Fiction • Leslie Jamison
He was a poet who worked with intricate forms—villanelles and pantoums—but during our month together he spoke quite simply. He had an evident lisp, a thin wet breeze running through his words.
I met him at my regular bakery in May. While I was paying at the register, I noticed him palming chunks of fresh-baked bread from a tray of free samples. He dropped handfuls into his pockets. They sent up curls of steam.
A few minutes later he found me at a table near the window. “Thanks for keeping them distracted while I grabbed that bread,” he said.
“I wasn’t trying to distract anyone,” I told him. “Aren’t you supposed to take samples, anyway?”
“Not like I do.”
I thought he might empty his pockets right there at the table to show me his loot. But he just fished out one slice—gingerly, extending two long fingers into his pockets—and ate it slowly, hovering. He had black ruffled hair and dimples so large they changed the shape of his face when he smiled.
“Are there walnuts in that bread?” I asked him. I sounded like a customs inspector.
“Dunno,” he said. “But it tastes good.”
We were silent for a moment. He kept standing there, chewing. I imagined following him home, tracking a winding trail of bread crumbs all through the Mission.
He flipped out one pocket and let the samples scatter across the table. “These would be useful in the woods,” he said. “We could always find our way back home.”
“I was just thinking that!” I said. Though I hadn’t been, exactly.
He came over that night to see my fire escape. I announced this to my roommate, vaguely breathless: “I met a guy and he’s coming to see my fire escape.”
She said: “Sounds like a euphemism to me.”
I shook my head. “It’s not like that. He writes poems about fire escapes.” Which he’d told me that morning. I wondered what his poems were like. Perhaps fire escapes were a kind of code for sex, for him. Perhaps all of his metaphors sounded like punch lines.
Half-an-hour after he was supposed to arrive, there was a knock at my bedroom window. He’d climbed up. He was holding a box of frozen fish sticks in one hand and a bag of gummy bears in the other. I opened the window and took them while he crawled in. I asked him how he knew which room was mine.
“I took a guess,” he said. “Things could have been awkward.”
I handed the box back. “I haven’t had fish sticks since pre-school.”
“They’ll be better than you remember.”
“They were fantastic.”
“They’ll be even better this time. Trust me.”
We burned them in the oven and washed away the taste of their charred edges with a bottle of cheap Shiraz, sharing my only real wine glass. We sat together on my small black couch, nibbling and watching late-night cartoons about mythological characters. In one episode, a shepherd boy went looking for gods. He was angry about something that had happened before we turned on the program. He called up the side of a cliff: “You don’t know what it’s like to be human!”
An old man with a white beard appeared at the top of the rocks. He was maybe Zeus, maybe not. His voice boomed when he spoke: “I had a mortal heart, but it broke.”
The poet leaned his face close to mine: “This show is awesome.”
I nodded yes and let him kiss me. His body was heavy on mine. I liked feeling his hands beneath my back. We slept together that night—just slept—and it was lovely to wake up next to him, an almost-stranger absolutely solid next to me, swelling as he breathed. His skin felt faintly feverish when I touched my lips to his neck.
Hours after he left, I wandered into the kitchen and found our oven tray in the sink. I picked off crusty flaps of burnt breading and stood there for a minute, sucking crumbs from my fingers.
We spent the next four days together, reading at Tartine during the days and wandering through different neighborhoods at dusk. In Chinatown he bought me salty plums, wrinkled like wet skin, and showed me a bathtub full of frogs. We sat curbside on Stockton and shared a piece of fruit we couldn’t name, with tiny bulbs of white flesh lining its bitter skin. On Fillmore we got a plate of cinnamon-spiced chicken and picked shreds of filo from between our teeth. The chicken was sweet, so tender it melted off the bone.
“I love it when dinner crosses the line,” I said. “Moves into dessert.”
“You say things that are awesome,” he told me. “But you shouldn’t feel like you have to.”
“I don’t,” I said.
Around anyone else, it would have been a lie.
We spent every night together during that month. It wasn’t something we discussed. It was what we wanted, simple as that. I started having terrible dreams: A man’s voice would say “cancer” in the darkness but I couldn’t see his face, only his gleaming teeth. Or my skin would peel into ragged strips, lift from the bones and writhe like worms. I’d never had dreams like that before. I was compensating for an excess of bliss. I woke up suddenly one night, cold-sweating and shaky. He reached over to stroke my arm. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s these dreams,” I said. “I’m not sure where they’re coming from. Worms start appearing. Skin starts peeling.”
He said: “I’ll dream that with you.”
“In Spanish,” he said. “They don’t say you dream about something. They say soner con instead: dream with. Like your dreams are their own world, where people can join you.”
“I used to dream with snakes,” I said. “Now I dream with worms. What next?”
“The phallus itself,” he said. “You’ll dream with the phallus itself.” But he was mumbling. He was already drifting off. I wasn’t ready to go back to sleep. I realized that I actually preferred my waking life. This had not always been true for me. It was something I felt proud of.
When he left for work each morning, he left a note on the pillow. They were usually speckled with exclamation points, often several in the same sentence. Sometimes they were quotes from poems. Sometimes they were stupid, silly things: Marianne Mendez, I love when your name shows up on my cell phone. He told me that he’d shortened it when he entered my number: MariMe.
“Whenever you call,” he said. “It’s like you’re suggesting a wedding.”
“Which wouldn’t be so bad,” I said.
He nodded. “Which wouldn’t be so bad.”
We decided to drive my station wagon to L.A. for the weekend, but we made slow progress down the coast. Everything seemed interesting, the roadside full of possibilities. Cardboard signs advertising farm-grown produce made us wonder: What if these strawberries are the best we’ll ever taste?
We pulled off next to one sagging wooden stall and picked up flimsy woven buckets. We chose our own fruit and washed it with a dirt-lipped hose. He bent to drink from its rust-barnacled tip. I wanted to be fully inside our moments, but I felt myself slipping out of them, taking notes: The hose was army green; our fingers blood-shaded and sticky from juice. The man who took our money had only one thumb. Everywhere I turned, there was something remarkable. It seemed impossible that we could last, and impossible that we wouldn’t, and in the meantime the hose-water dripped cold from his stubbled chin, brushed my lips when I leaned to kiss his neck.
