The Forms of Tommy Johnson
Tommy is a little on the boring side. I admit it. He gets up at six, goes to bed at ten, likes white walls and blue jeans. As far as sex goes, vanilla is probably a shade too wild for him. He's that guy you'll never notice at a party, and even after I point out he's my boyfriend, I'll probably have to remind you when you see him again.
But the fact is, he's a great guy, and I remember that the rest of the time. He treats animals and kids well, always takes the garbage out, and pretends he doesn't notice the cellulite on the back of my thighs. That's as much as any girl can ask for from a boyfriend, right? And I guess it's typical that whatever attracts you to a person eventually repels you. You've got savers and spenders, neatnicks and slobs, prudes and perverts. (All the latter are me, of course.) It even used to be fun -- he used to make me beg for kisses, and I practically had to blackmail him to get laid. Those were the days, really. Thankfully, today's shopping day, and that at least is exciting. I know, it's idiotic. But though he won't admit it, Tommy treats the farmer's market like he's going to church. (It might surprise you that he's not a churchgoer, but he isn't. I understood the first time I saw him eat a tomato, though. You can only have one God, and he's clearly chosen cuisine over Christ.) He'll dress up just a bit. Others wouldn't notice, but I do -- his favorite t-shirt, his smart watch. He'll collect his shopping bags and we'll count them religiously, pardon the pun. If it's dry, he might take the car for a wash on the way; wet, and he'll debate over umbrella choices a bit, coordinating with his outfit (except for the time when I pointed out what he was doing, and he defiantly pulled our pink rose umbrella even though he was wearing plaid; poor thing, he suffered so). And then we'll spend almost two hours at the farmer's market. He'll insist on tasting everything: if it's good, he'll smile; very good, he might emit a low groan; and if it's very, very good, he'll have to sit down.
Our best sex is always after shopping.
And I need it today. Boredom is setting in, and I don't do well with boredom. I'm trying to give Tommy a chance, but you can only go shopping so often, and if we have missionary sex again today, I'll know our days are limited. Which I hate, but it's the truth.
"Ready?" he asks. I nod. I'm wearing a little sundress -- one of those 1950s sweetheart kinds -- that is guaranteed to incite lust, and I've skipped panties. I'm pulling out all the stops.
"Absolutely. Eight bags, all accounted for."
"It's shining, but rain's on the way. I've grabbed an umbrella." He's thoughtfully picked our yellow one, which works for both of us. We head out the door.
At the farmer's market, we head to the fruits and vegetables first. In the beginning, I had to explain practically everything to him. He knew nothing about cooking, despite his devotion to all things delicious. I get the feeling his parents lived on takeout and microwaveable meals. Lately he's catching up with me, and I can't tell yet whether I like this or not.
"I was thinking of a stew, and our curry dish, and a giant salad," he says. "And then some simple things, like baked potatoes and spaghetti."
"Excellent," I say. I know when he says he's thinking of, it's completely planned, and sure enough, he hands me a list. "Split up and meet in the middle?" We always do meats and cheeses second, usually after a quick burrito from the little stand between the buildings, but I like to split up for the vegetables lately, as otherwise we'll be there all day. I hand him four of the bags. Though outdoors, the produce alley is almost entirely covered, so I'm not worried about my lack of umbrella.
"Remember that the valley tomatoes are the best," he says as he starts to the left. I automatically move opposite, and it's not long before I've finished my half. I'm an efficient shopper, and I like the industrial movements of pay-and-move, pay-and-move; I don't mind taking time with Tommy, but on my own they're just fruits and vegetables, not paradise lost. I know Tommy; he'll be smelling and tasting everything, asking about the farms and how the plants grow. With anyone else, they'd be annoyed or curt, but somehow Tommy gets a smile. With that in mind, I hurry to find him, and when I do, he's closer than I expected. I hang back suddenly, wanting to enjoy the voyeur's position, and circle until I'm behind. I set about rearranging my bags, which I need to do anyway, but with only half my mind. The other half is spent watching him == though not for long. He's agitated, and says something I miss, but then he repeats himself.
"That's ridiculous," Tommy says.
The farmer stares at him. "It's what you do. It's perfectly healthy."
Tommy drops the corn he's holding and walks away. I hesitate for a second, but then I head toward the farmer.
