Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sleep like the angels

"I guess I'm trying to manufacture a movie moment here." 

Zack says this and looks up at you with his blank Asperger's eyes. He is sitting up in the hotel bed. You had both slept in it the night before. You had kept your clothes and even your shoes on, chaste as a nun. Zack likes you like a girlfriend but you like him like a friend. 

Before crashing into bed together, far apart like siblings, you had gone to a bar and then to a club. You let him pay $11 for each of your four Ruby-Red Lemon-Drop Martinis at the swanky Daily Grill. That's $44 before tax and tip that he paid to get you feeling slinky, get you feeling warm and liquid and boneless, dancing like an off-duty stripper with him later at the club.

Chaste as a nun who drinks sugar-rimmed cocktails and simulates sex on the dancefloor.  

Can you blame him? For trying what he tried there at the end?    

Zack had come to town for the small-press comics convention in your city. You had not seen him since two years ago, when you rejected him after a couple of dates. In those two years, you had become a symbol to him. Whenever he applied for but did not get a job, he thought of how you had rejected him. Whenever he e-mailed a girl from the speed-dating night and she only wanted to be his friend -- it was you all over again.  

But it had been good for him, or so he said -- you also have to do, in some nebulous or obvious way, with his recent drastic weight loss. Weight Watchers and long walks at night. A lot of yearning odes to pies and doughnuts on his blog.  

You like it, don't you? Like being a symbol? Like being the point up ahead that seems to steer someone's life, like the unwitting carved maiden on the prow of a ship? Like having that much power over someone?  

Yes. You do. Admit it. 

You are a terrible person but tell yourself that you're nice. That you have a good heart. Why? Because all of your other former co-workers at the newspaper didn't like him, thought his loud nasal whine was obnoxious, thought it was weird that he chewed wads of paper when he was nervous? And because you tried to see past all of that?  

Or did you? You never really could see past that. What you saw two years ago when you agreed to go on those dates was: you, freshly rejected by someone else and insecure, and him, innocent and adoring. But mostly you just saw you.  

The first part of the night had been so charming. You had walked six blocks from the metro station to his hotel in your short dress and shoes printed like the fur of some wildcat. You had spotted him when you were half a block away -- he looked so thin! So surprisingly handsome, or at least scruffily cute! He had a new beard! You forgot how tall he was! 

He had taken you into his arms just like a lover from the most romance-drunk teen girl's fantasies. From your fantasies. He had clasped you in his superhumanly strong grip and swung you around and around, there on the sidewalk in front of everybody, you laughing and adored.  

That had been a movie moment.  

In the rain, he had twirled his umbrella and done part of the "Singin' in the Rain" bit, stomping through the puddles like a big kid, even jumping up onto a low brick ledge and sort of parachuting down off of it. Movie moment. You had wavered back and forth between embarrassed and delighted. Later he misread the sign outside a sake bar and said, "Hey, let's go to the Snake Bar!"  

At the Daily Grill, he'd honestly shocked you with his newfound coolness (or was it partly the alcohol -- for you, for him?). He'd worn a dark suit, black pants and a dark-gray corduroy jacket. He'd looked like what he was, an endearingly geeky freelance comics and pop-culture writer/blogger, someone who'd interviewed people who impress you, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who was also in town (for a literary festival) and wanted to spend time with Zack that weekend. But Zack spent time with you instead.  

Seated next to Zack at the bar were a young cool guy and his hot girlfriend. Zack was being Zack, loud and funny with his lecture-style ramblings and pronouncements that make you think of Truman Capote or one of those old-timey folks who said impossibly witty things with a cocktail in hand to a laughing audience at some plush red Manhattan lounge, some legendary bon vivant like you'd see in a classic movie. The cool guy and his hot girlfriend had been honestly entranced, laughing genuinely, and you'd felt proud. "Atta boy!" you'd thought. Revenge of the nerds! 

