• NOthing to declare •
by Jonathan Carroll
It began by accident, as romances often do.
He’d had another rough night. A few days before, their new puppy broke its leg while playing. It was now encased in a tight bandage that covered a third of its lower body. This wrapping drove the young dog nuts. Obsessively it tried to tug the bandage off with its teeth.
Things were particularly bad at night when it would clomp from room to room, couch to chair to floor, trying to get comfortable and when it found that impossible, pull at the bandage. They’d bought one of those stiff plastic collars from the veterinarian that look like an inverted lampshade but are meant to keep an animal from getting at its wound. But the collar scared the dog and its panic at having to wear the large unwieldy thing made them fear that the puppy would do something to make the broken leg worse, so they took it off.
The man discovered the only thing that calmed the dog down was if he sat next to it on the living room couch with his hand resting on its head. Then the puppy would sleep a while, but he didn’t. Head bent to one side, a blanket draped over him, three nights in a row he’d done this and it showed. His face was swollen and drawn from lack of sleep. At six in the morning he’d lurch up from the couch goggle eyed and staggery and go out for coffee to buzz some kind of caffeine life back into his exhausted body.
He always went to the same café because it opened early. The women who worked there were all friendly and seemed glad to see him come in. The waitress he liked most was a dark thin woman named Joanna. He knew this only because of her nametag, not because she’d ever told him. She was nice looking but not special. She smiled a lot and seemed to have an authentically sunny personality. She greeted everyone who came in and was patient even during the hectic times when customers couldn’t decide what they wanted. On the third morning of his dog vigil, Joanna served him and then said, “You’re looking tired.”
He nodded, smiled and because he was so sleep deprived, said by accident “New baby.” Of course he’d meant to say “puppy” but his mind was so thick and confused by lack of sleep that the wrong word came out. Oh well, what difference did it make-- puppies were babies too.
“Ahh, a sleepless Daddy! Lucky you.”
And then of course it was too late and awkward to correct himself and say, “No, I mean puppy. We have a new puppy that kept me up all night.”
Anyway it wasn’t important—they were only making superficial morning chitchat. Joanna walked away but a few minutes later returned with a big glistening cinnamon bun and put it down in front of him. “This is on the house,” she said. “All that sugar will give you extra energy.”
The bun was delicious. But how could he tell her now that he’d said it wrong and… Forget it-- it wasn’t worth the trouble.
When he got home he told his wife what had happened. Right away she asked why he’d lied to the waitress. He said he hadn’t lied; he slipped up and made a mistake. Because he was tired he said it wrong. That was way different from a lie. But he noticed his voice at the end of the sentence rose to a plaintive defensive whine.
“No, you lied: you let her believe we have a new baby. That’s not very nice.”
He loved his wife but didn’t like her then. She should have been amused; maybe shaken her head at the goofy situations we get ourselves into by accident sometimes in life. Instead she was scolding and pissy about it. He wanted to protest but held his tongue.
She persisted, “Are you going to tell her?”
“What, you mean the waitress?”
“Yes. Are you going to tell her about the dog?”
“I don’t know. Why is this important to you? Why not just leave it alone? Who cares?”
His wife looked at him for a few beats but he could not tell what was in her stare. In reaction he really wanted to do something absurd then like reach over and squeeze her nose, or stick out his tongue to remind her that neither of them held the high moral ground when it came to matters like this. They’d both lied plenty over the years—to each other and to the world.
He purposely avoided the café for a few days. But one afternoon on his way home he stopped in and Joanna was working. He thought about telling her the truth then but why? She’d probably forgotten their earlier conversation and bringing it up again would only confuse or perhaps embarrass her. The phrase “let sleeping dogs lie” crossed his mind and he smirked. All this nonsense had happened because of a dog that wouldn’t sleep.
“How’s that naughty baby of yours?” Joanna asked while serving his coffee.
Taken off guard he stuttered, “Oh yeah. Uh—better, thanks. Thank you for asking.”
“What’s its name? Is it a boy or a girl?”
“Oh, a boy. His name is Harry.” Which of course was the name of the puppy.
