Full-text, short fiction, 2006.
“Don’t put your feet on the dashboard.”
“It’s my car,” she retorted.
“But I’m the driver.”
“When it’s my turn, you can put your feet wherever your heart desires, okay?”
I tried to think of some witty innuendo to come back with, but by the time I came up with anything, it would have sounded desperate. She would have called me on it, too. She was that kind of girl and it was that kind of drive.
She lit up a cigarette and tilted her head back, her tongue stretching for the last remains of the kind of gas-station cappuccino that leaves a chalk powder at the bottom of the cup and sinks tiny holes into the styrofoam. She tossed it on the floor and hesitantly examined the burrito on the console.
“This thing is nasty. I didn’t think it was humanly possible to make eggs this color. I bet they give you cancer.”
I’d known Leslie for a long time just in passing. She had the type of face that made her look like she’d be so overtly feminine yet had a strangely low-pitched, salty voice that made you notice how nothing she ever wore fit quite right. There were always licentious rumors about her, but I never believed them. She didn’t seem like the type.
When I first met her and actually talked to her, it was at this party at Kathy’s where she’d come as the quasi-date for some professor from L.A. We shared some sake shots and talked the whole night. She was starting a master’s in photography; I was an experimental installation artist. She’d seen some of my gallery work on the Abstraction of Metaphysics and loved it. It went so well, in fact, that she actually left the party alone. I couldn’t help but be secretly pleased with myself. I polished off the rest of the bottle and ended up crashing on Kathy’s couch.
We wrote letters for the rest of the year. She thought I was witty, smart, cultured, she even asked me to go out for lunch with her when I got back from my sabbatical to Boston. I don’t think she’d ever met anyone quite like me. The day I flew back in, I called her and we met for drinks. She listened to my stories about the famous people I’d met throughout the year and the secrets they told me up in the tech booths. I told her about how post-modernism is dead and I was one spoke of the wheel driving the New Avant-Garde movement and she even accepted my afterthought of hopefully not sounding too pretentious. Best of all, she could keep up with everything I was saying. She was my genius.
It turned out that we lived in the same building and she was two doors down from my apartment. She had a really shitty stereo system, so we went back to my place and sat on the couch listening to “Bitches’ Brew”. I was sharing a living room with this younger Filmmaking BFA-hopeful, Tom, but as soon as he saw me come in with a girl, he made himself scarce. I made another dirty martini. Leslie sprawled out on the floor and I leaned back and shut my eyes.
Obviously, this girl was very, very into me. At one point, she stretched her arms up and I caught a hint of her navel from below her grey shirt (just for me?). As I recalled the night’s events, however, I realized that I had no recollection of anything past the third track of the album. I rushed over to Tom’s room and pulled him out of bed. I quizzed him on how long he was in the room, did he see anything, how late was I up, did I make an ass of myself, and he just laughed and shook his thick mop of black hair at me.
“She’s not gonna talk to you again, Max. You fucked up pretty bad.”
Cut to flashback sequence, courtesy of Tom:
Act I: Me throwing up my martini in the bathroom.
Act II: Leslie hurrying over to Tom’s room to wake him up at three in the morning. “He’s throwing up!” she says. Cut to Tom’s realization that we are entering:
Act III: Me trying to cop a feel on Leslie without the slightest hesitation, and her pushing me down to the living room floor, grabbing her shoes and locking herself in her apartment.
So I gathered myself up (I never get hangovers) and knocked on her door. Sure, she laughed at me, sure, she was pissed as all hell, but she’s the type of girl to laugh that off.
The kind of girl with a little edge to her. (Personally, I think it was sexy to her, but I have no proof.)
She invited me over for dinner that night. Did I mention that she was very, very into me? The problem with Leslie, though, was that the girl had no class. She was polite, of course, and forgiving, but I never saw her in an outfit that would have cost more than ten dollars. She actually cooked ramen noodles and toasted white bread for dinner. She did light candles, though, under the pretense that her kitchen lights were burnt out. I bit my lip and excused myself to my apartment. I rushed back with a bottle of vodka and some limes. She raised an eyebrow at me, but gave me a glass anyways. We ate dinner, talked for a few hours, she chain-smoked, and eventually I persuaded her to join me in a drink. She had one. I had another few. She finished a pack of cigarettes. She said goodnight. I turned in for the evening.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a definite coolness about waking up in a new girl’s apartment, nonwithstanding only the kitchen floor. When I pulled my sore self up to my feet, still in shoes, and staggered to her bathroom, she was there at the doorway, leaning against the yellow tiles on the wall a toothbrush dangling in her trapezoid lips. She saw me and just laughed again.
