That's Not My Name


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That's Not My Name
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1 online resource (85 p.)
University of Florida
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Gainesville, Fla.
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Thesis/Dissertation Information

Master's ( M.F.A.)
Degree Grantor:
University of Florida
Degree Disciplines:
Creative Writing, English
Committee Chair:
Leavitt, David A.
Committee Members:
Wade, Sidney E.
Kershner, R. B.


Subjects / Keywords:
English -- Dissertations, Academic -- UF
Creative Writing thesis, M.F.A.
Electronic Thesis or Dissertation
bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )


This thesis offers eleven short stories, the majority of which examine the different ways desire and sex fit into modern life. Sometimes desire enslaves us; sometimes it orients us when we are otherwise lost. Sometimes it acts as an anti-depressant, or the one true connection between two lonely folks. Sometimes we use sex to measure our self-worth or the fullness of our lives. 'Burrito Road, Florida' can be read as a coda to 'Suitcase Girl,' but it also stands on its own.
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In the series University of Florida Digital Collections.
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Includes vita.
Includes bibliographical references.
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Description based on online resource; title from PDF title page.
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This bibliographic record is available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication. The University of Florida Libraries, as creator of this bibliographic record, has waived all rights to it worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.
Thesis (M.F.A.)--University of Florida, 2008.
General Note:
Adviser: Leavitt, David A.

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lcc - LD1780 2008
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2008 Elizabeth Femiano 2


To Christine Gagliardi, my sister 3


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I thank my advisor, David Leavitt, for his guidance and encouragement. Thanks also go to the other faculty here who offered instruction and advice: Jill Ciment, Todd Hasak-Lowy, Mary Robison, Padgett Powell, Brandy Kershner, and Sidney Wade. A big thanks to my family for supporting my work, even if it is blue. Besides financial support, Claire Femiano provided artistic guidance, Michael Femiano provided practical advice, and Brian Femiano provided big brother championship. I couldnt ask for anything more. I'm grateful to all my friends and colleagues, especially those who gave feedback and reassurance on short notice. I give special thanks to Wylie Lenz, the Harold to my Kumar, for a friendship that sustained me these two years. Lastly, I owe thanks to men. Their curious actions give me enough material for a thousand theses. 4


TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS...............................................................................................................4 ABSTRACT.....................................................................................................................................7 CHAPTER 1 I LOVE JERKS.........................................................................................................................8 Babygirl....................................................................................................................................8 Cave in......................................................................................................................................8 Delicacies..................................................................................................................................8 Court.........................................................................................................................................9 What the Girls Want...............................................................................................................10 Opening...................................................................................................................................11 Fine with Me...........................................................................................................................13 Ground Rules..........................................................................................................................13 That Thing..............................................................................................................................14 Watch Jerry Dig................................................................................................................ ......15 Cathcart Dips..........................................................................................................................15 Kennedy Goes Deep...............................................................................................................15 More........................................................................................................................................16 Animal Noises........................................................................................................................16 Final Plea................................................................................................................................16 To Be Fair...............................................................................................................................17 Down........................................................................................................................... ............17 Really......................................................................................................................... .............17 I Might........................................................................................................................ ............18 I Will......................................................................................................................... ..............18 2 ON YOUR FIRST DAY.........................................................................................................20 3 MISSED CONNECTIONS....................................................................................................30 Radio Shack Sausage God W4M.........................................................................................30 Flight 1105 into JAX W4M..................................................................................................30 Man at Target Copy, Thanks fo r the Bigass Stapler W4M..................................................31 Asian Market, We Groped Cucumbers Simultaneously W4M............................................31 Downtown Starbucks, You Watche d Me Fondle Myself W4M..........................................32 I Was on a Terrible Date at th e Bistro, You Weren't W4M.................................................32 Man Who Yelled at Me Fr om His Pickup W4M.................................................................33 4 SUITCASE GIRL................................................................................................................ ...34 Virginia...................................................................................................................................34 5


New Jersey..............................................................................................................................36 Pennsylvania...........................................................................................................................36 Massachusetts.........................................................................................................................39 New York................................................................................................................................41 Maryland....................................................................................................................... ..........42 New York / Maryland.............................................................................................................43 Virginia...................................................................................................................................44 Washington, D.C................................................................................................................ ....45 Anywhere................................................................................................................................47 5 ICE..........................................................................................................................................49 6 SOLID........................................................................................................................ .............50 7 THE SHOEBOX.................................................................................................................. ...63 8 THE LIMP STORY............................................................................................................... .65 9 IDEAS ON LOGIC............................................................................................................... ..70 10 BURRITO ROAD, FLORIDA...............................................................................................72 11 STRANDS..................................................................................................................... .........73 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.........................................................................................................85 6


Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts THATS NOT MY NAME By Elizabeth Femiano May 2008 Chair: David Leavitt Major: Creative Writing This thesis offers eleven short stories, the majority of which examine the different ways desire and sex fit into modern life. Sometimes desire enslaves us; sometimes it orients us when we are otherwise lost. Sometimes it acts as an anti-depressant, or the one true connection between two lonely folks. Sometimes we use sex to measure our self-worth or the fullness of our lives. Burrito Road, Florida can be read as a coda to Suitcase Girl, but it also stands on its own. 7


8 I LOVE JERKS Babygirl For so long, the men we want aren't men at all: baby-faced teenagers in pop boy bands, holding white roses in music videos, their shoulders rocking awkwardly to soft melodies, lines ending in You and me, girl. Close-ups of their faces You and me, girl. We are in middle school, and essentially we are lesbians. Cave in Now in college, you call me and tell me about the men you're after. The man in your art history class hates art history. He shifts position often. He doesn't shave every day and can't pronounce Monetdon't even mention Manet. You can feel yourself getting wet, you tell me. This is ridiculous. Still, you enjoy watching the sleeves of his tee shirt creep up as he puts his head down on top of his folded arms. His stupid sullenness beats you into a submission I have never known in you. You have always been my feisty friend, nipping at lazy boyfriends. And now this Stanley Kowalski has you dripping? We're laughing. Remember how we used to coat the walls with boy band posters? Call radio stations and request those syrupy songs? Yes, I remember. And now we find ourselves after a different type. Different indeed. How did this happen? Why can't we go back? Ohremember. We made a choice. Delicacies It is the summer before ninth grade. You and I become extremely, understandably happy the first time a group of guys call us over. So we get ourselves ready. We can't manage what the magazines tell us: black eyeliner, shimmer on the cheekbone, eighty-dollar satin blouses. These things are out of our reach.


We improvise, approximate, and are proud of the results. It seems the boys are too, because when we step out of your mom's car, our long legs unfolding, they look at us like we were ice cream. We are. I wear a sea-green top, somewhat see-through, puffed sleeves, little pearl buttons down the front: a mint milkshake. I wear stretchy white shorts. You wear a tight pink dress, strawberries and cream. Our puffy little breasts doing their best. Our toes, little chips; our lips, split cherries. The thick summer air presses against us. Obviously, it's too muggy to wear these outfits. We should be in loose shorts, breathable tank tops. But this is the first of many sacrifices we will make. To compensate for our weather-inappropriate outfits, we pull our hair back tightlyno loose chocolate tendrils today. The boys invited two brunette sundaes over to hang out, but none of them, not one of them, will say we look nice. Court Hey, they say. It's two boys playing basketball against each other in the driveway when we arrive, Kennedy and Cathcart. Their real names are whatever, Josh and David. Once in a while we call them Josh and David, but they insist we call them Kennedy and Cathcart. They insist on calling each other Kennedy and Cathcart. They insist on playing another short game, shuffling around with serious looks on their faces. They are not school-serious or mom-serious, but tragedy-serious, drafted-into-war-serious. Can we go inside? you say. Let's just play another game. I can't play, I say. I swear my pearl buttons are sweating. Just one more. Is your mom home? Is that why we can't go in? you say. You make me laugh. 9


They're gone until late tonight. The idea makes my curls tighten, and a brief fantasy develops. I am in the dark next to a boy. Which one, Kennedy or Cathcart? It doesn't really matter, but I'm leaning towards Kennedy. Cathcart is a mousy-brown, nice calves, a face that means he'll grow out of it. Kennedy has black hair, some freckles, broader shoulders. A laugh that means in college he'll forget he has a girlfriend and dance with other women at clubs. I'm going inside, you say, and turn on your heels. Come on, Cathcart says. Just wait a second. Jerry will be here soon. We'll go in together. We look at each other. I don't understand why you and I can't go in now, and I think you don't either. Then the boys take off their shirts. Oh. I'm sure of this, too: They have music playing in their heads. Something like the Shaft theme. It's impossible to know whether they planned this together, or whether it never occurred to them to do anything else, a natural action, like you and I dressing like edible Easter bonnets. They play, and we stand and watch, because neither of us can sit. Your dress is too short, they'll see the prize. My shorts will get grass stainswhich the boys might like. (I considered this. You never know what they will like.) They hurl the ball at each other and bark things we can't understand. Occasionally as they paw each other, a hand slaps against sweaty skin and a louder noise escapes. We stand, hips tilted, all angles. What the Girls Want Finally Jerry's mom drives up in her station wagon and drops him off. His chubby face instantly turns pink in the heat. You and I re-angle ourselves for his arrival. 10


Hi, girls, he says. Our first proper acknowledgment. He stands at the bottom of the driveway. Kennedy, hand on hip, the ball in the crook of his arm. Want to play? You speak up. No, come on. You said when Jerry got here we could go in. Kennedy, panting, looks at Jerry. His shield-like chest heaves, his brow drips with sweat. Let's do what the girls want, Jerry says. Kennedy shifts his weight. You and I follow suit. I didn't know they'd be here, Jerry says. He has squinty eyes, a belly that means he'll walk a girl to her door after the date. Your dress is riding up, I say to you. Thanks, you say as everyone watches you fix it. Okay, Kennedy says, and throws the ball into the grass. Let's go. The boys go first. I lean into you. You think they wanted us to watch them? I mean, you say. You have to ask? Yeah. Kennedy looks good. I was thinking that, I say. In front of us, they know they're being discussed. Cathcart adjusts the back of his shorts. Cathcart's not bad. How's my lips? I kiss for you. Opening Inside we drink water from Cathcart's fridge door. You say, So what now? 11


The boys look at each other. Kennedy has his shirt over his shoulder. Cathcart has put his back on. Jerry has pit stains. We're having a contest, Kennedy says. I like the sound. What kind? you say, your glass pressed against your cheek. Where did you learn that? He laughs. I don't think you girls are going to want to do it. You don't know that, I say. I'm up for nearly anything. What a lie. Fine, Kennedy says, smiling at me. Cath, get the bag. Cathcart does not look pleased at being called Cath. I can't blame him. He opens a cabinet below the sink and takes out a brown paper bag. The sound of cans. This isn't going to be fun for them, Jerry says. I don't know if we should. They can be the judges, Kennedy says. Cathcart unpacks the bag. On the cool countertop he stacks can after can of SpaghettiOs. Kennedy begins throwing open cabinet doors, two at a time, like opening windows. Kennedy. Where are some big bowls? We'll need three. I don't know, Cathcart says, intently stacking the cans. Two pyramids of nine cans. The can opener is in that drawer. Kennedy flings open more cabinets, and finds bowls. You tap me on the shoulder and point out the window. In the backyard, two large paint buckets sit in the grass. What the hell is that? you whisper. The boys begin dumping the open cans into the bowls. The soft tubes of canned pasta loaf out into the bowl with a wet sucking noise. What the hell is that? you say out loud to the boys. Kennedy and Cathcart start laughing. Even Jerry grins a little. 12


Fine with Me Their goal is to vomit. I think. Or to not vomit. We ask for clarification, but we don't get it. Whoever barfs first loses, Cathcart says. Do you really need judges? you say. Unless you throw up at the same time, I offer. That probably won't happen. They don't answer us but continue opening cans. Jerry doesn't do anything but stands, sipping his water, looking worried. Maybe it will. I don't know, I add, uselessly. Then you can just watch us, Kennedy says evenly, and looks into me. I have a vision of my buttons popping off all at once, my shirt flying apart like those cabinet doors. I hear you sigh. You too? And that is the only reason we agree to stay. Ground Rules The concrete patio is the eating platform. We all sit around the round patio table. The dingy umbrella is open and flies beat themselves dizzy against the underside. Like the others, Jerry sits with his bowl in front of him, but his mouth is tightened. Cathcart stands, addresses you and me. Welcome, he says, to the first annual SpaghettiOs eating contest. I'm already nauseous, I say. The buckets are over there. Like I said, first person to throw up loses, Cathcart says, and sits down. Kennedy stands. Last person to throw up wins. He sits. Cathcart stands. And if you finish all your f ood without barfing you also win. He sits. Kennedy stands. Actually, let's just eat as fast as we can and see what happens. Forget the rules. 13


