A u s t i n
I can still see Sally standing there in the doorway in her short shorts, hands on her hips, saying, I don't think we should see each other anymore. "You've gotta let go, Jack, forget about her," Tom says, lifting his beer glass and taking a long swallow. Tom's my former roommate. He's visiting from Chicago. It's a vacation for him, but it's my last Spring Break. "What's it been, a month already?" "Yeah," I say. Duane, my current roommate, jumps in: "Tom's right. Look at all the girls here tonight." Here is a bar called Mother Earth. We're sitting at a table in this bar, circled around a pitcher of beer.
"I can't help it," I say. "I can't help thinking about her."
"You just like to torture yourself, don't you?" Tom says. He runs his fingers through his thinning blond hair. "I don't know. Maybe I take after my mother." "You're not dropping out because of her, are you?" "Who? My mother?" Tom snickers. "No, Jack. Not your mother. Uh -- what's her name?" "Sally," Duane says. "Yeah, Sally. Is she why you're quitting?" "No," I say, and shut up. I don't have to explain it to him, that I never should have gone into the program -- a Master's program in Advertising -- right after graduating with my B.S. in Psychology, that I can't see writing toilet paper ads for the rest of my life. "Let me ask you something. This Sally, did she like your hair so long?" "It's not long." He looks at Duane, jerking his thumb back in my direction. "It's not long he says. It looks like a mop. You look like a girl." "So? What are you, my mother?" "Hey Tom," Duane says. "Let's not pick on Jack. This is supposed to be fun, right? Your vacation." "Yeah, right. It's just if he wants to attract any girls...." "Who said I do? What am I anyway, a fucking No-Pest Strip?" Tom laughs, then says, "Come on, Jack. Be honest. You know you want to meet someone. Don't ya'?" I shrug. "Other than your hair you don't look so bad. You still working out?" "No." That's his thing, working out. I just used to borrow his weights occasionally, back at our little apartment at the University of Illinois. "What you weigh now? One-seventy? One-seventy-five?" "One-sixty-five. Same as I always did." "Oh, yeah, really? I'm catching up to you." He's a couple inches shorter than me, but more compactly built. "I'll tell you what you gotta do, Jack. You gotta forget this bimbo you were going with, get her out of your mind completely. What you need to do is just go over to some girl and ask her to dance. Right here and now. Don't think about it. You think too much sometimes -- that's your problem. Whattaya say?" I take a long drink of beer, then carefully set the glass down. "So?" Tom says, his eyes wide, expectant. "I'm thinking about it." "Aaay. See, that's what I mean. You think too much. What do you say, Duane?" Duane's sipping his beer, or pretending to sip. He's not a big drinker. "I think you're right, Tom." Tom turns back to me. "So, Jack, what's holding you back?" "Who exactly do you suggest I approach?"
He scowls, then says, "What are you, five? Okay, okay. I'll find someone for you."
I drink my beer, watching Tom, as his eyes prowl over the crowd and then, suddenly, stop. He looks back at me and, with his head, nods toward the bar. "Over there, get a load of that." Two blondes are standing there, alone. "I'll go with you. How's that sound? Come on." "No. I don't think so. I'm really not in the mood."
"Listen to him. He's not in the mood. You sound like an old lady -- no, you sound like my last girlfriend. What are you in the mood for? Feeling sorry for yourself?"
He stares at me. I stare back. "Well, if you're not goin'...." He slaps Duane on the shoulder. "Come on Duane. Opportunity knocks." Duane, with his straw-colored hair, his lanky build, obediently stands up and follows Tom. "Good luck," I say to their backs as they're walking away.
Sitting alone at the table, I start feeling like everyone in the place is looking at me, like they can see what I'm feeling, what I'm thinking, right through my shirt, through my skin.
