Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Liz Phair and the Most Perfect Sentence

BY ANDREA UPTMOR

It always starts with me getting hit by a car.  I am walking along the edge of the road, scuffing my sneaker on the curb.  I am in a funk.  My shoulders are slumping in a sort of what’s-the-purpose-of-anything posture.  Maybe I got another rejection letter at the post office, or the grocery store declined my credit card.  No, scratch that – I did get groceries.  Yes, I am carrying them, and in fact, a pair apples fly into the air upon the enormous impact, blocking out the sun in two distinct spots like a reverse domino.  It is a very sunny day.  When I hit the ground, I break something – an arm, an ankle – and I hear it crunch.  The driver of the car gets out and runs to my crumpled body, pieces of blonde hair twisting behind her like prayer flags in the wind.  She looks down at me.

It is Liz Phair.

Her face blocks the sun completely, and thus she is shrouded in a nimbus of holy yellow light like a William Blake revelation angel.  Her beauty commands a profound silence over all of the elements.  The wind stops, the traffic falls mute.  Then Liz Phair says, “Oh fuck,” and the world begins to spin again.  White bone is sticking out of my arm or ankle.  A bus has run over the rest of my groceries, smearing peanut butter as if the pavement was toast.  I am not in terrible pain.  I watch her panic.  I have never thought Liz Phair would be the kind of woman to wear a hoodie.  It is faded green, softer than kittens.

She takes me to the hospital.  She curses the whole way.  She is Liz Phair.  The radio is off when she helps me into the car, and at first I am surprised that she was not listening to something hip and indie when we encountered one another on the road, something Michael Penn-esque, not the album stuff but maybe a bootlegged acoustic show in a small venue, but as she pulls out in front of a truck and rolls down her window to call the driver a cum dumpster, I realize Liz Phair is like me.  She does not listen to music in the car.  She uses long drives to talk aloud to herself about the nature of all things.  That is why she is so wise.  My arm is beginning to throb, and I grip the seat.  She curses again and accelerates.  We are moving together through the summer streets in this silent car, zipping toward the Emergency Room, Liz Phair and me.

The doctor tells me he must re-fracture my arm with a large hammer-like device.  Liz Phair curses.  She has a fear of blood, and of bones sticking out of skin, but she has stayed by my side this entire time, pausing her steady stream of foul language only once, to ask me what my favorite book is.  When she asked that, back in the car, her eyes darted down my body for just a second before returning to the road.  I told her it’s Tolstoy’s A Confession and Other Religious Writings.  She squinted at the road for a long time, like she was confused, before she finally said, “Mine too.”

At first I think she is being so attentive because she is worried about me pressing charges for getting run over, but as the doctor touches my arm and I cry out in pain, she grabs my unbroken hand and looks down at me, head eclipsing the examination light, face haloed by stainless steel and tiled ceiling, upper lip shaped like a rainbow, and I see the truth – Liz Phair has fallen in love with me today.

There are a lot of different first kisses.  In one, I can imagine it happening right there, in the emergency room, at the same time my arm is re-fractured.  Liz Phair touching her rainbow mouth to mine at the exact moment of the crunch, so my mind explodes in a fountain of dopamine and adrenaline and seratonin.  But I also like thinking that it’s in a more quiet, private setting.  Maybe she walks me to my door that first night, after bringing me home from the hospital.  Maybe it’s not for a couple of weeks, after several evenings of tension-filled nights sitting side-by-side on my couch, watching Project Runway episodes, until finally she gets up the nerve to put her hand on my knee and I just go for it.  Either way, no matter the circumstances, it is totally ideal, and afterwards she says, “You are the best kisser ever,” and it doesn’t sound corny at all; it’s totally sincere, not like when other girls say it.

Pretty soon I move into her house.  We buy a yellow couch.  We adopt two cats.  We throw dinner parties and watch Top Chef and carve things into the tree in our backyard.  Our beautiful oak, in our beautiful backyard, big as the ones in my childhood.  We make love under that giant oak, it’s true, and afterwards we smoke cigarettes like teenagers.  Liz Phair loves my writing.  She leaves insightful comments on my blog and asks me to read my stories to her at night.  I read them in funny voices, and popcorn shoots out of her mouth when she laughs, shoulders shaking, hair slick from the bathtub.  My parents love Liz Phair.  They are proud of me for not bringing home another unemployed guitar player.  Her parents are dead at this point, so I don’t have to worry about what they would think.  But sometimes she tells me about them, how they were kind and good and even thought I am fifteen years younger than Liz Phair, and a girl, and I only weight 103 pounds, she swears they would have loved me because all they ever cared about was her happiness, and with me, she is content like a golden eagle who swooped around the skies for years before finding its one true mate.  One time when she says that she is holding our cat Johnny, and the moon sneaks in the window and wraps the both of them in a thick yellow fuzz of air.  I write a poem about this fuzz of air, and I wrap her sandwich in it the next day.