“You mix those too strong. I threw up this morning.”
I offered to take her out for coffee and she said she knew of a place with the best chai teas in town. A little to my annoyance, she didn’t even shower or anything, just threw on old jeans and a horrible brown sweater.
From that point on, we were inseparable. We made up adventures all the time. We’d drive to Wisconsin and spend a day finding divey, small town joints, having foreign film festivals in my living room, and then she’d spend all night in the gallery helping me put up my interactive installations. If I didn’t see her for a day, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Frequently, she would disappear for days on end and when I found her, I’d give the itinerary for the rest of the week.
She was the perfect companion for me. By nature, I’m a dialectical thinker, but also a teacher, and Leslie provided the opportunity for both. Obviously, she was bright, she could explain at great length her process for working and somewhat expansive personal thoughts (love, death, feminism, old movies, you name it), but at the same time, she was naïve about the necessity of pushing the limits and expectations of one’s medium, and to a certain extent, one’s own self. I spent hours trying to explain to her my installation pieces on the concepts of Abstracted Metaphysics. She would say she understood, but still accused them of being “soul-less.” Frankly, her endlessly picaresque documentary series on the plight of the single parent working class bored me to tears. “Emotional, romantic, trite,” I called them. She appeared unphazed, but I was still embarrassed by her.
I made it my small mission to be her professor in the degree of better taste. I tried to introduce her to fabrics other than cheap cotton and denim. I made several attempts to convince her of the silliness of portraiture. I cringed when she blared her awful Paul Simon songs down the hallway. She was of the school of reflection—that the essence of things becomes clearer over the passage of time. She had theories of “impressionist storytelling”, that is, that the emotional progression of events supercedes strict chronology. She’d developed it into an intensely irritating sort of manifesto in her work. Of all personal traits, I find nostalgia to be the absolute worst and she was a prime, shining example of its terrible effects. Certain things to her were precious; a broken camera bought at a thrift store on a childhood vacation, a book given to her by a long-lost mentor, all sorts of things I would have long dismissed as sentimental. I think she eventually began to agree with me, as headstrong as she was, or maybe she just stopped arguing. It all proved again that Leslie was very, very into me. Otherwise, she would have told me to fuck off long ago.
On a particular night, we were driving around the lake through St. Paul as the sun was barely starting to rise. She’d blown me off for the earlier part of the night to do her print work and it was a hassle to get her to go out with me at all. But there we were, the only car on the road, and I watched her look out the window at the sun’s reflection glistening over the lake. All of a sudden she grabbed my arm and said my name. I felt tiny shivers run through my legs.
“Max! Over there by the bridge!”
She let go of my arm and pointed to a cluster of scurrying creatures. She craned her neck to see better.
“They’re squirrels or something. God, they’re the size of cats!”
I watched her squint and look harder.
“No, wait, they’re raccoons.”
I brushed a strand of her hair back and smiled at her. I put on my best deep South hillbilly voice: “Goddamn cat-sized squirrels!”
She laughed, shrugged her bare shoulders at me, and pulled away to light up a cigarette.
I told her that I would pick her up the next night at her apartment. (She still would never let me stay the night with her.) She tried to make up an excuse, but I persisted.
“Come on, Leslie, you promised.”
I learned early on of Leslie’s flighty side in regards to her short-term memory. She was extremely self-conscious of this and after little questioning, would usually take my claims as the truth.
“Did I? When?”
“Last week. Remember?”
She gave a half-assed answer and I told her I’d be there the next night to take her out. Relatively inexperienced or not, I know for a fact that ‘maybe’ is always the classic playing-hard-to-get answer.
