He wonders if he should wait outside for her. The restaurant is hard to find, back off the street as it is. “8030 3/4” the information operator had said.
She’ll find it.
Sinead’s “This Is the Last Night of Our Acquaintance” is running through his head. When he’d called her earlier she’d told him she was rushing around getting ready for her sister’s visit. “I can’t spend the night or anything,” she’d said.
“Or anything?“ he’d asked her. “What’s that supposed to mean? We go out to dinner, have drinks, make out in the car and that’s it?”.
“You read too much into it. “
“Do I? “ he’d asked, honestly not knowing, but the dread in his belly was growing and he could feel the adrenalin flowing.
“Let’s play it by ear,“ she says.
He’d gotten to the point at the end of his career as a jazz guitarist, before the agency job, the rise to VP, the routine self loathing, where he could jam along to a tune, be locked into the groove in a measure or two without a word other than what key it was in. On a good night he could guess the key after hearing a few notes, the shape, their roundness, their darkness. This wasn’t playing by ear, he thought, it wasn’t jamming, it was like playing to a score he’d never seen or heard before, telekinesis [???] the pages handed to him just in time to keep up.
There are couples in the patio chatting and dining under heat lamps. He can’t understand how they manage. It’s winter and cold by West Los Angeles standards and his thin skin can’t handle it. His mother used to say one way to know if two people are meant for each other is if one needs to sleep under a pile of blankets and the other likes sleeping with the window open. On the few nights he and C. have spent together, she’s even colder than he is, asks to turn the heat up.
It’s Monday night and deserted as he walks into the dining room. Softly lit, warm Mediterranean white washed stucco walls, oak paneled floor. The demure, delicately butch head waitress greets him quietly in an indeterminate euro accent and with a smile that matches the muted colors, guides him to a seat. A young heavy African-American woman at the next table is reading through a stack of photocopied papers. “Behind All That Is Visible Is the Invisible”, he reads on one of them. The uncertainty principle is killing him. He needs a drink.
“Is it rude to order a glass of wine before your date arrives?” he asks the head waitress.
“That depends,” she says just as C. appears. She looks good in a black leather jacket, a simple, tight beige top and black silk pants, walking towards him quickly, quietly.
“Yes”, says the head waitress smiling, conspiratorial as she watches her join him, then disappearing.
“Have you been waiting long?” C. asks as she sits, then quickly looks around. “It’s so romantic,” she says, surprised, beaming her radiant Cheshire Cat smile. There was more that was cat-like about her: the way she’d walk up to him, rub her chest against his, smile, throw her head back and with eyes closed wait for a kiss, as if waiting to be stroked, her quick smile with lips shut tight, then opening like a blossom beneath his.
And her independence. One minute she’d be curled around him, then out the door, unavailable, “keeping it light”, her weekends with her girlfriend, barhopping. She’d told him she’d downed 5 martinis at a Superbowl party last Sunday and not even felt it the next day. “The secret is a megadose of vitamin C,” she’d say, or Perrier, tomato juice, hair of the dog, never the same secret twice. She could take so much abuse and had, and it amazed him how her small, delicate body could handle it, where her strength and the desire to escape from herself, punish herself like that lived in her. He trusted that he was the only one she’d been with since they’d started dating, though he tried not to think about it, but the idea of her social, free, available, beyond his control terrified him and it carved at him that he would be such a low priority to her, him, of all people. “You’re talented, creative, smart, sensitive, sexy. Plus, you have a real job,” she’d emailed him. What more could she be looking for? She’d made it clear: “Freedom, privacy, space”, all of which he kept trying to paint himself into.
She’s sparkling, excited. The restaurant reminds her of her trip to Greece after college, a graduation present to herself. She describes the tour steamer approaching Athens and the lines of traffic climbing the slopes surrounding the city, like ants on an ant hill in the distance. She sits with her chair at a perfect tangent to the table, turned slightly away from him. He watches every move for signs of her softening, warming. He imagines the paper fortune flower kids make in school – a sheet of paper folded intricately into four separate triangle-shaped cones connected at the bottom like the petals of a flower with the forefinger and thumb of each hand fitting into each of the cones. They present different faces as the fingers and thumb spread the cones apart first one way then the other, back and forth. The one whose fortune is being told picks a facet, the back and forth movement stops, a flap of paper is lifted, revealing the fortune written there. “Going steady”, “No way”, “Ask again later,” Grade school divination, arbitrary, true. If she turns towards him, she cares. There, she takes a sip of wine and shifts her body in her chair with a movement as slight as the pointer on a Ouija board, opening towards him. He feels a rush of relief, can breathe again.
