1 November 2005 | Vol. 5, No. 3
All Points West
She is already experimenting with the accent as she draws herself up to me. She collects her body like a sharecropper and lays out her insane demands.
"If you love me, make me feel special."
I joke around at first, because that's the way it is with us. "Not in the retarded way, I assume."
She turns haughty and pouts, a gesture equal parts feminine and childish, one I've never encountered with her before.
"What's wrong with you today? You don't seem yourself."
She smiles and pulls herself up straight. "Thanks for noticing," she says in a different starchy tone. The evolution of her accent is slow and colonial. And then with a slur that's kind of like a stunted drawl, "That's the point."
She brushes her red hair aside with a lavish sweep of her hand like she's slapping the face of some untoward suitor. Her quirks define her like no other woman I've ever met. She's beautiful and intelligent, but it's the way in which her funny little habits and mannerisms overwhelm the rest of her that finally endeared her to me. She always asked how I could put up with all her quirks, and I'd be quick to respond, "Perks, not quirks." She thought I was so clever for that.
I am on the sidewalk stripping paint off an antique desk that I'm refinishing for her. She circles me but steers clear of the branches of the old birch tree that hang down from the lower boughs like a bunch of loose threads. She has an unnatural fear of having her eyes poked out and frequently gives wide berth to low hanging objects and outcroppings as a matter of self-preservation.
"Explain yourself, Janet. I'm not sure I'm exactly getting it."
She takes my hand and looks deeply into my eyes. "I want Southern love," she growls. "I want the kind of love that has a legacy. I want romance, Mark, and I don't mean the kind where you wait an extra fifteen minutes before ripping off my panties. I'm interested in dignity and heritage. Those things are as important as love to me."
I'm not sure what she is begging me for, but I want to understand. I save the obligatory joke about role-playing, as well as the one about fucking her in a Porta-Potty at some state fair.
"I'm not sure I understand. You're not from the South. You're as Californian as citrus fruit. Besides, I do love you. I love you more than I could ever love a person."
Her face softens and her features melt into a memory of tragedy. I know her brother died when they were both small. He drowned at a birthday party where all the boys dared each other to kiss a mermaid that was painted over the drain at the bottom of the pool. When it was her brother's turn to go down he had stripped off his suit, swum down to the bottom, and plunged his little dick into the mermaid's mouth, which was positioned right over the hole. He was always a showoff, she explained. He had become stuck there in the fellating mural and drowned in his prime, dead at an age when to know better is taboo. Her family never figured out where he had learned about that kind of thing, but Janet blames pornography. She says it endures and is magnetic. I just miss it. "It's more than that," she fairly hisses, "but I do appreciate it. It's just..."
I suddenly get suspicious. "This doesn't have anything to do with Clint, does it?"
Her ex-boyfriend is a broken down lout whose charisma resides in one small gene, a recessive aberration inherited from stone-aged roots and inflicted upon others with a heartfelt malevolence. He has long black hair that he ties back with a greasy rubber band and is missing a finger on his right hand from a Christmas day knife fight he lost to his father. She hugs me and then grabs my hand and cracks my knuckles with a painful Asian technique she learned when she was in an Eastern phase. "Ow!" I scream. "That fucking hurts, Janet."
Janet lets go of my hand and draws my head to hers. We kiss and it's like dancing on the head of a pin, a thousand angels doing the twist on my smackers. "Jealousy. I like that. That's a step in the right direction, sweetie. But don't worry. This has nothing to do with Clint. This is about us. You have to know there's absolutely no part of me left that wants to touch him."
I don't exactly believe her, but I let it slide. The fact that we're even having this conversation indicates that she's thinking about something, and when women think, they consider everything. Black holes of contemplation are the female strain. I know it and decide to take this whole occupation as seriously as possible.
"Southern, huh? Just like that?"
"No," she pushes my face, "not just like that. It's something I've been thinking about it for a long time. Something I've been attracted to since I learned how to swear and noticed that alcohol tastes better in the morning. You've got to believe me, Mark," she touches the desk and leaves her swirling fingerprint in the wet varnish, "it's something that's going to make me feel better. Maybe I'm not explaining it right, but I need tradition. Roots. I need something to hold on to. Does that make sense?"
