By Randall Stickrod
She lived alone. She spent too much time on the telephone, and was constantly burdened with long distance bills she could barely manage. Her personality flourished on the phone. Her voice could be huskily sexy and she could project things that she found awkward or difficult face to face. Along with email, the phone sustained her, keeping her electronically plugged into life with a comfortable synthetic remove.
She would sit for hours, day and night, in front of the computer at her big, homely desk, surrounded by immense piles of papers and, scattered randomly throughout, the artifacts of daily life—empty juice bottles, candy wrappers, stockings flung aside. Her tiny apartment was perpetually a shambles, as if she were in the midst of moving. She thought of it as a metaphor for her life: messy, but in the process of becoming something.
Often she would take breaks and write herself long impassioned letters, urging herself to change, to improve, to overcome her fears and bad habits and embrace life in a more open, courageous manner. She also wrote letters to her ex-lover that she never sent, saying the things she had never managed to express when they were together. Mostly these were angry harangues, full of resentment and bitterness.
She thought about sex a lot. She liked sex but found it confusing and troublesome. She masturbated frequently. She lay on her back, touching herself and drawing on her favorite memories. In one, she was in the car with her lover, speeding down a highway at sunset. He was touching her while they drove; she remembered the expression on his face when he looked over at her. She thought of the way the leather seats felt on her naked skin after she had slipped out of her clothes, the smell of his leather jacket covering her bare shoulders, the glow of the desert sun, the cool sensation of her toes curling around the dash as she came.
Guacamole was her food analog to orgasm. She thought of orgasm as smooth and squishy and the color of avocado. She thought of all food she liked in sexual terms: the sensuality of warm pasta, the raw suggestiveness of sushi; the erotic look and texture of steamed clams, which she used to feed to her lover. Broccoli struck her as blatantly sexual, and she would occasionally make an entire meal of it.
Sometimes she thought about children and would be overcome with a desire to have a baby. These were the worst moments, little flashes of profound sadness that would strike without warning. The idea was laughably impractical, given the chaotic structure of her life, and she usually sublimated the urge by thinking of getting a cat instead. She imagined one, independent and lonely like her, sharing her tiny space: a co-conspirator.
She had never learned to drive—she secretly feared it—and she had no understanding of money. Money was like an arcane science to her, something she could neither fathom nor control. It would come to her and then it would be gone, leaving her with a feeling of despair, like a chronic and debilitating disease.
She disliked her body, felt that she was too short, her legs and thighs too thick, her feet too big, her shoulders too narrow and stooped. But her lover had obsessed over it, had tried to teach her to appreciate it. Sometimes this worked, but sometimes she resented him for it and felt that he was toying with her.
She had tried to put him out of her life and found that she had succeeded more than she had planned. It had been a miserable affair, she felt, more than three years of random moments stolen from his decaying marriage. So much hurt and disappointment in exchange for so few hours of bliss and joy, and those possible only through a suspension of disbelief. Toward the end he had inexplicably fought to keep her, had made impassioned pleas and promises, but by then the process of disengagement had found its own inexorable momentum to which she simply submitted.
Most of the time she was relieved that it was over. But sometimes she was filled with a profound longing for him. She would smell his cologne in a crowd and be haunted for hours afterward. She would hear the distinctive sound of his sports car and run to the window. And sometimes, sitting at her desk, absorbed in her work, an image of him would flicker through her mind. She felt then the same inescapable loneliness she had known as a child in New England, as if she were standing in a barren room, looking out a window on a bleak winter landscape, snow falling and not a trace of human presence around her. Where was he now, she wondered?
The morning she decided to call him she awoke with a sense of dread and urgency, out of a night of troubled sleep and disturbing dreams, to the knowledge that her financial situation was once again desperate. A note from her landlord lay unopened on the floor where it had been slipped under her door the day before. She took a long shower, made coffee, flipped distractedly through the morning newspaper. Almost unconsciously she picked up the phone and found herself dialing his number.
She paused and drew a breath when she heard his voice.