So there's no contest? you say. I don't know. He sits down. Ready? The two of them look excited, eager to barf their faces off. But Jerry's juicy cheeks are still red with worry. What's wrong, Jerry? I say. He shrugs. Look at his conflict. If he says what he's so obviously thinking (this is a stupid idea, I don't want to feel sick, why are we making the girls watch this), he risks seeming like a pussy. So he chooses to be a dick. Though his instincts tell him, correctly, that vomiting is not the way to impress us, he senses that he is already at a disadvantage somehow by even thinking this, and he must make up for it by eating until he vomits to show that he is a man, that he wants us just the same as the other boys. That, they all sharethey want us. But he does not want us to think he's a pussy. That Thing It's clearer now. Don't be a pussy. Don't be the core of a woman? Don't try to care. When did you and I realize what this means? When were fifteen, pussy means bad like gay means dumb But listen. Just recently, in college, a guy I've been screwing calls me a pussy for not wanting to steal a sign from the dining hall and I realize, something's wrong with that. Can I be one if I have one? The only reason I notice his usage of a word that for so long went unnoticed is because, only a few hours earlier, this guy, whom I've I been screwing, says, your pussy is so tight, because it is. I love it To be honest, he's my first. So I don't know if it's good or bad, a pussy. For being something weak, lacking strength, so easy to push over or stab into submission, I'll give it this: it has a power. I'm torn and I always have been. 14


Watch Jerry Dig We watch them count down in unison and then begin shoveling as fast as they can. After a period of hesitancy, during which he eats at a reasonable pace, Jerry relaxes and starts stuffing it in at a pace that rivals the others. Look at Jerry! Cathcart says in between bites. We do. Jerry has transformed into a pig: he has lost his neck somehow, his head down, face an inch away from the lava-like surface of the SpaghettiOs. If I wanted, I could trace a singular, uni nterrupted arch from his back to the bridge of his nose, just like that of a pig. I'm in disbeliefhe was on our side. He steals glances at the other boys, and when he turns his head to do so, I can see the whites of his eyes, and in those moments he is not a pig, but a boy. Cathcart Dips Cathcart retains his human shape. He eats his portion with a bobbing motion, his head dipping rhythmically to meet his mother's spoon. He stops occasionally to make a comment. You and I sit. If we were older, we'd be smoking cigarettes. But what else can we do? Reapply lip gloss? Even that seems pointless now. Cathcart bobs along, but as the minutes pass, his bobs slow down, until he makes the face that my brother makes if he's about to burp. Cathcart takes a short break. Kennedy Goes Deep Kennedy says, Quitting? Cathcart doesn't answ er, shakes his head and picks up his spoon again. Kennedy grins and eats. He uses a combination style, sometimes falling into a rhythm, sometimes going crazy. He moves his shoulders sometimes, and the way he does it. 15


I catch glimpses of his tongue. I want to tell you, I want to lean into your strawberry shoulder and tell you, I've determined, Kennedy is an excellent kisser. More Actually, I sense that he's an excellent lover. But I can't articulate that at fifteen, to you, or to myself. The most I can manage is to understand that he's probably a really good kisser, the kind that moves like he is sculpting your lips with his own. Not one of the ones to chomp at your face and honk your breast like a bike horn. Not that I know at fifteen, but I've heard all about it, and I'm on the lookout. Animal Noises Jerry is first. Without saying a word, without so much as a breath, he stands and runs towards the buckets. As he runs by his stomach jiggles, a pouch formed from his polo tucked into his pants. He goes for the bucket on the right. Kennedy and Cathcart stop to watch. Jerry bends over and vomits, the material streaming from him in a surprisingly smooth river. The other boys clap for him and Kennedy shouts his name. Cathcart hasn't talked for a while. Jerry wipes his mouth and turns to face us, confused as to whether or not he won. You let out a loud Ugh. I second it: Yack. From yards away, he hears the first animal noises we've made today, and his face registers the judges' final verdict. He has lost. Final Plea Continue! Kennedy says, and he picks up his spoon. Then he looks into his bowl, almost empty, and oh, there's his limit. Sweat pouring down his neck. You and I perch in the shade. He looks at me and I raise my eyebrows. Cut this shit out, I try and tell him. He's going to barf. 16


Right here? Maybe it's the sight of us, two perfect, pubescent cream-based desserts, beginning to curdle in the heathe gets up and runs towards the left bucket. Cathcart starts clapping again. To Be Fair Now wait a minute, you say. Its just as bad to be a dick Okay, yes, its bad, but go say to a man, Youre a big dick, and I bet you hell smile. What do you know about men, you say. Not much, but I tell you, hell smile like you pinned a purple heart on him. Maybehas to be a certain kind of man, you say. The man I know, anyway. You feel like we know different men. I guess we do. Theres a tension on the telephone line. Down Kennedy's on his hands and knees, a position I've considered before. Oh, his tee shirt: The sweet indentation of his lower back is dark with sweat. I want to pull a nurse hat from my undersized purse and take care of him until he loves me, I want to throw a rock at his head as hard as I can. Really Please, you say. Please stop being so fucking dumb. They laugh. Kennedy vomits again, his calves straining. Let's call my mom, you say to me. I'm ready. 17


Don't go, Cathcart says, rings of pasta on his lips and chin, and tries to say more, but then he can't. He makes a deep, curled noise and then makes a run for it, not ten steps into the grass before he exhales the thick mess onto himself. Alone on the patio, our shoulders touch. The air has taken on a metallic, putrid tomato smell. The borders of your face are shiny with sweat. Jerks, you say. Some neighbor has started a lawnmower. The boys are all stages of facing downwardon knees, bent at the waist, slumped in the grasslaughing and vomiting. I Might I think once you and I get off the phone, I'm going to look up Kennedy online. I don't know what happened to him after high school. Did he even go to college? We should find out. You say: You can find out. I hear that old snap in your voice. I know he didn't affect you like he did me. After the barfing incident, you walked around school with your arms crossed, a scowl on your face. I can't blame you, but it's so funny to me how differently you and I are made. That day in the heat, you hardened into brick, and you didn't crumble until very recently, with that dick in your art history class. But I'm not made out of clayI'm made of butter. Unlike you, I softened in the sun, watching Kennedy kneeling in the grass. I Will We wait in the kitchen for your mom to pick us up. They continue their thing outside. The empty paper bag rests on its side on the counter. Our arms are crossed. I'm hot and could use a drink, but I'm afraid the refrigerator will dispense red vomit. We hear from the backyard a couple 18


of cough sounds, followed by a wave of laughter. More friendly barking. But what can we say? I need to stand here against the counter and think hard about what I've just seen. Assholes, you say, and I nod. But Kennedy has me in twists. Still, I say. 19


ON YOUR FIRST DAY It's not that you're a bad secretary; it's that you don't really care. Sometimes it's hard to watch. You get a new job about every two months. This one won't be any different. For this one, you look in the back of the Frederick County Flier as usual. Frederick is always looking for secretaries. The whole world is looking for secretaries. No girl wants to do that anymore. Sit around and take dictation from old men? We're past the days of homemaking, they say. You and I know it's not the same as being a homemaker, but it has that sort of flavor. You call about the ad. You talk to a man. You guess mid-thirties, probably never had a secretary before. You are right. This man is starting his own business and is excited and trying to remain serious on the phone as you tell him your experience. You lie about your skills as usual. He wants you to come in tomorrow. The image in his mind of you: sweet, about 5'2, sexy library look, huge boobs, tight pencil skirts, stupid and subservient but pleasant and adept at coffee-making. You come in the next day and you can practically see his spirits drop when you announce you're the girl he talked to on the phone. You're tall, taller than he is. Narrow-hipped, little Acups and shoulder-length black hair. You reek of cigarettes and mosquito spray, inexplicably, though it's late fall. And currently you are a terrible secretary. You type slowly and you surf the Internet when you should be working. Your flaws are all fixable, with some effort. And though you burn the coffee, and no one can read your handwriting, and sometimes you misplace very important files, you have some redemptive secretarial qualities, such as your pleasant voice on the phone, your ability to fix printers and computer glitches, your keen eye for when the water cooler is getting low. And intangible things, too: the way your presence in an office reduces the stress level, even if you are a little inept. The way you take notes during an unbearably dull meeting, and you follow along (sometimes more than the real employees), and you quietly take 20


notes, and every once or so you make a wry joke that charms and comforts every single person in the room. But by and large, in day-to-day matters, you have no desire to improve your skills, and you this is what makes you the worst secretary in the county. But you're willing to do the job for an astoundingly small amount of money, and so he hires you, and leads you around the office, hoping maybe you'll turn out okay despite your unsecretarial looks. Maybe you're good at making coffee. Maybe you'll give him head under his desk like he always wanted. He shows you the breakroom and the janitor's closet filled with office supplies. He was wondering if you could maybe organize this all sometime? Not right away, of course. No problem, you say, in your best secretary voice. You're actors in a play. He's the man who watches MTV at 2:00 a.m., trying to feel young, while eating BBQ Fritos out of a crystal bowlthe last clean dish in the apartment. He wears this dark brown silk tie because he only owns two ties, and he doesn't know what to look for when buying ties. He likes to cook Italian food but unknowingly mispronounces prosciutto. Today, he'll be playing the competent boss who walks with a swagger that suggests that he constantly sleeps with young women, and that they find his age sexy and rugged, not pathetic and faded. You're the 26-year-old social-smoking community college dropout who could've applied herself if she really tried, who draws on her arms and hands when she is bored, who was always good at history (the most useless subject, we a ll agree) but has extremely poor organizational skills. Case in point, you have lost your keys five times this month thus far and it is November 16th. Between jobs you enjoy watching daytime TLC, all those women's reality shows A 21


Dating Story, A Wedding Story A Baby Story and laughing, muttering, dumb bitches ending on a sigh. What's the line between pity and envy, anyway? Today you'll be in the role of the amazing secretary, who types faster than she thinks, whom the boss treats like a second wife, who knows where he left his briefcase, who keeps a drawer full of ties, and even a tiny Tide to Go stain removal pen. Who reminds him he has a lunch appointment with the Lorenzo client today. He currently has no clients named Lorenzo that I know of. He leads you around the office and makes up names for each of the rooms: the break room, the supply room, the file room. You half expect him to announce the billiard room, the greenhouse, the kitchen with the secret passageway to the conservatory. Hell pretend to be impressive, you'll pretend to be impressed. He shows you your desk. You are his first s ecretary, but he pretends he has had, oh, thousands before. It's your, oh, thousandth job as a secretary, but you act dumbfounded and delighted like a schoolgirl. When he shows you how to work the printer, he makes a bad joke: This printer is a bit bipolar. Last week it tried to jump out the window. You giggle and touch your throat with your fingernails, ragged with chipped polish. The whole acting thing reminds me of two sixteen-year-olds having sex for the first time. You and your boss perform a calculated set of motions neither really enjoys, but nonetheless feels compelled to complete. In your case, when you were sixteen with the boy with the Grecian nose, you were prepared to do it exactly as you saw in Titanic, which you saw together earlier that evening. You stripped slowly and the boy stripped quickly. You pulled down your panties 22


and the boy was shocked, then disgusted, by the patch of black pubic hair between your legs. He had seen it only as Playboy can show itsmooth, delicate, decorative at best. Was it his fault that he should expect it any other way? You were hurt and embarrassed by something you considered a mark of womanhood, but you hid your pain immediately, and forever. The fantasy was broken while he gaped and you hurt, and you both were thrown back into the reality of the situation: The two of you were young and very naked. Not sexy naked, but vulnerable naked. He regained composure and you continued on like Jack and Rose. After that experience, you developed a little director voice that reminded you what you needed to do. The first thing it instructed was to shave off your thicket of black wool. Not because of him, but because that's how it is You sat on the edge of your parent's bathtub and went through two disposable razors, and wanted to cry, but couldnt. Everyone knew, but no one bothered to tell you. You shaved four years off your life in twenty minutes. Other things you came to learn a bit too late: history is a boy's subject, because it involves wars and empires and kings, so stop raising your hand in class. Love is a measure of your beauty, beauty a measure of your grooming habits and your grace, grace is a measure of your movements and your submission. Men are dark, women are li ght (this includes hair, laughter, movement); men are witty, women are witless. At the same time, women should go out and get an education, enter the workforce, earn a salary, not take no for an answer, be competitive, aggressive, athletic, intelligent, organized. I don't agree with any of this. I understand how you came to these conclusions, but I just don't agree with them. That director voice is still with you, and keeps you up to date on who you need to be. It has all sorts of useful advice: bake Rice Krispies treats, wear a padded bra today, act a little daft, touch your throat when you laugh, laugh light. 23


