We’re sitting on a little loading dock at the edge of train tracks. The dock is made of cement and sticks out from what may be a yellow building. Trains stop here – or did once. J is at my side and has her back against the loading dock door, which is corrugated, and I have my hand in her pants. I’m not sure which hand it is.
There may also be houses whose yards border the opposite side of the tracks, behind a row of trees or bushes.
The dock is visible from the road but far enough away so that no one can tell what we’re doing.
This is the day that J saw me from her window. I had come to surprise her after many weeks of angry silence, and she happened to glance out the window as I approached. After a tearful reunion, she made us leave her apartment and refused to tell me why. I know now that it was because she didn’t want to be surprised by her roommate, a woman she was secretly sleeping with and would later move to California with, and later marry, and later divorce.
I can’t tell which side I’m on, her left or her right. The one clear image I have is of the building and dock as seen from the road. The building is very long and made of brick. The brick is painted a light color – yellow probably, or white. I don’t know what’s beyond the building, but it feels very open and blank back there, like a part of the painting that never got painted.
I gave a reading yesterday. I often say I’m happiest when I’m reading, and I suppose it’s true.
Anyway the light was so bright that I couldn’t see anything when I looked up. Just blinding light surrounded by black. But I’m good reader so I made sure to look up a lot. It’s all about connecting with the audience, even when the audience is a roomful of blackness.
There’s this thing I do with my left hand. I stand very close to the mic and hold the pages of the story with my right hand, while my left hand is off on its own, being expressive.
This time, for whatever reason, I got curious about what it was doing. Best I could tell (I could only take a few seconds here and there to check), it was making a lot of circular motions interspersed with an occasional turning-over gesture, or sometimes the two together, a circular motion that turned over.
A man stands in a room, at a desk, and thinks about his mother, who has just died. The desk is crowded with her papers. This is her apartment and he’s come to put her things in order. Seeing the clutter he thinks: “She could never throw anything away… My mother… My mother… My mother was my mother… My mother was my mother, and my father was my father…”
I understand this. He means: The woman who was my mother was my mother. Or: Of all the women in the world, that particular woman was my mother. Just as that particular man was my father.
This is how I feel about J. J was my J.
Before I begin to read, I do a kind of internal calibration, orienting myself to the length of the text before me. Short stories call for different calibrations than novels. It’s like the difference between a drive crosstown and a drive cross-country; I settle in differently. And then I read differently, with a different level of attention and focus, depending how far I am from the end.
I often imagine a text whose length is unknown. Reading this would require a special gadget. You would only see a single set of lines at a time. To move forward, you would push a button, and another set of lines would appear.
It would be maddening. Imagine reading a story that could be a thousand words or a thousand pages, you have no way of knowing. I don’t believe I could tolerate it, even if I loved the story. Particularly if I loved it.
And yet that’s what a relationship is: a story of unknown duration. Except a relationship is unwritten. The metaphorical button, when pushed, simply produces a blank page, an empty stage on which to enact a new scene, the final scene perhaps, like all the others.
I was on a date that may or may not have been a date when suddenly a giant roach flew into my neck. We were playing pool and had stopped to talk. I had no way of knowing what had flown into me. My date, if I may call her that, told me what it was. She was upset because, as she explained it, she’s afraid of flying things.
I’ve given this a lot of thought and have decided that a date is only a date if both people think it is. By the time the roach flew into me, I definitely wanted her to think it was a date. Actually what I was thinking was more like: I hope she thinks it is, because if she does then it is.
After flying into my neck, the roach flew off toward the front of the pool hall. I offered to go kill it, but my date said not to bother because it wasn’t a big deal to her. My sense however was that it was a big deal to her but that she didn’t want to admit how much of a deal it was because to do so would make her seem too girly.
The only reason I asked her on a date was because I knew she would turn me down. I was having a problem with liking her, so I decided to ask her out and have her turn me down. Once she turned me down I could let go of liking her, is how I thought of it. All that backfired when she said yes.
At first I’d thought she’d said no. I thought this because when I asked her to play pool, she said exactly what I thought she would say, which was that she would really like to play pool with me but was super-busy and would let me know when she had time. The words she used were more or less the exact words I had imagined her using to turn me down without having to say the word “no.”
Strange as it seems, her rejection made me happy. I had made a plan and the plan had worked and now I could begin to stop liking her.
The reason I wanted to stop liking her was because of how much younger she is than me. This is what I would think about back then. I would lie in bed and calculate how old she was when I was certain ages and then I’d picture the two of us at those times, standing together. This wasn’t a fun exercise. In fact it was gross. As a result I tried to stop liking her so much – an effort that failed, of course. You can’t stop yourself from liking someone. The best you can do is not write to that person and not talk to that person, but you can’t make yourself feel different feelings just by wanting to. Deep down I knew this and yet I still tried to will my feelings to change. When that failed I hatched the plan of asking her out so she would turn me down. At first I thought my plan had worked, but then a week later she wrote to say that she finally had time to play pool and when could we?
At her insistence I let the flying roach be. However I couldn’t help but notice that whenever it was my turn to hit a shot, she would do a lot of looking toward the front of the pool hall.
“You’re worried about the roach,” I said finally.
“I’m going to go kill it.”
When I found the roach, it was flittering around a cluster of florescent lights above an empty pool table. I had brought along an extra t-shirt which I planned to use to kill the roach by doing that wrist-snapping thing boys do with towels in locker rooms. I figured that even if I didn’t nail the roach with the tip of the shirt, I could probably hit it well enough to stun it, at which point I would keep snapping at it until it was dead. That was my plan. However the roach wouldn’t budge from the florescent lights, and I was concerned about breaking one of the lights with my t-shirt, so after standing there for two or three minutes, I walked back to our table.
“You didn’t do anything,” she said. “You just looked at it.”
“I didn’t want to break the light.”
We kissed then, I would like to say, in part because it would make such a sweet ending (they kiss after he fails to be her hero) and also because I wanted to kiss her. Instead, though, we returned to the game we were playing – a game she won easily, just like all the others. Even distracted, she’s a far better pool player than I’ll ever be.
Later, at a bar, she told me about her boyfriend in Wisconsin. I hadn’t known about him before. The moment she mentioned him, the moment she said the word boyfriend, I realized that I wasn’t on a date with her and never had been.