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To Have and To Hold (short story) by Angela A Barton

 
 

“Would you love me if I was just a head?” asked Scott R.

We lingered on the sidewalk outside El Coyote, a famously mediocre Mexican restaurant on Beverly Boulevard. We’d only been dating a few months, but already we were in deep. I called him Scott R., or sometimes Scotter, to distinguish him from my last boyfriend, who was also named Scott. It was our own private joke.

I considered his question. I wasn’t at all certain I was ready to commit to such a thing, but I believed I saw a glimpse of my future. A captive audience.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I would love you if you were just a head.”

“You’d find someone else.”

We were so young, although it didn’t seem like it to either of us. Barely thirty, I felt like I’d been dating forever. And I had in a way, over half my lifetime.

“I wouldn’t even look for anyone else. If you were just a head, I’d massage lotion into your scalp every morning. I’d hold you lovingly in my lap and rub you with the finest oils, and wrap you in a warm fuzzy terrycloth towel that smelled of freshly baked bread. On Thursdays we’d add apricot scrub and a cucumber mask to the routine. Then I’d put you in a specially made bag that you could see out of, and I’d carry you with me all day, like some women do with their yappy little dogs. You would always be next to me, making me laugh and comforting me when I got nervous.”

“What if some guy came on to you while I was there in the bag? I’d have to watch, it would be awful.”

“I’d tell him I already had a guy, and that he was a real brain. I’d tell him he couldn’t compete.”

“I don’t know.”

Earlier that spring in the same spot (we really liked margaritas and mediocre Mexican food) he’d blurted out “I think you’re going to be the main woman in my life.” It was only our third date, but in that instant I fell in love with him. It was the first time we drank too much together, and I could see he was a sweet drunk. That was crucial information to me; I believe that how a person behaves when they’re drunk reveals a lot about their essential nature. Someone who picks on little kids or kicks dogs when they’re plastered can’t make excuses later, they’ve got a bruise on their soul.

Later, after we’d moved in together, he asked me again “Roxy, would you love me if I was just a head?”

“You know I would.”

“It would be a lot of work, and no fun at all.”

“You’re wrong. It would be tons of fun. Just think about it. With you in your little bag on the seat next to me, we could talk about other people in restaurants and they wouldn’t pay any attention because they’d think I was some crazy lady talking to myself. We could travel so easily—in the car, I’d strap you in to the seat next to me. Or maybe I’d put you in a child’s car seat, and I’d rig it so that you could see out the window. And it would be so cheap to travel out of the country, because we’d only have to pay for one seat on the plane. I’d keep you in the bag and periodically feed you snacks. I could even keep a water bowl in there for you. Or more like a drip bottle that hamsters use. I’m picturing it as the sort of bag people keep bowling balls in, but with a thick mesh on the side so you can see out, but others can’t see in. You’d need your privacy.”

“That might be a little bit fun. But it might make me nervous, being around so many people.”

“We’d have fun at home too. We’d have a collection of wigs for you to wear—Lyle Lovett, Phil Donahue, Snoop Dog, Crystal Gayle. And lots of hats of course. I’d buy a high chair and customize it so you would rest in a softly-lined bowl. And I’d feed you clams linguini with chopped parsley and give you sips of chilled Sauvignon Blanc. You could wear your sailor hat whenever we had seafood, and a beret when I fixed quiche Lorraine. For dessert, we’d have hot fudge sundaes and I’d rub chocolate sauce all over you and then lick you clean. And I’d purse my lips and give you raspberries all over your scalp, just to make you laugh.

“That does sound fun. Can we do that right now?”

“But wait, there’s more.  After all that, we could relax on the couch, you in my lap, and watch Double Indemnity while I rubbed the crown of your head. You would say that I was as sexy as Barbara Stanwyck but that I didn’t have a drop of her wicked heart.”

“What if I wanted to watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers?”

Once, after a perfect Sunday of breakfast at our favorite local restaurant and a lazy afternoon of moody sex and the New York Times, he kissed me on the back of my neck. “You are incredibly Roxa-licious,” he said. Then he asked “Would you love me if I was just a head?”

