by Monica L Bellon-Harn
It’s tricky getting the key from under the wheel case to open the passenger door of his BMW. The humidity lifts a bit as the sun lowers behind the airport tower, but it is too late for my already limp hair so I adjust my crystal earrings to add sparkle. Across the empty parking lot I see a tall figure moving toward the car pulling a suitcase. I can tell that it is Paul. When he sees my face through the window his mouth opens into a crocodile grin. I smile back thinking in this moment he is expecting only me.
“Surprise,” I say as he opens the driver’s car door.
His knees slip under the steering wheel and he slides toward me. My plan is confirmed as his lips open over mine, as he pulls me toward him, the quiet sound of skin on leather, our breathing a singular rhythm. He laughs at finding my smooth waist. I search for signs in the details of our hurried conversations and encounters: from the car key he told me about to the indention where his wedding ring was before he put it in his pocket. I know he took it off to tell me I am the only one.
He kisses my ear and in a whisper asks me what I thought about as I cleaned the large office building he works in, how I felt when I dusted his desk in the early morning while he was gone. In his face I see every Norman Rockwell painting, every butter advertisement where a man and woman laugh over toast, every Hallmark commercial that ends in a hug. I’d imagined other men holding out their hands, but they would never take me to those places. I know he will. I want to tell him I know he is different. Instead I tell him that I thought about him as I went from floor to floor with my dust rag, that I wanted to watch him working at his computer throughout the day. His arms wrap around me and he undoes my dress with loose fingers. He sits back as the straps fall off my shoulders, slide down my arms, and rest below my waist. In my naked reveal he tells me I am beautiful. Then he looks at the clock on the dash. As he slides his hands up my thighs, he looks into my eyes and in that brief moment I am connected. I hold his attention, his thoughts. He lays me across the seat and as his body presses down on mine I try to find his voice again, but his face turns upward. My head is hard against the door’s armrest, but I don’t want to move. His eyes look out the passenger window, so I reach up to stroke his cheek and finger the edges of his hair that curl slightly behind his ear. He pushed against me, one hand on the dash and the other on the headrest. Then he climbs off me and I move toward him, but he is already zipping his pants.
“When can we meet again?” I ask.
“Whenever you can find the time,” he replies.
By the time I climb back into my Civic, he is gone. I breathe in his smell and hope he holds the memory of me as he drives home. I want him to think of me as the gates of his driveway open and he pulls his car past his manicured rose bushes into his three-car garage. I want my body tattooed on his mind. I had said something to him about meeting me in another town. I would take a day off work to meet him at a restaurant far from his clients and business associates. It was something the desperate do, making allowances, constructing scenarios in hopes that the life you pretend becomes your own. I float in and out of the spaces and places he may be, contort myself to become a prop in his life, wanting to play center stage.
I told him I don’t want anything, but that is a lie.
As I cruise away from the airport my dim dashboard clock tells me it is nearing 7 pm on a Saturday night - the time when daytime drunks sip their last drinks in silence before driving home on back roads. “Now what,” I ask myself. I am jazzed with the feel of him and cannot sit alone. As I coast along the main street through town, letters spelling Hocus Pocus blaze in the distance, and I smile at the thought of my favorite liquor store. Sam greets me warmly as he rings up my scotch.
“Good night?” he asks.
“Too soon to tell,” I say and he laughs.
I drive away from town toward the country where flat open fields fall to the left and right and rough crevices announce wooden bridges that cross low-lying waterways. Trailer parks and random clapboard homes pepper the sides of the road. Plastic Santa Claus figures faded with time faintly glow yellow and pink instead of green and red. Low slung lights mark the asphalt drive that lead to my friend Nick’s blue singlewide.
I met him at the Oyster House, which is a decent restaurant with a small bar in the back. He was from southwest Louisiana, but he tried to make his way in Colorado for a while. He came back because he decided he could drink as much as he wanted in Louisiana, but could avoid high rent and disrespect. When he arrived back in town he got a job driving a truck and trailer for a construction company. The bosses didn’t know he kept a cooler of Natural Light in the cab. One early afternoon he had a few too many and jackknifed the vehicle on top of the main bridge that links our town to the outside world. It held up traffic for hours. Truckers turned off their engines and sat on the edge of the bridge railing, dangling their legs as they watched the lights of the police make their way up the steep incline.
I knock on his aluminum door.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he yells from a window.
He pushes the door open and wraps me in a bear hug.
“To what do I owe the pleasure,” he says, taking my bottle of scotch.
“Just driving,” I tell him.
“Your weekly tour of the high life and the low life?” he laughs.
“Are you going to pour or should I tour someone else’s life?” I reply.
Nick searches for clean glasses, so I walk to the back door and step carefully outside onto the concrete stoop. Nick stole it from another trailer somewhere south of town, so it isn’t attached. I kick off my heels and sit with my long bare legs stretched out on the rough surface. As insects buzz overhead, I wonder what winter means. I have seen pictures of families bundled in front of fireplaces or fathers building snowmen with their children, but I wish that one day I might know how snowflakes feel on my eyelashes, if the clean, white frozen dust would freeze my cheeks.
Nick walks outside and sits next to me.
“You are better than him,” he says. “And all the others,” he says.
“I wish I was better than this,” I say looking at my dirty feet. One of my sparkle earrings has fallen in my lap.
Nick shrugs his shoulders, “I wish you would quit thinking you need to be.”
We sit quietly, knowing that late night thoughts float on air and stay with the company you keep. We brush mosquitoes from our bodies and finally walk back inside. My body runs hot with the scotch, a slow burn like the small steady flame of a match. Nick settles in his recliner for the evening and asks me to kick back with him, but I can’t. I have given into the heat and grown tired of the sound of my solitary voice calling me to places I can never really ever know. I give him a kiss on the cheek and head out.