They’d met at the agency. His designer had left to work for an Internet startup two days before a major deadline and though he rarely had any luck with temp agencies, he was desperate enough to call one for some help. C. had appeared at his desk and introduced herself. In her mid twenty’s, her smile the first thing anyone would notice, as wide and well drawn as a comic book heroine’s. Even, brilliant teeth, effortless, illuminating her face, igniting her beauty the way magnesium ribbon bursts into a blinding white flame when heated with a blow torch, like he’d done as a kid in his makeshift lab in the basement of the house he grew up in. He’d see her without it, the days she’d come in late, haggard, looking lost, plain. She’d tell him later about her relationship with the out of work actor/bartender, how he couldn’t hold a job, had started watching WWF three nights a week. She’d retreated into pot, wine and the Home and Garden TV channel in another room. “I learned how to build a stone fountain” she’d told him, amazed at herself.
Her petite figure made him look it up: ” pixie – a mischievous sprite in diminutive human form having magical powers”, but the fullness of her breasts, the tightening at her waist, the roundness of her hips suggested something more serious than mischief. The heat in her shapeliness always took him by surprise – it was at odds with the good-humored warmth in her face, only hinted at in the very corners of her smile, a seductive overtone that he wouldn’t notice until later. It possessed him when he was near her, followed him home and hovered over his sleep like a fever.
He’d read about a study done a few years before. He recognized some of the institutions involved, the authors had their methodology down, it seemed legitimate. They wanted to establish whether or not there were proportions of the female body that were attractive to men regardless of culture, class, religion, race. Universal standards of desire. Marcel Duchamp would get a charge out of that he thought, with his interest in the physics of attraction – his “love gasoline”, “desire motor” he’d remembered since art history classes at Berkeley before dropping out to play the local jazz clubs full time. The study found men were attracted to large breasts, small breasts, long legs and wasp waists, big Guess jeans blondes, delicate porcelain figurine types, nothing consistent except for a certain ratio of hips to waist, which seemed to get men hard the world over – the golden mean of desirability. Three to two, three to four, he couldn’t remember exactly but he knew whatever it was, she was a living example. He was thankful for something he didn’t have to invent or question. Still, he was ashamed of letting his eyes wander over her body as she’d walk away from his desk in the hip, snug outfits she’d wear, hoping she didn’t notice. “Did you ever fantasize about me?” she’d ask later. “I didn’t have your permission,” he says, which she thinks is funny. “That’s what fantasies are for,” she laughs. “For when you don’t have permission.”
Her smile echoed “It’s all good” which she’d often say in a sing songy drawl like a ventriloquist, without disturbing her smile. The phrase was everywhere, on the radio, Letterman, in ads and the Internet newsletter he edited, an idea virus reflecting the positive fatalism of the times, a happy face for the last days of the millennium. There was a dry erase board at work with an informal scrawled list of uncool phrases and behavior with varying demerit points for each, like “using a cel phone inside – 500 pts.,” “using a cel phone inside and billing it to the company – 5,000 pts.,” “wearing sunglasses inside – 1,000,” “colored sunglasses – 10,000,” “wearing a poncho – 20,000” (no one knew why this one was up there), the phrase “viral,” as in self propagating marketing messages – 1,000. “It’s all good” was up there for maybe 5,000 points, but when she said it, it was a lullaby, a prayer being answered. He’d hear it like wind moving the branches of a tree, the way she drew out “aaaaaall”, the reedy resigned tone like a saxophone line in a samba from a French New Wave film soundtrack, the phrasing that said she’d seen enough with her father dying of AIDS, her last relationship, her breakdowns, to know that though the universe, the totality is good, individual events can be savage and heartbreaking.
