Ryan had been going out with Jeremy for several months, and unlike many—no, pretty much all of the men she had normally saw—he made no moves to sleep with her. They danced around it at the end of each date (a kiss, another kiss, another kiss) and Ryan thought it strange that it took them so long. She’d never felt this way before, blind with lust and infatuation, wanting a man so badly she could hardly think of anything else, and his unwillingness to participate confounded her, as if something about her repelled him.
Finally, though, she’d persuaded him to stay the night, late on a Monday in May, long after they met, and she found Jeremy almost regretful in his lovemaking, keeping his eyes closed, barely kissing her on the mouth as they rolled in the sheets of her unmade bed. His body smelled like sweat and a faint undercurrent of odor, and she found it as erotic as anything else. She had never been with a man with such formidable skin, his hands rough and yet at once as soft as her own. She came with the tanginess of a bee sting, surprising her, and she inhaled sharply, but he didn’t make a noise as he finished. After, he didn’t speak to her for several moments, and then traipsed silently into the bathroom.
When he returned, still naked, she said, “You want to stay? You can stay.” Trying not to sound needy. He folded himself into the bed as she stood and opened her dresser.
“You’re getting dressed?”
“I can’t sleep naked,” she said, pulling on her gray pajama pants. “It’s my thing. I get too cold.”
He looked at her, his face harder than she felt it should be, considering what they had previously done. “Come on, girl. Take them off and get into bed with me.”
She wondered if either of them slept that night. She stared at the clock, distracted by the night noises streaming through the open window—cars dashing by, crickets chirping, a sliver of a song from a car radio. She recalled, out of nowhere, her best friend from high school, telling her, “you need to guide the guy, you know, tell them what you want. Otherwise they screw it all up.” Ryan had lost her virginity when she was sixteen, and the boy, whose name she could not recall, truly had no idea what he was doing. There had been others, sure, but the sex was nothing special. But Jeremy. Jeremy knew what he was doing. A kiss on the curve of her breast, a finger resting on the inside of her thigh, the look of sheer concentration on his face as he entered her, this conglomeration of movements made her feel as if she were the only person in the world.
In the morning, he made them coffee and lay in bed as she dressed for work, his hands behind his head. She liked his appearance of course, you can’t take that away from a woman, the essentials of unrefined attraction. She grabbed a moment to appreciate his firm upper torso, the beige hair that grew from the top of his amber, freckle-dappled chest towards his genitals. “So,” she said. “That was fun.”
He said, with a wry smile, “You can call it that.”
“Yeah,” she replied, not sure what he meant. Later, he walked out with her into the brilliant, sparkly May sun, and they kissed briefly before she drove off. Halfway to work, Ryan realized that they never made plans, as they had with any other date. The weekend after next was Memorial Day—earlier, in passing, he mentioned he had the weekend off. Jeremy was a cop, his schedule was wacky, working nights and weekends, so she had assumed he meant he wanted to spend this free weekend with her. Now she felt foolish.
After he didn’t call for several days, she berated herself for sleeping with him. She counted the errors she had made. It was too early. He took sex too seriously. He felt she was easy. She was easy. She was too young for him—twenty-five to his forty. But still, before she went to bed each night that week, like a fool, she double-checked the cell phone to see if maybe the battery had died. By the end of the week, tired of waiting by the phone, hoping for a distraction, she made plans to meet a bunch of girlfriends for drinks after she finished her shift at the restaurant.
Ryan had two jobs—her daytime job was at a corporate mailroom in downtown Kansas City, her evenings were spent waiting tables at Chuckster’s, a sports bar in the suburbs. She’d had a relationship with the owner, David, one of the biggest mistakes of her life. (As if this was easy for her to define.) David was the wild boy grown up, the wild boy she always coveted. Early thirties, tattoos down his arms, longish brown hair. But David had been ensnared already. He had a wife, he had three kids. She loved David, what she figured was love, anyway, but he was unwilling to leave his wife and kids for her, even after she had become pregnant the year before. When she told him, he had not reacted in the way she wanted. Instead, he became angry and defensive, and later, hurt. He couldn’t leave his wife, he told Ryan, crying. He was part owner of the series of restaurants with her family. If he left Julie, he’d have nothing. He loved Ryan, he claimed, but she knew he didn’t mean it. He didn’t love her. He loved his wife. He loved the kids he already had. She had an abortion, telling him instead that she had miscarried, and the relief on his face confirmed what she knew about his true feelings. She had only been a fling. But she couldn’t stop seeing him, even after everything. He was like a drug, additive and harmful, but she didn’t care. It felt too good to be with him. Then she met Jeremy and everything changed. As if she had a future.
After she had broken it off with David, he had come around to her apartment, wanting her back. He claimed that eventually he’d figure out something, but in the meantime, couldn’t they just keep on with what they were doing? He had given her a box, small enough for a piece of jewelry but not a ring box. She had kicked him out, had thrown the box down the laundry chute. She didn’t want him back, she told him. She was no longer a sucker. She had moved on, and you’re an asshole. He smiled gently, almost condescendingly, as if he didn’t believe her, but he left her alone, scheduling her on his off days, and when they occasionally crossed paths at work, he treated her like any other server, kind but not invested.
David was working the bar that night, looking especially attractive in a red-wine dress shirt and blue-jeans, his hair falling over his forehead, longer than usual. The service slowed after an initial rush of early dinner patrons, mostly older couples and a few families with little kids who crumbled crackers all over the carpeting. After Ryan finished her last table and went to check out, David called out to her across the bar, “Buy you a beer?”
She clocked out and hung up her apron, then sat at a stool, across from his perch inside the counter. “Boulevard?” She nodded, and watched as he poured. “How you been?”
“Good, good,” she replied. He flipped a coaster in front of her and set the beer down. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” he replied. The bar, which stood parallel to the remainder of the restaurant, was separated by a wood-paneled wall, with mirrors from the top of the cherry-lined booths to the tall ceilings. To Ryan, it had the same feeling as a funhouse, right down to the tiled floors. The televisions, all seven of them, were on mute, and Bonnie Raitt pulsed over the sound system. Several couples occupied the booths, and a group mingled at the edge of the bar.
