She runs down the slope into the greenhouse and pulls the door behind her with one fluid gesture, a blind demi-pirouette. Click of latch. Warm moist air on her flushed cheeks. On the surface of her eyeballs. Breathe. Breathe. Life should not be a battlefield. Life should be a garden.
They debated the most trivial questions just to fill the spaces: Is enthuse a legitimate word or an awkward contrivance? Is it possible for a woman to fully appreciate Sometimes A Great Notion? Is true love verifiable or merely theoretical? They met at a party in Newport Beach on the longest day of the year. By midnight they were lying on the slant of wet sand above the ebbing tide, pants around their ankles, half-numb from beer, he was on top of her, and all she knew was the smell of rotting seaweed, the sound of surf, and something hard and rough scraping the skin of her lower back.
Today’s the last day of summer. They spend it riding buses, criss-crossing patterns over the length and breadth of L.A. on a single fare, taking another transfer chit each time they get off, then boarding the next bus going the other way, riding on and on and never arriving, until finally, as the sun sinks into the Pacific, a perfect red kickball, they say goodbye and walk their separate ways.
He is flying east again, thinking about his ex-girlfriend. She was a perfect cupcake, just the right size, with frosting. Toenails like tiny fire engines. Watching the little screen, no sound, noticing the way the actress enunciates, the way she flips her hair. He thinks of her naked with her hair pulled back off her face, her cheekbones and pointy chin. No free pretzels anymore. The woman in 22D has trail mix. She used to bring him cookies, little treats, let him finish her meals. The pills help his anxiety but don’t stop the sadness. The turbulence is smoothing out. The flight attendant glides up the aisle like a dancer, away from him. He can’t bear to watch them do those hand motions indicating the locations of the overwing exits. From 22C he cannot see the famous skyline, the oil tanks like a field of ripe watch batteries. He looks at the models in the magazine ads. He will continue to age, but she will always look the same in his memory, except smaller and farther away.
They say biting your nails is a kind of O.C.D., the good kind, I’m sure, he says out loud, surprising himself with the momentary unfamiliarity of his own voice. He would trade his kind in a heartbeat, that of counting the tiles on the floors of unfamiliar bathrooms, measuring with his eyes where he would put a cot if this space enclosed a simple cabin.
He drinks more than three cups of coffee a day, elevating his risk for blindness caused by exfoliation glaucoma. If this were his cabin, seven by eight feet with a bed opposite the sink and paper towel dispenser, he’d have no trouble navigating it blind.
They say that Michigan is a pleasant peninsula, but he knows it’s nothing at all like Florida.
He drove the rusty pickup west, cooler on the passenger seat and spit can between his knees, past all the towns that start with B, to her cabin on that little trout stream west of Missoula. The had met last summer on a fire crew. She could swing a Pulaski like nobody’s business. She went maybe a buck-ten soaking wet, but she had the timing, knees and wrists like cracking a whip. This would be their first time since.
The dry snow crunched underfoot like fresh celery. Inside, his glasses fogged up, but he heard her voice, sweet as sorgo, and felt her hands on his shoulders and chest as she helped him out of his coat. They sat by the wood stove, reacquainting. She pulled her sweater over her head in one neat motion. He saw the fine hair in her arm pits, golden like prairie grass after the first hard frost.
Of course he needs specially tailored clothes, but at least he can pay for them now, not like when he was a child wearing crude home-sewn pants. He waltzes, but can’t two-step. He never learned to ride a bicycle, but now he’s a Formula 1 driver, with one foot each for the gas, brake and clutch. He is banned from the three-legged race at the company picnic for having a leg up on the competition.
SHE IS DRIFTING in the warm lulling roar of the laundromat. She is a writer of erotica, and she has her standards. No vampires, no werewolves, no zombies. She’s no prude; au contraire, light bondage is just too trendy, has lost its appeal for her.