On my familiar path to Cheryl’s Lounge streetlights sweep over my front window in succession, helping me pace my speed. I sit in the parking lot and watch couples stumble up the front walkway. The flickering florescent light above the entrance creates shadows against the faded, rusty white aluminum door. Lights hang haphazardly from the gutter loosely attached to the awning. I look at my phone for texts or voicemail and then walk in, sit at my usual stool, and light a cigarette. “Johnnie Walker Black,” I say.
“You must think you’re something special,” says a voice behind me, and I turn to see my father, PJ Jr. taking the stool next to me. “With tits like that I guess you can order whatever you want,” he laughs.
“I just want a drink, but if you are going to be nasty I can go somewhere else,” I say.
“Come on now,” he says, patting my arm with stained fingertips. “You know you’re my little monkey.”
He once fixed cars for a living. He spent his last day of full time employment smoking while working on a truck’s gas line. When the sparks flew he stood mesmerized by the arc of fire until the boss yanked him away and told him never to come back. Some old friends who remembered him from when he could make an engine hum let him sleep on a mattress in their garage. He worked for them when he was sober, which wasn’t very often. “He made his own bed,” his sisters told me, unfazed. They wouldn’t forgive him for showing up to my grandmother’s funeral drunk and shirtless. PJ Jr. was a mean drunk, too mean for them to love anymore. Sometimes they drove by Cheryl’s Lounge to see if his truck was parked in the lot, confirming he wasn’t dead yet. I stopped in regularly.
“Who’s this little lady?” asks a man as he slings one arm around my father.
I look at him blankly and raise one eyebrow.
“Hands off,” says my father. “She’s all mine.”
The man snorts. “I’m his daughter,” I say getting up from my stool.
“I’m his drinking buddy,” the man replies, taking one step closer to me.
“Is there any other kind?” I say as I toss back the rest of my drink and walk into the night air.
I should drive by Paul’s house. If I park across his street I can see the front window through the hedges. I want to watch him eat with his family and pretend I am the one sitting opposite him at the dining room table. With my car window down an inch, I light a cigarette and head to the neighborhoods with large brick entrances, where each house is bigger than the last.
I park across the street from his home with dark windows and head toward his lawn. Dinnertime is long over. My feet sink in the St. Augustine grass and the smell of winter camellia fills the air. Toy soldiers and a nutcracker the size of a person lead to the front walkway. They watch me, shrouded in dark, no benefit of twinkling white lights. My legs bolt toward the house where there are thick patches of fake snow, and I lay on a crazy quilt of white and green to make a snow angel. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. Stars and white fluff against the dark sky become a blur. My thick tongue licks my lips, and I grimace at the bitter taste. The grass beneath the façade of snow pokes my ear, but my heavy head remains flat on the ground. I close my eyes and beads of sweat run down my neck. My shirt clings to my skin and the night air chills my wet body.
A dog’s bark from inside the house makes my eyes snap open. A light pops on, then off. My body freezes as my heart races. Shifting my eyes I look for a sign of movement but no dog barks again, no one appears. Maybe I was unseen I think. As seconds tick I remain on my back until stillness settles in the air. I slowly get to my feet and after a couple of dips, I steady myself and quietly walk to the edge of the driveway. White fluff falls from my hands and drifts off my head as I move toward my car.
My pack of cigarettes tempts me but I don’t light up until I am on the main drag headed home. At a stop sign I flick the lighter and I am a single point of light on the empty road, picking up speed. I pull into the gravel parking space of my garage apartment and will myself up each step to my door. My phone vibrates in my purse so I abandon my search for my apartment key to read a text from Paul. Three words - Don’t contact me. The expected sometimes feels like a slap in the face. You watch the hand flatten and the arm raise. Even though you know it’s coming, it still stings with surprise. I slide down my front door and sit on the damp mat until I realize I have fallen sideways, so I find the key and walk inside.
I slide out of my pants and leave them on the floor as I walk to my bedroom and sit on a white wicker stool in front of a vanity that I have had since I was a small child. Flakes of the silver reflective coating from the mirror have sloughed off over the years. Pieces of black pock my face when I peer at my image. I imagine Paul’s wife. She has small wrists that pearl bracelets neatly fit. Her collarbones dip perfectly so that her jewelry glints just the right amount. Her dress never rides up her rear and her shoes always match.
I look around my room, eavesdropping on my own life. My prize Mardi Gras beads, a strand with large gold bulbs, hang from the knob of my closet door. The pink and yellow blanket my grandmother crocheted for me when I was small is folded on the edge of my bed. I open the top drawer of my vanity. Everything is a tangle, a random assortment of the lost and found - sunglasses I bought for a weekend on the gulf, a huge pencil with a tassel I won at a carnival, shiny barrettes that I can’t wear because they slip out of my hair. I touch my necklaces hanging from a hook. I reach over to grab one with a single butterfly held by two thin ropes of gold. A man with a shock of yellowing gray hair gave it to me in a bar. I had never met him before, but he told funny stories and paid for the drinks so I let him stay next to me even though he smelled like sweat and bourbon. We closed the place down and as I got up to leave he pulled this necklace out of his pocket and asked if he could put it around my neck. I can still see his watery eyes as he put his arms around me to close the clasp.
I put on the necklace and my breath fogs the mirror as I peer into my own brown eyes. My pupils open wide in the dark. I wonder if he remembers me, if that night he saw more than just a girl at a bar with a drink in hand hoping for another. I wonder if he saw who he needed me to be or who I am. What is beyond my view that I cannot see? What blinds my search? I climb onto my unmade bed with the butterfly between my fingers and close my eyes.
* * * * *
Monica L Bellon-Harn lives in southeast Texas, where she works as a professor in Speech and Hearing Sciences.