Weightlifting, a short story
Laurel stood in the alley beside the entrance to the Flower of India’s outdoor patio, and the stifling, smoggy Burbank sun was so hot she could feel droplets of sweat rolling down her back and her ribcage and between her breasts, soaking her nurse’s costume. She was hemmed in by a dented maroon B210, a smelly green garbage dumpster, and by the presence of her spurned lover. Jason had drawn himself erect to his full 4-foot-9-inch height (a foot shorter than Laurel herself) and was trying not to tense his neck — specifically his sternomastoid muscles — because he knew how much that pissed her off.
“Jason,” she said. “It’s not worth this. We should both calm down, O.K.?”
“I am calm,” Jason said. “I’m completely calm. I’m just confused. You’re very confusing, Laurel. Maybe you could go over it one more time?”
“I’m late for work,” she said. “I told you I only had an hour for lunch. I don’t know anything I could add to make it clearer. How many times do you want me to say I don’t want to see you anymore?”
Jason stared up at her. Without realizing it, he tensed his sternomastoids, his neck vanishing in the thick round cords. Jesus, Laurel thought, there he goes again!
He blinked his eyes. “I’ll be home tonight. Could you please call? Please?”
“Oh, God,” she said. “All right. If it helps. I’ll call.”
Jason nodded. His neck relaxed. He looked more normal, but not completely normal, never completely normal. That was one of the problems. He looked like an an eleven-year-old in an inflatable Halloween “muscle” bodysuit. People stared at him everywhere he went; and stared at Laurel when she was with him.
In the beginning, she thought she’d be able to handle it. After all, his face was beautiful, startling eyes, neat brows, and strong chin. The proportions of his body were perfect, if you viewed him from a distance. And the physical side of the relationship was fantastic. He was a perfect little doll: an expensive toy, like from the Black Licorice Whip on Santa Monica and Sunset. But she was wrong. She couldn’t handle it.
“Bye, Jason,” she said.
She started to move, edging her body through the narrow space between him and the dumpster, but she didn’t do it fast enough. Jason reached out. He wanted to embrace her, sweep her back in his arms, and carry her off like Clark Gable with Vivien Leigh. But nine times out of ten he didn’t have the leverage; he had the strength but not the right angle of lift. If he’d tried, he would have toppled Laurel into the open dumpster.
So all he could do instead was hug her. His nose rested atop the shelf of her breasts; his breath caught a little in his chest and he inhaled deeply, almost a sob, and that was his big mistake. Through her costume — today she was a bit player on a soap — through the thin white material, he smelled her perfume, the heavy frangipani oil she got at Mrs. Gooch’s in Redondo, and when he smelled that oil he couldn’t help himself.
He plunged his face into her breasts, and though he felt absurd he couldn’t stop himself; it happened and he could do nothing, not even after he remembered that this was one of the things she really hated. His face snuggled into that frangipani scent, into the soft flesh of her bosom, and his head wiggled back and forth like a rooting newborn.
Laurel stood, her chin resting on his head, tangling his straight, silky blonde hair as his head moved back and forth at her breasts. She had an urge to rise up and smash him on the crown of his head with her chin. She had read somewhere that you could kill a person with your chin, supposedly it was one of the hardest bones in the body, but, no — maybe that was the elbow. Anyway, this was all her fault.
“I’ve got to go,” she said.
He untangled himself and stepped back. His eyes were red and his face was red and his thick hair was wild.
“Goodbye,” he said. And as soon as he saw her car drive off toward the studio, he attacked the wooden fence of the restaurant’s patio with his bare fists. Then he went home, and spent an hour peroxiding his hands and pulling splinters out with an eyebrow tweezers Laurel had left at his apartment, on one of the rare occasions he had persuaded her to spend the night.
Back at work, Laurel went to the makeup room. The hair lady pulled one of the hot curler sets over and started re-rolling Laurel’s hair. Laurel closed her eyes, and let the brushing and tugging lull her.
Jason was an actor, too, and in her heart Laurel had to admit he was much more talented than she. If he’d had maybe two or three inches more in height, he could have been cast in a slew of parts. But as it was, being 4-foot-9, he was shut out. Oh, he got a few far-out costume alien roles, and the occasional little person job, but the irony was that he was actually too tall for the best of those parts. Like when they were making that Star Wars sequel and they needed people for the little fuzzy things, the Ewoks, Jason wasn’t even called to audition. Too tall. Laurel had just met him then, and she never forgot how he reacted.
