Are You Adaptable (conclusion)
“Listen to me.” Like Nola, he put a hand on her arm. “I’m asking you, leave it alone. I don’t even know why…”
He took his hand off her arm, and spread both in a baffled gesture.
“…you would have to do with Stenner. You and Dan are not like me and Nola.”
“I don’t have to do with Stenner.” Impatient people kept making this assumption, when all she’d done with Stenner was talk, Beloye for a moment missed the off-kilter.
“Arnold,” she said, “don’t you want him to stay away from Nola?”
Dan’s brother was one of those who thought being married meant you could touch, you could flirt. Her fault if the woman took you seriously. Beloye had never taken Arnold seriously. He was the guy who chuckled at every stubbed toe, found the dirty joke in every innocent word…
Crowed over even his Uno victories.
Heidi—to Beloye (both per acquaintance and self-legend) always a widow, working alone—had raised two boys, older and younger, Lout and Spoiled One, training each to the extremity of his stereotype. She doubted this was fair to Heidi, who’d learned to be Heidi, as surely as her sons had learned to be Arnold and Dan…this jokey assessment that had raised a smile and a, “Well, you’re the smart one, Beloye,” from Nola.
How could anyone be fair to anyone?
Arnold’s eyes were asking her now, to listen and believe. “When we decided we couldn’t take any more, Nola left. She went to a motel for three days.” He sighed. “I can’t tell you. I felt like I’d been locked up in some lunatic asylum. And I didn’t know it until I woke up free. I could walk out the door of my own house and I didn’t have to…” He stopped, overcome for a moment. “I didn’t have to answer five hundred questions. I didn’t have to run her goddamn errands. I could come back and the house was quiet. I could sit on the sofa and just think. Beloye…”
He put his hand on her arm again. “I would actually—not kidding—rather be in jail than go on living the way I had to live before. If it happened again…”
“What!” She had an awful vision…that Arnold would bypass her and appeal to his mother; the three Tolhursts gang up on her.
“You know,” she told him. “Our sofa is not a sleeper…”
“Beloye.” He tightened his grip…realized what he’d done. Letting go but not apologizing, Arnold said, “Why do you go off on things like that? Are we talking about furniture? I’m asking you, keep out of this business with Stenner. Don’t let him come on to you.”
“Arnold, it’s not possible. Anyway, he’s not running away to Vegas with Nola, or some crazy thing. I have to see Stenner again.”
Well, because of the jacket. Arnold went pacing up the sidewalk. Beloye inched to the wheelchair ramp, a little desperate. He turned.
“Crazy! What do you think is going on in my house right now? You ever think about other people? Don’t tell me you have to see Stenner, you want to. Just like with Dan…he didn’t do anything to you…he only lost his job. And you threw him out!”
“Arnold, I didn’t. Maybe that’s his story, thank you for asking me! And I let him come back.”
“Listen, who cares? I just want some help.”
“Arnold, I’m leaving.”
He had more to say, but Beloye was walking. She was nearly running. Arnold had raised a panic in her heart; he had infected her. She couldn’t work that day…she needed to sit down someplace. Frustrated at slow-moving people bent over their phones, spreading their bulk across the sidewalk, she slid past a bicyclist, found herself backed against the low concrete wall that edged Green Mount Cemetery, and sat. Like the sound effect for a nagging finger, the bicyclist’s bell rang twice.
She would need to call the office and tell them she was having a headache. In a minute it might be true. Months ago, Beloye had been alone. The apartment was hers. She came home and ate cereal for supper, if that was all she wanted. She talked out loud to Boz, kept the TV off. Threw her clothes on the floor, left dishes in the sink. Didn’t vacuum. Didn’t feel hemmed in…cornered. So often these days, she wanted only to shut the bedroom door, sit in the dark, open the window, breathe air.
But she never thought about these things.
She never thought about Arnold, the shallow jerk. And yet they shared this…a thing strange in itself. This inarticulate, unfriendly man suffered as Beloye suffered; she might have talked, finally, like a friend to Dan’s brother, had she ever known—
But…all this…couldn’t be helped. She would have to call Stenner.
She thought about Dan and Heidi. If she stopped paying rent, they would run out of money. They would have to pile in with Arnold and Nola, section off the basement for a third encampment, maybe.
Other than a house, to which she no longer had rights, but for which she might have years yet to pay, Beloye had no obligations. She was free to walk away. Would Arnold walk away? Nola, if she had the guts, might take him to court.
But Nola wouldn’t.
Beloye could picture her almost-sister-in-law working a second job, supporting Heidi and Dan, scraping the last dime to make her own house payments. She could picture the Tolhursts drafting a story, one building in color and detail, in which the old girlfriend Beloye, always the outsider, had started all this.
Their failure would become a family institution; a powder keg rattling under increasing heat. But she had no choice. She had to call Stenner.
(copyright 2015, 2018 Stephanie Foster)