He gave himself a beer and stood in front of her. “Doing anything fun this weekend?”
Ryan shook her head. “Going out with the girls.” She sipped, glanced at him. “You?”
He shrugged. “Julie took the girls to her folks’ house down at the lake. We’re spending a little time apart.”
“Oh,” she said.
“No, it’s, no...” He peered to his left. The bar was becoming more crowded, the music and conversation made it hard for her to hear. “I better jump in,” he said, “but don’t leave.” As he stepped back to speak to his help, Ryan’s phone rang.
Ryan’s heart leapt. And there was his name. She left the bar, trailing her way into the back of the restaurant. “Hi,” she said, tucking herself in to a corner of the break-room, away from the noise.
“Are you out?” Jeremy asked.
“I’m at Chuckster’s. I just got off,” she said. She paused, willing herself to control her breathing. “What are you doing?”
“I’m home,” he said.
“You’re not working tonight?”
“I had a buddy who needed some nights off earlier this week so I switched. I worked eight nights in a row. I’m beat.”
So that was the reason. “Okay. I wish you would have said something to me. Because…I mean, after the other night…”
“Said what to you?”
“That you, you know…that you were busy.”
“I was too busy to call you and tell you I was busy,” he said. Was he joking? She couldn’t tell.
“Well, what about now? You want to come out?” she asked. She crooked her finger in her other ear, straining to hear his voice, positioning her hip against the wall.
Ryan waited for an explanation but there wasn’t one. “Why not?” she finally asked.
Instead of answering, he said, “Listen, I’m going down to the Lake of the Ozarks tomorrow. You want to go backpacking with me? We could stay overnight and sleep under the stars. What do you say?”
“I don’t know,” she said, startled by the sudden request. “I’m not sure.”
“Well, just give me a call in the morning if you want to go,” he said. “I’ll have everything you need. I can even have an extra backpack packed for you.” There was a beat, and he said, “I’ll want to leave early. If you want to go call me before 6:00.”
“That’s pretty early.”
She bit her tongue so hard it bled. “That’s too early.”
“Ryan,” Jeremy said, his tone serious. “I’d like for you to come.” A beat. “I think it would be good for you to get out in the fresh air.”
She couldn’t imagine being angrier. “You don’t call for a week and then this? What is this?”
“You’re mad at me about that? Really?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m mad at you.” She found this confession freeing. “I don’t like being jerked around.”
“I was working. I wasn’t jerking you around.” He didn’t say anything for a moment. She pushed her finger further into her ear, thinking maybe she missed something. “So, tomorrow.”
“Yeah, well. We’ll see.” Pissed, she shut her phone with a snap and threw it into her purse, and walked back to the bar.
David sat at the stool next to hers, drinking the remainder of his beer. “Look, I’ve wanted to talk to you.”
She cut him off. “You want to come out tonight?”
She shrugged. “Why not, right?”
They met the girls at Tommy’s in Westport, after making out in the front of his Escalade for a half-hour, him placing his hand between her legs. “Later,” she kept whispering. “Later.” His lips felt different from Jeremy’s, not so fulfilling.
The night was hot, strange for late May, with a dry wind that spread grit into their eyes and teeth. Although she could tell by looking at her girlfriends that they were pissed—primarily because David was sitting next to Ryan with a protective elbow wrapped around her neck—it was too loud for them to say as much. They had listened to Ryan complain about David for over two years, and had been cautiously hopeful, they said, when she proclaimed it was over. Music blared from the speakers, old school—Magic Carpet Ride, Paperback Writer, Barracuda. Finally, David went off to the bathroom, and Ryan, as she suspected, was attacked.
“What the fuck? I thought you were done with him. ,” Gretchen said. She had on a tight, black t-shirt dress that showed her bumps and curves.
“Maybe not,” Ryan said. “He said he and his wife were taking a break.”
“Even so,” Molly said, through a haze of cigarette smoke, “this was supposed to be us tonight.”
“Gee, sorry,” Ryan said. She was drunk. She and David had three beers and a couple tequila shots before leaving Chuckster’s, and then she’d drank three more beers in succession after they entered the bar. She hadn’t eaten; the one excuse she could make. She drank the rest of the beer in front of her. “If that’s how you really feel then I guess I’ll just take off now.” She grabbed her purse and wormed her way through the crowd towards the men’s room. David exited as she approached. “They’re pissed,” she said, wrapping her arms around him. “Pissed that I brought you.”
They kissed. She willed his kiss to be more satisfying, but it was useless. “Let’s go,” he said, taking her arm and weaving them out the bar.
David and Julie, Ryan knew, owned a house in Prairie Village, but he drove south of Westport, and took 1-70 east towards Independence. He had the air conditioner on high, and Ryan, dressed only in her Chuckster’s t-shirt and a short jean skirt, was freezing. “Where are we going?”
“My brother’s place. He’s in Boca this weekend and he wanted me to water his plants.”
He placed a hand on her upper thigh as he drove, his pinky finger edging towards her panty. Traffic was heavy on the interstate, despite it being close to 11:00. Ryan watched as the billboards flipped by, aware but not really aware as his finger inched closer to her crotch. “You’ve shaved lately, haven’t you?” he said. “Yeah, I like that.”
She had not shaved for him, and at the thought put her hand on his wrist. “Just pay attention to the driving, okay?”
“Hard to get? Is this a new leaf or something?” he said, drawing his hand back to the steering wheel. “I kind of like it.”
Ryan drew a deep, inverted breath. “No,” she said, “I just know that there are cops crawling all over the interstate on a Friday night.”
“Yeah?” David said. “How do you know that?”
She shook her head, peering at her reflection in the window. “Duh. It’s Friday night. You run a bar, you don’t know that?” When her mouth moved, it appeared as if it were melting. “I need another drink,” she said. “Do you suppose he has something in his place to drink?”
David’s brother lived in a complex that housed several identical structures, inside a terraced and fenced security system. David steered the car through the web of brightly-lit apartment buildings and parking spaces, and he pulled up to a spot in front of one of the units, far as one could go.
