Juliet’s Street-Side Serenade
by Joshua Begley
Our apartment is too hot to stay inside. I sit on the fire escape, smoking a cigarette, watching life do its slow dance through the streets of Greenwich Village. I watch the gay men move with feminine grace and the lesbians bull their way down the street. I watch the blacks — in my off moments, I still think of them as Moors — move with quiet determination or anger or indifference, and I watch the pseudo-hippy whites pretend to be free and not flinch when they pass anyone with darker skin. But even they have a certain grace that can be beautiful in the right light. Or maybe I’m being too philosophic. Of course, being slightly over five hundred years old will have that affect on most people, I imagine.
Not Romeo, though. In some ways he’s still the same boy he was when we met so long ago in fair Verona, where our story began.
Books pile up in our one-bedroom apartment. It was a battle just to make enough room for a bed, much less a kitchen table — also buried in books — chairs, and a television. Not that I ever watched television; I just bitched about it to keep in practice. I firmly believe a good marriage needs its boundaries defined every so often.
I was the one who decorated the place. I was the one who put up framed replicas of Monet, Van Gough, and Picasso. If it was up to Romeo, the walls would be bare and we’d have only books to stare at.
Romeo mutters to himself while he writes in his notebook. I always liked his handwriting: it’s a strange mix of Italian and English, his own personal shorthand that I can barely decipher, all about Shakespeare and his play that took our names. The notebooks completely fill the space under our bed, and I’ve had to put my foot down on storing the rest in the closet. He may be happy having his clothes on the floor, but I like to stay relatively wrinkle-free.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he says and leans so close to the book his nose practically touches the page. The title escapes me, and I bought it just yesterday. I don’t even think about it anymore. I automatically buy anything that comes out about Shakespeare or our play. Unlike Romeo, I long ago resigned myself to the fact that we’d never figure out why we’re still alive or why there’s a play about us. In the end, I’d rather read a nice period piece or revisit Jane Austen.
The teapot whistles. I snuff my cigarette in the ashtray and go back inside. If I don’t, Romeo’ll let it go until the place burns down.
I half listen to his muttering as I fix our cups. I’ve come to think of it as the soundtrack to our lives. It used to drive me up the wall, but I barely hear it anymore. You learn to accept a lot of things when you’re married.
I kiss his forehead and set the cup on a stack of books. He grunts something and scribbles, “Who wrote it?” in the margin.
His hair is still as black as it was the night he serenaded me. His eyes are dark like midnight pools. His face is sharp, but his nose is crooked from some forgotten fight. He doesn’t look young anymore but, like me, he has an ageless quality. Either of us could pass for early thirties or just barely out of our teens, depending on the light and our mood. Our lives are blessedly free of wrinkles and gray hairs, which suits me just fine.
“Wrap it up, babe,” I tell him. “You got class in a couple of hours.”
He grunts, but I know he’s heard me. No one was as shocked as me when Romeo became an English professor — specializing in poetry and Shakespeare, of course. Bless my husband’s heart, he was never the studious type. I guess he just needed something to light that academic fire. The mystery of our life seemed to have done the trick. Now he teaches at NYU under the name Monty Romero.
While Romeo mutters to himself and shoves books and notepads into a satchel, I reassume my place on the fire escape and light up another cigarette. Luckily for Romeo, NYU is only four blocks away. He forgets to say goodbye as he rushes out the door. The afternoon is nearly hot enough to melt concrete; still, I think it’ll be a good night. I go back in at four to get ready for work.
* * *
My bookstore, Twice-Told Tales, is only two blocks from our place. Nestled between a laundry and a bakery and close to Bleeker Bob’s Records, we get pretty good traffic for a used/new bookstore. The store itself resides on the first floor, but I also rented the second floor for storage.
Like most of the buildings in the Village, Twice-Told Tales looks old, stately, and more than a little scarred, like an old general who refuses to know his time has passed. The bottom half was painted eggshell white nearly twenty years ago, but now the paint is long faded, and I don’t have the heart to touch it up. Sometimes scars need to be seen. Erasing them would be like erasing the moment and, without the moments, there’s no character.
I own it and pretend to run it, but really it’s my manager, Venus, who keeps it going. No kidding, that’s really her name. Venus has dark, caramel skin, usually ties back her long black hair, and has a constant Cheshire cat-like glint in her eye. I liked her the moment I met her.
As for me, I don’t look like Gwyneth Paltrow or Claire Danes. I’m not blonde, blue-eyed, or flat like a boy. I’ve got severely straight black hair, brown eyes, and have been complimented on my curves. I’m no A-cup, I can tell you that. When we’re bored, Venus and I like to flirt with the college boys that come in. It’s a little cruel, maybe, but it passes the time.
Without Venus, I don’t think the bookstore would have survived its first year, much less the five that followed. It was her idea to put in the coffee bar, so I completely blame her for all that happened next.
Vince thought of himself as a bad boy. He had piercings in his ears, nose, eyelids, and certain other places I’d find out later. He wore t-shirts with the sleeves torn off to show the tattoos on his muscle-y arms. On his left was a stripper swinging from a pole, under which was the name, Kandi. And on his right was a yin-yang symbol flanked on the top and bottom with barbed wire.
Vince had an unruly mop of dyed blond hair that I think he washed only every two weeks. He was the type of guy that Venus typically went for, which was why she hired him to run the coffee bar. He was dirty, surly, and sexy as hell. We started flirting almost immediately.
