By Chuck Augello
“I hate SUVs,” Debbie said. “Do you hate them, too?”
“Can’t stand them,” said Max.
“Why? Why do you hate them?”
Max thought about it for a second, then confessed. “Because you do.”
His answer pleased her, so she stripped off all her clothes and let him draw on her body with a red magic marker.
“Global warming: it’s not a joke, Max,” Debbie said. “In fifty years the East Coast will be completely submerged. If you want to go to the beach, you’ll have to drive to Nebraska. Can you imagine that, Max? Nebraska!”
“Don’t move,” Max said. He was in the middle of drawing a smiley face on her left breast and he hated interruptions while he created art.
“Fossil fuels: I can smell them burning every time I hit the street,” Debbie said. “Do you realize that we emit more carbon dioxide now than we did ten years ago? It’s not supposed to work that way, Max, but that’s exactly what happened.”
“Okay, you can move now,” Max said. He stepped back and admired his work. Debbie’s body was his favorite canvas. The smiley face made her left breast look happy.
“Do you know what I hate even more than SUVs?” Debbie asked.
Max shrugged. “Not really.”
“I hate the people who drive them.”
“Hey, me too!” said Max. Technically this wasn’t true, but Debbie’s body made a better canvas whenever he agreed with her.
“They want their little status symbols and the hell with the rest of the planet. Because they’re too lazy to load their fat asses and their bratty soccer-playing spawns into a fuel-efficient vehicle, our children will spend Spring Break in Nebraska. Think about it, Max. Nebraska!”
Max had never been to Nebraska, but still, it sounded grim. “That sucks,” he said.
“Imagine it, Max. Hell on Earth brought to you by the Ford Expedition and the Lincoln Navigator. Imagine a world of droughts, monsoons, and oozing melanomas, and you’ve got a vision of the future. Think about that, Max, the next time you spot someone climbing into a Hummer to buy groceries two miles away.”
The smiley face on her left breast began to excite him. “Let’s mess around,” he said.
“Do you mean ‘make love’?”
“Yeah, that too,” said Max.
They went to the bedroom and closed the door so the cat wouldn’t disturb them. Debbie didn’t like threesomes. There was no mattress or box spring, just a bed frame with an empty space in the middle. They crawled into the empty space and lay face to face on the floor.
“We can make love as long as we don’t touch each other,” Debbie said. “I’ll think about touching you, and you’ll think about touching me.”
“It’s the only way,” Debbie told him. “If we really touch each other, someone might get hurt. What if later on you decided to touch someone? It would be devastating. It always is.”
Max was confused, but he thought about touching her anyway. After a while Debbie climbed on top of him and they began touching for real.
“Think about someone else,” Debbie told him.
“If you think about someone else while we’re touching, then it’s not like we’re really touching. It’s just our body machines doing something without us. It’s okay as long as our souls never touch.”
With Debbie there were always rules, but Max went along with it anyway. He thought about touching Mrs. Logan, his fourth grade art teacher. She was the first one to ever give him a red Magic Marker.
“For a while I didn’t have a soul,” Debbie told him once they finished touching. “I left it on the floor one morning and my mother sucked it up with the vacuum cleaner. It took me years to get it back. What about you? Do you still have your soul?”
“Yep, I’ve still got it,” Max said.
“How do you know?”
Damn, Max thought. There was always a catch.
“Don’t worry, you’ve still got it,” Debbie told him. “Just be careful. It might get run over by an SUV.”
She stretched out and let Max draw on her body again. She liked how the Magic Marker glided against her skin. Sometimes she thought about covering her whole body with his art and hanging herself in a museum. “People consider us objects anyway,” she said.
He began sketching on her left hip. At first he drew random shapes and symbols, but soon it took form and he recognized the house he had grown up in.
“Objects: that’s all we are,” Debbie said. “People look at me like I’m a box of cereal or a washcloth or a pair of running shoes. They look at my body and my face and compare them with other bodies and other faces. Just like with art. And commerce. We look at one painting and say that it’s ‘better’ than another one. We buy one pair of sneakers and leave the other pair on the rack. It’s the same with you and me, Max—and all of us. We’re constantly looking, always standing in judgment, just like with art. If I hung myself in a museum it would eliminate the pretense. People could just look and evaluate me against the accepted standards of beauty, and it wouldn’t have to be a game. People do it anyway. Why not be honest about it?”
“I dunno,” Max said. “I’m not sure I want you in a museum.”
“Why not?” she asked. She took the Magic Marker from his hand. “Do you love me? Is that it?”
“Yes,” Max said. It was as good an answer as any.
“How do you know that you love me?”
He hadn’t expected a follow-up question. He grabbed the Magic Marker and started sketching again.
“We’re all just an illusion, Max. Who is this ‘Debbie’ person, anyway? To you I’m someone to touch and to draw on, someone to kill time with because it’s sad being alone. To my parents I’m this little thing that grew out of an egg and has to be fed and protected because it’s their egg that I grew from. To my manager I’m a processing machine that needs to be kept at least marginally content so I don’t break down and stop working. My friend Sandy sees me as a pair of ears that won’t complain when she bitches about her ex-boyfriend. You see? Four different people, four different Debbies. And to most of the world, I don’t even exist. So who am I, Max? Am I the sum of all these different visions, or am I something else completely?”
