ELECTRA AMONG THE WOOZIES by Charles Haverty
I WAS EIGHTEEN THEN, not a bad-looking girl, just picky, so what I knew about sex was largely theoretical. Still, I knew that most arguments began with it and this was no exception. The night before, my roommate’s boyfriend had given her a Siamese fighting fish, which by morning she’d christened Electra on account of its color. She seemed pleased with this, with herself.
“But Electra’s a girl’s name,” I said.
“So this here’s a boy fish.”
“How can you tell?”
“Because he’s so beautiful. Because as with most species, it’s the male who’s beautiful and the female who’s plain. Cardinals, ducks, fighting fish.”
She was skeptical.
“You could look it up,” I said, “but I already did.” I like to be well informed, but mostly I like to be right. “The thing is, these fish require a water temperature of at least eighty degrees Fahrenheit. They come from shallow waters, from the tropics. They thrive on heat. Less than eighty degrees and they float to the top.” She looked at me blankly. “As in death, Whitney, as in dying. And you can’t control temperature in a tiny little bowl like this.”
“The pet store wouldn’t have sold the fish in this bowl if they knew it was going to die.”
“But see, that’s the other thing,” I said. “Either they don’t know or they don’t care.”
“And you do?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. I know and I care.”
But she didn’t, not at all. She went to take a shower, leaving me to simmer. I continued to watch the fish, a ripple of electric blue dodging a pink plastic castle in half-a-gallon of water, tops. I knew I had to do something. I remembered a summer evening when I was seven and my sister Caroline was thirteen and my father brought home four lobsters, sloshing and scuttling around in a Styrofoam box. He’d meant this as a wonderful surprise, a grand feast, but I wouldn’t hear of it. I insisted on sparing them, on keeping them as pets. After much Sturm und Drang, he put us in the car—the lobsters on the passenger’s seat, my sister and me in the back—and drove an hour north to Crane Beach in Ipswich. We followed him through the parking lot at some distance, then over the boardwalk and along the water’s edge. A quarter-mile down the beach, he took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his trouser legs, and waded out among the big barnacled rocks, where he set the lobsters free, and he became my hero then, bighearted and brave, walking across the water in his suit and tie.
I knew what I had to do.
I buttoned up an old turf-colored cardigan of my father’s over my dress and slipped the fishbowl down the front—to hide it, yes, but more to keep it warm, this being the last Friday of October. Cradling it low and close to my body, like a pregnancy, I carried the bowl across campus and beyond, basking in kindly smiles all along the way.
The pet shop reeked, as pet shops will, and the guy behind the counter beamed like everybody else, until I lifted the hem of my sweater and produced the fishbowl.
“That’s some trick,” he said. “What else you got under there?”
“I’d like to return this fish.”
“No can do.”
“This fish was purchased less than twenty-four hours ago and isn’t any worse for wear.”
“I’m not asking for a refund. All I’m asking is for you to take back the fish.”
I told him that it was unethical and inhumane to sell a single Siamese fighting fish, and in a bowl like this, no less; that without another fish to at least pick on he was upsetting the natural order, robbing this fish of its nature, its identity, its raison d’être. A tiny horse and rider were stitched upon the breast of his shirt, and as I talked, he whapped one of those long-handled skimmer nets into the meat of his palm like a riding crop.
“No soap,” he said, whereupon I emptied the fishbowl into a big aquarium, all glittery with goldfish. I knew they were safe; fighting fish are like roommates: they only kill their own. The plastic castle tumbled through a blizzard of pink gravel, and when I turned back to the pet shop guy, I expected him to be livid. But he wasn’t. He just shook his head disappointedly, which of course was a thousand times worse. I set the bowl on the counter, and looking straight ahead, marched down the aisle and back out into the morning. The air smelled delicious and felt cool against my face. Then the pet shop guy came barging out the door behind me, cowbell jangling, and pressed a wad of bills into my hand. He said, “You think you know people but—” He stopped himself and went back inside.
I counted the money right out there on the sidewalk. Twenty-seven dollars. A train ticket to Boston cost six. It was twenty minutes after nine. I decided to skip my ten o’clock class and go home. I wasn’t ready to face Whitney, but mostly I wanted to see my father, whom I’d begun to miss like crazy. I skirted the campus and walked down the hill and across the river to the train station, where I bought a ticket for the ten-nineteen.