I rolled out of bed and pulled on a sweater, suddenly antsy. Scott leaned on one elbow and watched me as I dressed.

“We’ve been through this before,” I said. “Is that even proper grammar—‘Would you love me if I was just a head?’ Shouldn’t it be ‘Would you love me if I were just a head?’ As in ‘If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady, would you marry me anyway, would you be my baby?’”

I sang this last part, but I don’t have much of a voice. He recognized it though.

“Was that a Bread song?”

“I thought it was Peter, Paul, and Mary. But maybe I’m confused—I think I’m associating the carpenter with Jesus and Mary Magdalene with Mary of Peter, Paul, and Mary.”

“Wait, I think it’s Tim Hardin.”

“And what about that guy with the beard up on the rooftop? ‘If I were a rich man…”

I started singing again, but didn’t know any more of the words.

Fiddler on the Roof?”

“I saw a high school production of it. How weird, I guess they put an old man’s beard on a high school kid.”

“No, he probably grew his own for the production.”

I threw a pillow at him. “Be nice!”

I’d just returned from three months in Vancouver, on location for a remake of  Gone With the Wind. I work as a script supervisor, the job requires a lot of precision. We were celebrating at our favorite pizza joint. We ordered a carafe of house red and touched glasses.

“Here’s to you coming back to me.”

I laughed. “Was there ever any question?”

“The real question is—”

“Yep.”

“But how would we celebrate special occasions like this?”

“Exactly the same, except you’d be up on one of those booster chairs they give to kids.”

After his mother died, he asked again.

“I’ll always love you and care for you and protect you, even if you’re only a head. I’d put you in one of those slings they carry babies in, draped between my breasts so you could always hear my heart beating.”

“Why do you love me?”

“Because you’re you. And there’s nobody else exactly like you. And we’ve shared margaritas on two continents, and talked so late into the night about a million different things our throats were dry, and now your mom’s died.”

“I’d be so sad if I was just a head.”

“Aw, Scotter, I’d cheer you up. When it was cold, I’d wrap your head in a cashmere turban, and I’d knit hats for you to wear when we went outside and stocking caps for you to sleep in. And on the first warm day, I would take you outside and put you in a porcelain bowl and run cool water over you. Then I’d wash your hair with baby shampoo and lemons and rinse it with more cool water poured from a pitcher. You’d close your eyes and smile as the water ran over your forehead. You would ask me to do it again, and I would rinse you with the cool water as many times as you liked.”

“That sounds nice.”

“Of course it does. It would be just like when you were little and your mom bathed you in the sink.”

He really starts to cry now. I think that’s okay, but my mom’s still alive so I can only try hard to understand how he feels.

Another time, after he’d been laid off from a team of toy designers who were working on a new version of a doll that wet its pants (his heart hadn’t really been into it), he asked “Rox, would you love me if—”

“If you were just a head?” I interrupted.

“I would feel so cut off from the world.”

“I could take dictation for your letters to the editor. It would be easy. Or maybe you could get your own column; you could do your own cartoon drawing of yourself as a head—raving mad, with smoke blowing out your ears. And if you ever referred to being ‘just a head’, people would think you were speaking metaphorically.”

“That would be fun to have my own column.”

We passed over the Seven Year Itch marker without incident, but a few years later I thought I was in love with someone else. I’d worked with Tony on a film shoot—he was one of the AD’s, and we spent about twenty hours a day together for ten weeks. I hadn’t seen him since the shoot ended, and I couldn’t deny that I missed him. I may have been wallowing, because Scott said to me, “Roxanne, I know you’re in love with Tony.”

I just looked at him. However I’d felt, I hadn’t done anything about it.

Then he asked “Would you love me if I was just a head?”

“I’m not in the mood for this.”

“I knew it! You would not!”

“This is ridiculous. And I don’t have the energy.”