He led her inside, up a tall flight of stairs that were grey and stained. They were greeted at the door by three howling cats. The kitchen was littered with pizza boxes and beer cans, dirty dishes, porn magazines. “My brother isn’t exactly the cleanest person,” David said, rummaging through the fridge. He came up with two beers. “Here we go,” he said, handing her one. Ryan had never met the brother. She didn’t even know his name.
She had to lean against the counter to stop her head from whirling. “Thanks,” she said, drinking.
“Come here, you,” he said, taking her hand. They walked down the short hall to a bedroom. Like the rest of the house, it was a mess—a Budweiser banner on the wall, one corner flopping like a limp hand, clothes strewn, and a full ashtray next to the bed. David took off his shirt. “I’ve wanted this, I’ve wanted you,” he said, kissing her, pulling her top over her head. He stopped. “Why aren’t you wearing it?”
“The necklace I got you. The claddagh necklace.” He touched the middle of her sternum with his forefinger. “Should hit you right here.”
Ryan closed her eyes. He had given her a claddagh, thinking, somehow, that it would resonate with her. “I must have left it at home,” she said. “I guess I don’t want to lose it.” She felt like she was drowning as she faded in and out of consciousness.
When Ryan woke, David was sleeping on the futon next to her, naked. She fitfully recalled what had happened. Nothing, it seemed like, but then she remembered his orgasm in her mouth, swallowing his saltiness before she had passed out. She lifted her thumping head and saw the time on the black, rectangular alarm clock next to the bed, 5:05 a.m.
She made it to the hall bathroom just in time. She puked, and then in the mirror she spied an almost unrecognizable face, with mascara and eyeliner streaked across her cheeks. She wiped it away with a cracked cake of soap and dried her face with a towel that smelled of cat pee.
She slid out of the apartment, trying not to look around. She went down the stairs, and through the glass front door she could see she was right off the interstate. It was just beginning to get light out, the sky a hazy dark blue. She had never been to Jeremy’s house but she knew where he lived, knew that she was close, maybe a five-minute car ride. She took her phone out of her pocket and dialed Jeremy. It was 5:13
He answered immediately.
“Hi,” she said. “It’s me. It’s Ryan.”
“Ryan,” he hummed into the phone, sounding pleased. “You want to go with me this morning?”
“Jeremy,” she said. “I fucked up.” The parking lot was quiet and empty. She sat on the curb, holding her spinning head in her free hand. From the highway she smelled the asphalt and the rubber burning from the tires.
“How did you fuck up?” Jeremy asked, his voice steady.
“Jeremy,” she said, again, swallowing a hard sob. “I’m sorry.”
“Hey,” he said. “Hey, are you okay?”
“I’m okay. I just—I need a ride.”
“You’re not at home?”
“Where are you?” She told him. He paused, and then said, “I’ll be right over.”
Ryan walked the sidewalk to the front entrance, and sat on a bench that was positioned in front of the complex sign. The morning was still hot and humid, the dark beginning to ease. To the east the sky was tinged with low-lying slate-gray clouds on the horizon. Ryan hoped it would not rain. She leaned back and laid her head back against the tip of the bench. The humidity made her feel like she had an extra layer of skin, an epidermis made of the smoke and semen from the night before.
Jeremy pulled up in his black truck, the engine chugging. The morning sky reflected off the trim as she opened the door and got in. She could not read the look on his face. His eyes were as dull as the clouds on the horizon. He had the air conditioning on and the leather seats felt like ice on her upper back. The car smelled new, even though he had purchased it the year before. The carpet on the floor stood on edge from frequent vacuuming. She strapped on the seat belt and eased back. A wave of nausea overcame her as he pulled out of the parking lot. She breathed in and out. He said nothing for a few blocks until: “Are you ok?”
“It’s my job to ask that.”
“It’s not like that,” she said. She slid down further in the seat, thankful that she, for the moment, did not feel like puking. “Nothing was done to me that I didn’t want done. I just—I had too much to drink and I went home with my...my friend, and so, you know…”
Abruptly, he drove into the parking lot of an office complex, steering the car to an empty corner. Her stomach lurched. He put the truck in park and left the engine running. Turning to her, he said, “Here’s the deal, kid.”
“Look at me,” he said. Her head was heavy and it was difficult for her to look up, but she did, finding his face hard and impassive.
“Clearly you were upset with me, and yeah, maybe I should have said something to you, but that’s how my life works. I work a lot and it’s been a while since I’ve had to be accountable to someone.” The engine clicked and hummed at a lower decibel. “So, I’m sorry.”
This pleased her, that he said this. She imagined it was tough for him. She bowed her head, focusing on her hands.
“But here’s the deal,” he continued. “You have to take me as I am. If we’re going to be together, you can’t be sallying between me and other guys. I mean, is this your thing? You go and pick up a guy in a bar when something else doesn’t work?”
The pleasant feeling from earlier quickly subsided. How did he know? “God! No! He—he was my ex. It’s—complicated.”
“He’s married. He, well, he’s married.”
“That sounds amazingly uncomplicated to me.”
“I know,” she said with sudden realization. “I know it seems that way.”
“It doesn’t seem that way, it is that way,” he said. “I’ve seen this shit a thousand times, girls like you who chase around a guy who isn’t available and then she gets in trouble because of it. I have no idea of what happened and I don’t care. It’s all the same. I’m here. I’m available. In my own way. Just because I don’t call for a week doesn’t mean I don’t want to be with you.” He leaned in closer, and she looked back up at him. “So now I’ll say it. I want to be with you. I’m not the kind of man who has sex with a woman and then never call her again. I figured you knew that. Maybe you didn’t. But now, I’m telling you. And you need to decide. Right now. I’m going camping and I want you to come with me. But I’m not doing this with you, this drama, this phone call at dawn where you need saving. All right? I don’t have time for that kind of bullshit.”
This little soliloquy tugged at her heart. She’d never heard anyone speak like this before, certainly not to her. “Okay,” she said. She chewed on a hangnail, finally tearing it off. It began to bleed, and she sucked on her finger.
“Okay, I’ll go with you,” she said, the blood sweet on her tongue. “Okay, I’ll stop with the bullshit.”