"Excuse me," I say, "but what was that man upset about?"
"Nothing," he says, squirming.
"He asked how we make them grow, and I just said sun and rain and love and fertilizer. And he asked what fertilizer, and I told him, and he freaked."
"Composted cow manure, among others. And then he-he got like that." The farmer's brow crinkled up like wrapping paper. "It's clean, the best, composted right. No parasites or anything. The organic, natural way, honest to Pete."
I nod and assure him of my certainty of its healthfulness, and finally buy some corn by way of apology. By this time I can't see Tommy at all in the swirling crowd, but I follow my suspicions and find them proved correct when he's back at the car.
"That's disgusting," he says. He doesn't say anything else, and I pack everything in the car. No meat and cheese today. He doesn't say anything the whole way home, and though it hasn't rained after all, I don't take the car to get washed.
I try to get Tommy to talk about it, but after his initial comment, I don't get anything. I'd expected that he would be embarrassed, except he isn't. He seems disgusted, or disappointed, or maybe just disturbed. There's no sex today, boring or not. Instead I make a salad, which is really all I can make with nothing but fruits and vegetables. I'll run by a grocery tomorrow. I wonder suddenly why he never mentions his family. I call Shannon after lunch.
Shannon's a useful creature: overly honest, and like me, a bit of a pervert. I know it'd be a simple thing to ask her to write up all the dirty details of my own life. That's what real friends do. They'll tell you all the things other people say to your back to your face, and at least give you a chance to yell back about it. More importantly, she's how I met Tommy, as she works with him, and if anyone might be able to tell me secret dirty truths about him, it's her. I ask her to lunch the next day.
"Sweet fellow. You're not thinking of breaking up with him, are you?"
"Not exactly. I just wondered what you thought of him."
"You're looking for something." Her eyes are sharp; she holds her drink like film stars used to. It's silly, but she makes it look good.
"Just checking on dirty secrets. I don't know."
"Tommy doesn't have any dirty secrets. If he did, I'd know them, and I'd have told you long ago." She's right, of course. That's why I trust her.
"I just want to hear what someone else sees."
A thoughtful look settles on her face. She's trying harder than usual for this one, and I'm thankful.
"He's nice. Careful. Sweet. Fond of food. No taste in music that I can tell."
"Careful." I put a hint of a question in the word.
"Wants very much to do things right. You know that."
"Tell me more about that."
"Well -- like the coffee. The last party, he was watching me make coffee. It was at Jocelyn's, and she has one of those awful coffee machines, like a Mr. Coffee for one, the weakest miserable stuff and barely a cup of it. So I stuff in twice the grounds to make the best of it, and Tommy sees me, and he's watching me. Ever so closely, you know. He asks me if that's the way to do it and I say that's the way I do it. I forgot about it until work. Damned if he wasn't doing the same thing with that horrible machine and those packets, down to the way I twist them off. Like he doesn't trust his own judgment."
"That's enough." And it is. More than enough.
I can't decide whether I like it or hate it, but either way I'm doing it, so I suppose it doesn't really matter. I've become my own P.I., studying every move Tommy makes. Every note I take is internal to avoid the possibility of discovery -- except I haven't anything to say. Nothing is abnormal. Everything's, if anything, hypernormal. He makes no mistakes. He does nothing odd except avoid eating fresh vegetables for a week. The only thing there is to notice is how painfully, absurdly, normal he is.
I don't trust this for a minute.
Shannon's right: everything is done with the utmost caution, the utmost regularity, the utmost anxiety to please. I could run a clock by the hours he keeps, could pick out the one thing of anything that he would like, his taste is so predictable. Everything in perfect form. It's confusing I haven't seen it before, like the time I realized looking into my closet that everything I owned was warm-toned: reds, oranges, pinks, a handful of yellows and browns. Nothing blue excepting blue jeans, not a damn thing green or purple, and just a smattering of black accessories. It was embarrassing -- absurd, really. I am literally a scarlet woman, and Tommy is apparently aiming for sainthood. Or invisibility. Or both.
It comes to a head the day we're running late for the museum opening and we stop to get coffees to get us through the event, since we woke late and food hasn't been an option yet. "Latte, two shots," I say. No sugar. I like my coffee to slap me first thing in the morning without any pretense. Tommy orders drip-style American coffee -- the watered down stuff that nobody drinks in the city. It's the first thing he's done oddly. I'm overwhelmed with relief.
