And the Wisdom to Know the Difference [story] by Hilary Zaid

I sought the women’s locker room at the West Campus pool only for relief of the most unbearable urges. Deep in the tile-slick vault of lockers and benches, I might twist the towel, wimple-like, into my hair, I might bend over my pale, shaved legs and rub them smooth as relics, I might pull my suit and goggles from my bag and lay them out like a holy veil across the bench, while all the time I was prowling, spying a young woman with sidelong eyes as she stripped off her skirt and tugged herself into a black and narrow spandex suit and disappeared into the chlorine haze beyond the double doors. Then I would glide across the tiles to the woman’s locker, fish out her cell phone, and double-thumb a sharp and witty text message of mind-fuckery and small revenge to Phillipa Rush, my former lover. While I gripped the phone, my face became flushed and my fingers trembled, but when I pressed “Send,” with the whooshing of the words away, fear and trembling and hatred left me, and I pulled on my clothes, relieved, and went back home. I had done it dozens of times.

The campus gym offered bins of small, white towels I thought of as something like communion wafers—they were that tiny and brittle and white. I liked to be poised naked at the bench in front of my locker, staring in a distracted way into its depths, clutching one of these white towels, as I lay in wait for the Sunday swimmers, one by one, to kneel against the benches, to bow into the darkness of their narrow cubbies, to strip down for their ablutions. It was an idea of Catholicism I’d gotten from the movies.

I wanted to feel the agonies of simple suffering, a world of good and evil. Sin, guilt, confession. They would have served me better than all my agnostic, Jewish questioning. They would have pointed a clear way straight to heaven and hell.

Film critic Phillipa Rush, known by everyone on the small California liberal arts school campus as Pippa, had seduced me with the world’s oldest line—“My wife is a brilliant woman, but she won’t touch me”—and a soft, pained look that nearly wrinkled her strangely baby-smooth skin. The problem was that, though I was thirty-five, life had not loaned me its concordance of seduction lines. I had been married since I was twenty-one to a very kind man named Mike. Mike wasn’t the type to use a line, and if he ever had been, I’d forgotten what. I no longer touched Mike either.

Also a cliché: I was Pippa’s grad student. A decade after having children, I had gone back to school to get that film degree I had sacrificed for marriage, children, job. At thirty-five, there was something burning a hole in my heart, a void that needed to be filled. How long had it taken Pippa to convince me that the burning void was the one between my thighs? Pitifully, not long. The fact that she was a woman had made it feel so much like love.

These were truths I could see only in retrospect: the smooth professor with her dark hair (dyed black) and baby face (acid-peeled and Botoxed), her practiced interest, her rehearsed torment.

She could be so penetrating in her glances, so intent, so kind. I was exotic, she whispered, so passionate, so intellectual. Who, at thirty-five, would not want to be a phenomenon, a mystery? I was a woman: how couldn’t I notice that she was articulate, self-confident, sexy? And I was a mother: couldn’t I see the places where she had been hurt, the places she needed to be touched? I wished I could rewind my life to the moment in her office hours when Pippa leaned across her book-strewn desk and murmured, “Dahlia, you’re a very, very dangerous woman for me to meet.” I wished I could reach back in time and slap myself in the face.

 

Mike loved me unconditionally. But at a certain stage of life, you want conditions. You want to feel like you’re still good enough to pass a test. Pippa was an academic, a film critic without a column or a TV show. Her fame extended only to the borders of a world that was too small for her ego, and so, often, after a lunch date on which she’d slid her hand inside my bra in the darkness of the theater, she would call me and scream at me about the little-mindedness of women who had children. Any woman in her right mind would know this was abusive. But I was no longer in my right mind. Pippa’s steamy texts, her forbidden glances, her showings of Cocteau: she had done something to my brain.

Afterwards, I’d miraculously crawled from the ashes back into the quiet, trying, ordinary life with children. For that—the blessing of a life without a Pippa in it—I resolved to shout hosannas, to count out peaceful rosaries of days. I resolved, like the martyrs and the saints who seemed to give Mike’s mother so much comfort, to brutalize myself. Only, every now and then, I felt a stray surge of powerless rage and I had to let it out. I had to punish Pippa, who had done so much to punish me.

I stood at my usual locker, number 1157, the one with the Hurley sticker slapped across the vents, waiting for a woman to show up, strip down, and leave behind her phone. (This was one of the truths I loved and feared about women: we trusted each other dangerously; we didn’t lock our locker doors.) I was naked, sharpening the phrasing of a text in my head. Early on in her seduction, Pippa had warned me, “Watch out for me. I’m a real asshole.” Another line. What I realized now: she wasn’t warning me; she was bragging. So I couldn’t text her: You’re a philandering bitch. I had to goose her at her blind spot: Pippa had a nasty little habit of “forgetting” her sources in her lectures and her research papers. I had actually heard Pippa repeat my own comments about the female form in Metropolis and claim them as her own. Like the habit of seduction, plagiarism was probably pathological with her. An assimilation of everything around her into her own devouring ego. But, unlike seduction, not something she was proud of.

