Vengeance in Gray
by Richard Risemberg
It wasn’t easy for me to fall in love. I was far too cognizant of that celebrated sentiment’s impracticalities, having seen it play out badly between my parents, as well as in the lives of several colleagues and acquaintances. Nevertheless, when I met Alison I decided, or was led to decide by hidden feelings, to open my mind to romance. I am not sure that it was a wise decision, but it was a sort of Rubicon in my life, a moment that changed everything.
Would it have been better if I had continued as before? I was not unhappy, not at all. I lived a safe and comfortable life, and a dull one, and that did not bother me. I was happy to leave excitement to the shallow and restless, and frustration to the great masses of people who want more than they can get. I could always—till I met Alison—obtain more than I wanted. I’ve been that way all my life. My parents, who always strove for possession, domination, status, were always in a quandary when my birthday or the tedious gift-giving holidays approached. When they asked me what I wanted, I said, simply, “Nothing.” If they pressed me, I would ask them to replace a worn-out pair of shoes, or my torn jeans—favors they did me as a matter of course over the year anyway. They would buy me extravagant toys—mechanical, electronic, bright and noisy—and I would thank them politely; I was always polite.
Within a week the toys would have migrated, by my hand, into the corner of my closet, or more often out onto the shelf in the back of the garage where seldom-used items piled up. They seemed more appropriate to me there, out in the cold where the expensive cars waited for my parents’ keys and their never-ending hurry. I loved books, but I brought them home from the library, then took them back when I was through. I had a shiny bicycle but it wasn’t far, and I preferred to walk.
Libraries were quiet and full of books, and the people who worked in them helped you only when you asked them to. This was very different from my house, where my parents were constantly offering to help me become more like them. The librarians helped me find what I was looking for, not what they were looking for.
It was my love of libraries that led me to Alison.
I live in a flatland neighborhood in Los Angeles, an area of low commercial buildings on wide boulevards, surrounding narrow streets filled with ordinary houses and a mishmash of older apartment buildings. The apartments are often charming, sometimes bland, rarely holding more than six units each. There’s a narrow little yard in front, usually with a band of listless flowers, and a row of garages in the back, separated from the building by a concrete area where the tenants can turn their cars around. My home is one of those, in this case an edifice built in a vaguely Spanish style, with a fringe of half-round red roof tiles around the upper perimeter, hiding the flat roof, and faded decorative tiles on the risers of the front porch steps. The architecture is entirely false, but the effect is comforting if you don’t look too closely. My unit is on the second floor and has large windows in front, overlooking the street. No genuine old Spanish house would have such windows; the domestic architecture in Spain was much influenced by the Arabs who occupied it for centuries and who loved privacy. But the architect’s ignorance, or cynicism, has given me a light and airy living room which I enjoy in spite of its inappropriate configuration. The building is only three blocks from the library where I am considered an habitué.
The library is also in a faux-Spanish style, with a similar fringe of red roof tiles but with more-appropriate narrow windows. One enters through a cupola from a covered porch paved with reddish-brown flagstones. The library’s large room is comforting in the way of all good libraries, with soft cream-colored walls, the dark reddish-brown floor which continues throughout, and dark wooden tables, chairs, and shelves. Even the computers are dark and respectful, and the children’s section, inevitably noisier, is in a separate chamber. It was in this atmosphere of restrained conviviality that I encountered Alison, who had begun working there when one of longtime assistants moved to another town.
I noticed her right away, although she was nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps that’s why. I am comfortable in the ordinary. She was just another slim white girl with brown hair—someone my mother would have sneered at as a “girl, one each.” She had a smooth narrow face, features neither large nor small, and brown eyes to go with her hair, which she kept a little over shoulder length. She was wearing, that first day, black leggings and a light sweater, a generic outfit in Los Angeles and one that looks good on any reasonably well-shaped woman of almost any age. Alison looked to me to be approaching thirty but not yet close enough to fret about it. She smiled to herself as she worked her way through a pile of returned books and videos, waving them under barcode reader to log them back in. She didn’t return my look, didn’t even notice it. I didn’t particularly want her to. Los Angeles is full of mildly-attractive and quite forgettable girls. The female equivalents of myself. I am not unpleasant looking, but no one looks at me twice unless there is some functional reason to do so.
Such a functional reason arose two or three weeks later. I had ordered, through the library’s website, a book by a British military historian who had been personally acquainted with Lawrence of Arabia and had written an analysis of the same campaign that Lawrence himself had described in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It should have arrived at my library by then, so I went to the desk to ask. Alison was on duty that day. She smiled at me, and I noted that it was a quite pretty smile, and that her eyes smiled with her mouth. Many people smile with their mouths only, but their eyes give away their disinterest. Alison seemed to be a genuinely friendly person. This intrigued me, since I am not. Her mild directness—so unlike my parents’ aggressiveness—awakened a sensation of comfort in myself. The attention seemed neither dutiful nor pretentious. She honestly wanted to help the nearly faceless stranger that I was. That is rare in today’s world. It is a sentiment I don’t often feel myself, but then, I don’t work in a job that involves public contact.
