Don't. Stop.

By Patty Houston


Lenore was only a little drunk as she waved to the inflated Frosty in her front yard, admiring his jaunty green hat with its sprig of mistletoe tucked at an angle on one side. She winked back then walked past him to unlock the front door and jam a bag through the opening. It was the beginning of winter break and she couldn't wait to show her husband all the gifts from the children: inflated candy canes and reindeer, air-filled snow globes and angels.

Rose, the teacher across the hall, had given her a bottle of wine and the two had drunk half of it after their students were dismissed. The other half she was saving for Ben. She hoped he'd be home soon because she was planning a round of their favorite game "Don't. Stop. don't-stop" in front of the fireplace. She'd graphed a temperature rise on her ovulation chart that morning, and who knew, maybe they'd get lucky. But she wouldn't tell Ben that. Instead she'd explain how in two days it'll be Global Orgasm for Peace Day, a massive anti-war demonstration that she'd heard about on NPR, and tell him they should start practicing tonight.

She popped in her "Winter Solstice" CD and punched repeat for number seven, "Joy to the World," keeping time with her earring bells. As she placed her inflated candy canes and snow globes on tables around the living room, she called, "Ben? Ben?"

There was no answer.

She filled a coffee mug with ice cubes and between bites told herself he'd be home any minute.

Worry sat on Lenore's chest like a fat Santa as the hours slipped by. She tapped her fingers on the side of the empty wine bottle and squeezed her eyes shut, trying and failing to delete the memory of that September weekend only three months ago when she hadn't stopped herself from opening an envelope addressed to Ben in feathery strokes. The letter was from a girl he'd met, a teenager, at a bluegrass festival (those damn festivals that happened every week spring to fall) his band had played. Later Lenore found out the girl was just a teenager. The letter read: "Hello sweet thing. Here's the Monroe Boys' interview I promised. We had some fun, right? I can't wait to see you real soon. That sucker mark on my neck is…" Lenore dropped the letter.

In his own defense later, Ben blamed this lapse on his bass player Tom who'd said, "If you don't screw that girl, you don't got hair on your ass." Lenore tried not to think how, after that, she'd found Dr. Powers, Annette, and started seeing her, sometimes with Ben. And how she kept seeing her, even after Annette kept mentioning her weekend catering business and asking if Lenore and her friends could use her. Lenore also tried not to think about how the teen, just a groupie Ben assured her, already had a baby.


It was after ten o'clock and Lenore was sitting at the window, a fresh mug of ice cubes in one hand. She dozed for a time. When she awoke, she looked out the window. Frosty was flat on the lawn, vandalized, a hole in his belly. How did that happen? A screwdriver? Why Frosty? she thought as she patched the spot with white tape and pumped fresh air into the snowman. And why me?

Ben came home after midnight, just breezed in like it was no big deal, his wet hair combed a new way, gangster-style, and he stuck to his guns when she questioned him: "I fell asleep at Tom's after practice. I didn't realize the time. Tom's phone didn't work." And even though Lenore was relieved Ben wasn't dead, it passed. Now she wanted to kill him. But later, as she lay beside her husband in their queen-sized bed, she couldn't stop from asking, "Ben, what's going on?" In the silence that followed, she pressed herself against him, hoping he'd tip her chin up and look into her eyes, hoping he'd put one hand under her tee shirt and the other hand in her hair, taming her thick waves into a capital C behind her ear. What he finally mumbled was, "Busy, music," as he dropped off to sleep, each snore a horror movie sound effect. Lenore shivered beneath every blanket in the house. She watched the blinds slice Frosty's shadow into neat servings across their bedroom wall.

The next morning Ben told her he was leaving. And he did. As the rest of the world prepared to stay home and have an orgasm for world peace, Lenore's husband slipped into the wool neck scarf she'd knitted him, and he left. Lenore felt dizzy, like someone sucker punched. Yet part of her unwound, as if she'd known all along Ben would leave her, she just hadn't known when.

Later in the afternoon, Ben called. "I want to meet you tomorrow night at the house."

"To talk things over?" she asked.

"To pack," he said. She heard a baby squalling in the background.

She felt sure Ben would never return. He'd found someone younger, a teenager with a baby. The two of them were probably laughing at her – at what a fool she'd been never to come to the festivals, even in summer when she didn't teach. At how she'd been so eager to get married right after graduating from college. At how, after three years of marriage, she still was not pregnant. He was never coming back.