I close my eyes to escape and see Sally, her shoulder length blonde hair, her gray eyes, and the dimple in her chin as she smiles. Sally, the preacher's daughter who strayed. Standing there again in her kitchen, dressed in those short white shorts and the orange LONGHORNS shirt, hands on her hips, as the screen door slams behind me. I still hear her laughter echoing behind me as it did that night, as I walked down the street, away from her. And I see again the stack of poems I tossed up into the night sky swooping back to Earth like small, injured bats. Every one written for her. If she'd only read one, just one, maybe then she would have understood. I know it shouldn't matter so much, I shouldn't take it so hard about her. We weren't exactly compatible -- I knew it all along, but ignored that little fact, told myself it might work out somehow. Like some sort of fairy tale. And what was so great about her anyway? Her smile? Her cheery disposition? The smooth soft feel of her skin under my hand? Why should I care any more? But I can't help it. It was my first real relationship, and it still hurts. And now...now I'm alone again. That's the worst part of it.
And it's been two weeks since I told my graduate adviser that I'm leaving at the end of the semester. I'm only staying long enough so I can collect the last of my fellowship checks (if they don't cut me off). At least it'll give me some time to figure out what I'm going to do next. As for now, I haven't got a clue.
A band called the Victims is playing, but I'm not watching them. I'm just staring into the crowd, feeling sorry for myself -- no girl, no plans, no future. I see a short blonde-haired girl walking past and, for a moment, panic, think it's Sally. Needless to say, after that, every short blonde in the place becomes Sally. So I know, it's gonna be one of those nights. I start pouring down the beers, wondering where Tom and Duane are, wanting nothing more than for them to come back so we can get out of this place. But they don't, they're nowhere in sight. After emptying a few glasses (I don't know how many exactly -- I've lost track) I loosen up, start thinking maybe Tom's right. Maybe I should do something to keep my mind off of her, try to talk to someone. There's a bunch of girls at the next table, one with curly brown hair like an older Shirley Temple, who's kind of cute. A skinny guy is sitting a breath away from her, talking in her ear. She's looking out at the dance floor as he talks and talks, his jaw constantly moving. Occasionally, she looks down, flicks the ash off the tip of her cigarette, takes a drag, and looks out at the dancers again. Maybe he's too drunk or too stoned to notice he's being ignored. Or maybe he just likes to hear himself talk. Anyway, he talks, just keeps talking in her ear. And I'm thinking, she needs someone to save her from this guy. What I should do is go right over there and ask her to dance. She'd probably never forget me for that. But that's a laugh, really. Me saving her, when I've crossed the line without even noticing it, and now I'm too bombed to even get up from my chair. So I sit there, watching him, watching her. Doing nothing, not a goddamned thing. A strobe light starts flashing. I look around the dance floor and see no faces -- only random bits of leg and arm and hair in the bursts of light. Girls seem to be dancing in still life contortions, not moving really, just posing like department store mannequins. On the stage one of the band members is holding his guitar straight out from his belt and sliding his hand up and down the neck, his tongue hanging out like a mad dog's. The music's loud. It's above and around me, swirling in my ears and rolling on my eyeballs; the thum thum thum of the bass is pounding deep into me, inside my gut, as the lead singer chants Love love. Love is a drug. I sneak another look at the next table. The curly-headed girl's sitting there alone now, looking bored. She's still holding that cigarette, still looking out at the dance floor. I should make a move, but I don't. I start thinking about Sally some more, and then about Duane and Tom. Then I hear someone say, "Bitches and sons of bitches." But when I look up, nobody's there. I start to laugh, then swear, realizing how drunk I am, so drunk I'm talking to myself and don't even know it. There's a vague pressure building inside my body somewhere; I can't locate it exactly, but the pressure builds so I can't ignore it. It takes me about ten minutes to figure out that I've got to piss, but my body doesn't want to let me up. It's become this huge, immovable blob, this formless mass of clay. And I'm thinking -- out loud