Back in the car, buckets tucked in our laps, we found the strawberries broke too easily between our teeth and tasted faintly metallic. But I was thankful for that, that they might have a texture I would be able to remember precisely. Neil Young kept us company on the ride: “Think I’ll pack it in and buy a pick up, take it down to L.A.… ”
We got a motel room in Pismo Beach and found a bar near the ocean: The Big Bluff, though there weren’t any bluffs in sight. When we walked in, the middle-aged bartender, rail-skinny and blond, warned us the jukebox had something against monster ballads. “Seems like it always gets stuck on Poison,” she said. “There’s no good reason for it. Whole thing jams up.”
Though I hadn’t thought of putting anything on, I used my last four quarters to choose three heavy-crooning rock songs. In equal measure, I wanted the machine to play and I wanted to see it break.
The bartender grinned at me: “You’re a dangerous woman, I can tell.”
I nodded. “But I like my liquor sweet.”
I ordered a vodka-cranberry, which made her smile. It was strange to watch. She had the palest lips I’d ever seen, thin and pink against her rosacia-blooming skin.
I gestured toward the poet, who was inspecting a wall of trophies. He had his sweatshirt tied in a bulky knot around his waist. “And a bourbon on the rocks.”
She squinted at him, raised her eyebrows at me. “He’s okay with well bourbon?”
I smiled. “You bet.”
She turned towards the bottles, showing the back of her fried-out mullet. The poet came behind me and tucked his chin into the place where my neck gave way to shoulder, kissed the back-shadows of my jaw.
“Do you know they give out trophies for whale-sighting?” He whispered. “Just for seeing?”
I smiled. I knew his face was close enough to feel my skin move. “There’s a kind of trust in that,” I said. “Or else it’s just a prize for telling stories.”
He said: “Which wouldn’t be so bad.”
I nodded: “Which wouldn’t be so bad.”
I went to the bathroom while he took our drinks to the patio. I didn’t even dry my hands. I felt every moment of his absence as something missed, which would have sounded foolish to admit to another person. But that was the thing—I didn’t have to say it to anyone. November Rain was playing as I walked outside, music drifting onto the patio from its own fierce world.
Sunset was just starting to light up the corners of the horizon. The ocean was huge and perfect beyond the patio railing, frothing across ledges of skin-colored sand. The salt air was rough, raising bumps along my arms, and the desire to touch him felt like a kind of humidity in the air. I thought of an essay I’d read about a guy who’d grown up seeing the Mediterranean in glimpses, flashes of blue between buildings during train rides. When he finally saw the unbroken sea from a hotel balcony—years later, as a man—he didn’t know what to do with the sight. I felt that way with the Pacific. It had always been mythic, part of someone else’s happiness.
I turned towards him: “I wish there were more words for what I feel with you.”
He kissed me. “It’s true,” he said. “Maybe that’s what we need nonsense for… a sort of broken language for joy.” He paused. “Also, I ordered a basket of fried cauliflower.”
From the jukebox, we could hear Slash launching into his solo. A small, secret side of me had always hoped this part could last forever, that the lyrics might never return.
“Slash owns the heart of this song,” he said.
I nodded. “And mine too.” I said: “What kind of nonsense would we use for this?”
He took my hand. “And how would it change with one word of meaning? Fa la la guitar? Fa la la Slash?”
I loved seeing his mind veering into thoughts, each one an original moment. I felt something open in myself. It was right and possible to see the Pacific all at once, the whole goddamned thing. You couldn’t see it at all without having it stretch further than you could see.
The bartender came out with a red plastic basket full of breaded lumps, golden brown, oozing cheese and grease onto the wax paper below.
“This’ll end your young lives,” she said. “So much fat it’s barely veggie anymore.”
When she left, he said. “Her whole life. You start.” This was a game we sometimes played. It had to do with strangers.
I said: “Her mother wanted her to be a stripper.”
He said: “When she was a kid, she’d sneak out to this broken oven in the alley behind her house. She’d sleep there all night long.”
I said: “She loves gathering secrets from old men she’ll never see again.”
He said: “She crumbles taco shells into her sandwiches. Eats alone.”
My inventions were like sketch-marks, connecting dots to form a made-up life. But his inventions! They were different, as if he’d taken the vast surface of a childhood, an entire loneliness, and distilled it into a single object: Something almost invisible. Something inevitably sad.
I took him to my favorite museum in L.A., a dim and confusing place where the exhibits weren’t related to each other at all. We wandered through cases of objects scavenged from various trailer parks: old milk jugs, used condoms, a crowbar speckled with warts of rust.
“Between the concepts of salve and salvage,” he asked. “Which do you like better?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s the difference between saving something from context and saving it from itself.”
“I like it when you’re smart,” he said. “But I like it when you’re stupid too.”
That night we found an old wooden lifeguard station and dangled our feet over the edge. Our shadows streaked across the sand-speckled concrete of the drainage creek below, long and wavering from the distant glow of a ferris wheel on the pier. The breeze was heavy with salt, humid on our tongues. We watched two figures sitting on the deck of the next station. They cut sharp black profiles against distant flickering lights and when the man stood up, we could see quite clearly what was going to happen: the woman kneeled in front of him, unbuckled his pants and leaned in. We watched her bend over the edge once she was done, nodding her head as she spit into the sand.
“I went through a phase where I wouldn’t swallow,” I said softly. I had something I was building towards.
“Did it have to do with feminism?” he asked. “Or with moods?”
“It was more like a mood. Definitely nothing like feminism,” I said. “I had issues with swallowing anything.”
“You were sick?”
I nodded. I’d been waiting for this moment ever since my disorder; the chance to show my wounded self to a man and feel him stare at it—stare at me—without flinching.
“I was anorexic,” I said. “For a while.”
