Sam the Cat
What you remember about an old girlfriend is perfect. Even the horrible parts are fine. Especially when you don't have anything else going, the memories of her are lethal. In my office I have an ad from a magazine hanging above the desk. It's of an old girlfriend who is a model, and I've been thinking about her for days. It has been a long time since our paths have crossed, and for that I humbly thank God. But I think if I had her here right now I'd marry her.
All of my girlfriends wore their hair the same way--long and straight, with bangs in the front. They all liked sex, they were all good-looking, they liked the same kind of music I listen to--Rolling Stones, Little Feat, the Who. They all kept up with me, drinkingwise. They all had their own cars.
What was wrong with any of them? Paula was small and dark and depressed and smoked a lot of cigarettes. Sarah was a ski instructor, too full of herself; she pissed in the bed when she drank. Irene had a knowledge of the New Age and did aura paintings and collected herb-tea boxes. Holly's eyes crossed when she got tired. She was chunky and slept twelve hours a night. Boots had an interest in open-air sex but acted lazy and as unimportant as a secretary. I went out with a Japanese girl, Makiko, who threatened to break up with me if I didn't carry a clothes dryer up four flights of stairs to her apartment. And I dated a fashion model named Ann--the one in the picture--who was actually bald because of a rare disease. Was I asking too much? I wanted real love. Where was that loyalty and trust? Where were the laughs? Under a rock? Inside a chocolate-chip cookie?
I wanted real love. Not a replay, not the same thing over and over again, not the same dinners, that same let's rent a video tonight. I wanted love and everything--cut flowers, her wearing a beautiful dress, lingerie, seeing an incredible band, blow jobs in a convertible. Going to Africa for Christmas--you know, the finest champagne, meeting movie stars together, amazing parties with a see-through dance floor. How many times do I have to hear myself explain this?
In the picture above my desk Annie is modeling a leather motorcycle coat without her wig, totally bald. The weird thing is that we went out for almost a year and I never saw her without the wig until I opened the magazine. One time she asked if I wanted to see her with it off, and I said no. See, because her wig was what first attracted me to her. She looked so incredibly hot, dancing in a tank top with this gorgeous long black hair, and what a nasty little surprise when I find out it's somebody else's hair.
I get this feeling looking at the picture of Annie--a warm, sour sensation under my sternum. I know what that feeling is: that I did something wrong, and the reminder of guilt is deep and uncomfortable, but it's more than that. Because when I look at her eyes, staring off the page and looking at me but not seeing, I almost want her back. It's not a joke. I'd do anything to get her back. If she called me on the phone right now, I'd drop to my knees and I'd cry.
"Sam," she'd say, "would you be my boy?"
She's just starting to smile in the picture--that amazing wide mouth of hers sliding open, her eyes pointed down like she has a secret. I need her to want me again. Then, once she says I can come over, and later looks up from down there with those big brown eyes that drink you in, I'll want to get out. And I won't want to see her or talk to her or listen to her voice on the phone.
What is that, Sam I am? I ask you: Is it love? Because if it's is love, the world needs a little bit less of it.
You know what? I fucked her. She's done, she's dead now, so fly away. I did Ann and her sister and their fat friend. Ann went to Germany on an important assignment. She wrote me postcards from the Hofbrëuhaus. I called her friend up on the telephone, we ate pizza and drank and had sex with my pants pulled down on the lawn beside my car.
Hairless and tan, rich and slutty (an agile penis mechanic)--for all her unique traits, Ann does not hold a candle to Louise, my most recent girlfriend, the only person in my life I've ever truly loved. Louise seemed to really know me and, despite that, wanted to be with me. But she is party to the situation I am currently avoiding, and so I make do with the perfection of memories. I know what's going on--it's all a big cycle. I've had a girlfriend since I was in second grade, and I'll probably have one until I croak. The problem is, despite my current confusion, which I'm coming to, I love, love women. I like to see them bark for me. That's a joke. I love having a girlfriend. All they ask for is a normal degree of fidelity, and then they'll let you do whatever you want to them. Anything. You can have them bent sweetly over the back of the sofa with their gorgeous ass in the air and they won't say a thing, because the truth is everybody digs it and just needs the excuse of love. I get myself into all kinds of trouble, all that rubbing in the dark. Rubbing and rubbing in all those beds next door to a church or over a health-food store or in the back of her mother's house. I bet if you put them end to end, I've rubbed my hand across bare stomachs from here to Estonia and back. They give the word and it's a free-for-all. If I were a girl I'd fuck ten guys a day. I swear. I'd never want to be a girl, though, for they have the worst deal in history.