I sense grief in her, sad and unattainable. She's seduced by this notion and there's no getting away from it.
She wears a short plaid skirt and black stockings that are almost see-through, as is the fashion these days. Lolitas by the pound. She's irresistible and I place a hand on her warmest part, the spot behind her knee that's more ticklish to her than a day at the circus. "Yes," I lie to her as she blushes in the spirit of the thing, "yes, it does."
I work for a blind man, name of Bobby Tender, who is the most renowned general contractor in Beverly Hills. His blindness, however, is overridden by his innate sense of space; just by being led around a house he's able to formulate an exact blueprint in his mind and begin to layout renovations and construction plans. He often joked that god gave him an Etch-A-Sketch instead of a brain and so I go to him with my antebellum dilemma to see if perhaps some answer lurks in the alchemy of geography.
We sit in my truck near a construction site and play backgammon for serious money, sipping Mickey's big mouths and daring each other not to close the windows as the wind whips fine flecks of glass and gravel over our serious faces. I never try to cheat him by telling him he's rolled a number other than the one he has, because I fear his ability to infer nuances that the rest of us can't see, that are revealed in his mind where rebar blooms like Martian flora, thriving off the worst air in the world. I tell him what Janet said, hoping for some of his spatial intuition, and he gives me advice before I know what's hit me.
"The biggest comfort is to know where you are, where you stand in the world. Take it from me, Mark." His voice is gruff like the rest of him, and his hands rub the beer gut built he relishes and seems to cultivate like a fine carafe of wine. "You think money, sex, friends, all that shit will ground you? You think that's what you need to live a life? Look at these rich bastards out here, building houses so big they need an extra number in their zip code. You think, in the end, that this is any way to live, that they know where they are? Take the dolphins. Those happy motherfuckers have magnets in their heads. Due north all the time, god's electricity in their noggins that really illuminates, makes the burning bush seem like child's play. Purpose? Yeah, I can dig that." He rolls double sixes and knows it, feels it cause he smiles and bumps two of my pips onto the bar. "Here's the advocacy component of my advice. Figure out where you are and make it work for you, her, and this Southern thing. Learn everything you can about the place: the weather, the booze, the firearms. This is going to do wonders for your self-esteem, Mark. I can just feel it. Now," he shakes the dice again, spilling them out across the sun-worn board, "pay up, boy. It's time to give."
The next day I go to the bookstore and buy novels by Faulkner and Barry Hannah, note the broad expressiveness that is Southern speech, each word a pronouncement of perspective, each sentence another line in the sand egging the rest of us on to say that it's all a myth, that life can't be this much fun. I take to calling women I don't know "darling" and cultivate manners that I considered to be astronomically removed from my genome. I wear suits of rich earthy fabrics and light tones, sweat in them profoundly like it was a religious duty to do so and after a few days recognize that the pungent and syrupy liquid reeks of mint juleps and the month of July. Am I photosynthesizing, I wonder egotistically.
In the back of my apartment complex I dig a pit into which I can dump objects and light them on fire. This is a crucial element, I decide, because there is no drama in the garbage, no finality in simply letting returned love letters slip into the trash can, no closure when you know the overdue credit card bill you just chucked is still laughing at you from the safety of an IKEA receptacle. Burn what you can, my evolving soul resonates with the possibilities, and save only what you must. The neighbors look on with disgust and horror as I perspire freely over the fire pit. I invite them down for a little old-fashioned purging, but they demure. "You're crazy," a guy yells from the relative safety of his third-floor balcony.
I laugh at the thought and holler back an etherized premonition, "It might be true that I don't identify too well with myself, but I know where you live, you bastard, and all is fair in love and war."
Janet and I spend a few days apart to give us both time to adjust to our new perspectives. I pack a picnic for our reunion and we eat in a park at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains not too far from where I grew up. It's a beautiful day and we lay on our backs and watch puffy white clouds roll by like an endless parade. We name the shapes we see: the Merrimac, General Robert E. Lee, the simple fading spires of a legion of Baptist churches. It's never ending, truly, and we compliment one another for being so at peace with eternity, or is it oblivion, or—"Ah hell, it doesn't matter," she whispers as she rolls over to kiss me, "let's just enjoy the day." I agree. Wholeheartedly.
