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She Hates Numbers

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Lovely Girl, a short-short story

illustration lovely girl
Lovely Girl, a short-short story

Jan. 11, 1979

Kenneth got into a big fight with his father last night. His Dad said that he follows me around like a puppet, and that he’s being bought. Then his Dad told him he was a lazy little bastard for not fixing his car & going somewhere with his mother. Then Kenneth said something back and his Dad tried to choke him and Kenneth left & went to the library.

I have a feeling Kenneth’s Dad hates me, or at least dislikes me. He would probably be a lot happier if I wasn’t going out with Kenneth. I would like to go up to his Dad and say that if he would prefer Kenneth not go out with me — because he thinks Kenneth would be better able to concentrate on sports & school — I will comply.

All I know for sure is that I don’t know anything anymore. Sometimes, I want to go far away – to Europe, maybe – and meet strange people and find out how to live. But then I get scared and I am suddenly glad to be in my safe room with all my possessions that tell me who I am supposed to be. I don’t know who I am – I used to, but things have changed so much, I’m not sure anymore.

Ever since Mom and my stepdad got divorced, it’s been harder and harder to just live. Mom is getting worse with the booze and sometimes I get so angry that I scream at her. Then I feel awful and try to hug her and tell her I’m sorry, but she’s so out of it she just stands there, swaying a little with her eyes half-crossed, and I end up stomping into my room and slamming the door and locking it. Then I lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling and sigh.

It’s the best just after I get home from classes at community college. Mom isn’t here, and I am alone. No one can bother me, and if the phone rings I don’t answer it. It gives me a sense of power – listening to that phone ring and ring and ring until whoever is calling hangs up, frustrated. I close all the curtains and put on records and smoke cigarettes. In my cool, dark cave I find peace for a few hours.

At six o’clock, though, I hear that fucking bitch, my mother, put her key in the lock, and I jump up and run down the hall to my room to get away. If Mom says something to me, I try to be nice, but it’s usually only a few minutes before our voices become sharp and anger is in the air again. Until she’s blotto, that is. Then, wobbling and bleary-eyed, she’s all lovey-dovey, but also by then all I want to do is shake her until her head falls off!

The only positive things in my life are Amy and Kenneth. Amy is my best friend and Kenneth is my lover. They know, and once in a while I can talk to them about it, but I know that friends can only take so much before they are tired of hearing it. The only person that would listen to everything you said and be interested was a psychologist or psychiatrist, and I’ve thought about going to one, but it’s really too expensive. So I just don’t let myself think about things most of the time.

I keep this journal and write my thoughts down, and that helps a little. Most of the time I’m fine, but it’s always there, hanging over me. Actually, I function very well. I graduated in the top five percent of my high school class, and after a year at junior college I have a 3.8 average. And I’ve never gotten into any serious trouble at all. I’m what grandmothers like to call a “lovely girl.” On the outside. Happy? What did happiness ever have to do with any of my fucking life choices?


Filed under addiction, alcoholism, child abuse, child neglect, childhood, children of alcoholics, college, compassion, daughters, development, fiction, identity, insecurity, mothers, relationships, short stories, teenagers, youth

Please Speak Well of Me When I’m Gone, a 397 word short story

illustration please speak well of me when i'm gone

Please Speak Well of Me When I’m Gone, a 397 word short story

October 11, 2012

5:00 a.m.

I had the strangest dream, where I was back together with K!!! We were together in this hotel room, packing our stuff, which was a lot, and getting ready to ride on a plane somewhere (what else does he do these days, but ride on planes!). It was as though we were back together, after all these years, something had happened; our subsequent, real-life remarriages were never mentioned. Clearly, we knew it was awkward that we hadn’t been together in so long — but there it was, we were going to try it. We didn’t have sex in the dream, although it was clear both of us were sort of thinking about the concept. But we weren’t anywhere near ready for that! And when I awoke, I started thinking about how sometimes I get confused about my life, about the sharp turns, the complete disconnections from my entire past life, etc., and how sometimes I don’t recognize the current terrain.

And why have I been thinking so much about K. these days, like that song by the Weepies, “Speak Well of Me When I’m Gone?” The one that has made me cry so many times? “I’ve been away, a year and a day….” That’s true of so many people in my life, isn’t it? Only they’ve been gone far longer than that: some have been gone for 35 years. How young, and blind, and ignorant, and how many horrendous mistakes it’s possible to make, etc.

“Looking back now, I only wish I had been kinder.” It’s the truth — some part of me has never stopped loving K. “And when I’m gone, please speak well of me.” Some part of me wishes we had worked out, because he was the first truly committed relationship I had, the first husband, the father to my first child, so many firsts. I met him when I was 22. He was 27.