You are looking at the original hopeless lover. I love it all, the first few phone calls, her hair in a bandanna, getting drunk together the first time, seeing her little underwear. The normal pit in your stomach is replaced by a whirling feeling. Then those beginning-couple weeks together, where you're sort of thinking about it no matter what else you're thinking of. There's no ruminating about what to live for when the alarm goes off before work in the morning. You find a long hair of hers stuck to the sleeve of your suit, and you hold it up to the light. For the next ten minutes you are stoned, picturing last night. You take her to a really fancy restaurant for dinner, you go shopping together, you go on double dates, you decide whose house to sleep at. You call her on the phone and then call back--"One more thing . . ." One evening after another is perfect. It's nice. You're her boyfriend now, nobody else calls. She starts to talk rotten about her old boyfriend. You meet her friends, you meet her family, you say what your kids will look like, you think about marrying her.
I love being in love. I'm so in love, I'm so in love. Sometimes I don't even know what I'm in love with. I'm in love with the love drug.
You walk into a supermarket or a restaurant, your girlfriend goes in first and you're looking at her ass. And you say to yourself, "Isn't that the most beautiful ass? That's mine. It's beautiful." Like it's going to save you. An ass isn't going to save you. What's it going to do? Hide you from the police? Call up your boss when you don't feel well?
My girlfriend louise and I went to a party--mostly advertising people I knew through work. It began late and followed a long day where all I wanted was a simple meal in front of the TV. But I knew I'd hate myself if I missed it. Things happen at parties that your friends talk about for weeks, sometimes for years. You can't miss them. You can't get in on a great joke after the fact.
The party was held in a refurbished warehouse. There was a band in one corner, guys carrying trays of hot hors d'oeuvres, and a cash bar. They had a hateful mime walking through the crowd. I was mad at myself for going, disappointed at the turnout, and pissed that I'd brought Louise, because she didn't know anyone. When people asked about work I explained that the Mafia had hired me to do P.R. I acted like a prick to let them know there were better places to be, but at the same time I was forcing out jokes and clever observations because I wanted everyone to like me. That's why I go to parties. Anyway, people like you better if they think you don't like them.
Louise and I started bumming cigarettes off people. If they said yes we'd ask for four. And then she waved hello to this girl who was heading up to the bar. I couldn't see her well because of how dark it was, but she stood over six
feet, with silky, jet-blacked hair just above her shoulders and hanging around her face. She had on blue jeans and a T-shirt, a tight little athlete's ass, nice knobby shoulders so that she was almost cocky-looking, but very skinny with those sharp hipbones that you can feel right under the bikini. It was too dark to see everything.
I wanted to have a chat with her. "Louise," I said, "when you go to the bathroom I need you to check my phone messages."
"O.K.," she said, and I handed her some money. She left, I went hustling up to the bar, wangled over to this chick, whipped on my best head fake and grin, and it was a man.
He had some high cheekbones, he wasn't broad, maybe he could be one of those handsome, pretty male models you see in Calvin Klein ads. I don't know--I'm not an expert on how guys look. Yes, right, a basically handsome guy. Up close, though, I saw that he needed a shave. He probably had had sexual relations with Louise some time in the past--that's why he waved.
He was a skinny dude with long hair, that's all. Not a woman.
When Louise came back I told her--not that I went running over there but that when I saw him out of the corner of my eye I thought he was a chick. We screamed. I'm such a turkey sometimes I don't know why the hell girls go out with me. That's the real mystery.
I am a great lover. I've got to give me that. There are only two things about me that females don't like: the fact that I sing when I drive--admittedly, I'm not a musician--and my skiing. All the girls I know ski moguls well--really solid bump skiers--and I try to turn in the swells and lose my downhill line. I have good hair, I've got a good car. My skin, my body--that's all decent. But I get ridiculed on bumps, and the way I sing gets mistaken for a joke or an imitation of someone dippy, when in fact your car is one of the few places besides the bathroom where you can sing the best songs the way they were meant to be sung. They all think my singing is terrible. Screw them. (I did.) You sing in the car because it feels good, you can't help it, and because you know the fucking words. Everyone I've gone out with--it's like a secret tradition they pass down from one to the next behind my back--laughs, then puts her hands over her ears, and after a while gets huffy or angry when I sing. I confess I'm not a professional, but I'm at least trying. You know, I wish I had some say in what traditions they pass from one girlfriend to the next.