I explained what I wanted; she searched in the computer system for a while, and then apologetically announced that the book had been found to be damaged and would be in the sick bay for a couple of weeks. That was the term she used, “sick bay,” which I found rather charming. Then she recommended another book that she had recently shelved and which she thought might interest me, a history of the small wars Britain was nearly continuously engaged in during Queen Victoria’s reign. She led me to its spot on the shelves, walking gracefully ahead of me in her leggings and sweater. It turned out she knew quite a bit about military history, a subject that seemed as odd an interest for her as it certainly was for me.
When I returned the book, she happened to be on the desk again, and she recognized me and said she had found another volume that might interest me. That was how it started.
Of course eventually we found that we had more to talk about than we could manage in the intervals when the front desk wasn’t busy. Although I am not entirely certain (I suppose it reveals a romantic lack in me that I don’t recall it), I believe she was the one who one day suggested we continue talking over lunch, since it was already 12:30. There were several acceptable eating places around the corner from the library, and so we walked over, chose one without thinking about it at all, and continued our discussion of Victorian politics. At the end of her lunch hour, we split the bill, quite naturally. So began a twice-a-week tradition, during which the discussion inevitably veered into personal territory—family histories, likes and dislikes, cosmological preferences, and all the usual things people talk about when they are beginning to develop intimate sensations about each other.
One day she forgot her little purse, and I picked up the bill for lunch with what was a more conscious casualness than I felt. That too became a tradition. After a few weeks of this new pattern, I asked her out to dinner, then to a walk in the nearby hills, then to dinner several more times. My apartment is near a number of comfortable small restaurants, and she would meet me there so we could stroll over to one of them, and stroll back in the dark of evening afterwards. In due time, we ended up in bed together. She began to spend nights in my place; I, though rarely, in hers. Her apartment was in a banal and very large stucco block building, the kind that covers half a block and has bleak beige-painted hallways, so we both preferred my place.
We had gone so far as to discuss her moving in with me when she met Jonny Quinn. I knew he spelled his first name without the “h” because he came into our lives via a discussion group that met at the library, and his presence was announced in Xeroxed flyers on the bulletin board. He was presenting a series on the literature of Ireland. He was, of course, himself of Irish descent, though he had been born here and spoke with no accent whatsoever. I admired that, as so many Irish-Americans pretend to be more Irish than they are. And he was a handsome man: tall, lean, with a straight-nosed narrow face and curly black haircut a little long on top. He wore muttonchop sideburns, and they looked completely natural and unpretentious on him though they had not been in style for a long time. Worse yet, he knew his literature and his history, and I could not dislike him. Alison had been put in charge of the discussion series, and necessarily spent a certain amount of time with Jonny Quinn. He was much more comfortable with people than I was, or am. Perhaps it was inevitable that Alison, modest though she was, should “fall” for him. He knew nothing of her relationship with me, and apparently she never told him. She never told me about what was happening either, until she announced it to me as a fait accompli one day. This was the real betrayal: she discarded the open confidence we had had in each other. For someone such as myself, this was devastating.
The discussion was difficult, though we behaved like the civilized persons that we were. In the end, she told me I was too quiet, by which I suppose she meant boring. I answered with the cliché: “Still waters run deep.”
She looked me in the eye for the first time in that conversation. “Deep waters run cold,” she answered. With that, she quietly left my life.
I cannot deny that I was deeply hurt. I felt as though I had been in a dream, climbing a stairway towards a door where I expected to find comfort and peace, and instead had stepped out into empty space, because the building was a hollow façade. Of course Alison was not a hollow façade, but our minds are designed to seek causes, and our training urges us to place blame. I couldn’t help feeling rancor towards her. I also felt angry at Jonny Quinn, who was intelligent and well-read, and who could not help having been born attractive. I drew back from him, because of the feelings his presence stirred up—I suppose they were forms of jealousy—and because he was too charming by half. He was not some sort of romantic automaton, after all, but someone who reminded me of my own turbulent parents, colorful people who had produced a colorless child. In the end, I couldn’t blame Jonny Quinn. Alison could have chosen not to be charmed. Just as I, I suppose, could have chosen a more Stoic approach to my abandonment. Not “I suppose”: I could have. It would have been in my nature. But I had willingly let myself change when I met her.
Maybe I should have stayed with the girl I had left a few years before, the one lover I had had before Alison. That one was rather grandly named Aurora, and I had also met her at the library. She was a plain, pale girl with small features in a small round face, and a short Joan of Arc haircut. She dressed so simply one might have been excused for supposing that she belonged to an 18th century religious cult such as the Shakers. However, she was somewhat of a social radical, a very serious person, and quietly aggressive in argument, characteristics of hers which I enjoyed. Also punctiliously honest. She would have been happy holding up half the sky in a Mao suit had she been born in China at the right time.
