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Between Love And Laughter
It was late summer when my life took a more serious turn. I had just arrived home from Baltimore and was enjoying the frigid breeze of air conditioning in my car when I came upon the scattered vehicles crumpled in the intersection. A flash of my days as an EMT sparked to life. I hopped out and into the swallowing mugginess of the day, bounding towards the first vehicle--a four door Honda Civic, leaking smoke from its mangled hood fused to the rear of a suv.
The driver's door was jammed, so I climbed through the rear and carefully removed a lethargic female body. I checked her vitals as traffic crept past. She blinked a few times, dazed and groggy with the empty gaze of a slight concussion. She followed my hand with her eyes, and then responded to my simple questions such as her name and the date and time.
Eventually the ambulance arrived and whisked her away. The wreckage was cleared and the day resumed. Hanging around to answer a few questions, I noticed that I had ended up with Melanie’s cell phone. Calling her contacts, I was invited to stop by to check on her well being. Ultimately I agreed to let Melanie take me to lunch as a token of her appreciation. Normally I met girls by making them laugh. But this time I was a hero.
Lunch led to dinner. And one date led to another. Melanie worked with children at the library. She spoke with great passion about the challenges of keeping their interest in books and learning in general. I was enamored by the nobility of her goals. She was sincere, honest, and kind, not to mention stunningly gorgeous when conscious. I explained that I was a comedian, which, following her views on poverty, crime, divorce rates, and one parent families, left me feeling like a clown at a funeral. She smiled, setting a pair of magnificent eyes on me to gauge my honesty.
“Well let’s hear it, give me your best stuff.” She challenged. I wiped my mouth free of bread crumbs, sifting through my material, I began with some of the newer stuff I’d been working on. About a haggard mother confusing Clorox wipes with baby wipes, followed by a bit about The Learning Channel airing marathons of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo episodes.
Now, as a comedian I’ve heard all sorts of laughs. I’ve been subjected to guffaws, chuckles, rolling bellows, shrieks, howls, roars, and hacking. I’ve heard nasally, inverted laughs. Snorts, sneezes and sniffling laughs. I’ve heard thunderous, pounding laughter that shook the room. I once watched a lady choke and gag to the point that her husband—after fastening the top two buttons on his collar, started in with the Heimlich maneuver only to find she was in a state of hysterics after I did a bit about men with hair sweaters.
But what escaped those two perfect rows of ivory teeth was blood curling. I lack the words to fully convey the horrifying nature of what ruptured my ears but I'll try: Imagine the savage screams of a wounded wild boar…being chased by a spur-wearing hyena…saddled upon and whipping a braying donkey over smoldering embers of coal while cackling in the moonlight. Not even close to what pierced the romantic surroundings before us. It was grotesque. I fought the urge to whirl around and look out for a rubber gloved porter bounding towards us with a sack and a rope.
“That’s really funny.” She wheezed, and I swallowed a rising lump in my throat, wiping my face once again, only this time to hide the sheer terror gripping my face. The ghoulish sounds were in stark contrast with her smooth tawny skin and soft eyes. I begged her pardon, turning and walking with the gait of an olympian speed walker to the restroom, where I fell towards the sink and examined the pallid face before me.
I ran cold water over my wrist, letting it jolt me back to the safety of my own body. She’s beautiful Paul. Don’t blow this. It’s only a laugh…
But laughing is my livelihood, and I fought to rid myself of the carnage ringing in my ears. Bolstered by my shallowness, after several minutes, I returned to the table and offered my apologies. Melanie nodded, smiling.
“It’s no problem; I’m still laughing about your jokes.”
I shivered with dread and decided to implement my plan.
“So tell me more about the children you come across, I find it disheartening yet fascinating.”
The smile retreated. She took a sip of wine. “Well, it’s really quite sad, if there were….”
Oh thank God. Thank you poverty and suffering, which had somehow eased my suffering as the melancholy took hold. In the bathroom I had resolved to not make her laugh. I would become serious, brooding, an utter bore if needed. I would refuse under any circumstance conjure up those demonic sounds from within her magnificent body. Her deep brown eyes were spellbinding, forcing my hand to such drastic measures. I couldn’t simply walk away from her. It was as though her beauty had been cursed by this wretched laughter that ripped through my skin and clawed at my nerves.
For the rest of the dinner I dodged attempts at lightening up the mood. I forced dismal nods and fought with natural instincts to insert jokes at intervals of our conversation. I tightened my lips, tugged at my chin, and stared off distantly until waiter brought the bill. I was a sap.
“Is everything okay?”
“Oh, yes, it’s fine.”
“Are you sure, you seem a little down.”
“It’s just those kids, you know.”
She tilted her head, reaching for my hand as a concerned smile spread across her perfect lips. This just might work. I thought.
“You’re so sensitive. I like that.” I swallowed a joke about hair conditioners and forced a humble smile.
I hit the road again for a string of gigs along the coast, flushing myself of wisecracks and silliness. The night after I returned home I arrived at her apartment, a modest brick townhouse in the middle of town. She invited me in, asking about my trip. I skimmed over the weather and drive, offering little details about my material. She offered me a drink, but before she turned towards the kitchen we attacked each other. An hour later we came up for air. There was a close call as she started to giggle but I planted a kiss on her, aborting the laugh before it took life. We got dressed and went for the forgotten drink downstairs. I took a seat on the couch and surveyed the room. Two wooden bookshelves, each stuffed to the gills with novels. Obligatory pictures of family and friends adorned the walls. A small television sat forgotten in the corner.