The next night, I knocked and stood in the hallway for a reply. I could hear her music from under the door, so she must not have heard me. I let myself and in and opened the door to her bedroom. I stood in the doorway in shock. There she was, in a t-shirt and boxer shorts, her arms around a tall, shirtless guy sitting at her computer. He was checking his e-mail and gave me a look (either irritation or disgust, I couldn’t be sure) when he saw me. Leslie glanced up and said hello, but didn’t budge from his long arms.
“So are you coming or not?” I asked, trying my best to conceal my impatience.
She said okay and slipped on some jeans and sneakers. I stood in horror as she told Half-Naked Wonder where she was going, when she’d be back (but we never had times to be back!), and gave him a quick kiss on the mouth that made my stomach turn.
She’d told me long before that she’d been dating this guy named Alex for years, yeah, he was a magnificent painter, sure, she was completely in love with him, but truthfully, I didn’t really believe for a minute that he actually existed. I had full faith that the story of Alex was conceived only in a coy game to make herself appear more or less unattainable to me. And now, there she is, in her bedroom, barely even dressed, kissing him! Fucking perfect.
We got in the car. I couldn’t even remember where I was taking her. I told her I needed a drink. She said she wanted coffee, probably part of some cruel joke. I barely spoke to her.
“What’s with the mood?” she finally asked, fidgeting with the radio like she didn’t have a care in the world.
Ten minutes later, she was marching up the steps to her building. I felt nauseous. He was there with her. Of course she’d be upset, probably say all sorts of terrible and one-sided things about me, and there they were, just the two of them alone, only him, her bare-breasted, familiar Alex to console her. It was really disgusting.
I did the only thing that made sense.
When I woke up, the first thing I saw were white blinking Christmas lights lining a high-story window. The room was much cleaner than mine or Leslie’s and I could smell fresh coffee and buttered English muffins from the kitchenette mixed with an exotic Asian potpourri from beside the nightstand. Nobody seemed to be around, so I peeked under the bedsheets and noted, much to my satisfaction, the distinctive absence of my clothing. No shoes, no ill-conceived boyfriend, no ambivalence.
I pulled the sheets with me as I stood up to grab my pants in a heap on the floor. I was suddenly shy about my nakedness. Leslie had said something to me once about how one of the best things about sex with love was that the other person would still think you were beautiful in the morning with your lumpy hair and slimy teeth and body odor. I could hear a voice coming out of the living room, talking on a cell phone. I got dressed fast and stole a swipe of a white baby-powder deodorant from the nightstand. I walked inconspicuously into the living room. She nodded at me. She was very tall, jet black hair, fair skin, in a short white bathrobe. Older, maybe. Not by too much, but I could see the slightest loosening of skin around her knees. I slipped my shoes on and she looked up at me, still on the phone, gave a little wave of her free hand and kept talking. Was I supposed to leave? I weighed my options. Leave right away and have her maybe call after me to stay for breakfast…or stand there like a reject until she has to bluntly tell me to leave and I crawl my way through the walk of shame. I made a gesture that I’d call her (did she even give me her number?) and sheepishly slinked out the door.
I sat in my kitchen the rest of the day, nursing a pot of coffee. I found a wrinkled matchbook in my coatpocket with an untitled phone number on it that might have been hers. Was it just a formality, or did she really want me to call her? I frantically recounted the night in my head. I’d gone over to a bar near the university, but no, she wasn’t a college student, I remembered that much. She was…something, a designer maybe? Or a social worker. One of the two. She invited me back to her place, just a few blocks away. We had sex, right? She had a light purple mark on her neck…did I notice that this morning or when I met her? Shit, maybe that’s why I met her. Was I so terrible that she didn’t want to see me again or was she just so generous that it didn’t matter?
I should call her and find out. I picked up the matchbook, started to dial and stopped dead in my tracks.
Who do I ask for? I slammed the phone down in my clammy hands. I’m positive she never gave me her last name, but at some point, we would have had to exchange first names.
Helen with the Hickey? No-strings Natalie? Shit.
She had dyed hair. She hung out at rough, meat-market bars. I think she had a little tattoo in a hidden place. She was kind of chic, modish, but kind of rocker, kind of…punk. My heart soared and I burst through Leslie’s door.
“Ok. Disc One of the Ramone’s Anthology,” I began breathlessly.
“Listen, you need to knock every once in a while.”
“Was it ‘Judy Is A Punk’ or ‘Julie Is A Punk’?”