A short time before, he’d hired a production assistant, a Japanese girl who within a few months began seething with disappointment at not advancing to designer, a position she had absolutely no talent for. She’d accidentally miswritten a few lines of programming code and published a client’s internal documents, sensitive information about a new product line, to a public Web site a few weeks before a major industry trade show. The client discovered the error and the files were deleted apparently before competitors could stumble across them, but the agency had come close to losing a $20 million client.. She was reprimanded at a staff meeting and later emailed an eloquent formal apology to the team, saying “my regret is almost unbearable”. There was something ceremonial about the wording. He imagined her sitting cross legged on a bamboo mat in a kimono specially designed for the occasion holding a blade against her belly. He wasn’t sure women did that kind of thing until he remembered a scene from Madame Butterfly, which he’d seen after winning free tickets from the local NPR station. As he read her email again, he recognized how lonely he was – almost unbearably.
He would look over C.’s shoulder reviewing her work on her computer monitor, barely able to keep from brushing his lips against the olive brown back of her neck, but he knew she was in a relationship and as her supervisor it would be wrong. More than that, her smile invited nothing. She would offer it freely at the jokes he managed to pull off, tongue-tied and ashamed of himself as he was around her, but other than that, not a glance, the smile never held for a moment longer than was proper, nothing for him to hold on to though he strained for the faintest sign. Even at the small going away party the team threw for her at a local Irish bar, after enough beer to find the courage to ask her to dance to a Stones song on the jukebox, her body gave nothing away. Later, he captured her attention with a long streaming rant on mainstream movie sex, that in an interview, Martin Scorcese had said he didn’t have a clue on how to portray it, that since the 70’s no one had captured it with naturalism aside from “Breaking the Waves” and a few others, that it tended to be stiff, static and as choreographed as a fight scene but with the passion and grace drained out of it, if he was a director, how he’d get it right. She listened, but he couldn’t tell if she was interested in what he was saying or just being polite since it was clear he was on a soapbox. He wished he could trade some eloquence to be a few years younger. As it was, there were at least twenty between them.
At closing time, unwilling to let the night end, he suggested the group head to the beach for a walk in the sand. Dave and another couple were into it and he was surprised when C. decided to join them. They piled into his car and drove the mile or two, then climbed out stumbling drunk. Even after leaving behind a half dozen empty pint glasses on the table – he’d called it her “glass menagerie,” but no one was sober enough to get the reference – she was poised as a princess with her shoes held in one hand, tip-toeing onto the beach below the pier, past the Cirque de Soliel tents pitched in a parking lot, glowing beneath the sodium vapor lights.
It was a warm August night blanketed by still air. He asked if anyone wanted to go for a swim. Dave was surprisingly modest, insisting they get undressed farther up the beach away from the others. He looked for C. to see if she was nearby, if he had her attention, but she was lost in conversation with one of the girls, oblivious. He and Dave stripped and ran into the endless dark olive water, the parking lot and pier lights diffused through the fog merging the two states together into seasky, like timespace, a continuum.
He remembered the last time they had all gone out drinking together. At the end of the night, he and Dave had ended up talking for hours leaning against their cars in the underground garage. Beaten “big time” by his father, a rodeo rider who was disinherited by his wealthy Pasadena family for marrying a Spanish woman. His mother was remote, loved neither him nor his father, but sided with his father when forced to. She got Dave into studying karate “to defend myself against my father.” Dave breaks down as he’s telling it. “Is that fucked up or what?” He was so stunned he couldn’t move, couldn’t reach out and touch Dave’s shoulder, it was that fucked up. “Nothing is ever good enough,” Dave almost screamed, spit , tears and snot flying as he stood there helpless. Not her beauty, the moment, nothing.
Dave was a strong swimmer, “an ex-life guard”, and sprinting into the surf, dove into an incoming wave and swam hard for the horizon. Following as best he could, he was soon out in deep water, out of breath and quickly getting cold. “Hey man, slow down, take it easy,” he shouted to be heard above the hum of the surf and distant traffic. Dave treaded water comfortably, looking back toward shore and laughing, spitting and wiping water from his face, “This is great. This is beautiful. Check it out.” He followed Dave’s eyes, turned and saw the glowing Cirque tents behind them and the spinning lights of the Ferris Wheel like fireworks on the pier. As he treaded water shivering, he thought how easy it would be to keep swimming out into the pea green oneness, hidden by the fog until he couldn’t swim any farther.
Two months later her email arrived. She’d left her boyfriend. “I’ve been thinking about you” she’d written. He was surprised to feel a sudden wetness on the inside of his thigh after reading it a few times, amazed that a few chaste words, a few pixels on his computer screen could have that effect.