The way afternoon light kisses clean sheets. The breeze that stirs the curtains. Bare skin in all its colors, how it blushes and blotches and glows. Her reflection in the fish-eyed dryer door, her lips around the long straw in her frappuccino. She sucks it dry and revels in the throaty gurgle of the last drops. Clothes tumble round and round, a mad chase of bras and panties.
TO PUSH THROUGH the heavy glass door of the laundromat warm and moist and thrummy into the hard winter air is to be born again, the same gulping reflex. She does not cry, just hurries along the patchy sidewalk, past the bodega-slash-taqueria, down the 6th Street grade toward the coast highway, canvas bag over her shoulder. The houses are ragged, perched uncertainly on small lots. Her scalp itches under an acrylic ski hat.
Fort Bragg is that kind of town, not far from Frisco but closer to Coos Bay or Aberdeen by the looks of it. You’re not supposed to say Frisco but she doesn’t care. Sometimes she walks aimlessly for hours, hands jammed in her front pockets. Her jeans are looser this year, held up by a braided hemp rope. Her old boyfriend said she was hipless as a snake. He was a classic inland dumbfuck from a place called Leggett Hill. He talked her into a three-way in the back bedroom with a bleached blonde with big floppy tits after a long night of drinking, which left her feeling hung over and inadequate. She quit him, and tequila, cold turkey the next morning after throwing up in the kitchen sink.
Thank God she wasn’t pregnant. Lots of erotica writers are, you know. No one knows why, and she doesn’t want to find out.
THE CEILING is a familiar tension of cracks, plate tectonics. She lies alone on the stripped mattress. She is a candle that will not stay lit, a wax figure in a darkening room. Click of the radiator. She wants to be Lucinda Williams purring I lie on my back and moan at the ceiling, but all she can hear is Amanda Palmer singing the first orgasm of the morning is like a fire drill, it’s nice to have a little a little warning but not enjoyable.
They told her California would fall into the sea. Take me, she whispers, I’m already underwater.
THE PARTICULAR BRIEF PANIC of waking alone in the dark, unsure for a moment whether it is a.m. or p.m. The absence of sea gull cries. She pulls on her skinny jeans, zips her boots. Puts water on for tea. Lights a cigarette off the blue gas flame. Calls Jeanna. Come on. Fuck, no answer. She still owes me $40.
On her iPod, Aretha sings you make me feel like a na-tuh-ral wo-mun. Breathe. Okay.
This is her territory, the streets at night. Cap pulled low, hair tucked in her army surplus coat, hands in fingerless gloves, fists pushed into pockets.
As she strides through the double shadows between street lights, passersby think she’s a boy.
SHE IS HALFWAY through the overnight shift at the call center. Her given name is Julie but she has gone by Rainy ever since some crazy bitch threatened to kill her over a mistake on her phone bill.
Sometimes, after midnight mostly, when she asks is there anything else I can help you with, men will tell her she sounds pretty, ask her to describe herself, what she’s wearing, the size and shape of her breasts, the color and style of her panties, where she likes to be touched. She has one of those voices that arouses the perverts who have questions about their long distance charges or data plans, makes them ask her to mail them her panties after she has worn them first. Sometimes, on slow nights, she talks to them for a while, plays along, humors them, to the annoyance of the gal in the next cubicle, a Bible banger. After all, she majored in English at Santa Cruz.
After two, hardly anyone calls. She gets up to stretch her legs and pee. She locks the door, hovers over the toilet, tinkles, does a little shake, pulls her jeans over her hip bones, leans toward the mirror over the sink, studies her face at close range. She is 28 but still gets carded.
A PALE ROSY DAWN blooms as she climbs the stairs to her apartment. The laundry is still in the bag. She is too tired to make breakfast, too tired to make the bed. She takes off all her clothes, even her wool socks, and wraps herself tightly in the old red quilt. She closes her eyes and is already half asleep, dreaming of hands touching her, on her legs, on her belly, stroking her softly. Sleep is her heavy blanket, her patient lover, her only friend, the demarcation of one lonely day from the one before and the one yet to come.