What is it with me, though? I mean, I lie, I fuck whoever will let me, I can never remember the name of her best friend, and I hate to dance. I will, I do often, I volunteer, but it makes me nauseated, and I end up sweating too much. I come off with my shirt soaking, probably because I'm so out of shape. I attract a crowd of people who can't believe how bad I am. Like the worse I act, the more they want to be around me.
By the time Louise and I left the party, the liquor had done things. I kept running into the curb on the way out of the parking garage. I went home and shut my eyes and tried to sleep, except there was this guy, the guy who looked like a chick, walking around the party in my mind. I watched him walk up to the bartender, I saw him reach into his front pocket to get money, and I saw how his round butt stuck out a little--somebody stop me--and I was horny, so horny I couldn't believe it. I kept thinking about it and squeezing my legs together. Just his butt in his jeans. I'm, like, tingling. I actually wanted to whack off to him. See, in my mind he was sort of a woman, but--What do I want to say here?
I made myself fuck Louise. I didn't want to--and she was the very picture of unconscious--but I had to. I'm a man. Any man would do the same. The next morning over coffee and cereal, I asked her how she knew this guy, what was his name, where did he work. Now what? Was I all of a sudden gay? I went to sleep one night and woke up a homo?
Put yourself in my place. I had to clear my head. I had to forget. The next weekend I went away on business, and the one after that Louise and I and two other couples borrowed a friend's cabin for a quick getaway. We drank the liquor, made a pizza with psycho mushrooms, Vicky and Tom's dog got run over and killed, the waterbed Louise and I slept on somehow got punctured, and the night of the bathing-suit contest Tom left the Jacuzzi on and burned out the motor. The cabin was a short drive from the city, though. Sixty-five or seventy miles north on the interstate.
A few days later we were having drinks at Sid's Rat, short for Rathskeller, and the guy--his name was John Drake--came in. He was a housepainter. He ran his own company, and he also played in a band a lot. Louise knew him because her old roommate had some connection to the band.
"There's your friend," she said, and we both laughed. Louise waved hello and offered him a seat. I shook John's hand. We talked about the usual bullshit. Louise mentioned his band, and he said something about it going O.K. He seemed like a pretty cool guy, very normal-acting, with pale, light-blue eyes. Maybe he was half South American or something--his skin was a light-caramel color. His face was what you'd call angular, and when he smiled his face changed, since his teeth were perfect and very white. His hair was thick and straight and shiny black. I realized then that I'd seen John around before: he plays hoop at the rec center where I play hockey. Our leagues meet Tuesdays and Thursdays in the rink downstairs. I've seen him outside the gym.
John had to leave. We met some people from an ad agency I'd never heard of. They taught us a game called Upchuck, which uses dice and shots of Cuervo. Just as I started to get the hang of it, my leg became tangled in a bar stool and I fell down and chipped my tooth.
Later we were lying in Louise's bed, getting reacquainted, and I was trying to picture what John's house looked like on the inside. I wondered whether anything in my house needed painting. Louise gently implored me to lie on top of her, and I saw his butt again in my mind. He had on different pants that night--tan khakis--and a faded blue denim shirt. You could tell he was very slim and in good shape. There I am, horned out and at the same time queasy with the weirdness of it. Sam the cat, he bad and naughty. He dirty kitty-cat. I felt like I was hairless and twelve years old again, caught wanking in my mom's closet. I thought the cops were going to come in and bust me, because they should've.
A big account threatened to leave our agency. Our creative team had to fire up a new campaign--radio, print, and television. We got it done at the wire, the campaign went over well, and I personally got the thumbs-up from my boss. The client rep took everybody out to a Japanese place. We dined on platters of sushi and bottles of Scotch. I was in a very chipper mood and even went in with another guy on an eight ball of Peruvian blow. I wired myself right up, high and tight and suffering no pain.
