harriet, perched atop a ladder, daintily dabbed a spot of cornflower blue on her ceiling. "What do you think?" she called down to me.
"Looks good," I said. I was sprawled out on the sofa, lending moral support, flipping through Harriet's latest issue of The Nation. I hadn't looked up. There are few activities in this world that I despise more than house-painting, and I wasn't going to be roped into it. "I think The Nation could do with a humor column," I said. "It's so deadly serious nowadays."
"So stop reading it."
"I can't. It's telling me how to think. Cocktail parties are coming up. I need to be able to defend my knee-jerk liberal opinions." The phone started to ring, somewhere, muffled under dropcloths. "Shall I get that?"
"You know, the colors always look completely different than the swatches. I don't think this shade is right."
I counted off another ring, then another. "I suppose I could go back to the store, but I've already opened the whole can " Harriet continued. Ring. Ring. I looked up at her; she was frowning at her ceiling, deep in thought.
"I think your machine is unplugged," I observed. "I'll just go ahead and " I said, as I started to root around.
"DON'T TOUCH THAT PHONE," she shrieked.
"Jesus, Harriet. Okay, okay." The ringing stopped, and we stared at one another in silence.
She climbed down the ladder, brushing a lock of hair out of her eyes. "I'm sorry, but it's just... well, I don't want to talk to anyone right now."
"Well, I got that impression."
"I'm too angry to talk about it."
"Okay." I said. I returned to Katha Pollitt. "It's just ... " She plopped herself down on the canvas-covered floor, and lay down. "I can't take it anymore. You know I broke up with Alan?" Seeing my look of confusion, she repeated, "Alan. Alan. You know. I was sleeping with him. It was a nothing. Not a relationship. You couldn't even call what I did breaking up, since we weren't boyfriend and girlfriend anyway."
"Oh, yes." I'd only met Alan once, at a party; Harriet very clearly had kept him away from our circle of friends. I remembered him in pieces: a fuzzy thrift store sweater, a pair of blue eyes behind thick glasses. His intense stare. Her avoidance of his gaze. His hand, reaching out for hers when he thought no one was looking, and her gentle brushing away of it. "You haven't mentioned him recently."
"I'm just so angry. Three weeks ago, I had the little talk. 'It's really not working out this way. You want more than I'm prepared to give. You're sweet, but I don't want to be in this kind of thing.' You know, the usual, blah, blah, blah, let's-just-be-friends stuff."
"Did you? Want to be friends, that is?"
"Well, of course, at the time I did," she said, flustered. "Don't you always? And he seemed to accept it. I thought he did. We saw each other once after that. But, he keeps calling. And calling. And leaving these messages, and he gets angrier and angrier. 'I can't believe you haven't called me. Call me. Call me.' As if that conversation we had didn't even exist."
I rolled my eyes. "It doesn't sound like you were very clear with him."
"Yes, I was," she insisted. "He just doesn't get it. He doesn't understand that I don't want to go out with him. It's starting to frighten me. And then I get so angry in return. I think, how dare he leave me that kind of message? Now I don't want to be friends with him. He disgusts me, acting like this. I feel like he's stalking me. "
Ah, the verb of the '90s, I thought. Emotional terrorism. "Why don't you just tell him again? Tell him you don't want to be friends now. Tell him to leave you the fuck alone. But tell him something." Harriet was silent. "Is there something else? Why can't you tell him that?"
"I don't know." She started to cry. "I guess I feel guilty for some reason. I just don't understand people that don't understand the word no. All my women friends," she said, sniffing, "when they hear that by some guy, they head for the hills. But guys, I don't know what it is. A pride thing? It seems more and more that you have to hit them over the head with it."
I suspected the answer was somewhere in the middle. Alan probably was a little dense in this matter of rejection. And Harriet, for whatever reason, had possibly been obscure, indicating in some little way a downcast turn of her eyes, a questioning inflection in her voice that she was not firm about her decision.
I pawed around for a tissue, and found the phone. It was an ordinary Princess phone; beige, bulky, looking curiously disinterested in all these emotional entanglements. I handed her my sweatshirt, indicating that she should wipe her nose, as it began to ring again. Once, twice, three times.
Then it stopped.