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Holly, Part 4

28 Jun

Typically, you can’t actually hear awkwardness echoing out from a locked room, but the bathroom door did absolutely nothing to impede the wet, flatulent sounds originating on the other side of it.

I stood, indecisive, wilting with impotent fury at the arbitrary unfairness of it. I hadn’t even known that the condom was there. Thinking back to the last time I’d had sex and had my laptop at the same time was an exercise in sifting through the memories of years. Probably it had been expired for months, but there was no way to communicate that fact to Holly without seeming idiotic. Explaining it would have been like trying to explain why your pants suddenly have fallen to your knees at dinner. If any doubt existed as to whether it had been an accident, the situation was unsalvageable anyway, and it seemed beyond possibility that she hadn’t seen the condom fall on the floor. She’d looked at it, and she’d looked at me. It was in my bag, and it was condom-shaped. I’m not sure what other conclusions she could have come to. Generously, I suppose, she might have willed herself to believe that I was carrying a circular, ribbed breath mint.

I considered. If I packed my laptop into my bag and left quickly, I could get in my car, disengage the emergency break, and slam my foot with decisive and ineluctable firmness onto the gas pedal before she emerged from the bathroom. On the other hand, as attractive an option as that seemed, it also seemed needlessly and deliberately cruel. And in spite of having embarrassed myself, I still liked her. After a moment, I continued to empty the laptop bag, bending to the floor in an effort to find an outlet. I stopped to pick up the pillow and put it back where it had been on the couch between us.

The bathroom had fallen into a contemplative silence, unbroken even by the sounds of running water. It was the silence of a person waiting for her body to tell her with certainty whether it was all right to leave the bathroom. I sympathized. Eventually the sounds of washing emerged, followed soon after by Holly. She faced me, shoulders squared, with the same smile she always had. Even though I’d never seen her at work, I thought of it as her “bookstore face.” It’s the sort of thing that store associates show to retail customers. She sat next to me on the couch, curled up in the corner on the other side of the barrier pillow. The show started.

Maybe she liked it? I don’t remember. I think that she said that she did, but that’s generally the thing that you say to someone who shows you something. Our social contract demands it. We talked, sometimes laughing, while the show was on. She would be reminded of something by a joke in the show and then tell me, and I’d do the same thing, and the conversation moved beyond the immediately and inappropriately personal into the realm of the superficially intimate. This is what makes me comfortable.

What I do remember is that she’d pulled her legs up beside her on the couch, but her hand lay at her side, limp and without tension. It was too far away for me to casually pick up and hold. She smiled at me again, looking into my eyes. I began to wonder whether she had seen the condom. After all, her need to use the bathroom had been obviously sincere. And she didn’t seem uncomfortable. I waited for the conversation to lag.

So, um.” I coughed. “Would you like to cuddle with me?”

A move had to be made. A direct, verbal approach seemed safer than lunging across two feet of pillow and couch for a kiss.

Back again behind her bookstore face, she smiled painfully. “No,” she said.

I waited for more, but that was it. “Oh,” I responded, and coughed again.  Clumsily, I drew her attention back to the show, saying something inane and indistinct but amounting to “Look at this fucking thing on the screen, isn’t it funny, just please fucking forget what I just asked you.” We finished the show. I asked, dully and without hope, whether she’d like to watch another. We watched another.

We chatted while I packed up my bag, the condom and the question throbbing like toothaches in my peripheral memory. I stopped at the door and turned around, nearly bumping into her. She’d followed close behind me. Startled, I stepped back, and she leaned forward to kiss me exactly once, briefly, chastely, on the lips. “Thanks for having me over. I had a great time.” The words came automatically.

I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I walked back to my car. I’ve always prided myself on my sense of timing, and it seemed like the time.