“All right, then.” He nodded, looking off into the distance, staring at the cars on the road ahead. “This can work out. I know it can. You’re…you know. You’re a good girl. You just need something, a little guidance. Right? I figure, I can bring you along. Show you the ways of the world, right?” Then he leaned in and kissed her, his lips as soft as his voice was hard. “It’ll be fine. We’ll have fun. You can sleep on the way.”
“Aw,” she said, rubbing his stubbly cheek. “Our first fight.”
They drove three hours into the Ozark hills, and hiked eight miles to a high ledge where they set up camp. She took a nap in the shade. When she woke, the sun had skimmed the trees and she was cold. Jeremy was sitting next to her, his back against a tree. He was reading a book, the title she could not see. Ryan looked up at him and yawned.
He squinted. “How are you?”
“Okay. Hangover’s gone.”
He shook his head. “Damn. To be a kid again.”
“Where do I pee?” she asked him. He pointed to the woods behind him.
When she came back he had water and slices of cheese and pepperoni waiting for her. “This can be an early dinner, if you want,” he said, as she sat crossed-legged on the blanket.
“We don’t cook?”
He shook his head, frowning. “I don’t do campfires.”
“So PC,” Ryan said, chewing on the meat, the spice biting at her lips. “What kind of camp is this? No campfire?”
“Did you bring any beer?” She asked, and immediately regretted it, by the look on his face. She wished he was funnier. “I’m kidding.” He smiled. That was better. She lay down on her side, stretching her legs. “You want some?” She handed him a piece of cheese. He took it, and she said, “So is this your way of chilling out or something?”
Jeremy folded a corner of the page he was reading and set the book next to him. He took a bite of the cheese and chewed thoughtfully. “I don’t know. I guess I’ve always been into hiking. Since before I can even remember my brother and I were always setting up a tent in the yard, and by the time I was a teenager we would camp in the parks around home. We lived pretty close to a state park and my dad was always so drunk he never knew we were missing.”
“Well, if it’s one thing I know, it’s that,” she said. Her father owned a bar, she grew up watching men drink too much. Maybe Jeremy had forgotten this, because he looked at her, curious. “Hello! The bartender’s daughter over here? I know drunk men.”
“Ah. Right,” he said. “Yeah, my old man’s a big drunk, still is, and when he wasn’t drinking he was blaming us for everything. I couldn’t wait to get away from him.”
“That’s sad,” she said. She picked another cheese slice out of the cooler.
“He likes his booze,” Jeremy said. “He could give a shit about his sons. So I learned early on to not give a shit about him.” His face bore the sign of sun from the day’s walk, bright and crimson on the tips of his cheeks. “I guess, then, that this is my way of getting away.” He turned and lay on his back, his hands locked under his head. “I guess I always associated camping with peace.”
She mimicked his movements. The sky was a cerulean blue, clear of clouds. The only noises were the sounds of birds singing and the faint rustle of the wind through the trees. She knew what he meant. It was peaceful, a peace she wasn’t quite reckoned with, but she liked how he liked it.
That night they sprayed bug spray on each other and lay on the sleeping bag, watching the sky turn black. He talked about the trees and named the night calls. They counted stars and he pointed out constellations. Finally they went into the tent where they made love, locked together in the dark. She felt herself blending in with the shadows, not seeing anything but the edges of his face and shoulders, feeling his body above her, searching out his mouth in the dimness. Nothing had ever felt so good.
The next morning they returned to the truck, and he took her to a barbeque place outside of Kansas City for lunch. He told her that he loved her, right there, over a table of beer and barbeque, and she said, back to him, that she loved him. They drove home in bright daylight, with the windows down, her hair blowing about her face. He leaned over and rubbed her leg, and for a good portion of the trip, kept his hand right there. As if in ownership. Something inside told her not to question it, their declaration, even though somewhere else, in a tiny corner of her brain, there was a small thought nagging her. Aren’t you supposed to know? But maybe, this was how it was supposed to feel, she told herself. Maybe this was what love felt like, after all.
Ann Rushton’s work has been published in such magazines as “Amazon Day One” “The Chariton Review”, “The Breakwater Review”, “wigleaf”,” Literary Mama”, and many other publications. She is the editor and co-founder of “Bound Off”, a literary audio journal, and lives in Iowa City, Iowa with her husband and daughters. Find more at annrushton.com.
Thaddeus was sitting at a window stool of the coffee shop he had visited nearly every day for the last ten years, for a half hour before work in the morning and then stopping in again to pick up a coffee-to-go after work. It was Sunday, though, and this was the first time he can remember ever coming to this coffee shop on a Sunday. And even more unusual, he had gone to church this morning, the first time in he couldn’t remember how long, but throughout the sermon about the need for forthrightness with oneself and with God he kept thinking about going to the coffee shop and having a coffee. It was the church his parents had attended, and he had stopped attending even before he graduated high school. He was certain it was the same minister, the intense, God-evoking, sermonizing voice seemed to remain forceful but he was now grey haired and stooped. Thaddeus recalled a loud argument with his parents when he told them that going to church was a waste of time, especially on a Sunday, and the minister didn’t have a direct phone line to the Lord even if he had such a loud voice. Thaddeus thought the word forthrightness was perfect for describing his behaviour that morning, and wished he had used it in his argument with his parents. He didn’t recall ever using the word before, and whispered it over and over, until it sounded like the strangest word in the world.
The coffee shop was not only walking distance from the church, but also a few blocks away from the liquor store where Thaddeus has worked as a clerk for ten years—ten years a month from tomorrow. He had started almost six months ago to think in terms of that upcoming ten-year milestone, pondering it every day, often several times a day as if it were a perfunctory prayer he needed to recite: ten years, an astounding decade, at one job. Ten years… He had started the day after his thirty-fifth birthday, determined not to lose another job, nervous as a teenager on a first date, but he had made it through the day and a couple thousand or so more liquor-store days after that.