It was eleven o’clock when I got off the train at Back Bay. I knew no one would be home then, so I walked up Mass. Avenue to Huntington with the idea of passing the afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts. I hadn’t been there since my father stopped taking my sister and me eight years before. Until then, it had been our monthly ritual. First we’d eat lunch at the café just past the lobby and outside the bookstore. This always seemed so European to me: plates of cheese and fruit, dishes of gelato, and my father’s glass of wine. After lunch, we’d go straight to the Impressionists, whom I called the Woozies because of their broken color, blurry luminosity, and general wooziness. My favorite was a life-size Renoir of a dancing couple called “Dance at Bougival.” I especially loved the man’s face, tilted adoringly toward the averted face of his partner, who, even in his embrace, kept him at a distance. My father would tell us stories about the paintings and their painters, and we enjoyed his stories even more than the art.
But the last time we came to the museum, Caroline, who’d always been my father’s favorite, went out of her way to criticize everything he said and did. I was ten and Caroline was sixteen. At the opposite end of the gallery from my Renoir hung a Gauguin, one of his huge Tahitian jobs. My father began to tell us about Gauguin, about his family life and how he’d come to Tahiti. “For God’s sake, Daddy, we know,” Caroline said. “How many times can you tell us the same story—how he left his wife and kids and went off to paint these boring pictures?” This was true; he had told this story before. But he’d told all his stories before, and it seemed mean to start picking on him now. I said, “They’re not boring,” and took his hand and held onto it for the rest of the time we were there, and I know it was at precisely that moment that I replaced Caroline as his ally. What I remember best about that last visit is the wounded expression on my father’s face, the same look of injured ardor I’d seen in the face of the man in the Renoir, and it was that face that drew me there now.
Once at the museum, I was sure I’d find the painting in no time, but the place was a labyrinth. I asked for help and was directed to the Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery on the second floor. My Renoir was just inside the entrance and more or less as I remembered it: the man’s luminous blue jacket, his partner’s red bonnet and gold belt, even the bouquet of violets at their feet. The single detail I had wrong was the man’s eyes, which were completely obscured by the brim of his hat. On the other side of the gallery, a middle-aged man was kissing the throat of a younger woman, maybe not so young as to be his daughter, but young enough for their clinch to give me the creeps. It was just the three of us there in the Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery, and as I stepped back toward the entrance, the couple turned and I saw that the man was impossibly, but unmistakably, my father. It was like thumbing through the family photo album and coming across a pornographic snapshot. I stood frozen in the entryway, watching them move down the room toward the big Gauguin. My father’s arm encircled the woman’s waist. Pulling her closer, he whispered something and she broke away. They had words I couldn’t hear, a small scene. Then she turned toward the entrance—there was no other way out—and I ducked around the corner, from where I watched her flee the gallery, pursued by my father. I tried to follow him following her back through the maze, but lost sight of them somewhere in the seventeenth century. I poked my head into the Renaissance, and when I turned back around, my father stood before me, blocking the way.
“Nice sweater, pal.”
I couldn’t speak.
“I mean it,” he said. “It looks terrific on you. On me—well, that’s a different story. I always thought it made me look like Mister Rogers, but on you—well, you look just terrific. It was a Father’s Day present, remember? What goes around comes around, huh?”
The best I could do was stare at him, and that was hard enough.
“I suppose this is the part where I say, ‘It’s not what you think.’”
“What do I think?” I managed to say.
“You tell me.”
“I think I’m going to throw up.”
“You never throw up.”
This was true; I hardly ever did. Even so, I felt as if I’d swallowed a fighting fish, as if on the way from the dorm to the pet shop, Electra had entered my body by osmosis and was thrashing and tearing inside me.
“Do you want to go to the ladies’ room?” He took hold of my elbow. “Do you want me to take you?”
I shook off his hand. “I don’t need you to take me to the bathroom, thank you very much.”
“I wouldn’t have to go in with you. I could wait outside.”
“I don’t have to go to the bathroom, okay?”
“Then let’s go somewhere else,” he said. “Let’s go somewhere and talk. How about the café? How about we go to the café and talk?” He looked up and down the room. “It’d be a little redundant crucifying me here among all these other crucifixions, don’t you think?”
