Harry at Crossroads

By Harlyn Aizley

Harry is standing on the corner of University Drive and First Street, just having settled his youngest son into the dormitory that will be both mother and father for the year, when it occurs to him that now might be the time to play his precious card; that steaming iron of a chip doled out in a moment of desperation all the way back in 1967. Harry can see it as clearly as if it were being played for him in Technicolor and Dolby sound, the day thirty-two years ago, when he whirled past the Montrose Avenue Parking lot on his bicycle to find his new wife Dorothy and her boss Sam sitting alone together in the old black Toyota, Harry's old black toyota, locked in something worse than an embrace, engaged in an act of betrayal larger and more devious than that evoked by petting and prying; the day he found them talking, as in talking about whether or not to pet and pry. And now Harry cannot keep himself from going over the whole sordid event detail by excruciating detail, as he waits for the orange hand of the crossing light to turn to white, thereby giving him the signal to go ahead.

Harry is remembering stopping his bicycle, peering into the car, and staring at the two of them in disbelief. Dorothy was crying. Her face was twisted and she kept sweeping the sleeve of her navy blue wool coat across her eyes. Instinctively, Harry had pedalled over to the car to comfort his wife, when suddenly it dawned on him that the reason Dorothy was crying had nothing to do with him, or something her mother had said to her that day over lunch, or the way her stylist had cut her hair, or the assassination of her beloved Jack, but everything to do with the man seated next to her. The realization caused Harry to brake so abruptly that the air around the car must have shifted as Dorothy and Sam interrupted their conversation and looked up at exactly the same instant.

"I'll talk to you at home," Dorothy shouted through the open window.

Harry was dazed like he had just woken up from a nap to find himself halfway around the block in someone else's bed, only he was on his bicycle and his wife was having some intense verbal heat with another man in a car and, "I'll talk to you at home," was supposed to put it all in perspective enough to enable him to slip his sneakers back into his toe clips and pedal home. Harry just stared at Dorothy, unable to use the mouth God gave him to form what the rest of the world called words.

"We'll talk when I get home," Dorothy repeated as if it was a hearing problem and not a problem of total and utter incomprehension that was the reason for Harry's lack of response. Harry continued staring into the car.

"She'll meet you at home," Sam said, always the boss.

In the split second that followed, Harry chose between walking over to the car, ripping the door off of its hinges, dragging Sam out by the collar, and pummeling him into the ground, or simply leaving this scene, biking around the corner, and finding another.

Harry chose the latter. He inserted his feet into his toe clips and biked off in the direction he had been going, hoping to pedal into existence an explanation, a way around, or better yet, a way out of, what he knew awaited him at the apartment - more of that talking; talking about the talking Dorothy had done with this man, endless processing of Harry's hurt and rage, the requisite six or seven months of marriage counseling to decide whether or not they should stay together, and if they did, the sentence to a lifetime of imminent distrust.

Harry pedalled furiously, passed the public library with the wall to wall windows, passed the convenience store where the automatic doors never worked and patrons had to push their way in with more force than it would have taken to plow through rusting barn doors. He pedalled faster than the midday traffic to the bike path at the reservoir where he wove countless vicious laps between joggers and golden retrievers and women with strollers. Finally, forty-five minutes later, Harry declared defeat and biked home. There he found Dorothy sitting bare-assed on the toilet, her jeans around her ankles, sobbing, "Harry, we need to talk."

Harry thought the sound of Dorothy's voice was more like that of retching than crying and he felt himself tense at the thought of watching her throw up. In the two years that they had been married Dorothy had not once vomited and so was ignorant to the effect it would have on Harry who gagged at the sight of phlegm on the sidewalk.

"Talk to me, Harry," she gasped, and Harry felt the color drain from his face. "Say something."

But Harry could not speak. It was all he could do just to lean back against the wall across from the bathroom, and using it as support, slowly slide his body into a crouching position; a posture he assumed somehow would be answer enough.

It was. Dorothy winced. "I think I should move out."