The last place we visited was this fake cowboy bar. It was late and the place was kind of empty. Two couples were dancing. The band up on the stage was still playing. I guess they had to stay. I bought an overpriced, watery pitcher of Bud and wandered around with it in one hand and a complimentary bucket of popcorn in the other. The cocaine had actually been cut with talc, I could tell from the taste, and it wore off fast. But something in that sushi acted like tequila worm on me, and I found myself in the mood to dance. I checked out the field but there wasn't any, so I kind of slanked around by myself. They were playing some twangy country song. The guy's voice was the kind you hear on the good side of country and western, if there is such a thing--deep and clear, without that disgusting yodeling break in his high notes.
I went ahead and started dancing, beginning with a redneck-style hop-skip, like you might see on Hee Haw. Then the hop gave way to the spin--I perfected a certaintype of spin--splashing beer and popcorn in a circle around
me, effecting sincere consternation in the other danseurs, and I looked up onstage and it was him.
John was the lead singer. This was the band Louise had told me about. He also played the violin, or fiddle, or whatever the fuck it's called. I stood there on the dance floor. He seemed pretty intent on the music and didn't look at the people too much. I started to get into it, sensing the country rhythm, doing a little move here and there, with a shake to it. I did a spin, bumped into somebody, and lost the popcorn, but I kept my eye on him and went up close to the stage to dance. I danced up and back and snapped my fingers. I yelled "Hey!" up to him. He nodded and gave a half wave, and then, when the singing part of the song ended and it was just the instruments playing, I shouted up that it sounded pretty good. He motioned to me that he couldn't hear. I moved as close as I could and yelled up that when he said he played in a band I didn't think it was a country band. He made a face and looked away; maybe he didn't understand. I yelled up that they probably did Elvis tunes, that it sounded like Charlie Daniels, and he turned to the guy playing the guitar and sort of laughed. I screamed up at him that I knew a lot of people who might get them gigs, but he was looking above me, straight ahead.
I told them that the guitars sounded excellent, that all kinds of people liked country music, that when they were done if they wanted to get a beer I might be willing.
I woke up in my bed, with my coat and tie and shoes still on. It was Saturday morning. I took everything off. There was dried barf on my shoes. I'd puked in a urinal at that cowboy bar--that came back to me. And when I went over to try to talk to John while the band packed up their equipment I fell over a stack of drum boxes. On the way back home a wheelbarrow somehow got stuck underneath my car.
I went into the kitchen. The downstairs smelled like cat piss. Skippy's litter box was like an overflowing minefield. I poured a bowl of cereal and a dead beetle fell out, though when I touched him he started to walk.
I lay on the living-room floor and read the newspaper. There were leaves and sand and pubic hairs in the rug. Skippy's fur was stuck around the coffee-table legs.
I looked in the mirror. I had blackheads on the end of my nose.
I vacuumed, bought food, did the dishes, purchased a bilevel shag-carpet kitty facility for Skip. It cost seventy dollars. At first he refused to acknowledge it, but as the day went on I saw him jumping up to the carpeted box on top, pretending it was a cave, and chewing on the fresh, new-smelling carpet. I napped, cleaned my pores, called my girlfriend, and rolled a bone. I played an old jazz record my dad had given me and watched a movie on Cinemax. For the first time in a year I went to bed before midnight.
Sunday morning I looked in the phone book and found out where John lived. I put on a decent shirt and pants, shaved, and started over on foot, since it was only about half a mile away. I had on a new pair of loafers that were shiny and uncreased and cut into my heels when I stepped. I went into a 7-Eleven and got the Sunday paper and a little thing of flowers. In front of his house I paused to check myself in a car window. I looked fat and pale but well rested, and honest. I walked up the steps to the back door. It was not yet 10 a.m., and knowing he might be asleep I sat down to write a quick note of apology.
I heard somebody going around the kitchen, the refrigerator door slamming, and water running. When I looked in the window I saw a man standing behind the table looking at me. It was John, trying to figure out who I was. He opened the door and said something I couldn't make out and stood there watching me. I said, "I turned over a new leaf after Friday night and I'm apologizing to everybody I offended lately."
He held the door open, leaning halfway out. His light-brown skin showed against a white V-neck T-shirt. The door spring creaked. It sounded like a bird with a long neck--maybe a goose--being strangled. I stepped back, attempting to get a better stance, and placed my new loafer in the dog's water dish. It was a sign from God of something rotten.
