It was almost exactly the same every time. She’d find the guy while bird watching along the LA River or at the dog park where she liked to eat lunch even though she didn’t have a dog. Peering through her binoculars, she’d train in on him; his face pearled with sweat from jogging in the heat. He’d be youngish, attractive but not over the top handsome, and always fairly dumb looking. She’d stare at him until he noticed her and then she’d turn away, her gaze roaming the landscape around him. If she was at the dog park, she might throw the rest of her sandwich under the picnic table where a cluster of small breeds often cowered and then slowly pick her way through the dirty sand and out the gate. She’d walk casually down the street to her car, one hand shading her eyes from the bright sun. He’d follow, calling out to her, “You dropped something!” And when she turned around to see what it was, he’d laugh, “Gotcha!”
He’d tell her about his conversion van parked around the corner. She’d say something funny about strangers with windowless vans. Reaching into his jeans for a wad of keys, he’d tell her that he not only had windows, but a sunroof and a ladder.
Back at his family’s place in a faceless neighborhood in the valley, he’d apologize for still living with his parents and then take her down to the basement rumpus room or pool house. While they were doing it—and it wasn’t bad, what her friend Andrea would’ve called your basic “meat-and-potatoes” action—he’d suddenly remember that a buddy of his was coming over any minute now. She’d get a little worried but then she’d tell him to keep going. The expected friend would come in and find them all tangled up on the floor or the ping-pong table and then he’d act really embarrassed and try to leave, but eventually, after a nervous laugh was shared all around, he’d join them. This would go on for a while with things getting more and more intense and the three of them trying all sorts of exotic positions and acute angles and flopping around. But it would soon become clear she wasn’t totally satisfied. The two guys would get a little self-conscious and competitive, attempting moves they’d seen in movies or heard about in bad jokes. Eventually, with all that frantic, athletic behavior, something—usually a massive and extremely delicate family heirloom like a vase or a lamp—would get knocked over and crash on the Spanish tile floor. The ridiculously loud noise would summon, almost instantaneously, an older male authority figure: a father or brother, maybe even a neighbor. This guy would burst into the room with the kind of blustering, angry, “What the hell is going on here” attitude almost exclusively seen on TV. The two young guys, sheepish and exhausted, would gesture helplessly at her and cover themselves, suddenly aware of their nakedness and their inadequacy. This older guy, always large and brawny but not obscene like a body builder, just an adult male who eats well and works hard, would see her laying on the couch or the table and mutter something like: “Oh for fuck’s sake.”
He’d look at the two boys—because really, compared to this man, they were just a couple of little boys—with a mixture of pity and disgust. He’d push them out of his way, roll up the sleeves of his work shirt, and with a determined, “A-Mans-Gotta-Do-What-A-Man’s-Gotta-Do” approach, he’d come over to her and finish, in an extraordinary way, what the boys were unable to finish themselves. He might even tell them what they were doing wrong and show them how to do it right.
After it was over she would quietly gather her clothes from where they’d been scattered all over the room and while the three men hunched over the broken vase or heirloom, discussing ways of putting it back together, she’d sneak out the door without saying goodbye.
She’d been perfecting this routine for years, continually inserting new twists and turns that she culled from experience or fantasy. Sometimes new details replaced old ones but mostly she kept adding on, building the story, so that it grew, getting longer and more intricate over time. She never wrote it down or told it to anyone, not even her therapist. It played out as a voice in her head, a narrative in the third person, something she mulled over when she was stuck in traffic or waiting in line at the post office. When her day-to-day tedium felt like a series of unrelated events, she imagined a strand of cheap beads and this adventure was the thread that held them together. She kept adding new pieces until something beautiful revealed itself—a pattern of shapes and colors that made romance out of something simple like being lonely.
She saw life passing her by like a commuter train, all those blank faces through smudged glass, headed somewhere important, away from her. The weather in southern California was so mild she barely noticed the change in season. Every day was an identical sunny blur and this added to the sensation that things were surely happening around her. But she had no markers, no way of measuring time. She shopped in different stores and often drove out of her way to get home, hoping that small changes might trigger something big.
