(originally published in Snake Nation Review)
Inside the Emerald
Brett sat on my kitchen counter — ancient, mottled pink and gray Formica — wearing tight corduroy jeans, cut off at mid-thigh. My eyes couldn’t stay away from his meaty, shaved bicyclist’s legs, hanging there, swaying, his feet clad in hiking boots. Brett’s bulk scared me, but on another level it seemed clownish. He was trying to seduce me, but it wasn’t working. He couldn’t get things moving: he seemed pendulous, awkward.
Besides which, I couldn’t stand his beard. It was one of those really long ones; it touched his chest. It made me think of old age, of death and decomposition and depressing black-and- white movies. He looked freakish, a cultural throwback; the medieval flagellant, the cold-weather mountain man.
“Let’s have a love affair,” he said. His voice was pinched, immobilized in the hairs of his nose, but also vibrating deep inside his chest, grumbly, as if emanating from some internal conjoined twin. He sounded like a crabby Yogi Bear — if it could ever be in Yogi’s nature to growl. Brett’s words issued as moist, cartoonish blips from his vulnerable, full-lipped mouth — crazily out of place — which he had tried, rightly but in vain, to shroud with the man-o-the- mountain facial hair. He paused, and I heard him inhale with dramatic volume. Even with my back turned, I felt him: the usual Bela Lugosi, eye-piercing stare. My father used to stare just like that.
I knew Brett was trying — as best he could, considering all he had to work with was my back — to gauge my response to the small bomb he had dropped, but I was better than he was at the Noel Coward pause-and-inhale stuff. I learned that kind of fencing with my dad, pinked and bloodied up one side and down the other over the years by the old man’s twisted paternal style. So I didn’t allow Brett the satisfaction of any reaction. Not yet. I stood there like a precision-cast-vinyl replica of a woman, my head and neck frozen. My hands continued to move in the soapy sink, washing the plates we had eaten our Chinese take-out lunch off of.
He went on with it, nonetheless. He tackled it the way he tackled most things: wielding his big mountain man shovel, putting his big hiking boot foot on it and wedging it down into the deep black dirt, getting ready to lever it up and begin digging the hole he would plant himself in. What he didn’t understand was that the dirt he sought, underneath a thin black velvet glaze of allure, was full of rocks, chock full of scattered rocks and broken glass and rusted out tin cans, no good for growing anything, let alone a love affair. He didn’t know me like he thought he did.
“Let’s read poetry to each other naked in bed,” he said. “What do you say? Maybe delve into the eighteenth century romantics?” He cocked his big head, drooping it to one side as if his neck was a weak green twig or something. He looked silly, a dancing bear. Only a parakeet would have looked good tilting its head coyly like that, for God’s sake.
But it didn’t matter, really, whether he looked silly or not. The truth is, I have never gone for that sort of thing, light romance. I need a much heavier diet. I only involve myself in relationships with guys who are doomed in some respect. And from fifty yards I could smell that Brett had no doom in him, no tragedy, no neurosis, nothing for me to sink my teeth into. Even with all the effort he had put into trying to look weird and funky, the poor guy couldn’t choke out his bland, middle-class roots.
I was trying to figure out how to tell him a part of all this in a delicate manner. God knows, I didn’t want to hurt Brett’s feelings. I was fresh out of subtlety, though, dried up like an old bean, so I thought, oh, fuck it. “I can’t do that,” I said. I paused for effect, while I studied the pentagram decal stuck to the window over the sink by the previous tenant. “It wouldn’t be good for me,” I said.
He slid off the counter. The corduroy seat of his shorts made a soft zipping sound as he moved. His thick, long-distance leg muscles lengthened and stretched and caught him. Then he was standing behind me, and in my narrow galley kitchen we were too close. Like a blind person, I could sense the shadow of his presence hovering behind me. Leaning further in over the sink, I stared out the dirty panes at the trunk of the old oak that towered over my apartment, imagining that the rough, pitted bark of the tree was a skin that could feel.
