A Change of Season
They were in the perfume aisle in Sephora when it happened.
Joanne was taking her time, first small sniffles of the sprayer of each bottle before nodding her decision to spray on the test strip, then, a deep, exhausting huff of the coffee beans in between, to clear her senses, as the magazines suggested. They had been there for a long time. Joanne had decided that she needed a new scent for the change of season. Outside, there were spring blossoms waving in the breeze, looking shy and guilty for taking over the dreary barren branches of winter. Ed had agreed to come because she said she was only going to be a quick second, and right after they’d go shop in the farmer’s market as planned. But the market was almost near its closing time and Joanne was still talking to the sales rep, who wore a thick layer of powder and mascara so heavy it made her lashes look brittle. The woman looked obviously exhausted.
Ed had stood by her side, attentive, at first, weighing in that this smelled lovely and feminine and that was too spicy. He was being good, engaged and supportive even though the bomb of heavy perfumes infused together made him want to throw up. When it became clear that she had some ways to go he wandered around the store alone, but in every aisle there was a woman, loud and brash or skittish and apologetic, swiping colors onto their eyelids and cheeks and lips. They barely looked at him. It seemed to Ed that they were all terribly unattractive, even the ones who he might have thought were pretty outside, even, or maybe especially, Joanne.
He had walked back to her hoping that there was progress. But Joanne’s eyes were opened wide and her eyebrows wrinkled in close scrutiny. He shuffled next to her and touched her arm, but she barely reacted. “See, I like this one, but I think it’s a little mature.” Joanne said. “I want something that shows my personality. You know? Something that really suits who I am.”
Joanna was big boned and slightly chubby, with mutt colored hair and a long, thin mouth. Ed liked her because she was the most practical woman he knew. They had worked together in offices next to each other for a year, before they finally had a first conversation that went futher than hello and goodbye. It was at another colleague’s goodbye party, and they were squeezed in next to each other by accident at the table. Ed was surprised by how smart and grounded she was, how much they had in common. That weekend he asked her to dinner, the next time she spend the night, and the time after that he decided that they were a couple. The rest, as he liked to say with an exaggerated sigh, is history.
People were surprised. Ed, after all, despite his balding forhead, was still handsome. He had the same smile and the same way of tilting his head that drove girls wild in college. He was sharp and funny in all the right ways when he needed to be, but could also be earnest and sensitive. Ed, on his part, had dated plenty of beautiful women, but he was getting tired of them, of the drama and jealousy and begging for reassurance. Joanne, he could tell at once, would treat their relationship in the same way she treated a project for work: methodically and calmly, taking her steady time until she brought it to its natural, clean finish. And, for the most part, he was right.
But sometimes Joanne got these ideas in her head, that she wasn’t pretty enough, good enough, clever enough. Then, he would come home to the apartment they shared and find her locked in the bathroom for hours, calling out that they had a dinner reservation somewhere nice, please dress up. She would emerge in some new dress, or an old one she never wore, with bare shoulders and strappy heeled shoes and her face painted. She would call him darling and lower her eyes like a coquette in a Victorian novel. Dinner would be especially awkward, as she would be fussy and nervous in her dress, always running to the bathroom to touch up something minute he could never notice. She would order wine but barely drink half the glass. At home she would finally sigh and throw her arms around him. “Oh Ed,” she said, “Do you love me? Do you really?”
In the morning she always recovered and returned to her sensible self. He’d ask if she had a nice time, and she would say yes and thank you and smile. It annoyed him sometimes, but he reminded himself that there were women who acted like that all of the time.
He hadn’t expected this particular Sunday to be one of her crazy days. She didn’t give off any of the usual signs—staying up late the night before, eating her food in tiny nibbled bites—and in fact it had looked to be a good day, lazy and sunny and perfect. When she asked for the detour he suspected nothing. But then, as the perfumes attached him from every side, and his headache threatened to burst, it seemed to him that it wasn’t accidental on her part but something deliberate she was doing to punish him. But for what? He could not think of the last thing he did that offended or upset her. Yet, there she was, pressed forward and ignoring and infuriating him.
“Think you’re about ready?” He said, touching her again. He tried to fold his tone into something gentle and kind.
“You can’t rush this.” Her eyes flashed up at him, indignant and daring him to refute.
“Maybe you can come back later.” He said, lightly. “I think the market is closing.”
“Go yourself if you’re in such a hurry.” She smelled her wrist. He realized with a little shock that she had put on lipstick, an unflattering bright raspberry red. It made the fuzzy mole on her chin even more obvious. Maybe even grotesque. “You said you’d only be a minute.” He tried to keep his voice high and cheerful, but he caught the tension in it as it came out, forced and bitten.
“So you’re timing me now?”
“No.” He said, and swallowed. “But we need to go and this place is giving me a headache.”
“No one’s keeping you.” She picked up another bottle, and held up the tester strip in his direction. The sudden heavy scent of violets fell upon him.
He stepped back. “Fine.” He would leave and buy the groceries and wait for her at home, and everything *was* going to be fine.
When he turned to go he thought he heard her mutter something else. Something vicious and unkind. He stopped where he was. After a few seconds, he turned back to face her. “What’s the problem?”
“There is no problem. Nothing.” She crossed her arms and glared at him like an arrogant child.
“Look.” He said. He knew that she hated it when he said that. It was condescending and insulting, she told him. When he said that she didn’t ever want to see. “Why are you acting like this?”
“Like what?”Her voice rose, sharp and ugly.
He could sense that, around them, down the aisle, next to them, women turned their heads, a look soaked in attention and embarrassment.
“You’re being unreasonable.” He lowered his voice. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Not until I’m done.” She stared at him. Her face looked terrible. He could see the foundation caked around her nose, seeped into the lines of her eyes. He could see the mole, throbbing there as she breathed.
“My god.” He said. The word came out before he could think. “You’re hideous.”
She set the perfume down and turned to him. Her mouth opened in slow motion. Then they were at it, insults flying at each other, voices escalating, no longer concerned that they were in public, stared at and hurried by. You arrogant asshole, your selfish prick, you pathetic bitch, you desperate piece of shit. Words and words of hate and truth and hardness, darts aimed to maim. They weren’t sure how much time had passed or what made them stop. Only that suddenly there was silence, and they were breathing fast, fists clenched, utterly spent.
They staggered their walk to the subway, not looking at each other. The vendors at the market were piling crates into the backs of vans and wiping tables clean. The air was turning chilly. He stopped when he saw a table where a bent old woman with round cheeks still had a few cookies wrapped in plastic on display. He went to her. “I’ll take the rest.”
Her face broke out in a smile. “I’ll charge you for two and you can take them all. How about that?”
He paid and thanked her and left with the rest of them. Joanne was waiting at the entrance, watching him. The area around her eyes were puffy. There were specks of her mascara on the undersides. “Cookie?” He said, tentatively, and held out one.
She looked at it, and then at him. Her lips quivered for a moment. Then she took it, unwrapped the plastic, and took a bite. “Thank you.” She said, in a small voice. “It’s delicious. Really, really good.”
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