The head waitress walks away after taking their order.
“Greece is beautiful,” C. says.
He’s already feeling the wine. “Sad beautiful or happy beautiful” he says looking at a DiChirico-like illustration on the menu. A water pitcher and flowers arranged on a table on a sunny veranda, the sea in the background.
“What do you mean?” she asks and he shows her. “You mean the blues, the cold colors?”
“There aren’t any people in it,” he says.
The head waitress drifts by, motions toward the wine, “Would you care for another?”
He pauses, looking to C., gauging, again imagining the paper petals opening, closing, opening, closing.
“Yes,” C. jumps in at his pause. The smile. Going steady.
They’ve hardly touched their food. The head waitress asks if they’re done.
“When I’m with her I don’t feel like eating,” he says.
“That’s sweet,” says the head waitress. “It shows that you have…,” she searches for the word, “…chemistry”.
“If we moved in together, I’d be dead in a month,” he says. Ha ha.
“It must be the, what do you call them, the pheromones,” says the head waitress as she clears the table. Ha ha.
More wine. A sudden blood sugar spike. “ Who’s dream is this?” He asks her.
“What do you mean?” She’s going with it.
“Is this your dream or mine we’re in tonight?”
“How do you know this isn’t real?” she asks.
“If it was real, we’d be awake,” He says.
“You maybe. Not me.” Another sip.
“So what do you call this? Sleepeating?” Sleepdrinking?
“Maybe that’s why I ‘m not hungry,” he says. Ha ha.
She notices the piano against the wall behind him. “Do you play?” she asks.
“I took lessons for a few years when I was a kid. Do you?”
“I only know a song my Grandmother taught me.” She sings “Tell – me – why – is– life – so – beautiful?” She pantomimes playing the melody, her fingers in mid air, singing in a guileless voice. Sad beautiful or happy beautiful?
He’d read that scientists had discovered the universe is expanding faster than previously thought, accelerating as it gets older. It felt like women he desired were moving away from him faster every day, bright young stars less and less influenced by his gravity, the proportion of hips, waist, breasts arrayed like a constellation, the golden mean racing away, its harmony and warmth more distant, the universe emptier and colder every day.
He’d been waiting to meet a headhunter in a small room on the 23rd floor of a Century City highrise for an interview with a new headhunter. He hadn’t heard back from the last one….after he’d been laid off two weeks ago. At his age it was hard enough to hang onto an Internet job, let alone find a new one. He set his day planner on a glass topped table and glanced down at the reflection of his face lit by the bright winter sun in a clear light blue sky pouring in through the floor to ceiling windows. Twice a year LA could seem a city like any other, with the possibility of hope, history, love. He was transfixed by the compounding folds of skin around his eyes, the hint, more than a hint of jowls, a new eddy current of wrinkles flowing out across his forehead, arbitrarily across the bridge of his nose, the severe lines below his mouth from pursing his lips in his grandmother’s ungenerous judgmental pout. “Loo-ville” Kentucky she’d say. “Los An-gull-ese”. He used to describe her as “pioneer stock” though there wasn’t much evidence of it other than her father taking the family camping high in the Sawtooth Range in Idaho when she was young. They’d set up their gear by a stream and live in tents all summer long. The truth was they were homeless by today’s standards, but if she wanted to think of it as camping, no one bothered to call her on it. She was stern, harsh like he’d pictured the weather in those mountains and hard to love and his brothers and sister had given up trying. But when he’d returned from his stay in Brazil with the Peace Corps and come down with a paralyzing fever while staying with her, she ministered to him every moment and made her devotion clear to him without a word. Her laugh was as sudden as the sun appearing from behind storm clouds, then dying out in a sigh like wind through the fir trees at timber line.
He reached a hand out to smooth the folds of flesh, lift his drooping cheeks, thinking this is how she must see him when he was on top of her, enfolding her tight beneath him.
“How ya doin?” the client bounded into the room with that every-moment’s-an-opportunity enthusiasm particular to L.A. The city was still too new to know much about failure, about losing its place in the sun, except for maybe briefly in the early 90’s after the riots and the earthquake, but too single-minded to let it slow it down much. “Irrepresible,” “unsinkable”, like an ad slogan he’d crafted.