So touch your throat when he makes that bipolar printer joke, because every move like that delays the moment when he discovers you act like a secretary but possess none of the skills. You took this job, and all other secretary jobs, and you haven't given much thought as to why. Your first task on this crisp day is to put matching labels on each of the client files. Currently the files are all labeled differentlysome with pen, some pencil, some all caps, some scratched out. He would like conformity, so go ahead and stick on these white labels with blue borders. Use this black pen. You nod. When he goes into his office, you make predictions of how the rest of this day, week, month will go. You look at your boss's ugly brown tie and desperate smile, and you've decided who he is. You'll never know him as well as you could. You apply labels to people routinely, without thought. Yet you often complain that people judge you. You're a host to a mass tangle of past events and interactions, including of course that first boy's first reaction to your privates, and as a result you've come to feel like an outsider, not belonging to the feminine, dutiful, traditional women or the strong, radical, modern women. You fault the world. Case in point, once you wrote a Van Gogh quot e on the butcher paper covering your table at a family seafood restaurant: I wish they would only take me as I am. You were on a date, last summer, your last first date. Your pubic m ound itched that evening because you shaved it the day before, as you always do before these dates. This one said he was a writer, but what he meant was that he was a paralegal who liked to write in his free time. His job and his life sounded a lot like yours, except for the writing. Fifty 24


minutes into the date, after the cream of crab, he questioned you about your recent job. You had just started as a secretary for a company that produces computer animations of eyeballs and eye surgeries. They show these videos in waiting rooms of Lasik surgery centers. You explained this to him, and as you did it occurred to you that being a temporary secretary was your profession. You had become an expert. He asked you if you planned on staying there. There, the eyeball animation company? There, the professional temporary secretary? There, across the table? He was disappointed that you weren't as insightful, artistic, and nurturing as your Craigslist personal had made you sound. He wanted you to be a mother. He also wanted you to be a slut and a nurse. He could cook for himself, but hed rather not do the laundry. Also, he had high hopes that you'd be able to quote Bukowski and chug quality lagers. He picked at his shrimp and realized that what he wanted in a woman was contradictory, and that any woman who possessed all these qualities would probably be complicated and difficult. He may not have known what he wanted, but he did not want a complicated woman. You saw his f ace as he picked at his shrimp, his forehead crinkled, and you knew you had already disappointed him in some way. He stopped listening to you describe Lasik animations, and began thinking about his ex-girlfriend, who introduced him to Bukowski. He thought of the first two lines of what I think will be a terrible poem: Beer-chugging Bukowskiette / you fueled my shadows. He was exceedingly proud of this, and you saw him smile at himself. At this point you picked up a purple crayon from the tin can on the table and wrote the Van Gogh line. He didn't see this but it wouldn't have impressed him anyway. You labeled him an idiot. He certainly was that night. But if you knew him better, an apt description of this man would have been so long 25


that writing it on a single label would prove impossible. Summarizing a person takes sheets and sheets of labels. When he dropped you off, you didn't have the nerve to mention you lost your keys. You waited at the door and pretended to search in your bag for keys while his Toyota Tercel idled in the street. He really was sweet, in that way, to make sure you got in safely. You had to wave him away and even then his car hesitated before driving off. You hear your name and look up to see your boss waving you into his office. He saw someone do this on Law and Order though he himself thinks it is rude. He almost pulls it off, waving his right hand and calling your name while he stares at some papers on his desk with a look of concern. It is the same look that your date had that night, staring at his shrimp, disappointed, thinking what to do next. Except the date's look was real, whereas your boss's look is artificial. Too bad. His heartbeat quickens as you approach and it's because of the way you just tossed your hair, standing up from your desk. He gives himself a little pep talk: come on, buck up, don't let her see you sweat. You run your own business. You've got a secretary. You've got everything you want. Your boss, in fact, only thinks he wants a secretary. There are two kinds of people in this town. They can best be identified using the example of Friendlys restaurant. When a group of high school friends go to Friendlys, there is the kind of boy that will love the food and exclaim it to be the best restaurant in town. And there is the kind of boy who suspects the food is disgusting, but decides he must be wrong, and he tries to find the food as tasty as everyone else does, and eventually he forgets that he ever hated it. 26


Your boss was one of those boys, and now he is one of those men, and he has hired a secretary, though he does not need one. He waved you over though he'd rather get up himself and talk to you. And as you walk he finds himself attracted to you, and he knows it's because of your flat black hair and little breasts, not because you are his subordinate. He wants to receive a blowjob from you, yes, but it need not be under his desk. You stand in front of his desk and he tells you that he's going to need these faxed by 3:00 p.m. and can you work a fax machine? Yes, you say. Yes, you think, and why does everyone assume I'm so helpless and dumb? And before you can sigh, you answer yourself: because you're a secretary, honey. The moment you picked up that phone to answer that ad Full Time Secretary wanted for growing consulting firm located in Frederick, MD. Must have experience, typing skills, and warm & professional personality. Must have own transportation. you stepped into a tight role, tighter than pantyhose with lines down the back, the ones everyone expects you to wear. You've been nodding this whole time, eyebrows raised. There's nothing more interesting than receiving instructions. But usually you don't do much thinking about your job, and your current musings have allowed a small fissure to develop in your countenance. A streak of your smart, colorful personality shining through your secretary act. Your boss studies your freckled face while he talks, whatever is he saying, does it matter? No one is listening. He thinks, I hope she's smart, and the thought surprises him. Part of him desperately wants you to transcend your role of the attentive secretary, and become a whole human. Sometimes, he thinks, this whole world seems like a Spaghetti Western, with fake building fronts made of plywood. At any moment he thinks a stiff wind could knock down every building in America, and with them 27


every person in it, frozen in their stereotypical poses: sweaty men high-fiving each other in the street. Young women, their arms ringed with shopping bags, standing frozen in front of Nordstrom's, the once-imposing shopping temple now whooshing soundlessly to the ground. Your boss hopes that after all these sets and characters have fallen down, you will be standing there, nodding, arms crossed as they are now. He hates the way he's talking so loudly at you. And as he stares, with hope, at your freckled face, he notices something amiss. Its either the twitch in your eyebrow, or the corner of your lip drooping down a tiny bit, or the slight glazed expression in your eyes. Whatever it is, it's something that would only be noticed by someone really looking He's noticed the fissure in your facade, growing larger as you drift away in thoughts of your future and your life and why on earth do you take these secretary jobs? I should mention that while you are an expert actress and your drifting is unusual, your boss never quite mastered the art of role-playing. Everyone buys your act, no one buys his. You resent having to pretend, he is unable to c onvince. No one bought his actkickball teams, Phi Beta Kappa, a few nasty exes. All people lacking self-awareness, yet still able to sense something wrong with him. And reject him. He has improved somewhat over his 34 years, but occasionally slips. He is currently experiencing such a slippage, as he fantasizes the world collapsing, standing alone with you. Thus both of you have your guards down, at the same time; both of you are out of character, as we say in the theater. So you nod as secretaries do, staring at your boss's hands, but for a second you look up and lock eyes with him. This instant allows a bridge to form between you two for a few moments, during which you are directly connected to each ot her in a way most people only experience after taking drugs or surviving a car crash together. You feel, but cannot see the things he's been 28


unable to communicate: him, sitting in his underw ear late at night, eating BBQ Fritos out of a crystal bowl, watching MTV and feeling slightly sorry for himself but more so for this next generation. Or him, drafting an anonymous letter to Playboy magazine about his preference for pubic hair, and his wishes that they show more models with unshaved mounds. Or him, right out of college, lying on the pavement outside with his roommate, thinking he should pack it all up and move to Italy to become a chef, but never following through. Likewise, as he looks into your eyes, the fissure now wide open, he feels the shape of the things that make you the you I know, including your first time with the Grecian-nosed boy, your last first date with the Bukowski paralegal, and everything in between. Growing up and going out and being let down, not lowering your expectations, but shifting them. You, watching A Baby Story, scaring yourself shitless during the childbirth s cenes, wondering if that kind of pain, that kind of joyif they're even available to people like you. Then you both regain yourself, and the fissures seal. You zip back to life. He says, what was I saying? And you say, I should hold down the send button on the fax machine. He says, oh yes, and goes on, a little softer this time. 29


MISSED CONNECTIONS Radio Shack Sausage God W4M We chatted in line at Radio Shack. I was buying an S-Video cord so I can connect my laptop to my television and watch illegally downloaded episodes of The Wire on my big(ish) screen. You were buying some batteries, held in one hand. In the other hand you were holding what looked to be an Italian sausage in a bun. You asked me what the cord was for, and we discussed the genius that is The Wire. All the while the sausage was in your hand. You didnt mention it, so I didnt, either. It looked freshly cooked, and it smelled quite a bit. I'm curious. There are no street vendors around here. You must know youre hot, right, so hot people can get away with more things than the rest of us. (Not that I'm total chopped liverI saw you look at my boobs.) But stillwhat the hell? Ive never written a missed connection, but this seems like an appropriate situation. Tell me my favorite character on The Wire and, of course, why you had a sausage in Radio Shack. Flight 1105 into JAX W4M I sat next to you. I came onto the plane very late, and you made a comment about my Gator shirt, which spawned some enjoyably witty banter. I considered sleeping with you until I noticed that you didn't turn off your phone for the entire flight. I know you heard the pilot. Who do you think you are? You also were too cool to wear your seatbelt. Oooh, what a bad-ass. Honestly I thought you were cute and your voice gave me the willies, in a good way. But next time you should just turn off your phone. 30


If you want to email and argue about this, I'd be willing to hear your side. Tell me 1) where on the plane we sat, and 2) why you're so special you get to break the rules. Man at Target Copy, Thanks for the Bigass Stapler W4M On Monday, my flip-flop suddenly came apart in public. I tried to repair it with a paper clip, and you offered encouraging words from a nearby table. A while later you approached me with the largest stapler I've ever seen in my life. It didn't work, but whatever, you were sweet. I'm normally very nice, but small talk and friendly assistance catches me off guard. You said, Well, good luck, and I said, Yeah, I know. Yeah, I know ? What was that shit about? I'm so sorry. I cursed myself for not thanking you for the help. So I'm thanking you on the internetz. Most importantly, you watched me trip a few times, and you probably also noticed my dirty feet, but you didn't say anything, and I really appreciate that. Asian Market, We Groped Cucumbers Simultaneously W4M Clearly we had a moment in the fruit and vegetable section. We reached for adjacent cukes and our eyes locked. We held them in the air and for a second I thought you were going to challenge me to a duel. Then you just smiled and we went our separate ways. Because, honestly, how do you follow that? What I liked about you was that you were tall, and you had a crooked smile. And that you almost challenged me to a cucumber duel. What I didn't like about you is that you looked almost exactly like my ex boyfriend. This can't be helped, but it still concerns me. If you're curious about why I had thirteen lemons and 31


one lime in my cart, or you'd like to have dinner, or you'd like to have sex sometime, I need you to answer these questions. 1. Are you a film student? 2. Do you pronounce Van Gogh like Vahn GAHCK? 3. Are you going to cheat on me with a nasty-ass lifeguard? 4. Are you going to squeeze my breasts and say, meep meep? Like Road Runner? Downtown Starbucks, You Watched Me Fondle Myself W4M It was an accident. I was writing a missed connection ad. I couldn't remember what my ex boyfriend used to say when he touched my breasts in moments of intimate passion (meep meep). I thought if I duplicated the sensation, it might trigger something. It did, actually. It was an accident. I didn't think anyone was looking. This is why I sit in the corner. I'm not even really interested in you. Though maybe it turned you on? This is getting ridiculous. I Was on a Terrible Date at the Bistro, You Weren't W4M My mother set me up with some schmuck just because she met him at work and he says he's a British Lord. I mean, who gives a shit. He was Sir William Tan Slacks, Lord of Cat Fancy, Duke of Hair Gel. He kept wiping his mouth with the corner of his napkin. But you were behind him; you wouldn't have seen this. You sat against the wall and sipped your red wine and looked at me. You were Mons ieur Black Blazer, Earl of Eye Fuck. I'm guessing you were French, though I have no proof. God in heaven I wish I had been talking to you. 32