"Ally? Is that you?"
"It's me," she said.
"So, uh, how are you?"
"I'm okay. How are you?"
"I'm alright. Why did you call?"
"I don't know. I was just thinking. Do you want to get together for lunch or something?"
"Lunch? I don't know. Did you want something?"
"No. Yes. Well, I just thought it would be good to get together and talk."
"Are you sure? Maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea. Why now? You didn't answer any of my calls or the notes I left. Has anything changed?"
"Yes. I'd like to see you."
"OK then. Do you want to meet somewhere, or—"
"I'll just come by your office and tap on your window. Maybe we can walk somewhere from there."
"OK," she said.
She put the receiver down slowly and took a deep breath. Her heart was pounding and her hands trembled slightly. She lay back on the bed, listening to the faint clatter of the breeze rattling the blinds. A large bird flew onto her fire escape and sat preening itself. She watched it, wondering if it meant something, if she could interpret a message from this solitary creature, the first robin of spring.
The morning passed quickly. Around noon she found herself walking down the hill into North Beach, a chilling breeze sucking the heat out of the brilliant sunlight. She was oblivious to the cold but aware of her body, feeling overweight and self-conscious. She struggled with the impulse to turn back, to leave things alone and uncomplicated, but she found her feet moving forward on a vector to his office.
She stood outside his ground-floor office window. He was on the phone, hunched over his desk, locked in intense conversation, doodling abstractedly while he talked. He looked unexpectedly good to her, dressed casually in clothes she had never seen before.
He noticed her with a start, ended his phone call, and bolted for the door. They stood facing each other on the street.
"I'm fat," she blurted, and grinned sheepishly.
"No," he said gently. "You look pretty good."
"But you always say that. I haven't been working out or eating right."
"That's what you always say. You know how I feel about it. You look great," he said, smiling in a way that made her think he was trying not to.
She shrugged nervously, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
"Let's walk," he said. He put his hand on her elbow with a little nudge.
The restaurant was cold and mostly empty. She made a continuous stream of nervous small talk while he looked at her with a quizzical expression. They talked about work. She fidgeted with her fork. Finally he leaned forward on his elbows.
"So, why are we doing this? Why now? I mean, after all the things you said.”
She had been waiting for the question. "I was wondering if you'd like to try getting back together."
He looked stunned."I don't know what to say. I didn’t want things to end like they did. But I don’t really know what you think.”
Her eyes dropped to her plate of picked-over food. "I don't really know either. I just know that I've missed you. But I don't want to be hurt any more either. I thought that maybe we could go slowly, try to get to know each other better, be more careful and see what happens."
After a long pause he leaned forward, and asked: "There's something else bothering you, isn't there? Are you having problems? Need money? You have that look. Don't forget how well I know you."
She blushed and looked away. Then her natural defensiveness returned. "I bounced my rent check. If I don't pay tomorrow, I'm going to get evicted."
"How much do you need?"
His voice was flat, his face expressionless. "You know, don't you, that I don't have that kind of money to spare?" It was a rhetorical question, and meaningless. She nodded and looked down at her plate.
He sighed. There was a long, difficult pause.
"Maybe. There is something I can probably do. Maybe I can squeeze it out of one of my credit card accounts. I'll try to get it this afternoon. You've got to promise to pay me back this time though."
Relief flooded over her. She wanted to grin in triumph, but fought back the impulse. She nodded and smiled at him without opening her mouth. She was seized with an overwhelming desire to make love to him.
They looked at each other awkwardly for what seemed a long time. She shifted her line of sight from his eyes to a point on the wall behind him. For a disturbing moment she had a vision of his last girlfriend, with fair hair and perfect skin, radiating poise and confidence and graceful feminine sexuality. A dark cloud passed through her, and then it was gone.
"So, when was the last time you had sex?" she blurted.
He tried not to smile and unintentionally smirked. "Let's see. It was February second, about eight or nine o'clock as I recall." His expression darkened, his eyes went unfocused, and he swallowed. "And you?"