We barely speak as I lead her up a low hill on a little hike back through the mountains. She breathes heavily and mascara runs down her face splitting it like a map, creating two nations of equal beauty. We struggle a little through the bramble and scrub and she pulls a leaf off a prickly bush, smells it, and holds it up to me all child-like, "What plant is this?"
I shrug. This knowledge was never in me. In California these things are inconsequential because the seasons never break and the monotony of weather is as good an excuse as any to be ignorant of nature.
"It doesn't matter what it is because it'll never die," I answer. "No frost to kill it. It just is. It always will be, too. That's the beauty of the West Coast, Janet. You don't have to know these things."
She sighs, about to give up, but then protests, "Can't you at least make it up? Tell me whatever you can think of."
I take the leaf and force myself to slip back into the game, to love her in this giant way. "It's hibiscus," I say, talking myself into it. "There must be a cotton field around here somewhere because this 'un looks about ready to pop."
We study the flower for a moment as if the biology I've concocted will actually conform to our imaginations, and then we break down laughing and I remind myself that it's for these moments that we are in love.
"Thanks," she purrs and kisses my neck.
"Anytime," is my honest response and I grab her hand as we continue up the trail.
We arrive at a clearing that I prepared the night before with candles, a bottle of Old Crow with a couple of champagne glasses, and a bed on the ground made of kudzu vines that I had sent to me by a hick I befriended on a 'The South Will Rise Again' chat room. At first the guy was horrified that I thought Manassas was the name of a gay porn, but he soon took to my quest with enthusiasm and suggested the bed of plants.
She gasps and squeals, throws her arms around my neck, squeezes so tight I start to see spots. I pry her off me and kiss her hard on the mouth. Our teeth clack together and we sink into the foliage making out amongst this well-intentioned paraphernalia.
"You're my hero," she sighs breathlessly, and I feel a tremor run through her and into me, a vibration we work off of as we love one another with impunity, ravage each other like unchecked hegemonies. Our passion is strong and it carries the day, brings on dusk, and then night, the earth rotating by our good graces. As we writhe and bend amongst ourselves I imagine the future will always be like this between us.
When I get on top of her she calls it the war of Northern aggression. When she's on top it's sublime. It's a matter of degrees, I suppose, because it's beginning to feel like something more than a game to me, and I just hope that this is what she intended. I pour the whisky and we make a toast to all of the ghosts we know, the living and the dead, and she gets sad for a minute but I know it's a good toast when she throws back the booze and breaks the glass on a nearby rock. "I'll drink to that," she says a minute too late, and then hoists the bottle and takes another shot of the stuff before grabbing me under the covers with a complicit grin on her face.
Afterwards, the pillow talk is expansive. She whispers sweet nothings that sound like Scarlet O'Hara reciting Shakespeare and begs me to put back on my aviator glasses and talk dirty to her. I do what she asks, holding her close to keep from shivering, and murmur delicious lies about exploits in Alabama, two hookers and a threshing machine. She giggles herself to sleep and soon I join her there with the candles still burning, the plumeria promising a slumber free from pests, and the sounds of the hills coming alive with insects reclaiming the land for a peaceable few. I awake with a start and push myself up on my elbows. The clearing is blue, overflowing with the light of the full moon, and the scent of the hills is overpowering and lush. I pant with the remnants of some dream still chasing around inside my skull and Janet, who is asleep, is murmuring softly as she sometimes does, and kicking her feet ever so slightly like a crippled dog dreaming of running.
I touch her wrist and feel that it's slick with sweat and her pulse is beating like a cocaine train wreck. "Wake up," I whisper, afraid to disturb the great outdoors. "Wake up now, Janet."
She is suddenly silent and with her back turned towards me I imagine her coming awake, processing her surroundings, perhaps imagining that she's been kidnapped and taken to the moon.
"Where am I?"
I stroke her hair and whisper back, "You're in Oxford, Mississippi. You've got to put on your Spanish moss bikini and get ready for the talent show. You want to be ready when Dixie comes to swallow you up. Hurry now, people will talk."