I noticed you were eating alone. I'm going to go back there this Friday and maybe we can chat. Please don't mention my date. Man Who Yelled at Me From His Pickup W4M We were at a very long stoplight, my little silver car behind your big cobalt (maybe cerulean?) truck. I thought you were checking me out in your rearview mirror. Your car oozed masculinity. You know what they say about a man with big tires. You stuck your head out, and maybe it was the wind, but your hair looked sort of unkempt. No insult meantI'm getting into ruggedness these days. How did you twist yourself around to face me? Was your foot still on the brake, or did you put the blue beast in park? You blew me a kiss. You yelled, HEY SEXY! You don't know what that did for me. Then you laughed and yelled, Hey, Shelly! What's up, you sexy bi-otch? I waved and replied, Hey there fella! You looked happy and got back in your tank. Then the light changed and we parted. Not that it really matters, but that's not my name. It was a special moment, the best connection I've felt in a long time. Reply to this, subject line: Sexy Shelly. 33


SUITCASE GIRL Virginia My friend Joanna was having a graduation party, the third Id been to that week, and I knew the routine. Barbeque-type food, sheet cake, s oda, and, if the parents were cool, some light beer. All this on the dining room table, or else the food was on the patio and the dining room table was covered with envelopes and wrapped presents and stuffed toy owls wearing graduation hats. At Joannas, the food was outside, and the owls inside, and there was no light beer. But no matter how familiar the routine, I wasnt getting any better at deciding. I stood in front of the buffet and just stared at all the food, overwhelmed by the choices. An old man, probably a relative of Joannas, came over to me. Are you in line? Somewhat. What? He had pores so large on his nose I couldnt look away. And I couldnt respond. Sweetie, get out of the way until you know what you want. I stepped back while he filled his plate with Jell-O salad. When he left I resumed my place in front of the meat. I placed a hamburger bun on my plate. Step one. But maybe a hotdog would be better, I thought, so I switched it for a hotdog bun. But hamburgers allow for ketchup and pickles. I put the long bun back. Maybe Id just get a pickle. My indecision peaked as high school drew to a close, and it came time to make decisions. I chose my college on a whim, accepting the first place that admitted me. Adults asked me what my intended major was and I lied every time. BiologyI want to study the human intestine. 34


AnthropologyI want to study rural Norwegians. FinanceI want to study money. That one always got a laugh. It distracted them from the vagueness in my plans, the doubt in myself. I moved down towards the chips and realized w ith horror that I didnt even know if I was hungry. I paused and waited to see if my body could tell me anything at all. So it was a relief to see Max walk up to the buffet, and know immediately what I wanted. I felt something like a warm wave wash over me. Id met him before, but he went to a different high school. He wasnt even an option, according to the rules. But here he was, leaning over the food table, scooping a little bit of everything onto his plate with a pleased look on his face. He was tall, curly-haired, and solid as an armoire. I saw him and I wanted him. Someone called us over to play croquet, but by the time we crossed the lawn there were no more mallets. So we stood on the side watching all our friends and holding our plates in our hands. Max looked at me and he saw all I had was a pickle on my plate, the only edible item I could decide on. He motioned to me with his plate. It was a regular palette of salads. He offered to share, even though no doubt he knew that the single wilted pickle was my choice. He had seen me standing there at the buffet table like a moron. We stood on the side of the game, sampling different kinds of macaroni salad. We laughed. The way two people who have known each other a while, but never really talked, and are now flirting, and enjoying it, the way they might laugh. The girl might cover her mouth so he doesnt see the chewed macaroni salad. He might slouch more than normal and think about her naked, but not worry too much about how to make that happen. Itll happen. 35


Hell put his hand on her neck at a certain momentwhen Joanna has run full-speed across the yard and tripped on the center wicket and everyone in the yard laughs, even those on the sidelinesand an instant later shell put her hand on his lower back. That was Max and me; that was how we got st arted. In Virginia, where everything is very old, but where you cant shake the idea that you might come across something unspoiled and new. You wake up, and just remembering the name of your state makes you think you have another chance, a clean slate. New Jersey Max attended an art school in Philadelphia, and I went to a state school in New Jersey. My college was best known for having no school spirit and for changing its mascot every few years. When Max first visited me, a few months after we met again at Joannas, it was the Goldfinches. I wore a Goldfinch sweatshirt when we had the talk about just being casual. Neither of us could commit. By the time Max graduated, I heard we had become the Pumas. When I moved out of the Northeast, we were the Manta Rays. Pennsylvania He once got me with cheap beer, in a pool, not exactly the way I wanted. Though at the time, let me tell you, it was gosh darn magical. Im not too crazy about doing it in public, yes. Its the beer that really bothers me. With foggy personal relationsam I a whore, I am not a whore, what a whore I amsometimes the only way you know where you stand is by the price of the booze used on you. 36


We were by his apartment complexs gated pool, enjoying the warm October weather. We sat on the edge of the water with our legs dangling in. We bumped shoulders and talked about taking classeshow it wasnt as hard as we thought it would be, but certainly that was a false security, and how we must keep our guards up because certainly the Real World would be hard. I said New Jersey was boring, that I wanted to try a new place. He nodded. I had one of those great moments where I remembered why I bothered driving here from New Jersey. I didnt trust this pool, because I didnt trust the color. Most pools, the floor and walls are colored blue and the water is clear. But this pool looked too bright and unnaturally turquoise, with white cones of light coming from the walls like alien tractor beams. Maybe the water was dyed, too. I said as much to Max. Too much blue, I said, and I pointed with my beer towards the pool. Some spilled in. When I think about all the different things that are in that pool, especially after we were in it, oh boy. I thought you liked blue, he said. I do, when its natural. Nothings naturally blue. Thats not true. The sky is blue. Blueberries are blue. Smurfs, he said. His hand floated and landed on my thigh, not one iota of awkward. Natural as gravity. Indigo. What is indigo? The necessary vowel in Mr. Bivs last name, I said. Youre an English major. You love to show it off. 37


I do, I said. I do I do I do I do The words hung in the air. Were forgetting eyes, he said after a while. His are brown and mine are hazel, and wouldnt this moment have been so much better, albeit cheesier, if just one of us had had blue eyes? We could have gazed into each others eyes like they do in the movies and Max could have said, Your eyes are blue like forget-me-nots. Or I could have said, Your eyes are blue like bluejay feathers. And we could have kissed slowly. Well, we were brown and hazel, mud clods and rotted hay, and I wasnt thinking about movies. We went ahead and made out, falling into the pool. I remembered I was wearing clothes, and they were heavy with that blue water. I took them off and we resumed kissing. Much later I remembered our beers. At the time I thought that night was a good night. On the drive back to school on Sunday, I even thought it might be a top-five memory. I had it positioned at number five exactly. It was almost edged out by my ninth-birthday sleepover pa rty and a few Christmases, but what kept it in the top five was that we talked during the sex, combining these two things we did well together, talking and fucking, into something new. The only bad thing was the silence that followed. It started right after we got dressed. My clothes were wet, but suddenly they were fr eezing cold, too. Max pulled up his sopping shorts and hummed a few bars of something I almo st recognized, and then stopped. Without our talking, a big, heavy space was revealed. It had been there the whole time, I realized, and I must have known it was there, in the way you hear but dont always register cars driving by when you try and sleep in a city. That space was worse than the cold, which, unlike the silence, arrived suddenly and came as a complete surprise. 38


Massachusetts Soon I discovered that the only thing I enjoyed about being an English major was using it as an excuse for making bad puns and jokes about grammar. I dropped out of school and moved to Boston, to North Park. Max visited so we drank a bottle of fake absinthe, which was terrible. And we went the whole nine yards, lighting sugar on fire and letting it drip in, while Jay-Z blasted in the background at full volume. The music was Maxs idea and it was a good one. We grooved around the tiny room, which functioned as, alternately, an office, a living room, a bedroom. Tonight it was our bedroom. The walls were a promising dingy white, nothing on them, just little holes left from the nails and tacks of past residents. To look at them inspired me, as it always would when I moved somewhere new. It lasted until the new wore off and I saw I wasnt living in a unique Bohemian den, but a shithole. We folded out the couch right after dinner. Max wanted to see what it looked like, so I showed him. Now it was our resting place between songs. I brought him more absinthe, I felt very grown-up. You look good tonight, he said to me when I handed him the milky green drink. Thank you, I said. I shimmied my shoulders. I decided I would blow him later. Max had a look in his eye that I liked. He wa s drunk, and one eyelid drooped more than the other. Hed let his hair grow since I'd last seen him, and some tendrils curled down his neck and over the tops of his ears. This, coupled with the red flush of bad absinthe, made him look like a frat-house cupid. The next song was Aint No Love, not my favorite title, but tonight it was a fun song that Max did some bad lip-synching to. He knew all the lyrics, but I only knew the chorus. Want some more? I yelled and pointed to his glass. 39


He moved his hand in the air like he was spinning records. In his head, maybe he was. I guessed it meant no. In the kitchen my spirits were high. I ran the tap for a bit and washed my hands, though I didnt know why. Maybe I just loved the water on my hands. Things couldnt get any better. When I came back in to the main room I smiled at Max, a smile I was practicing for my husbandnot saying itd be Max, but who knows, right?for when I brought a tray of sugar cookies to him and his old college friends whom he hadnt seen in years, but in reality whom hed seen just last week. What a thought. I liked to imagine reminiscing in the future. It was a bad habit of mine. From outside, we heard a weak voice trying to shout over the music. Turn it down, or Im going to call the police! It mustve been one of my new neighbors. Without missing a beat, Max ran to the window, leaping over my boombox. The police should be reserved for legitimate crimesyoure a huge pussy, he said, slurred but confident. He waited to hear back, and when he didnt, he shut the window. You got some neighbors. He turned the music down a little and faced me. Still want to dance? I asked. Hell yes. He had a strange smile while we ground together. I knew, among others, his happy face, his horny face, and his tired face, and Id seen all three tonight. This one wasnt anything I knew. Possibly the absinthe was actually halfway decent and I was hallucinating, but for a second the edges of his face seemed to peel up a little bit, a tissue-thin corona. I blinked and then it was gone. I bet I had a look on my face. I could picture it, my eyes relaxed, my sugar cookie smile, my head lowered like I was going to butt into his chest, ram-style. Did he know what it meant? If 40


he didnt, did I still look good? This was another bad habit of mine, this looking at looking at myself. New York We sat on Coney Island beach eating Subway sandw iches, neither of us able to think of a restaurant. I asked him how his life was going, how he liked Philadelphia now that he wasnt in school. He said it was fine, how was New York ? New York was all right. Did I feel safe? Sometimes. Did I like it better than Boston? Some. I want to do you here on the beach, he said. We looked around. The summer sun wouldnt set for another two hours and, silly me, I felt bashful. Oh come on, Max, I said. No? A bad idea? Its a nice day. I agreed under the condition that we were under a towel. And because of the sand, we must also be on top of a towel. He moved slowly. I felt sand in my nooks and crannies. It was hot enough and the towels made it worse, as did his breathing in my face. All together, in between these towels, I felt like a wilted piece of lunchmeat in a sandwich. Max must have had the same thought, because he said, Hey, were in a sandwich, on the sand. Were in a sandwich, on the sand, and we just ate sandwiches There was nothing to do but laugh and dig my fingers into his shoulders and hope he wouldnt be too tired after this to do something else. 41