I told him how my body used to be: ribs like a ladder above my tank-tops, wrists that looked broken because the knobs emerged so steeply. I told him about the places I’d fainted: my hallway, my mother’s bathtub, an old interstate rest stop. I used phrases like “appetite for sickness” and “bone-cold hunger.” I felt like I’d lived all of it—the weakness and the throbbing bellyaches and the gaunt-faced crying sessions—so I could deliver it to him like this.
He took my hand. He nodded sometimes. Once I ran out of things to say about how my body had been—and how it was—we sat quietly. It felt different than our first silences, those long mornings steeped in cold sunlight, reading our books while his fingers grazed the bone of my knee.
I wanted to talk forever so we’d never have to see the unspoken straight-on. I hated my own voice but I spoke anyway: of my ridiculous love for peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches, the thwarted course of my mother’s open marriage. I talked about silly toys you could only buy in Japan. I listed the names of my childhood pets and explained their hidden meanings.
There was a familiar rhythm to all this, full of comments I considered clever, but it felt like putting on a dirty outfit—something musty and sweat-stained, long discarded, foul with the odor of my own body. I had been someone else with him: less full of anecdote, suddenly able to say “I feel this deeply” without giggling or looking away. I mourned that self, felt it like a ghost rib tightening across the heart.
He broke up with me two days later. This happened back in my apartment.
“I feel myself become less complicated in this kind of intimacy,” he said. “The other facets dissolve. I’m left with something that feels too simple.”
“I feel myself contoured by you,” I said. “Like I’m in relief against another person. Like I would have to simplify myself for everything else.”
He seemed to grow more decisive as the night wore on. My own panic, the rising pitch of my evident pain—these were things that made him realize what he did not want me to ask him to become. “I feel drawn to a lack of attachment right now,” he said, which only made me want him more—not just to be with him but to be capable of his desires. I wanted to be whole, apart. But I felt huskish instead, throbbing at each place I had allowed him to enchant me.
It was quiet after he left. I waited for my body to stop existing or else get out of its chair. I took his glass of wine and threw it against the side of my fridge. I picked up one broken shell of glass and pressed it to the skin of my ankle—as I had done so many times in high school—but I couldn’t summon the energy to cut. I said hello out loud, to check if I could still make sound. I ran my tongue against the streaks of red dripping down the fridge to taste the wine he’d drunk. I stayed awake until morning.
For two weeks, I couldn’t fall asleep unless I was drunk, so I drank every night. I told everybody who would listen that I wasn’t doing well. “You don’t understand,” I explained. “I’m not usually like this.” But did it matter? This was who I’d become.
I sat on my fire escape for hours, listening to Slash’s solo on repeat. I divided days into sections based on when I would smoke my next cigarette. I often drank alone, sipping Shiraz from tea cups. I whispered affirming things to myself out loud: “Your pain can become something beautiful,” and tried to believe them.
I had thoughts all the time and I wrote them down on scraps of paper. Sometimes they were facts: I had a wine glass and it broke. Sometimes they were things I couldn’t finish: I had a mortal heart, but. I saved them with his notes but made my sister keep them in her apartment so I wouldn’t read them every night. I was going to put everything that reminded me of him into a box, but then I realized there was too much: my cum-stained sheets, my remote control, my entire refrigerator. If I’d really gotten started, I would have scoured my floor for fish crumbs and packed every single one.
Kevin was a tennis instructor who wanted to give books an honest chance.
“Reading,” he said. “I’ve always meant to do more of that.”
He’d overheard me describing myself as an avid reader. We were at a Summer Solstice party in Pac Heights that seemed to demand the use of such phrases. There was an actual pyramid of champagne glasses in the kitchen and a little dog wandering around with a Credit Suisse T-shirt dangling off his tiny barreled rib cage. Nobody seemed eager to claim him. He spent a lot of time pawing Kevin’s legs, sniffing at his pockets. I wondered if Kevin was the kind of guy who might keep a couple of chocolates stashed away. I hoped.
“Take it easy, Suisse-man.” Kevin pushed him away with his palm. He turned back to me: “What do you like to read?”
It seemed important to talk about something that didn’t matter at all.
“I’ve been reading about pigeons,” I said. “Pigeon war heroes.”
“Really?” he asked. “What’s that all about?”
“Carrying messages. Strategy secrets and all that.”
“I never knew much about birds,” he said. “Or wars.”
I nodded, kissed him on the lips. I sensed this would be an important skill for my evening with Kevin, figuring out how to end each of our conversations.
At midnight, Kevin started looking antsy. We’d been vaguely tethering each other for most of the party, circling and returning for more moments of awkward small talk and large, toothy smiles. “I hear the roof has a great view,” he said.
I nodded. “Let’s go.”
Another important thing about Kevin: He actually looked like a tennis instructor, with blue eyes that seemed—impossibly—to never blink, and broad shoulders that felt solid beneath my fingers when I slid past him to find the bathroom. I powdered my nose, leaned close to the mirror to see the gleaming, feverish eyes beneath my velvet-shadowed lids. I looked, more than anything, vaguely startled.
We had to climb a ladder from the patio to reach the roof. Kevin carried my drink and told me I was beautiful before he unbuckled his belt at the top.
I scraped my knees on the gravel when I kneeled, took one last look at the lights of the city before leaning in. I could feel the flush of my bleeding knees, their small cuts crusted with pebbles of tar. He kept his hand on my head. I kept my teeth out of the way.
He tasted like they all do, only he didn’t take as long as most.
Afterwards, he spread his jacket and patted the space next to him, as if we were about to share a picnic. He pulled out two cigarettes and we smoked together, tapping fragile flakes of ash all over the fabric. He tilted his head. “What are you thinking right now?”
I have made a point, during the course of my life, never to ask this question. I paused for a moment, said finally: “Betrayed by perfection, I seek its opposite.”
“You seem smart,” he said. “Can I call you sometime?”
I knew this was just a gesture we’d both participate in. “Sure.”
