“Two Out of Three” by Arthur Plotnik

On Sunday Morning I opened my eyes to an inky void, confirming my latest fears about the cosmos: that it was illusory, existing only in my head. And not just illusory, but a real bastard for making me think I had an “other” joined to me in something called wedlock.

I cried out for this other, just in case. “Kathy? Katherine!”

“What is it?” she said after a minute. The universe re-materialized, sitting on my face. It smelled of stove gas and her lavender body oil. Her tone, as dry as the windowless-bedroom, had grown progressively drier the more I’d pressed her about a decision that needed making—namely, whether I should leave or not.

I felt too bummed to rise. Bad enough that cold weather was approaching, shortening the days, but today Katherine’s pet stud Nikko was coming to see her. The corners of her lips would froth for him. For me nothing was on the agenda but the decision she’d been shoving back my way.

From under the carcass of despair I emerged to face the morning, unsuitably weary for a man of thirty-four. I shuffled from bedroom to bathroom and back, then, in sweatshirt and jeans, moved onstage.

Katherine was reading the style section of the Sunday paper, drumming the tin, imitation-woodgrain table with burgundy nails. She wore a smart Italian street getup: a sort of tunic, wide in the shoulders, tight black pants tapered into high suede boots. She was so sleek and fawn-beautiful she could make me as nervous after eight years of marriage as when I first approached her, armpits gushing.

“Now then,” I began.

She looked up at me, the light filling her green eyes and shadowing the cheekbones. “What?” she asked serenely.

“What time is he coming?”

“Who?”

“Isn’t Nikko coming today?”

“I suppose.”

“You suppose? What time?”

“I don’t know. An hour or two?”

“What are you going to do?”

“I have no idea.”

“I mean, are you staying here or going out?”

“Well, let’s see,” she said. “If you’re here, I imagine we’ll spare you the humiliation you won’t spare yourself, and leave. If you’re not here, then I don’t know.”

I twisted my mouth off to one side, like a Picasso face, then back. I was developing several attractive contortions these days. “I think we should have a few words before he gets here.”

“About what?”

“About the decision I have to make.”

“Unh. This again.”

“Yeah, this. About leaving you.”

She waited a moment, then took up with the paper.

“Hey! Leaving you.”

 

What were those few words I wanted to have? Only every thousandth utterance or so could leap the gap between us. According to my two-cent analysis of our plight, Katherine had gone fashionably introspective the last few years while I’d gone mundane, and only now and then would we meet along the low road. She’d passed through the heavy Eastern trips and West Coast cults and now mainly dabbled in yoga and meditation, vision quests, and Jungian dream analysis. Most of her friends were all-night monologuists. I couldn’t abide them and suspected she couldn’t either—which is probably why she took straight-to-the-point Nikko as a lover.

Nikko ran a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint near Katherine’s naprapathic treatment center. A lusty spinal massage at the center one evening had given her an appetite for calzone and then, in turn, for Nikko. He also owned a small laundromat and fancied himself a street-smart operator. Years of banging pizza dough on marble slabs had made him lean and mean. He shaved his head and wore hotshot jewelry and a lizard tattoo on his neck.

Married, with three kids, Nikko wasn’t exactly the inner-journey type. To get to Katherine he’d probably done a lot of listening to her drawn-out dream analyses while he smoked a joint and made the right grunts. I, meanwhile, had declined to walk the spiritual path with her after one turn too many from my reality zone, and now I was no longer invited.

Still, at one time our needs had vectored. We hadn’t lived like philistines. I was the literary type when Katherine married me, pounding out erotic thrillers for a Chicago publisher and toying with a never-to-be-finished novel. She worked in a body-care shop, dispensing exotic botanical lotions, studying part-time for a humanities degree. When she’d earned it, we celebrated with a budget Grand Tour, a joyful time for us as I would recall it.

But over the years, shamed by what I wrote and freaked about dying a literary nothing, I’d slammed the door on my creative quests, feeling none the worse for it. I’d come to prefer the tangible rewards of physical action—errands, housecleaning, workouts–and simple pleasures, like a neighborhood stroll, funny shows, ethnic chow, a good read, daydreaming. Seeking a career to take the mind away from mortality and the bogus answers to it, I picked up a library degree and found work at Columbia University’s interlibrary loan department. It wasn’t exactly uplifting, but it kept one busy and out of the darkest existential tunnels.

Katherine, I should note, might not have viewed our differences as a dichotomy of the innies and outies. I wasn’t sure how she viewed it, or if she bothered.

 

“To leave or not to leave,” I persisted.