So he took my arm again, but gingerly, and led me back through the museum to the café. The hostess seated us at a table smack up against the plate glass window of the bookstore. My father skimmed the menu over the top of his glasses until the waitress appeared.
“The lady here will have the gelato semifreddo,” he said. “Wait. Semifreddo—what’s that?”
“It means half-frozen,” the waitress said.
“Okay, good. She’ll have that.”
“And the gentleman?”
“The gentleman will have a cup of coffee,” he said. “Decaf.” Historically, he’d order a glass of sweet white wine, so I could see he was saving himself for his girlfriend. He kept one eye on the matter at hand, while the other wandered toward the lobby, where his girlfriend must have been waiting in the wings. Hence the hurry. In my mind’s eye, I followed them out of the museum, along their palliative walk home, and then up the stairs and into bed. The fact of my knowing would add a certain edge to the proceedings.I’d already thoroughly imagined her apartment, right down to the shower curtain rings and refrigerator magnets.
“Funny thing, my running into you like this,” he said once the waitress had gone. “Among the Woozies, I mean. Remember how you used to call them that, our French friends?”
He was flirting with me, wooing me, but I wasn’t about to give him an inch.
“Well, you did,” he continued. “Seven years old and already a critic. But listen. The other day I hit on this theory about the Woozies and I wanted to run it by you and—well, here you are. See, I got out of bed the other morning and couldn’t find my glasses.”
“Whose bed did you get out of?”
“My bed. Your mother’s and my bed. So anyway, I knew they had to be in the house somewhere, but I had to sort of feel my way, and there and then the world became this—well, this Impressionist landscape. And it struck me that the whole movement was a direct function of the state of mid-to-late nineteenth century French optometry or ophthalmology or whatever you call it. The work got woozier and woozier the older these guys got. Renoir, Monet—these guys were blind as bats by the twentieth century, right? So what do you think?”
I said nothing.
“Personally, I’m more of a Brueghel kind of guy. I’ve always nursed this fantasy of tracking down all the Brueghels in the world. Now, there’s a manageable fantasy. I mean, how many Brueghels can there be? Thirty? Forty? But take your Monet haystacks—Christ, they’re like soup cans and American flags. And water lilies? The museums of the world are crawling with water lilies. There are more Monet water lilies in the world than actual water lilies.”
“Do you understand what you’ve done?”
“What I’ve done? Christ, Vanessa, I’m just some guy.”
“You’re my father.”
“I’m some guy who happens to be a father.”
“All right then. Your father.”
The waitress returned with his coffee and my gelato in a frosted dish. When she left, he poured an avalanche of sugar into his cup. He stirred it and stirred it—clink, clink, clink—until I couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Answer me,” I said. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
I meant to say “To Mom,” but instead I said, “To me.”
“To you? I haven’t done a thing to you.”
“How could you have brought her here?”
“Here? You think I wanted to find you here?”
“You didn’t find me,” I said. “I found you.”
A line had formed at the hostess’s station. Anyone who saw the two of us sitting there would take us for a couple, a middle-aged man and his young mistress in the heat of a lovers’ quarrel.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “Why aren’t you at school?”
“Why aren’t you at work?”
“One thing has nothing to do with the other,” he said. “Except insofar as one pays for the other—neither of which is your concern.”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“You really think I’d have come here if I’d had any inkling—”
“You’re missing the point,” I said. “Even you can’t be that stupid.”
“Oh yeah? Try me.”
“Don’t be cute.”
“It’s just me, pal.”
“I’m not your pal.”
“Don’t say that.” This time he was hurt, but before I could think of something else to hit him with, he regrouped. “Eat your gelato. If you don’t, I will, and I have no business eating ice cream.” He was keeping himself in shape for his woman, of course, counting his calories, watching his weight, working out. It was a wonder he didn’t color his hair. It was pathetic; he was pathetic.
“Listen,” he said. “I’ve never lied to you before, and I don’t intend to start now.”
“Oh yes, you have.” My hands were trembling and I kept them in my lap.
“I have not.”
“Lies of omission are still lies.”
“Lies of what?”
“Of omission. They’re even worse than lies of commission—more harmful, more insidious, more duplicitous—”
“When did you become the little Jesuit?” he said. “Life just isn’t like that. It’s not all black and white.”