Nobody deserves anything. But if there's such a thing as retribution, at that moment I was living it, paying myself back in the form of humiliation. No one, no one I've ever known, would've believed that act, me standing at John's door with the bouquet of flowers, hoping he'll take them. Drum roll, then Sam the cat he takes two dainty steps and nose-dives off something very high.
He told me to come in. I reminded him about yelling up at the band while they were playing. That didn't ring a bell. I mentioned falling over the equipment. I said, "At least I didn't puke on you." Then his memory of me came back and I handed him the flowers. He kind of laughingly went and showed them to somebody in bed in the other room. A woman came out with him and we were introduced. Her name was Barb. I'd never seen her before. John asked if I wanted coffee, and while he was making it Barb went behind him to toast some bread and placed her hand on the small of his back. He told me all the drunk stories of playing music in bars as she went from the toaster to the refrigerator, John's eyes following. Barb poured some coffee for herself, he handed her a spoon, and she went back to bed.
The stories he told made what I did seem minuscule, or at least average. I told him you get sick of acting like that after a while. There's no dignity in being a slob.
The conversation turned around, and I told him what I do, writing radio and TV ads for an advertising agency. I said the next time we needed a country band for something I'd call him, and he gave me a card for his painting company with the phone number on it. It had the address of this house, and in quotes it said, "Ask for John."
I went home and cleaned more, ironed dress shirts for the week, and trimmed my nose hair. I turned on the TV and thought of John, images of him walking around his kitchen covering over the show on the screen. I switched it off, because in my mind John was doing this funny dance--a little like what he did with his hips onstage playing the fiddle--in his smart, well-fitting jeans. I got up out of my
chair and started to do my own dance in response. I clapped my hands and spun around, put on a Stones album, and hopped across the rug. I found the silver bracelet my mom had given me for my birthday and slipped it on, combed my hair back with gel, and stared at myself in the mirror, holding my stomach in and flexing my flabby, skinny arms.
In advertising you have hectic times with everybody running at a frenzy for weeks. It ends and you get horribly slow times, and management begins firing the less talented people. Account execs go out for lunch and don't come back, secretaries fill the garbage cans with old files. I make pictures of Garfield using the X's on my typewriter, my office mate calls telephone sex lines. I couldn't stand it after a day and got John's card out of my wallet.
The card in my wallet was like a disgusting story people had found out about me, like I took nudie pictures of children. You want to run around erasing the story from everybody's minds, but events happen in your life that cannot be erased. The fact is, these events change you forever. You're not the same person anymore. You're someone new with the same name. You don't feel better, as in "New is better." You're somebody new but you feel mucky. Hopeful, but with a sour feeling down below.
I left a message on John's machine that I wanted to talk to him about a commercial we had in mind with a country-western theme. I said we needed a band and I'd call him that night, and hung up fast.
At home I cooked dinner for myself. Louise asked to come over, but I made an excuse about work. There wasn't anything left to clean or vacuum, so I played with Skippy. He kept scratching me accidentally. We weren't communicating very well. I was getting more nervous by the minute about making that call. I finally did, though.
"Hey, John, it's me," I said.
"This is Samuel Beardson," I said. "I left a message on your machine today. I was the guy who came over Sunday."
"Oh, yeah, sure," he said. "What's the word?"
"Well, as I mentioned, our creative director, Chuck, wants to use western music on this Juan's Tacos frozen-
"Selling tacos," I said.
"Should I write a song about tacos?"
"No, don't do that," I said.
"Just kidding," he said.
"Oh, sure," I said, and laughed.
"I don't know any songs about tacos offhand."
"Ha-ha," I said.
"Why don't I mail your office a demo tape and you or the other guy can tell me what you think," he said.
"Good idea. That was your girlfriend I met, right?"
"Oh, yeah, she's someplace--"
"Girls--I mean women--it's a crazy thing!" I said.
He said, "I think she's down in the basement doing her laundry."
"Really? How long have you two guys been living together?"
"About two years," he said. "We're married."
"Girlfriends--you need more of it or less of it, it's hard to tell which. Know what I mean?" I said.
"Yeah," he said. "It's tough."
"That's right," I said.
"It's tricky," he said.
I told John, "I could write a book on everything I know about girls. There's so much we don't understand. She cries for no reason, the guy gets angry, one of you is always on the defensive."
"Yeah," he said, laughing.
"It's like some weird kind of a religion," I said.
