"Wait a second," I find myself saying, rubbing my fluorescent-light-weary eyes. "Let's go over this one more time. OK, just humor me."
Nicole laughs a little laugh, glancing at the customers in line behind us: A middle aged black woman in a jogging suit and aviator sunglasses and a young redneck looking couple, all of whom couldn't look less amused. The clerk behind the counter rolls his eyes, sighs and says flatly, "okay." This particular clerk, John, has been a fairly regular fixture in my life over the last year and, in the last week has become someone that I've had the unpleasant experience of dealing with two or three times daily. He's a memorable dude, not because he is the grumpiest clerk at the downtown Asheville Post Office (though he is that), but because he is almost completely unassuming looking, a husky late-middle-aged guy — gray hair, bald on top, deep trenches around his eyes that if they were bird's feet would be a turkey's. Then there's the moustache. It's a fairly famous moustache, talked about all over town: a thin, meticulously maintained little pair of antennae that shoot straight out to the sides of John's nose then curl up like the toes of elf shoes. Like I said, if it weren't for the moustache, John would be pretty forgettable , just another dissatisfied bureaucrat slowly going mad from too much multiplying in multiples of 41. With moustache, though, getting talked down to and given the runaround by this guy makes one feel like an extra in the movie Brazil.
Nicole and I had been getting to feel like that a lot this week. After over a year of dating, we were now more or less breaking up, and I was moving away from the little North Carolina town that neither of us could stand and back to my former home of New Orleans. For the last couple of weeks we'd been going through the whole fight, make-up, crying jag bit of disentangling ourselves from one another emotionally, and now we were disentangling ourselves logistically. This was, in many ways, more painful than the jaggedy ups-and-downs of the emotional part — just the long days of separating records, clothes, returning loaned items, and now, dealing with my withdrawal from our shared P.O. Box. These mundane chores were really driving home the break-up, like that point when you're quitting smoking, and after several days when the tremors, chills and intense, ripping-out-your-hair cravings have subsided, you have to face the boring nothingness of just not smoking. Forever and ever.
And John wasn't making it any more pleasant for us. In fact, he was making me want to smoke for the first time in four years.
"So," I said, starting again, "we share the P.O. Box."
John looked at me, unmoving, not even blinking.
"And I'm moving."
Still no reaction from John.
"And she's not."
"I'm not," said Nicole, shaking her head as though explaining something to a toddler.
No reaction. It was like we were creeping out onto a frozen lake, expecting it to crack and drop us at any moment.
"So I need to take my name from off the box, and leave her name on it — and still be able to get my mail forwarded."
At the last part, the moustache twitched and John's head batted back and forth.
Sploosh! We were in the icy waters. Sinking.
"Nope. Can't do it. No way," John said.
"Arrgh!" said Nicole and I at the same time, covering our eyes as though we'd just watched a friend wipe out doing a skateboard trick.
"Why not?!" I snapped, causing Nicole to pinch my outer thigh beneath the level of the counter.
"That's not how it works," John said.
" But it could! It could be how it works. You could just switch the names on this sheet of paper." I gestured frantically at the form I'd filled over a year ago. "And put a little yellow post-it note on the box with my new address! Voila!"
The trio of waiting customers behind us looked as though their higher functions had all but shut down, their brains just sending off the slightest of electrical impulses necessary for maintaining a standing position. I did see the woman in the jogging suit grimace ever so slightly, though, as John again launched into his explanation of just why it was impossible, absurd, even, for us to keep the box open, which had something to do with the Patriot Act.
"Okay," I said when he'd finished, and started to explain myself again, changing the wording as much as I could. I'd played a similar game dealing with cops, the game where you know that you can talk your way out of guilt if you can just pull from the stratosphere the right combination of words that will turn the rusty pins of the lock in the cops' minds, and open them. John was a tougher case than most cops (with a proportionately more flamboyant moustache), and it seemed like I might need the Rosetta Stone to find the combination.
This time Nicole, who is much more patient and diplomatic, interrupted. "We just really need to keep the box open so that I can get my mail, but Ethan is going to New Orleans, so he needs his mail, so it needs to get forwarded to this other P.O. Box, which he already has, see?" She held up something addressed to my new P.O. Box, which I would be sharing with my friend and soon-to-be-roommate, Shelley.
John blinked. "I just can't do that."
We almost repeated the skateboarding-trick-gone-awry "Arrgh!" thing, but were cut short. "BUT," John said, "I could do this."