He entered my number into his cell phone and then stared at the screen for a moment, fingers poised over the keys.
“Would you like my name again?” I asked.
He said: “I would.”
He said: “I hope you know this doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
I said: “I bet.”
Victor was a joker and a holder of long, unbroken stares. He was my boss at a tutoring center for people with dyslexia.
“People with dyslexic tendencies,” he clarified at my interview.
“I’ve got those,” I told him. But he didn’t break a smile. He liked to make his own jokes.
He was a short man with a shaved head. He had these wonderful piercing eyes and a body that looked fierce and unpredictable, as if he might break into a sprint at any moment.
He stared at me for a long while, rapping his knuckles against the desk. I thought maybe there was something unseemly on my face. I’d eaten my almond croissant in a rush that morning, with jittery hands, and wondered if some of the paste had smeared across my chin.
“Do I have flakes on my face?”
“No,” he said. “I just find you attractive.”
I pulled my sleeves over my hands. I do that when I’m nervous.
“That thing you do with your sleeves,” he said. “It’s a sign of low self-esteem.”
“Well I’ve got that,” I said. “Low self-esteem, I mean.” I wanted to tell him that if I knew how, I’d build a sturdy mesh helmet and a nest of wool scarves and store them both in a tiny handbag I could flip open at any moment, for hiding purposes. But how can you explain that to a stranger?
He said: “I thought you might say slow flesh-esteem. Get it?”
Oh, Victor! Like I said, he was a joker.
On Tuesdays I worked with Raz, my youngest and favorite client. He was six years old and refused to recognize the letter g in certain fonts, as if it were a country he didn’t have diplomatic relations with. He didn’t like it when the letter dipped into its second, lower loop. He’d say words like string or goose correctly, and then he’d stop himself mid-sentence to say them again wrong: strin and oose.
I let him speak as he pleased. I liked that he had his own version of things.
Victor didn’t feel the same way. “You’re supposed to correct them when they do something wrong,” he told me. “Every correction is a little victory.”
“I’ll try harder,” I said. “I promise.”
But I couldn’t try. Or else I wouldn’t. The next day, Raz pushed away his list of reading words and turned to ask me directly: “If you found a half-cow, half-horse, would it make milk you could drink?”
What could I do? I said: “Sure.” I said: “What do you think it would taste like?”
“Like sour cheese,” he said. “Like my dad’s old gym shirts.”
That’s when Victor popped his head in. “What vowel sounds are you guys working on today?” he asked.
Raz wasn’t ashamed to say: “None.”
Victor gave me a long stare. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to see you in my office once you guys are done.”
“Sure thing,” I said. I was doodling something on the back of my hand. It had started as a single beak, curved and enormous, but I gave it tiny crow feet and little inky wave-crests for landscape.
I turned my hand to show Raz: “What if you crossed a pelican and a pigeon?”
He squinted. “Looks like another kid attacked you with a pen,” he said. His voice left no doubt: He had known this kind of injury, spent his own private hours at some sink, scrubbing away ballpoint atrocities.
He took out a blank sheet of paper and began to trace very large and deliberate letters. When he turned the page towards me, I could see what he’d written: Pigican.
There it was: The g. Its double-loop. Its several curls.
I rushed into Victor’s office half-an-hour later. “Look!” I thrust the page in his face. “It’s a real g!”
“Pigican?” he asked. “What’s that all about?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “What matters is the little victory, right? The progress?”
He raised his eyebrows for another stare: “You’ll have to rethink your methods,” he said finally. “Or else we’ll have to start thinking about whether you’re right for this position.”
“I had no idea,” I said, “that we’d come to a point where—”
“Just kidding!” he said. “You really need to lighten up.”
I laughed. It was feeble, sounded like I was trying to scratch an itch in the back of my throat.
He kept smiling: “How about we think about getting a drink instead?”
“Ha ha,” I said. “Always the kidder.”
“I’m not kidding around,” he said. And he wasn’t.
That Friday, we went to a kitschy bar off Union Square. It had once dreamed of being an old-time saloon, but the fact of tourism had fallen on it like a pile of dirty clothes. Visitors sipped glinting shots of Goldschlager beneath the speckled shadows of their huge straw hats, exchanging breathless reports about sourdough chowder bowls and the homeless guys on Market.
“Look at all these folks,” Victor said, peering into his Miller Lite. But when I imagined spending my entire life with Victor—something I did with almost anyone I even kissed—I could think of us as nothing but perpetual tourists, tucking away our glossy maps and making fun of other peoples’ accents.
After a second round, I told him I should probably get home. He dropped me off at my apartment. “This was fun,” he said. “Let’s do this again sometime.”
“I’m not sure… ” I let my voice trail off.
He put up his arms. “Hey! No big deal! Don’t worry about it!” He stuck out his hand: “Friends?”
“No, I meant I’m not sure… I’m not sure I want to keep the job.”
He grinned. “Why don’t you let me handle the jokes?” He paused. “You’re a little awkward with sarcasm.”
“You’re right about that,” I said. “But I wasn’t being sarcastic.”
He didn’t say anything.
“I’m not kidding around,” I said. And I wasn’t.
Guillermo was a Colombian chocolatier who liked to talk shop. From him I learned the dusky taste of unsugared cacao, its solid ridges against my fingers. Another man’s prophecy made me pause at his doorstep. It was this homeless guy I’d passed in the street, leaning against a mural full of cartoon Chihuahuas contorted in all kinds of aerial positions. Spray-painted letters behind him asked: Is Your Dog Bulimic?
“You’re sad now!” The guy called out. “But I can see it in your future… things are gonna get real good.”
I walked over and crouched next to him. “Say more,” I said. “When?”
He glanced at a row of old-fashioned Coke bottles lined up in front of him, each one filled with a different amount of rusty-colored water. “I use these,” he said. “Every time it rains I put one out to see how much it gets. They make a pattern. They make messages.”
“If you could just give me some practical advice,” I said. “What’s my lucky intersection? My lucky gas station?”