 
 

Holly, Part 3

15 Jun

Holly stepped shyly back from her threshold and held the door for me. She backed into the far corner of the foyer, a closet of a room that showed inconclusive signs of actually having been a closet before some landlord had repurposed her building into a duplex. A short stairway led up to her neighbor’s door, locked. She smiled at me, keeping her back to the wall and maintaining a six-inch void between us. Again, I became unavoidably conscious of how pretty she was. My own face felt uncomfortable on me, and the need to form it into some expression overwhelmed me. Consciously, I smiled, feeling the unavoidable artificiality of it as I did so. It was the smile of a coerced first-grader on picture day. With relief, I saw she wasn’t looking at my face, and I let it go back to doing something it was more used to.

“Hi. Won’t you come in? I hope you didn’t have any trouble finding it.” She stepped backwards into her house, and I followed her.

“No, not at all. It was pretty easy to find. No trouble at all.”

This was not true. I owned a relic cell phone from the early 2000s, and GPS was yet a luxury used mostly by bored dilettantes who wished to know the exact latitude and longitude of their genitals. Mapquest directions lay crumpled in the passenger seat of my car, withered under verbal and physical abuse. Holly lived in an old house in an old neighborhood, one that had fallen into a slow decline rather than abject decrepitude. Antique woodwork crawled up the walls to high ceilings. Her living space was small and crammed with the sort of attractive clutter that makes a place seem cozy rather than infested. An old-fashioned kitchen abutted her living room, which also seemed to serve as an office, and a short hallway parallel to the living room led to a bathroom, bedroom and closet. Exposed pipes rattled. I thought about my own basement corner (a personal detail I had chosen not yet to share with Holly). Her place seemed better.

I dropped my laptop bag on the corner of her coffee table. Holly disappeared into the kitchen, walking with a soft, inflexible step, stringing inches of empty space together between us. With no sense of what else to do, I talked. She cut me off with the sound of tap water filling a teapot, and she began to make the gestures of a hostess. She asked me questions.

According to the internet, people lie in conversation about every three minutes. Yes, I’d love some tea. No, these ginger snaps aren’t stale. Yes, I feel perfectly comfortable. Perfectly.

Holly held a mug of tea between her hands, standing at the opposite end of her couch from me, not sitting. I sat and pulled the coffee table toward me, unzipping my laptop bag. I’d brought it so I could demonstrate my cosmopolitan worldliness by showing her a few episodes of Black Books, a BBC sitcom about a horrible Irish bastard who owns a bookshop in London. For some reason, this seemed to me to be a good idea.

As I removed my laptop and set it up, I chattered idly, unnecessarily explaining the premise of the show and ruining a few of its early jokes. She listened, smiling at me with polite blankness. The power cord had unraveled itself in the bag’s front pocket, and I yanked it out. As it came, the plug tip hooked on something at the bottom of the pocket, pulling it out along with itself. 

An unopened condom flew out of the bag, moving slowly in a gentle, overcranked arc to come to rest in an empty spot of carpet precisely equidistant between us. Helpless, I watched it fall, much in the way that someone across a room watches a fragile vase tip off a mantel. I felt slightly queasy and turned my eyes up into her unreadable face. Inscrutable, not looking at the floor, she looked back at me.

I batted a pillow off the couch so that it landed on the floor to cover the condom. “Whoops,” I said.

“Excuse me for a minute,” Holly said, although not necessarily as a reply. She moved off to the bathroom, closing the door after her.

 
 

Holly, Part 2

06 Jun

Here is a reason why ebooks will never replace paper books: They are not conversation pieces. No one in the short history of portable computing has ever approached someone hunched over scrolling words on a screen and asked, in the spirit of genuine curiosity and conversation, whether the author of that particular ebook was worth recommending. Reading a book in public drops a person into an odd pocket of both privacy and performance; readers communicate to the world what it would be like to encounter them, still reading, in the more intimate spaces of living or bedroom. The readers demonstrate to you how they would look as the furniture of your life.  They hold conversation pieces in lonely laps, silently begging to be asked about them. Observers judge the book by its cover, because that’s what the cover is for. Until a Kindle displays the cover of the book on its obverse, this artifactual use of books will never be replaced.