Wouldn’t it have been sweet, had it worked out? Almost like high school sweethearts. Young — I was so young, so inexperienced. God! And I would apologize to him on my knees, if it would do any good. He wouldn’t, I don’t think, be able to hear me. The way I would want it to be heard. Still, I could try, couldn’t I?


Filed under apologia, apology, divorce, justice, karma, kindness, love, marriage, mea culpa, men, mysterious, personal responsibility, regret, relationships, short stories, women

August In Florida, a poem


August in Florida

Outside, people crowd around water.  Heat, the bright aqua of water, smell of chlorine and sun lotion.  Coconut, spice.  Young girls with slender hips, high breasts.  Mincing, they walk barefoot over the burning concrete.  Ankle bracelets.  Hairless women, hairy men.  Some men look vaguely female–lack body hair, possess slender torso, a feminine grace.  They practice diving off the high platform, catapulting through the air like minor gods.

Spindly little children, bowlegged, one girl like a large walking doll, Wedgewood eyes, white skin, hair almost white, but so fierce.  She puts her face in the water, proud of herself, comes up spitting, does it over and over.  This girl’s mother, slim, pale body like a teenager’s, but her face red and sun-aged, enormous Southern twang.  A former cheerleader, rural Georgia or Alabama.  Lying on the blistering concrete, eyes closed, listening to the sounds of laughter and splashing.  My sore back, the heat melting the ache away.

On the towel closest to me, a young girl, pretty, bleached blonde hair with dark roots showing, golden-brown string bikini that matches her skin, her perfect feet.  Sudden thunder, the pool closed, into the locker rooms for 20 minutes.  Live oaks, huge spread branches like arms reaching into the sky.  The arms are shading, watchful.  The oaks are like sentinels.  The moss hangs like underarm hair.  Young boys, thick and awkward, walk stiff-legged.  They turn dark reddish-brown, but look silly next to the black kids.  Tall, skinny black boy with red hair, a crew cut.  His mama, a large woman in bright blue tank suit and neon orange shorts, matching neon bathing cap.  Her earrings graze the sides of her neck.  She isn’t ready to leave yet.  He watches the girls, pretending not to.

Over there, a skinny, burnt woman with bad teeth, yet her daughters are so lovely, so young and fair and smooth.  How did she produce them?  A hippie girl with a blonde baby boy, crooning one minute, yelling the next, she holds him on her hip, sways in the sun.  More and more women look like those prehistoric clay fertility figurines, heavy hanging breasts, stomach overlapping their thighs.  I lie still and watch, lazy with the heat, my own weight.

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Why I Hate You, a poem

illustration why i hate you

Why I Hate You

You know why I hate you?  You’re a weak vine, needing to be propped up, needing more comfort than a baby.  You imagine bugs, crawling up the walls, down your hair.  Their wings whir in the night like soft sobs.

I hate you because you’re ugly — a slob, a slut, a sucker.  Because you saw your mother passed out on the carpet in front of the television, one too many times, but you didn’t kill her the way she wanted to be killed.  You didn’t help when she needed you.  Because you let yourself be unimportant for so many years and did nothing to help yourself until it was too late, until you’d already lost the war.  Peace came on unfavorable terms, the enemy couldn’t be placated.

I hate you because you’re afraid of the dark.  When you’re with a man, you lean on the solidity of his body, the real beat of his heart, you listen to his rhythmic breathing, and you’re not afraid anymore, but you start to get antsy.  His body sounds so much stronger than yours.  They don’t cry the way you do.  Does that mean they don’t feel?  Why do they want to be with the likes of you?  You don’t have the slightest idea what you want from them.  Late at night is the worst.  The stars unfold ahead of you, and you can’t find your way to the future, stupid bitch.

That’s when I hate you the most.  You’re utterly without honor.  You imagine your ex-husband, fat and happy in his bed, eating candy.  He doesn’t suffer like you do, he has already forgotten why he married you in the first place.  He is perfect.  He is way above you in the cosmos, he is light, reason.  Your life is insignificant, ignorant and small, and won’t leave a shadow.

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Heavenly Dances, Heavenly Intimacies, a short story

illustration heavenly dances heavenly intimacies

Heavenly Dances, Heavenly Intimacies, a short story

“Isn’t there any heaven where old beautiful dances, old beautiful intimacies prolong themselves?”

Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

How can I be “dead” to any of the men I once loved?  They are not “dead” to me.  Not even H.  How can I be “dead” to H.?  They — even H. — are each as alive as when I was with them; as alive as the first time they touched me, whether tentatively or with confidence; whether softly or roughly; whether with passion or mere lust.  It is shocking and appalling how H. lurched so radically to the right after 9/11.  He began that journey to the Tea-Party-Mad-Hatter-Neocon-Bill-Buckley-Wall-Street-Apologist-Fringe-Brainless-Faux-News-Right when Ronald Reagan was shot; I was with him the very night it happened.  We had a short affair, right then, because we started thinking the end of the world had arrived and we decided, like the crazy college students we were, to get married to celebrate our courage in the face of chaos!  I realized very early on (but still way too late!) I was embarrassed to be seen in public with him.  Did you ever start seeing, and marry someone whom you later realized you were embarrassed to be seen with?  Perhaps the person in question was “dorky,” “geeky,” dressed “badly,” or had questionable “taste.”  H. readily admits he was a “dork” in high school.  He was on the debate team; need I say more?  When you can’t bear to be seen in your lover’s/spouse’s/significant other’s/partner’s company, things usually don’t work out.