She giggles and sits up. We put on our clothes in total silence and go back to the car.
The Coast Highway is deserted as we trace our way along the edge of the continent. The ocean shimmers like a beaded blanket off to our right, the moon hovering just out of reach at the end of the bed.
"You're so funny when you sleep. You make so many strange noises, so many weird movements. I wonder what you were dreaming. Do you remember?"
She is sunken into the seat with her arms folded gently around her stomach and the billowing sweater she is wearing. "Mmmmm, no. And I don't really want to, either. Remembering spoils it."
"My mom used to say that with sleep comes dreams and with dreams come the end of all things. I never thought about it until I was older, and then I realized that sometimes it's best to have a place to go to that you can't take back into real life. A place that's different. Not necessarily good or bad, just," she twists the ends of her hair around her index finger—another quirk—"different." She stares out into the violet horizon and hiccups. "It's so scary out here, knowing there's nothing else, that this is as west as it gets."
"But nice, too. Don't you think?"
"No. Not really. It's frightening to me, actually. There's nothing out there, Mark, nothing to keep you from going into the water and drowning, or getting electrocuted by the looks of it tonight. Or worse, falling forever. Who's to say the world stays round all the time, that it doesn't sometimes stretch out flat and wait for you to fuck up just once? Just once, you know, you look away for a second and anything can happen."
"Do you really believe that?"
She shoots me an incredulous look like she can't believe I'd ever doubt her. "Yes."
"I know you mean what you're saying, but there are things you can rely on, Janet. Objective things. It's just perspective that distorts. Like when you told me that Clint thought that woman you worked with was French for three years until you told him she just had a speech impediment. To him she was French because he's ignorant. That's his perspective. It's not the way it really is, though."
She sits up and twists around to face me. "But that's just it. If objectivity isn't any better than sleight of hand and Clint can go on believing that everyone with a lisp is continental, then what's to stop us from being whoever we want, to keep fooling one another with memories we just think are ours, but aren't? What about this game we've been playing, Mark? What do you think it's all about?" Her voice is rising and I can tell she's angry, but I'm not sure at whom. "I love you, but the more I fall in love with you the more I doubt it, the more I think about what we have as being bullshit. We're playing a game that's the equivalent of hanging onto thin air. That's what this is based on. I love you, but I can't stand the thought of not loving you." She starts to sob into the sleeves of her thick sweater, muffling the sound of it so that if you didn't know what was happening you wouldn't be able to tell if she is laughing or crying.
"What's wrong, Janet?"
She inhales deeply and wipes away the tears with the back of her sleeve. "Oh, I don't know. I miss my brother, I guess. I miss him all the time and it gets to be so constant that sometimes I don't even know the feeling is there anymore. It's become more real than the fact that he ever was alive in the first place. There is a good thing about it, though. Want to know what it is?" I nod my head.
"The good thing about it is that it's so present that I forget about it sometimes. It kind of becomes dull like a headache you have all the time. When I'm with you, though, I feel it again. You make me happy, Mark. You make me remember."
I know what she's saying, but it isn't a comfort. She wants redemption, I realize, and she doesn't care where it comes from. When we pull up to her apartment thirty minutes later my head is throbbing. I want to go home, climb back into bed, train my body to forget the things it doesn't need. I want redemption, too. I'm not afraid to admit it anymore.
I turn off the motor and rub my face. I can't believe that it's morning. The sky is still an artist's palette, the weather in defiance of any and all seasonal advice. It would be a good time to say something profound. She's waiting for it, I can tell. She's sitting with her arms crossed again, biting her lip, giving me this small amount of time to make my case that will make or break us.
I turn to her, to say that it's over, to say I can't go on like this because it's not normal and what I want is to be normal, with you or without you, but somehow to be like I thought we were before. When I look at her, though, she is twisting her hair around again and I know she knows, and what might happen becomes too sad for me, and besides, I reason, I have redemption. I have a legacy. It's here. This woman. Those eyes. The litany of quirks that reads like a rap sheet on ecstasy. Love can save me, and it's as simple as that.