"There you go, Tommy," I say. "Acting a little wild. Who orders American-style coffee anymore? Stand up for what you love, love." I say it with delight, raising my Styrofoam cup to him in tribute, so it's doubly confusing when Tommy seems to sink in on himself. "Most people order weak coffee," he says. "Statistically, it's the most popular option in the U.S."
"Not in a coffee shop, idiot," I say, and my voice is oddly blank when I say it. He stares back at me, guilty and confused, and I turn my back on him and leave the shop. We attend the museum in silence, where I obsess over the new modern art exhibit, and he goes to look at classic still lifes. Which he always does. Every time.
I realize suddenly it's over. Not because he's boring; because he's frightening. Who brushes their teeth for exactly two minutes every time, and coordinates umbrella choices, and doesn't know where fertilizer comes from? Who looks at the same paintings every time? Who orders something because it's statistically popular?
I'm almost back in the car when I hear him running after me in the parking lot, his rushed steps echoing in the cement block surrounding us. I've got the key in, the door closed, and I'm pulling out when he's at the door, tapping at it, politely asking over and over what's wrong, why am I leaving, did he do something. I don't look, not even to check to make sure I don't run over his toes. I pull out and leave him, and when I get home, I toss everything of his I can find out on the doorstep. I lock the door, put a chair under the knob, and then take a three-hour bath, playing my stereo as loud as it will go the whole time and touching myself over and over as if I'm reclaiming myself.
A couple of months go by. I sort of regret dropping Tommy, and the oddness doesn't seem so odd the farther I get away from it. Shannon tells me he mourned at work for me for exactly two weeks before returning to standard Tommy behavior. He half-heartedly asks out one of the girls at work two weeks after that, and surprises everyone by doing nothing but talk about me on the date, which the girl reports in great detail to an interested work crowd. Shannon and I discuss it in detail when she finally tells me, which is almost a week after the date occurred. "It was normal of him," I say, and that odd chill starts to creep up the back of my neck again, but Shannon shakes her head. "No, it wasn't," she says. She's vehement, even for her. "He always keeps his head down. Never-get-noticed Tommy, that's him. He doesn't do bad normal. Or didn't. And this was bad. Or at least sad. It made me like him again a little." I nod, but we both know that even as odd a change as sad-normal is, it isn't enough. I order a latte, two shots, and Shannon holds my hand while I cry.
Another month. I go to the farmer's market alone and realize I'm looking for him. I can't tell if I miss him or I'm scared of meeting him. Either way, I don't see him. I realize that my life has become strangely empty without his clockwork regularity to wind my craziness around. I've taken to drinking too much, and I know it, but stopping doesn't seem as worthwhile without him there to cheer me on. Sundays aren't as fun anymore, even if they have more mimosas than they used to. I'm getting new locks for the doors as well. Not to keep him out -- he's never tried to come back -- but because I've started having trouble sleeping nights.
I'm halfway through my third drink of an evening at home when the phone rings. Tommy's been hurt, I'm told; I'm his emergency contact in his cell phone. Can I come see him at the hospital? My brain's thinking how I'm not his girlfriend anymore and I should call Shannon, who will know his real emergency contact, except I say "I can be there in twenty minutes," and then I'm out the door. In a fit of panic, I bring all four umbrellas, because I don't know what he's wearing and I think it's going to rain. I know I look crazy, though hopefully not tipsy, when I arrive wild-haired and carrying them all sticking out of my giant patent-leather red handbag that Tommy always said looked more like luggage than a purse. The nurses are sympathetic when I tell them he's my fiance and nod knowingly. He's not in all that bad of shape anymore, they explain. He started vomiting at a coffee shop, passed out, and they called an ambulance to bring him in. It's happened quite a few times since he got here, they say, and real funny-colored. He seems better now, but they can't say for sure -- which is the real problem. He keeps refusing treatment every time they tried to help him. Is he a scientologist, they ask? No. Of course not. But he's private. Very private. And scared of gross things, I say, even though I'm not sure of that, but thinking of the fertilizer. Maybe he's afraid of needles, I say. I try to remember if he's ever been to a doctor that I can recall.