He moved closer. Putting one of his paws on my shoulder, he turned me around, using just enough tender force to overcome my stiff and melancholic resistance. I could smell him then, he smelled big and clean and boring, he smelled like a dresser drawer full of my grandfather’s plaid flannel pajamas. He hugged me to him. “A full body hug,” my father would have said. Tilting my chin up, he bent down and kissed me, covering my face with the cotton candy beard.
The beard folded in upon itself — a surprisingly buoyant cushion — and rustled against my face, scratchy but soft, like Mohair fleece. His lips were pliant and fleshy, damp with saliva. I had been keeping score — totting poor Brett up into columns, determining whether he was aligning with my positive or my negative energy states, (as my dad’s silly, overpaid psychotherapist would recommend), that would have been the second point against him: the wrong kiss. First point against him: the wrong ego.
As he kissed me, he ground his crotch into me, gingerly at first but then heavily, as if his glands had jolted him with a blast of desire, hormonal lightning, deep in his gut. He swiveled his pelvis, back and forth, up and down, with a bearlike urgency. While this crotch action was not entirely unpleasant, and I felt something intriguing — like a hard length of garden hose — snug within his corduroys, I stood resolute and did not yield.
I had too much pride in my careful, cultivated reputation as a rough-and-tumble woman, however, not to allow my mouth to show some aspect of life. So, though all other parts of me were still and quiet, on hold, my mouth moved elastic to match his, stretching to keep up with the pace of the kiss. There is nothing worse than kissing a limp mouth. Unfortunately, he mistook that slight response, that mere politeness, as encouragement and I felt his tongue become a part of the embrace, tentative at first, and then defiant, presumptive, as if it were a separate entity.
“Come on,” he said, in a gruff but wheedling tone, when he had finished the sloppy kiss, and despite my lack of enthusiasm for it, despite the fact that my face felt like it was covered with a thin mucilage — the kind distilled from horses’ hooves that used to sit in my grandmother’s bottom desk drawer in a little glass bottle with a rubber slit nipple on the end — I was exhilarated. “Let’s have an old-fashioned love affair,” he said. “It would be great fun.”
He was trying to sound sophisticated; English, maybe? His eyes appeared tiny, almond shaped, a little slanted — evil but somehow Santa Claus-ish, glittering out from the reddish blonde Brillo-cloud of facial hair. He even had long, tangled eyebrow hairs that drooped down and tickled the skin of his eyelids. My fingers itched to get the scissors out and cut them clean off, prune those asinine hairs down and give him more controllable eyebrows.
“Would you like a glass of wine?” I said. My customary reaction to a sudden sexual advance — wanted or not — is to pretend I haven’t understood either a word or a gesture they’ve used, or maybe that I understood, but think it’s a joke, a protective coloration of innocence. This approach developed because I wasn’t beautiful or pretty or even cute as a teenager and therefore never developed the casual flirting ways with men that most girls use as a method of self-defense. So, at twenty-one, when I discovered myself with some good looks — in a long-legged, small-breasted, short-haired kind of way — I was unprepared.
Usually, with the average guy, my quaint, bashful, non-reaction to any overtures comes across as being polite, as being a “good girl” underneath my thin veneer of jean-jacket toughness, and most of the time they like it, it makes them feel secure and even benevolent. With Brett, though, with his vast I.Q. and his intellectual affectation, this method instead seemed rude. I felt as if I’d slapped him: but to be honest, I was glad. I got off on what I had unintentionally inflicted; I enjoyed seeing the great Brett backpedaling.
“Yes, wine would be nice,” he said, surprised but doing his best to cope. I could tell none of this was lining up with the way he had planned it. I poured him a glass of cheap jug red. I handed him the wine and moved away from him, away from his beard and his lips, backing out of the narrow slum kitchen.