When she met Percy something funny happened—the boy with the van disappeared. Every time she tried to summon a pool house or Spanish tile she found herself stuck in the here and now, trapped in her body, in her house, with herself. Her eyes grazed the ceiling finding ropes of cobwebs billowing in the corners, the sound of her neighbors chitchatting on their balcony distracted her. She worried about spiders and the rats in the lemon tree out back. It wasn’t that Percy was better than what she could come up with on her own; it was that he was present, he was insistent, he smelled of beer and smoke and something faintly metallic like a sweaty handful of pennies. And he had insinuated himself so unexpectedly that she couldn’t figure out where to put him.
At a crowded housewarming party she had stood in the kitchen chewing the ice from her drink when someone tapped her on the arm.
“I like your shirt. Can I try it on?” His black hair fell in shiny curls to his ears. He wore a bright white t-shirt; the crease marks from being folded around a cardboard insert were still visible.
She glanced around the room at the clusters of people talking to see if anyone else had heard him. No one looked her way. She swallowed a piece of ice. “I guess so,” she said and set her glass on the counter.
With a hand on her shoulder, he guided her down a hallway and into an empty room. There was no furniture or carpet, just a set of sheer curtains that billowed slightly when he shut the door and for a moment she had the feeling they weren’t alone. He pulled his shirt off before she could get her first button undone.
“Oh,” she said looking around the room. “Do you live here?” she fingered the collar of her shirt.
“No. A friend of a friend,” he said, and then, “Let me try the shirt on, it’s beautiful. Vintage right?”
“No. I got it half-off…it’s not vintage, just cheap.” She worked her hands slowly down the front of the shirt, opening each button with care.
“So you know Sam?” she said.
“Nope. I know Arif. You know Arif?”
“No…I’ve never heard of her.”
“Well, she is a he,” he said. “Arif is a guy’s name. Almost done?”
She stood there, the blouse hanging open, holding in her stomach and arching her back in way that she hoped looked sexy. An orange streetlight shone through the window where he sat, illuminating his belly sagging over the top of his jeans in a hairy, little flap that reminded her of an old man named Phil whom her grandmother had lived with. The two times she’d met him, Phil had worn nothing but pajama pants and a blue robe that hung open, revealing his old man breasts and his saggy gut. Phil liked to sit in the living room, drinking gin in front of the TV. When her grandmother died, Phil disappeared with the recliner, the TV and three generations of costume jewelry.
“What’s your name?” she asked
“Percy.” He didn’t ask for her name. She took off her shirt and handed it to him. He moved away from her into a dark corner of the room.
“It’s a little small,” he said turning around, hand on his belly. The shirt hem hung just above his belt, the blue gingham pattern distorted by his paunch. “Can I wear it tonight?”
“No, I’m sorry, it’s a favorite shirt. I need it back.” She reached for his arm, but he danced away and sat on the windowsill. He hummed a little tune while he rolled up the sleeves of her shirt.
“C’mere,” he reached out for her.
She felt like she had to do what he said, not because she was scared but because he was so totally confident. She could be reckless. Whatever happened was out of her hands. She would be a leaf. And it was exhilarating, this succumbing, because the party was full of people she knew only by face and now she was wanted in this empty room by this guy who, even if she wasn’t really attracted to him in a physical sense, was intriguing and sort of dominant. She had the feeling he could have picked anyone, but he’d picked her.
And so she leaned against him and he twisted his fist into her hair and the curtain runners shuddered above them and the wooden window frames creaked and she worked at the buttons on the shirt until they were almost undone.
Later when she met with her therapist at the free clinic, she didn’t mention Percy or her stolen shirt. Instead, she focused on an incident at Thanksgiving with her sister, some bad advice she’d gotten when she announced she’d lost her job. She repeated the feeling that her family was perpetually exasperated by her mediocrity. Once a week she talked about her life and always in an offhand, self-deprecating manner. She compared herself to numerous well-known and doomed movie heroines and her therapist always laughed, guided by her own well-timed guffaw. Even when she could no longer hold back the tears in her eyes, she would entertain her therapist.
And today her therapist couldn’t stop laughing; in fact, he dissolved into an uncontrollable fit with the requisite tears and shaking and hand waving. They both reached for the tissue at the same moment.
Weeks later she saw Percy at another party, only this time at an art gallery and the man she’d come with had disappeared and she was alone again, holding a red plastic cup of warm beer.
She asked Percy about her shirt. “Oh. Yeah,” he said, looking over her head, as though he’d forgotten all about her. Then he gave her his phone number. “Call me, I’m very lonely,” he said.