The waitress crossed her arms. “That’s a nice old fashioned name-- Harry. Good one. Good for you. Say listen, can I ask you a question? Do you mind?”
“No, not at all.” Without realizing it, he moved slightly back in his seat away from her. Joanna didn’t notice.
“Is it hard? I mean is it hard having a baby? My husband and I talk about it all the time but we just can’t decide. There are so many pros and cons either way.”
He answered immediately. “If you have a good marriage, think of it like this: you already live in a house that you love. But one day you suddenly discover another room in that house you’ve never seen before. It’s wonderful and makes your home better in ways you never imagined. That’s what it’s like having a baby. But if your marriage is already good, then you’re happy living in that house even without the room.”
She was impressed. “Wow. That’s a really different way of seeing it. Thank you.”
He was too ashamed to say you’re welcome. The words were his brother’s from last year when he explained what it was like having a new baby. But what else was there to say? He did not have children and knew nothing about what it was like to live with them. His brother’s explanation was the best he had ever heard. Now he’d lied twice to this nice woman—once about the baby and then pretending his brother’s words were his own.
Fortunately she was called to another table and walked away without saying anything else. A few minutes later he glanced to his right and saw she was on the other side of the room staring at him. The look in her eye was a mixed bouquet of admiration, approval, and plain old ‘you’re my kind of guy.’ He quickly looked away but sat up straighter and couldn’t help grinning although his eyes were turned to the floor. He walked home thinking about her look and how long it had been since his wife had given him one anywhere near that intensity.
By the time the dog’s bandage was removed, the man and the waitress were on a first name basis with each other. They never flirted; they didn’t do the verbal dance one does when you’re attracted to someone. It was much more interesting than that because both of them were falling for the same person.
Deeply impressed by his analogy between having a child and the house with the extra room, Joanna (being naturally curious) now wanted to hear what he had to say about other things. She loved her husband and they had a successful fulfilling marriage. But this was altogether different. It happens so rarely that you meet someone who perceives life from a unique perspective and in sharing it, expands your vision. All of Joanna’s friends saw things pretty much the same way she did. Her husband was devoted and hard working but he was a 100% pragmatist; metaphors or poetic analogies didn’t have any place in his world.
The man in the café was different. No matter what they talked about, he almost always came at it from a different angle, frequently one she’d never considered. When she asked what was his favorite fruit he said watermelon because it’s so funny. Who the hell ever thought of watermelon as funny? But playing the idea over and over in her mind, it made a kind of loopy lovely sense.
She told him about the morning she drove to work and by some miracle, had made it through five green traffic lights in a row. He immediately nodded like he understood and said “smallicious.” When she shook her head that she didn’t understand what he meant, he explained it was his made up word for the small but delicious things that happen to us in life every so often—like catching five green traffic lights in a row. “To me, delicious is a big word— whenever I think of something delicious it fills my mind. But small is…small. So you have those two words that mean opposite things and they meet somewhere in the middle.”
He never knew it, but after their third chat she bought a cheap pocket notebook at the stationery store next to the cafe and began copying down things he said in it—lines she wanted to keep. It was a great pleasure to get that notebook out at work when there was down time and write in her ugly script things like “extra room/baby”, and “smallicious.” One day her husband saw the notebook in her purse and asked about it. She said it was for recording ideas that came to her now and then. What kind of ideas, he asked amiably. Pleased by his interest, Joanna explained sometimes interesting things came into her mind that she wanted to remember. Then she used the example of smallicious as if it were her own. His face remained blank until she finished. After repeating the word with just the slightest tinge of derision, he smiled like she was weird but that was okay—he loved her anyway.
Smallicious however was not the man in the cafe’s invention; it was his wife’s. He’d said it to Joanna that day because it was the perfect word to describe her experience with the traffic lights. But why didn’t he tell her that it was his wife’s creation and not his own? Again because of the look in the waitress’s eyes after he defined it. He loved her silent but obvious admiration and the way her smile grew slowly as she began to grasp what he was talking about. He’d read somewhere that the next best thing to having sex with a woman was making her laugh. Surely then the third best thing was to make her smile approvingly.