probably -- that I'll never get up, that it'll be closing time and some bouncer with over-educated muscles will have to use a crowbar to unwedge me from my seat. I feel like crying, like I'm gonna piss right down my goddamned leg. I look up and this waitress is standing there. I don't know where she came from. She's got a tray in one hand and a rag in the other, and she's looking at me like I have a bad smell or something. "You talking to me?" she asks. "Was there something you wanted?" She's got this edge in her voice that I don't like, that I don't feel like dealing with, so I just shake my head no. She grabs the pitcher and wipes off the table. I get a good look down her blouse while she's doing this. Either she doesn't notice or she doesn't care, because she just keeps on wiping the table. The view isn't all that thrilling anyway -- they're just hanging there like two overbaked loaves of bread. She leaves and I look down between my legs, relieved to see that my pants aren't wet, at least they don't look wet. Both of my knees are shaking, knocking into each other. I put a hand on one of them to stop it, but the other one keeps on going, shakes all by itself. I'm not sure how it happens, but suddenly I'm standing. I turn towards where I think the john is. It's like I'm wearing roller skates, like I'm in the roller derby. I'm rolling, out of control, banging into bodies on the left, then bouncing back, banging into bodies on the right. But all the time I'm keeping my eyes straight ahead, thinking if I don't keep my eyes on where I'm going, I'll lose my way altogether. When I get to the john, four or five guys are standing in line behind the urinal, shaking their legs and dancing around to their own internal rhythms. There's a boy -- looks about fourteen -- curled up in a ball in the middle of the floor, retching, oblivious to where he is. Guys walk in, step over him, walk around him without saying a word. When my turn finally comes, I take aim and work at a cigarette butt that's been dropped in the urinal, my strong stream tearing back the paper, blasting the brown bits of tobacco apart. As I'm leaving, I look back at the boy on the floor, but he's gone, he's disappeared, almost like he was never really there.
Somehow I manage to make it back to the table. I'm just sitting there, staring at my hands, my fingers, noticing how long and bony they seem all of a sudden, when I hear a voice from above. I look up and there's the curly-haired girl, the one I was watching, standing there, cigarette in one hand, the other shoved into a pocket of her overalls. She's smiling down at me.
Suddenly I need a drink. I look at the spot where the pitcher was. It's disappeared. I quickly look back at the girl. She's still there, although now her cigarette's disappeared. She reaches out, touches my hand. She's saying something -- her lips are moving -- but I can't make it out over the music. She's got big saucer-shaped eyes that look like they're filled with brown maple syrup. She bends down and shouts in my ear, "So?" And the next thing I know, I'm on my feet again, being pulled by this girl toward the sea of shivering, shaking dancers. At the edge of the dance floor she kicks off her shoes. I'm staring at her toes, chubby little toes, the nails painted pink. She leads me onto the floor, into the thick of it, not knowing what she's in for. I manage to stay vertical for a while, and even kick a leg and spin around a time or two before I lose my balance and start falling forward, toward the floor, only there isn't any room to fall, and I land, instead, on the back of this stocky guy with no neck who looks like a bulldog. He doesn't fall. He just turns around, gives me a few choice words and this great big push. Now I'm flying back to where I started, back towards the curly-headed girl. She shouts and tries to grab hold of my arm but misses, and I fall onto the hard floor on my back. "You all right?" she shouts down to me. "Yeah," I say. "I think so." She helps me up. She's still smiling at me, like nothing's happened. Then she yells into my ear, "Don't worry about him. He could play tennis with his ears." I look back at the guy -- I didn't notice his ears, didn't notice much of anything -- and, before I know it, he's there, right next to me, his hot breath of onions and garlic and booze a suffocating stench that makes me dizzy. I hold my breath. "You got a problem?" he says, his fists on his hips, ready for action. I keep staring at him, looking for his neck. This girl's tugging on his arm, telling him to leave me alone, but he waves her away until, finally, they get into an argument. After some shouts back and forth he