“This part is.”
“It’s not like I don’t love your mother. I do. You know that. And I don’t just love her; I’m in love with her. But look. You think that just because you get married, you stop, well, wanting? You think you turn that on and off like a spigot?”
“Don’t be disgusting.”
“Oh, stop it, Nessa. There’s nothing disgusting about it. You think you say ‘I do’ and women stop being beautiful or magical or—”
“I can’t believe this,” I said. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here listening to my father brag about his irresistible impulses.”
“My irresistible impulses, eh? My untamed lusts? My life of crime?”
“Why don’t you go fetch your girlfriend?” I said. “Where’s she hiding?”
“You wanna meet her? You know, be adult about this?”
“Don’t be obscene.”
“No, I suppose that would be asking too much—of both of you. Jesus, some father you’ve got, huh?” He scooped a spoonful of gelato it into his mouth. “Still, I suppose you’re right. I don’t imagine she’d want to meet you either. Nothing personal, but she’d be mortified. She is mortified. I mean, this isn’t easy for her either.”
“In fact, it’s even harder for her. She doesn’t have the advantage of your self-righteousness.”
“So I’m supposed to feel sorry for her?”
“I’m not asking you to feel sorry for anyone,” he said. “Just try not to enjoy this so much.”
“If you think I’m enjoying this, then you’re an even bigger asshole than I thought.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say, not to your father.” He brought his spoon to the dish, but thinking better of it, laid it down beside his saucer. “You might try putting yourself in her shoes.”
“Would you like that? I mean, how would you like it if you came in here to see the Woozies, and instead you found your daughter making out with some old guy in front of the water lilies?”
This was meant to wound him, but instead he let out a long, loud laugh, drawing stares from the other tables.
I tried again. “She’s not even pretty.”
He closed his eyes, though his smile stayed put. “Don’t you dare,” he said softly.
“Mom’s a hundred times prettier. A thousand times.” And she was, only she didn’t lord it over you like Caroline or Whitney.
He opened his eyes, still smiling. “Let’s not?” He shuffled three little plastic tubs of half-and-half around the tabletop in a nervous sort of shell game, avoiding my eyes. His breathing had become shorter and raggedy.
“What are you afraid of?” I asked. “Are you afraid of me? Afraid I’ll tell Mom?”
“Tell her what?” His hands had stopped moving.
“What do you think? About you and your—”
“But she knows.”
“Your mother,” he said. “Who did you think?”
“Of course she knows. For Christ’s sake, Nessa, give her that much credit. Give us both some credit. You really think I’d cheat on her? Don’t you know that much about me?”
I didn’t. I knew more about Siamese fighting fish than I knew about my own parents. I felt doubly betrayed, though more by my mother than my father.
“Listen,” he said. “I want you to promise me something. I want you to promise me you won’t say anything to your mother about this. Will you promise me that?”
“I thought you said she knew.”
“She does. But she doesn’t know that you know. She can’t.”
“So you want me to be your co-conspirator? Is that what you want?”
“I mean it, Vanessa. I want you to promise me right now. And I’m telling you, you break that promise and I’ll be very disappointed.” The wheeze had started up in the bellows of his lungs and there was anger behind his voice, a ruthless protectiveness toward his wife, my mother.
“Do you need to your inhaler?” I asked.
“Left it in the glove compartment. I’ll live.” He smiled. “Don’t change the subject. Promise.”
I fished through my purse and slid my own inhaler across the table. He raised it to his lips, turned away, and fired twice.
“Grazie.” He gave me back the inhaler and took hold of my hand. “Grazie mille.”
“Oh Daddy.” He looked so old. He’d never looked so old. We sat like that for maybe five minutes, saying nothing, and then he squeezed my hand.
I pulled my hand away from his. He pushed back his chair and stood up. Then he slipped a twenty-dollar bill under his saucer and kissed me on the forehead. “See you at dinner?” he said. I nodded, though I knew it would be a long time before I came home again. I watched him walk away. When he reached the hostess’s station, he turned to look at me and there was the face of the dancer at Bougival. I couldn’t help myself.
“I promise,” I called to him. “I do.”
CHARLES HAVERTY ‘s stories have appeared in AGNI, Ecotone, Fence, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.