Her eyes narrowed in confusion.
“Judy! Yes! Fucking beautiful!”
I told her everything I knew while she microwaved me a bowl of instant curry soup. She listened attentively to my long account of the morning. I carefully analyzed her laugh for traces of jealousy. It was her nonchalance that tipped me off. I played her game, acting as casual as she.
“So I hope you’re not too upset by this. It was, of course, inevitable.”
“Why would I be? I think it’s hilarious.”
“I don’t know. I thought maybe, you know, you might have something…” I forced out a bored yawn for effect.
“You thought I had what?”
“You know. I mean, I really didn’t ever intend for this to happen.”
“That’s not true. You went there to get laid,” she smirked.
This was true. She lit two cigarettes on the stove burner and handed one to me, blackened on the tip.
“Really, I think a girlfriend might do you a whole lot of good,” she added.
“She’s totally not my girlfriend,” I protested, “She’s just, you know.”
“Right,” she said darkly, “Some sort of life-affirming existential experience, huh?”
Oh, I could see right through her. That fuck-it-all, hipster attitude. Her jealousy seethed and curled around her words. In a strange way, knowing how miserable this would make Leslie gave me a certain degree of accomplishment. I’d been nurturing this small sadistic sense ever since she had pointed it out to me. I never missed a secret opportunity to accidentally scratch an album I didn’t like or criticize the clumsy way she cut her own hair. One time I had broken a beer bottle on her kitchen floor (which really was an accident) and when she cut her foot on the glass, I felt bad, but in a strange, vindictive way. I grew fond of the dime-size scar it left, like she would have a small remembrance of me whenever she took off her shoes.
I left her apartment pleased with myself. I would be gone for a few hours and let her cry in private. She was too proud to ever let me see if I hurt her or not. It would be just enough time, but I’d get back before she would have a chance to run crying to Alex, or worse, find some other guy to enact some kind of sick revenge. Maybe enough time that she would have made the choice between the two of us already. Maybe enough time that she would have come to some rash decision in a desperate attempt to get back my attention. I let my mind wander…
Then she disappeared. In boredom, I called Judy’s number and left four messages, none of which she ever bothered returning. Everyday, I would knock on Leslie’s door. Nothing. Not even her nauseating Liz Phair acoustic covers spilling into the hallways. I slipped invitations to my gallery show opening under her door, hoping it would entice her to come back to me. Still nothing. It was three days before she opened the door.
“Where the hell have you been?” I demanded. I winced, quickly realizing I’d probably taken the wrong approach. I lowered my tone, “I was worried about you.”
“I went to Alex’s hometown for a few days. Why, what’s going on?”
I explained it to her as best I could without coming off like an egotistical asshole. She then accused me of being an egotistical asshole. I played myself to her forgiving side, and, like I knew she would, she softened.
“Look, I’m by no means obligated to tell you when I’m going to take off,” she lowered her voice, “Plus, I just didn’t like the way you were acting. To me, to that Judy girl…”
What Judy girl?
Well, I could explain.
“…or whatever her real name is. You just…you need to do something. Find yourself. You’re certainly not god’s gift to women and we don’t owe you a goddamn thing.”
Her words stung like a bitch, but I swallowed my pride and took it like a man, I have to admit. The whole tirade of how-dare-she-speak-this-way-to-me revealed itself in my head, but before it spilled out ill-advised, I bit my tongue. I suggested we put the whole thing behind us for now and go on an adventure. She chewed on it for a minute before hesitantly agreeing.
“How about Wisconsin again?” I answered, almost automatically, glad to have any geographic destination be the subject instead of my battered self.
“Let’s do better than that.”
“Can’t drive there. New York. Ever been?”
So we settled on New York. She threw a few shirts in a backpack, grabbed a sleeping bag and was ready to go, somewhat annoyed by my needing an hour to get ready. She rolled her eyes at my concern of what to bring, what to wear, certain pants that didn’t match the shoes, everything that escaped her Midwestern tomboy observations.
She called Alex to invite him for the journey. I’m not sure if she did it in some way to spite me in residual passive-aggression, or if she was simply still oblivious to my contempt for him. Either way, he declined, thank god, and I couldn’t help but smile in relief.