Not only was his wife of two years talking with another man and threatening to vomit, now she was leaving him.

"Why?" Harry muttered, and once he managed to pass that one word through his lips, others slowly inched forth. "Why do you think you should move out?"

Dorothy simply shook her head and sighed deeply.

She wasn't going to heave. Words suddenly flowed from Harry like aged wine from a bottle.

"And why are you sitting on the toilet?"

"I don't know."

"Are you in love with him?"


"Did you sleep with him?"


"Did anything happen?"


Harry felt his stomach tense. The last drops of wine spilled forth. "What...What did you do?"

"We kissed."

Harry didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He was crouched there thinking about kisses and how vast and varied they are, like snowflakes and daisies, each individual and unique; how some involved the thrusting of tongues and passion, others just the dry brush of lip across lip. His mind raced between the myriad of options. He wanted to know which, but not badly enough to ask.

"Now you'll want me to leave." Dorothy was train-wrecked, ambushed, undone.

"I don't want you to leave."

"You don't?"


It was true. Harry didn't want her to leave. He didn't want to watch her throw up or to sit in the bathroom crying. He didn't want to call his friends and relatives and tell them he and Dorothy were getting divorced. He didn't want anything but for all of this to go away, back into the dark hole from which it sprang, and to be sitting across from Dorothy at their new mahogany dining room table eating dinner and planning for the week to come. But most of all Harry didn't want to talk. He went over and took his broken wife into his arms.

"Oh, Harry, I don't deserve you. You don't deserve this. I feel so bad," Dorothy said, and then lifted her tear-stained face to his, took his face in her hands, and pleaded, "Go kiss someone too, Harry, so we'll be even. And then whenever I see your sweet face I won't have to feel so ashamed."

It is this opportunity that Harry has kept in the back of his heart for thirty-two years, despite Dorothy's conversion to lifelong fidelity. It is this glistening coin that Harry has brought out on scattered occasions to fondle and caress and then slip gently back into the recesses of his mind, to save and to squander and then unexpectedly blow on a sunny afternoon just like today.

Today the girl in question is Cindy Matthews, resident counselor of Bryant House on the east side of his son David's campus. There have been others, sirens calling him to play his hand. There was Margaret, the woman he had left for Dorothy, who called him one night in drunken libidinous languor and slurred into the phone, "Harry, is it too late?" There was Diane the therapist he secretly had lusted after whom he once ran into by the telephones in the back of the dimly lit Four Point Restaurant, alcohol on her breath, a familiar twinkle in her eyes. There was the carpool mother, the den mother, the waitress at his favorite cafe, the first woman Rabbi at Temple B'Nai Olam, at least ten of his children's teachers, not to mention Kurt, David's football coach, whose sculpted abs and biceps came out of nowhere to strike Harry, at the time knee-deep in mid-life crisis, right between the eyes. But always Harry refrained, slipped the coin back inside his pocket and waited to see whom else life would bring his way; savoring the chance like a piece of chocolate torte, a day in the sun, water to a dying man.

And then one day Harry was fifty-six and sliding down the other side of dreaming. It was now or never if he wanted the object of his affection to be able to run her fingers through his hair, to fondle muscle instead of sagging flesh, to feel the hard pressure of his desire and therefore the vastness of his integrity when he stopped her at a kiss because that, after all, would be all he was allowed.

This is why Harry is standing now on the corner of University and First even considering cashing it in for Cindy the resident counselor with the dyed hair and the small flower tattoo on her right shoulder - simply because she is here and time is running out.

Harry waits for his signal and then crosses the street and heads for the Save-More where he buys himself a pack of peppermint gum. Earlier, he and David had shared a pitcher of beer and a large garlic pizza - the father and son pre-semester equivalent of the mother and daughter trip to Bed N' Bath - and he doesn't want that to spoil the moment with Cindy whom he assumes smells of candles and rain and 1967.