He looked genuinely sad, and didn’t say anything. I lowered my voice and clucked gently. “Now, don’t be silly. Of course I would love you if you were just a head.”

“I don’t believe you. What about your needs, your desires, what would you do?”

“I’d clamp you between my legs. And we could still watch dirty movies together.”

“You’d want to have sex with someone else. Are you trying to tell me you could give up getting fucked?”

“Don’t be mean. I haven’t done anything. I love you, and I would still love you if you were just a head.”

He looked sad, but seemed convinced.

Several years later we celebrated at Musso & Frank’s after he’d been named team leader for developing the action figures from yet another wildly popular space opera. We clinked our martini glasses in a toast and he asked me “Would you love me if I was just a head?”

“Aren’t you convinced by now? I’m not going anywhere.”

 “But everything would be so different. What about Lights Out?”

“Well, instead of you tucking me in at night, I’d tuck you in. I’d rest your head on a satin pillowcase, and pull up the 400 thread count sheets right to your chin.”

I thought of something. “Do you have a neck?”

“What?”

“I was just wondering—are you really just a head, or a head and a neck? Because if you had a neck, I would snuggle it and kiss it and pull the sheets up over it.”

“I don’t know. I think I’m just a head, we’ve always said just a head.”

“But why wouldn’t you have a neck? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“It’s not supposed to make sense, logic Nazi. Just play the game!”

“Infant!”

“Control freak!”

“Let’s not start name-calling again. I thought we handled that one decades ago.”

He smashed his bread with butter.

“Okay, truce.”

“I’d pull the sheets up under your chin and sort of wrap them around your face and ears. And then I’d kiss you on the forehead, and once on each cheek, and on your lips. Then I’d say ‘I love you now and I’ll love you when you wake up.’ And I’d turn out the lights and you’d go right to sleep. And you wouldn’t have any nightmares because you’d been tucked in so gently.”

The old waiter in the red jacket brought our steaks.

Now, we’re in the hospital for Scott’s heart bypass operation. In our mid-sixties, we’re not young anymore and there’s an unspoken fear. His eyes blink and his cheeks twitch like he’s had too much coffee as he lies there on a gurney, dressed in a gown and covered with a sheet. The doctors have assured us that the operation is almost routine and they expect him to do well, but I can’t help focusing on the statistics of the ones who don’t come through. I’m obsessed with researching what was different about them—diet, genetics, temperament. I worry that studies show that even though it can’t be explained, spiritual belief seems to help people survive. I wish for the millionth time that we believed in God. It would be easier to reassure him.

Instead, I comfort him the best way I know how. “I love you,” I say.

I look into his eyes, along with the fear there’s that mischievous glint, and the question.

I tell him that I would give him warm baths in a pewter punch bowl filled with pure mineral water, rosemary, and lavender. I say that I would add just a drop of jojoba oil to keep his skin soft, and I would take great care that none of it gets in his eyes.

Two nurses come in, one male and one female. They are brisk, efficient and chipper. “Time to go,” says the woman.

This strikes me as criminally insensitive. The woman grabs hold near the head of the gurney and the man the foot as they wheel him out the door, me following alongside.

In the hallway, he grabs my hand and looks me in the eye.

“You’re the love of my life; I hope I’ve told you that.”

“You’re being melodramatic. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

He smiles slightly and his hand slips out of mine as they wheel him away. At the end of the hall, the white of the sheets covering him blend with the white of the floor, walls, and ceiling. He looks so vulnerable, and just before the double doors close behind him, all I can see is his head, as if floating on a cloud—the smooth skin, the neatly trimmed gray hair, the set of his sensitive, feminine jaw. I can almost make out the freckle low on his forehead near the hairline.

I stare at the spot where his head had been. I think I can still see it, but it’s a trick, an afterimage, like when you close your eyes and the colors dance in the dark there. 

 
 
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Bio: Angela Barton writes fiction and nonfiction, and has worked on feature films as an assistant editor. She lives with her husband in Eagle Rock, CA. She can be reached at ABarton62@yahoo.com.

 

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