Holly was not difficult to recognize, but I didn’t notice her at first. She approached me while I temporarily engrossed myself in a hardcover Hardy Boys novel. Really, I’d meant to replace it with something wearing a more impressive dust jacket before she arrived, but these things happen. What you like and what you want to be seen liking diverge. One night, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and a documentary about Napoleon air in the same time slot. You can only watch one of them.

She pressed her fingers against the edge of the table and spoke softly. I looked up, shutting the book and placing it face down on the table.

“Um, are you Dan?”

I stood quickly, sliding the book beneath the shelf overhanging our table, and I shook her hand.

“Yes, I am,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you.” And it was.

Holly’s long red hair hung down in curls to her shoulders. She smiled at me. Her eyes were blue. As a rule, profile pictures (like people) fall on a spectrum of fidelity. By which I mean they lie, constantly, to greater or lesser degrees. Like human nature, this is to be expected rather than resented. Inexplicably, however, Holly looked exactly the way I’d expected her to. That had never happened before, and that alone exceeded my most fevered expectations. I gestured to the seat across from me. “Won’t you sit down?” She sat, lowering herself with ginger rigidity.

While we waited for service, we sat and talked. I have a repertoire of stories I use on first acquaintances (and so do you). I picked some of them, trying to impress her. She told me hers, and I learned things about her. She worked in a bookstore. She had survived lymphatic cancer. She had a titanium rod fused to her spine. She had met Stephenie Meyer during her work in the bookstore.

“Who?” I asked, attentive and smiling. At that point in our collective history, Twilight was yet avoidable.

First impressions color everything. Once you have decided that you like someone, or that you’d like to like them, or that you’d like them to like you, then you become willing to ignore all sorts of things, things that ordinarily would give your rational self sufficient will to restrain your libidinal self, perhaps with a vicious kick to the gonads. A good first impression can make the entirety of a date seem like it’s gone better than it has. From a perspective of years, some things make more sense now than they did at the time. Essentially, I willed myself to like her. She was beautiful and worked in a bookstore. Viewed through that lens, her uncomfortably intimate medical details, shared with a nearly complete stranger, became adorable quirks.

Perhaps adorable is too strong a word. Tolerable quirks, certainly.

The service at Kaldi’s seemed to have disappeared with the other half of the store. At length, someone took our order and brought food. We ate, talked, and planned our next date.

As we spoke, I happened to look past her shoulder. A rat the size of a tallboy scurried across the floor, aiming for the space behind the bar. I gagged and put down my fork. It seemed best not to mention it.

 
 

Holly, part 1

16 May

After a certain time, fatigue sets in.

How long it takes this to happen is a matter of personal endurance. Profiles blur together. Pictures become indistinguishable. In their photos, people present themselves with friends, or out in some wilderness excursion, or in Myspace poses. After five or six attempts, they capture themselves as well as they can from a vantage point in a bathroom mirror or from the end of their own arms. (I myself had one image of each of these types, soulfully gazing into or away from the lens, with or without a kitten in the frame . . . I might have mentioned it. The Internet asks us for recent pictures, and we are forced to improvise). Each time I logged in, I was able to perceive nothing but a homogenous female mass whose indifference remained constant through unending shifts in form: tall and short, thin and thick, fair and dark, bored and boring. Holly’s profile broke through the haze, but not for any particular reason. She worked at a bookstore. She had red hair and blue eyes. She seemed nice.

Over the past months, I had learned rules of internet dating, and as I grew tired, I broke them. Here is another rule of internet dating: Follow the rules of internet dating. Dress well, but not too well. Spend money, but not too much. Go somewhere you like, but not somewhere you go often. We decided to meet at Kaldi’s, a café on Main Street. I hadn’t been there in almost a decade.

In my memory, the place leaked a dim romance that I hoped would carry over to my date. Along the walls stood tall bookshelves, each sagging beneath an eclectic load of used books, rarely read and more rarely bought. They were the sort of things found in grandparents’ basements or estate sales, but during my late teens, I liked to sit in the back of the shop, drinking coffee and reading part of a book I’d never think about again. Sometimes, in the evening, the management would lower the wall lighting and a band would play in a nook between the two halves of the coffee shop. Over the Rhine played there once, and the café filled to bursting with smoke and beautiful people. I remembered they made an excellent bread pudding, served with cinnamon and cream.