I went across the tiny living room of my student-ghetto garage apartment — so pathetic, the very floor of the place was uneven, as if somebody was on a real bender sixty years ago when they poured the slab for the old place. It rose and fell, cracking the old brown and white linoleum tiles, hazardous for bare toes. I sat down on my sprung sofa. The coffee table was an old, square mirror and two plastic milk crates, weighted down with old magazines. I looked down at the mirror table and in its feeble silver glassiness I saw Brett looming, immense. It was like a Dali painting, the way his naked knees knobbed out in the foreshortened perspective I had, making him look more muscle-bound than he really was.
I knew he was debating whether or not to sit next to me on the couch: since I didn’t look up at him in invitation he decided to use the floor. He had to force his legs into a cross-legged position with both hands because in his various exertions, he’d sacrificed muscular limberness for strength.
“And why don’t you think a love affair would be good for you?” he said, jumping back a bit, his voice keyed in a different tone. It was much smoother, much gentler, and I saw the pupils of his eyes expanding, softening the pale blue irises. Whether it was a reaction to the change in light, or rather, true sympathy for my reference to emotional self-protectiveness, I couldn’t really tell.
“I think it would be very good for you,” he said — not waiting for me to answer. By that pronouncement, I didn’t know whether he meant good for me mentally, or physically, or — and I still don’t know whether this is possible for someone with my temperament — both. Whatever his intent, I realized his ego was even more threatening than I had first imagined. Did he think he could cure me so easily, with just a few swipes of the old garden hose, of the intricate, self-indulgent melancholy I had made a part of myself?
“Well, I don’t,” I said, a little cranky. His face became formal once more, his hurt pupils drawing back up into pinpricks, his eyes going blank, although I could still see the ghosts of what they had been a second ago. Now it was as if I’d slapped him twice. The guy had probably sixty, seventy pounds on me, but in our screwy emotional inverse I was the one who was the heavy. So I tried to soften it — after all, you never know when you might need something from somebody. “Don’t burn your bridges,” as my father used to say.
Mostly, I didn’t want Brett to think I was a bitch — even though that was perhaps true — because it has always seemed to me to be the worst possible thing a guy can think about a girl, even worse than thinking she’s a slut. “I mean, it’s just not what I’m looking for,” I said, my voice warmer. “I recently got out of a very hard relationship.”
In a flash, his face shifted once more. I couldn’t see exactly how, because of the beard, but by watching his eyes and his mouth I could tell he felt he had the upper hand again. “A ‘relationship’ is not what I’m talking about having,” he said, and I heard a crash of cymbals on our imaginary soundtrack. “I’m talking about a simple love affair. Something with no strings attached. Something we can have fond memories of when we’re eighty and in the nursing home, you know?” He eyed me, licking his lips. The top layers of his mustache hairs were swept around and slicked down by his rotating tongue, curling over the bottom edge of his upper lip, the ends of the hairs fastened between his lips when he closed them.
And then, when he started to speak again, opening his mouth once more in slow motion like an oracle, I saw the wet mustache hairs pop up, springing back out of his mouth as if they were alive. “Think of it as a recreational affair. Haven’t you ever had one of those?” he said. He was back to his Noel Coward script then, sophisticated, jaded; in his world-weariness he’d done it all: didn’t I know? I didn’t bother to tell him, but I did have one of those once, a light hearted recreational fling. I slept with this self-infatuated neo-Beatnik guy, for laughs. But when he said he was going to write dialogue for us to follow, that he wanted us to wear costumes and act out fantasy roles, I dropped him the same way I dropped this little white oval pebble I picked up once that in my hand turned out to be an ancient, petrified segment of dog turd. For me, sex has always been meaty and sweaty and risky enough without any overblown twists.
“Do you like Joni Mitchell?” I said. From the way his eyes widened, he must have thought he was in the door. She’s a sure thing, real girl music, right? But I hadn’t decided yet. I enjoyed the tension in the air, the dark mist of unconsummation: it’s never the same after I’ve gone through with it. The creeping imperfection syndrome comes on me in dribs and drabs. Like a series of photographs taken with a strobe-light flash, the pictures are crazy and disjointed at first, then, when I get a whole series of them laid out in a row, the pattern evolves.