He’d look at the snapshot of them taken at the company Christmas party, their first date. She’s radiant, her smile like the sun, he can only see details of her when he looks away. Though he seems twice as tall as she, towering over her, his eyes are smaller than hers, hidden, which would explain why she seems to see so much more than he does. It had been a profitable year for the agency as they rode the wake of the dot.com boom. They’d rented an enormous movie studio to throw the party’ in. Huge ice sculptures of Greek gods and beasts of prey, transvestite cigarette girls. As he walked with her through the crowd introducing her, he found every excuse he could to touch her even briefly, guiding her with a moment’s pressure of one hand to her waist, her shoulder, hoping for some response but she might as well have been made of glass. They both had plenty to drink at the party and then at his local bar where they’d gone when they couldn’t take any more of the generic ‘70’s disco. As they leaned against the wall in a corner beneath the mirror ball, fragments of light playing across her face and body like bits of code, he’d interrupted her telling him about her father’s last days by suddenly pulling her to him and holding his breath until to his relief she slowly, deliberately returned his embrace. “Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou” he whispered over and over, too drunk to care if she’d heard him, running his hands up and down her back, drinking her warmth and smoothness, her contours, embracing her in gratitude more than desire.
He’d taken her home, invited her in for one for the road. in the darkened kitchen, he found himself embracing her with her back to him, then turning her around facing him, pinning her hard against the wall and sliding his hands under her skirt, grabbing her ass in both hands, only the thong of her underwear between them, his hands moving over her, absorbing her, then, drunk as he was, picking her up like a child.
“You’re strong,” she said.
“Strong enough,” he said as he carried her into the bedroom.
He couldn’t remember undressing, how his hands found her, moved over her like the shadow of clouds across the ground. They made out slowly, then furiously, matching each other riff for riff.
He put a finger inside her. “More fingers” she moaned. He gave her more. She went into a trance grinding hard against them. “I want a lot” she whispered.
“You mean you want it a lot?”, he asked.
“I mean I want a lot,” she said again definitely.
He knew at that moment he would never have enough for her, that what he had to give she didn’t need.
She rolled over onto her back. He knelt between her legs, his hands spread like a butterfly, one palm flat against her belly, the other cradling the cheeks of her ass, enfolding her above and below like a saddle, both thumbs inside her. He braced himself and drove his thumbs deep into her until his palms slammed hard against her as she ground against them, raising herself off the bed, arms and forelegs fully extended, her hips slowly swaying in the air, while her body began to tremble, together like the complex wave of a musical tone, the broad slow swings of the fundamental note overlaid with trembling harmonics, a vibration bringing the world into being. She came, a solid core of muscle and veins, straining as if in childbirth. It was frightening and lovely and he felt like he’d done something worthwhile. Still, he envied her pleasure, her release, knowing he’d never allow them for himself.
“When was the last time someone told you how fine you are?” he asked, his head supported on one hand as he lay resting beside her. She smiled at him expectantly.
“You – are – so – fine,” he said as he ran his hand across her thighs, belly, breasts, drawing it out like street talk from his days as a musician, which he’d lapse into from time to time. The words he was brought up on were too pale, too fragile to convey certain fundamental things, would shatter under the pressure. He smelled her on his hands, in his hair, wanted to take her smell with him everywhere.
He paused in his caressing. “All good?” he asked.
“Aaaaall good,” she sighed and smiled.
“Promise?” he asked.
He would ask her how she’d felt about him when they’d worked together, about the dreams she’d had about him.
“Why does the past matter so much?” she asked. “We’re not there anymore.”
“It’s not that simple,” he said and paused, trying to gather his thoughts, as if trying to explain a ghost sighting or alien abduction. “I know it sounds strange, but it’s like it all exists at once, you know, like we’re still there, even now.” He’d said as if in a trance “I want to let him know somehow, that pitiful guy from a few months ago that someone cares about him. Know what I mean?” He could see himself as through a window in an office building across from the one he worked in, sitting behind his desk delivering awkward, veiled compliments about her hair, her lipstick, she, mute, returning nothing more than her elfin smile, now she’s in his arms, now his face buried in her, now she’s lifting her hips up off the bed toward him, the future unwinding and folding back on itself like the contour of the lips of her sex.
He wanted to understand how his life could change so suddenly, how she came to be in it, as if understanding could prevent her being taken from him.