Still, I put in ten dutiful years, trying to make amends for my mistake in marrying H.  The second he started making the big bucks, he dumped me.  He left me for my best friend!  I guess I deserved it, not taking control of my own life & filing for divorce two weeks after we married.  And I guess I deserved how my ex-best-friend S. ruined me, as she subsequently did.  She was in charge of the whole group we had socialized with:  dictating how everyone in our “circle” should think, speak, act, or react.  H. was dead wrong about most everything, but, to his credit, he was dead right about her.  At the time I thought him merely woman-hating, but I see now, even though he did hate women, there was something more than simply being a “woman” he hated about her.  He was covering up the fact he loved her by pretending to hate her.  Now, I have no desire to see her, not ever again.  She is definitely “dead” to me.  Yes, I understand intellectually, a living death (call it shunning) can happen to anyone.

The upshot of all this boring history?  I’ve been waiting for something a long time.  I can’t blame anyone but myself for my unhappiness, not anymore.  There is something dispirited inside me, something empty, drained, and beaten — something sick, something tired, something that has surrendered.  I gave up, when?  When my first ex-husband arbitrarily said no to children, breaking his solemn vow.  When I realized I couldn’t find happiness outside myself — not with an old love, not with a new love, not with any of my subsequent husbands, my friends, my eventual children, or my family.  Yes, to casual acquaintances and virtual strangers I am “happy, happier than I’ve ever been.”  And it’s true!  I’ve never been this happy, this contented, in my life.  Yes, there are still problems.  My oldest son is still half the world away, fighting an endless war on behalf of my “country.”  My youngest son still has an ignorant, racist, rabidly conservative father.  I am getting old.  My face is melting.  My neck is turning into a wattle.  I am drooping.

Still, I cannot imagine any of them, the men I have loved or made love to, being dead to me the way my former best friend, S., is dead to me.  Yet that is how they must feel about me, the way I feel about her.  Wanting her removed from my memories.  Wanting never to have met her.  Not missing anything about her.  She wants to see me, I heard from a mutual friend I still speak to.  I don’t want to see her, or even see the mutual friend.  I don’t even want to get as close as that!  Because of reasons.  Top secret, NSA, DOD, CIA, FBI, SEC, IRS, FDLE, GPD, ACSO reasons!  No further comment!

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A Lot of Men That Year, a novel fragment

illustration a lot of men that year

A Lot of Men That Year, a novel fragment

I was going through a lot of men that year.  All men seemed like works of art to me, like sculpture.  With body hair, without ‑‑ the buttocks, the thighs, the chests.  They were all quite lovely to look at.  Their emotional content was something else completely.  They seemed cruel, without love ‑‑ not that it mattered that much to me; I kept myself armored against hurt pretty well.  It was all casual dalliance, a form of gymnastic exercise, no permanence intended.  That was how I was protected.

Francisco was the handsomest man I’d ever dared let myself be attracted to.  We were cast in the same play, that’s how it started.  His friend, Vincent, was also quite handsome, though not my type ‑‑ blonde, blue‑eyed.

During this same time, my father and I were trying to get to know each other, 20 years too late.  He wanted instant fatherhood:  I was just confused by it all.

His VW van ‑‑ his hippie ways.  He thought I was so conservative.  When he told me he was attracted to me physically, sexually, I was only half‑shocked, because I suppose I had felt it too.  I almost wished he would act on it, just to see what it felt like.  It wasn’t like I really saw him as a father figure.

Meanwhile, I slept with every guy who interested me, except the ones who had love in their eyes.  Lust, intellectual curiosity, and admiration for my body ‑‑ these were all OK.  But love?  It gave me the willies.  Long‑term commitments were the last thing on my mind.

My father was living in his van ‑‑ I didn’t want to see him all that much, and that hurt his feelings.  I don’t know what, exactly, was going through my mind.  Attraction and repulsion, like magnetic phenomena.

Then there was the boy who punched the wall and broke his hand.  The short boy, musclebound.  He had sort of, kind of, almost-but-not-quite fallen in love with me.  He wanted to sleep with me, but I refused him.  He didn’t understand why.  I was sleeping with everybody else.  I sensed that a sleeping relationship with him would get too messy.  He would be jealous, passionate, moody, and neurotic.  I only wanted men who were vaguely indifferent?

