Your Sweet Voice Calling
Happiness is unhinging Frances.
In the evenings, alone, when her new lover is off doing whatever lovers do when they’re not attending to love, her reading is disturbed by a sly insistent tickle that erupts into a demanding host of sensations, thrilling and upsetting. When desire floods her, she feels stupid and malleable. Will her entire life structure of useful hard work and self-improvement collapse? She frets that she’s becoming lazy and foolish.
Frances now shuts her office door. She doesn’t want anyone to catch her smiling stupidly at no one. When a receptionist places her on hold, pouring pop music into her helpless ear, she passes the moments licking her lips, tenderly reclaiming kisses from the night before.
Her workouts have been rigorous propitiations to the destructive powers of middle age, but love generates renewed enthusiasm for her body. Now she exercises with the same attention and vanity her neighbor devotes to his 1954 Chevy. They both look good.
She and her lover prepare extravagant meals, chopping, talking, kissing, and tasting. Ravenous, she then finds herself full, almost without eating. Hours later, after love, she stalks the kitchen for leftovers. Her lover is bemused by all of this. He is a person so openhearted that a condition couldn’t be considered, let alone placed, on his love.
This drives Frances crazy. She tries to find the door that won’t open.She argues about politics, musical taste, whether or not to keep dogs in the city. Her lover debates her with energy but no apparent stake in winning. He listens willingly to any music Frances plays, even the abstract, irritable jazz she favors.
Frances rarely sleeps, making her edgy, pale, and easily distracted. She wonders if love makes her sick. She gets a cold. When cold sores deface her mouth, her lover deftly deposits kisses on other body parts, letting her besieged lips heal without denying her love.
Her lover is a naturalist. He knows trees, flowers, shrubs, and grasses. She knows only rose, daisy, maple, and fern. She is grateful for green things but has no curiosity about their nature. When they walk down the street, he greets each shrub, tree, and flower. The music of her lover’s voice harmonizes with the world around them as he names what grows and tells her bits of lore about each. Frances will remember almost none of this, but his descriptions comfort her. She feels like an identified plant—glossy, blooming, named, and understood.
Frances reads her lover a poem full of plant names. He smiles and nods. He tells her that he likes poetry but often feels overpowered in the face of its condensed dreamy demands. He had a lover who was a poet. Frances immediately wishes that she could find this woman, wrench the pen from her hand, then wreck her computer with a Luddite’s hammer. Frances decides she will not read her lover any more poems with plants or trees in them. She switches from jazz to the gentle ballads he favors. She finds this music sentimental, but she is not as opposed to sentiment these days.
One day her lover says he wants to visit his horse. He keeps a horse in the country, boarded by a woman who was once his lover. Would Frances like to visit, meet the horse, Mildred, and the former lover whose name also starts with an “M”? Frances doesn’t want to appear as small and grudging as she feels so she agrees to meet horse and woman. She confesses her fear of horses. Her lover promises to introduce them carefully. Frances believes him, but she feels foolish. The prospect of trembling before the horse while she is watched by her lover and the ex-lover makes Frances apprehensive.
Her lover and his old flame are casual and direct with each other. Frances likes this woman and they talk about books and politics while he takes a ride on Mildred. When he returns, the horse is tired and he introduces her to Frances. Cautiously, she holds out an apple. The horse’s wet velvety lips tickle her palm as it takes the offering. They take the ex-lover, Molly, out to dinner, then drive home in the dark, reminiscing about long rides in the country when they were kids, and planning a trip they might take together.
That night Frances dreams that the horse is gently nibbling her shoulder. Her sleeping body does not resist.
Her lover’s name is John, the most generic male name. She thinks of him only as her lover. She realizes this is strange. She calls him John, but in reverie, he remains her lover. She doesn’t like to talk about him. She fears he will become less her lover, and more John, a specific figure in the world. Once released, she might lose him. She prefers the slightly mythical state of their relations and accepts the strain on her friendships as she holds back the usual details of connection and conflict that women talk about when they talk about men.
The first time Francis becomes truly angry with her lover is when he leaves her for a week. He’s been invited on a naturalists’ outing to identify and classify things that grow in an Alabama swamp. Environmentalists want the swamp protected by the federal government. It is worthwhile but sudden, and Frances is stunned by how long the week seems.
Before her lover turned up, Frances tended her life alone with a gardener’s careful patience, and some fatalism about weather conditions. Now that single, stoic life looks small and pot-bound, a window box instead of a tropical forest. Frances is furious that her old life doesn’t satisfy when her lover is gone. She is terrified that he will disappear into an Alabama swamp, or into the arms of a compatible naturalist who will whisper the names of growing things in his ear. She defended her old life so steadfastly. Could that old life again be all she has, and will she lose faith with it?
Frances is stricken. Love has made her dependent.
When her lover returns, Frances talks about her last lover, a scoundrel. She describes a car trip where they broke down in the north woods and she stayed in a locked car while he hitchhiked to the nearest town, failing to return, and forcing her to hitch her own ride. Her new lover frowns and asks careful questions.
“You had a time of it with him, I guess.”
He tells her that she can talk about her ex if she needs to. He is glad to hear her stories, to know her better. Frances feels ashamed of herself. She wasn’t telling stories about her ex in order to be known better. She was trying to get a rise out of him. She wonders if anything makes this man angry or jealous. She asks and he says, “Frances, I used to hit people.”
Frances wishes she hadn’t asked. Her lover knows he has frightened her.
“It doesn’t happen anymore.”
She remembers stories he has told her about a brutal father and a hardscrabble country life. She’d always thought of him as a miraculous ascendant out of a harmful past. It never occurred to her that her lover had to stumble roughly through decades of adult life to become his gentle self.
For a time, Frances is uneasy. Anyone’s past produces some bitterness, trouble that can’t be tamed or denied. Since her lover rests so comfortably in the life he lives, the one she’s begun to share, she cannot understand how it was ever otherwise. Could this loving time be merely a mild season, followed inevitably by hard weather?
Frances goes away for a few days and sits on the Lake Superior shore, watching the rocks and big waves she loves, wondering why now they signify such terror.
She returns and, of course, her lover is glad to see her. They cook, eat, tell stories, and walk through a park where musicians busk for dollars. Saxophones and violins thicken the twilight with a longing that lifts her heart like an arc, triumphing over doubt.
Later, they make love in rhythms the music made from love and for all the lovers who loved before them. Patterns of flesh and sweat flicker in candlelight. He invents names of flowers and grants them absurd functions, planting them with his tongue in her navel. They laugh until a playful kiss deepens and tightens her shaking belly. The urgent force of sex makes them greedy and quiet. Later, somewhere between the luscious surprise of climax and the slippery fall to sleep, Frances startles awake, terrified.
Her lover rouses. “Are you alright?” She murmurs a reassurance and he slides away from her, back into his own dreams.
Whatever comes next hovers dreamily but won’t form a shape. Frances falls asleep and dreams of John.
• • •
Flo Golod lives in south Minneapolis with her husband and cat. Her two children and granddaughter live in the same zip code. She is semi-retired from her own fundraising business and enrolled in the Hennepin County Master Gardner program. Her stories have appeared in a two issues of Talking Stick (one received a second place award) and in an online journal, Manifestations. Another story was selected for a juried reading at Patrick’s Cabaret.