Zack drank a cocktail, a Black-and-Blue Mojito with a mucky seafloor of elegantly smushed berries. It was a girl drink but he hadn't cared, and that night, he had made it cool, because he hadn't cared. "What's that?" asked the cool guy, who surely only ever drank beer or gin and tonics. "I'll have one of those!" 

Zack hadn't meant to neglect you while the cool guy kept prodding him for more stories, more Zackness. Zack had turned to you once or twice to shrug, almost sheepishly, as if to say, "Wow, hey, tonight I am cool!" And you truly hadn't minded, staring at the back of his head and catching only some of what he'd said that had the cool couple laughing so hard. 

He wouldn't neglect you, if he suddenly got cooler than you. You are pretty sure of it.  

You'd also stared down at your fancy cocktail, pink and sweet and perfect, like what angels must drink! Or so you thought as you were getting tipsy, the kind of thought that lets you know you're getting tipsy. You couldn't even taste the vodka. It had slipped down your throat so easy.  

Each time you'd wanted a new one, you'd reached way down to your shoulder bag at your feet, making a perfunctory show of pulling out your wallet and swearing that you'll pay for this next one, "I have cash; my grandma gave me a 50 for my birthday!" But of course he had paid for them all. (Hey, his folks are rich; they gave him the condo he lives in rent-free; whatever.)  

You had stumbled to the club, the one so loud from the outside that Zack had talked of earplugs, was glad that he had some in his pocket. It's only at moments like this that you remember the other Zack, the worrywart who's scared of late nights in the big city, disdainful of drunken sluts, spooked by drugs and alien to sex.  

That night at the club, he'd been no alien.  

A rock band played and you two were up front. You'd done the things you always do, let all movement emanate from your hips, because you're no stiff white girl, dammit; you know that dancing is all about sex. It's pretend sex. And there's no denying it -- you had pretend sex with Zack there on the dancefloor. You took his goddamned pretend cherry.  

And yet the whole time you'd really been trying to catch the eye of the lead singer.  

More drinks at this place, this club, cheap screwdrivers with thin un-pulpy orange juice and skunk vodka. They hadn't gone down easy, so Zack had stood over you, practically chanting "Chug! Chug!" He'd said, "Close your eyes" (you'd closed your eyes) "and drink as you listen to my voice: You're at the beach, you're listening to the ocean, everything is calm, it's all good, drink, drink..." You'd opened your eyes once to see him blatantly peer-pressuring you to drown your liver. "Innocent my ass," you'd dimly thought.  

There is an isolated moment you can remember, an island of clarity in the blur of the night. Zack in the men's room and you sitting on the cracked pine-green vinyl of a booth seat in the empty dining portion of the club's restaurant, staring at fat sequin-scaled goldfish in a tank. Staring at the flowy slow-motion movement of their tails and fins, like when you're in the pool and your hair flows so pretty.   

The club with Zack is like an aquarium where your hair flows so pretty, prettier than in real life. When you're drunk, all metaphors seem profound.  

At the hotel, in out of the rain, you'd posed on the bed like some G-Rated centerfold and he had snapped a few photos. Your thoughts were like little clear champagne bubbles that rise up giddily and pop away to nothing. "I'm posing like a cat, back arched and clawing at the sheets -- but it's OK, because my clothes are all still on." Someone ought to brand you with a PT for "prick tease."  

"Let me see! Let me see!" you had chanted after each one, scrambling to him to see yourself on the tiny screen.  

Once sleep was physically inevitable for both of you, beckoning like a drowsy siren, you'd decided to stay in his room instead of walking six blocks to the metro, riding the metro for 45 minutes with a book you have already read, driving the five miles from the station to your home... and besides, the metro stops running at two... 

You had fallen gratefully beneath the comforter. It had felt so clean, like heaven-clouds, like where angels sleep! He'd only tried one thing during the night -- as you'd slept, he'd draped a heavy arm over you, accidentally making contact with the padded part of your still-on bra, and you'd jumped. "Oh," he'd said in his flat Asperger's voice, and he'd turned over onto his side, his back to you.  