Lenore rearranged the airy candy canes and reindeers, the snow globes and angels, her only consolation. She played "Winter Solstice," skipping number seven. She considered phoning Dr. Powers, but figured December was a hectic time in the catering business, so she settled for a tumbler filled with ice and cracked every cube between her teeth. She kept watch over Frosty from the window, fancying the red stripes on his yellow scarf that fluttered in the wind, imagining he danced around the yard sweeping snow into piles with the broom in his left hand, imagining she danced with him. What she didn't imagine was that, while Ben's leaving was unexpected, in fact, it was predictable. "Jailbreak" was the word that came to mind when she thought of her marriage. After college she'd been too scared to cut ties to her parents and make it on her own, so she'd done the next best thing and married Ben. Even though she knew he played guitar in The Bachelor Boys Band at dives around town. Sometimes on weekends she went to hear him play at places with names like Clive's Pub or Rudy's Good Time Place. She'd sit in the dark and drink too much. In the smoky spotlight up front, Ben's scuffed boots and Marlboro's made him seem handsome and mysterious. His deep laughter rumbled into the mike. He lured her in every time. Sometimes she stayed for every set and went to the all-night café afterward with Ben and the boys and their "old ladies." Other times, most of the time, Lenore left Ben to his fans, who ordered him free drinks between sets. She liked to think she had the best of both worlds: married and single rolled into one.

Lenore pulled a chair up to the window to keep an eye on Frosty, remembering when she and Ben were brand new to each other. She'd met him at Herm's Saloon and the two of them danced to Patsy Cline songs from the jukebox until the place shut down. Then some more at Ben's place to no music at all, though it seemed that music played. Lenore left her lookout post and began pacing the house. She found Rose's phone number. She'd say, Rose, Ben's gone. I feel so terrible, Rose. But Lenore caught herself. Rose was away skiing with her boyfriend. She didn't feel terrible anymore, only tired. She refilled her tumbler with more cubes. When she returned to the window, Frosty was down. She popped a cube into her mouth and bit hard. She felt something give near a wisdom tooth but she paid little attention. She put on her coat and went outside. When she saw the damage, she placed white tape over the puncture, and got the snowman inflated again.

All night, her teeth hurt. In the morning, doing her best to ignore the pain, Lenore baked bread, made some soup so the house would be full of good smells when Ben came later. After a while, the ache in her mouth was too much so she phoned her dentist's office. The receptionist said to come in right away, they'd try to work her into the schedule. Before leaving, she turned on every lamp in the house so their home would look cozy, warm and full of light.


At the dentist's office she sat on a vinyl chair and waited for Dr. Jarvis's opening line about how long it had been since her last check-up. This time she wouldn't flush and stammer an apology. Instead she'd divert him with the truth and say: I was chewing on a piece of ice last night and broke a tooth.

While she waited, she skimmed the newspaper until she caught sight of the words "I star in adult films." She could not not read Abby's column.

Dear Abby:

I star in adult films. My career does not embarrass me, but sometimes other people's response to my profession is harsh.

I want to enroll my six year old son Brian in a religious private school, but there's a blank on the application where I have to state my profession and my husband's, too. Brian's father Edward works in the adult film industry also.

Edward says to just lie. I know Brian will be rejected if they discover we lied on the application. What do you think? -Candy in San Diego.

Abby and Lenore were on the same page on that one: Why lie, Candy? You're in the entertainment business, right? So say so – then cross your fingers that none of your fans works at the private school.

Lenore fantasized about writing to Abby herself to discuss marriage. She'd tell her about being married and single at the same time, about Ben moving out, about today being Global Orgasm for Peace Day. Should she mention the assaults Frosty had suffered?

A deep voice came from behind the receptionist's desk. Lenore looked up and saw Dr. Jarvis cross from one patient room to another. He had graying wavy hair, and he wore a white doctor coat over dark trousers. She began wondering about his manhood under his doctor coat. Her neck flushed as she became distracted by images of her husband: Ben caressing her in bed on a morning early in their marriage. Ben kissing her throat, asking if she wanted coffee. Coffee, she'd said – I like my coffee with cream. Ben coming inside her. Ben, for months afterward saying, Coffee? Her saying, Yes, with cream. Ben laughing. Her laughing.

"Lenore Trenton," a dental assistant said, and as Lenore followed her green-smocked shoulders down the corridor, she wondered if Dr. Jarvis's manliness was on the assistant's mind, too.

Lenore sat in the chair, humming to the piped-in music and rubbing her tongue over her cracked tooth. She thought about what she could tell Dr. Jarvis: She couldn't keep away from the freezer, it was worse than having a sweet tooth. What started as a craving for ice ended with her biting into every cube and pretty soon the tray was empty. If he asked her to trace her habit to when it first began, she'd say she longed for her first piece of ice when she read the letter from the teenager. It seemed like every time she thought about Ben and that girl, she plucked a cube from the tray until now she was thinking she might hook a tumbler to her waist. Who'd have thought a piece of ice could crack your teeth? Tooth. Or was this the first in a line of broken teeth?

Dr. Jarvis walked in. "How's Ben?" he said. "Haven't seen him in a while."

He's living with a teenager and her baby, Lenore wanted to say, but said instead, "Ben's taken to snuff lately, he can deny it all he wants, but there's no denying the stains on his once-beautiful white teeth. Nothing like Frosty's snow-bright grin," an outright lie that charmed her.

Not that Dr. Jarvis seemed to notice. He was busy preparing to stick a little camera inside her mouth for close-ups. Lenore breathed him in. He smelled good, wholesome, like laundry fresh from the dryer. Soon pictures of her gums and teeth were the feature on the TV screen mounted on the wall in front of her. "See here," he said, pointing to a thin line on her tooth. "And here? And here? You've got three cracks, one in each tooth."