I suggested to Holly that we meet there for afternoon coffee, and she readily agreed.

Main Street is not difficult to find; in Cincinnati, it is where the bars live. Even so, I nearly passed Kaldi’s. The north half of the shop, for reasons unspecified, had been closed. I pressed my face against the glass façade, peering into the cracks between the sheets of brown paper that lined it inside. The floor was bare concrete and the shelves had been ripped from the walls. I discovered a new rule of internet dating: Make sure the place you’ve agreed to meet is still open.

We had not yet exchanged phone numbers, and I felt a nudging, creeping dread. Already, I began to plan and rationalize. Perhaps she had already arrived and left. Perhaps she would think I stood her up. There are worse things. I anticipated the screed or bleak silence that waited for me in my inbox while trying to think of some way to apologize. Everything sounded like calculated bullshit. Hurriedly, I walked south, looking for the other door.

The other half of the shop remained open for business, although the few people inside looked like the sort of people who are bar regulars at 2 in the afternoon. As far as I knew, Kaldi’s did not serve alcohol. Thankfully, I noted the walls still had shelves and the shelves still had books. To my tentative question, the barista let me know that, unfortunately, the kitchen was closed, leaving unspoken the sense that it had spent a good deal of time that way. Thankfully, I could still get coffee. I ordered something modest and difficult to ruin, and, avoiding the curiosity of the grimy people at the counter, chose one of the dozen empty tables to wait for Holly.

 

 
 

Amanda’s Story End

04 May

There is an epilogue to this story. Amanda, better person than I, drove a laundry basket brimming with Johnny’s detritus back to his apartment, leaving a spot of bare hardwood floor in the corner of her room, suddenly empty of boy things. When she arrived, Johnny was showering. She made a last visit to his oddly antiseptic room, dropped off his things, and collected a few of hers. As she left, she absorbed a few minutes of awkward flirting from Johnny’s passably handsome roommate.

“Let’s hang out sometime.” Such were the details of his plan.

Sure thing.

When she left, Johnny had not yet finished his shower, no doubt due to his efforts to remove some deeply embedded grime.

Days later, when she told me the story, I suggested that perhaps she could have allowed the Columbus Department of Sanitation to take care of things for her, but she said she couldn’t do that. I bet she could have, if only she’d put her mind to it.

In a few months, she’d meet a mohawked drummer in a punk band. His name is Daeron, and he’s quite nice. A few months after that, they’d move in together.  A year after that, they’d be engaged. Happy endings for everyone!

Well, almost.

Let me gather my thoughts.

During this winter, my basement lodgings had begun to appear less temporary. A few particularly important numbered boxes had made their entropic way to the tops of the stacks. Some of them were more empty than full. Stacked milk crates in the corner had become my dresser. Between Andi and now, I’d had a few dates that had not gone further than the first date.

Vera:

A psioratic social worker with short hair and a smile filled with unending teeth. I drove to Columbus to meet her, because in my mind, I still lived there. Her cat liked me more than she did, and we spent an evening sitting on carpet at opposite ends of the couch. After a year of silence, she called me up to invite me to see Social Distortion in Cincinnati. We went and milled around in a crowd of thirty-year-olds watching a punk band made of forty-year-olds. We saw a duck’s ass combover.

That evening I’d discover we had an acquaintance in common: a man I’d known in college who had gone on to become a guard at Abu Ghraib and who, according to Rachel, performed cunnilingus with relentlessness. Yes, really.

Ani:

A plump hipster with skin like steamed chai. I wanted to touch her, but I did not. Online, she had posted many pictures of herself. Ani in flannel. Ani with mopeds. Ani in flannel riding a moped. One picture showed her in profile doing a handstand on the beach, no doubt meant to showcase her lighthearted and easygoing nature. Free spirits frolic on the beach. It’s true. Ask anyone.