She returned, handing me a beer and snuggling up next to me while wearing only a William & Mary t-shirt. She was perfect. Well almost.
“So when do I get to see you perform?”
I thought you just did? No I didn’t say that. Come on Paul, just be serious! Think about the plight of the children. Think about taxes, rising murder rates, the rash of extreme storms, LIKE SHARKNADO….wow Tara Reid…No Paul, No!
“Soon. I just….I just don’t want to disappoint you.”
She leaned in, stroking my hair, her lovely face on the verge of that hideous laugh. I thought of her as a child, a beautiful tow head blonde with twinkling eyes. I pictured strangers commenting on how adorable she was. But then she would laugh, causing babies to cry, fire alarms to sound, the mall Santa Clause to question his wages and line of work, perhaps even his sanity.
For the next few weeks I managed myself in this fashion. A smile would surface and I would respond with crestfallen scowls. My relationship with Melanie became a somber affair of mirthless gestures and silent suffering. There were some close calls, but each time I escaped the guillotine with quick thinking and improvisation. I even summoned tears on one occasion and she melted in my arms. I met her friends, dazzling them with a sketch I had thought up one evening while she tended to a dish in the kitchen. Her friends howled with melody, wonderful, normal laughter that fed my soul. Melanie raced into the room in hopes of joining in on the fun when I spilled my drink on the rug.
I wrote the material, it was a gold mine and I couldn’t resist. But I didn’t have the heart to use it. Despite the sedate mood of our relationship I had fallen for her. We were seeing each other every day by then and it was getting harder to pull off, but I hadn’t heard the laugh since our first date those two months ago. My friends asked to meet her. But I could imagine no circumstance where we could all remain serious. I made excuses. She was out of town. She had fallen ill. She’s allergic to idiots.
We volunteered at the soup kitchen on the weekends. We cuddled on the couch to watch movies, dramas and foreign films with daunting subtitles. I became adept at dodging and weaving around humorous anecdotes. I became a meastro of sorts. I could send her smile brimming to a crest of gleaming white, where laughter teetered along the edge as she began to exhale. And then I would close her lips like curtain.
We read books in the evenings and discussed the evils of the world. I ranted about famine and disease, her eyes pledged their agreement. In bed as she slept, I stared at the ceiling and weighed our future together. I shuddered at the thought of her passing the laugh. Her children would be beautiful, but would they be cursed? In the end I couldn’t chance toting around a gaggle of such heinous laughter.
I fought with my feelings. They were equal in strength, my love of her and my loathing of her laugh. Love won out and I took the plunge. I took a night class and became a certified accountant, abandoning comedy with a furor. We were married in the fall, a small church house ceremony in the country. I dragged along three of my least outgoing coworkers as groomsmen. Larry complained about the food, and I loved him all the more for that extra touch. There was cake, and dancing, and smiles about. But I kept the laughter in check.
On the way to the airport we were both giddy. I peeked at my wife, golden spirals fell to her bronze shoulders. We had changed into casual clothes but her face still radiated from the wonderful evening. In the moment I slipped, pitching my voice into a shrill tone as I mimicking something Larry had said just before we exchanged vows.
“I can’t stay, I have to get up early tomorrow.” I exclaimed, adjusting my imaginary glasses.
Her eyes widened and then shut. She tilted her head back as her mouth opened, tugging at her symmetrical dimples. What have I done? I had unknowingly invited the laugh into our marriage. My mind reeled. I couldn’t do it. She was morphing into a monster right before my eyes. I gripped the door handle, wondering what would become of me if I fell out of the car at 43 miles per hour. Geronimo…
I awoke to a steady humming, struggling to lift my head. My eyelids felt like sheets of lead. The room was dark save for a sliver of orange light wedging through the crack of the door. I moved my head from side to side, sluggish and slow. I heard movement in the room. Then my beautiful wife was hovering over me.
“Honey, oh my God.” She leaned over me, but I could only feel her face on mine. The rest of my body was asleep. I tried to speak, but only a rapsy grown escaped my throat.
“You fell out of the car honey.”
I vaguely remembered the escape.
“…the doctor said you will need physical therapy if you’re ever going to walk again. But we’re not going to get down. I’m going to take care of you, just like you took care of me.”
I nodded, watching through a frame of clouds as she walked over to the television and inserted a dvd. She smiled at me. I jerked at the sound of Dave Chappelle’s stand up, my all time favorite, the one I kept hidden in the closet. Some men kept porn, I kept a stash of comedy.
“He also said that in the meantime we should try not to dwell on what we cannot change. He said that laughter can help. We need to keep your spirits high. You’re my husband and I will be here through thick and thin…”
My lips trembled. The monster had found me. Smudges of mascara streaked down her cheeks. Her eyes were puffy and red. She sat beside me on the bed and I screamed out in silent agony. I tried in vain to will my body to move, to rise up and jump through the sealed window. I was bolted to the bed, unable to move a finger or a toe. The smile widened and then her mouth opened as her head leaned back…