I had become fascinated by the possibility of signs and signals. Every day I drove to an expensive parking lot in North Beach, with fortune cookie prophecies painted in every space, just to see which open space I’d find first, with words of comfort or caution.
“I can only tell you this much,” he said. “It’s gonna be sweet.”
An hour later I pulled over next to a sign advertising the San Francisco Chocolate Factory. I’d never heard of it before. I imagined a warehouse full of tiny rooms where wondrous things were made at every moment.
Guillermo worked alone in the small second-story shop. He wore black jeans and a pair of those chunky sneakers with little glowing red lights. He kept his dreadlocks gathered loose at the nape of his neck. His features were sharp and his face looked carved-out, as if its less precise contours—the extra shavings—lay scattered across work tables in a backroom somewhere.
He was eager to introduce me to the kind of chocolate he loved: sixty, seventy, eighty percent cacao. “Not this milked-down garbage,” he said, gesturing at the products around him, mostly specialty bars whose wrappers featured San Francisco landmarks.
Milked-down? I liked the way he spoke.
“Taste this,” he said. He unwrapped a square of chocolate and held it towards my mouth. The flavor came in smoky pangs as it melted between my shut teeth. I wondered if his fingers had left any trace of their taste on it.
“Come outside for a moment.” He led me to a patio behind the shop, crowded with ferns and frail white orchids.
He took both of my hands in his: “What is your name?”
“Marianne,” I said.
He bent to kiss my forehead. “I will be back in one moment.”
I found myself alone with his plants. The fog congealed around my shoulders in drifts, wet scarves of thicker air.
After a few moments, Guillermo tapped my shoulder. “I want to show you something.” He took me to a corner of the patio where the leaves shaded a broad glass case like you’d find in a museum. Inside was a miniature landscape: mounds of dirt with patches of silk grass and tiny chocolate tombstones jutting from their slopes. I peered closer. One slab said: Greta. Another: Molly.
Guillermo stood behind me, wrapped his arms around my waist. “Women I could have loved,” he said. He tucked a curved slab into my cupped palm and I could feel the raised etching of my own name, the cold edges of the M.
“I never asked you to love me,” I told him.
“I know,” he said. “But a part of me wanted to.”
Treat Skylord McPherson was an actor. He introduced himself with his full name because it was memorable and he wanted to be remembered. He’d some-times joke: “I’ve got a friend named Snack.” We slept together for a week.
We spent most of our nights eating cheap Pho noodles at a nameless café on the deep-east stretch of Sunset. Afterwards we drank gin-and-tonics at the Silverlake Lounge, where loud cover bands took away the need for conversation.
I was taking a break from San Francisco. For the first time in my life, L.A. seemed full of the kind of people that everyone assumed it would be: attractive networkers who weren’t particularly kind but were looking to fuck.
Treat was an experiment. I wanted to see what cruel men were like up close.
Our first night together, I told him: “I don’t want to be with somebody who wants to hear about my emotions.”
“Good,” he said. “I don’t.”
We’d just had sex. We were smoking on his bed.
“Perfect,” I said, but secretly I wanted him to ask some questions. I wanted to discuss why we wouldn’t talk about our emotions, and what it would mean, and how it would feel.
He had these metal placards lying on his desk, made to look like street signs. But instead of street names they had phrases printed across them: Slut, one said. Another one said: So? Treat liked to use them like sock puppets.
“I don’t usually go in for casual sex,” I told him.
He nodded, handed me Slut.
“That’s cute,” I said.
He shrugged. “You’re not.”
“You’re not that cute. I thought you were at first: kind of bookish, dull brown hair. That whole librarian thing. You think you’ve got a kind of stealth appeal. But you don’t.”
He rolled me over so I was lying on my stomach and reached for the back of my bra.
“It snaps in front,” I said. But my voice got caught in the pillow.
“Fuck it,” he said. He pulled the whole thing off in one motion, fast and rough, so that the straps tangled on the bridge of my nose, almost flicked across my pupils. He tugged my pants off and smacked my bare ass before he yanked at my thong with his fingers. He whispered in my ear: “Get on your knees.”
I turned to face him: “You want me to give you head?”
“I want you on all fours,” he said. “Turn around.”
I shuffled my feet to push my jeans from where they’d bunched around my ankles. Then I let him fuck me from behind. I could hear the ragged rhythm of his breath, muffled like his whole mouth had gotten soggy, and I could feel the sweat of his palms where they cupped my breasts. I could imagine several expressions on his face—eyes squinted in pleasure, teeth clenched like he was angry—but I couldn’t decide which one was more likely.
I liked the thought of him aroused by a woman he found unattractive. It reminded me of young fantasies I’d had about ugly men fucking me and then paying for it afterwards. I used to imagine them sweaty and balding, corporate types with an abiding loneliness that I would somehow heal. I pictured them running their fat fingers along the knobs of my spine and whispering: “Baby, you were worth every penny.”
I turned to Treat once he was done: “I think a lot of this has to do with my father.”
“A lot of what?”
“Why I’m here, doing this with you.”
Another man might have said Oh?
But Treat said: “Oh.”
“My dad was always giving me compliments but it never felt like he meant them. This feels real, at least. He was only halfway paying attention.”
He held up So? This was the sign he used the most.
“I treat you like a whore and you take it,” he said. “You talk about your father and it’s tedious. You talk about yourself and it’s worse.”
After a few nights, I decided to start telling Treat everything he didn’t want to hear. It would be like pressing a bruise to produce a certain, predictable feeling. I was so sick of myself. I wanted someone else to say it to my face: “I’m sick of you, too,” and I knew Treat would offer that to me—with signs and sighs and certainly, sometime soon, a failure to return my phone calls.
I agitated him when he was trying to fall asleep. “It’s hard, breaking up with someone important,” I whispered one night. “All the stupid daily tragedies. You know the kind I mean—you don’t like being alone anymore because you can only think the same ten things, over and over again. You watch women in the cat-food aisle and think: It could be me! It will be me! I will have many cats and perhaps never again sex!”