After that day he was almost never himself again with Joanna. Whenever they chatted he became a wiser, funnier, larger than life person. He became the kind of man he had always dreamed of being. Using other peoples’ lines and ideas, he led her to believe everything he said was his own although it rarely was. He had always read widely and had a good memory, so it was not difficult coming up with great insights or mot juste to fit any occasion or conversation they had. He grew to look forward to their meetings not only because he had such a receptive audience, but also because he was becoming at least in this woman’s eyes the person he had always wanted to be.
That is where the romance in this story appears because soon afterwards, both he and Joanna fell in love with the man he pretended to be. He didn’t do it because he wanted to seduce her and saw the ruse as an effective method to that end. No, he did it for himself. He did it to show himself that under different circumstances, he could have been this dazzling fellow.
The best part of having an affair is your lover is always fresh from the bath and smelling wonderful, thrilled to see you, eager to hold you, hear about your day or anything else you want to discuss. For them your breath always smells fresh, the eau de toilette you’ve worn your whole life is delicious, your stories are new, your insights original and compelling. Their eyes light up when they see you, their looks say where have you been all these years? I’ve been waiting so long.
Now when he entered the café and Joanna was there, something secret and sacred came awake in both of them. They rose to each other’s occasion. Without her, he was only himself. In her presence he became the man of his dreams, which permitted this greater self to actually walk a short while on the earth. Like the rich oenophile who owns a basement full of great rare wines, he kept bringing up bottle after bottle of his favorites for her to sample—stories and lines from poems or great piercing insights-- and she appeared to love them all.
Joanna had never met such an exhilarating man. By every indication he was not interested in having sex with her, which made their relationship even more special. He was attracted to her as a person, and the things he talked about made her world larger. She only wished they had more time together-- not just the few minutes it took for him to drink his coffee and have a little chat. She wondered if he was this expansive with other people. She hoped not but hastily scolded herself for thinking that way. She should just be flattered that this special guy enjoyed talking to her.
Naturally she wondered what his wife was like. He never mentioned her, which usually meant he had a good solid marriage that was no one’s business but his own. Or it meant the less said about the wife the better. Either way, the waitress wondered about the lucky woman. Only once did she ask about her. He told a hilarious embarrassing story about something that had happened to a friend but of course he said it was his experience. On impulse, Joanna asked what his wife thought about it. Instead of answering, he stared at her strangely. She couldn’t decipher his look. Eventually he shrugged, didn’t answer her question, and changed the subject. For the next half hour after he left she thought about his shrug and got angry with herself for fussing over something so trivial.
The reason why he stared at her was at that moment, he became certain she had finally seen through him. The story he’d just told was so far fetched that even adoring gullible Joanna realized it could not possibly have happened to him. Which meant other things he’d told her were probably not true either. The jig was finally up. He assumed when the waitress suddenly asked what his wife thought, she was challenging him, indirectly saying uh-uh to this newest whopper he’d whipped up.
But after the long assessing look he gave her, he saw that it wasn’t so. Joanna really only wanted to know what his wife thought about the incident. On realizing his mistake, he was embarrassed and couldn’t think of anything else to do but shrug.
That night his wife returned from a business trip. As always, he brought her a glass of wine and they sat together at the dining room table where she told him about her trip and the things that had happened. It was a long established ritual both of them liked and which served as a nice way to connect again after a few days apart. He always liked hearing her stories and insights. A number of them he had told to Joanna.
“When I was in the airport waiting for my bag to come through, I looked up and saw those signs above the exits. You know, one’s red and says “Goods to Declare.” The other’s green and says “Nothing to Declare.” I stood there thinking probably every single person here has something in their bags that they should declare at customs but won’t. If we were honest, not one of us would walk through that “Nothing to Declare” exit but most people will and with a clear conscience.”
He poured her more wine and said, “Do you know what psychologists say about thieves? Most of them take stuff because they believe they deserve it, not because they’re trying to get away with anything. Maybe the same applies in the airport—people really don’t believe they should declare things.”
She wiggled her finger at him in a mock-scold. “Nonsense. I know I should pay tax on that big bottle of vodka in my bag, or the carton of cigarettes.”
