Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Loser's Circle

Ben was banging his head lightly on the thick glass wall of the skybox overlooking the track. Cars were hurling themselves around the oval speedway, attended by more than a hundred thousand revelers. The muffled sound of engines thrummed against the glass, like a B-movie hive of bees revving up to get in.

“Knock it off, Ben,” Shirley hissed into his ear. He felt her fingers press hard into the crook of his arm. “Everybody knows you don’t want to be here. Suck it up.”

He stopped banging but the terrific reverberation continued, even without his forehead keeping time. He gazed downward to hide tears that were gathering, uncontrollable as ball bearings in a bowl. An unfathomable sea writhed in the stands, a parti-colored body of Budweiser t-shirts and rebel flags and mirrored glasses and beer coolers. Harsh sunlight cast the masses in an odd, blue relief on the other side of the window glazing. A constant blast of cold from the air conditioning held the shimmering heat at bay, like magic. Countless dots of baseball caps in the haze shifted together, aimed like magnetized toys at a mysterious "lead car" somewhere in the pack. Big corporate money had paid for the skybox engineering that filtered out so much of the noise, but, partly out of habit, Ben worried whether the vibration could affect the baby that Shirley carried.

He could not speak, for the painful lump that was forming in his throat and chest.

“Shirls!” a male voice whooped from near the bar. Ben's wife swung her enormous belly in the direction of the voice. “Mark, baby!” she called, throwing her arms wide, palms up, trotting her Betty Boop heels across the room. She tucked her head in her "signature" way  --  saying with her body language I’m coming to get you. Her spiky platinum hair was a halo under the spotlights of the luxury skybox; Ben did not have to turn to see it in his mind’s eye. He remembered the first time he watched her lean into the bathroom mirror and use her thumb and forefinger to pull half-inch long curls down onto her forehead. “My signature look,” she grinned at him with a sideways glance. Every move she made wrecked him back then.

If he altered his depth perception, he could see his own, faint reflection in the skybox wall just now, instead of the crowds below, the curly copper hair, his John Lennon glasses. Kind, sleepy blue eyes that his mother had always told him would win him any girl he might want. The state park anthropologist and the hospital foundation fund raiser—how had Ben missed that he was to be a main character in a story Shirley made up in her own head? What a perfect rom-com, she would have giggled to her girlfriends. Watch this, she would have said, setting her Appletini down and moving in to pluck him from his quiet life.

Nothing in his studious history had warned him to steel himself against someone like her. Nothing told him to arm himself that night with something more sturdy than a field jacket and a Powerpoint presentation for the Chamber of Commerce crowd. He had been the evening’s specially scheduled 25 minutes of cultural entertainment, unusual to them all as a zoo animal. How dangerous could it have been? He thought he would pack up his things and head home, unmolested.

It had been plenty dangerous. Two months into their marriage, Ben's quiet, unprying mother had startled him with an uncharacteristic commentary. "That woman wants everything under the sun," she muttered to the sandwiches she was making, in the belief that Ben could not hear. Now, he wondered how an elderly woman who’d devoted her life to raising two sons could have known so much, so quickly, about her new daughter-in-law.

Except that his mother was only partly right, he thought. Shirley didn't want everything, she only wanted one singular something that, now, was very, very simple to understand. All eyes on her. If a man squinted and held her in a certain light, she could seem to have succeeded, to have captured the luminescence she worked so damned incredibly hard to attain. All that guileless want in and of itself made a man ache, at first  --  made him want to encourage her like she was a tap-dancing little girl. Yes yes, keep trying, you'll get it right! It made Ben a little sick to think about it, like he'd awakened from amnesia to find he'd been a pedophile or purveyor of porn in a previous life.

Under any other circumstance, he would not have been here at the track, even outside of the fact he was with a woman he no longer loved. This place bloodied his humanist heart. In the stands below, he saw nothing but lack of education and the blind patriotism and conservatism that it allowed. All around him, he saw nothing but the men making millions by controlling worldviews with the spectacle outside. Surprisingly, they had little interest in the actual race. They were completely focused on the bar, the catering handled by tuxedoed waiters, and the decorative women they'd invited. Like Shirley.

The speedway Christmas party almost nine months before had been hellish enough. "Shirley, you're too sick to go," Ben argued. "You've haven't stopped having morning sickness, and it's way past dinner. Let's rest. This can't be good for the ba--"

He broke off while she shimmied into a length of royal blue sequins.

"Stay home if you want," she said, checking her figure in the mirror, and that was it. That was the beginning, middle, and end of her concern for her husband's wishes, or her child. She was going, and under those circumstances, like these ones, so was Ben. He played her game that night, of hiding their news at any cost, including at the cost of his dignity. Once, in the jumble of a sudden panic of getting caught, he'd made it look like he was pissing while she threw up in the Country Club topiary pots outside. She could make him do something that completely out of character. Her glittery gown and the noise, of course, drew attention to her retching despite Ben's widely planted limbs. Only the valets saw, and they thought she was drunk. Which was OK, because “they” did not matter.

"But why?" Ben asked. "Why not just tell everybody?"

She never would say. In that signature way of hers.

No one could have been more shocked by her pregnancy than he had been  --  he had thought Shirley didn't want children. Yet she seemed completely fine with the idea. He guessed she had work reasons for not telling and kept quiet. And something magical seemed to happen between them, in that time of the shared secret. They fell into a more contented patch in their marriage  --  she was too tired to run all day and all night for her work, and she seemed to want to stay close to him for a change. After years of shunning any mention of Ben's work, of scowling if he brought up a find in the park, she listened attentively. She needed him, she mewled at his affections. He rose to the occasion under her approving gaze. She was even interested in Ben’s own family for a change, in the speech he was working on for his brother's wedding, for example. She curled into the armchair in their office; she looked over his shoulder from time to time, and rubbed his back. Her morning sickness had gone by the time Ben recited it in his rented tux; she beamed at him in a way he had never seen.