“You must have known,” she said
“You didn’t give me a sign. Nothing. Do the math,” he said.
“I hate math,” she said and kissed him.
“Good luck with the pheromones,” the head waitress says as he pays the bill. Out on the sidewalk they weigh the options. They decide to get a bottle and park somewhere. At a liquor store on La Brea they buy canned martinis and flavored Jack Daniels cocktails. He tells her how they used to mix quarts of homemade Harvey Wallbangers and sneak them into clubs in their instrument cases. She registers it but isn’t as impressed as he’d hoped.
He drives up into the hills looking for a place to park, wanting to get it right, but it’s too steep and dark and deserted in the turnoff by the reservoir where years ago he’d parked with K. The darkness had been sweeter then, enfolding. Tonight it threatens to absorb them completely, a malignant olive-shaded blackness like the Winslow Homer painting that haunted him as a kid in his mother’s book of American paintings: a sailboat with a broken mast drifting in a stormy sea, swells and sharks surrounding it, a lone black sailor on deck laying on his back, his bare torso propped up on his elbows, eyes focused on the horizon, but casually, like he’s kicking back at the beach in Santa Monica waiting to score dope or a girl, incongruously suspended in the surrounding hopelessness.
“This isn’t working,” C. says flatly. He speeds back down the hill, veering out of his lane, losing time, sweating it, trying to keep it light, trying to keep it together. They drive in silence, which is a first for them. He finally finds a parking spot above the Mayfair market on Franklin. “Is it too bright?” he asks. “No. It’s fine.” she says. She’s being patient with him, which is new and painful. He focuses on salvaging what’s left of the night. They pop open the cocktails.
“Tell me what you like,” she says casually, asking him about his sex fantasies and sipping her drink.
“We haven’t even fucked yet and you want to talk about fantasies?” He’s been waiting for this opportunity. “Have you ever read Women are From Mars, Men Are From Venus?”
“Oh God.” She looks out the window, disgusted. “Donna’s getting her masters in Psych. She told me the guy who wrote that is a total fraud. He’s had no training. He’s just making it up.”
He wishes he’d been more dismissive. “Yeah, OK, the guys a geek. But someone gave me the books on tape version,” as if that will get him off the hook, “and one thing he said made an impression. He pauses. “Men need to feel needed. And I don’t know what you need from me.”
“I like how you stimulate me intellectually, “ she says, pauses. “The physical stimulation is nice too.”
It stings, but she says it so evenly, openly and with so little artifice that it won’t be until days later that he’ll feel like a toy, one of those double penetration dildos. He’d read in a spy novel about an assassin walking past his victim on a crowded street and discretely slicing his belly open with a blade so sharp he’d felt no pain. It wasn’t until the victim turned a corner and his guts fell on the sidewalk that he realized he’d been killed.
“Liking isn’t needing,” He says.
“Nothing, I don’t need anything,” she shoots back. “Want, maybe.”
“Wanting’s not enough. I think we’re hard-wired, there’s a gene or something. Men need to be needed or we’re nothing, we’re just, I don’t know, guys.”
“Men? What about you?”
“I think you need me but you just don’t know it.”
“If I admitted I did, would that be enough for you?”
He takes a long drink, wasn’t prepared for this.
“I just want to keep it light and spontaneous,” she says finally, covering the silence.
“I AM being spontaneous.”
He tells her the dream he had last night about sleeping in the back seat of his car and a young girl trying to climb in the window.
“How young? Twelve?”
She’s messing with him, back on the fantasy thing. “I’m not into that,” he says. “She wanted to climb into my lap, but I told her I had a girlfriend.”
“Was I the girlfriend?” She asks.
She stares at him. “You want to be in a relationship, don’t you?”
“No, it’s not that,” and then, he suddenly thinks of a couple he’d seen in a Volvo ad on TV walking up a short flight of stairs together, his arm around her waist, talking about whose turn it is to cook dinner. “Yeah, I do.” Then. “What do you call what we’re doing?”