Cindy's free room and board consists of a three room apartment in the basement of the freshman dormitory. Harry already has knocked on its door to ask for keys to David's cramped triple. He already has had a glimpse of the hanging plants and bookcases and beanbag chair and Cindy herself, caught off-guard, winking at him from behind a thirsty bathrobe. He already has made up his mind.

Harry knocks softly, hoping that David doesn't hear, though his triple is seven flights up with music blaring through three pairs of speakers. When there is no answer, Harry allows himself one swift, hard rap.

"Hi, Mr. Lawson." Cindy this time is prepared. Her platinum hair is combed and parted. Her green eyes are outlined in coal black by Revlon. Her sweatpants and t-shirt have been replaced by a short cotton dress.

"Hi," Harry says as casually as possible. He assumes she knows why he's here, maybe even all about Dorothy and Sam and that fateful day when he became heir to the kingdom of fantasy. But then Cindy offers a wink so quick and nervous that Harry worries he may have mistook a tick for a ticket to ride.

"Did you guys lock yourselves out again?" she asks. Wink, wink.

"Uh, no. David's all set," Harry says. "I just came by to say thank you for your help."

"Sure, no problem." Cindy smiles broadly enough to convince Harry of a hint of mischief, the faint aroma of mutual attraction.

"Can I come in for a second?" He takes the leap.

"Sure. I was just making some tea. Would you like some?"

"Sure," he says trying her word on for size and, liking its fit, saying it again, "Sure. I'd love some."

Cindy leads Harry to a patio off the living room. She holds a small wicker basket filled with teabags in one hand, a steaming kettle in the other.

Suddenly nervous, Harry points to a small table by the window. "Why not here?" Indoors, he presumes, is safer than outdoors, what with David's propensity for impromptu frisbee and skateboarding.

"Sure, whatever."

Harry squeezes his six foot frame into one of two small chairs and waits. He is used to this waiting, after all, and thinks what's another twenty minutes; from the look in Cindy's eyes it could be less. He pushes his hair back and removes his glasses. He is sixteen standing on the precipice of passion. He braces himself for the familiar wave of sex and heat and the urge to touch every surface of the body before him, to breathe in every inch of its scent. He will steady himself by remembering that he is only here to even out the jagged edges; that what is about to happen is simply the tangible exchange necessary for the restoration of order and balance in an otherwise intangible world.

Cindy removes two gauze squares from a box and points to swami somebody or other painted on the side, "How about Indian Spice? They say it cleanses the soul." She slips one bag into the mug nearest her. The other she dangles coyly like a hypnotist, as she slowly and deliberately reaches toward Harry and the cow-shaped mug on the table before him.

Harry tries not to notice Cindy's breasts suddenly revealed by a two inch gap in her dress, but notices anyway and instantly wonders if that tips the scales. When Dorothy kissed Sam they both were wearing heavy autumn coats; at least that's what Harry always presumed, that the kiss happened in the car that day and not...

"Do you take sugar, Mr. Lawson?" Cindy's smiling as if she knows the whole story and could as easily fill him in on all of its sordid details as pour them two mugs of tea.

"Harry," he asserts. And then, "Uh, yes, no, yes," like it's a trick question, "Maybe just a little."

Cindy pushes the sugar bowl his way, careful to brush his hand with hers and winks, again, this time hard and slow, so there can be no mistake. "Here you go, Harry. Help yourself."

The drive home is four and a half hours of fast food and toll booths. Harry can't believe how quick it was, like losing your virginity or putting down the deposit on your first home. Poof! And it's gone. Thirty-five years of planning and scheming, down the tubes; traded in for salvation granted in the second it took to gently lift the young woman's hand from his thigh and place it back on the small table.

"I should be going," Harry had told her.

"But you haven't even touched your tea, Harry." Another wink.

Back home Dorothy waits anxiously to hear of the dormitory and the afternoon pizza, the events of her youngest child's departure into manhood; assured he was delivered there safely and soundly by her husband of thirty-four years.

The South Carolina Review, 2001.






© 2003 Harlyn Aizley