He got totally bombed — must have drunk at least three six-packs of beer. Being as small as he was, relatively speaking, that was probably enough to have killed him. He showed up at Laurel’s apartment, the third-floor place in West Hollywood with the center courtyard and pool. He danced around like a maniac in the open-air hallway outside her front door. Laurel literally peed in her pants when all of a sudden he vaulted over the railing. She ran to the edge, feeling the iron grillwork vibrating from his push off, but by the time she looked down she’d heard the blessed splash. She ran down to drag him out of the water.
This white-haired biddy on the first floor had screamed at her as she tried to half-carry, half-drag the semi-comatose, muttering Jason upstairs.
“Is that your son?” the crone yelled. “I’m going to report you to the welfare department. Letting a little boy jump off a third-story railing — he could have been killed. You should have been watching him better, lady!”
Laurel got him up to the apartment and put his head in the toilet and told him to throw up. Then she put him on the couch and covered him with a blanket.
The next morning, when she awoke, Jason was already gone, but there were flowers everywhere. He had gone around the corner to Lucky’s and bought their entire cut flower stock. Every pot and pan and glass she owned was stuffed, crammed, overflowing with flowers.
Laurel opened her eyes and saw Freddie standing over her, ready to touch up the makeup. She leaned her head back, he tilted the chair, and then she could feel him brushing her lids with fresh eye shadow.
Today was the fourth time in eight months she had tried to break it off with Jason. She had to make it clean, this time, otherwise it was going to take both of them right over the edge. Usually, Laurel was better at this sort of thing. With Jason, though, the relationship had lingered on her doorstep like a yowling, starving cat. She’d get to a certain point, then Jason would suck her in with his green eyes; her courage would fall away. She would backtrack; afraid she was making the wrong move. For a few weeks, she would be filled with hope. She would think, maybe Jason and I can make ourselves a place in the world.
“Open your peepers, darling,” Freddie said.
“You’ve given me eyes again! And lips. Too bad I can’t have you come over to my house every time I have a date.”
“You flatter me, honey,” Freddie said. “Nothing here that nature didn’t give you. Just me and Max Factor helping out a little.”
Laurel went off to her dressing room to look over the script. This morning she’d spoken two lines, this afternoon she had three. In this afternoon’s scene, she had to cut ski pants off the legs of the character of “Sue Roper,” after a tragic fall on the slopes. Her three lines were, “Hold her down while I remove her pants,” “There’s a lot of bleeding here,” and “We need to get this young woman to X-ray, pronto!” If the director tried to “direct” her today, with this garbage, she thought she might bite his hand off at the wrist.
After work, she went to dance class. She wasn’t with it; the teacher kept coming over and fussing with her arms, her legs, pushing her hips down, tucking her butt under. When it was her turn to do a solo, she almost forgot the routine. Snapping her head around for the turns, she nearly lost her balance.
Leaving class, she shivered as her tired rump touched the icy vinyl of the car’s upholstery. At Ralph’s, she bought one single-serving Chocolate Supreme frozen cupcake. As she opened her front door, she noticed the message light on her machine flashing. The light flashed one-two-three-four-five-six-seven. Seven calls! She hoped they weren’t all from Jason.
She kicked off her shoes and dropped her bags, pressing the Play button.
“Hi, Laurel. Oh, are you working? This is Katherine. If you want to eat, I’m meeting a bunch of people at El Coyote around eight, hope we see you?” Click. Beep.
“Uh, this is The Strand Bookstore. The book you ordered, uh, the poetry book, is in. Thanks.” Click. Beep.
“Laurel. I’m sorry about today at the restaurant. I’ve got to see you tonight. Please call.” Click. Beep.
“This is Dr. Petersen’s office, calling to confirm an appointment for Laurel Bragg on Wednesday, the eighth of December, at 3:30 p.m.” Click. Beep.
“Hi there. Remember me? I’m back from the Oregon festival, it was terrific. Give me a buzz; I’ve got a nice script sitting here with your name on it.” Click. Beep.
“Laurel. I’m sorry. I’m waiting for your call. I’ll sit by the phone all night.” Click. Beep.
“I know we can get through this. I have faith.” Click. Beep.
Faith. What a crock, Laurel thought. What did Jason have faith in? Did he look at everything in his life the way he looked at his weights? Did he think if he pushed hard enough, if he pushed enough times, that he could push them both into a happy ending?
She unwrapped the frozen cupcake. She nuked it, poured herself a glass of milk, and sat cross-legged in the middle of her living room. Three calls. She would have bet on all seven. Maybe this time, he knew. Maybe this time they’d both be smart enough to let it die with a little dignity.
