by Abby Sinnott
Last night I went on a bad blind date and my vision is still a little murky when I wake up. I slip on my robe and pad slowly into the living room. There, before my very eyes, is a wall of nine men: arms linked, steadfast on their haunches, spanning the width of my small living room. I pinch my hand and feel real pain, not the elusive pain of dreams that gets caught in your throat. My skin perks to the body heat crowding the room. Mouths, noses, hair, ears and eyes stare back at me; sparks of recognition and yet … like a forgotten word that taunts on the tip of your tongue. One of the men coughs, drawing my gaze to the end of the wall.
The floor tilts beneath me, my heart leaps and flutters. Friday nights, Parkside Soda Shop for pink bubblegum ice cream. Afterwards, the back of a used Toyota hatchback: sticky lips, bucket seats, steamy hearts traced on drooling windowpanes. Plastic rosaries dangling from the mirror, a salsa tape jammed into the cassette, the stink of cigarettes, moldy gym clothes. Electric teenage bodies rubbing up against each other, so vigorously the fibers of our clothes sparked and caught fire. My first love! Diego Ramiro! I blush at the sight of him. He smirks at me with those crude-oil eyes. And suddenly, all the faces in the wall snap into place in my memory, despite the changes of time and other women. I blink. You never forget the face of a lover.
Imagine how I feel seeing all of my exes at once, strung together like a clunky necklace I’ll regret wearing for the way it besets my neck. Running into one ex is awkward enough. No matter how it ends, it usually drops a stone in my stomach or forces me to buy bars of chocolate, watch bad T.V. all night or call my mother.
Though my mother — thousands of miles away, three hours ahead and a generation behind — always asks stiffly, “Well, why did you end it? Now you’re so lonely.”
“No,” I reply. “I’m just alone.”
Poised in perfect linear formation, the wall of men stares at me with unflinching eyes. I pull my robe in closer around my neck. What do they want from me? I take a deep breath and say with as much sincerity as I can muster, “Hello guys, it’s nice to see you all.”
The men turn to one another and roll their eyes, purse their lips, shake their large heads. Jake Brosky, who now has a chubby chin and silver temples, starts to laugh — a high-pitched, whiney cackle that always cut right through me — making the tiny hairs in my ears quiver. We traded paperback tragedies and watched sad movies.
“What’s so funny, Jake?” I ask, cocking my head and tapping my bare foot. Jake starts to laugh even louder, inspiring the rest of the men to do the same. They howl with laughter, their faces flushed, chests heaving. Hot tears stream down their cheeks — some darkened with two-day stubble, others freshly shaven and reflecting the early morning sunlight. The air in the room curdles, thick and hot. The walls and windowpanes tremble from the racket. My eardrums throb.
But then, Tory Oliver, a successful stockbroker who always insisted on wearing my fancy French perfume and lingerie, stops laughing abruptly and shouts, “All right guys, straighten up. This isn’t a joke.” The men finally simmer down, coughing and clearing their throats. They resume their erect positions and serious faces. Their jaw lines harden.
“I need to go to the bathroom and take a shower. I’m already late for work,” I say firmly. “Please, let me through.” But the men stand frozen, tightening their grips, the sinewy muscles in their forearms flexing. “Please?” I saunter up to the wall and smile sweetly. The men shake their heads.
“You think it’s that easy?” Bruce McVitty demands bitterly, the right side of his jaw twitching, the way it always had when we fought. Maybe he was still mad because I kept the expensive gold watch he gave me for my twenty-first birthday. I’d happily give it back to him if that would settle things, though the battery died long ago; the filigree hands stuck in time.
Gil Hutch, a dentist who sometimes cried himself to sleep, sneers at me. “Yeah, and who do you think you are anyway?” he shouts, his voice shaky and without weight. “We’re first-rate men,” he adds unconvincingly. The others nod in agreement. “That’s right, first-rate men!” they yell, stamping their feet for emphasis.
I take a step closer to the wall, humbling my posture and softening my words. Maybe I had been too harsh on all of them. “Listen guys, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings…”
Diego Ramiro bites his lower lip and asks sharply, “Feelings?”
The other men turn to one another and exclaim, “Feelings! Now she’s talking about feelings!”
“Wait a minute,” I say. “Diego broke my heart for Angela Russo.” In fact, after all these years, I’ve often thought of Diego, brown sugar skin and thick buttery lips. The love notes he used to scribble and pass to me during Sex Ed. His palms — callused from playing ball — unearthing my budding dÃ©colletage.
Diego shakes his head and glares at me. “That’s not the way it happened. You went to the prom with David Grossman instead of me.”
“Well, if that’s true,” I say, gazing at each man, “then why isn’t David here with the rest of you?”
The men begin to murmur and whisper, considering my point. Though the truth is, after we arrived at the prom, David ditched me to chase the homecoming queen. I cried my eyeliner and massacre right off in the bathroom stall. Returning home with a hole over my heart from the needle of my dying corsage.
I walk up to Louis Golden, who was the gentlest, nicest man I ever dated. Surely he will forgive me. Louis always grabbed the dinner bill from the waiter’s hands and stood to the side as I walked first across thresholds. He told me I was beautiful and smart. But then I met Alex Wong — standing three men down — in the Express Lane at the grocery store. He invited me to Napa Valley to float in a hot air balloon one autumn afternoon. The wind warm and sweet and the symmetrical grapevines far below looked like cornrows, braided tightly against a woman’s brown scalp. I turn to Louis and say smoothly, letting the neck of my robe part just a bit, “Please, Louis, let me through. I’ve got an important meeting this morning.”