“You just had sex,” he said. “With me.”
“Yes,” I said. “But.”
I had a mortal heart, but.
I kept on going, just to hear the irritation build in his occasional throaty coughs. He found me boring, because I was. And there was comfort in that—the sense of being seen through.
“I’m drawn to different lyrics from the same songs,” I said. “Like when Axl Rose gets bitter: “You’re not the only one! You’re not the only one!” He keeps repeating himself, but I’m always wishing he’d go on forever. I think I could actually go the distance with him.”
Treat was silent for a while. I thought he’d fallen asleep until he spoke: “Maybe the guy who dumped you was the only one,” he said. “Did you ever think about that?”
I laughed. If he’d asked: “What’s so funny?” I would have said: “As if!” I might have repeated myself, for effect: “As if I don’t think that every single day!”
During our first and only Saturday date, I could tell Treat had other places he wanted to be. Other places he didn’t want me to go. Our noodle-shack was dead that night, just a string of moth-congested light bulbs gleaming down on empty tables. He was agitated all through dinner, full of accusations: “You use too much hot sauce. You always take all the bean sprouts.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I’ve got this thing with nests. I think the sprouts make the soup look like some piece of natural architecture, like how those Bowery Birds in New Zealand make their elaborate—
“You know what?” he said. “You probably like bird nests because they make you feel safe, or you’ve got problems with being seen, or problems with leaving home, or some fear of flying that really fucked-up your first long-distance relationship. But I don’t care about any of it. Maybe you talk about your nest thing because you’re afraid to admit you’ve got food issues just like every other girl in this town. But I don’t care about that either. I just don’t.”
Treat wasn’t stupid. He just wasn’t interested in much.
When I pictured the two of us, I thought of this story I’d read about a python at the Tokyo zoo. He refused his ration of frozen rodents so the handlers put a live hamster into his cage instead, some little guy named Gohan, meal. But the snake wouldn’t eat him either. They became companions instead. They sometimes slept curled together among the cedar shavings.
I fancied myself a kind of Gohan, a meal belonging to Treat.
“Did you ever kill insects for fun?” I asked Treat. “Were you that kind of kid?”
“No,” he said. “But I could kill an insect if I felt like it.”
As if I’d been challenging him. As if anyone couldn’t.
He reached up and cupped his palms around our naked light bulb, trapping one moth between them. He pressed his palm to the table, flattening the moth beneath, and lifted his fingers until it showed, struggling beneath the edge of his thumb.
“Finish it off,” he said. “I dare you.”
He kept his thumb pressed on the wing while I took a wilted lettuce leaf from our plate of spring rolls. I looked away, pushed down and rubbed. The lettuce was cool and slimy under my fingers, and I could feel the moth-parts underneath, gritty like sand.
“There,” I said. “Happy?”
He shook his head. “This really isn’t working for me.”
He actually paid for my dinner that night, which was something he’d never done before. He walked me to my car and kissed me tenderly on each cheek. “I’m sorry I wasn’t nicer,” he said. Somehow, that made everything worse.
Maurice was an auto mechanic of few and surprising words. The first thing he said to me was a warning: “Stay away from the corner of Post and Van Ness!”
He yelled this from the cavern of his repair shop at Harrison and Fifth, where he worked all the graveyard-shift tow calls. We were nowhere near Van Ness, and only slightly closer to Post. I was walking home from an all-night donut shop.
He yelled again: “A guy was killed there tonight!”
I could see him coming out of the shadows: His pursed smile. His red coveralls.
He got close to my ear and whispered: “With a shotgun.”
“I wasn’t headed to Post and Van Ness,” I told him. “I was going home.”
“Good,” he said. “I’ll walk you.”
He was an attractive man and he knew it: with short curly hair and foggy blue eyes. He lived on Treasure Island, halfway across the Bay Bridge. I hadn’t known that people lived there, but they do. He did. Who could guess his many worlds? He was wearing a jacket whose brick-colored lettering spelled out “San Francisco Fire Dept.”
“Are you a fire-fighter?”
“No,” he said. “But I did some paramedic training with them.” Another man—a fire-fighting Victor—might have continued his sentence: And all I got was this stupid jacket! But Maurice just told it straight.
“So you know how to fix people?” I asked.
“I know how to fix some things.” He turned and stroked my cheek with three fingers. “I could fix your broken heart.”
“Wow,” I paused. “You actually said that.”
“Yes,” he said. “I did.”
He gave me his number on the back of a business card that said Fleming’s Auto Repair. I tucked it into the front of my diary for safekeeping.
A few nights after we met, I stopped by his garage with a plate of brownies wrapped in paper towels. I liked how greasy splotches seeped through the paper, rose up like ghosts from the fudge beneath. His manager was working up front—a middle-aged Hispanic guy, tall and gaunt—and I told him I was looking for Maurice. He smiled: “I bet you are.” He ducked behind the counter and came back with a handful of peanuts.
Maurice emerged from behind an orange and white tow truck and reached for the brownies with oily fingers. Dark streaks spidered from under his nails, as if the skin beneath were rusting. I liked that he ate before speaking.
“Want to answer some tow calls?”
“It’s a good time,” he promised. “I’ll show you how to use the truck.”
We rescued four stoned rich boys from the Inner Sunset, an area they claimed they’d never seen before, and helped the manager of the Hyde-Out change a flat tire on the steepest block of California. He promised us free beers at closing if we wanted to come back. For dinner, we picked up little savory pies that burned our tongues with their vegetable steam. At the register, Maurice had to rummage for change in his pocket.
“I live from paycheck to paycheck,” he explained.
“My treat,” I told him.
He ordered a Coke and a second sweet-corn pie for us to split.
“I get paid on Thursday,” he said. “Maybe we could go to Reno.”
“Maybe.” I imagined early mornings of lost money and tender sex. He would probably want to call it “making love,” which I wouldn’t mind. He seemed like that kind of guy.
The only place we went that night was Treasure Island. He took me to his apartment, a dreary unit in a block of converted Navy bunkers, and showed me his blind gray cat, his typewriter, his drag queen couch.