We went from living for the weekend, to living for each other, and then living through the hard times and we may have even loved it all. Shit. If it were only just a game now, that would be one thing. If it were only playacting or some sort of postmodern mating ritual I could untangle, brush the dandruff from my ego and go about my merry way, it'd be okay. But it's not, because she had to bring heritage into it, she had to make her case for dignity and now, all of a sudden, it's clear what it's really about. She needs someone to save her and I'm not sure I'm up to the task.
Across the street from her apartment building two kids wearing baggy jeans and navy sweatshirts take out cans of spray paint from their bottomless pockets and start to tag a wall. There are kids like this all over, roaming gangs of youth flush with boredom who are content with leaving their small mark on the city. I feel the same way when there's ice in a urinal. It's that feeling of shifting continents with your essence, of knowing that every revolutionary is a fake because they aren't you.
I've been so happy these past few weeks figuring out where I am that I haven't noticed where we are as a couple. I thought this was what she wanted, but thinking about it, am not surprised when she tells me it's not.
"I can't do this anymore, Mark."
"Which this?" I ask. "Us? The game?"
She sniffles again. "Any of it. Or, all of it. You know what I mean. I'm in so much trouble."
The day suddenly turns sour and gray as rain begins falling in king-sized sheets across the windshield. We go into her apartment and she makes hot chocolate without a sound. We sit on the couch sipping our drinks, looking straight ahead. The silence is Biblical in length.
She cries again and I hold her. I think about our relationship as being something I wanted for so long before it finally happened. To be with somebody, anybody. I thought everything hinged on it. It's usually too late when you find out that it doesn't. She takes out her photo albums and we start to look at pictures I've seen hundreds of times. She trembles a little, starts to cry, and the book falls from her lap onto the floor. She's shaking too much to pick it up so I do it for her. I place it on my lap, open it up to where she was, and start turning the pages. "Turn," she whispers when she's ready to go on. I look away because I feel like I'm just enabling her. Maybe we were made for each other. "Turn." I know. I know.
When she gets up to go to the bathroom I slip a snapshot of her family from the book and push it into my pocket. I've never met them before, and after today, feel like I'm entitled to it.
When she gets back she tells me to leave. "We're both tired, sweetie. Go home and get some sleep."
"All right," I say.
On the way out I catch a glimpse of her calendar. I remember that Halloween is less than a week away. "What are you going to be for Halloween?" I ask her as I put on my coat, the brown one with the fur collar she bought me because she thought I'd look like an investigative reporter in it.
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe I'll put a nicotine patch over my eye and go as a recovering pirate." She tries to make me laugh, but neither of our hearts are in it. I smile.
"Does that mean you're going to quit smoking, or are you just a method costumer?"
She smiles back weakly. "I don't know what it means."
"I don't know what it means."
We stand about, frozen by the incompleteness. Me, outside looking in; her, hanging on the door, looking now and then over her shoulder at the grave affectation lying on the couch. I feel like fate needs a jumpstart, so I smile, and do what I think is the brave thing.
"We can work it out. It's not over until we say it is," I sound unconvincing even to myself. "I mean, think about it. They even do interventions nowadays for Diet Coke addicts. What I'm trying to say is—"
She stops me with a hand on my arm. "It's sweet what you're trying to do, but no. Mark, it's over."
I nod; she kisses me; the door is closing. The hiss of the spray paint can from across the street reminds me of old peoples' whispers, but then it stops. The kids have turned to watch me. I put my hands in my pockets and shuffle back to the car. I try to think of something to say, something Southern to greet them with on such a terrible day. But I don't. It's so wet outside but I'm afraid that if I try to speak my voice will come out sounding like the desert.
I spend the day ensconced in my bed listening to the rain beat a magnificent cadence across the earth. There's a tempo there somewhere, a beat that manifests itself in short bursts of clarity, and I spend hours trying to locate it for the sake of feeling grounded and sure.
A knock at the door brings me to my feet. My muscles fight against movement, but I jimmy myself into a robe, take a swig of lukewarm water, and open the door.
I'm a little surprised to see Clint standing there, but I don't let it show. I decide on the spur of the moment to roll with the punches from now on, that it will make things easier to digest in the long run. "Clint," I say matter-of-factly for both of our sakes. "What can I do for you?"