You'd wondered if he'd mistakenly thought that he'd just made contact with your real boob.  

You'd stared at the back of his head. 

In the morning, he'd asked if he could hold you. How could you say no? Well, quite easily. But you hadn't. You'd stiffly allowed his embrace, holding your breath and eager for it to be over. Telling yourself it's all for a good cause, a charitable cause. He'd felt like a big soft down-covered baby. He'd gotten bold. 

Atta boy.  

He'd pulled you on top of him. "Zack..." you'd murmured scoldingly, sadly. Laughing a feeble little laugh. "I'm not going to try anything," he had said, and then he had tried something. His hand up your skirt.  
You had wriggled off him, embarrassed for both of you, feeling that this ending was all wrong. You had then sworn that "It's OK, it's OK," delicate with him (you are a symbol, after all; you have power). You had just stood there for a while as he sat up in bed. He had said something astonishingly jerky: "I feel great. I guess I should feel like an asshole about that, but I feel great."  

You can't blame him. He's not like a normal person, someone blameable, plus there's your invisible PT tattoo. (But maybe you're unblameable, too? Sad things have happened. That morning, he had reminded you that you'd been crying in the hotel bathroom just before joining him in bed. You hadn't told him what was wrong, but now you remember drunk-texting someone you shouldn't have. Funny -- all of this is fuzzy, but the glittering auburn goldfish are so very clear.)  

Now he is trying to summon up a "movie moment," from out of thin air, from out of nothing. Some "You complete me" Jerry Maguire kind of deal. Where is the debonair Truman Capote-style dispenser of bon mots from the night before? But it never comes to him, and it never comes to you.   

You hug him good-bye and feign reluctance before you bolt out the door.

Soon you will be down the hall, fidgeting while waiting for the elevator and staring at the cans of coconut juice mixed in with the Pepsi cans in the vending machine.

Soon you will be hurrying down the street in gray weather, then realizing you have hurried way down the wrong street, and it will take you twice as long to get to the metro station. Your slept-in contact lenses will feel sticky on your eyes, and you will fantasize about brushing your teeth.

You will re-read your favorite parts of your book on the train, seasick in your backwards-facing seat.

You will feel inexpressible relief at seeing your car parked magically where you'd left it the night before.

You will drive five miles home to your apartment, where you live alone. You will try to settle on just one label, just one tone, for the night with Zack. What song would be playing over the preview (which would undoubtedly include his "Singin' in the Rain" routine)?  

But you won't be able to label it neatly and put it away. You will feel mentally constipated. You will need a maiden on the prow of a ship.  

After he gets home, he will tell you that the visit did wonders for his self-esteem. You will not be able to forget the part where he tried something, but you will not mention it, ever.  

Later, he will e-mail you the photos of you that he took. ("Let me see! Let me see!") You will see yourself kneeling on the hotel bed like a sex kitten, short dress rising to expose the "control top" bands at the top of your tights, playing with your hair and not looking at him, faraway and blurred. You will see the sad empty pit of yourself. You will stare into it then look away.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

He said it didn't matter

"And even tho' we ain't got money,
I'm so in love with ya, honey..."

He sang these words to me while rowing us in a little dinghy. A dinghy is a small boat, but it's also a funny word that sounds like a you-know-what. 

We had both been talking about how we were broke. It was a glorious night in a big city that had a bay in it. We were in that bay, in that dinghy.

It had been there in a cluster of dinghies floating in the dark, at the edge of the ghetto part of the bay.
The people who live on their crappy boats farther out use the dinghies to get to their bobbing, creaking homes. No one guards the dinghies, so we had taken ours for free.

It was wild. We were both a little drunk. He was rowing us, gliding us across the water, which was black with red and green sparkles on it, reflections of the city lights.