“Yeah me too, we should have a totally secret, lurid affair.”
“Are you ashamed of me already?” He reached out and ruffled her hair. She ducked away from his hand, her neck and face flushing. “Don’t worry so much,” he said and then, “I’ll see you.” He walked away from her and she stood against the wall with her red cup. A group of people across the room stared at her, gesturing and laughing. She fumbled with her handbag and took a couple steps toward the door. Two women stopped in front of her and pointed above her head. She looked up and realized there was a video installation mounted on the wall. The screen showed footage from a surveillance camera fixed above a mirror in the entry of the gallery. One by one people stood in front of the mirror, thinking they were alone, smoothing their hair, adjusting their clothes, checking their teeth and then they walked into the gallery and found themselves watching the screen, fascinated by what they saw; observing where they had just been.
In a back room, she discovered her date hunched over a monstrous pile of cocaine emptied into the cupped hands of a slim Korean drag queen. When she attempted a nonchalant goodbye wave he looked at her, nostrils caked with white powder, as though he’d never seen her before. She called a taxi and then she walked a few blocks down the street and waited in a bus stop shelter in front of an auto body shop. She pulled out the phone number scrawled on an old receipt and studied the handwriting. It was hard to decipher, the nines and sevens indistinguishable from one another.
So began a series of stilted, late-night telephone conversations with Percy where she always imagined him standing under a highway overpass.
“Where are you?” she said.
“I’m at home.”
“Really? What’s all that noise?”
When he said, “Tell me what you’re wearing,” he waited patiently for the response as though it might solve an outstanding mystery in his life. She tried to come up with the right answer.
He finally came over one night with a case of beer and they ate roasted chicken dipped in garlic sauce while sitting on her living room floor. The bones piled up between them, a bundle of greasy twigs, like a nest. He licked the oil from his fingers and then he climbed on top of her. The movie Dragonslayer played on the TV and midway through she realized her curtains were open and she could see directly into the neighbor’s upstairs window. There were shadows of people moving, or was it the flickering of their television?
“Have you ever been with a black guy before?” He was looking down at her and she’d been closing her eyes, trying to shut out the image of his face straining above her.
“I just wondered if this was your first time.”
“Yeah, you didn’t know that? What did you think?”
“I thought…I guess I never thought about it. You don’t look…” She looked out the window again. Had her neighbors been watching?
“I’m actually half Danish and half Puerto Rican. But I consider myself black.”
He turned her over and she looked at the television. The dragon swooped over the village, smoking people with rivers of fire.
“Are you bored?” he said, breathing into her ear.
“No. I’m really into it.”
“No you’re not.” He sat back on his heels now and tapped her on the hip as if to say, we’re done here. “You’re just like my girlfriend,” he said. “She pretends to be into it, but she’d rather watch TV or she always wants the lights out and a pillow over her head.”
“You have a girlfriend?” She stayed on her knees, looking at the TV.
“How old are you?” he said. She turned and watched him pick at something in his teeth. She tried not to stare at his belly, wishing he would put some clothes on.
“I’m twenty-seven.” This was the age she felt comfortable lying about. “Do you really have a girlfriend?” she asked again. She pulled her dress down and smoothed the hem across her folded knees.
“Okay. Not really. She’s in Europe for the summer. We broke up, but I still have her car. She needed someone to take care of it while she was gone.” He examined the bit of chicken extracted from his teeth. “You look older than twenty-seven.”
That night he drank eleven cans of beer and passed out on her pleather couch. His black cords were in a heap on the floor and she resisted the urge to go through his wallet. After covering his nakedness with a small quilt, she went to her bedroom and closed the door.
Days later as she was inching her way down Sunset looking for parking near the free clinic, a red Mercedes came roaring up behind her. She drove slowly, determined to remain calm and find a spot. The Mercedes honked and lurched at her bumper. Her AC was broken and all her windows were down; blasts of hot air and the smoky sour smells of blacktop and exhaust washed over her. Finally the red car jerked up beside her and at the moment she turned to look the driver screamed, “Fuck you!” through his passenger window. His face was twisted with rage—sweaty and hideous. She recognized the shirt. The Mercedes tore off down the street, swerving between cars and disappeared into the smoggy Los Angeles traffic. That was the last time she saw him.
When she finally told the entire story, including the lost shirt and the cocaine art opening and the possibility that her neighbors watched her having sex and finally that day’s parking fiasco, her therapist was speechless. He uncapped the pen in his hand.