"I'd take a woman over religion any day," he said.
"Me, too," I said. "You ought to come over tonight and I'll give you my full explanation."
"What?" he said.
"I should write that book," I said, "and give my full explanation."
"Yeah," he said. "Great idea." Then he laughed.
We said a couple more things and hung up.
After work the next day I drove to the mall. I walked into every store. It was like wishing you were hungry so you could satisfy the craving, but what food would you want? Not chocolate, not booze, not salty or sweet, not cheesy, not ice cream, not chips.
A men's boutique had some loose, blousey shirts on sale, with rounded cuffs and pleats on the shoulders. I bought a tan one. I bought some navy pants made of a thin material, and a pair of flat black shoes. Then I went down to the department store and got some new hair gel and some cream that's supposed to tone your skin.
The woman behind the counter was in her fifties. She had a pretty, narrow face and a pointed chin, circular, drawn-on eyebrows, maroon lipstick, and a stiff yellow crown of hair surrounding her head like a plastic lion's mane. I asked her what a model would use to maybe improve his look. "If you want to look good," she said, "the way average men look, then go home. You're fine." She took out a jar of white cream and a tray of what looked like pastel crayons. "But if you want to look better, sit down in that seat. Let's give you some zest. Let's give you a little pep. Some sex appeal."
"Sounds good," I said.
She held a red crayon up to the light. "Let's give you a little masculine pizzazz."
"O.K.," I said.
"That's the way you wear your hair?"
"What do you mean?"
"Too flat," she said, fluffing up the front part.
She showed me an eyebrow darkener, to make the brow stronger, she said--more expressive. I leaned over the counter, and she gently drew a tiny black brush through my left eyebrow. I watched in the mirror. Then she did the other one. With each stroke I looked more and more like my sixth-grade football coach, Mr. Gaspari. I held her wrist. "That's great," I said, "I don't want it on me now. Just tell me what to buy."
They had a cream to make it look as though you were tan, and a lip moisturizer that makes the lips a deeper red. I bought those and something you brush on your eyelashes, because mine barely exist. She gave me a special sponge to start with and a powder-finish thing that goes on last. I bought another powder, too, for drying up excess moisture. I paid with my credit card, and she said, "For touch-ups!" handing me the bag.
I suppose I thought if he saw me, if he and I took a walk and caught a glimpse of ourselves passing by a store window, I would know something then. I would know what to say. This wasn't a guy-girl thing. That is to say, this wasn't a sex thing, no. Not entirely. It was also a third thing I keep trying to describe. Maybe spiritual.
I took a shower, shaved, and did everything the way the woman explained. I used the sponge first, did the eyebrow stuff and then the tanning cream. Put it on the neck and ears? I didn't know. I brushed some of that junk on my eyelashes. It clotted up and fell in my eye. I had to take out a contact lens and flush my eye over and over until I finally got the gunk out. I applied the powder finish last. I put on my new clothes and shoes. The pants were my normal size, but my big ass barely fit, and then I ripped the seam trying to straighten them. They were brand-new pants. I grabbed my wallet. There were no pockets in these pants. They were smooth in the front and back. What do you do with your wallet when you wear them--shove it up your ass? I went out to the car. The seam ripped more as I got into the driver's seat.
Behind me headlights came up the driveway, blinding me. It was Louise. Now her car was in the way. She got out and headed for the front door, but she spotted me in my car and walked over. I rolled down my window and said, "Hey."
Louise bent down and looked at me at eye level. It took a few seconds. She said, "Hey, Sam," scratching her upper lip, the place where the soft white hair is a little thick, an area I told her she should get waxed. She was smiling, but her smile was getting weirder and weirder. "Ha," she said.
"Ha-ha," I laughed back. Nobody could think of a thing to say. She could have said any number of things. "Have you looked in the mirror lately?" was what she said.
I lifted an eyebrow to play along. "That's what I was just doing," I said. "Is it on right?"
"Sam," she said, but it was more like a question, the beginning of a question.
"I made a bet. I have twenty minutes to get back to Sid's Rat and sing to these guys to collect."
"You look like Sinbad," she said.
She looked at me, at one eye and then the other eye. Back to the right eye, back to the left. "I bet you're lying." Her voice was muddy in her throat. She looked one last time, her hands on her knees, ducking down to the open window. "God," she said, "you lie so bad," not knowing if the way I looked was a joke or not, or where it might be leading.