Maryland In Bodymore, Murdaland, three boys lived across the street and I spent most of my time there. They all had jobs that they hatedpizza delivery boy, grant writer, florists assistantand they also had their various hobbies banjo, paint, cigars. I loved to sit in their townhouse and watch them argue and run around. I never had brothers, and I felt like they always put on a show just for me. The banjo-loving pizza deliverer disliked the smell of the florist assistants cigars, and the florists assistant in turn disliked the paintbrushes in the kitchen sink belonging to the grant writer, who hated the sound of the banjo. They agreed on coffee. Someone was always making it. When I first met them they had a regular coffee maker, the bottom of the glass bowl scorched from constant use. Then one of them brought home an espresso machine, and they used that until they grew tired with banging the portafilter against the side of the garbage can and getting grounds all over their wrists. Then one got a Moka Express from Italy, an Art Deco contraption that brewed coffee strong enough to contort the face of the florists assistant. And two weeks later they got into Turkish coffee and bought an ibrik It went on like this. Each time they found a new way to make coffee, they retired the old equipment to a shelf just out of reach above the kitchen sink. There, for the most part, the items sat, still too useful to trash, but no longer novel or interesting enough to use every day. You cant argue with novelty. They knew this, I knew this, Max knew this. Once I sat in the kitchen with the pizza delivery boy while he made himself breakfast in the afternoon, an omelet and coffee. The ibrik was ready to go. But lets try something else, he said, and stretched to the top of the cabinet. Oh, what do I want? He touched each machine for a few seconds, as if his hands could best decide. Finally he pulled down the automatic-drip machine, careful to keep the pot from sliding out. He plugged it in. 42


The florists assistant came in the kitchen. He pointed to the machine and said, What are you doing with that dusty old whore? Why would you call our coffeepot a whore? I dont know. It just slipped out. Shes a good old machine. I wanted to try something different. Nothing wrong with that. I hope not, the pizza boy said. We watched while he measured some coffee into a filter and filled the top part up with water. I hope you washed that out first. Its proba bly filled with fleas, the flower boy said. They add flavor, I said. The flower boy opened a beer bottle on the edge of the countertop and then left. The pizza boy made his omelet, burning it a little. All the while the coffee dripped into the unwashed pot. When his omelet was done he put his hands on his knees and got eye-level with the machine. Come on, coffee. I need you. His voice was gentle. She sputtered and stopped. He poured one cup of coffee and dumped the rest into the sink. He washed and dried the pot. Then he unplugged the machine, wound the cord around the base, and put her back on the shelf. New York / Maryland Beeeep. Hey, lady. This is your friend Maximillian. Im in front of your building in New York but then I remembered you moved. Im in the city for business but I guess your phone is off. You used to keep it on at night. Listen, I met this French guy at work and I asked him about sex, because everyone knows the French are so good in the sack. I said, Good man, tell me all you know about women, so he told me some things about cungilinn, cunga, you know, the thing 43


where you, on a woman. Listen, I want to lick your pussy. If somehow you didnt move and youre still in this building in New York, come downstairs because people are looking at me funny. Virginia In terms of remembering where I lived and what specific way I wasted my life, my grandmother was on a two-year delay. She wasnt senileit was just hard to keep up with the details. If I myself didnt buy round-trip tickets to visit my parents on the holidays, half the time I probably would have flown back to the wrong city. Once she and I stood together in my parents house, in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, applying our makeupan experience Id gladly repeat. She put her blush on with a buffing motion, like softly waxing a car. Id never used blush but saw that maybe I would when I was older and my current routine (lip gloss, eyeliner, eyeshadow, mascara, more eyeliner, more mascara) would be too desperate. I applied lip gloss with two fingers. So youre in Boston now? she asked. Baltimore. You live near a large church, she said, matter-of-fact. No, not anymore. She blotted her lipstick on a tissue folded perfectly in half, and I wiped mine on the inside of my wrist. And you dont work for the nonprofits? No, now Im working at the art space. I dont know what an art space is, dear. I cant explain it too well. I dont understand it myself. Oh thats right, I do remember you moving. You moved to Hanover Street. 44


I had to think if this was right. Was this Baltimore or Boston? Or New York or New Jersey? No, I think thats Boston still. I live on I paused, because I couldnt remember. Ooh. She laughed. You should straighten these details out sooner rather than later, dear. I need a little more lipstick. As if I wanted to forget where I live, I thought. But the way she leaned in again and parted her papery lips for the coral nib of lipstick char med me, and for a moment I thought that maybe it was my fault for forgetting. And youre still seeing that boy, she said, meaning Max. Nothing changed there. Nothing to get mixed up. The steady force in my lifeour non-commitment to each other was the only thing I was committed to. More or less. Well, which is it? More or less? Dont worry, I wont tell your mother. Its sort of complicated, Nana. My makeup was done, but she continued slowly with hers. She groomed her eyebrows with a tiny brush. I see. There was a silence while I watched her. You should sort those details out, too. I opened my mouth to say something, but had nothing. Washington, D.C. Depending on how you look at it, it was either good or bad that Max traveled so much for his job. If he had a job where he stayed in one place, I wouldnt have seen him at all. I moved to D.C. when the cherry blossoms were blooming, and that alone made me stay eight months instead of five or six. And Max was there on business. We ate outside at some garden-themed place. What are you going to order? I asked. I tapped my foot excitedly. 45


I dont know yet. Did you read that article I sent you? No, which one? I saw this thing in the Post about a film festival, and I cut it out for you. Oh, I did get that. Did you read it? I cant remember, he said. Well, you should check it out when you get a chance. I will. Do you know what you want to order? I need a few more minutes. I thought maybe tonight we could see a movie at that old beatnik theater. They have red curtains, I hear. I dont know. There used to be a theater in...New York? It had red velvet seats. I saw Its a Wonderful Life there, totally changed the experience. Maybe it was Boston. I need to stop moving around and settle somewhere, you know? I cant keep hauling my mattress around the world. But I didnt mean it. I wanted to see his reaction. The waitress came. Are you ready to order yet? Yes, Max said. I still need a few. Im sorry, I said. The waitress left. What have you been doing? he asked. I was talking to you. 46


Do you want to go home? Do what we do best? He reached out his hand to me and smiled. He didnt even have his horny face on. He looked like a man who was babysitting a child and had no idea how to pass the time. If I was at another table and I saw us, a nicely groomed young couple, I would have thought, theres some young love. But all that w ould depend on just seeing us, without sound. It wasnt his fault. The terms were unclear. I said, I guess, so we got up and left. Anywhere Lets get some distance on this one. There once was a young woman who lived out of a suitcase. She and a young man had a casual relationship spanning a number of years. They had sex in a number of interesting places. One night they were in her bed, in her apartment. Other than that, the location doesnt matter too much. Outside it was dark and warm, and she could hear people walking down below. Inside it was silent. She rested one leg on top of the sheet. She had been thinking for a long time about what she was going to say to him. Shed spent six years moving from city to city, and he would come visit her. Sometimes they took day trips. She saved cardboard moving boxes, already labeled with room names, and all her furniture folded. Her favorite posters all had ripped corners from being taped up and taken down so many times. But after a while she needed a change. Mostly, she worried she was getting careless and leaving things behind. It felt like every time she moved she lost a part of her possessions, though she couldnt say what. It never got to the point where she wandered from room to room like a lunatic, but one time, not too long before she lay in bed that night, she sat on a metal folding 47


chair looking at the white walls in her apartment, and she wondered what was causing the loose knots in her chestthe same ones that always let her know when the door was unlocked. For the second time in her life, she knew what she wanted. She decided to stay in one place, to see if the things she lost driving a rental van up and down I-95 would return if they only knew where to go. She was going to move one more time, and that would be it. And throwing away the boxes for good opened up the possibility of something permanent with this young man. If he said yes, she would move to his city and they could spend more than a weekend together, and do something other than screw. He was breathing heavily next to her. He might have been asleep, but she thought not. She rolled onto him and he dropped his arms around her. How do you feel about being exclusive? she asked. After a pause, medium length, he said, I dont think Im up for it. She had spent so much time thinking of this question that she couldnt think of a reply. Her friends had advised her on this. She wanted to sketch out the entire conversation. Her friends had said, Take it one step at a time, but they hadnt said whether the steps were forward, or back, or up, or down. Now with the conversation dried up, her naked and in his arms, the steps were stairs, headed down to somewhere unknown, and the next one was such a drop-off that she couldnt see where she would land. So she chose to stay on the current stair for just a while longer. She didnt say anything but put her mouth on his neck in a way she hoped would make him forget what shed asked. 48


ICE I knew a girl with blue eyes and an ugly face. Her face was blockish, carved like a totem pole. In my head I mix her up with another girl I knew from high school, one with a barbed wire tattoo. They were both flag girls, if you know what that means and what it implies. Ours were called The Lionettes. Not The Lionesses, a real word, because that would somehow imply grace and prowess, not wooden brows and barbed wire tattoos. These two girls. Oh. Danced on the football field at halftime and tossed dark blue flags out of sync. I sat in the bleachers half a dozen times. This was when I thought going to those things mattered. I always wore the wrong kind of outerwear to the games, a light sweater or one too few scarves, and I was always, always cold. My whole body stiff with coldness, and half of me proud of this important sacrifice, and half of me cloude d with dark ideas I didn't have a vocabulary for. One time in November, I went home after the game and thawed myself out in the kitchen, sitting on a thin pillow from the living room to comfort my clammy behind. I thought. Those girls and their idiot flagswhy even? Did anyone see them, anyway? Or me? Maybe I needed a tattoo, or maybe I needed the opposite of a tattoo. Choices were limited for flag girls. They would have babies before they were twenty-four, an idea that made my hands feel number than before. The world was a dark, blue-lit place, with twisting, ice-covered paths that never crossed each other. I sat on the pillow and waited for the feeling to return to my parts. I finally did warm up, but it took so long that twice I checked my reflection in the sliding glass door to make sure that my features were still there, still properly round, that my face had not been carved away as ice carves a valley open when it melts and moves across the Earth. 49


SOLID My friend Finn still has a fever. But he's a trooper, and he comes over to eat overcooked broccoli. I can't tell exactly how the fever has affected himmaybe not at all. He gestures a bit more, he smiles a bit less. It could be the broccoli. He stands at my sink, his shoulders tilted. I sit at my table and watch his back. Are you drinking caffeine? he asks. A little. What kind of caffeine? What kinds are there? Coffee, of course. Theres tea. Coffeecappuccino, you could say. Theres soda. Chocolate. Yes. I ate five bars of chocolate today. Im all shaky. I hold up my trembling hand. Look at me. He doesn't turn around, and I put my hand down. No. Of course Im drinking coffee. I dont want to lecture you on it, he says. I read in some article that caffeine is bad for people like us. Makes depression worse. His tone is that of a lecturer. This is not the fever talking. Thats bull, I say. But at this point Ill try anything. Ill quit coffee, once I read that article myself. *** Finn leaves at sundown. There are some evenings where I get so tired it feels like a pair of soft hands is pulling the skin on my face. Specifically, around my eyes. I should stay awake, but there's that whole issue of why *** 50


Finn and I used to date for two years. Now were just friends, though waiters think we are either engaged or on the verge of breaking up by the way we discuss whether we should order dessert. My mother doesn't understand. I tell his new girlfriends what not to say when he's drunk on rum versus drunk on tequila. My father understands. We eat dinner together when one of us is in bad shape, so he's come over every night this week. Its better this way, we both agree. Ninety percent of the time I'm glad hes my friend. Five percent of the time I miss him, like that. Five percent of the time I want to bone him for days on end. During these times I cant even look at him without remembering the way his hips wedged so perfectly between my thighs. I once had a female friend who said the moment a relationship ended, her interest dissipated, and she moved on. What on Earth ? Cyborgs live among us. If I threw out my feelings for Finn, thered be nothing left of me. So I adjusted it into something more manageable. There are a few side effects. When I'm drunk on bourbon, I'm likely to sing a little song that I began writing eight months ago. We used to fuck and it was good, my friend Finn and I; Now were friends and that works too; We like to drink and cry. I ask him to join in, usually. But Finn is a trooper, and he knows not to respond to me when I'm on bourbon. *** 51