just shrugs, gives up, lets her lead him away quietly. As they walk off the floor though, he looks back over his shoulder at me, gives me the evil eye. I turn back around and the curly-headed girl's head is thrown back, her chest is pumping in and out with convulsions, and her arms are flailing through the air. At first I'm worried, I think there's something wrong with her -- maybe she's epileptic or something. Then I realize she's just laughing hard. I don't know what to make of it. She looks at me and calms down a little, but doesn't stop laughing. She shouts something in my ear, but I can't hear it. "I said he's a twerp!" she says again. I don't answer. My body's shaking a little. I've always avoided fights, wouldn't know what to do in one. My last fight was back in second grade when I accidentally broke Jimmy Steinfeld's coke-bottle glasses. (He'd been razzing me, calling me names, which was stupid since I was twice as big as him, when I gave him a little shove that sent him flying to the concrete, landing on his face.) I say, "Do you still wanna dance?" "Sure," she says. "If you do." I nod my head. What the hell. We're only dancing. After that I take it easy, plant my feet firmly on the floor, sway a little, not wanting to disturb any more bulldogs. We can't talk much, the music's too loud. All I get is her name -- Loni something or other -- and all she gets is mine, except she gets it wrong, thinks it's Jock, not Jack, even though I scream it in her ear about five times. We're just swaying there, looking at each other once in a while, looking around the dance floor some. When the song ends and the band doesn't stop, but slides into a slow one -- Stairway to Heaven -- most of the other couples leave the dance floor. I look at Loni and she shrugs, grabs my arms and wraps them around her. We start dancing real slowly, moving to the music. I pull her closer, despite myself. She rests her head on my shoulder. We're rubbing up against one another. I'm stiff in a minute and, as she keeps moving against me, I feel like I'm going to lose it right there on the dance floor. She lifts her head up and our mouths fall together, the tastes of beer and cigarettes intermingling on our tongues. The fragrance of her perfume, like burnt lilacs, makes my head swim. And I'm already starting to drown, feeling like I'm over my head again. The music swells and then stops. And then there are only the whistles and hoots of the crowd, and the two of us standing on that dance floor, looking at each other, searching, wondering what's behind each other's eyes. We manage to pull apart and collect ourselves -- she her sandals, me my wits. I've sobered up some. We walk off the floor without talking, holding hands.
Back at the table, we sit so that our knees are touching.
She tries to blow some long curls up off her forehead and lights a cigarette with a disposable lighter. Her head cocked at an angle, she stares at me, unsure. "What did you say your name was? Jock?"
"No." "Oh," she says, flicking cigarette ash to the floor, then staring out at the dance floor, like she's forgotten the question, lost interest. "It's Jack," I say. "What?" She looks back at me. "What did you say? I was spacing out." "I said my name's Jack, not Jock." "Oh," she says. "I thought that was kind of a funny name, for you, at least. You don't look much like a jock." She raises her cigarette to her lips and inhales deeply, then pulls it away and blows the smoke out of the side of her mouth. Then she looks at me, somewhere just above my eyebrows. "You're not from around here, are you?" she asks. "From where? Austin? Earth?" She laughs. "I know you're from Earth. At least I think I know that much. From Texas, I mean. You're not from here, not the way you talk. You're a gol-danged fer-ner." "What if I told you I was from Jupiter?" "I'd say it was better than Uranus. Or mine." She laughs at her own joke, says, "I'm not from here either. I'm a fer-ner like you. I was born in New York. Besides here, I've lived in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine." "You get around." "My dad's Air Force. Retired, but still Air Force. Old Butch." She looks past me and laughs again at something. She stops then, looks back at me. "Where are you really from?" I tell her I'm from Chicago, then why I'm in Austin and that I'm dropping out and will probably be leaving in May. She doesn't say anything. It's like she hasn't heard. She takes a drag from her cigarette and blows the smoke out in a smooth little stream. Then she looks at me again. "What do you like?" "Huh?" "You know, what do you like to do?" I tell her I like to read, go to movies, listen to music -- the