Free spirits also sometimes, until they reach their mid-twenties, genuinely believe that dragons were real in the historical, bones-in-a-museum sense of the word. She thought knights killed them. She did not believe this in spite of available evidence; she just thought that available evidence led inevitably to this conclusion. Perhaps I am shallow, or perhaps she made a tactical error in revealing that particular information on a first date, but I couldn’t handle it. A day later, I responded with a sincere, profoundly clichéd offer to proceed with a platonic friendship. She responded with silence. Goodbye to Ani.

Holly:

A red-haired cyborg. We went on a few dates.

As with so many other times in my life, I still don’t know exactly what happened.

 

 
 

Amanda, Part 4

25 Apr

Mike answered. The roar of another party pulsed out of the phone. She jammed a finger into her other ear and shouted into her phone, and also into the empty street.

“Hello? Mike, Hello?”

“Amanda?” He was hard to hear over the party, but his voice sounded pleased. And confused. And embarrassed. She slowed down, trying to focus on what it meant. Elsewhere in Columbus, Mike Downey moved into a different room and closed the door. The noise diminished.

“Yeah, hi, it’s me. Um, happy new year!” She responded. The new year had been twenty seven minutes ago and counting. Still, she supposed, it was close enough. Probably. “What are you doing? Are you busy?”

He laughed. His voice sounded easier, pleased and more relaxed. “Well, there’s this party. But I can talk.”

“I’ve missed you,” Amanda said. This was not strictly true, but as fabrications go, it was not egregious. She missed having sex with him. Well, really, she missed having sex. Her eyes closed, and a flash of all the potential sex she’d recently passed up for Johnny passed behind her eyes, followed by a flash of Johnny’s stupid grin. Last month, Liz had invited her to come and play naked games with her and whoever Liz’s current arm candy had been. Then, as now, the memory of Johnny’s face had been unavoidable. She bit her tongue. “What are you doing now? Can you come pick me up?” Somewhere, a part of her that was sober, warm, and sexually fulfilled screamed at her to stop.

“Well,” Mike began, and then the thudding bass of the party returned for a moment, swallowing whatever it was he had begun to say. The sound faded, replaced by a faint but clearly audible female voice. Oh, Amanda thought. Of course.

“Oh, there you are,” Amanda heard someone say. “I wondered what happened to you. Don’t be too long, okay?” Mike’s voice responded, muffled now by what was undoubtedly his palm over the mouthpiece. The noise of the party swelled again and receded.

Mike returned. “You know, I’d love to, but I don’t think I should drive anywhere just now. Are you busy later in the week? Maybe—”

Amanda scrubbed her fingerless gloves over her phone. “What was that?” She said. “I think the reception’s bad. What did you—” She snapped the phone shut and jammed it into her pocket. She walked, waiting for it to buzz again with Mike’s number. It refused.

Her house was dark. Neither of her roommates seemed to be home, but Grim and Bruce Wayne waited for her just inside the doorway.

Grim was an aging black lab. Bruce Wayne was a neurotic rat terrier. He yipped and ran off into the unlit house, his nails scrabbling excitedly up the wooden stairs. Grim came slowly forward and nuzzled Amanda’s hand. “Hey buddy,” she told him. Absently, she checked the time on her phone. It was late, and it didn’t matter. No one would be coming home that night but her. She walked to the back of the house and up the stairs, flipping through the history on her phone, pausing slightly to linger over this number or that one. Somehow her hands were full of beer and cigarettes.

She leaned out the window of her bedroom, resting her elbows on the roof. She blew tobacco smoke out over the street below and, she hoped, away from the house, where, by unanimous agreement of the roommates, there was to be no smoking indoors. Each of them, however, knew the quickest and most efficient way to remove the screens from their bedroom windows. It was not a topic of discussion.

Later, there would be cookie dough squares. Later than that, she would fall asleep on the couch while spooning Grim, watching Elf, and hating Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel just the tiniest little bit. Later still, she’d have to stop by Johnny’s and drop off all the shit he’d left in her room. But for the moment, she drank, tipping herself back off the edge of sobriety where she’d arrived after the long walk home, and, smoking, she listened to people stumble and laugh home from the bars.