“William,” she said. “Make the fucking decision or don’t make it. What you want is for me to do it for you, and I am not about to.”

“Maybe that would be the best idea. You choose. Should be easy.”

“Can’t do. I don’t understand all the junk going on in your head. Only you can sort it out. It’s called self-determination.”

“And you’re determined to stay?”

“You mean here? Yes, I’m going to stay where I am, in this very dump, because it’s the last affordable dump in Manhattan and I can be oblivious to everything wrong with it.”

“Including me.”

“Everything.”

“I see. Well, I’ll tell you, Kath, I’m going to make this decision, but I’m not going to panic myself into it.”

“I hope not, because you might actually decide to leave.”

I made a face. “What’s that, reverse psychology?”

“I told you, I couldn’t care less. If you want to leave—”

“I don’t want to, for Christ’s sake. I don’t want us to give up. There are no valid reasons for it, if you can just step back and—”

“There are dozens of reasons!”

“Really. I’d be interested in a small sample.”

“Oh, goddamn—for one thing, this place is too small for two people unless they’re happily balling each other, which we are not.” She hit the final t hard to let the fact sink in, just in case it hadn’t in the last sixty nights or so. Between petty arguments, divergent moods, dead bedroom eyes, and then Nikko, it just wasn’t worth pursuing anymore. “You need a change,” she continued, “and to tell you the truth, I could use one, too.”

“So you’re finally admitting you want out.”

“Oh, save it. We’re not even in communication anymore. You need more dialogue with yourself. You’re keeping me from growing, and maybe I’m keeping you from growing up—something is. And furthermore, it’s embarrassing for Nikko.”

“Embahrassing for Nikko,” I mocked. “I never dreamt I was embahrassing the dear cockster.”

“Right, all our troubles are about Nikko’s cock. Oh, that would make it so elemental, the way you want to perceive everything. But as I’ve tried to get through your adolescent head, Nikko is my anam cara, my soul brother—”

“I know what anam cara means. Spare me.”

“No. You ask for it. He’s a kindred soul. He helps me find my way.”

“Into his bed.”

She smirked. “Maybe that’s where I need to be.”

“Jesus!” I cried, “Enough!”

“No it isn’t. You’re dying to feel sorry for yourself. And I’ll tell you what matters as much as sex. Maybe more. Nikko has spiritual depth.”

“Depth? What depth? Because he can flip a pizza in the oven?”

Katherine batted the air as if I’d farted and turned away.

“Listen,” I said, “this swami of yours can’t even make a decent pizza. The one you brought home was like roadkill. The man has mozzarella for brains.”

“You really know him. You met him once.”

“It was enough. An evening with an eggplant.”

Katherine raised her section of the Sunday papers between us.

“You’re a sucker!” I shouted, snatching it away. I swept the rest of the paper off the table and crashed my fist down. “You’ve been sucked in! Sucked in and sucked out! I hate this!”

“Then leave it,” she said calmly.

“Leave it! Leave it! How the hell can I leave it? I love you.”

An appropriate silence followed the vulnerable remark. Then Katherine parted her lips and said, “I know you do, William, and that’s very sad. The trouble is, there’s something you need when you love that I’ve never been able to give.”

“And what’s that?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is it?”

“Homage? Loyalty? I don’t know.”

“Apparently not.”

“Look, damn it, why did you knock the papers all over?” She started to retrieve them, then turned back to me. “In eight years you’ve never once been unfaithful, right?”

She knew it was true, and I had a sense of what was coming next.

“And I had this feeling that whenever we made love I was supposed to be paying you back for some kind of cocker-spaniel devotion. Christ, William, stop pumping me for answers. When something starts to decay it stinks through and through. I hate when you try to argue it back to life. I hate it when you criticize Nikko. And son of a bitch, I hate it when you keep on me like this.”

Instead of answering her outburst with rage, I found myself kneeling and putting the papers back together. “You’re right,” I told her. “There’s no need for a symposium. Merely a decision.”

“But you are never, never going to decide.”

“What?”

“You will not, cannot, make up your mind.”

“Can’t I? I’ll decide right now, damn you. You go. Why should I put myself through the hassle? You get the hell out.”

“Well maybe I would—if you were finally resolved to it. But wherever I went, you’d be hovering like some pathetic ghost, rapping on the windows, drifting around in Limbo.”

“Limbo? What are you talking about? Where would you go if you left? To live with Nikko and all the little Nikkos?”

“I have no intention of living with anyone. I’d probably get a furnished room near work and proceed from there.”