They let me in to see him, and he's pale and miserable looking in his bed. There's a bowl next to him that he's puked into, all blue and green looking, that smells vaguely sulphurous. I pour it down the toilet and flush so I don't have to smell it and leave the bowl behind the closed door. His eyes are on me every step, though he hasn't said a word yet. I have never seen him look frail before.
"What's wrong, Tommy?" I ask. He just looks at me with his serious brown eyes, weighing me. I had almost forgotten how serious he could get, and I wait while he makes whatever decision he's making.
"I can't let them figure out how I'm different," he finally says. "It would be bad."
"Anal, annoying, abnormal?" I say.
"Alien," he says. He raises his hand and I jump back, and he looks surprised, then moves more slowly as he gently pulls back at his hairline, first gently, then more forcefully. I see the barest sliver of something underneath: something wet and blue and undulating. Something not human. We look at each other for a moment, and then I know what to do.
"Horrible fear of needles," I say to the nurses, and they all cluck their tongues like anxious hens, nodding in commiseration. "Got to get this boy home and resting," I say. "It wasn't the coffee, anyhow. He ate something he shouldn't have this morning. Expired means expired." An exasperated sigh this time, accompanied by equally knowing looks and a couple of eye rolls. They almost don't let me take him when they realize he can't stand on his own, but finally let him discharge himself.
It takes him two days to fully recover, and in that time, there's nothing I can do to help him. Even water seems pointless; whatever he is, he doesn't seem to need it, and I should be furious thinking of all the times he's badgered me about bringing water bottles to make sure we're properly hydrated, only he's so very sick, so I'm not. And I don't press him for answers or even try to see again what's under his hair, either, even though it seems like I should.
When he finally looks like he's no longer close to death, I make him dinner for the hell of it: Caprese salad, sausage and peppers, and even home-baked bread using the bread machine he got me for Christmas that I never actually got around to using before. It looks beautiful and smells divine, but it's the familiarity of it all, not to mention the accompanying sense of calm, that allows me to finally relax for the first time in days.
"I don't really need to eat any of it," he says after his first bite of tomato, "but it does make me happy."
"Everything eats," I say.
"I get most of what I need through the air. I shouldn't have too much water -- the suit can be a mess to dry out. The food does help to a certain extent, but it's kind of . . . like taking a vitamin, I guess you could say. Not totally necessary, though sort of nice." He holds the bread lovingly, like he used to hold me, I think. It's stupid. It's all so very stupid.
"Why me?" I ask. And I don't mean to make it all about me, but look, I'm the one who screwed an alien, okay?
"I like you," he says. He's staring at the bread as he says it, and for a second, I think he's going to kiss it. "We're supposed to not get noticed and be quiet and fade into the background, and you're anything but that. It's . . . living vicariously, a little bit. And it's . . . it's that you like me."
"Seems like the you I liked is mostly made up."
He shakes his head so earnestly I want to wrap my arms around him. "No, no, not at all. I mean, maybe ordering regular coffee, or wearing jeans and a t-shirt and trying to brush my teeth even though I don't really understand what the point is, all that, sure. But not the part of me that likes food and talking about movies and that likes cleaning the kitchen and is kind or uptight and organized. That's really me."
I watch him for a moment, trying to figure out what could possibly make this okay.
"Why do you like still lifes?" I ask.
"They're pretty," he says.
And that's it. I look across the table and realize I don't care what he is. I'm just glad he's back.
Two weeks later he's fully moved back in, and I'm already getting used to his skipping showers but looking and smelling freshly washed, never drinking water or brushing his teeth (though he's taken to nagging me about brushing mine now that he knows what happens when humans don't), not to mention his penchant for smelling things. "It's so nice not to have to hide it," he says, dreamily sniffing at my neck, my arms, between my legs. But the best part of all is the bedroom: once he'd explained that he was mostly afraid of breaking me (there wasn't all that much information on alien sex with humans, he admitted; it seems Tommy was a bit of a pervert after all, and the first he knew of to cross that line), suddenly there was a whole new world to explore. All sorts of things he would never consider before are back on the table now: skiing, skydiving, and traveling, all those situations where before he was sure his ignorance would expose him. Only swimming is officially unworkable now, which I don't mind, so long as we can go lay on the beach sometimes and he can watch me go swimming. He doesn't mind at all. Tommy's a very open-minded creature, you know. As open as the sky is wide.