“I just think you’re Debbie,” Max said. He was proud of his answer.
“But I need to know who I am!” Debbie said. “In fifty years this planet will be a giant oval sauna. All species will be extinct except for Homo sapiens, squirrels, and genetically modified potatoes. The air will be hot and fetid like a bowl of French onion soup. The only trees will be artificial ones. And people will still be driving Ford Explorers and Chevy Suburbans. In the face of such a dire future, I need to know who I am.”
Debbie started pacing until Max had an idea. A full-length mirror stood next to the closet. He took Debbie’s hand and brought her to the mirror.
“See?” Max said. “That’s you. That’s who you are.”
Debbie stared at her reflection, and then closed her eyes.
“What about now?” she said, her eyelids squeezed shut. “It’s dark. I don’t see anything. So who am I now?”
He still had no answer, so they decided to go for a walk. He handed Debbie her clothes. She dressed without a word.
Once outside, she opened her eyes. It was nighttime in the city; everyone was out and looking to be seen. Pretty people were everywhere.
“The realities of gene theory will soon make ugliness obsolete,” Debbie said. “People will select their DNA from a menu, and we’ll all be supermodels.”
“Cool,” Max said.
“It will be the end of beauty,” Debbie told him. “We’ll all look alike, and so no one will be beautiful.”
Max shrugged. “Bummer.”
Debbie watched him admire a young woman in a short black skirt.
“Those legs could be mine,” Debbie said. “It’ll be like a buffet.” She pointed to another woman. “That nose: I’ll take it. And I’ll take her shoulders and her painted toenails, too.”
“Do I get to change?” Max asked.
“Of course.” She pointed at some passing strangers. “We’ll give you that guy’s chest, and how about that other guy’s classic jaw line?”
Max stroked his chin. “But I like my jaw.”
“You’re not allowed to like it,” Debbie said. “You must dislike yourself; otherwise the whole economy collapses.”
They entered a sandwich shop and ordered an eggplant hero to go. Outside the store was a bench; they sat together sharing the sub.
The woman in the short black skirt strutted by once again.
“Do you want to touch her?” Debbie asked. “Do you want to draw on her body with a red Magic Marker?”
He confessed that he did.
“Then how can you love me if you can replace me so easily?” she asked.
“I just do,” Max said. He thought it was a pretty good answer, but Debbie thought otherwise.
“What if there is no ‘me’?” Debbie asked. “Would you still love me if I didn’t exist?”
Max had to think about that one. He bit into the sandwich and chewed slowly, buying some time.
A Ford Expedition, all silver and chrome, pulled in front of the store. A happy white couple exited and walked into the sandwich shop. The man’s T-shirt advertised a large corporation known for exploiting child labor overseas. The woman wore a radiant smile.
“I hate SUVs,” Debbie said. “Every time someone drives one the planet gets even hotter.”
“I’m sweating already,” Max said. It was true. It was hot August night.
“Everyone acts like there’s no future beyond the next five minutes, and because we act that way, soon enough it’ll be true. The world is so depressing I can’t stand it anymore.”
She started crying. Max didn’t like that at all.
“Is there anything that can make it better?” he asked.
“Love,” Debbie said. “Love is the only thing that makes life bearable.”
“That’s a start,” said Max.
“But what is love? That’s the problem. Those people love their SUV. My grandmother loves knitting. What does it all mean?”
Again, Max had to think. Finally he shrugged and said, “Well, I love you.”
“Why?” Debbie asked him. “Why do you love me?”
This time he was ready. “Because you’re there!”
“How do you know I’m there?”
“I can see you,” said Max. That was two in a row. He was on a roll.
Debbie touched his face and gently closed his eyelids. The world went black.
“Can you see me now?” Debbie asked.
“Then how do you know that I’m there?”
“Um, I guess I don’t.”
“Do you love me anyway, even though I’m not there?”
He didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” Max said. “I love you even though you’re not there.”
Max opened his eyes, and saw that she really was there after all. They watched the happy couple climb back into the SUV. Debbie choked on fossil fuels as the Expedition drove away.
“In fifty years, this spot right here will be underwater,” Debbie said. “Genetic engineering will make everyone look alike. There won’t be any birds, or dolphins, or sugar maple trees. Just mosquitoes. The only beach will be in Nebraska. Nebraska, Max!”
It sounded dismal, but then Max had an idea.
“Can we go to Nebraska together?” he asked.
Debbie took his hand.
“Thank you, Max,” she said. “I love you, too.”
Chuck Augello lives in Central N.J. with a dog, two cats, and a growing collection of dust. His work has appeared in Rattle, Main River Voices, The Twelfth Street Review, and on-line at Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, and Dicey Brown. Please love him
Body paint photo courtesy of Image*After.
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