We changed the oil in her car and left immediately. She was a feminine driver, cautious and fearful in changing lanes, never going more that eight miles over the speed limit because she couldn’t afford to pay a speeding ticket. She prided herself on only having one violation on her record, a result of, as she put it, “a misunderstanding”. We made it to Madison with plenty of time before bar close and she agreed to stop in on the condition that I would take over driving responsibilities.
We sat at a two-person table in front of a large window overlooking State Street. I had a few vodkas while she painstakingly nursed a Corona (she was a lightweight and a slow drinker). We watched the passerby on the street cut across stage-right to stage-left of the window and formulated stories about each one. Those two men, one an interior designer, one a software engineer. Feng-shui’ed Swiss-style apartment. Secretly gay, but not lovers. Three bobbed blonde girls wore tapered jeans long after they had gone out of fashion, knew each other since junior high where they had all been band geeks. Looking to find nice boys to take them back to their dorms to fool around, but nothing too heavy. We were great at this game.
We drove on into the night. I have this ability to stay up for hours, sometime days on end without ever getting tired. Leslie, on the other hand, curled up in her seat, resting her head on a sweater wrapped around the emergency brake, and fell asleep. As we weaved through Chicago, she tossed around in her sleep, adjusting herself and letting her head lean against my outer thigh. From the vantage point of the tollbooth operators, it must have looked obscene. All of them squinted at the spectacle through the open window. I looked back at them defiantly.
She woke up after a couple hours and demanded that I stop driving and catch some sleep. I told her that I could keep going the rest of the way, but she stubbornly refused. I found a ratty motel just off the freeway exit to Ohio and she convinced the clerk to let us stay for four hours for twenty-five dollars.
The room had two twin beds, probably at Leslie’s specific request. She fell back asleep within minutes. I thought of several months before when I had been able to sneak a kiss from her. It had seemed like a good idea, just pulling her lips toward mine and praying that some instinct would kick in (mine certainly did), but unfortunately, in my haste I’d forgotten that she was sober and it went badly.
We checked out of the motel at eight and were back on the highway by eight-fifteen. We drove the whole day, interspersing wonderful, intellectual conversations with long bouts of comfortable silence. We drove faster when I was at the wheel and we were passing over the New Jersey turnpike into New York just past nightfall. Leslie was terrified by the rush-hour Manhattan traffic, which I found hilarious. I’ll never forget her stiffened body clutching onto the door handle to keep her from falling all over the car as I switched lanes and rounded corners. Her car handled well, I told her, she should take advantage of it more often.
One of the girls in our building, a cute ex-Mormon girl named Eliza, had a cousin who lived out in an artist commune in Brooklyn. She was visiting him for the week and had agreed to meet us there and put us up in one of the lofts for the night. We stumbled around trying to find the Brooklyn Bridge (kept ending up in Queens), but once we crossed it, found the quarters in no time. Eliza and her cousin greeted us at the door and gave us a small tour. It had been an abandoned factory building in the industrial section, purchased and developed into a co-op. It was still very much under reconstruction, but already had a strong, creative vibe to it. It was filled with all types; painters, musicians, actors, filmmakers, all of them used the lofts as both a working and living space. We talked with everyone for a few hours and crawled up into the plywood loft space to sleep.
After two days of travel, we had a day to see the city. We took full advantage of it, waking fully rested at dawn and catching the first subway out of Brooklyn to the MOMA. Saw a 1950’s pop-art retrospective. Had hand-tossed pizza at a tiny street side deli with loud buzzing neon lights. Eliza left to see some old friends. Leslie and I saw a prepared piano jazz trio in BelDel. I ended up getting drunk at the club. We wandered around East Village and Leslie got stoned with a four-foot-nine aspiring evangelist named Levi outside a drag queen bar. She called Alex to say goodnight to him, so I stopped in at a promising-looking Euro-bar, left to get drinks, and when I got back, an underwear model from a Union Square billboard was dancing toward Leslie as she blushed in embarrassment. She’d later tell me that the guy had no rhythm, he was all hips and pelvis. We staggered back to Brooklyn, up the steel stairs to the commune.