Not half an hour after he leaves, I make myself a cup of coffee and walk around my apartment. I watch two ants walk around my bathtub and I raise my mug at them. Sometimes things are so great, the way it all is. Opening a book and smelling the pages. Or a pack of colored markers. Spanish moss drapes on the trees outside my window like hundreds of lace shawls. Its so great, I wonder. Thanks for inviting me. Happy to be here. Then, without warning, the reverse. The Spanish moss looks more like dangling entrails, or bundles of rotten chains swinging in the wind. Ill try and refocusbut at best its still a pretty parasite. *** This morning I ate a plum that had ripened in the trunk of my car. The plum was surprisingly tasty, considering I bought it when it was hard, unripe, pink-green, and it spent its puberty forgotten in the hot darkness. I try to get away from it all but there it isme leaving whole sacks of groceries in my trunk. I sit on my mildewed loveseat and stare at things to distract myself. A picture of my parents on the windowsill, covered in brown dust. A Tupperware container missing its lid. A tangle of wires and cords under my computer desk. At first I think, these things have nothing to do with being lonely. *** Is it chemical? Is it environmental? Am I too si ngle? Is it my friends? Is it Finn? What am I taking, sugar pills? My lungs are tangled. *** 52


This isnt the most popular opinion, but I feel bad for Monica Lewinsky. When it all happenedthe blue dress, the cigarI was young. And she seemed like an adult. I mean that beret But recently I learned that she was 21, 22, 23, 24. Oh shit, I said. That could have been me. It still could be me. I'm 24. I dont know. Its not hard to imagine. This is how you pull a Monica. You find something you want. Think how you can get it you must be young enough for this to workand believe in your abilities. Then, give a lot. If you succeed, you can fuck on a bed of laurel leaves. If not, then the locusts come. *** I give in and call Finn. We still go through the formalities, though all I need to say is, Dinner tonight? and he'll come over. Hi, I say. Hey there. How are you? Im not bad. The fever is down. How are you? he says. I left some groceries in the trunk of my car for a week. That is bad. A beat. Anything rotten? No. It was some paper towels, canned shit, and plums. The plums were under-ripe when I bought them but they turned good in the trunk. Canned shit? Feces in a can? Dont play with me. Human feces? Or another animal? he says. 53


Dont, I say, but Im smiling. *** Its the age. Being under thirty. It feels like when Im in bed in the wintertime and I have ten layers of sheets and blankets and Im thrashing around, trying to straighten them out, match the corners up. I thrash endlessly and it's never even. Or slowly peeling a label off a book and trying to avoid that sticky residue. Peeling from one side and then scraping from another, only to have some rough threads of glue left behind, anyway. Ive been on pills since I was fifteen, but all this shit started the day I turned twenty. *** Theres always half an hour where I wait for him to come over. I cant get anything else done in that time. There was a time in the past when I would loll about and listen to my breathing. Id think of our house together, a little house with a moat to keep out visitors. Wed have a big liquor cabinet and a bigger bed. Now I sit upright when I wait. Theres nothing else to do. Maybe I can wash out a cereal bowl, but thats it. *** When Im drifting into the dark-green depths, whatever girl friends I have left want to come over and paint my toenails. They want to pet me and tell me how loved I am, how pretty I am. What do you need? they ask. I need you to not ask. *** Solidarity, Finn says when I open the door. We pump fists. Hows the fever? I put the back of my hand on his forehead as we stand in the doorway. 54


Can I come in? Fuck the fever. Youre still sick. You should go home and rest. Fuck the fever. I feel bad for making you come over. He puts both his hands on my shoulders. Let me in, he says. *** I make dishwasher machine noises when I wash the dishes, because my job as a copyeditor does not afford me a real dishwasher. I had a friend who would sing I Want to Hold Your Hand every time she washed the dishesevery time. She called me a month ago and left a message asking me how I was doing, whether I was getting help, if I was still spending all my time with Fred. She paused. Or was his name Fritz? Why would she think Id call her back? I scrub the pot that boiled Finns pasta and think of her. *** I might enjoy attending a horserace. I dont know if there are any nearby, but I do know the Ocala speedway has school bus races every other month. *** The ants found my honey. There are ants in my honey. This isn't a euphemism. At midnight I made pancakes because I didnt feel like feeling. I opened the cabinets and found my favorite orange blossom honey with the amazing no-mess squeeze cap covered with antsthe same ants with which I have lived in perfect harmony for months. 55


We usually have a symbiotic relationship. The terms are simple. I let them walk around my bathtub from 9:00 to 10:00 p.m., as they like to do, and I don't kill them. Their destination is unclear, but I dont care. These are the nice ants, black sprinkles marching on a very strict schedule. I guess it was more of a tolerance relationship. Now I will have to kill them with Febreze, the way I do with the angry ants who choose to loiter around my doormat and bite my ankles while I look for my keys. *** Its not always Finn helping me out. I hold hi m together, too. He came over once, shuffling his feet. He said he kept writing letters to people and coming too close to sending them, and he was scared. I told him to lie on the couch, and I got on top of him. It wasn't sexual. He started crying. I clamped my hand over his mouth. He pried it off. That feels good. How did you know? he said. I couldn't say. I put my hand back. I talked to him for a while and made him listen. I told him what an asshole he was, how much he confused my mother, how he shouldn't keep stamps in the house, how we should do more drugs together, how I was thinking of going to Georgia for the hell of it, how he was going to come with me, how he needed to make three mix tapes for the road, how he should not include James Taylor. *** It manifests itself in different ways. Tonight the sunset is fluorescent pink, light rays bouncing off the clouds. It inspires me for a while, until I stare at it too long and suddenly the colors infect me. A pink haze surrounds my head. 56


Suddenly I become convinced that I need to buy black tights, a white skirt, and a small machine to sort my coins. K-mart only makes it worse. My arms are full of this crap that only has a vague purpose, and I get lost in the Lawn and Garden section. Do I need a lawn mower? Do I have enough gnomes in my life? If I were to take the things in my arms and bury them in the public park, would I need a square shovel or one shaped like a devil heart? I come across insect traps. The ant-murder-disks are on sale, but I decide not to buy them, though this would be the one thing I do need. I can't do it, despite my ants' betrayal. The pink haze clears up and the regular dark green thing is back. What will cure me, I am sure, are carbohydrates. I head out to the sandwich shop. *** In the car the man on the radio announces a fire is burning ten miles outside of town, and thats why the air is filled with smoke. I didnt notice until right now, but yes, the world does smell like burnt hotdogs. He says, Did you see that sunset tonight? If you missed it, it was a beautiful bright pink sunset, courtesy of millions of particles of ash in the air. At the traffic light the woman in the car next to me is wearing a surgical mask. Id assume for the smoke, but maybe shes one of those unf ortunate folks without any antibodies. I should have bought surgical masks. *** Young man in the baseball shirt at the fountain machine. You and I couldve been lovers. We couldve disappeared into the woods and written books. Or we couldve floated out to sea on a raft made of couch cushions and fucked until our skin burned off. But youre just some guy I saw in a sandwich shop. I don't even know your name. Oh, it doesn't matter, Ive done this before, I'm not doing it again. Im sorry. 57


*** Try and think about something else besides love, Finn says. Is it getting old? A little. I guess my life is good, overall, I say. Have you always kept your utensils in this drawer? If I don't complain about love, then I have no reason to cry. Do you need a reason? To hell with that. He looks at me, and his brown eyes are fierce underneath his tightened brow. He is angry, not at me, but at the kind of world that tells me I need a logical explanation for all my highs and lows Seriously, fuck that. He points at me with a spatula. You can cry anytime you want. I love him for this. I want to say I still love him. Thats not my loneliness talking. But I can't tell him. Even though he understands me and he understands what it means to cry at the sight of widowed Tupperware, he does not understand this: Love is like ants. Its hard to explain, other than to say, Ive got ants. What kind? How many are we talking, here? Dont demand specifics. Some ants help. They eat the cockroach carcasses that you can't bother to clean up because you're too busy searching for a lost bag of groceries. Some ants bite your ankles because they know youre a piece of shit. Other ants march around with no purpose but to entertain. One day they cross the line and go into your honey. There is also the kind that you only see one or two wandering around the living room, but you suspect there are millions under the floorboards, waiting to overthrow you during sleep. I don't know the name for all these antsall Ive got is that one word. Ive got ants. Im learned in the way of ants, even if I can't get rid of them. Maybe 58


I don't want to. If I tell you Ive got ants, dont assume theyre the bad kind. Even if they turn out that way. *** Today is angry impulse day, and I throw a deck of cards out the window into the ashy fog. Then I throw out all the crap I bought yesterday at K-mart. This makes me think that perhaps there is a graceful balance to everything. *** Oh fuck. I am going to buy a charming robot to do my work for me while I lie in bed and hit myself in the head with a mallet. *** The man on the television calms the other viewers. The fire is still going outside town. No, the fire will not spread here. The fire is contained. But I know what theyre thinkingif its contained, why cant they put it out for good? Why keep it burning on the edge of town? Why smoke us out? I have missed all the public hysteria, too wrapped in my own. Just think. Maybe there will be riots. I hope the world destroys itself and that insects take over and they make me their queen. If I perish in the smoke then I hope they crown Monica. *** I answer a knock at the door. My downstairs ne ighbor is wearing two different types of plaid: a flannel shirt and bright yellow madras. Party tonight, he says. When he smiles he reminds me of a wolverine, and for a brief moment I worry that I might tackle him. It is angry impulse day. Why? I say. 59


The apocalypse is coming, and also Im graduating. You were in school? What did you think I did? I thought you just, you know. Lived I don't know how to respond to that. Can I bring my friend Finn? Is it a keg thing, or like a cocktail thing? The answer is clear before I ask it: No one in flannel throws a cocktail party for the apocalypse. *** I tell Finn, No dinner tonight; we're going to be social before the world ends. He jokes, What if I had other plans? I tell him to shut the fuck up. He asks if today is mad day. Angry impulse day, I correct him. I threw a deck of cards out the window. Oh, he says. I know that. Thats every other day for me. *** This is a big thing. This party. Its important. I'm going to drink some mango juice to prepare. *** While trying to take out an irritating tag, I get carried away and demolish my secondfavorite shoe. I throw it out the window. There is a single ant on my mango juice glass, which kind, we went over this, I dont know, I kill it with Febreze, and now this glass will forever smell of chemical meadows. My guilt is a heavy blanket dropped onto my shoulders. *** Finn should be coming soon. I can hear the party downstairs. One male voice travels clearly through the floorboards: I'm telling you, woman. Theres a muffled response. My 60


minds like a VCR stuck on play! the male voice says. I need to know if I should pack mace for this party. *** I just dont want to tackle anyone. We dont have to go, Finn says. *** I dreamt last night that a stormcloud threatened our very existence, and to save us, I built a slide made of newspapers. The slide ended up dropping us off the face of a cliff, but he and I clung together and landed safely somehow. Then it rained and the slide fell apart anyway. I hate my dreams. *** I'm slipping further. Finns fever isnt gone at all. I wonder if I'm making him sick. He sweeps my floor while I sit in the corner, crying, like the horrible clich that I am. What are we going to do? What is all this brown dust? he says. Why is this lasting all week? Why are we always asking each other questions? What if I'm never normal again? I ask. Oh, shit. You know what this brown dust is? Crumbs? Are you serious? How could this be crumbs? Hon, have you lost your mind for real? Yes. This is termite poop. You have termites. 61


I know all the insects around here personally. I only have ants. Termites look like ants. So now I know a new word for love. There are crumbs, even if he cant see them. I lean in close to the floor. Heres a little cluster of crumbs, all alone on the barren hardwood plain. Usually the ants would take care of thisI suppose they are mad at me. Theyll get over it. Its surprisingly comfortable down here. A few feet underneath my lowered chin, a roomful of people drink themselves charming. Finn says he will make dinner, and do I have any flank steaks? I call Finn over. Stop sweeping. Come crouch with me. He does. Do you see that little clump. How did they get there. Where will they go next. I watch our crumbs and wait for the ants to rescue us. 62