No surprise there. Yet she was surprised. But she kept it to herself, even when Dr. Jarvis warned her, "At this rate, you'll be toothless before you and Ben have your first child."

Lenore willed her eyes to remain dry by vowing: No more ice. No More Ice. But then all she wanted was a tumbler full of ice. To sidetrack her craving, she laced her fingers and closed her eyes. Behind her lids she saw the battlefield of their queen-sized bed. Near dawn, when Ben had moaned, she' d reached for him, but he'd turned away and inched closer to the edge, his back stiff with indifference.

"I can repair the damage to these teeth today, but my advice to you is to take up smoking or chewing gum. Okay?" he joked.

She looked up at his light eyes. "Okay."

"Good. My assistant will give you a shot of Novocain, and when you're numb, I'll get to work."

While Lenore waited, her first thoughts turned to ice, then she imagined Dr. Jarvis getting them a room at the Red Roof Inn (if Ben could do it with his teenager, she could do it with her dentist), where he kissed every one of her fingers until the worry drained out of her and she took long trembling breaths. And when he lifted her skirt and slid his hand between her legs, his was the gentlest voice as he chanted, "All is well, all is well," while she rested her head on the gray-black hair piled high on his chest, tickly as an angora sweater, and strained to hear the pulsing of their hearts.

She knew it was the Novocain working on her –wasn't it?-- giving her these thoughts, and she let it: She let herself see Dr. Jarvis tighten his arms around her waist, pulling her closer, closer while she listened for the drumbeat in her blood, heating the back of her neck, his breath on her face, the drum in her legs and her arms, him melting into her like cream in coffee.

The dental assistant's voice startled Lenore out of her daydream. "Open wide, Mrs. Trenton," she said, "I've got a shot of Novocain ready for you."

"Novocain? But…"

"Pretty soon you won't feel a thing." The assistant was wrong about that because Lenore was going to rip the leather off that chair if she couldn't have some ice soon but, of course, there was no ice and now there was no stopping the truth that she had flunked out of marriage. Her parents had raised Lenore from a fledgling to full-fledged, and all she wanted was the chance to do the same with the children Ben gave her, but the truth was: Ben had found a teenager with a baby and Lenore's days of being single and married were over.


After leaving Dr. Jarvis's office, Lenore, not wanting to return to her empty house, walked block after block until she saw a sign outside Reeba's Bowling Alley: "Sometimes a person just has to get away from it all and go bowling. You know?" Yeah,she thought and pushed her way through the double glass doors. Rose, her teacher-friend, had a hobby of painting bowling pins to look like famous people, pin pals she called them. There was a Caesar bowling pin, a Queen Elizabeth, an Einstein, the principal who regularly criticized Rose's teaching methods. Rose bowled that guy over thousands of times. "I've invented a new art form," Rose had said, "one that pays for vacations." Lenore considered asking the manager at Reeba's if he'd sell her three pins: Ben, the girl, the baby.

Lanes one through six were occupied with the Senior Ladies League. Lenore ordered an extra large iced tea with lemon and plenty of ice then pulled up a chair to watch. She was only twenty-four years old, but she felt old enough to join the Senior Ladies. She felt better as the Ladies rolled, laughed, bowled some more. One woman, Dot, who was blind, rolled the ball after her friend told her which pins were left standing. Dot usually missed. "That's all right, Dot," her friend said, "when you could see them, you still missed."

After crunching the last ice cube in the cup, Lenore got up to leave but paused a moment when she thought the blind woman turned to speak to her. "Don't forget, today's our chance to improve the world," Dot said.

"Huh?" Lenore said just as Dot's friend also answered, "Huh?"

"You forgot! It's orgasm day. And the only rule is: you can't fake it." Both women laughed.

"Can you do it alone?" her friend asked.

"Sure you can," Dot said. Lenore figured Dot must be blind in matters of love, too. What did she mean, alone? Who could improve the world alone?

Lenore hurried home from Reeba's, wanting to arrive at the house ahead of Ben to slice the bread, start a fire, but when she reached their home every light she'd switched on was out. The place was shut up like a pocket watch. She entered the house, but Ben had already been there and packed his bags. Lenore lowered herself onto the sofa. Ben truly never was coming back.

Lenore sat up and went to the window to watch Frosty sway in the wind. It was the first day of winter. Winter Solstice. Tomorrow would be too late to do her part for peace. She opened the door and walked toward the snowman. She untied the ropes that staked him to the ground and helped him inside. She placed some twigs inside the hearth then laid two logs over the sticks, lit a match and waited for the flames. She hoped it would blaze soon because she was planning a game of "Don't. Stop. don't-stop" in front of the fireplace.

 

Patty Houston teaches at the University of Cincinnati. Recently, her work has appeared in The Louisville Review, The Oxford American, The Fiddlehead, and other journals. She is at work on a story collection and a novel.

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