usual things. "What kind of music?" "Rock. Bruce Springsteen, the Clash, the Jam, Elvis Costello...let's see...." "Me too. I like Elvis Costello, too. How about movies? What's your favorite movie?" "Oh, I don't know. Probably The Graduate." "Oh yeah. I saw that on TV. They probably cut a lot out though. Dustin -- what's his name? -- Hoffberg? He was great in that, wasn't he?" "Yeah," I say. Hoffberg. "How about books. What kind of books do you like?" "I like books about people, relationships mostly -- Larry McMurtry, Philip Roth...." "I like romances, too. Silhouette's the best. It's interesting to hear about a guy who reads, who likes romance novels." "I didn't say I like romance...." "What do you like to eat?" "Huh? Oh, you know, food. Hot stuff, chili, nachos, pizza...." "I like pizza, too. My favorite foods are pizza and ice cream. I could live off them." And I'm thinking, who couldn't. It's not like we're the only two people on the planet who like pizza and ice cream. "What else do you like to do in your spare time? Besides read and go to movies." "Well...I like to...I've been taking this poetry writing class." "That's amazing! I write poems, too! Isn't that a coincidence? I'm having a poem published in a magazine." "Really?" "It's just a little thing a friend of mine's putting together. It's not professional or anything." Okay, I'm thinking, enough of this. Next thing she'll be asking me what my sign is. "When were you born?" It's like I've been reading her mind. "1957," I say. "No, the month. Don't tell me. Let me guess." She stares hard into my eyes. "You're a...a Virgo, right?" I shake my head no. "Oh, wait, wait....you're a Sagittarius!" I shake my head again. "Wait, wait. One more try! One more try. You're a...a...Pisces!" "Right. How'd you guess?" "I can see it in your eyes. I see the waves in there, the water." "You do." "Yeah!" she says, her enthusiasm, her smile drawing me in, despite myself. "Well, I have to tell ya'. It's not water. It's beer." She laughs. It's a high, soft laugh. "Did any one ever tell you you have beautiful eyes?" she says. "I do?" "Yeah. Does that make you uncomfortable? I mean, a girl telling you that?" "No. Why should it?" "I don't know. It would bother some guys I guess." That smile, those eyes -- I feel like I'm falling into them, like I can't hear a word she's saying anymore, as she continues to talk. I reach over and carefully place my hand over hers. She keeps on talking, and turns her hand over, meshes her fingers with mine like it's nothing, it's completely natural. "So what year are you in?" I ask. "Year?" "Yeah. In school." "Oh," she says. "That." She looks at me quickly and sighs. "I'm a senior." Then she stops talking. Her eyes get a faraway look and drift away from me, out to the dance floor. I'm looking at her, staring at the side of her face, the smooth, unblemished skin, thinking she's lying, she can't be more than a freshman or a sophomore. I mean, I'm not that drunk. But then the shock hits, the realization, and I loosen my grip on her hand. "In high school?" I ask. "What?" "Are you...you're not a senior...in high school?" "Yeah," she says, smiling at me in this almost-shy way. I feel like my mouth's hanging open and it probably is, as drunk as I am. She's looking at me, her head tilted at an angle, questioning: "Is it okay?" "What do you mean?" I say. "Why wouldn't it be?" She shrugs, shakes her head, and I look away from her, feeling dull suddenly, thinking she probably thinks I'm stupid for having to ask in the first place. "You look older," I say. "That's all. That's why I asked." "Oh," she says, frowning, stamping out her cigarette in the ashtray. "A lot of people think that. They tell me that all the time." "Do they? I mean...they do?" "Yeah," she says, both her hands holding up her chin now, as she looks over at me, her eyelids drooping. A few moments later, after each of us has another glass of beer, she looks up at the ceiling and says, "I see things at night, in the dark sometimes." "Me too," I say. I'm thinking about the little specks like dust, like static, I see in the dark after I take out my contacts. "I see faces. People I never knew. I don't know where they come from. Is that wild, or what?" "Uh...." I don't know what to say. What am I getting into? But it's her eyes. So trusting, so innocent. They won't let me go. She changes the subject. "You weren't having much fun before. You looked so glum sitting here all by yourself. That's why I came over. You looked like you needed some cheering up. Like something was wrong. Is it a girl?" "How'd you know?" "What else?" she says and laughs. I tell her about Sally, about her dumping me.