“Well, I guess it’s not much of a story,” she said, “Not a lot has happened lately and this was sort of on my mind.”
“I get the sense you’re making this up,” her therapist finally said.
“This? No, this is true. Some of the other stuff, I may have embellished…this is real.”
“What did you embellish?
“Nothing important really. Just the thing about my sister choking on the yam when I told her I lost my job.”
“You didn’t lose your job?”
“Yes, I lost my job, but my sister didn’t choke. In fact, she really didn’t seem to care at all.”
“Why did you lie?”
“It wasn’t a lie, just an exaggeration. I thought it made a better story. And come to think of it, we didn’t even have yams at Thanksgiving.”
“Now I’m telling the truth. Honestly.”
“Okay. But now do you still think it makes a better story? Choking on a yam?”
“Well, you laughed. You might not have laughed if I hadn’t added that part.”
“Is it important to you that I laugh?”
“I don’t know.”
After that session she bought a smoothie with a shot of aloe gel, which she instantly regretted because the taste reminded her of the smell of a goldfish bowl and she set the cup in a shady spot on the curb, hoping a street person might find it before it went bad in the heat.
Later she got a call from Percy. “Can I borrow some money?”
“No!” Her voice was higher than usual, her heart pounding. She raked her fingers through her ponytail. “I want my shirt back.”
“The shirt is gone. Listen, my girlfriend came home from France and found out about us. She took her car. She changed the locks on our apartment. I have nothing.”
“Us? There is no Us. How could she possibly find out about something that doesn’t exist? I barely know you.” She was almost yelling now, her mouth gone dry.
“How can you say that?”
She could hear traffic in the background. “I don’t know who you are.” She looked around her kitchen, as if searching for a piece of evidence left over from his visit. “I’ve only met you three times.”
“So you were counting?”
“What about that thing on Sunset?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You drove by me in a big red car, honking and screaming. You looked insane.”
He was silent and she heard a siren wailing, very faintly, in the background.
“Are they coming for you?” she said.
He didn’t laugh.
“That was you?” he said after the siren faded. “You were driving like an asshole.”
“I was trying to park.”
“You can’t just stop in the middle of the street while you look for parking. People carry guns.”
“I had a doctor’s appointment. I was running late. I had to park at the taco place and I almost got towed anyway.”
“Well it was a bad day for both of us then. It’s been a bad few weeks for me…I need help.”
“I’m basically homeless.”
“I can’t…get involved here,” she said.
He started cursing and she slowly lowered the phone from her ear, his voice growing faint and tinny. She listened to the rush of blood pounding in her ears, like the air blowing through a seashell. She turned off her phone and then she checked the locks on the front and back doors. She hoped that because he had no car he wouldn’t be able to get to her house. There was a bus stop nearby but she didn’t know anyone who used the bus. In her wallet, she found the receipt he’d written his number on and she studied the list of purchases. Contact lens fluid, menthol cigarettes, WD40, black hair dye, Diet Coke.
She arranged an emergency meeting with her therapist and he scheduled her an appointment with a psychiatrist, suggesting it might be time for an anti-depressant.
“Your partner may have to work a little harder,” he said. “If you know what I mean.”
“I don’t,” she said.
A look of impatience, the first she’d ever noticed, pulled at his mouth and then he smiled sadly.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“I mean,” he said, “anti-depressants often have side effects. You may have some trouble achieving an orgasm…during sex.”
“Well for a single, manic-depressive that never really happens anyway,” she said with a smirk.
Her therapist didn’t laugh, not even a smile.
“You aren’t manic-depressive.”
The laughing days were over.
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“Aren’t you seeing someone?”
“No. There’s no one.”
“What about this guy you told me about? The one you met at a couple of parties? He liked your shirt? Now he sounded interesting.”
She took the psychiatrist referral and tucked it into the sun visor in her car where over time it faded until it was illegible. That summer, at a gas station, she threw it out along with a bag of knitting, empty coffee cups, a borrowed copy of Dianetics she never read and a dirty white t-shirt that was wedged underneath the floor mat in the back seat.
That night she threw open all the windows and while her neighbors chatted on their balcony and rats ran along the cement wall outside her bedroom she conjured up an empty rumpus room with no shortage of giant porcelain vases trembling precariously on the windowsills.