Thaddeus saw himself outside the window, shaped as a bronze ten-year trophy. He blinked away the human trophy and began to write numbers on a napkin. He liked numbers, figures, making calculations: he was calculating how many people he had sold liquor to in the last ten years as he was stirring his third cup of coffee of the afternoon. Then how much alcohol had been purchased. He actually attempted to visualize the ten-years’ worth of booze flowing all around him. An enormous sea of booze, he thought. Better yet, a booze ocean. He wondered who in the history of the world had consumed the most alcohol and how much that would be. He thought of his old life of drinking, a little lake of alcohol, that would be an approximate image, remembering hearing the poet Al Purdy describe a lake of beer. That was years ago, at the only poetry reading he had ever attended; his ex-wife had made him go to the reading, saying yet again that he needed an infusion of culture, and that time he had gone along, just to please her. Purdy, he recalled, described being in a rowboat in the middle of a lake of all the beer he had consumed in his poetry-writing lifetime. Purdy was tall and as he chatted with him after the reading, Thaddeus felt he was half the famous poet’s height. He timidly told Purdy, as he waited for the poet to sign the book he had purchased, the only poetry book he had ever bought, that he also had a weakness for beer but couldn’t write a poem to save his life. Now he hadn’t had a drop of alcohol in a decade, not even a rain puddle’s worth. He was always struck by the realization that he had stopped drinking after getting the job at the liquor store. Yes, how much liquor had he sold, bottles of all sizes—he estimated it would be close to a half million, maybe more. Staring into his coffee, he imagined looking into a whirlpool and could see himself swirling and being pulled down into the water. If this were a fantasy film, he thought, there might be another world he could wind up in. He liked the thought of going to another world.
“Do you mind if I sit next to you?” a woman, holding a paper cup and a small metal tea pot, said, as she stood at the empty stool next to Thaddeus, causing him to slow his stirring.
“Of course…certainly,” he said.
“My name is Celeste,” she said as she sat down and placed her cup and tea pot on the counter.
“What a lovely name,” he said, still stirring his coffee.
“Celestial, wouldn’t you say?” she said, and smiled.
Her teeth were beautiful, and it reminded Thaddeus that he had a dental appointment next Friday. He had waited nearly three years for his six-month check-up and cleaning. He sure could put things off. During one of their innumerable arguments about his negligent habits, his ex-wife called him a procrastinator of the highest order, often referred to him as The Procrastinator during their five-year marriage. She left him before he found his job at the liquor store and embarked on his new life.
“I’m tired of being shy and unassertive,” Celeste said, and offered her right hand to Thaddeus. He noticed how long her fingers were, longer than his, and that the forefinger was slightly bent.
Lifting his arm out of the whirlpool, he gave her a tentative handshake. “Yep, shy and unassertive could characterize me fairly accurately also.”
The woman sat down and slowly poured a cup of tea from a height that Thaddeus thought excessive, expecting her to miss her cup but not a drop did.
“The only time I ever drink tea is when I’m not feeling well,” Thaddeus said, seeming to be confessing a secret.
“Hope you don’t want any tea.”
“I’m not feeling bad at all, but when I was a child, if I complained of a sore throat or feeling lousy, my mother would make me a tea.”
“My mother died when I was eight,” the woman said sharply, looking at the counter.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Under suspicious circumstances, that’s the way I remember people describing it,‘ she said, and he recalled two TV dramas he had seen lately where mothers of young children had died under suspicious circumstances, but caught himself before revealing this.
As Thaddeus resumed stirring his coffee, the woman lifted her head and looked out the window as she continued her story: “My father told me before he died ten years ago, that he really wasn’t my father. Talk about taking an axe to the family tree. That little biographical tidbit affected me more than my mother dying when I was three.”
“That’s a shocker and a half.” Thaddeus wanted to ask the woman the date of her father’s death, curious how close the man’s death was to the day he had started working at the liquor store, but quickly discarded that thought.
“I think he was lying,” the woman said, and took a tentative sip of tea.
“Why do you think that?”
“He was always blaming people for his dissatisfaction with his life, including my dear mother who he claimed slept around a lot even after they got married, deciding at the end that he couldn’t have been my father.”
“That wasn’t very fatherly of him.”
“I’ve never told anyone this before, not a soul.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you understand that it is difficult to be a human being.”
“That is indeed true.”
“I can talk to you,” the woman said, pouring another cup of tea, and began drinking it quickly.
“And I like listening to you. You are very forthright, and I find forthrightness an admirable quality,” he said, wondering if he would go to church next Sunday.
“I have to go now,“ she said, barely finishing half of her second tea.
“We’ll talk again soon, I hope.”
“I don‘t see why not.”
“You promise to call me?”
“It will be my pleasure.”
“My word of honour as a coffee drinker.”
Celeste borrowed Thaddeus’s pen and wrote down her e-mail address and cellphone number on the napkin with his earlier calculations. “I can say things over the phone that I can’t in person, I don’t know why.”
“But you told me about your father.”
“Other things. Not like that.”
“Must be something psychological, not that I‘m a psychologist or anything.”
“It’s as if I’m a different person.”
“I can relate to that,” Thaddeus said, and drew some designs with his fingertips on the counter close to Celeste’s cup. “What sort of things?” he asked as light-heartedly as he could.
“You know, things of an intimate nature.”
“That sounds exciting.”
Celeste touched Thaddeus gently in the shoulder, he so wanting to kiss her, but she hurried off, explaining she was already late for visiting a friend in the hospital.
Thaddeus watched Celeste leave the coffee shop and as the door closed behind her, he looked out the front window, to see where she was going. He waved at her, but she was already across the street, starting to run.