“Why do you call it that?” I asked him. The couch was pink with zebra stripes.
“I got it from a drag queen,” he explained. “She took a liking to me.”
“It’s nice,” I said. “When people like you.” I was trying to practice saying things that were simple and true.
“Sure is,” he said. “But I want a black couch. Always have,” he paused. “I like thinking about the kind of apartment I want—with huge glass walls and black leather furniture and those big pieces of art that are just one color.”
I nodded. To me, it sounded like a coke-lord pleasure palace from 1989, but I liked the image anyway: Maurice nursing a cup of hot chocolate while Boris the cat stumbled into Rothkos.
“Sometimes I get home all wired from work—three or four in the morning—and I’ll stay up all night thinking about how I’d like to live. I write about it sometimes, just clacking away on this old typewriter I found in our backyard.” He raised his hands and punched the air with his fingers. “Clack. Clack. Clack.”
I could tell from his motions that he didn’t know how to touch-type.
“I like to write, too,” I said.
“Oh, I don’t know… about love. How horrible it gets.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
“But it usually is. There’s this poem I like about a drunk priest in the middle of nowhere who goes around saying: ‘Love is a terrible thing, terrible!’ He says it even when there isn’t anyone listening.”
“Maybe he’s a priest because he got his heart broken.”
“Maybe. But his island’s pretty cool. It’s got bright stars and glass lizards.”
“Doesn’t sound very realistic.”
“It’s not. But love is terrible. That part’s realistic.”
“Terrible,” he said. “That’s one of those words that sounds strange once you say it too many times. Terrible, terrible, terrible.”
I joined him: “Terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible.”
He kept going: “Terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible.”
Who would stop first? For a moment, it was hard to say.
Then he put his finger to my lips. “What do you think is romantic?” he asked.
“Being quiet. And not minding.”
“What do you like to do on dates?”
“All the stuff with your tow truck… that was pretty fun.”
He shrugged. “Let’s go for another drive.”
He drove a Ford Explorer with a six-CD player tucked in the trunk. He asked me: “Do you like Seattle Sound?”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Grunge. The whole Kurt Cobain scene.”
“I haven’t listened to it much.”
“You’re in for a treat.”
I’ve got a friend named Snack…
“I’m done with those,” I said. “I hope it’s ugly.”
He punched some glowing buttons on his dashboard. They changed from red to orange to yellow and reminded me of a jukebox. I wondered how a guy who couldn’t afford his own savory pastries had managed an SUV with a spaceship-style stereo system.
I said: “Nice car.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I lived in it for a while, before I moved to Treasure Island.”
We pulled up to a picnic area overlooking the water. The skyline was made of tiny lights across the bay, looking lonely and cinematic. I started feeling antsy. Would we make out? Would it feel like high school?
“How was that?” I asked. “Living in your car?” My questions always seemed to show how little I’d lived.
“It was alright. You learn to park under trees so the sun won’t wake you up in the morning. You find the right spot in Marin and suddenly you’ve got the best view in town.”
I gestured at the windshield. “I like the city better when I’m not in it.”
“I know what you mean.” He reached for my hand. “I like you.”
“It’s nice,” I said. “When people like you.”
“You seem sweet.”
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m just passive.” I wanted to tell him I was only seeing him so I could tell people I’d dated a mechanic, report back to my friends and say: “Check out my tail-spin! I’m so heartbroken I’m going crazy!”
But I wasn’t sure I believed all of that anymore. Any of it, even.
“Don’t sell yourself short. You’re a kick-ass listener.”
“What makes you tick?”
I could feel my eyes bloom with heat. “What makes me tick is a guy who saw me—saw me completely, you know?—and looked away.”
“He dumped you?”
I hated those words. They made it sound like I’d stepped into the snail-shell of someone else’s life.
“I guess you could say that.”
“I’m sorry. I really am.” He stroked the tendons of my palm, hard like roots under the skin. I wanted to thank him for taking my hand, but I couldn’t think of what to say. I unbuckled my seat belt and leaned over. I kissed his neck, his lips. Then I kissed his neck again.
He called me on Thursday: “Let’s celebrate my paycheck.”
I suggested a Cuban place near Mission and 19th. I said I liked their plantains. This was true, but it was also true that the poet lived a block away and ate there several times a week. I wanted him to see me, though I wasn’t sure what I wanted after that. I wanted something to change. Anything. I couldn’t stop myself from remembering him, but I thought perhaps… perhaps if I saw him, the remembering might feel different, might be difficult in some new way. Even that would be a relief.
I found Maurice at Fleming’s and drove us to the restaurant, where I found a parking space in front of the poet’s building. I checked his street-side window, which was dark.
Inside, we sat at the bar, where I could see the whole room. I ordered a pitcher of Sangria and proposed a toast: “To your paycheck!” Too late, I realized this made it sound like I was asking him to foot the bill.
“Let’s order plantains!” he said. “Let’s order lots and lots of plantains!”
So we got three steaming platters and ate them until my throat felt oil-slicked and thick with starch. We got a bacon salad so salty I could feel my lips begin to sting around their chapped edges.
When I poured myself the final fruit-clogged dredges of our third pitcher, Maurice laid one hand gently on my wrist. “Heya,” he said. “Take it easy.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I drink alcohol like orange juice.”
Which didn’t mean: I can handle it. It meant: I drink all day long.
I picked one wine-soaked apple wedge from my glass. I tried to smile.
Back at the car, I pressed Maurice against the passenger door and kissed him hard, wrapping my fingers around the back of his neck to keep his face in place. The poet’s window was still dark.
After we’d kissed for a while, Maurice gently pushed me away: “I’m having fun,” he said. “But it’s a little chilly.” I rocked back, tripping my back heel against the curb. I could feel the sickness rising. There was a sense of something heavy draped across the back of my throat, like wool that had gotten wet. Sweet saliva prickled across my tongue. I pulled away, lowered myself to the sidewalk and tried to pull out a cigarette. I yanked too hard and it bent into a shallow V. I lit it anyway.