The rain is pouring off him in a thousand tiny tributaries and he's shaking underneath a soaking John Deere hat.
"Hi," he says. "Can I come in?"
We sit in the living room. I pour us a couple of drinks, strong concoctions meant to warm and invigorate. I wait for him to speak. I can see that he's nervous about something, the way his eyes move from the bookshelf to the kitchen table, to the yellow Franz Kafka poster hanging over the T.V. He gulps the drink in a bionic swallow and wipes his lips off on the sleeve of his wet flannel.
"I want Janet back," he begins. "I need her, Mark. She's everything to me."
A sob bubbles up from nowhere and he puts his hand over his mouth, blocking the emotion that is rising up in him like a tyrant. This can't be easy, and I remind myself how we all fall apart so inconveniently. "I hear you, Clint, but that's not up to me. She broke up with me this morning. We're through." It's strange to hear myself say the words, but as I do, I know that it's the right thing. "It's over."
He stares at me with a shocked expression. "What? Really? I didn't know."
"Yeah. Well that's cause it just happened. You're the first person I've told."
"Well," he asks timidly, "what happened?"
I pour us each another drink.
"Same old story. We wanted different things. No." I stop myself, "that's not entirely true. I think we did want the same thing, we just had different ways of trying to get it."
"What do you mean?"
Rather than try to explain, I tell him we should go for a ride, and find a couple of cheap yellow slickers I once bought for a camping trip Janet and I never went on. It would have been to Death Valley. I refuse to see the irony.
We get in my car and head out for the beach, up the coast toward Malibu. We find a café right on the beach, a small place not yet open for happy hour and dinner. I park and we walk up to the patio and sit in a couple of chairs overlooking the ocean. We sit in almost total darkness, staring out over the sea, which is invisible before us. Somewhere out there Catalina Island rises up like an empty threat; a little further north oil platforms do their dirty business with an impervious focus.
The rain hasn't let up all afternoon and I'm beginning to think that maybe it won't ever again. "She doesn't believe there's anything out there," my voice is barely audible over the rain. "That was the problem. She doesn't trust that some things can be trusted. That's why it's over. I was willing to go along with it for a while, because I love her, but I know now that it'll never change. I loved her and I was afraid of losing her, afraid of her moving on to the next little obsession and being left in the dust with that horrible feeling that her life isn't any emptier for having lost me." Clint doesn't acknowledge that he's listening, but I sense that he is. "She packaged herself and what she had to offer as a game, a bunch of idiosyncrasies and affectations that when you put them together and added them up you'd have a person worth knowing. And she is. Don't get me wrong. There's something"—I struggle for the right word—"undeniable about her. But it's not what I was after. That's what went wrong, I think. But that's just one man's opinion." I wipe the rain from my face. "Just my take on things."
Clint takes out a cigarette and tries to light it. He ducks down inside the slicker with a lighter and I'm impressed when, a moment later, he comes up puffing away. He lets the cigarette dangle from his lower lip and pulls the hood of the poncho out to protect the glowing tip.
"She's right, you know," his voice is hoarse and gravelly, loose like a landslide. I can't remember if it had been like that when he first showed up at my doorstep. Now, though, he sounds burnt and lethargic. "About what?"
"About not being sure there's anything out there. You can't know that all the time. If you did, you'd be God or something. I don't think you have enough faith in her. Those aren't games she playing, you know, it's her life. It may seem like a joke to you, but that's the way she is. You either love it or leave it. I know that I love it. I'll believe anything she tells me, and if people think I'm stupid for it, well then that's just fine." He exhales a deep swirl of smoke that flares up in the headlights of a car pulling into the parking lot. "I'm not stupid, though. I think I'm pretty smart actually, because I've figured out where I want to live and how I want my life to be. And that's with her. See, I've got it all figured out," he laughs. "I'm a fucking genius."
I'm just about to say something about Catalina, the island 20 miles off the shore from where we're sitting. That place where I went to Boy Scout camp and got merit badges and first learned about oral sex and heard stories about wild boars that, when they stood up on their hind legs, were taller than Darth Vader. Legends to me, mythological baggage that would always compete for space with what I later learned to be the truth, a battle that has since taught me to only have pity for the brave and to fear nothing that I might ever hear someone say. I hold this in, though, because what he says reminds me of our shared sense of dislocation, nothing fatal, but a small sense that none of us—not Clint, not Janet, and not me—know right now exactly where we are.