Thaddeus wasn’t able to sleep and felt horrible in the morning. All he could think about was the woman from the coffee shop…Celeste…celestial Celeste. He imagined talking to her again, began to anticipate it. He called in to work early, before anyone had arrived, and left a message that he was wretchedly ill, stomach flu or something, and wouldn’t be able to come in. He apologized at great length and hung up, surprised with himself for talking so long to an answering machine. Ordinarily he had an aversion to leaving personal messages with a lifeless contraption. At least this time he didn’t curse the impersonal recorded words. He kept thinking about the most marvellous woman he had ever met, the first time he had had anything that resembled a fully formed conversation with a woman in he couldn’t remember how long. On the day his wife had left him, telling Thaddeus, among other criticisms, that he was the most uncommunicative person she had ever known, and in order for a marriage to work and love to last there had to be communication, even as simple as everyday conversations. She told him he was as unconversational as a horse’s ass, and that she meant it literally. He tried to imitate a horse’s neighing, and she laughed at his feeble attempt. He wasn’t comfortable talking with strangers or meeting new people, and that was why he was so surprised when the woman sat down next to him at the coffee shop and started talking, bringing out something incredible in him. Their conversation hadn’t even lasted a half hour yet he felt drawn to her. He looked at her e-mail address and cellphone number, touched the sheet of paper as if trying to touch the woman, wondered when the best time to call her would be. She had wanted him to call her, she had been emphatic about that, and he imagined asking her to spend sometime together soon, how about this weekend, perhaps the entire weekend, they talking about everything under the sun and becoming intimate through words and their bodies. After a rejuvenating early-morning reverie, he decided to call her, no procrastination this time. Nine o’clock certainly wasn’t too early. Maybe she was at a job. She didn’t mention what she did, but it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. Five melodious rings, a briefly mesmerizing rhythm, and a man with a raspy voice answered.
“Is Celeste there?” Thaddeus stuttered out. Husband? Boyfriend? Lover? He hated these words, the questioning thoughts.
“Who is this?” the man asked.
“I told Celeste I’d call her. This is Thaddeus.”
“My name is Thaddeus.”
“Not the most common name in the world.”
“No it is not. Celeste never mentioned you.”
“We just met yesterday.”
“Tell you the truth, I met her yesterday also.”
“You’re lying,” Thaddeus told the man.
“Watch who you call a liar, you stupid idiot.”
“I just don’t think your name is Thaddeus.”
“Well, stupid or idiot, I don’t know which one to call you, I don’t think your name is Thaddeus. I have to get to work.”
“I took the day off,” Thaddeus explained.
“I can’t be taking any days off,” the man said. “I’ll leave Celeste a note that you called before I go to the liquor store,” the man said and hung up.
Liquor store… How could he work at a liquor store? Maybe he meant that he wanted to pick up some booze before going to work. That had to be it, Thaddeus concluded.
An hour and two coffees later, hoping maybe that Celeste had returned home, he called again, and an unfamiliar woman’s voice said that there was no Celeste there, even though she has a sister named Celeste whom she hasn’t seen in a year, and he told her the phone number he wanted and she said that phone number wasn’t anything close to the one he had just called. The woman suggested he try more carefully, advising him to try calling at a time when the weather conditions weren‘t so threatening, to which Thaddeus replied wryly, “The weather is beautiful outside. You couldn’t ask for a lovelier day.” “It’s raining cats and dogs here,” the woman said, and clicked off rudely. It hadn’t sounded anything like Celeste’s voice, but he was hoping she was disguising her voice, some sort of game he didn’t yet understand. No harm in that, nothing sinister, he rationalized. Just a playful, harmless game with a man she had met in a coffee shop yesterday. Thaddeus called once more, hoping third time lucky, and a person with his voice, that was unmistakable, answered, Thaddeus smiling in expectation of a wonderful conversation, but quickly berated himself for calling; worse still, saying accusingly, “Talking to oneself is a madcap slippage.” “A slippage from what?” the other person asked, toying with cleverness and the confusion at hand. “Slippage from a life of reveries and coffees,” the impolite words shrill with ear-splitting betrayal. Thaddeus hung up, spilling anger all around him, wondering who in the world he might call next.
He went to his computer and typed the name “Celeste” into a search engine, visited a few websites at random, then he typed in “Thaddeus and Celeste,” visiting even more websites, and finally “Thaddeus and Celeste and love,” and finds a newspaper article from a New Zealand newspaper about a couple who had celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary by going on a week-long hike through one of the most rugged parts of the country.
Thaddeus’s uncertainty and apprehension increasing, he typed a message to Celeste: “There seems to be something wrong with the phone number you gave me yesterday. I would like to talk to you, to see you soon. Please e-mail me. Maybe we could meet for tea and coffee.”
Thaddeus sat in front of his computer for most of the day, waiting for Celeste’s response. He actually attempted to write a poem, describing their meeting at the coffee shop. He cut and paste the poem into a second e-mail and sent it to Celeste, hoping she wouldn’t think he was foolish. He looked around the house for the one book of poetry he owned but couldn’t find it. Instead, he began to look up poetry on the internet, starting with Al Purdy’s poetry, and even found websites where he could listen to poetry being read. One of the poets he found, he thought, sounded very much like Celeste but he knew that was wishful thinking and besides, most of her poems dealt with space travel and other worlds, and nothing about love. Nevertheless, Thaddeus felt elated, reading and listening to poetry and even starting a second poem, and decided to get a bottle of wine, to celebrate with Celeste when they did get together. Celebrate their meeting and how she had inspired him to write his first poem since he was kid. And he decided to pick up some beer, it wouldn’t hurt, but of course he would go to another liquor, not where he worked. His meeting with Celeste made him feel optimistic about the future, and he was certain a beer or two wouldn’t hurt, would help relax him as he waited for Celeste’s message.
* Fiction writer, poet, and playwright J. J. Steinfeld lives on Prince Edward Island, where he is patiently waiting for Godot’s arrival and a phone call from Kafka. While waiting, he has published fourteen books, including Our Hero in the Cradle of Confederation (Novel, Pottersfield Press), Disturbing Identities (Stories, Ekstasis Editions), Should the Word Hell Be Capitalized? (Stories, Gaspereau Press), Anton Chekhov Was Never in Charlottetown (Stories, Gaspereau Press), Would You Hide Me? (Stories, Gaspereau Press), An Affection for Precipices (Poetry, Serengeti Press), Misshapenness (Poetry, Ekstasis Editions), and A Glass Shard and Memory (Stories, Recliner Books). As of summer 2014, more than 300 of his stories—with five over the years in The Danforth Review—and 700 poems have appeared in anthologies and periodicals internationally, and over forty of his one-act plays and a handful of full-length plays have been performed in Canada and the United States.