She offered the tiniest smile. "The same."
Outside, a diesel bus roared up the hill with a full load, filling the room with noise and vibration, and breaking the spell. They left the restaurant and walked to the corner.
"What do we do now?" he asked, looking gravely down at her.
She hugged him fiercely then reached up to kiss him. When their mouths parted she whispered against his cheek. "Can you come over after work?"
He was gone then, and she was walking determinedly up the hill. With each step she felt resentment flaring like a brushfire. She replayed their conversation frame by frame, and the further up the hill she went, the more his calm became, in her mind, a measure of his arrogance. His avowal of desire and caring seemed a thinly disguised effort to feed his voracious ego. His agreement to help her with money metamorphosed from generosity to mocking of her plight. It was a ghastly and hateful game, she thought. He toys with me for his own dark and spiteful purposes.
She reached the top of the street and crossed to the corner grocery, a tiny store with a dark, creaking wooden floor. Cardboard boxes of fruit and vegetables sat haphazardly out front. She had bounced checks there and was not a welcome customer, but she knew that the two Greek brothers who owned it were out at this time of day. Stefan, their young nephew, would be there alone. She thought he was cute, and they had flirted, though he was very young, probably no more than twenty or so.
She took a bottle of wine from the shelf and put it on the counter in front of Stefan. He looked unexpectedly somber and was shaking his head as she put her checkbook on the counter.
"I'm sorry. Uncle told me not to take any checks from you. Actually, I'm not supposed to sell you anything, even for cash, until you pay up for the last check that bounced."
He was embarrassed and couldn't make eye contact. She pleaded with him, coaxed him, flirted brazenly. Finally he relented.
"Maybe I can do this. Can you pay me cash for the wine?"
"Sure," she said, "but my money's back in my apartment."
"That's OK. Maybe better. When I get off work, I'll bring it over and you can pay me then. But Uncle can't know. A couple of hours, OK?"
She smiled her most winsome smile as she agreed. She looked him over. He would do something to help, go out of his way for her because he liked her. The thought was exhilarating.
In her apartment, she was filled with a raging energy. She took a pad and climbed up to the rooftop where she sat, huddled on an old deck chair against a cold wind, looking out over the western part of the city through a jumble of pipes, ducts, and tarpaper, and wrote disjointed fragments of bitter poetry. Hours passed, the sky flooded with the rich pastels of late afternoon, and she retreated to the apartment. He would be coming up the hill soon, she thought, with his lust and his check. She wanted both, but she hated herself for needing him.
The buzzer rang. She pressed the ancient door release button. In a moment Stefan was at the door, looking self-conscious. She welcomed him gushingly, made him come in while she scrambled around noisily looking for money. He stood awkwardly in the kitchen. He had just shaved. She was moved by the gesture.
She emptied a handful of crumpled dollar bills and a mound of change onto the counter. It wasn't quite enough, but it was all she could muster, she said. She could bring him the rest tomorrow. Was that OK? Would he like to have a glass of wine with her?
He looked confused, but agreed. She poured wine in two glasses, the only two glasses she owned, and led him to her one room where her sofa bed, the only place to sit, lay open with rumpled sheets and a comforter in a haphazard pile. She was giddy. Purple twilight filled the room. The glasses of cheap Chardonnay sparkled golden in the fading light. He guzzled his wine. When she got up to pour another she realized that she was feeling the effect of the alcohol, a sensation of disconnection from her usual thought processes. She liked that and gulped another large drink as she sat beside Stefan. Misjudging her trajectory, she bumped him, jostling his wine. They were face to face. He pulled her to him roughly and kissed her. She was on him instantly with a reckless carnal energy.
She closed her eyes and tuned out his sloppy kisses and rough hands. She barely registered his garlicky body odor and clammy feet as they grappled. Then it was just sex. Just sex, she thought briefly. It was enough.