It’s always kind of irked me how Romeo’s name became a part of the language. Any guy with half a vocabulary and a sexy swagger gets to be called a Romeo, but who’s Juliet? Whatever happened to me? I know, in the play I didn’t come off as that aggressive, but believe me, I did my fair share of seducing. After all, Romeo took one look at me and fell in love; how many times does that happen in real life?
No, aggressive women are called sluts or whores or easy. We don’t get literary labels that make it romantic or noble. I guess it’s not that big of a deal, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it irked me from time to time.
Anyway, I was being my best Juliet for Vince. At the end of the day, I saw he had a raging hard-on that he wasn’t even trying to hide from me. He just stared at me with a blank expression that some might take for mysterious but I knew to be the result of a completely empty head. I admit my interest was piqued; the boy was sporting a nice package. I couldn’t help giving him a wink. It was no soliloquy that got me going this time, and maybe that’s why the result wasn’t very spectacular.
* * *
Sometimes Romeo surprises me. It’s not often, and — to be fair — not easy to do after living together for as long as we have, but somehow he still manages to do it.
A week after hiring Vince, I come home from a long day’s work to find dinner sitting under a silver platter on the kitchen table. I lift the lid and find General Tso’s chicken, fried rice, and crab cakes. The food’s cold, so I take it to the microwave. As I’m waiting for the food to heat, I see boxes from the take-out place down the block in the garbage can. For all his qualities — and don’t get me wrong, he has many — my Romeo was never a cook. I shift the garbage so it better covers the evidence.
I sift through his papers as I eat. Lately, Romeo’s moved from reading strictly about Shakespeare to more esoteric fare. Along with The Will in the World are physics books ranging from The Idiot’s Guide to Physics to Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace and Colin Bruce’s Shroedringer’s Rabbit. Surprisingly, I also find some science fiction books too. Stuff by Robert Heinlein, Dan Simmons, and Roger Zelazny. He must have bought them from some other store. I’m sure I would have remembered him getting them from my place.
Flipping through them, I see most of the stories are about alternate dimensions — whatever that means — and literary characters as heroes and junk like that. I’ve never read science fiction and neither has Romeo until now, so most of it goes in one ear and out the other.
Romeo has made a million little scribbles throughout the books, stuff like “Is it possible?” or “Is fiction a way to create other realities?” He’s even underlined passages and written in the corners, “Created wave form states” and “Calabi-Yau Space.” I don’t even bother trying to understand it any more than I bother wishing he’d just accept our situation. That fight’s long done. At least he doesn’t drive me crazy with his theories too much anymore.
* * *
I bite into Vince’s shoulder. He grabs my hair. I rake my fingernails down his back, sink them into his hips, pull him in. He makes guttural, animal sounds as we fuck on dusty books on the bookstore’s second floor.
The corner of a hardback digs into my lower back, but I’m too into the rhythm to do anything about it. This is sex, pure and simple. Low, animal, dirty, and almost painful. I haven’t had it like this in a long time and it feels so good.
Even in his most passionate days, Romeo always held back, afraid he’d hurt me. It’s sweet and lovable and completely part of his character, but it’s not always what I want. Sometimes I want fucking, not lovemaking.
It’s over all too quickly — it always is — and Vince lumbers down the stairs to get a drink, leaving me sweaty, cold, and alone amongst the musty books.
* * *
We go like that for about a month before Vince asks the question.
I guess it’s my fault; I should have seen it coming, but somehow it always takes me by surprise.
Once again, I exile myself to the fire escape while Romeo mutters to himself and writes deep, worthless thoughts in notebooks. I smoke and pull on a sweater as protection against the unexpectedly chill summer night.
Romeo’s dinner is about as cold as the fire escape. He’s completely forgotten about it while doing his research. I imagine I’ll throw it away when I finally come back inside.
The windowsill separates us, or maybe it’s just my attitude and his preoccupations. Could I really leave him? I won’t lie — I’ve thought about it more than once, especially after his first affair, but those were just musings: little “what ifs” that pass across my mind from time to time. Sometimes, when I think about it, I touch the scar between my breasts. It seems like we’ve always been connected, always been fated to be together, whether it’s in life or death. Maybe we were immortal even before a playwright gave our names to the world.
But does it really have to be that way?
Don’t get confused: I never for a second seriously considered running off with Vince — at least not for longer than a week, anyway. He’s a good lay and pretty good-looking when he decides to clean up, but I’m smart enough to know that he’d get very boring very quickly.
But is my consideration a sign to finally move on?
I’ve had lovers before. So has Romeo. And one or two of them I actually loved, but I never seriously thought about leaving my husband. And as far as I know, he’s never thought of leaving me. Maybe it’s hypocrisy. Maybe it’s us wanting to have our cake and eat it, too. Maybe we’re too afraid to leave.
The truth is we haven’t made love in over a year. More importantly, we haven’t talked to each other even longer. Nothing beyond “How’s your day?” and “Where do you want to eat tonight?” — phrases everybody uses to get through the moments. We move in and out of each other’s lives like ghosts or like tenants sharing a room, and it’s been that way for nearly a century. I feel like I’ve been sleepwalking, lost in a daze. It was — of all people — Vince who woke me up.
I’ve died for Romeo, but I’ll be damned if I have to suffer a living death.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Joshua Begley