The first thing I take is a long black dress. It’s one of the few items that fits; Lucy’s hips are wider than mine. I borrow her silver bangle bracelet, her sunglasses. I show up for work in Lucy’s clothes and my boss smiles at me.
“You look nice today. Special occasion?”
I shrug and smooth the dress over my figure. My first taste of what it’s like being Lucy.
We’re friendly enough, Lucy and I. We share an old house near the university – I rent the front apartment and she lives in the back. We exchange “good mornings” in the driveway, brush snow off each other’s cars in winter. Last year, she invited me to her Christmas party, a disastrous, uncomfortable experiment. We’re friendly but not friends. I was surprised when she called last week.
“Ange, thank goodness you’re home!” Ange, not Angela. All casual, like we chatted on the phone all the time. “You got my note?”
“You’re in Paris.”
When I moved in, Lucy developed a system where if either of us went on vacation we’d leave a message in the mailbox. “If I don’t see you around, I won’t worry you’ve slipped in the tub and cracked your head open!” she’d joked. She was the only one leaving notes.
“The airline lost one of my bags. They couldn’t find it for days. Turns out it got rerouted. Guess where?”
“Texas. Can you believe it? They’re sending it home since we’re moving around. I gave them your apartment number. Is that cool?”
“Of course. How’s the trip?”
A male voice laughed in my ear and I missed her reply. I wondered which boyfriend she’d brought along. The blonde with the muscular arms or the guy with the large blue eyes and high cheekbones. The first time blue eyes came to the house, I stood close to the wall between Lucy’s bedroom and mine. My ear pressed to the drywall, I was disappointed when I heard little more than a thick thump.
“Gotta go Ange. Be back in two weeks. Thanks again!”
The suitcase is very Lucy – zebra print with purple zippers. I decide to make sure her stuff is undamaged. Really, I want to look at her clothes.
Everything’s shoved in haphazardly. I unpack dresses and sweaters, sunglasses with white frames, bracelets, scarves, a well-worn Danielle Steel paperback, a notebook and a bag of toiletries. She buys high-end shampoo and conditioner. She’s packed two small bottles of perfume.
My first trespass is small. I hang one of her scarves over my beige curtains, adding a pop of colour to the room. Next, I skim the paperback. I spray her perfume on my wrist, just a tiny spritz. After a few days of resisting, I use her expensive shampoo. I take the black dress.
By the weekend, I’m rooting through the pockets of the bag to see if there’s anything else of interest. A zippered compartment on the inside is a dumping ground for Lucy’s junk. Receipts, granola bar wrappers, a crumpled reservation for a hotel in Costa Rica. At the bottom I find a bottle of pills. They’re prescription but the label’s faded. Whatever they are, Lucy doesn’t take them anymore. They weren’t in her carry-on and she never mentioned them on the phone. I sit at my desk and shake a few out. They’re round and chalky white.
Sometimes I do things without thinking about it, like my body’s waiting for a period of inattention to assert its independence. In elementary school, I set off the fire alarm. I was looking at the little white lever with PULL DOWN in boxy capitals and the next minute I was obeying the direction. At fifteen, while visiting the local museum, I pressed one finger into a painting. I’m still not allowed to go in there. A guard snapped a Polaroid of me and stuck it in the main office, between a shot of a glaring teenager and a bearded old man.
I balance a pill between my thumb and forefinger, rolling it back and forth. I’m thinking about opening Lucy’s notebook. I’ve held off because it’s a violation of privacy worse than what I’ve already done. It’s tempting though. The notebook could contain evidence of the blue-eyed boy. It might be a diary, or a sketchbook. As I push my chair back from my desk I pop the pill in my mouth and swallow.
It takes me a second to realize what has occurred. I cough and rush to the bathroom. I put two fingers in my mouth, jabbing the back of my throat like you’re supposed to. My eyes water but the pill stays down.
I leave the bathroom, pace my bedroom, hands shaking. I don’t know what concerns me more – what the pills are or how old they are. I could call Lucy’s cell phone and ask, but the thought’s humiliating. Sitting on the floor, I hug my knees. Teens take other people’s medications to get high. I saw a report about it on TV. I’m not allergic to anything. I might be fine.
I stretch out on the floor, right hand on left wrist keeping tabs of my pulse. I’m breathing through my mouth. I feel strange and I don’t know if it’s the pills or fear. I’m dizzy. My Gran taught me a prayer when I was little and I whisper it, making up lines to fill in what I’ve forgotten.
“Now I lay me down to sleep. If I shall die before I wake, please keep my idiocy out of the newspapers. Amen.”
An hour passes and my breathing slows. I close my eyes, just for a minute.
I wake to light streaming through the window, filtered by Lucy’s coloured scarves. I stand and a head rush blots my vision. I’m all right. I actually feel fantastic, well-rested, despite a twinge in my neck from napping on the floor. Before sleep, my mind usually runs over lists – things I have to do, things I’ve done wrong. Now my thoughts are fuzzy, quiet. I glance at my watch, grab a few Lucy items – a black pashmina scarf and a green sweater I pair with one of my own skirts. I pause at the door and step back inside. I take another pill with a swallow of orange juice.
I got drunk once in university and didn’t like it. I was too self-conscious about what I was saying; I hated the slur in my voice. The pills aren’t like that. They produce a steady detachment, similar to the indifference that comes with fatigue. As I drive into work, I notice my hands aren’t white-knuckling the steering wheel. I walk into the office and forgo my usual fidgeting; I don’t tug at my skirt or slide my tongue over my teeth. The phone at my desk rings and my stomach doesn’t clench. My boss asks for his faxes and I’m able to look him in the eyes and comment on the weather. I didn’t know such calm was possible.
I take the pills twice a day, once in the morning and once before bed. I feel guilty, crazy, but it’s amazing too. I’m taking a vacation from myself.
Three days into my new routine, I’m sitting on the deck at home. The backyard is Lucy’s territory but she’s not around to mind. She doesn’t tend the garden, other than a patch of wild thistles she waters occasionally. I told her thistles are a Celtic symbol of nobility of character and she shrugged and said she liked purple.