Liz Phair and I like to go on long walks, and we like to drink beer in pubs.  Her son joined the Peace Corps and got sent away to Zimbabwe, so we don’t have to deal with him much, and her ex-husband got remarried and then he surprised us all by also joining the Peace Corps.  So it really is just the two of us, Liz Phair and me, taking long autumn walks along our neighborhood, hand-in-hand, my arm healed completely, bone tucked back inside.  We crunch piles of ochre leaves with our sneakers and tell each other stories about our childhoods.  Sometimes we pass some of my ex-girlfriends and they get this look of misery on their faces at seeing what they missed out on.  Liz Phair tells me about car trips to the muggy Florida beaches while I describe strawberry cupcakes on my grandmother’s front porch, white wicker furniture and ice-cold lemonade.  That reminds her that lemonade was her favorite childhood drink too, and she stops right in the middle of the sidewalk to stand on her tiptoes and kiss my forehead.  When she leans back, I look at her.  Puffs of fall breath burst out of her mouth.  I see that Liz Phair really is bathed in a glow that is separate from any lighting source she may be in.  Pre-winter trees scissor the sky behind her head–a purple sky, with a big orange sun.  It is not a glow that I have ever seen anyone in before.  I cannot think of a word to describe it, my first time ever.

At first it is just a rough patch, a few weeks sitting in front of the blinking cursor, but by Thanksgiving I have full-on writer’s block.  I can only pace the hallway and peek in to Liz Phair’s guitar room to see what she is up to.  It is always something genius.  Everything that comes out of Liz Phair’s mouth is genius.  She has a way with words, and a warbled voice that infuses her songs with a vulnerability that I can never seem to capture sitting at my desk in my room.  All of my stories are gone.  Sometimes I am able to hit a stride, just briefly, and the words flow out of me.  But they puff into the air and down the hall, where they collide with Liz Phair’s new song like a 103-pound frame being taken down by a Mazda, and they fall, defeated, to the rug.

First it is Old-Style tall boys, sitting with Liz Phair in a pub or at our kitchen table.  I help myself to the complimentary champagne backstage at her concerts.  I pour Bloody Marys into my coffee thermos.  Sometimes when I get tipsy I can squeeze out a poem or two, which I scribble on sticky notes and stuff in my pocket.  Most of the time I forget they are there, and when Liz Phair does my laundry, they come out illegible, little yellow clouds that fall apart in my hands.  These are the good days.  It is December now, and the city we live in is covered in a thin layer of ice.  It buckles under my feet and the cracks race along the surface.  I have not gotten published in months and honestly, if Liz Phair wasn’t my life partner, I wouldn’t have any money at all.  At first it is easy to wash this thought away with a tall, foamy stein of Newcastle.  Soon, though, the image of me as the red-carpet sideline, the K-Fed to her Britney, has penetrated my brain, filled the empty pockets and spread its plaque to even my most basic mental formations about small things.  I yell at the weatherman on television for being an incompetent bastard who personally allows it rain on Saturdays.  When he doesn’t respond I holler at the cat for doing cat-like things.  I find myself rinsing the plaque more often until the steins become 32 oz. plastic Slurpee cups, thermoses of vodka, and finally my lips wrapped around the neck of a bottle of cough syrup.

On New Years Eve, Liz Phair buys me a car.  We are supposed to head out to go to a party, and I have been drinking wine while she got ready.  I should feel happy about this car.  It is a Prius, and I have always wanted a Prius.  And I am full of wine.  But I don’t have the money to buy Liz Phair a car, and the book I should have written by now is still a scattered Word document with lots of misspellings.  Also, she is so much prettier than I am.  I have realized this lately, when we brush our teeth side-by-side in the mornings.  She has blue eyes, and firm calves, and her teeth are perfect rectangles.  I want to thank her for the car, but something inside of me is triggered.  Liz Phair with her perfect songs and her perfect skin and her Toyota Prius.  I say she shouldn’t spend her money so frivolously – no, I use the word sluttily – even though that’s not an adverb, I made it so.  I show her who is the writer here.  She is hurt.  I can see it in her eyes.  Her blue eyes fill with tears.  I take the keys and drive off, swerving down the highway with a bottle of Merlot in between my legs and nothing on the radio.  When I call from jail, she answers the phone on the fourth ring.  She picks me up and I ride in the front seat, silently, thinking about the first time I got in this car, my bone was sticking out of my arm or ankle, but this time – stars smearing past the windows, her pronounced jaw clenched – this time, it hurts so much more.