“And if I left?”

“I told you. I’d stay here, where it’s cheap.”

“I thought you said a change was in order.”

“The change is within,” she said, a little self-conscious.

I was almost relieved to hear her mobile ring, but I could tell from the way she looked at the number that it was Nikko. Katherine, I thought, don’t answer it. Let it ring forever and come away with me to Tibet. We’ll learn the Holy Way together. I love you. I’ll sacrifice everything. But I didn’t say it, and she was already flicking on the call. I leaned in and heard Nikko’s voice blasting through at street volume.

“Hey, sweetcakes. You still sacked in or what?”

“No, I’ve been up and dressed for hours. I’ve meditated, I’ve read the paper. I’ve sat around.”

My heart leapt. Was there a slight reprimand in her tone? Was she pissed at him?

If so, it didn’t register. “So where’s junior at?” he said.

“William? He’s right here.”

I held up a middle finger. “Tell him,” I said, winking stupidly to Katherine, “that I’ll kill him if he touches you. If he looks at you again I’ll throw him in the pizza oven. I’ll wipe up the laundromat with him.”

“What’s he sayin’?” Nikko shouted. “What the fuck’s he sayin’?”

Katherine held the phone away from me. “William, I’m trying to hear.”

“You’re still my wife. I’ll rip his guts out!”

“What’s gotten into you? Are you going to shut up?”

I felt detached from what I was saying—saying just for the hell of it. Nikko’s voice still rasped in the background. “I’ll bust his head like an egg!” I added.

“Shush!” She brought the phone back to her ear, but I could still hear him.

“Listen,” he was saying, “I gotta get next to you in a hurry. I swear to Christ, I’m fallin’ outta my tree here. This family shit. All day Saturday—I don’t know where my balls are at.”

“Well you get over here,” Katherine whispered. “I’ll show you.”

I stepped back. I couldn’t remember being socked so hard in the face by Katherine’s infidelity. Combat veterans say that when shells are exploding on all sides, your best bet is to jump to where the last one hit. I didn’t know where to jump, and I stood there in an icy sweat watching her end the call.

“Could you give me some idea,” she said, “of what you’re going to do?”

“Huh?”

“Are you hanging here today? Leaving?”

I looked at her. “You do it right in our bed, don’t you.”

She didn’t answer. I paced the kitchen. “I have to think things over. I have to go unwind. What time is he coming?”

“Noon.”

“Yes, well, I have to go outside and get some air or something. You’ll know what’s what later. Where’s my basketball?”

Her lips tightened, nostrils flared. “There’s something I’ve had enough of. Your fucking toys!”

I went to our deep hallway closet and moved blankets, shoe boxes and a tool box until I found my sports stash—a forlorn baseball mitt, tennis balls, Frisbee, soft basketball and air pump. I firmed up the ball and dribbled it into and around the kitchen.

Katherine looked up. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m not ignoring your boyish charm. It was oh so amusing for the first five minutes. But year after year…”

“What shit! You’re so obviously trying to get me.”

“No, I’ve had you. I’ve had you. Someone else can just have you to pieces now.” She banged the table. “But you won’t leave. You never do. You never leave!”

I took a breath, dealing with that salvo. “Why the viciousness? Am I the one who shit on our vows?”

“Vows? Listen—”

No, the hell with that,” I moaned, halfway to the door. “Someone could get hurt listening to you.”

 

And I was good and hurt, swallowing the lump in my throat as I dribbled along the sidewalk in the fresh air. I should have put on a coat. Damn her, one minute she was making me feel like a dumb dad who just doesn’t get his daughter’s generation, and the next like a little boy with a load in his pants, trying to swing with the Beautiful People.

A handsome young woman in black tights approached, walking her dog. The red-eyed weimaraner leapt at the basketball, and the owner’s lithe body strained and undulated. We smiled and I chucked the dog’s chops before we moved on.

It was true I’d been doggedly faithful to Katherine. Sure, I’d fantasized and flirted plenty and even copped strange tongue at one drunken party or another. But I’d had no stomach for deceit or risking the marriage or taking on the complications and the guilt. Yes, guilt; because even though Katherine now flew the banner of free love, we had in fact developed a sexual bond, a trust that she had broken for only one trivial quickie, which she regretted. That was before Nikko, and I was okay with letting it go without having to get even.

I dribbled another two blocks uptown, took a right, and bounded onto an asphalt playground behind a school. No one was there, and I made a wild drive for the basket, letting off steam, missing the layup. I’d never been much of a basketball jock—strictly intramural caliber, and only five-foot-nine at that. These days I was a loner, happy to shoot hoops by myself or throw tennis balls against a wall.