Do they know u steal?

Best to keep it general, I thought, and simple. Just enough to stoke Pippa’s slow-burning paranoia. (Pippa loved wind-bagging about her frenetic social scene of semi-famous academics, especially in the Ivy Leagues; the faculty in her own department, Pippa suspected, had it in for her, professional jealousies. More likely, I thought, it was that she was derivative and fucking their wives.)

Do they know u steal?

I imagined Pippa frantically thumbing her iPhone: Who is this? She would never mistake the sender of that message for one of her many conquests.

A young woman glided into the locker room, a graduate student or young faculty type, yoga pants and a college sweatshirt. I smiled at her. Thank you for letting me borrow your phone, I whispered to the woman inside my secret mind. You are doing a good, good thing. And the young woman smiled back, a deep, warm, brown-eyed smile that made me feel an even deeper gush of gratitude. You could tell in a glance: she was a good person; her iPhone password was going to be 1234. I waited for the brown-eyed girl to snap on her suit and goggles. Afterwards, she trailed behind her the scent of jasmine and cedar. A sweet smell that reminded me of my children.

No one ever swam for under twenty minutes, minimum. I didn’t hurry as I lifted the latch, sifted through the gym bag, and found the telephone. I made sure not to disturb the young woman’s bra or panties.

It always made me nervous, this part, the phone in hand, not because I was afraid of getting caught, but because I feared that, once I typed Pippa’s number into the text message app, the closed channel between us would open up again like Hell’s gate, Pippa would reach out her fingers and grab me by the throat. She was still that powerful, still that terrifying in my mind. A leg-shaking dread and terror: it was the residual echo of the fear that had plagued me, when I knew Pippa, every time my phone would buzz. Yes, I knew this vengeance texting was a bad thing. I knew a future version of myself would want to reach back into this moment and shriek. But the present version of myself saw it as exposure therapy, the kind they used for phobias, the repeated stimulus that would cure me, so I would no longer feel afraid.

Pippa had been a lens through which my husband and my children, and myself beside them, had appeared weirdly, weirdly small. The thing about a lens, though, was that you could turn it around. Or smash it.

I typed in the message first, then the phone number I wished I didn’t know by heart. When the number began to auto-fill, and then Pippa’s name popped up by itself, I ran into a toilet stall and felt my liquid bowels rush into the toilet bowl.

Inside the locked stall, a wet confessional, I scrolled through the string of text messages between Pippa and the Brown-Eyed Girl and waited for the rising tide of jealousy to flood me. Pippa had loved to whip me into frantic fits with the mention of other women, took pleasure in the act of manipulation: Marta M. was scintillating, she’d text. Best watch out, my dark Dahlia. But as I read through Pippa’s luring messages to the Brown-Eyed Girl, messages very, very much like the messages she had once texted me (a script!), I felt myself overcome not by jealousy, but by a terrible, terrible sadness. Sadness for the poor idiot I had been, and sadness for the cedar-smelling Brown-Eyed Girl. The towel perched on my head tilted off toward the wall like the fallen statue of a saint. I am evil, Pippa texted me/the Brown-Eyed Girl, and you are so very good. The eagerness with which I had lapped up this woman’s filth was a crime that needed to be expiated. Now it spun into a web of protective anger for the Brown-Eyed Girl. I flushed until the water beneath me ran clear as a baptismal font.

My thumbs ventriloquized: Don’t call me anymore. Don’t text. Or I’ll contact your department head. I assumed that disciplinary action was a real threat that might call Professor Pippa off. But what about the Brown-Eyed Girl? Pippa’s sudden absence would hit her like so many of her punishing silences had struck me, astonishing icebergs of silence and withholding. Distances to be overcome. I rubbed the screen blank, and went back to the lockers, thinking.

I could befriend the Brown-Eyed Girl. Casually. Over weeks. I could show up in the locker room, and chat about laps and school, until the Brown-Eyed Girl revealed her heartache. With Pippa, there could only, ever be heartache. I pulled the towel off my head and peered into the dark of the Brown-Eyed Girl’s locker, looking for clues. Befriending her was a nice idea, but if I knew anything about the way Pippa preyed on women, I knew that this girl would keep Pippa hidden. I knew the pleasure and the searing pain of Pippa Rush: the Brown-Eyed Girl would protect the wounded place where Pippa made her feel like less than nothing; she would feel too much shame not to protect her.

The smell of cedar wafted up from the dark locker, the warm human smell of the Brown-Eyed Girl’s blue jeans. What would I have wanted someone to tell me when I was wound up in Pippa’s snares? (“If only I had met you years ago.”) What would I have listened to? The only one I had told, my sister in Boulder, had handled me so gently: “She’s not necessarily a bad person, honey. Just bad for you. Very, very bad for you.” But that would be a lie. Pippa was a bad person, a broken person, a brittle person, a toxic and destructive person. And the Brown-Eyed Girl would never believe that, not yet.

