her card, which she said would serve as a rain check for his three unused visits to lost loves if he ever planned to return.

When he got home — the traffic if anything slightly worse than it was on the trip out — his loneliness (his loneness) seemed an undervalued condition.

 

2.

He didn’t know whether to call it a date or not, but if it wasn’t adate, how else might it be described? Three weeks or so after his visit to the Pavilion, looking for something else among the debris on the top of his dresser, he stumbled on the card Ms. Clover had given him on his abrupt departure. There was a hand-written New York City phone number underneath the official Pavilion number, which he hadn’t noted before. It seemed like the kind of request any reasonable man would honor.

They met at an obscure vegetarian restaurant in an unfashionable neighborhood a few blocks north of SoHo.

If some sadistic torturer were pulling out his fingernails one by one to elicit an answer, he still wouldn’t be able to say why he had phoned her or why, in the course of their conversation, he had suggested they meet for dinner. He might have confessed without conviction that his reasons lay somewhere in the nether territory between curiosity and loneliness.

He was early — it was his nature to be early — and he was stationed at a corner table with a view of the entrance, trying to remember what the person he was expecting might look like when she came through the door. Despite the vantage of his seat and his sense of being alert to whoever entered the restaurant, when a stylish younger woman not wearing glasses claiming to be Julia Clover approached his table, he had not seen her coming.

The brisk familiar handshake before seating herself across from him was as close as she got to confirming her credentials.

“I’m glad you came,” he said, trying to locate the face he knew within the face he didn’t without seeming to stare. “I don’t think I made a very good impression at the Pavilion. In fact, I’m sure I didn’t.”

She shrugged and turned her attention to her menu. “If I thought you were hopeless, I wouldn’t have come,” she said.

“Do you date many of your clients?” he asked, not so much interested in the answer as having something to say.

“Virtually none,” she said.

It was later, after they had ordered their meals and seemed to have gotten more comfortable with each other, that B asked the hitherto avoided question that he assumed was already in the air between them. “I suppose you wouldn’t want to tell me how you’re able on short notice to create such convincing scenes from your clients’ pasts. It’s very impressive.”

“Thank you, I guess,” she said.

“Have you trained as an actress?”

“I never took any courses,” she said, “if that’s what you mean.”

He meant no more than he asked and perhaps even less. “You don’t give away much,” he said. “You know a lot more about me than I know about you.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Well, who is Julia Clover?”

She offered him a sly smile and held her arms out, framing the picture. “What you see is what there is. Do you want to know where I went to school? Is that what you want? Julia Clover, c’est moi.”

B didn’t know what he wanted, but whatever it was he was not close to having it satisfied. “How old are you?” he asked.

“Older than I look,” she said. “And that’s not a very polite question.”

Feeling thwarted, he thought to mention that the Ms. Clover at the Pavilion offered a very different impression than the Julia Clover in the fashionable black sweater sitting across from him, phrased and rephrased the observation so as not to give offense, but ended up swallowing whatever it was he had been chewing over.

Moments after she had ordered dessert, she excused herself to go to the bathroom. He watched with grudging admiration as she moved among the tables toward the back of the restaurant, feeling an ache of loss at her impending absence.

He knew instinctively that she would not return and regretted how badly he had handled their brief time together.

So when she did return it was as if he was being offered a second chance. A second chance for what? he wondered.

He made conversation, told her things about himself she may not have known, as she worked at her cranberry tart circling the edges as she inched her way inside.

After she had all she wanted, at least a third of it left for the kitchen, he paid the bill with an American Express card.

They shook hands outside the restaurant as prelude to each going his or her own way, which in this case were divergent directions.

He walked a half a block then turned around and called after her,

“I intend to use my rain checks,” he shouted to her. “You’ll be seeing me again.”

She seemed not to have heard him, took another few steps before turning to face him. In the next moment, she was running in his direction, her heels clacking like castanets against the pavement. For an untested moment, he thought of glancing behind him. Instead, he took a brief step in her direction and, filled with intimations of regret, a history of sinking ships flashing before his eyes, offered her his hand.

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