Archive for June, 2011

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.