Worse, if I tried to warn this girl, Pippa would tell her what she’d told me about the last one: that she was being stalked by a woman she’d rejected, a woman who’d never gotten over her. A woman full of pent-up bitterness and rage. “This is different,” Pippa would reassure the Brown-Eyed Girl, as she’d once reassured me: “You are different from anyone I’ve ever met.” I blinked at the iPhone glowing in my hand. Should I just delete Pippa’s name and number? There was nothing I could tell Brown Eyes that Pippa wouldn’t turn into something else. That’s what happened when one person controlled the entire conversation.

I picked up the Brown-Eyed Girl’s soft T-shirt and inhaled the innocence. I wanted to take this young woman in my arms, press her brown eyes into my breast and coo, “You poor, poor thing.” I wanted to tell the Brown-Eyed Girl that Pippa fucked like a teenage boy. Thirty seconds!

I remembered the words from the Sinead O’ Connor record Mike and I had listened to over and over in our senior spring at college. Cat-eyed, bald Sinead, before she tore up her picture of the Pope. Back then, I thought the opening words of the record were part of the catechism: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference. Then I slid the phone back into the woman’s pool bag, the bag back into the locker and shut the door. There was nothing I could do.

“Johanna’s mother died.”

“Pardon?” Still naked except for my skimpy gym towel, I swiveled toward the voice, a woman in a black and red tank suit who seemed to be speaking to me. I recognized her as a swimmer whose phone I had borrowed to text Pippa a couple months ago. Password: 0000. “Johanna?”

The swimmer peeled her cap away from her head like a robber tearing off a rubber face. I wondered if Pippa had ever texted this woman back. Broad-shouldered and tall, the swimmer looked sturdy and practical, like someone who would have replied to Pippa: Wrong number. I wondered if it had sent Pippa off into one of her fits of paranoia. I devoutly hoped so.

“Small, dark-haired woman, big ankh tattoo?” the swimmer prompted me.

This woman assumed I was a Sunday regular, that I knew the other regulars. Come to think of it, I could place the ankh tattoo. I had seen Johanna, who always showed up with a lively-looking older woman, dress and undress.

“Her mother?” I watched the swimmer strip her black straps from her shoulders. Their white ghosts traced her scapulas like wings.

“Mmm. Johanna’s inviting all her mother’s pool friends to the wake.” The swimmer pulled on a pair of black panties, turned and fished around her bag. Then she pulled out a Xerox showing a photo of Johanna and her mother—I recognized her merry blue eyes—and a fringe of strips giving the address, and tacked it to the post between the lockers.

To lose a mother, a champion and life’s companion! I fingered the paper fringe.

My destructive addiction to Pippa had felt like mortal tragedy. I had wanted what I’d wanted, and I hadn’t cared whose life I destroyed, even when it turned out to be my own. But Pippa was gone. My life had, mercifully, returned to its garden patch of mundane losses: the tiny plot of dirt in the front yard where I dropped the children’s curled goldfish. I was still breathing.

“Could I have one?” I asked. These swimmers, I saw now, looked after their own. This was something Pippa, who thrived on women’s backbiting, their horrible, sordid dramas, could never understand. Love, mutuality. Transcendence. I had used to be a part of that. I wanted to be a part of it still. I watched the angel-backed swimmer as she dressed, then pulled out my own unused white one-piece from my gym bag.

I never really wanted to become a Catholic. I’d just wanted an iconography that made a virtue out of suffering. But there was no virtue in pain. Or punishment. Just the firmness of holding on, the relief of letting go.

The cool and purifying air washed my bare shoulders as I stepped onto the deck. I felt like a pilgrim in my tight swim costume and my bare, chilled feet; I tiptoed with care along the slippery tiles like a sinner along a bed of nails, a sinner renouncing sin. I would never text Pippa again.

Inside the locker room, tacked to the wall under the poster for Johanna’s mother like the fragment of the shroud torn from a martyred saint, the second poster fluttered in the breeze of the closing door. I had flipped it over and, on the back, I’d Sharpied my confession: The Lies I Let Myself Believe and tacked it next to Brown Eyes’ locker. “You are a dangerous woman for me to meet,” I’d written. “You are different than anyone I’ve ever met.” The Brown-Eyed Girl would have to draw her own conclusions. I’d drawn mine: none of us is that special, not in love, not in suffering; and whatever you believed about an angry or a compassionate God, no one should be. To be merely human: Wasn’t that really the point?

Out on the deck, I plunged into the clear, blue water and washed myself clean.

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

Image by Chris Chan

Hilary Zaid is an alumna of the 2013 Tin House Writers Workshop and the 2012 James D. Houston Scholar at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Lilith Magazine, Utne Reader, Southwest Review, and (forthcoming) CALYX. Her story “The Darkness between the Stars” is the 2014 BLOOM Chapbook Prize winner in fiction (Judge: Lucy Jane Bledsoe). “And the Wisdom to Know the Difference” first appeared in The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women (Shade Mountain Press 2015).