It was a wild, crazy time, just after the Great Recession had started to eff up people's lives, and I was out of a job, and he said that it didn't matter, and that he loved me. He loved me even tho' we ain't got money.

He pretended we were in Venice, in a gondola, and he sang to me in fake Italian, too.

It was wild and crazy and romantic. Except that I didn't love him back, because he was a toothless old wino, and I was not a toothless old wino, and I just wanted to make it back to the shore alive.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


The idea was for my life to become a poem: a few perfectly chosen words on a clean white page.

I got laid off from a job I'd wanted to leave anyway. At 4:29 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, I printed out the page of my strengths and weaknesses I'd typed up in preparation for the "one on one" with my boss, the new VP of my department. She'd told us in a meeting earlier in the week that the "one on one"s were nothing to fear; she was having one with each person in the department. I'd worn a white button-down shirt that day even though I sometimes showed up in jeans on days that weren't Fridays. At 4:32 her door was still closed, so I knocked, even though I was a little afraid of her. The door was opened then closed behind me. The HR lady was sitting at the table. I sat, thinking, "I know my math's not great, but shouldn't there be only two people at a 'one on one'?" My boss got straight to it: "Christie, we're eliminating your position."

The HR lady peered at me with concern, hazel eyes like little embers in thick ash-black liner. My boss laid it out for me crisply, in her lady-executive suit with her lady-executive haircut: the budget was tight, most companies this size don't have two people for corporate communications, it's nothing personal.

At our department meeting earlier in the week, she had apologized for being bitchy lately and had told us, "I'm actually a really nice person. And I'm a fun person, once you get to know me."

The HR lady started to talk about severance pay and COBRA, but I didn't hear much of it. I was thinking that I felt elated.

I'd had this big idea of moving out West and starting a new life. For months I'd been looking online for jobs in California (I hadn't figured out yet how I'd show up for an interview if anyone was interested in me). I'd even decided to try to get an MFA in creative writing in the next year or so, maybe at a college out West somewhere, and started looking into how the GRE deal works, and student loans. During an inspired trip to Target, I'd bought a big dry-erase calendar and a new daily planner that I wanted to fill with stuff like deadlines for graduate school applications and, eventually, job interviews. I'd also bought a bulletin board and had the seventh-grade notion of putting up postcards with palm trees or the ocean on them, something to help me "keep my eye on the prize!" But it wasn't until I was sitting in my boss's office, tuning out the talk about unused vacation days and signing the termination letter, that the idea climbed down from daydream realm. It was like someone had fired the shotgun to let me know to run.

I left my work-issued laptop, BlackBerry, and key-card to the building with another HR lady, the one from Boston, who said to me as I left: "May Gawd be with you." I drove home in monster traffic. At home in my apartment, I lay on my bed in the dark. I called a friend. I probably cried. Then I got up and browsed craigslist for rooms to rent in California.

I found a posting by an irreverent 27-year-old engineer whose condo was in the Little Italy part of downtown San Diego. I savored the phrase "Little Italy" like a piece of hard candy, the poetry of it. I wrote the engineer a witty e-mail. I got a reply--he was sorting through the other responses to his ad, but so far I seemed like the coolest one. After I read that, I got up and jumped around in my apartment like an idiot. I jumped high enough to reach the ceiling. I thought, "Damn, I didn't realize I could touch the ceiling in here." I jumped up and touched it a few more times. Then I went for a long, long walk.

That night, I contacted a few friends who might be able to help me out, one who worked in publishing in San Diego and one who manages one of a national chain of bookstores. In the morning, I went to my apartment community's management office and asked about breaking my lease early. A girl at a desk in the back told me I could do that, but I was responsible for August and September rent unless I could find someone who wanted my apartment soon. Back at my apartment, I put up an ad on craigslist. Responses trickled into my inbox like tiny miracles.