 

 
 

Amanda’s Story, Part 3

11 Apr

“Why the fuck did you even invite me?” Amanda squinted at Johnny. He had a really, really stupid face. She couldn’t understand why she’d never noticed before. It was a slab of boyish, angular gristle poking hatefully out from beneath his spiked hair. She wanted to punch it. Behind him, the ball reached the bottom of the pole. Its numbers lit in bright, garish curves. The crowd on TV and the crowd at the bar roared. In both places, people who liked each other moved together and kissed. “Seriously. You fucking fuck.”

Johnny stepped back and took a pull from his beer, turning his face away to scan the bar. Drunkenly and without thinking, Amanda followed his gaze until it buried itself in a bouncing ass sheathed by an unseasonable miniskirt. She thought she saw sequins. “What do you mean? I didn’t really invite you.” Johnny tipped the beer back, swallowing a vast, conversation-stalling gulp. “I just told you that this is where I would be and that you could come out if you want.” A few of the drunker or more enthusiastic couples mashed their faces together with furious, aggressive lust. In an hour or two, those people would be fucking. Amanda felt blind, vicious hate for them burn in her chest. “Why the fuck didn’t you say something earlier?” She shouted at him. “Instead of being here, I could be having sex. I could be having sex right now!

Amanda slid off her bar stool, groping for her keys. She took a step toward the door and stopped. Her car was parked three miles away. In her driveway. Where she’d left it. Liz, her other roommate, had dropped her off on her way out. Two hours earlier, both of them had believed that Amanda wouldn’t need the ride home. Liz was blocks away at Surly Girl, too drunk to remember the names of colors. A barfly slid onto her ass-warm stool and began ordering a drink. Glaring, Amanda drank from her beer.

Johnny moved closer to her. He bent down to her ear, speaking in a slurred crowd-shout. His breath was thick with the smell of used beer. “You’re making me feel like an asshole. I want to be friends. Let’s talk when I’m not fucked up.” He swayed slightly. “Look, can I give you a ride home?” With some vague intent of paying his tab, he turned and tried to wave down the bartender.

“That will not be necessary.” Already digging her phone out of her purse, Amanda spat the words at him and shoved her way toward the door. If ever there were a moment for drunk dialing, this was it. Many things can be said about Amanda. One of them is that she knows her moments. She burst out the front door of Byrne’s, full of rage, beer, and momentary forgetfulness that the walk between Grandview and the Short North is really, really far. Her thumb flicked through her contacts list. She pulled her coat tighter around herself and began to realize that she’d spent all her cash at the bar. None was left over for cab fare. Shivering, she started walking.

She called me. I think I mentioned that. I expressed outrage and sympathy in sincere, appropriate ways.

She called her ex. No one knows why she did that. Amanda didn’t tell me at the time, and now she doesn’t remember. Still, he is a nice guy, as guys go. Probably it was okay.

She called Mike Downey.

 

 
 

Amanda’s Story, Part 2

28 Mar

Amanda had met Johnny at Byrne’s for New Year’s Eve.

Everyone who drinks at Byrne’s thinks they’re more Irish than you. This supposed Irishness is a point of pride, but, like everything else, it’s also a point of fashion. Every evening, the bar fills itself with muttonchopped heads poking out of the tops of Flogging Molly t-shirts. More or less these heads know where Ireland is, and if pressed, probably they can find Dublin on a map for you. During the day, the damp corners accumulate the four or five second-generation Irish fiddle players who live in the vicinity. These two Irisher-than-thou factions look down their noses at each other during happy hour, when the transition happens. People genuinely from Ireland could sneak in and out undetected as long as they didn’t talk to anyone.

Since she’d been dumped, Amanda had been exercising her right to make bad decisions. It’s in the Constitution. Look it up. One of these bad decisions had been named Mike Downey, an organism who treated his biological imperative to mate with utmost seriousness. I guess he usually went by just his first name, but I never heard anyone say it out loud without saying the first and last name together, as though it were crucially important to establish that we were talking about this Mike.