Eyes closed, face tilted to the sun, I’m dizzier than usual and a little nauseous. I hear footsteps and open one eye.
He’s standing there, all cheekbones and blue eyes. This would normally prompt frantic grooming but I’m too out of it. I lift one hand in a lazy wave.
He sinks into one of the lawn chairs and smiles at me like he’s used to seeing unfamiliar girls in Lucy’s yard. Maybe he is.
“She’s in Paris.”
He sighs. “She didn’t tell me. Do you know who she went with? A tall guy? With blonde hair?”
“You live in the front apartment, right?”
“Lucy loves having you as a house mate. She says she never hears you.”
“I hear you guys. Music, once and a while.”
I take a moment to study his face up close. There’s stubble along his jaw. A few freckles sprinkled across his nose.
He catches me staring. My foot’s propped on the table between us and he rests his hand on my ankle. I’ve never thought much about that part of my body. When I indulge in romantic daydreams, I think about my mouth, my neck. But now his hand is on my ankle and he’s digging his thumb in ever so slightly.
“You know, Lucy and I have an understanding.”
I should feel something at this. I should be panting in the afternoon heat. The fearful lack of fear is what snaps me upright.
The movement’s too fast. I put my hand to my mouth.
“I think you better go,” I say through my fingers.
As he walks down the driveway, I vomit in a bush.
I grow more nauseous and I’ve got a constant nagging headache. Sometimes my vision blurs. The whole problem is ridiculously simple to solve. The pills are making me sick. I should stop talking the pills. There’s only fourteen left in the bottle and Lucy will eventually want her stuff. The night before Lucy returns, I put things back the way they were. I wash her clothes and buy new shampoo to replace what I’ve used. I’ve stashed the pills under my bed, hoping she won’t miss them. I’ll save them for special occasions, a secret identity I can slip into as easily as her clothes. Something to parcel out very carefully.
I leave her suitcase by my front door. The apartment seems empty without her possessions scattered around. I sit on my bed and the silence isn’t quite silence. There’s a buzz to it that rings in my ears. I think about Lucy’s Christmas party last year. Hovering by the food, I’d concentrated on stacking a cracker with cheese, as though being absorbed in something might indicate belonging. I spoke with one of Lucy’s friends about books and my voice kept getting louder, my hands fiddling with a loose thread on my sleeve. She smiled politely before excusing herself to get more punch. I only stayed for an hour. I retreated back to my apartment and lay awake, replaying my conversations over and over. Legs twisted up in sheets, pillow hot against my face. Long into the night, I heard the sounds of other lives, better lives, drumming through the wall.
Erin Pienaar lives in London, Ontario, where she completed her M.A. in English Literature. Her work has appeared in Black Heart Magazine. When she’s not fulfilling her quest to watch every single episode of Beverly Hills, 90210, she writes stuff.
You see, every day for nearly fourteen years she had walked to the zoo and visited the rhino. This did not involve talking to the rhino or anything like that: she never spoke to the animal, but stood or sat on nearby bench and watched the rhino, and was in turn observed by staff at the zoo, who recognized her as a regular but with whom she also did not speak. Some days she was there early in the morning, just after the zoo opened, some days she brought a modest lunch with her and ate it on the bench, and some days she came in the late afternoon. Apart from their being daily the visits had no other apparent pattern.
When the rhino died, she kept coming to the same spot, to the empty containment area, though she missed a day here or there, and when after a few months the containment area was refitted and given to the four ostriches...
It was sudden, certainly, but in another way it wasn’t, you know. He had been weak and slowing down.
The eyes of the zookeepers, all of them, puffy for days.
A rhino, who’s going to take that seriously, think that’s...
Let’s just call it a rhino. All right? It was a rhino.
Though what it is now, well.
Had there been more than one rhino, I know there wasn’t, but had there been more than one, a bunch of them, do you know what that’s called? A crash of rhinos. I shit you not. A crash of rhinos.
One young girl, she came to the zoo quite often, you know. She was terribly upset. She didn’t say anything about it, but anyone could see.
Not that young. Not a girl. A young woman.
Not born in captivity, but found lost and young, its hornless mother awash with impatient flies a mile away. The rhino had come to this zoo and she had visited the very first week the rhino was there, and fell into her pattern shortly thereafter.
The rhino was a fixture for her, a staple of her routine, every morning and some days the modest lunch on the bench, and now her days have this gap, is all.
Romanticization isn’t the word. Patronizing isn’t the word. You assume that this woman has no other life, that her entire existence revolves around an animal in a cage, an animal she might never actually have noticed. Maybe she just liked sitting on that particular bench, maybe that particular bench had some sort of I don’t’ know connection for. Maybe she hated the rhino. Maybe wished it would die.
It did die. And it wasn’t sudden.
Well, in a way...
The bench directly faced the rhino’s cage. She used to sit right there and watch the rhino, every time she came. This is what you call observed data. The zookeepers are honest.
They call it a containment area.
What do they call a dead rhino? Maybe the technical term is dead rhino. No longer contained.
And this is...? Of interest, I mean?
Maybe she didn’t need, doesn’t need the rhino anymore. Maybe she has transcended the rhino, her need for the rhino, whatever it was. You probably never thought of that. Maybe the rhino was a temporary focus, a placeholder for something more real. Maybe the rhino only existed because she needed it to exist, and when she didn’t need it any longer, well. Maybe and maybe and maybe. You probably never thought of any of this. You just see this young woman looking at a rhino. Unimaginative isn’t the word.
Coccidioidomycosis. Say that thirty times...
Not everybody likes zoos. Not even the people who come to the zoos, even the regulars, would tell you that they like zoos as such. Only anecdotal data on that one.
To characterize the lunch as modest...
If you’re going to feel bad for someone, why not feel bad for the four ostriches? They don’t have any regular visitors. They just stand there, not being rhinos, having one another, eating the hats of children and whatever else. You might feel bad for the four ostriches.
If it’s not about feeling bad, what is it about?
Yes, it’s very interesting.
Tim Conley’s short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in various journals in seven countries. He is the author of two collections of short fiction, Whatever Happens (2006) and Nothing Could Be Further (2011), and a book of poetry, One False Move (2012).