They drink some more. He hammers away at her, saying It’s not fair, he deserves more, he can’t handle it the way it is. He’s buzzed now, losing the subtleties of the moment beneath the noise floor. She’s quiet, her head bowed. He sees an extra layer of glassiness in her wide, already-liquid eyes. There, slowly, again, the paper petals opening and closing, a tear, his imagination, no, it’s not. He holds his breath, his eyes frantic, sucking information out of the soft, dim, grainy light from the nearby apartment, the buzz jamming the image like bad TV reception, or a movie shot on super 8 film, watching slow as the hour hand on a clock, slow as the stars seem to glide past the telephone wires as the earth rotates while he stands outside in the driveway each night for a smoke and a prayer, round, clear and perfect it appears, a single drop, like portrait by Man Ray, a woman’s lower lid lined with diamonds, a pearl, like honey, now rolling down her cheek. He thought her smile wouldn’t allow it, that he’d have to hurt her in some terrible way before ever seeing one, but here it is, unexpected. Oh honey, oh sugar.
“Are you…crying?” he asks and brushes the hair from her eyes. “I never thought I’d see it,” he says.
“I cry all the time” she says, looking down at her lap.
“Hey, what do you mean? All good, remember? Hey,” he says, moves in closer, continues stroking her hair, cradling her head at the end of each stroke.
“I wish I could care more,” she says wiping her tears away with the back of her hand.
He remembered making love with G. when they’d become as close as they ever would. After, with her lips to his ear while her breath was calming, he’d heard her whisper “Iloveyou”, more one continuous breath than word, with only the slightest shaping by her lips and tongue. He froze, not sure he’d heard it, warmed and frightened in the same instant. She lay beneath him, suddenly still, which meant he hadn’t imagined it. He’d pretended he hadn’t heard, that it hadn’t happened. What a fucking coward, he thought now. He’d wanted to ask her what loving him felt like, to have her describe the texture, explain to him how it was done.
And he remembered sitting in the car with her the last day of their acquaintance. It had been going badly for a while. He could hardly bring himself to touch her the night before at the bar on Highland where they’d gone to see the folk bands play and later, sex had been remote and by the numbers. It was the next morning and they were parked in his driveway after breakfast at a local coffee shop. She was about to get her things and head home to her condo in Encino after spending the weekend. As he was telling her it was over he was typically indecisive. “I want you so much”, he was saying as if that was enough.
“But you don’t love me,” she’d said with finality that surprised him. He was too ashamed to look at her but felt the car tremble under him as she sobbed silently. After a few weeks, she stopped returning his calls and answering his long emails telling her how the clouds were shaped like her body everpresent above him.
“Your hands are so cold,” C. says.
”So are yours,” he says.
They drive to where she parked her car, murmuring inconsequentials to each other, quiet as moths beating softly against the window glass. He walks her to the black Audi wagon the guys at work check out when she picks him up for lunch. She bought it on impulse. He likes that about her. They reach the driver’s door and she turns to him. He presses her against the door, she suddenly pulls his face to her and sucks his tongue into her mouth, he answers by shoving it deeper into her, his hands move from her hips to under her breasts, gripping her rib cage tightly, his fingers almost touching behind her back, his thumbs pressing her nipples into her, feeling her bend, their tongues circling, she spreads her legs slightly, he jams one thigh between them, working them apart, forcing her hard against the car, her fake fur coat only half covering them in the passing car headlights, this is how you touch, his hands down the back of her pants sliding over her ass, grabbing the string of her thong underwear and pulling it tight against her pussy until he hears her gasp, his hands moving, their bodies under tension like stretched guitar strings.
“You drive me crazy,” she says, “you know that don’t you?”
He buries his head in her shoulder. “But you don’t love me,” he whispers into her neck.
“Hnnn?” she’s buzzed, lost in it.
“Yeah,” he doesn’t know what else to say. He’s never really thought about it, driving her crazy. He thinks of clouds drifting, how he wants to pin her like a specimen beneath him with his cock, look inside her, find his reflection there.
“Oh, Oh, OHH!” she says with finality for both of them and they disengage slowly. He opens the door for her, she gets in. He squats in the street looking up at her in the driver’s seat. From below she looks older, stronger.
“You look handsome in the street light,” she says.
He stands, kisses her once more, and backs away as she closes the door. A motor whines and there’s a soft scraping sound as he waits for the window to lower.
“Saturday? Your place?” she says.
“Sure,” he says.
The window whines shut, her smile blazing behind it, the engine cranks, she waves and is gone, the street, clouds, headlights, merging, swallowing him in a grey continuum.