For each person, there exists at least one other person with whom it is impossible to do anything but fuck. Mike Downey had been that person for Amanda. They had gotten along quite well until Amanda had suggested a role for him outside that rather narrow parameter, and he’d split. Ordinarily, none of this would be a difficulty, but, sometime in the forgotten past, Mike had also been involved with Amanda’s roommate, Mia. For each person, there exists at least one other person whose name rots them like cancer. Mike had been that person for Mia.

After Mike (and during a twilight time when each of their numbers endured in the other’s phone as a lifeline to an emergency booty call), Amanda had dated Nate, he of the thick head and thicker biceps. As I recall, his reason for dumping her had something to do with his truck.

After that came Johnny O’Brien. For a few weeks, his clothes had piled in a mound of varying size in the corner of her bedroom. Mostly, they slept at her place because he envied her Star Wars comforter. He formed the lanky, blond caboose on Amanda’s Train of Bad Decisions. This is not to say that I judge Amanda for making them. One of the best places to hide your pain is in the genitals of other people. Ask anybody.

Amanda rocked on her stool, sipping an imported beer with an Irish brand that, in reality, had been brewed in and shipped from Canada. She tried to focus on Johnny’s face. It surged forward briefly in a moment of crystalline, blandly sickening clarity and then receded into fuzziness. Behind him on the TV, the ball glowed at the top of its pole, preparing to drop. Johnny swayed with the affected, telltale posture of the mostly sober. True drunkenness carries with it an inimitable sincerity unattainable by the sober. Those who merely pretend retain the slightest self-consciousness.

He leaned against Amanda, pressing himself close to her in order to be heard above the crowd. Unsteady, Amanda grabbed his bicep, focusing her eyes closely on Johnny’s shirt. On it, perhaps caught in mid-whine, C-3PO stood with apparent serenity against a desert background. Everything always turned out all right for that guy. Even after he was blown to medium-sized parts, everything still turned out all right. Amanda hiccupped into her closed mouth.

Johnny’s leg, encased in skinny jeans, pressed against hers. The ball began to drop.

“So,” he said. “I wanted to ask you something.”

“What?” Amanda smiled and leaned against him. The ball shuddered and twitched its way down the pole.

Johnny leaned away from her and looked away. “Well, if we kiss at midnight, I don’t want you to think it means anything.”

 
 

Amanda’s Story, part 1

20 Mar

This is going to be a bit of a flash-forward, because Amanda didn’t actually have anything new to tell me on that particular day. So let’s skip ahead a few months to the winter, during the times I briefly dated a cyborg. That is, we went on dates. All our movements circumscribed the pattern of a weird ellipse that prevented me from moving any closer to her. Will I tell you about that later? You bet. First things first.

I’ve always required a mirror for my humiliations.

Not someone to witness the actual events, you understand. Actually, knowing that such witnesses exist is unbearable, and it’s my fond hope that those people present for my various embarrassments stay forever silent and forgetful. Rather, I need an audience, someone to absorb my repurposed and restructured versions of events (like everyone else, I need to digest the events that pass through my memory. And like every other process of digestion, the end results in poop). Sometimes, I need that audience immediately. Hence Katie and I cloistering ourselves one evening in the stalls of separate restrooms, in separate parts of town, on separate dates, despairingly texting to one another details of the dates waiting patiently for us in the other room. Hence this blog.

Hence also Amanda’s phone call to me some twelve minutes after the ball dropped on New Year’s Day, 2009.

In exchange for listening to my stories essentially on call and assuring me that, regardless of their content, they don’t mean that I am somehow bad, Amanda tells me hers. Often these things happen simultaneously. A naïve observer might assume that we were having two entirely separate conversations that simply talked past each other, but she and I know better. It is our way.

I spent this particular New Year’s evening lying unaccompanied on the tasteful, attractive, discreetly dog-stained carpeting in my parents’ living room. On TV, a crowd of people was having apparent fun in Times Square. Somewhere in that crowd, someone was having a worse time than I was. Probably, anyway. While I talked idly on the phone, I scanned the bobbing waves of heads, looking for the knit cap of someone sadder.