By the end of the day, I had shown the apartment to a guy with my same last name, his fiancee, and his two adorable daughters from his previous marriage. I told them they could have most of the furniture. They said they'd take it--Could they please move in on Tuesday?

That weekend, I put the last of my ex-boyfriend's belongings in piles (stacks of magazines and comic books, clipped-out restaurant reviews, little plastic toys from Japan, his "collection" of three corn-cob pipes, a bumper sticker we'd bought at a cafe/bluegrass place during our West Virginia cabin vacation, his bottles of high-quality whiskey, his bottles of anti-depressants). I asked him to come for his things Monday evening. I drove trash bag after trash bag of outdated or ill-fitting clothes to the donation shed in front of Blockbuster. I hauled even sentimental things to the Dumpster on my street. My hair was pulled back in a sloppy "getting down to business" bun, my shorts were dusty, my arms ached from moving things. I felt like Superwoman.

On Monday, my mom arrived early and cleaned the apartment while I continued to weed and prune my belongings to the bone. We'd keep the antique dresser that I'd had in the bedroom; I'd only borrowed it from my parents in the first place, so I'd ferry it back to their house. And I'd take my computer and computer table. Everything else would stay for the new Chapman moving in. With the help of a uniformed man standing outside who probably worked for the apartment community, we wedged the dresser into the trunk of my mom's Buick. The man tied the trunk lid down at a 45-degree angle over the sticking-out part of the dresser, using some twine in the trunk. I drove the dresser to my parents' house, a half-hour trip, slow and steady, feeling like a parade float. When I brought the Buick back I saw my mom on her hands and knees, scrubbing my kitchen and bathroom floors, barefoot. My mom is Appalachian and not prissy. We took a lunch break at the Chipotle in the shopping center near my apartment community.

When I'd first told her about losing my job, on Friday night, she had been folding laundry in my parents' bedroom. She'd stopped, clutched the towel or sheet or T-shirt or whatever she'd been folding to her chest, and said, "Oh Lord, Chris! What are you gonna do?" I'd been secretly annoyed at her knee-jerk pessimism, her hillbilly "Oh Lord, Chris!", her panic when I needed to be calmed. I knew it'd be a long way from that reaction to her being okay with me moving to San Diego. I told her gradually:
"I've actually been looking for other jobs for a while now."
"Are you looking for something here, or in another state?"
"Another state... I mean, I've lived here all my life. It wouldn't have to be permanent."
I'm sure it was a long way for her.

But sitting at Chipotle eating our burrito bowls, smelling like sweat and Scrub-Free, our fair-skinned faces flushed from exertion in July heat, my mom told me that part of her wished she'd done something like move across the country when she was younger. She said, "I admire your spunk." She said this even though I won't be with her on my 30th birthday, even though she worries that she won't see me for Christmas this year.

"I'm gonna steal a silver stallion
with not a mark upon his silky hide
teach him he can trust me like a sister
one day we'll saddle up and ride

and we're gonna ride
we're gonna ride
ride like the one-eyed Jack of Diamonds
with the Devil close behind
we're gonna ride
we're gonna ride

I'm gonna find me a reckless man
with razor blades and ice in his eyes
just a touch of sadness in his fingers
thunder and lightning in his thighs

and we're gonna ride

I'm gonna chase the sky forever
with the man, the stallion, and the wind
the sun is gonna burn to a cinder
before we ever pass this way again

and we're gonna ride..."

-"Silver Stallion," from the Cat Power album "Jukebox"

Now that the new Chapmans have moved into my apartment, I'm staying with my parents for these last few weeks before I leave for the trip out West. Since moving back in, the shape of my life has changed. It's populated with new minor characters--the lady who takes her walks in the evenings around the same time that I do, walking laps around the neighborhood but in the opposite direction than the one I like to take, who avoids my eyes when I try to smile at her or say hello; the people who work in the Starbucks cafe section of Barnes & Noble during what used to be my workday hours, who all know that I want a tall mocha frappuccino with two pumps of vanilla syrup and that I do in fact have a member discount card. It smells clean in my parents' house, not stale like my apartment. It's peaceful in their Edenic upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood, no sirens from the fire station near the apartment, or honking car horns on nearby Duke Street, or throbbing bass and casual obscenities from rap music played in apartments or cars. When I walk at night, I don't dodge cockroaches streaming from the cracks in the sidewalks like I did in my apartment community. I don't get hit on by older men standing on street corners.