I remember the picture in my pocket and take it out.
"What's that?" Clint is looking at the photo.
"What do you mean?" I ask him. "It's Janet's family. Her folks and her brother. I took it from her photo album this morning."
He shakes his head. "That's not her family. Janet doesn't have a brother."
He must be confused.
"The brother that died in the swimming accident. The one she's always sad about. You must have heard her talk about it."
"Uh-uh. I know her folks pretty well." He is laughing. "She never had a brother that died. She grew up in South Pasadena. Her parents still live there in a little house near the freeway. She has a sister. Peggy. She's a fat housewife out in the Valley somewhere. Janet doesn't see any of them much."
I look at the picture again. I want to be angry, but somehow just can't make myself feel it. I let the rain soak it through and then drop it to the ground. "Don't be mad," Clint says with no trace of sarcasm. "She once told me that Japanese people turn into Ninjas during the full moon. That their arms become nunchucks and that the martial arts are something genetic, a science of the mind."
I make myself smile. "Did you believe her?"
He turns and stares, a dead look capable of much more than I have ever given him credit for.
"There you go with the whole believing thing again. Who are you to judge anything? Why does it even have to be a question?" He is becoming exasperated and angry at the same time, a desperate combination. "Are you that much of a pussy, Mark?"
It almost comes to violence. I've had dreams about situations like this, of being so insulted that indignation grows and grows until it manifests itself as some Hulk-like superpower or uncontrollable force, a righteous conviction that just carries you through, leads you to the unquestionable victory of good over evil, or right versus wrong. I'm sure that Clint's had the same dreams, too, though, and I can feel his eyes dressing me up for any variety of physical assaults. He's already planning on where to dump the body, judging the route of best escape.
The lights around the patio suddenly go on, illuminating us in sterile white brilliance. Steam rises from our yellow slickers in primordial cartwheels, and as an electric awning begins to stretch out slowly over our heads, soon the only rain on the patio is coming from us, falling from hidden repositories in our cheap raingear.
A stereo jumps to life scaring us both, the shock of these mechanical things too much to bear for a split disassociative second.
The door to the café opens and a foxy waitress pops her head out. She has on a pair of tight short shorts and her hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She is the epitome of sexy. Her name must be Jenny, or Baby, or anything that ends with a y. She smiles at us, dry as a bone, and does a funny little jig in time to the unbearable music.
"Salsa's great," she explains herself. "My yoga teacher says it's good for the soul. It's totally positive energy." She giggles. "You guys are soaked."
Other cars begin to pull into the parking lot, spreading a fan of headlights across the beach and onto the first few yards of wild surf.
"Do you guys want a drink?" she asks. "Something to warm you up?"
Clint gets up and walks up to the car. Maybe he knows what's going to happen, too. Maybe he can't bear it either.
I smile at the waitress with half a heart and follow him up the slope to the parking lot.
"You forgot your picture," she shouts at me. "Is this you when you were a little boy? Oh my God, you were so cute."
She doesn't understand yet that she could destroy a man's universe just by putting on the right shade of eyeliner. Or maybe she does. I don't know. I don't want to think about those kinds of things anymore. It does no one any good.
She calls after me again, but I ignore her, ignore the chrome sports cars swerving into the lot, the happy-go-lucky lynch mob getting ready to celebrate another fucking happy hour with the enthusiasm of a gang of Druids hooked on smack.
I unlock the door for Clint, but before I get in I look up at the sky and notice the rain has stopped and that a cool breeze has blown open a clear view of the moon and stars. The ocean lights up as bright as a pinball machine and the outline of Catalina hovers at the horizon, a jagged crease at the end of the world. I smile and whisper vindictively to myself as I get behind the wheel.
"I knew it was there. I just knew it."
About the author:
Adam Greenfield is 32 and lives in Los Angeles where he works for Global Green USA, an environmental non-profit. His short stories have been published in Outsider Ink and Progress. He is currently at work on a screenplay and a novel. He can be contacted at .