THE SHOEBOX I developed an interest in acting when I was sixteen, and went to drama camp. When my mother had told my aunt how I was going to spend my summer, my aunt asked if my mother misspoke and meant to say my sister Rosa was going to drama camp, and my mother said no, it was Sarah, and my aunt erupted into laughter. I heard it from my bedroom and I remembered it for years. I used it when I needed, in a scene, to portray a specific kind of anger: shapeless, defeated, shaking anger. Despite what everyone thought, I was better suited to theater than Rosa for drama. At camp, a guy named Bud was often my scene partner, first by assignment, later by choice. The director cast us as romantic leads in a play she wrote. In our final performance, Bud and I were buzzing with nervousness and horniness. The last scene was particularly good, just Bud and I alone on stage sparsely decorated to look like a 1940's Midwest farm. I stood in front of a wagon wheel. Bud carried a sack of grain. I said my last lines to the audience: And why shouldn't we be here for the harvest, Eli? Why shouldn't we? The lights went out, and the audience of parents and siblings applauded. Bud kissed me on the mouth and grabbed my crotch. I want to see you again, he whispered. He released me a second before the lights went up. The rest of the cast joined us and we bowed. He squeezed my hand during the bow. Afterwards my parents took me out to a salad bar to celebrate. Rosa asked who that guy was, meaning my Bud, and I told her to back off. I said it half-jokingly, half-seriously. All I'd have to do is show a bit of ambivalence, a morsel of disinterest, and she'd swoop in and wrap him up in her long, black hair. He was mine. The mention of him made me remember the way his palm fit me like the peel of an orange. 63


Rosa advised me to wait a week before calling him. She had two boyfriends at the time, a boy in our high school and another boy who went to community college. She juggled them for months without trouble, so I figured I should listen to her. But when I tried to find the scrap of paper with Bud's number on it, I couldn't. He lived somewhere in another county and his parents were unlisted. Rosa comforted me while I cried next to a stack of phone books. There'll be others, she said. Lots and lots of better ones. I was not sure. Suddenly I thought, Of courseRosa probably stole his number. I pushed her hand off me and ran into her bedroom. I stopped at the doorway and searched among the strewn bras and skirts for the shoebox where she kept all her boys' numbers. I found it on her desk. It was a plain black Nike box, but it kept Rosa's livelihood. I stood and dumped it outall the scraps of paper fluttered to the floor. I knelt and read them one by one. Christopher, Jason, Steven, Jose, Andy, Adam, Bert, Jacob, Matt, Dominic, Simon His number was not there. I expected her to come in and start screaming at me, but she didn't. She was still sitting next to the phone books when I gave up. This one's not my fault, she said. She looked sincere. I'm sorry, Sarah. She did not demand an apology. This was a loss she understood. 64


THE LIMP STORY My father's leg pains got worse. His doctor told him the risk of injury was too high and that he needed to use a wheelchair. My mother called me on the phone and told me the news before I came home for Christmas. She said it all matter of fact: stress of the joint, weakening of the ligament, fracture of the bone. Business of the body; nothing to do with him. But after a pause, she whispered to me. Jill. Another pause. Don't bring it up, she said, her voice a thin trickle of molasses. I resolved not to think about it, and thought about nothing else. After coming home, I found myself avoiding his usual spots, his workbench where he repaired his brace in the afternoons, his tattered armchair after dinner. The chance of the subject coming up was unlikely, but I didn't want to talk about other things. I couldn't bear the idea of us discussing whether or not it would snow Christmas morning while my father's impending enfeeblement stalked around us. But one afternoon, three days before Christmas, he came into the dining room where I was reading and asked me if I wanted to go to the mall. I couldnt say no. It was our tradition. My mother usually completed all her shopping by Thanksgiving, but my father and I liked to wait until the holidays to see the decorations and to complain about the crowds. Every year I helped him pick out something for my mother. Then we'd split up and buy gifts for each other. He found an empty handicapped parking spot, and it was a short walk to the entrance. The mall had never looked so dated to me. It was built in the seventies, made to look modern, with a glass ceiling and glass walls like a greenhouse. My father and I entered through adjacent glass doors. This year would be the last year he would walk through the mall. I wondered if at this time next year I wouldn't be by his side, but behind him, pushing a wheelchair through the crowds. He, however, seemed untroubled. 65


Let's go to that perfume store first, he said. He started towards the escalator. You got Mom perfume last year. It goes bad, he said. No it doesn't. It doesn't spoil? Not everything goes bad. A teenage girl with red lipstick looked at us as we passed her. For a second I did not understand why. If not for these people, I'd have no way of remembering that my father had had polio as a child and now walked with a severe limp. His right leg, as thin as my forearm, was encased in a metal brace. The top and bottom parts of the brace were made of leather, where they are strapped to his waist and little foot. I often forgot this. *** After the perfume store, we split a cinnamon bun in the food court and discussed the day's plans. I have to buy Grandpa Doc some all-natural birdfeed he wants. You think that'd be at the health food store? I don't know if they sell birdfeed. It's a human-only store. Might be worth checking. He scribbled something on his shopping list, a white index card. What do you want for Christmas, Jill? Hmm. I cut another piece of cinnamon bun. I made a face like I was thinking hard, like the answer wasn't obvious. I could use some new stationery. I'm trying to write to friends more, you know? The letter kind is best, though if you can only find blank cards, that's fine too. I swallowed hard. What do you want? 66


Oh shit, I don't know. I don't need anything. You could make some of those tasty cookies you make every year. The ones with fudge on them. I'm not giving you fudge cookies. I have an income now, Dad. What are you getting other people? What does that matter? It might inspire me. I'm getting Mom a pair of pajamas she's been talking about all year. I'm getting Nana an egg slicer, and I'm getting Grandpa Doc a pair of slippers. All right. I'll take some slippers. He balled up a napkin and nodded, satisfied. Okey dokey, I said. We stood and started in different directions. He went towards the natural foods store, and I watched him, working to see his walk the way a stranger might see it. A moderate swagger, sideto-side, arms splayed out a little for balance. A department store bag containing gifts for my cousins flapped against his side. I turned and headed towards Eddie Bauer. Giving him slippers for his feet seemed to draw attention to everything Id been trying to avoid. My mother said not to bring it up. Bring it up? I wanted to bury it. But if I didn't buy the slippers for him, hed be angry that his own daughter condemned him. In the store I stood in front of the slipper section, five pairs of slippers wrapped in tissue paper and nested in cardboard boxes, their little coffins. A plump woman with stiffly curled bangs approached me. Looking to buy some slippers? Yes, I said. It's all overwhelming. 67


She gave me a look. I'll help you out. Who are you buying for? My father. He wants slippers this year. These here have real lambswool in them, which is absolutely splendid. Feel this. She thrust a slipper at me and I weakly rubbed a finger inside the heel. It's nice. They're on sale. And these here she lifted another pair out are great because they have rubber on the bottom, so your dad can walk outside with them on. They're very popular. I don't know if I need those. Maybe I do. She breathed deep. Well, is he the kind of dad who likes to go get the morning paper in his pajamas? Maybe. I need some time to think. Thanks for your help. She shuffled away. I left the open boxes of shoes behind and returned to the mall. Garlands of tinsel swept low above the heads of the smiling shoppers. Invisible speakers piped in jazz renditions of all my favorite holiday songs. I had no idea what to buy him, so I had no idea where to go next. I walked towards the jewelry store, its display window full of headless, bodyless velvet necks adorned with diamonds. I did not stop thereI walked next to the candle shop on the other side of the mall. I glanced at the pillar candles on display as I continued past. I walked to the toy store and then walked to ten other stores, not quickly or slowly, but deeply, taking each step as if my foot were sinking into the ground below, one foot in front of the other, letting the ball of my foot touch the tile and rise away again. As a child I used to hold my breath and think, Do I really know how to breathe? What if it's all just memories, and I've forgotten? I would puff my cheeks, flood my mind with worries, and then exhale in a rush, giddy with the release. To the slowed beat of a Christmas song I 68


couldn't remember, I stepped, and for the fraction of a second my foot hovered in the air, I played that game again. What if I've forgotten how to walk? What if the memory of it is all that remains? Each step I did this. It became a rhythm in me, throbbing with a swing-swing until every drop of blood in my body went like this: step-touch, lift-go, step-touch, lift-go. Touch and go and touch again. 69


IDEAS ON LOGIC There are a several kinds of logic. Logic, like a belt, has different notches for you to experiment with. How tight do you like your logic? Logic won't let you know. There is a type of logic that says: you must let go of logic. They teach logic as logos which is a fancy name for please please listen to me Logic is passed down on the father's side. Is the reason you don't believe in God because your dad doesn't? Is the reason your dad doesn't believe in God because God killed your grandfather? Is there a reason the techniques your dad used to find love don't work when you try them? You can make a whole career out of logic. Or you can make a whole career out of showing, through the medium of words, different ways that logic fails. Logic is a buttress, like a man's arms. Logic is equated with the following acts: thinking, reasoning, counting, dividing, decaying, kneading, ordering, pleading, repeating, chanting, explaining, apologizing, justifying. Logic does not have a crystal structure and so can reach almost molecular thinness, making it useful for surgeons and warriors, or any person needing a sharp edge. Love and logic are public enemies but secret friends. Theyre in cahoots. No. Logic is a crippled creature that has no friends. You can't befriend someone like logic. Its edges will slice you if you hug. You can't love someone like logic, because its rigid lines are unpleasing to the eye. Truth, there is something fundamentally unlovable about logic, but no one knows what, and don't try to 70


figure it out, because that would be applying logic to logic, and I think that counts as circular reasoning, which logic hates. Logics final fight is with chaos, not love. The fight will occur on the phone, or on the sidewalk. A heart can be broken like a thoughtfully made clay pot, with a smash, and the possibility of mending. Thats one way of getting broken. The other way is like a toaster that burns the bread and no one can figure out why. Fathers take apart broken toasters at the request of their daughters. They sit with the pieces spread out on the kitchen counter and puzzle over them. Or everyone you know takes a turn with the pieces. Pass it around the party, like a logic puzzle that everyone wants to solve. Optimists bend logic. They say, one man's broken toaster is another man's microwave. What does that even mean? The rumor is, you learn to let go of logic and embrace irrationality. The fight on the sidewalk ends bloodlessly. 71


BURRITO ROAD, FLORIDA Yesterday I thought of you on Burrito Road, as I like to call it. Thats the stretch of road in town thats home to four different burrito joints. The decision of where to go is never easy for me. Montezuma's has good enough guacamole, but something's amiss with their tortillas. Not to mention their name. The products sold at Los Cabos are too unnatural: cheese the color of traffic cones, perfect criss-cross chargrill marks stenciled on the chicken. El Toro is cheap and it shows. I bought from Hot House, which I heard is owned by terrorists. And you told me this when we were in your pool, fucking. Its probably just an urban legend. Here's the truth: Hot House has the best burritos, no question, but I can't go too often. I fiercely, fiercely love burritos, but I start to think about how the place is owned by terrorists, and I think of your telling me this when we were in your pool, fucking. I would like to forget you and your pool. But every once or so, even the thought of your chlorinated dick isnt enough to suppress my burrito love. So, yesterday, down Burrito Road I went, swinging the sweaty paper bag from Hot House as I walked, like it was a briefcase full of important documents. I looked up. The sky was a smooth, rich navy blue, and the stars grouped in their formations like faces Id seen before but couldnt place. The whole thing was overwhelming in its splendor. That's how things are in Florida. A person can't come from the North and not be shocked by the constant stream of perfection here. The first time I saw a palm tree silhouetted against the paint-pink sunset, I said, are you kidding me? The image is more perfect than the thing itself. The pink is pink-er and the tree is tree-er than any tree, any pink. 72


STRANDS For years I'd tried to persuade Amy to masturbate. Even back then, I worried she'd die before experiencing an orgasm. I argued my case over and over. It feels amazing, I said at fifteen, in our sc hool cafeteria. She shrugged me off. It didn't make her uncomfortable. She was used to me. You can get this great feeling and you don't have to wait for boys, I said. I'll wait. It'll be more special. She braided the ends of her hair absentmindedly. Some boys at the next table stared. *** At seventeen, after a few experiences with boys, I found a large flaw in her argument. We sat watching a soccer game, the only two people on the bleachers. We huddled together in our puffy jackets, the hoods pulled over our heads. They won't know what they're doing. I'll have patience. My boyfriend, the goalie, jumped in the air as a soccer ball passed through his hands. Everyone called him Malone, his last name. Now when I think of him, it seems like he never had a first name. Malone was tall and slow. He had long hands and long fingers. Amy, he'll never figure it out unless you tell him what you like. It's not complicated. If you masturbated you'd know that it is complicated. He's just going to finger you. It's going to be awful. That's how it works, though. He is supposed to finger me. She whispered this into my ear: finger me It tickled. 73