That spring she is recording a new album.  It is genius. When she is home, she sits in the sunroom with her guitar and whispers lyrics as she strums. She starts spending more and more time in the recording studio.  I drink beer in bed and re-read Tolstoy’s dream where he is lying on a pillar, looking up into the infinity above and shaking in fear of the abyss below.  “Why do I live?” he writes.  “What is the purpose of it?”

“I don’t know,” I tell the paperback in my hands.  “I used to think the purpose was writing, and then I was positive it was Liz Phair, and now I think I don’t know anything, nothing at all.”

A month later her handsome producing partner picks her up at night and she rides away with him in his car to the studio.  I catch a glimpse of her through the bedroom window.  She is laughing inside his car.  They are listening to terrible music, Coldplay even, and as they drive away Chris Martin’s cocky vocals hop through the yard and smack me in the face.  I pass out and dream of yellow couches being shredded by Prius-sized cheese graters.  When I wake up in the morning, sunlight pushes in the window and hits the crushed beer cans like broken glass.  It’s my worst nightmare – Liz Phair did not come home last night.  I look at her side of the bed.  I sniff her pillow.  It smells like Liz Phair when she has not showered in a day.  The smell is my favorite.  It tickles up my nose and pours back down out my eyes.  I let it happen.  I realize it’s strange how I have not cried in all these months.  I did not even cry when my bone was sticking out of my arm.  Not when Johnny had to be put to sleep because he swallowed a bottle of Liz Phair’s expensive cologne, not when Shirley MacLaine died in that movie.  I always felt strong and brave.  But why?  I sit up, sniffling.  I realize something.

The words hit me in the face.  I grab the closest piece of paper – a 7-11 receipt – and I scribble them down.  I use Liz Phair’s eyeliner.  The paper surrenders in my hands, wilts against the power of my masterpiece.  I have done it.  I have written The Most Perfect Sentence.  Outside, at this moment, the clouds submit to sun and the yellow beams of it course through the windowpane, highlighting everything in the room – our bed, pillows, stacks of records – but mostly the sacred seven words I hold in my hands.

I read the sentence out loud, slowly at first.  The particles in the sun beams dance like glitter.  I read it again.  My tongue, my lips unite in a way that is most perfect.  I have perfected language, and I am not even drunk.  There is only one thing to do.  I fold the receipt and tiptoe out to the driveway.  I leave it on Liz Phair’s car, tucked under the wiper.

She does not come home for four days.

It does not rain.  The sentence performs sit-ups under the pressure of the wind and the wipers but does not move.  February 6, 7, 8, 9.  Those are the days she is gone.

The ghost of Liz Phair is everywhere in the house.  I hear her music in my head, I think I hear her footprints on the hallway floor.  At night I wonder if I can hear her breathing.  I dial her cell phone seven times a day.  The first time she answers she tells me not to call back, that she needs time to think about all sorts of things, like the purpose of life and her new album.  Other times she does not answer the phone.  I take out all the beer cans and the wine bottles and I put them in the trash out back.  I do Liz Phair’s laundry, pressing her soft green hoodie to my nose.  I paint the living room a cool lavender.  I write poems about all of this, which I print and stack neatly in binders.  I put them in manila envelopes and send them away to magazines.  I think about praying.  On the fifth day, I walk to the grocery store and put apples in my basket.

While I am at the store, Liz Phair finally comes home.  Her Handsome producing partner drops her off. I begin to walk back along the leaf-lined street.  I think at this point it’s helpful to imagine this scene from an aerial view, with the streets stretching out like an arcade game and me and Liz Phair are like Pac-Men, little dots moving along the lines.  We do not see one another, but as we move closer, our bodies begin to pick up signals the other’s give off; our auras are magnetic, they are pulling us together and we do not even know it.  My stomach growls a bit, her palms feel tingly.

She notices the white slip of paper on her car.  She picks it up and unfolds it.  Her eyes move back and forth over the words – once, twice, then four times.  The sunlight catches the tear that begins to form in her eyes.  She turns to the east and begins running. She can feel my energy vibrating from the store down the street.  She follows that.  The two Pac-Men move along the sidewalks, getting closer and closer.  A sudden breeze quivers the trees.  She grabs a skateboard from a neighbor’s yard and skates down the middle of the road, knees bent, arms to the sides.  Her hood slips over her eyes and for a brief moment, the neighbors marvel at Liz Phair, skateboarding down the middle of their street, looking just like the cover of her first album.

It ends with me getting hit by Liz Phair on a skateboard.  I fall, and the two apples fly into the sky upon impact.  She looks down at me and curses.  I stand up.  She is Liz Phair.  She is four inches shorter than I am, but standing on the skateboard, we are almost even.  She looks me in the eyes.  A leaf falls from the tree and skitters the side of my cheek, drifts to the ground.  I catch my reflection in a car window and notice for the first time that I too have a glow about me, all around my face.