“Not necessarily. You truly believe it’s not right that they’re asking for more money when you’ve already paid for it once.”
She nodded. “Yes, but you still know you’re doing something wrong. Now I am going to take a bath and wash off the travel cooties.”
While she bathed, he took Harry out for a walk. Of course her ‘nothing to declare’ anecdote resonated in what he had been doing with Joanna at the café. So much of what he’d told the waitress was either false or stolen from someone else. The man she liked so much did not exist. If she were a customs inspector at the airport he could have walked up to her and said, “Everything in my bag is illegal. You should tax it all.”
Such a good woman didn’t deserve lies, no matter how entertaining or amusing they were. Right there and then he resolved that from now on he would only be himself when they met. He had many good qualities. He knew interesting things, was sensitive and observant. Maybe he wasn’t the Superman he had been faking for her, but he had his strengths and good points. Maybe she would like them; maybe she would like the man he really was and not the one he pretended to be.
He never saw her again.
The next morning full of new resolve, he went to the café but Joanna was not there. That was odd because he knew she always worked Tuesdays all day. After his third visit there without seeing her, he asked.
A waitress named Giselle was vaguely surprised that he wanted to know about her former colleague. “Oh, Joanna’s gone.”
“Gone? You mean she’s on vacation?”
“No, she quit. I don’t know why. We were never like really friends. Anyway, what’ll you have?”
None of the women who worked at the café knew where Joanna went. All he could get from them, and he asked every one, was she told the manager one day she was quitting and that was it—she finished her shift and none of them saw her again. Even the manager didn’t know where she went because the normally gregarious woman was very tight lipped about the whole matter.
More than anyone else in the world, Joanna loved her mother. So when she called to say she’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had no more than half a year to live, her daughter immediately quit her job, told her husband she was going to her parents’ house for as long as it took, and was on the road the next day in her old car.
As one would expect, the next six months were hideous. Her mother deteriorated very quickly and the woman’s last days would haunt her daughter for the rest of her life. Every night Joanna called her husband and usually crying, told him what had happened that day.
Squeezing the phone chord so hard in frustration that it left dents in his palms, he felt useless and way out of his depth listening to his beloved partner talk. Repeatedly he asked if she wanted him to come and keep her company. Joanna always said no, no stay. It makes me happy thinking about you there in our life. Like in our living room watching TV. Any time I’m able to clear my mind a little bit and think about normal things it makes me happy. I don’t want you to be here and caught up in all this…mess.” And then she began to weep again. That sound of her crying was the only thing that bound them together then over the miles and sorrow that separated them.
But the saving grace when matters got really bad, what she took out and unwrapped one at a time like rare precious objects, were the stories the man in the cafe had told her. They were some of the only things that buoyed her over those agonizing days. Sitting next to her mother’s bed in the hospice while the withered woman slept, Joanna would smile or close her eyes contentedly when she thought of the tales and anecdotes he had told her. Sometimes she got out her notebook and looked at what she had written down in there to remind her of their specific talks.
She didn’t know what it meant to drown in her own life but the sorrow she experienced during her mother’s final week brought her very close at times. What helped Joanna most was remembering and then concentrating hard on some of the funny, memorable, or beautiful things the man had described. They gave her back some balance; they reminded her that life can also be funny and splendid; not just pitiless and lead- colored as it was now.
Three days before she died, her mother finally opened her mouth and took the slim section of tangerine her daughter offered. She had not eaten anything for ages. The joy that surged in Joanna’s heart on seeing the food go in was huge.
But huge was not the word that came to her then; it was smallicious. What her mother had just done was wonderful, not small. Joanna hoped those bites of tangerine tasted delicious. So maybe that was why the funny non-word came to her, stuck in her brain and wouldn’t go away.
Only later did she realize why smallicious owned that last great moment shared between them: Because in another time, her mother would have liked the word too. With her sensibilities she would have understood exactly what it meant. The two of them would have used it often when they spoke to each other on the phone. Smallicious.
Watching her mother’s mouth chew slowly there at the very end, the man’s word was so strong in Joanna’s head that she almost said it out loud.