Amanda called I was having phone sex. Specifically, I was having phone sex with Cora. There are friends for whom you will stop having phone sex. Amanda is one of those friends. There are also friends with whom you will stop having phone sex when one of the aforementioned friends calls. Cora was one of those friends. We’d met while I was in grad school. She was an undergraduate at the time, and most of our interactions until recently had anchored themselves around Andrew, my then-roommate. Once, to my incredulity, Cora asked me in the spirit of genuine curiosity about how many hundreds of women I’d slept with. This range, I learned, had come from Andrew, in whose mind I inexplicably lived as an unparalleled lothario. I wish I lived the life that other people imagine for me.

The conversation with Cora had not yet reached the point of unrestrained gasping, so I interrupted her descriptions of unrealized sex acts with the sexiest words imaginable:

“Whoa, hey, sorry. I have call waiting. Can you hang on a minute?”

I felt bad. Also, I still felt horny. I switched lines. “Hello?”

Hearing Amanda’s cadence adds something to this story, and of course I’m unable to represent that in text. Imagine, however, the following words spoken in a cranky female voice, a smoke-roughened alto thickened with beer. She bit off her phrases with outraged, staggering pauses.

“Guess what. Just happened to me.”

 
 

Andi Epilogue

09 Mar

Not all rejection comes from the internet.

A lot of it does, though. Despite Andi’s particular style of blunt criticism and penchant for wading ballistically drunk through life, she wanted to go out with me again. I’d spent the four days since our date hibernating. The basement of my parents’ house sheltered the futon (as futons go, it was a classy affair, expensively upholstered in plaid fabric and attached to a hardwood frame) that had become my residence. The atmosphere stayed a coolly subterranean sixty degrees, winter and summer. My parents had last refinished it sometime in the early 80s, and the décor consisted mostly of wood paneling, earth tones and a macramé owl. And spiders, who for some reason habitually drowned themselves in my water whenever I left a glass on the floor for any length of time. I piled blankets on myself and burrowed in with my laptop, sending out resume after futile resume.

“So, why I haven’t I heard from you lately?” Andi’s voice on the phone was jovial. It had been four days since our date. I shifted beneath the blanket. It would have been easy to ignore the call. Catholic guilt, however, demanded that I have this conversation. (I don’t go to Mass, but I remain Catholic in the same way that people twelve years sober remain alcoholics).

“Well, mostly because I haven’t called you.”

She laughed. “Obviously. So when are we going out again?”

“We aren’t.”

The silence that followed sounded confused. “You were pretty mean to me. I don’t want to go out with you again.”

When she responded, her voice sounded forlorn, quiet. It oozed pathos. I felt like a child explaining to another why his parents wouldn’t let him play with her anymore.

As breakup conversations go, it took longer than it should have, never mind that one-date relationships shouldn’t even have to have breakup conversations. At ten minutes, I gave myself permission to begin ending the conversation. Forty five minutes later, I lay in an exhausted heap next to my phone, now dark except for the nagging flash of its battery light.

For days, I kept only the company of my numbered boxes, thinking about abstractly and conceptually about rejection. It felt weird to have refused Andi, her unconscious cruelties notwithstanding. A few months earlier and I wouldn’t have. I thought about the jobs that weren’t calling me back.

Between the time I’d last lived in Cincinnati and now, I’d managed to lose all my friends, much in the same way that you lose things in a move. It’d just sort of happened. My friends tend to have an average shelf life of about ten years, which, incidentally, is also about as long as my clothes last, and ten years had passed since I’d met most of them. I manufactured a social life out of my brother’s friends and showed up at events wearing things that had been passably fashionable two years ago. All this was fine for loud music and drinking myself stupid, but for genuine conversation, I had to put in more effort.

Amanda and I had become friends in Columbus around the same time that my bad decisions had all decided to go critical at once, melting the fragile existence I’d constructed there for myself. She happened to be going through something similar at the same time, and we bonded over our bad breakups and bad finances. For every story I had, she had a worse one. Except, of course, for when I had one worse than that.

I needed to hear a worse story than mine, so I called her.