In a way, I didn’t need her; she was too much like me, or like how I regarded myself as being. I was already me, and didn’t need a duplicate. We were really just friends who went to bed together now and then. I believe the vulgar phrase is “fuck buddies.” Our lovemaking was physiologically successful but never exciting. Neither her orgasms nor mine amounted to much. We talked about this. We talked about everything. Quietly. She wasn’t hurt when I said we should part. When I see her now we say hello, knowing that there’s nothing else to say.
Alison was different without being too different. I was also different, after meeting her, but not too different; still, comfort and torment in sequence must affect you. It was like—what is it called? “Good cop, bad cop.” In the end I confessed to myself that I had feelings, and that I had to accommodate myself to them. I did it by running away, if only symbolically. I started using the library near where I worked instead of the one in my neighborhood. It was a banal modern building, altogether too rectangular, but since my soul was itself too rectangular, I felt that appropriate. I lost myself in my routines. I walked or drove back and forth under the pale dusty-looking light of the Los Angeles sky and tried not to think about my past or my future. I studied other people’s pasts in the books I checked out from my new low-key library and its efficient and dismissive clerks. I enjoyed being ignored. My life went on that way for several months, and it was sufficiently satisfying.
Then, of course, she telephoned me, and my illusion of detachment evaporated; my serenity was distilled into an odd mélange of bitterness and hope when I heard her voice. She was not detached at all; she had called to apologize, and her voice was uncertain and even a little shaky. Jonny Quinn had moved on, and she felt like a fool. Despite his forthright air and genuine intelligent concern, at least for the lives of the dead people he spoke about in his seminars, he had not bothered to inform her that he was happily married—though I wondered how happily married his wife was when I heard that. He had two children. He owned a house in a suburb of San Francisco. His life had no room for Alison. She had been a pleasant diversion, and her term was up. He was going home for a few weeks, and his next tour would take him to the Midwest, where he would find another Alison to keep him entertained. She actually called him a “cad,” something that perhaps only an habitué of libraries would have said in this day and age. I called him a man, a typical man. She said that I was a man, and would I have acted like that? I said I wasn’t a man by the standards of Jonny Quinn’s world, and that she had obviously agreed with that for a while. She said that that was my own interpretation of what had happened. We went back and forth, the way we had gone back and forth about other people’s lives, the lives in books, when we had first met. We agreed to meet for dinner that same night.
It could have turned out badly. I felt I knew what would happen, and I was right. Although she did not come home with me that night, she did a couple of weeks later. I thought of my parents and their fights and reconciliations, but I was not my father, and Alison was not my mother. It seems that a taste of the consequent emotional turbulence had cured her of wanting more excitement in her life. I hoped so. Because now I had a plan.
I would marry her, and I did, not even a year later. I promised her a safe and comfortable life. I didn’t tell her it would be a dull one, but she knew it. Such a life wouldn’t bother me, as I was already living that way by design. It would bother her, or at least I hoped it would, a little bit. But there would be no way out, not for her. I now knew of her underlying need for security and reassurance. I was good at providing both. I was safe and comfortable, and I was dull. It would be my vengeance in gray: a long mild life together, trapped in each other’s reluctance to feel deeply if it meant feeling a risk of loss. I would have company, intelligent talk, and occasional sex; she would have whatever it was she sought from me. What that was, I couldn’t imagine. But then, I didn’t have to. I wasn’t the one who had to live with me.
The ceremony took place downtown, with a judge who presided from a scarred wooden pulpit in a room made bleak by fluorescent tubes. He addressed us with well-practiced joviality that was probably appreciated by most of the couples he would marry. We called a passing clerk inside to be our witness. I am sure they both forgot us as soon as we walked back out the door.
Richard Risemberg was born into a Jewish-Italian household in Argentina, and brought to Los Angeles to escape the fascist regime of his homeland, and has lived there since, except for a digression to Paris in the turbulent eighties. He attended Pepperdine University on a scholarship won in a writing competition, but left in his last year to work. He has worked jobs from gritty to glitzy, starting in a motorcycle shop and progressing through offices, retail, an independent design and manufacturing business, and most recently a stint managing an adult literacy program at a library branch in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. All has become source material for his writing. His fiction concentrates on working-class life, homelessness, and cultures of violence, and the indifference of the Dominant Culture to it all. Richard has published stories, poems, essays, editorials, and articles in edited publications including the Los Angeles Downtown News, the Los Angeles Business Journal, Momentum, and, on the literary side, Snowy Egret, Juxta, Terrain, Empty Mirror, Switchblade, and many others.