Not at all. He's going to jab at you I poi nted at her, my finger rigid. It's going to suck. It'll be fine. And you're not going to be able to tell him what you like, because you won't know. The coach called time and motioned Malone off the field. His replacement, a thick Cuban boy, jogged to the goal. Malone waved to us. I waved back, the dutiful girlfriend. He seemed to be smiling at Amy, not me. I think I'm going to break up with Malone. Why? Amy said. The ends of her blonde hair peeked out from under her hood and whipped in the wind. I poked her shoulder with my finger, hard enough so she could feel it through her jacket. Jab, jab. Oh, I'm sure it's not that bad. *** At nineteen, I had so many solid arguments, we couldn't discuss it without me getting upset. In the summer we ate ice cream at Tastee-Freeze. I just don't understand, I said. She shrugged and spooned ice cream into her mouth. That was the last time we talked about it. I should have tried harder; I wish I'd tried harder. Well, anyway. Anyway, she said. Derek's coming down for the surgery. I focused on the Derek part of the topic. You're leading him on. You think so? 74


I read in Cosmo that men interpret these things differently. They don't have a 'friends' category like we do. I stirred my ice cream into soup. They also have a spot somewhere on their thigh that makes them love you. That can't be true. You shouldn't read that stuff, she said. I frowned. But lend me that article when you're done. It's in my purse. I like carrying it with me. I'm going to see if it works on George. I licked hot fudge off my finger. George was my summer obsession. You're trying too hard. Honey, can you really talk? You're not trying at all. I'm not worried. I have lots of time. It'll come. You won't. Ha! Get it? It was easier to talk about this than the other thing. Whisper it: the surgery. *** They took the tumor out that August, during a week so hot I was drenched in sweat nonstop and had to change my shirt two or three times a day. It was golf ball-sized, I heard, though I never saw it or touched it. She never offered her bare back to me, never directed me and said, If you press next to the left shoulder blade, you can feel it. I didn't picture a golf ball, but one of those big seeds that drop from the sweetgum trees in autumn. The ones you can't crunch under your feet. A brown, spiny cluster under her skin. *** She rested at home for a few days. After Derek left for good, I came over with ice cream from Tastee-Freeze. The ice cream was partially melted, and I forgot the spoons. 75


I drove as fast as I could, I said. I want to see these famous earrings. Moving her arms tired her, so I helped fasten the golden clasps behind her ears while she sat up in bed. I fluffed her hair. She lay back down. How do they look? she said. Against her hair, the diamonds shimmered. She winked at me. You're insane, I said. I wanted to eat our ice cream, now soup in Styrofoam containers on her nightstand. Her mother had given us spoons, which sat on a pile of napkins nearby. You need to marry him immediately. Plenty of time for that, she said. What's wrong with him? He made a move on me. Before your surgery? That's fucking tacky. He grabbed you? I'd had a few boys grab me. No, not like that. He just told me he loved me. She closed her eyes. I'm tired. Did he cry? I asked. She nodded. I probably would have left after that. He stayed the full three days. He was really helpful. Ran errands for my mom while she stayed with me. Fed the cat. I bet he'd be good in bed. Give it up, she said, smiling. For now. How'd you end it? He said he'd wait for me if I ever changed my mind. Doubt it, I said. They never do that. For me I thought. They never do that for me. I missed The O.C. premiere, she sighed. Nothing special. 76


I desperately wanted to eat the ice cream. She didn't seem interested in it. We talked about other thingsthe upcoming new school year, how to make belts out of ribbonbut I couldn't stop thinking about the ice cream. *** And the next month, after the test results, when the news spread, people started calling. She wouldn't be able to return to school. Church friends and old schoolmates and coworkers from summer jobs. Many of them boys, of course. Young men, quietly on the phone, offering uncharacteristicly tender words. She thanked them all the same. George, the object of my affection, called her twice to wish her good luck with the treatment. Whenever I tried calling him, which I did many times that summer, he let the answering machine take care of me. I thought, But she doesn't even know where her clitoris is. I couldn't talk to Amy about this one. I tried my mother. This is not the time, my mother said. I cried in my room while she rubbed my tumor-less shoulders. *** At parties, good-looking men used to send their witty friends over to distract me. This happened more than once. Always, the surroundings would be darkone time a nighttime barbeque, another time someone's mildewy, wood-paneled basement. Always, the witty boy would approach me first, and he'd try and make me laugh by doing the robot or impressions of celebrities. Meanwhile the hot boy would guide Amy away to a corner, try his best. She'd nod and smile but wouldn't let him in. Walking home she'd say, Who was that cute guy you were talking to? Painfully sincere. Did you get his number? How do you tell a modest girl that she's the object of 77


attention, that you're merely an obstacle to some guy getting laid? She refused to believe it. I never figured it out. Every party we arrived together, entering the darkness side by side. Before my eyes would adjust fully, I could just make out the shapes of boys standing in pairs, their wide shoulders unmistakable among the shadows. I imagined them looking at us, and their conversations. I want that blonde there. Nice. What about the other one? Can you distract the other one? I can distract the other one. *** Of course I never bothered her about masturbation once she started chemo. The topic was dead. I went with her to the hair salon. I sat in a folding chair while she explained to the hairdresser what she wanted. The hairdresser nodded. Shame to cut off all that beautiful hair. Amy didn't bother explaining that it was going to fall out anyway, in a few weeks. I've never had it this short, Amy said to me. We looked at each other in the mirror. It's freeing. Yeah? The hairdresser combed and cut, combed and cut. Yeah. Really sexy, you know? The pixie thing. Sexy, Amy said. The hairdresser frowned a little. I knew what she was thinking, because I was thinking it, too. It was like plucking a peacock. Blond hair fell in curved pieces, slowly covering the floor in a wavy, gold lake. 78


And then I wasn't there for this, but she told me about it: After a month of being robbed by showers, pillowcases, and hairbrushes, she'd had enough. She called up a friend of ours in ROTC. He went over with his electric shaving kit. I'm glad I wasn't there to see his face. *** She bought two wigs: a blond and a light brown. The wig lady said she'd never seen wigs look so natural. I tried on a red flip that made me look like a drag queen. *** The chemo worked, but not in the way we expected. Pea-sized tumors in her brain burst, their skins weakened from the treatment. They leaked little pea-sized drops of blood. Her mother told me it was like a concussion, but it could get worse. We braced ourselves. Doctors, men I never met, stopped the bleeding. Some friends came down with daisies wrapped in noisy plastic. We visited her two days in a row. On the third day George called me. I did not tell him about Amy. Sometimes I believe I'm the worst person there is. I really want to see that new Scorcese, he said. His voice was low. George studied film in Philadelphia and was home that weekend for Passover. Yeah, same, I said. It's such a sham how he's never won. The Academy is so fucked up. Yeah, I agree. Hey, we should see it tonight. I drew a circle on a pad of paper and began to shade it in. I don't know if I'm free. I'll give you a call later. I killed the time by watching a Clint Eastwood marathon with by my father and thinking of all the witty comments I could, practice for my date later with George. I told Amy's mother I 79


couldn't visit that night because I wasn't feeling well. She understood. There were lots of other visitors. Boys with bouquets, is how she put it. *** I came home every weekend after that to make it up to her. Not that she ever knew. I only had to half lie to her, since George never called. Yes, I wasn't feeling well that night (lie) so I stayed home (truth). I brought magazine articles instead of ice cream because magazine articles didn't nauseate her. Still talking to George? Not so much, I said. Hang in there, she said. He'll come around. You're so optimistic. Well, we all should be. He was a dick anyway. Really? She sounded out of breath. He can be nice at times. You thought so, she said. What'd you like about him? She breathed deeply. The artist thing? He knew what to do. What to do when? Though I was three months younger, somehow I felt years older on these visits home, like a world-weary traveler returning to her hometown. Tell us about the ocean in Acapulco! Tell us about the roses in England! Tell us about good kisses, about skilled tongues and orgasms! 80


I told her what he did with his hands when he kissed, and while I did, I realized that the reason I felt much older than her was because I was sitting at the foot of her bed, like a mother telling a bedtime story to her child, while she lay under the covers. My tired little bald child, listening intently and nodding while I held my hands up und cupped my own face, as George did. *** It's not that I'm bad-looking. I have dark eyes, smooth hips, and most of the things Cosmo says I need. But something's off. If you watch my face for even a few seconds, you'll see that something suggests I'm flawed inside, though it's nothing typical like bad skin or beady eyes. I can't pinpoint it, but it's there. I know this because I've sensed it myself. I've looked in the mirror; I've tried to find it, in case it's something I can cover, or pluck. *** Another time I wrote for her while she rested. Put down, 'see Great Wall of China,' she said. She had two years, at best. Okay, I said. What else? I want to meet Morgan Freeman. Nice choice. I bet most people say they want to meet the President. He once played a President. What else? I felt rushed. I'd like to get married. Got it, I said. What about having sex? Yes, that too. Her mother knocked on the door. I closed the notebook. Do you need anything, Amy? her mom said. I'm fine, Mom. Thanks. We waited a few seconds. 81


She worries so much, she said. I opened the notebook. *** I had bothersome logical arguments in my head, wherever I went. Usually walking to class, alone with my thoughts. Long strands of If-Then statements. If I'd tried harder in ninth grade, then she would have given in and tried masturbating by tenth. If she knew how nice it was, then she would've tried harder to have sex. If she'd had sex, then then then. *** Then the chemo worked too well, and she was back in the hospital, her lungs full of blood. They put her in the bone marrow unit because it was the most sterile, though it didn't matter. We didn't have to wear surgical masks anymore. I sat in the waiting room while people stood in clumps, talking quietly. I knew some of them. One boy had red hair; I couldn't recognize him at first but then remembered him from a New Year's Eve party, two years ago, when Amy was well. Another one of those dark parties. The house had belonged to someone no one knew. I don't remember everything. In the kitchen, three boys tried to convince a girl to flash her tits, only for a second. I watched them persuade her while I sipped a beer. She considered it. I left the kitchen and heard her say, Well, what're you gonna give me ? I found Amy in the den. She sat on the couch, between two boys wearing green hoodies that said West Mills Lacrosse. One of those boys was the redhead, the one I saw now in the waiting room, coming to pay his last respects. The boys stared at Amy as she put her mouth on an apple full of weed. The redhead held a lighter above the apple. She sucked her cheeks in and her chest expanded. The entire room watched. Her eyes crossed a bit, half open, as she focused 82


on the apple. She looked up at me in the doorway and waved, still inhaling. The boys looked exhausted with adoration. They sighed and ran their hands over their cheeks and muttered to themselves. They must've thought what I thought: It's unbearable. I didn't want to wander around alone anymore, so Amy and I walked together through the party. We locked arms. I held my beer in my other hand. Look at that one, she said. What? I'm, she trailed. How is it you're willing to smoke up but won't masturbate? I'll make that decision when it has come around for me to make it. What does that mean? I'm not ready for men. They love you. I'm, she said. I wantI'll find one who doesn't think about me like that. What if you don't? What if they had a Tastee-Freeze store in every house? *** I sat in a chair next to her. The gray curtains were half-closed. I took the bus here from campus, I said. She breathed. My car's in the shop, I said. Heels clicked in the hallway outside. You wouldn't believe how many weirdos there are on the bus. 83


Beep, beep, went the machine. *** After, the only thing I wanted was to hear a man's voice. I wanted him to alternate between soothing and seducing me. I can't begin to explain that. *** They buried her in an ugly black velvet dress Id never seen before. They buried her body without her hair, of course. I spend time thinking about the final resting place of her hair. Rotting in landfills, or entwined with lint under a bed somewhere. Maybe a few clinging to the sides of a pipe. I think about the wind carrying a single strand through the air like a dandelion seed, up and over treetops and then down into the lap of a boy. Though hes never met her, he smiles like he just learned the answer to a very difficult question. *** I go out to bars after work and men don't know what to make of me. Classy, modern places with glass counters where everyone holds martini glasses filled with gem-colored liquids. They might hold eye contact with me, but they don't know what to make of me. If I'm not a friend, what am I? Of course they never knew her. That was years ago. But I suspect they sense a void next to me, a dent in the air where a golden presence should be. I walk towards them and they must think, She's the Other One. Inevitably they know I'm the alternative to something better and purer. How could they not? I'm a dark tangle. There's no balance anymore. 84


85 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Liz Femiano was born in Baltimore, Maryland. She received her bachelors degree in English from Towson University. She lives with four other writers in a large yellow house named Shrimpfest, located in Gainesville, Florida.