She sighs and looks past me, a lost look in her eyes. "I've gone with so many guys I can't even remember. All of them have been there then...phhht...gone, just like that. The last one, Jeremy, went out to San Diego, said he'd send me a ticket to come see him. I haven't even heard from him since -- when was it? -- last December. So, you see, I've been dumped. You get used to it after a while."
"Do you really?" She laughs again. Then she abruptly stops and, her eyes narrowing, her facial muscles tightening in an apparent moment of painful recollection, says, "No, not really." She looks through her purse for her cigarettes, pulls one out and lights it up, breathes deep the smoke and exhales in a kind of sigh, the look of pain going with the smoke. Then she gives me a small smile. "But you're better now that I'm here, right?" After a while the talk seems to run out. We sit there in silence, our fingers interwoven, resting together on her thigh.
"It's nice," she says, "just holding hands for a change. That's nice."
Our pitcher's empty and she says she's thirsty, she could go for another beer, so I'm looking around, looking everywhere for a waitress, but can't find one. So I stroll -- stumble is more like it -- up to the bar and wait and wait and wait and finally get a pitcher. When I get back, Loni's not there, her purse isn't there either, and I'm looking all around and can't see her anywhere. I start thinking that she took off on me, that this is my lot in life now, to be left alone. But when I look up I spot her. She's walking off the dance floor with this tall guy wearing a cowboy hat. He's holding her hand as they come up to the table. I freeze with two beers in my hands, feel like I should just walk, forget about her. Who needs this? But I don't. I walk right up to the table. He's whispering something in her ear, and she's laughing. I tell myself I don't have anything to be jealous about, I just met this girl. And the cowboy -- he's got this trim little moustache -- shoots me this superior look, smiles like the son of a bitch he probably is, before he struts away. I act cool. I don't let on, even though inside I feel something crashing to the floor. "Want your beer?" I ask. "Sure," she says. She's busy looking through her purse for something. She finds it -- some lipstick -- and starts putting it on, staring into a little pocket mirror that she's unfolded. "Do you think I'm pretty?" she asks, frowning at her reflection. "Sure," I say. She puts the mirror down and looks at me, smiling. I don't react. My body's stiffened. My mind is numb.
"Are you okay?" she asks. "You're not saying anything."
"Yeah, I'm fine." She lights up a cigarette and blows a cloud of smoke into the air. I watch it until it disappears, like relationships, like Sally -- one moment they're there, the next just gone. "You don't have to worry about that guy," she says. "He just wanted to dance, that's all. I was lonely sitting here all by myself. I thought you'd never get back." I still don't say anything. My door is beginning to close. It's nearly shut. "He was funny, but so straight, real square. I could never be with a guy like that. It was no big deal."
I wonder if I'm square. I close my eyes for a second and then reopen them. I hold my hands up, palms forward, not happy, but surrendering.
"Okay," I say. "It's okay." She sticks her tongue out at me and rolls her eyes, trying to make me laugh. I don't. Then she scoots out of her chair, jumps up on my lap and with her eyes wide and smiling, kisses me. "Besides," she says, her hands clasped behind my neck. "He wasn't half as sexy as you are."
Copyright © 2013 by Mitchell Waldman
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