I loved my film as literature class teacher from afar.  He was balding, blonde, and wore thick glasses.  I mean Coke-bottle thick.  I wanted everybody to make passes at me.  I was almost offended if they showed no overt interest in taking my clothes off.  My only excuse?  I was nineteen years old.

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the swiftness of dream-time, a poem

Taylor Swift Is A Paris Beauty

The Swiftness of Dream-Time

She confides unduly in strangers, asking
inappropriate, intimate questions. She has
startling, beautiful eyes, a pale luminous brown,

fringed by heavy black lashes. The fair skin
of her lids glistens like the wings of a moth,
and the expansive way she smiles makes her

delicate pink lips almost disappear. She lives
in the dream-time before marriage and children,
unschooled by the constant companionship of small

relentless demands, unaware of the eternal
ramifications of peeling herself raw
like a thick stalk of sweet cane, exposing her pithy

heart to people who don’t care to understand
the need to be loved, hidden warts and all.
Some people can never be trusted, she feels this

in her bones, yet she doesn’t want to believe it;
the ache of betrayal is like cancer of the marrow,
an oily red liquid pouring from her center

to drown the most fragile of her cells.
On personality tests, she engages in flights of fantasy:
happiness wings past just out of reach, grazing

her face with its sharp, heavy wings, ruffling her fine
hair with the remarkable swiftness of its passage.
Sitting in her green armchair, she becomes

engrossed in old forgotten novels, flipping
the tissue-thin paper with impatience,
sweeping the fallen crumbs of leather binding

off her taut, bony lap with fingers sticky
from futile perspiration. If the man she thinks
she loves asked her to marry him, she would say

yes without hesitation, but it wouldn’t make her
happy — nothing will ever satisfy her, for very long.
She doesn’t know what she wants and never will.


Filed under poetry

love kills, a short-short story, (originally published in crossconnect)

illustration love kills tattoo

(originally published in CrossConnect)

Love Kills
They killed me, those boys. Every day, getting off the bus, they killed me. I’d be walking away from the stop already, trying not to look, hearing them draw together and trail at my heels like a pack of wolves. I’ve wasted too much time since then trying to figure out why I feel dead inside.

They don’t know what they did to me, but I’m not God, I can’t forgive them. One of them was the first boy I ever kissed. That was spin-the-bottle, behind the holly bushes at the end of the canal. The trashy, sandy space between the seawall and the bowling alley parking lot, where the branches of the mangroves trailed down into the murky water like the sad arms of ghosts. He kissed me there. His lips were wet, trembling, soft as a child’s, and softer than mine.

Why’d he kiss me, then? That’s what I’ve asked a thousand times. Girls, did you ever kiss a man you were ashamed of? One you wouldn’t be caught dead with in other circumstances? The answer is yes. We all did. But, following our mistake, did we then gather up our friends and acquaintances and confront the unfortunate man daily, taunt him with his ugliness every single day for a year? Did we, in a gang of six or ten, pant and bark at him as wild dogs, throwing flecks of spittle onto the back of his fleeing, burning neck?

On better days he wasn’t cruel, but fast and solid, when I bounced against him in a crowded game of flashlight tag. His immovable, sweaty arms encircled me one late spring twilight, and though I wriggled and strained to get away, I wondered what it was like; making love with a boy, how it would feel, our naked bodies pressed together, his aroused skin slipping into my aroused skin, male into female like a dull knife into butter.

There were also the black boys at the back of the room. They wore their clothes differently, as if the cloth covering them wasn’t important, wasn’t doing them any favors. The way their dark skin bled out of the shirt-cuffs like hot ink made me crazy. It was as if women were already part of them, not something foreign. One boy touched my ass, not sly or shy, just placing his open palm against my turned hip like it was a loaf of bread. He never looked my way without smiling.

Once, I was almost raped. I made a mistake and went to this older guy’s apartment, as clean and tidy as a church. That one climbed atop me again and again, rumpling his black-sheeted bed and it seemed like hours went by, my legs twin automatic pistons, pushing his nude weight off and away. He didn’t become violent, so finally he quit trying. But later, I let him teach me how to kiss. To leave off a man’s mouth slowly, gently, instead of rising away like a slap interrupted.

Seems like they all have a thing for plain, big-titted blondes, doesn’t it? The sweetest one I ever had, a model, brought me a warm washcloth, after. His whole body was as hard and smooth and glossy as a horse’s. He held my knees up and washed me like I was a baby, but I never saw him again. The flesh may mesh, but boys perfect like that don’t ever forget why you went with them in the first place. And, girls, truly — are there any other kind but the kind that kill?

I love the idea of a man, regardless.


Filed under short stories

Inside the Emerald, a short story


illustration inside the emerald

(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.


Filed under short stories