I moved to a basket with a shred of net on the rim and tossed in a few spin shots from underneath. I made a right-handed hook shot, missed the backboard with a lefthander, then tried a few short jump shots until I made one. I moved out beyond the foul line to shoot long, one-handed push shots, making sure no one was around to watch. The second try swished nicely through the rim and net fragments. These crouchy shots were my specialty, but they were decades out of date. Kids would laugh as hard at me today as I’d once laughed at two-handed heaves under the basket.

I thought it curious that throwing a ball through a ring had its complicated fashions, each linked to its era, and I began to noodle about the passage of time and what effect my decision today would have on my life in ten years. You are what you need. Choosing doesn’t change you, because if you make the wrong choice the need is still there, still eating at you. And the right choice may be no more than a fashionable choice, as likely to sabotage you down the road as a tattoo over your butt.

Did it matter how one tossed a ball? Did it matter who left whom? Just as chance made basketballs spinning around a rim go in or out, so did it give its spin to human endeavor—into victory or defeat, love or loneliness. Ergo, I mused, the least regrettable way to make a decision was to pledge that a) if I happened to sink two out of three foul shots, I’d leave Katherine; and b) if fewer than that, I’d stick it out with her.

I had used a similar formula at age ten or eleven for certain tough choices—such as which of my parents would be murdered by the Nazis. I’d make this decision almost every weekend as I shot baskets at the Y:

A bleak cement court in a concentration camp. Guards and prisoners watching, my parents bound and terrified before a firing squad. I am dragged to the foul line and a captain smacks me on the head:

“Vell? Vell? Zere is verk to do! Vitch of der parents should vee kill?”

“How can I decide? I love them both!”

“Den vee kill both. Und you, too.”

“No!”

“Den vitch vun?”

“I can’t choose,” I sob.

“Jawohl!” cries the captain. “You shoot’n’zei drei baskets. Maken zee none, vee kill der whole family. Eins, vee kill chust der parents. Zwei, vee kill chust—”

“And if I make dry out of dry?” I interrupt.

“Drei?” The guards confer. I bounce the ball on the Y’s dusty wood floor.

“Ja,” announces the captain. “Bitte, bitte. Frei. All go frei.”

 

I looked up from the school’s asphalt court and drew a bead on the rim. Okay, sometimes things got a little mixed up in reveries: I’d learned pigdin German not at eleven, but many years later in Bavaria, traveling with Katherine. And now, triggered partly by the word bitte, memories came whooshing in—our bodies under warm eiderdown, slipping and sliding together, rain outside on the Black Forest, tummies filled with sausage and meaty ale, a sweet aroma of cows and hay from an attached barn. I love you oh baby oh god how I love you, and a great deal of that from both of us.

I slammed the ball against the asphalt. Damn her for forgetting! Let her stay in that rat hole with Pizza Boy. I’d get the hell out, sue for divorce, make a new life. Find my own anam cara.

I aimed the ball and prayed to the gods of chance to let me make the shot—and then one out of the other two, so I could leave her. The ball floated up in the air and came down cleanly through the rim. Yes!

I retrieved it, got set, and tossed up the second shot. It hit the rim and bounced off to the right. One out of two.

I imagined what it would be like if Katherine moved out and I stayed on alone. I couldn’t allow it. I’d feel her absence in every space, and then I’d begin to see the place for the shitbox it was, imagining her in a sunny studio way uptown near the Cloisters Museum, where she worked.

Katherine sold reproductions and objets at the museum shop, items based on the Museum’s medieval treasures, including the Unicorn Tapestries. Everyone loved those rugs and their imagery—the courtly hunts with spears, arrows, hounds and codpieces zeroed in on the poor white beast. And Katherine would discuss their symbolism with customers until low sunlight shot through stained-glass windows to draw legions of kindred souls into her radiance. Then in the evening, as I was sniveling into cupped hands at the fake woodgrain table, she would be holding Nikko’s bony head in her hands, guiding it god knows where as his elbows slid down the sheets and the moon hit his hairy buttocks.

I toed the foul line. Concentrated. Two out of three and I’m gone, baby.

Up flew the basketball, caressing the rim, rolling around. It rolled around and around and around, and it teetered on the edge. Then it fell out.

“Three out of five!” I decreed, galloping after it.


Plotnik

Arthur Plotnik is the author of eight books, five on writing and expressiveness, and hundreds of stories, poems, articles, and poems published over the years. See www.artplotnik.com.

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