“I’ll take you home.” Maurice stretched out his hand to help me up, but I brushed it away.
“I just want to sit for a second.” I took deep smoky breaths. After a few drags I started gagging. “Oh Jesus.” I dropped to my knees in the street and started retching. Maurice kept his hand on the small of my back. I glanced at the poet’s window. It was still dark. “Do you even live here anymore?” I whispered. Maybe he’d gotten a job with different hours. Maybe he was sleeping elsewhere.
“What’s that?” Maurice knelt down beside me. He gave me a tissue to wipe the spit from my mouth. It hung in glistening trails like bits of spider web.
“Nothing,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I turned his face towards mine and stroked my thumb beneath his eye. There was a tear on his cheekbone. I smoothed it against the grain of his pores. “We make homes in the air,” I said. “In which being there together is enough.” I was drunk. I knew I wasn’t getting it quite right.
“He lives up there, doesn’t he?”
“I thought this could be something.”
“Maybe it can.” I didn’t want him to leave.
“I don’t think… I don’t think I care enough to keep on doing this, like this.” He shook his head. “Is that an awful thing to say?”
I nodded. It felt awful. I would keep doing this either way. He was the one who had a choice.
“I thought I could fix it,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He kissed my cheek. I knew he could smell the vomit on my breath.
“Good-bye,” he said, standing. I sat back on the curb and looked up. I could see his loneliness, the way it made his arms sag in their sockets. I imagined him going back to his island and punching simple sentences onto clean sheets: Tonight I feel sad. Love is a terrible, terrible thing. I imagined Boris staring off into his old familiar darkness.
I wanted to say: “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” But I couldn’t.
I shrugged. He shrugged. He walked away.
I smoked five more cigarettes, waiting for the poet to come home, but he never arrived. For once, I wasn’t sure I wanted him to return. The desire had gotten so familiar, it was hard to tell if it was still there.
The next afternoon, I asked my roommate to do me a favor. “Could you help me move something?”
“To the Great Outdoors. But you’ll only need to come part of the way.”
She rolled her eyes, already familiar with the way I spoke.
Together we dragged my small black couch down our stairs and half-way up the block. I paused a few times to make sure it wasn’t collecting grit. We jammed it into the back of my station wagon, squeezing ourselves against the front bender of a police car whose side panels said: “Sex Squad.”
At midnight, I got in my car and drove up Market until it curved into the hills. I crested suddenly into a thick layer of fog. It felt like the outer reaches of the city were an ecosystem of their own.
All the way up, I could sense the couch casting its dark pleathery shadows across my trunk. I took the turns hard up Twin Peaks, palms slick on the steering wheel as I imagined making the call. Would I disguise my voice or not? It seemed absurd either way.
I was scared that the observation deck would be crowded with drunk boys and territorial couples, but it was just me and one sheepish pair of lovers, plump and tight-jeaned, who’d brought their sleeping baby with them. They looked younger than I was. I raised two fingers in a jerky salute. The boy tipped his Giants cap in reply.
I sat in my car and found a Rod Stewart marathon on the radio. I pulled out my diary but for once I wasn’t planning to write in it. I fished around to find Maurice’s card.
I dialed the number and hung up. Then I dialed the number and didn’t.
The night manager picked up. “Fleming’s Auto. What’s your worry?” I pictured his bony face, his hidden bag of peanuts.
“I’ve got a flat and no donut,” I said. “I need a tow.”
“Our guy’s answering a call in Russian Hill,” he said. “But he can get you after he’s finished. Where you at?”
“Twin Peaks. At the top.”
He chuckled. “You’re not alone, right?”
“Actually I am,” I said. “Just me and my flat.”
I turned on the heat in my car and waited. I watched the couple sitting near the telescopes, stealing kisses above the bundled form between them. Every once in a while they glanced back.
After “Broken Arrow” came to its woeful close, I turned the station wagon around so that it faced away from the observation deck. I popped open the trunk and dragged out the couch. It wasn’t hard. The couch was more of a futon, really, made of things that didn’t weigh much.
I repositioned it a few times, turning it at different angles to face different sections of the city, but finally I just straightened it out, a dark hulk between two darker telescopes.
The couple watched me from their picnic table, but they didn’t seem particularly surprised or curious. The woman smiled every time she caught my eye. The man nodded at me once, as if he knew exactly what I was up to, then gave me a sudden thumbs up, as if he approved.
Once I’d gotten the couch settled, I sat down and lit a cigarette. I waited for the flash of headlights to illuminate me from behind.
Maurice parked his truck a few spots away and hopped out of the cab with a box of tools. I was leaning against the hood of my wagon, waiting.
“Oh,” he said. “Hello.”
He paused, glancing down around his feet. “I’m sorry about, you know, your flat tire… I mean. And all that.”
“I don’t have a flat,” I said. “I just wanted to show you something.”
“It’s a gift.”
He looked past me. “I remember what you told me about the city,” he said. “How you like it better when you’re not in it.” He paused. “I think about that a lot.”
I didn’t want to talk about the city or its distance, the residue of my own stupid words.
I asked him: “Do you want to see it? The present?”
He said: “Sure.”
When we rounded the corner of the car, he said: “Holy shit. It’s a couch!”
I said: “Have a seat.”
We sat like grade-schoolers, barely touching. Neither one of us spoke. I pointed out the couple and we watched them change their baby’s diaper against the fallen lights of the city. I felt the summer break into things I could hold in one palm: a bent cigarette and a steaming sweet-corn pie, my own tombstone carved in fog-chilled chocolate. A note saying: Slut. A note saying: So? There were ash-speckled jackets all over those days, and Coke bottles collecting rain. I had a glass and it broke. I crushed a moth and it died. I had a month, but it ended. I had a heart. It remained.
Leslie Jamison is the author of The Gin Closet (Free Press). A collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, recently won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and will be published in 2013. She lives in New Haven, where she is currently an English PhD candidate at Yale.
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