Louis rolls his shoulders back and smiles widely, with great satisfaction. “That’s too bad, isn’t it?”
“What happened to you?” I ask. “You used to be such a nice guy.”
“I got married,” Louis says.
I’m losing my patience and desperately need a cup of coffee. Behind the wall of men, the kitchen clock swats the minutes mercilessly. The sun beams brighter through the windows, the rush-hour traffic echoing.
I take another step forward and scrunch up my nose, recognizing Tory Oliver’s cloying cologne and Bruce McVitty’s fungal armpits. “Come on guys, I’m up for a promotion. And my boss is an old man twice divorced who won’t have any sympathy if I explain why I’m late.”
The men inch closer together, so that there isn’t even a tiny crack in the wall for me to slide through. They range in height, but the wall, at its highest point where Tom Kennedy’s head stands, is about six feet four inches. After dating Tom for a few months, I got tired of straining my calf muscles and stretching my arms to wrap around his skinny neck and kiss his cheek.
Like an army sergeant, I pace up and down the wall of men with my arms locked across my chest, staring each one of them squarely in the eye. “Are you guys just going to stand here all day? Don’t you have a place to be, a woman to run to?” I ask mockingly. “Seriously, this is ridiculous! You’re all despicable!”
But my criticisms only make the men stand taller and puff their chests out with greater conceit. I scan the wall of faces, remembering there are a couple of men who aren’t the kind you’d want between you and the door. Nick Delano gave me a bracelet of bruises around my bicep that took three weeks to fade.
A different tactic: I stand in front of the wall and untie the sash around my ragged robe and watch it drop to the floor. Underneath, I wear white cotton panties and a white cotton wifebeater T-shirt. I strut up and down the wall, swinging my hips, flirting with my long black eyelashes. This distracts the men, who are checking me out to see how well gravity has treated me. I take a deep breath and charge forward, plowing all of my 110 pounds into the men. I yell, “If the Berlin wall came down, this wall will come down too!” My body ricochets against Carl Stokoe’s concrete abdomen; I stumble back, falling on to the floor.
“Four hundred twenty-six crunches every morning, a low-carb diet and firm mattress,” Carl declares as I stand up slowly, wiping the dust off my backside. During college, his stomach was bloated from draft beer and chicken wings. I breathe dramatically, drop my head and rest my hands on my knees, pretending to be defeated, though I’m more determined than ever to get over the wall. I sprint towards the center — Tom Kennedy’s head as my focal point — and then unexpectedly change my direction. I spin around and bolt to the west end of the wall where Miles Stewart stands, the shortest man in the wall who lost all of his fine yellow hair since our final date two years ago.
I lunge towards Miles, jump up and raise my arms, grabbing the shiny triangular reflection on his baldhead. I suction my palms against his sticky scalp and hoist myself up, straddling his torso with my legs. The other men — not wanting to unlink arms and risk the fortitude of the wall — holler and hoot, yelling at Miles to buck me off of him. I sink my teeth into his neck. He closes his eyes and shrieks, jerking his head, so that I’m able to scramble up onto his shoulders. I glimpse the bathroom door, slightly ajar, the white tiled floor gleaming in the sunlight. I think of the bathmat flapping on to the tiles, making a sound like a muffled laugh. I can already smell the smoky bitterness of my black coffee; taste the moist heat of my scalding shower. The promotion is still within my reach! A new car, a down payment on my own house, liquid cash to play the stock market!
But just as I’m about to leap from Miles’ shoulder, Nick Delano, who’s standing next to Miles, calling me every insult in the English and Italian book, yanks my bare leg, tugging me down. I cling to the collar of Miles’ starched white button-down. The other men scream and cheer as Nick pulls my leg so hard I hear my hip joint pop. “Nick,” I say, summoning my last ounce of strength and wit, “remember that summer night on Luna beach, sitting around the bonfire and…” Nick’s hard blue eyes and grip soften. I wiggle my leg loose and kick him in the face with my flexed foot. He stumbles but quickly regains his footing. Just as he’s about to grab my leg, I kick him again. He falls backwards, pulling Miles down with him. The rest of the men wobble, gripping one another for balance, but the wall quakes and cracks. One after the other, the men tumble over with a thunderous boom, crumbling into a giant heap of rubble in the middle of my living room floor.
A cloud of chalky dust fills the room. I blink, but I can no longer see the faces of the men I once called my boyfriend. A surge of triumph and relief loosens inside of me. Free at last! I pick up my robe from the floor and tie the sash tightly around my waist. But then, just as I’m about to head for the bathroom, something flashes in the mound of rubble. I bend down and sift through: a pair of silver cufflinks, two wedding rings, pocketknife, roach clip, set of keys and photograph of a woman I don’t recognize. I hold the objects in my hands for a while, wondering who they belong to. I slip the oversized wedding rings over my finger, still warm from the heat of the men’s hands, snap the pocketknife open and closed, sniff the roach clip and study the face of the woman in the picture, her gaze soft and calm. I’m about to toss the men’s belongings back into the debris, but something stops me. I stand up — the pockets of my robe now weighted down — and step delicately over the rubble.