During my walks now, I see shooting stars. There's bad cell-phone reception because the neighborhood's away from the city, away from Route 1 with its fast-food restaurants and chain-store mini-malls. You see lightning bugs and hear cicadas and sometimes frogs, especially down by the pond and coming from the woods across the road from it. You sometimes have to dodge low-hanging canopies of leaves. At night, I can walk for hours without seeing another person. I can walk down to the boat docks and have the river to myself.

The furniture I left behind:

-1 red couch. My mom and I discovered it while roaming around JCPenney before I moved into my first-ever apartment in Lynchburg, Virginia. I spotted it, cherry-red cotton and roomy, and we both collapsed onto it, happily reeling at the low sale price.

-1 bed/2 mattresses. The headboard was fake wrought-iron, IKEA. My ex and I had privately snickered over how the headboard's bars would be good for clinking handcuffs around, not that we ever did anything like that. When I visited the apartment later, the new Chapman living there said that the double bed couldn't accommodate his queen-sized mattresses, so he'd given my bed to the couple who lived next door. I know that the woman next door's name is Darlene because her boyfriend was always yelling it when she locked him out after one of their fights. He'd get drunk and accuse her of being a junkie and a whore. In the mornings, she played 70s soul music at a high volume. I never heard her yell back at him. The new Chapman said he'd heard sounds of a porn movie coming from Darlene's apartment on the very first night he moved in. 

-1 diner-style table, chrome frame and legs with a periwinkle-blue Formica tabletop. This belonged to my grandparents--my dad's parents--in the 1950s. At some point my grandmother decided that she didn't like the chrome, so she started putting a tablecloth on top and she spray-painted the legs a dull matte brown. When I got my first apartment, my parents gave the table to me. Before I left home, I never asked her to, but my mom, knowing that I'd prefer it if the legs were the original chrome, spent days in our basement, on her knees, scrubbing at the legs with paint remover, using a toothbrush in the crevices. Today the original chrome gleams. You'd never know it'd been painted brown.

The table is vintage and probably worth something. It was the one thing--other than the antique dresser--that my parents wanted me to keep or at least sell. In my haste to get someone to take my apartment, I'd said that the new Chapman could have the furniture, including the table. I hope he knows what he's got. Before he moves out at the end of September, I'll try to remember to tell him.

-1 purple daybed, from the JCPenney catalog. The arms had gone threadbare by the time I left it for the new Chapman (I'd used decorative throws to disguise this, but my conscience had me disclosing it when he came by to check the apartment out). I remember my ex grinding his skull into its arm during a manic-depressive episode one time.

-1 small bookcase that my ex kept his foreign-language books on, organized by region of the world (including Croatian for the trip we took to Dubrovnik, and Spanish for a trip we were going to take to Buenos Aires before I broke up with him).

-1 boxy, clunky 1980s TV. My ex spent many hours struggling with the "rabbit ears" antenna that we had because we couldn't afford cable, cursing at it, and we'd laugh when we'd be watching something and it'd go black-and-white or snowy if one of us coughed or shifted. After he moved out, I was no longer supporting both of us on one salary and could afford cable (I got rid of the diabolical antenna), but I never watched TV after he left. We used to put up the little plastic "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree next to the TV. The apartment seemed most like a home to me when he'd put the rainbow-colored Christmas lights on the tree and we'd turn off all the other lights. I threw the tree away when I moved out.