The guy interrupts me with territorial pomposity during group conversations, for example. I find out he voted for a real egghead in the last election. Or I finally read his dissertation proposal and discover the thing is even more vacuous than I had expected. It’s like the old nightmare I used to have as a kid. In it, I’m always trying to make up this bed, but no matter how hard I pull and tug on the sheets, I can never smooth them out, they stay crumpled for all eternity.
And in the end, those little picky things, the flaws which all men carry, like the dirt specks inside an emerald — which one by one are only cosmetic nuisances, easily remedied by a little mental liposuction — get totted up and up and up, resonating in my wicked female mind. So, on some wan, hung-over morning, when I am forced at last to look at my momentary lover with a critical eye, I can’t believe I ever allowed actual physical contact to occur: I have to face the chore of getting rid of the lunk. But, in the beginning, it always seems that the newest one will be the sweetest yet.
Brett, the object of this balancing test, sat there staring down at the dull brown shag carpet, bought for nine-ninety-nine at the Salvation Army. I walked over to the stereo. Flipping through the discs, I got to the shadowy picture of Blue and pulled it out.
As a young teenager, when I went through the normal smoking-menthol-cigarettes- pilfered-from-your-mother-after-everyone-else-is-asleep-and-blowing-the-smoke-out-your- cracked-window-while-listening-to-The-Blue-Oyster-Cult-single-“Don’t-Fear-The-Reaper” stage, I knew that if I’d been born with prominent cheekbones and a voice like Joni’s, my life would have been a better and more poetic thing. Crazed, handsome geniuses in love with me forever and all that: what every thirteen-year-old girl wants. I pressed the button and her voice, in its honeyed, silvery sharpness circled around Brett and me. Like bio-feedback self-hypnosis, the electricity of my brain was altered by the sound. The music made him look more attractive — makeup for the mind. Isn’t that how girl music got its reputation? The beard, even the lips, started to make some dreamlike sense in the scheme of this day.
As I walked over and sat down on the floor next to Brett, he turned away, sulking, playing hurt, looking out through the French doors across the room. In one proprietary, music-playing motion I had turned the tables back again, somehow. My body was my own again, and I could tell he didn’t like it. But the only way I can allow myself to be taken is to imagine I’m the one behind the wheel — to keep in my heart and believe in my relative toughness, my outer shield of manipulation.
I saw then that Brett was a little confused; he was trying to remember how our conversation had started. I reached for his chin, at first finding only empty whiskers, groping through the soft stuff of his beard until his chin slid home between my fingers. I gripped it and turned his head, bringing his eyes to meet mine. “There’s no such thing as a simple love affair,” I said. “And I know I’ll never make it to eighty.” I leaned in.
Brushing his lids with my fingertips, I fluttered his eyes closed. My delicate touch would not have dislodged the pigments off a butterfly’s wing. He sat there, an impressive slab of alien chromosomes in his flannel shirt, the sleeves pushed up, revealing the golden, and wooly covering of his forearms. With his eyes closed, his face, even with all that hair, grew youthful, almost boyish. What harm could possibly befall me? The black chasm of a man’s secret heart beckoned, and I felt a quaint, mothering softness begin to take hold of my body. “Lotsa laughs,” crooned the recorded voice like a silk ribbon inside my head, as I started to unbutton his shirt, moving over him with all the gentleness, all the neediness, all the grace I could summon.
2 responses to “Inside the Emerald, a short story”
Reblogged this on Kimberly Townsend Palmer and commented:
still relevant, unfortunately
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You capture the emotional subcurrents amazingly well, Kimberly. The clues you give us about your characters (for instance, the reference to “silver glassiness” vis a vis the woman’s fragility and brittle defenses) are peerless. We see this woman more clearly than she is able to see herself. The man would be so good for her, despite all the protestations.
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