She finished eating and lay down, staring out the window at the wispy gray clouds passing over the full moon. She pulled her knees up to her chest, feeling her aching spine crack. Then she heard a knock at the door.
“Who is it?” she said.
She could barely hear his voice; looked like he was in one of his whispering moods.
“It’s me,” Jason said.
She dragged herself up and looked out the peephole. The top of his head was just visible through the dirty lens.
She opened the door: he looked down at the ground, staring at his feet. He wore his leather jacket with the sheepskin collar, the one from the little boy’s dress department at Magnin’s. Wound tight around his neck was a red and black striped muffler with long black fringe, but the jacket was open all the way; he didn’t have any shirt on underneath. His lips were turning blue.
His eyes were bright, the whites clear, but the rims of his eyelids were deep red. “Can I come in?” he said.
A chest-bursting sigh heaved out of her; she clicked her teeth together in her jaw. He looked like he was going to crumple up in a heap on her doorstep.
“Sure,” she said. “I’m just tired. I had a depressing dance class. Come in. You must be freezing.”
She sat down on the couch. He closed the door, leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Well, what’s it going to be tonight? she thought.
“Laurel,” he said. He sat down next to her. Reaching up, he pulled her head down to the center of his bare chest and held her like that, bent over, her face chilled by the leather and the cold zipper of his jacket. Her cheek was against his smooth chest — not a hair on it because he had it waxed, and she could smell the soap he used, Jesus, he was always so damned clean. Then she felt drops on her face, warmish drops, first one, then another, then drop-drop-drop-drop.
He let go and stood, pulling her to her feet; sometimes she forgot how strong he was. All he needed was the proper leverage and he could pick her up, carry her. Not the Gone With the Wind scene again, she thought — I don’t know if I can take it.
He picked her up and kissed her; his lips were pale and cold as he opened his mouth, pushing his tongue past her lips, over her teeth, moving it back and forth over their sharp edges. For a moment — as he held her without effort, as she felt his body through the thick leather and the canvas of his jeans — she imagined that things were different, that when they went out together nobody gave them funny looks, nobody gawked at her like she was a pervert or a dwarf-hag or a pedophile.
He lowered her legs and her feet touched the ground. She straightened her legs and stood. He craned his neck back to look her in the eye, and she saw that his eyes were dry, but the whites weren’t clear now, they were webbed in red, matching the inflamed edges of his eyelids.
“All I want is this, Laurel,” he said. “You don’t have to go anywhere with me. I won’t expect anything.”
She looked down at his face. “What are you saying? What have you come down to? There are ten thousand women in L.A. who would be good for you. Can’t you see it’s not worth it?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t see much of anything. I curse you all day under my breath, I bad-mouth you to my therapist, and I have a dart board with your picture on it. But at night, it’s not like that. Then, it’s like nothing bad has ever happened.”
He turned his face away and she stared at the top of his head. I can’t believe this groveling, she thought, this is really bad, sick, and pathetic. I can’t believe I have robbed another human being of so much dignity. It isn’t Jason who’s being weak here, it’s me, I’m the weak one who can’t do what has to be done.
“Jason, I’m sorry,” she said. “This isn’t any good. You don’t really want to slink in here after dark like some criminal.”
“Yes, I do,” he said.
“Well, forget it,” she said. “Believe what I am saying to you. This thing cannot work. This is the end of it.” His neck tensed, his sternomastoids swelling and rising until he looked like an alarmed turtle. There he goes again, she thought. Will he ever stop?
Jason’s eyes got shinier, water building up inside his lower eyelids, about to spill out, over the edge. Suddenly, his hand flew up; he leaned in towards her to follow through with the swing; his open palm connected with the center of her chest and her body bounced off it. The thud of the blow and the echo throbbed in her sternum, in her breasts, in her spine; her teeth snapped together and she bit her tongue, tasting blood, as her knees gave way, sending her to the floor.
“I never wanted to tell you this,” he said, “but as an actress, you stink.”
As she bucked and heaved on the rug, trying to force some air back into her lungs, he was moving out the door, slamming it as he ran; the wall of the apartment shook and the brass guard chain rattled back and forth; tick-tick, tick-tick. Jason was right — she’d chosen the wrong line of work; the wrong life. She went to sleep for the night where she had fallen, rolling atop her rumpled satchel, in her sweat-stained leotard, the remains of Freddie’s makeup job smeared over her face like the greasy ashes of a penitent, and though the next morning she couldn’t remember her dreams, she knew that they had been filled with a great heat and a great darkness, and most of all, the sensation of a relentless, unforgiving gravity.