When he was finished, she got up and took the microphone from him. "Ladies and gentlemen!" she purred, throwing one arm wide, palm up. "Ben and I have an announcement to make!"

In a split second, a sickening thud sounded in his heart, as though she had dropped the mic. His face reddened with searing embarrassment  --  not for what Shirley was doing, but for the sudden realization that just about everyone watching had always seen what he had not. It was surely painfully apparent, if you were not in love with her. Every single move she ever made was a pose. Every one. Even in the privacy of their own home she drifted through a practiced choreography in every waking moment  --  laying a hand here just so, coming to a stop there to cock a foot behind her, turning dramatically to lean against a counter and stretch her arms wide behind her. He knew that instant that his sister-in-law didn't call her "The Little Teapot" because she was so small, but for the way that she posed for every family photograph: one hand on hip, the other hand held palm up, as though she was about to lead the church choir in song. The rest of the family smiled normally around her while she positioned herself to the sound of a movie score only she could hear.

It was a kind of psychosis. If he cared more, he might try to look it up. He didn’t though, not after grasping finally that the entirety of their marriage was an act. One that had needed an unwitting, studious male anthropologist type, with curly copper hair and John Lennon glasses. How lucky Shirley had been, even before him, that life had placed her in a perfect position for her particular talents, a role in the high-society hospital foundation that called for a glorified Mistress of Ceremonies.

"A glorified Mistress of Ceremonies!" she wailed  --  Ben remembered those had actually been her words, on the drunken occasion of her 35th birthday. How strange they had sounded coming from her; she had never to his knowledge suffered one moment of insecurity. He stood in the middle of the room and scratched his head at the maelstrom whirling around him. “I hate this place!” she screamed. “I hate this stupid, little, piss-ant place! Nobody recognizes talent! And oh, shit, me 35 years old!”

Now, with her 37th birthday coming up, she seemed very happy with “this place,” very happy indeed. She was hell-bent to be here today  --  one week overdue and climbing into the stratosphere to get to the top of the grandstands. Working the room for the job like not even childbirth itself would slow down her career. She had turned everything regarding the baby over to him  --  the search for an obstetrician, scheduling appointments, checking out the pregnancy and delivery books at the library and then reading them. Studying up on what, exactly, new parents were supposed to do with the helpless being they would bring into the world. Even the baby's name. When she showed no interest whatsoever, he demanded  --  needed  --  some kind of commitment. Some indication she understood that this was real. "How about Melissa?" he said. "I know it sounds crazy from a guy, but I've always loved it, since high school."

"Sure," she said.

Baby girl? he wondered now, pressing his forehead to the glass in the hopes the sound vibration would ease his headache. What made him so sure it was a baby girl? Because that was what Shirley wanted. Statistical probabilities and his scientific background be damned, the likelihood was 100 percent. The size of her "want" in this case would be so great, he thought, her body would accept nothing but an X chromosome.

His next question was purely force of habit, as though his mind was a nurse checking a perfectly healthy man’s pulse. Had Shirley slept with every man in the room? Two years into their marriage the crazed worry disappeared from his being like he'd been touched by the fingertip of God. He had figured out, with absolute certainty, the answer was no. She had slept with no man in the room. Each man here  --  from the mid-level, ladder-climbing Mark to the rich track owners  --  thought he was the only one she had not yet taken to her bed, and each one was wrong. Because for Shirley, when the moment came for the silky underthings to come off, for the lacy wrap to be cast aside, for the dirty talk to stop and for pure, raw desire to rush in  --  her fantasies fell apart. Sex turned into an almost painful, restless, frustrating string of demands: Do this! No that! Can't you just, just ... damn it!

Just what, Shirley? Ben almost said aloud, to the glass inches from his lips. Say it, Shirley, and I'll do it. Can't I just help you keep your fantasy going? I don't even know what it is, but I know that you are the only one in it.

He drew in a deep, ragged breath. Gathering tears escaped and dripped down his nose.

She was not the only one, not exactly. There were two people in her fantasy now, and he was not one of them. The baby was his, he was sure, yet not his, not for long. He would endure this NASCAR hell to have whatever small role in his daughter's life that he could, to bring her safely into the world. Then, because he would have no other choice, he would turn his child over to this woman who would no longer need the frustrations of a man, to have 24-hour company if she wanted it, and an orbit around herself. Once the baby-care was finished and Melissa was toddling on her own, Shirley would wreak any havoc to get him out of the way. He would step aside so that his daughter would not be drowned in the maelstrom.

"Dude!" the suddenly sober Mark called. "Shirley's having the baby!"

The tears stopped and Ben ran to her side. He saw phones coming out to snap pictures, was ready to punch someone to stop them, but the men who owned the speedway knew how to use a blanket to hide bloody scenes, a body or a birth. In the tent that was created, Ben found himself alone with his wife, in a strange timelapse, unsure if minutes or hours were passing.

“Hey Shirls!" Mark barked out over the blanket, breaking the spell. "What do you say we name him after whoever wins the race today?” A riff of male laughter slopped over the blanket behind his joke. Toasts were made.

By the time the rescue squad traveled up so many flights with all of their gear, the baby was crying in Shirley’s arms. An announcement had been made over the loud speakers, and the roar of more than one hundred thousand people vibrated through the skybox glass. The two men at each corner dropped the blanket-curtain so that it covered mother and child. Ben’s “perfect” little family was snapped by an Associated Press sports photographer.

“Danica!” Shirley announced then, pulling the well-practiced 100-watt smile from her pose-repertoire. The story that went 'round the world. Their baby’s name would be Danica.