The buzzer sounded, insistent and interruptive, and above her Stefan stopped abruptly. She pulled him down, shushing him, holding him to her, whispering to him to be quiet, that there was no problem. No problem. She cupped her hands over his ears until the buzzing stopped, then put her arms around him again. They coupled with great energy and noise, until he came with a series of snorts and moans and finally lay still across her, breathing hard and drenched with sweat.
The phone rang and, before he could react, she reached out to the wall and pulled the plug. The cord collapsed limply on the floor. Though he was filled with a kind of adolescent gratitude at his good fortune, he began to feel that something wasn't right. Instinctively, he began the process of disengagement, and started purposefully searching for his clothes. She did nothing to hold him there. In a few minutes he was gone.
She put on a robe and sat in her window. The sunset deepened, then faded to a dim violet glow as she slowly finished her glass of wine. As she walked to the bathroom, she plugged in the phone, almost as an afterthought. Instantly the phone rang. She picked it up. His voice was full of panic, then relief.
"Ally! Where have you been? Are you OK? Jesus, I've been calling for hours!"
"I'm fine. I fell asleep."
"Thank God. I was worried about you. I brought the check up and I thought I saw you through your window, but there was no answer. I've been calling ever since." He paused to catch his breath. "I left the check in your mailbox."
"Thanks." Her voice was flat and lifeless. Her thoughts were spinning in empty space. Across the way a neighbor's light came on abruptly. A man and a woman stood in the window staring at her, and then the woman drew the curtains shut. For a moment she had the uncanny sensation that the woman was her mother.
"So, do you still want to see me?" His voice had brightened. He was obviously eager.
"Sure. But can we make it later? Maybe tomorrow? I'm not feeling that well right now."
He tried to mask his disappointment, but she knew. "Fine," he said. "Long as you're all right. I'd like to see you."
"Yes," she said. "Yes." And then with sudden urgency: "Do you still love me?"
"You know I do," he whispered. "How can you even ask?"
"I have to know. You know how I am."
"Yes. I know how you are." His voice was warm now, and matter-of-fact.
The comment jangled her back into sharp perception.
"How can you say that? What does that mean?" she asked.
"Simple. It's like dark matter."
"What are you talking about?"
"Dark matter? It's the stuff that physicists believe makes up most of the universe. But you can't see it or detect it with anything known today. It's there, though, and it holds the universe together somehow, a great cosmic glue. They don't know exactly what it is, so they just call it 'dark matter'. It's a great mystery. Sometimes I think of you like that. I don't know exactly why things seem to be the way they are with you, and I just accept that fact. Despite all the strangeness, there is this 'dark matter' that keeps everything from totally falling apart. Does this make sense?"
She had been so focused on the tone of his voice that the content didn't fully register. "Uh huh. I think so," she replied vaguely. "So how about tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow then. I'll call you."
She hung up and walked downstairs. At the landing she opened her mailbox and found the envelope he had left. She held it up to the streetlight and could see the check inside. From across the street she heard a whistle. Stefan, just outside the store, was waving to her. She waved gaily back.
He yelled to her. "Hey, what are you doing tomorrow?"
She grinned. "I don't know. Why don't you ask me tomorrow?" she yelled back, and turned to the door with an exaggerated flourish.
Down the block, the lights of North Beach began to sparkle against the evening sky. People were out, swarming into the luminous coolness of the night, to restaurants and shops, to simply be out and mingling. Upstairs, she turned on her solitary lamp and flopped back down on the bed with a chunk of bread and the last of a brick of cheddar cheese. She refilled her wine glass. She turned on the TV and let its noise and harsh light fill the empty spaces of the room as she settled back with a book of Raymond Carver short stories. She despised happy endings. The sky that filled her window frame was inky black now, and in the void of its darkened emptiness was serenity and comfort.
Randall Stickrod is a long-time technologist and magazine publisher whose credits include Wired and The Readerville Journal, as well as BOOM, a new magazine for the baby boomer crowd. He has published several short stories. His last work in VerbSap was the novel excerpt Walk Softly.
Photo "Girl 6" courtesy of Ophelia Cherry, Soresina, Italy.
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