We shut the heavy iron door quietly, trying not to wake anyone. We crept up into our loft. I crawled into our bed hopefully. If there was any one night, this was it. I took off my shirt and sat up nervously looking at her. I couldn’t stop my shoulders from twitching. She watched me and a strange expression came over her face.
The way she dropped her loose jeans with one crafted flick of the wrist told me the rumors were true. She let her strangely chopped hair fall onto her face with a tried and true toss of her head. I let myself fall backward when she pushed on my shoulders. She glanced down only for a moment as she searched through my zipper, but as soon as she found what she was looking for, she resumed staring straight ahead at the bare wall. At one point, I tried to stop and kiss her, but she pulled her head away coltishly and kept going silently. She did it fast and hard and I wasn’t prepared. At the end, she propped herself up with her hands on my chest and slumped down beside the bed to grab a cigarette.
“Leslie,” I asked meekly, “can I have one?”
“No,” she answered flatly, “Quitting smoking doesn’t mean you just quit buying them.”
Watching her about five deep inhales into it, I fell asleep.
When I awoke the next morning, the loft was already empty and Leslie was nowhere to be seen. In a panic, I looked out the window; luckily her car was still sitting there in the empty lot. I searched the hallways, I searched every unlocked room in the building, but still couldn’t find her. Finally, I followed a rickety, narrow staircase up to a hatch in the top floor ceiling. There she was, curled tightly in her long coat, using her backpack for a pillow, sleeping on the factory rooftop.
As I walked up to her, a small flock of pigeons got spooked and flew away, waking her. She said that it must be time to go if the sun was already up. She rolled her sleeping bag into a bundle, slung her bag on her shoulder and headed down the stairs to the car.
We drove for hours not saying a word. Finally, she cleared her throat.
“You know that this is it, right?”
I held my breath. Leslie hid herself in strange ways sometimes. If she would start a conversation like this, it meant at least one second of real truth from her. She could declare her love for me, she could break into tears, she could start spitting obscenities at me, really any reaction was possible.
“What do you mean?”
I kept my eyes clearly focused on the road, waiting anxiously.
“I mean, when we get back. I don’t want you to bother me anymore. I gave you what you wanted, so don’t call me.”
I could feel my hands shaking on the wheel. I made one last desperate attempt.
“Leslie…I’ve never, you know…”
“Done it?” she sneered.
I cringed at her word choice, “Well, yeah, with someone I really loved…”
She smiled with her eyes closed in a way that almost looked sincere.
“Shut up, Max. Just. Shut. Up.”
For another five miles, I did as I was told. But finally, as we made the last mile out of Pennsylvania, I asked her the question that had been burning me for months.
“So what exactly did you want from me?”
“You probably don’t want to hear it, but as long as you’re asking,” she muttered, still gazing apathetically out the window, “I guess I just wanted…”
She trailed off for agonizing minutes before resuming, “I guess we’re both sort of experience junkies. I knew you’d take me along for the ride as long as…well, as long as I eventually gave you a ride of your own.”
She chuckled at her own joke and finally looked over at me, peering hard into the damp redness in my eyes, “Isn’t it funny how lovesickness and hurt pride feel so much the same that you can’t even tell them apart?”
I’d played this over in my head before, what she would say when she left me in the dirt, and each time, it ended with my heroism throwing her out of the car, or her changing her mind and running back to me, or the romantic notion of me going home and drinking myself to death just to show her what she’d done. Instead, I felt nothing. I set the cruise-control and just kept driving.
For an hour, we were silent. Finally, I couldn’t stand the wordlessness of my last hours with her. I taught her the Japanese word for ‘reconciled sadness’. She told me of her dream about drowning when she realizes she’s too deep to ever resurface, so she stops kicking her legs like mad through the thick, blue water and sinks down, watching the calm patterns of the waves against the sky.
We only made stops for gas, driving straight through the night and into the next afternoon. She’d wanted to stop for breakfast, but I said no, so on our last gas-station fill-up, she’d reluctantly bought a burrito from the plexi-glass fridge stand. She microwaved it in the store and the corners of the yellow wax paper curled up around the edges and left a layer of sweat on the stiff tortilla. She was looking at its limp insides in disgust.
“I don’t think I even want this thing in the car.”
Before I could respond, she stood up in her seat and hurled the burrito out the window, watching the thick yellow eggs splatter across the highway.