"Don't be ridiculous," I said. "I haven't done anything wrong."
"We haven't seen each other in two weeks," she said.
"Louise, take a pill," I said.
Louise coughed and pulled a tissue out of her pocket. "What am I doing?" she said, and she stood up. I was left sitting in the driver's seat, staring at her fly. Her hips turned toward the house and then toward her car. Then she was gone.
I went back inside and took the clothes off. I put them in a paper grocery bag and got back in the car in jeans and a sweatshirt and headed over to the rec center. That hoop league John played in met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the same as my hockey league, and I wanted to be there when he came out.
A fountain stands by the entrance, and cars drive up to drop people off and pick them up. There are streetlights that make everything bright, and I stood off to the far side of the building, where it was darker, out of people's way. I paced back and forth, checking each time the door opened to see if it was John coming out. I still had on that lip stuff and everything. I looked strange, I bet. A tan, pretty Coach Gaspari. I must have seen two hundred kids with hockey equipment, chopping their sticks against the sidewalk while they waited for their moms to come get them. Finally the basketball players came out. At the same time a few guys from my hockey team came out the other set of doors, all sweaty, carrying bags of equipment. I'd forgotten about this possibility. They came down the sidewalk toward the parking lot behind me. I tried to figure out how I could intercept John without my teammates seeing me, but there was no way, so I took off at a run, not stopping or listening to hear if they saw me, and got out my keys and bolted.
During the final phone call it kept going silent, with me not saying anything. John didn't know what I was thinking. How could he know? I thought I might be getting a peptic ulcer. My father got a peptic ulcer at age thirty-two. I said, "Your band is great."
"Thanks," he said. "So your office got the demo."
"Yeah, the way you sang on it was terrific," I said. "You could sell anything with that voice."
"Appreciate it," he said.
I can't remember what else I told him. But then I said, "Can I ask you a question?"
"Shoot," he said. "What?"
"Hey, would you come over tonight and I could make you dinner?" I figured if I just said it. Because it was that or not say another word.
He said, "This isn't about the tacos, is it?"
"I could make tacos."
"Are you gay?"
"What?" I said. "No."
"Forget it," he said, and hung up.
"Forget what?" I said, but I was too slow.
I didn't want to do anything with him. I didn't even think of sex with him. It didn't enter my mind. Well, of course it did. But to hang around John, the two of us sitting there together--that would mean something to me. He'd call with some funny thing he had to tell me. Then I'd know. Then we'd both know. Maybe he'd ask if he could borrow something and I'd say yes. Or the two of us could get a video. It's not a big deal. I don't have to explain this. It's obvious how I felt.
I feel new, but I don't feel shiny and clean. I feel older, newer but older. It doesn't make sense. The new me feels old and heavy. Watching TV makes it worse.
I have the memories, crisp ones, of every moment of love that's ever touched this flesh. The elegant photo of Ann in my office is among these reminders. I sit at my desk at work and every few minutes go back to it. The way her mouth begins to open, with her eyes cast down shyly so that if you stare you begin to wonder what she's thinking. I must say it's a good ad. What else would I need?
At present it seems I can't get close to anyone without offending her. Or him. I decide to call Louise. She takes the phone and puts it near the Cuisinart I gave her last year--set on pulse/mash, it sounds like--so I have to hang up. Of course Louise still turns me on, but what do I do? Go over there half gay and start kissing her? Joseph, her roommate, would take one look at me and know something's a little off. And what about Joseph? Not my type. What am I saying! Mother of God, listen to the way I'm talking.
A week has passed since John hung up on me. My house is so neat. I washed the kitchen floor last night on my hands and knees. I should take photos of it. If I had a family I'd get everybody down here now, dressed up, and take the Christmas-card picture before the place got messy again. If I were married and had kids. But where would I get a Christmas tree this time of year? And who would I marry? I'll tell you who I should marry: myself. With my cat Skippy as the mascot. We could sail around the world together. I'd get Skippy a tiny yellow rain suit. "Man the mizzenmast, you little furry wog," I'd say. "Get me a halyard." The ship would be my kingdom. I'd have a sword and an eye patch, some movies on video belowdecks, for when the wind dies. I'd love the seagoing life. Maybe out there I'd come across something I could understand.
From the Hardcover edition.