Thursday, August 18, 2011

Almost but Not Quite


I’m lying on Venice beach with my girlfriend, honestly spending the best quality time ever with her, tanning side-by-side on identical indigo towels. In the last three hours, we’ve played an ecstatic game of Frisbee, splashed salt water into each other’s eyes, collected unbroken shells, left southpaw footprints up and down the pier, held hands, kissed, even fondled each other when we thought nobody else was looking.

But then we broke up. She caught me glancing at another girl, my eyes stuck on her strut and her lace-white string bikini. The girl wasn’t even that gorgeous, but all that skin exposed, it’s just an unconscious reaction.

Now I was in the cramped parking lot fumbling with my keys, sand chafing underneath my swim trunks, my shoulders radiating from sunburn. I tossed the Frisbee in the trunk above my basketball duffel, brushed my hands off and drove back to Santa Monica, the joggers and dog-walkers on Ocean Avenue flashing by so fast they were trapped in a still-life painting of the seascape.

The last time we broke up, she jumped the line waiting for a taxi at the club and got in with people she didn’t even know. She rolled down the window when I started pounding on it.

“She doesn’t know what she’s doing,” I cried.

“Buddy, look at her face,” the Lacoste-sweater man said. “You don’t cry this much unless you’ve gotten your heart broken.”

“You’re pathetic,” she yelled, her mascara running like black tears.

I tried to yank the dull yellow door open, but it was locked. At that point, my sadness started to percolate, and I sweated beads of whiskey and salt. The taxi cab sped away.

The next morning, she let herself in to the apartment.

After the beach incident, though, I was sure she wasn’t going to be back, at least not until tonight, so after parking in the underground garage and sitting there for ten minutes with my hands clutching the wheel, I backed out and drove to the West Hollywood basketball courts.

This Saturday was packed with middle-aged men. They wore running shorts and sported headbands in serious colors, gray and black and white. I slipped on my lime-green shoes. Doug was playing, laced up in his yellows. He was posting up one of the 40-somethings.

I stood on the sidelines until their game was over.

“Aren’t you supposed to be with Sarah all day?” he asked, slapping me on the back. His shirt was soaked down the front, a V-shape of masculinity down his collar. His hair was slippery, mahogany, held erect by a yellow headband that spelled out LIVESTRONG.

“Yea. Shit happened,” I informed him.

“Word.” Doug nodded understandingly.

I joined his team, ended up guarding a squat dude wearing baby-blue Jordans who could really shoot. He would just spot up in the left-side corner and heave arcing three-pointers. I fought through the screens and mostly managed to stick a hand in his face. The ball still went in. We lost 11-3.

“Get your head in the game,” Doug said. “He’s killing you out there.”

I moved faster on defense, but I couldn’t concentrate, crumbs of sand still stuck between my toes. We lost again.

“Really? I’m going to have to trade you for one of those senior citizens,” Doug said. He slapped me again on the back. This time the sunburn hurt. My skin was slow-cooking bacon.

“I’m not feeling this. I’m going home,” I said. I was secretly excited to leave. Sarah might be back already. She was probably washing her swimsuit in the kitchen sink. She liked to do that, then hang the damp nylon over the air-conditioner.

Sarah wasn’t home. I took a shower, made myself a raspberry-jam sandwich, and turned on ESPN. Kobe was playing tonight, even with a jammed thumb. I needed to pump myself up, so I jammed my IPhone into the dock and immersed myself in some Shwayze. His melodramatic beats bounced off my Ikea furniture and compressed the oversized living room. I texted Doug: “Sarah isn’t back.”

It was the third quarter before my phone vibrated.

“I’m staging an intervention. Get suited up. We’re going to Mix.” Doug’s voice sounded symphonic over the AT&T connection.

“No, I can’t. Sarah’s probably going to be back soon,” I said.

“Has she called you?”

“No, but—”

“Has she texted you?”

“No—”

“Then fuck her. We’re going out. I’m picking you up in 25 minutes.” I stared at my phone, my hands oiling its metal with nascent sweat. Then I walked to my closet and tried to decide if I wanted any cologne.


--

Doug was driving his black Audi, the two-month-old leather upholstery still discharging new-car smell. I liked his car. The windows were tinted, so you could watch people without consequence.

I sat in the back. Doug’s other friend, Ed, was in the front seat. He was chunky, didn’t trim his nostril hairs, wore two polo shirts, popped the collar on the inside one. Ed didn’t talk much, but he laughed when Doug made fun of him.

“Ed, sorry to disappoint you, but we’re going to a straight club.”

“Hahaha.”

“Damn Ed, if I had known you and your cologne were coming to the club with us, I’d have brought a gas mask.”

“Hahaha.”

“Nice shirt dude, but won’t your girlfriend be pissed you borrowed it?”

“Hahaha.”

We drove out of Santa Monica and into K-Town, where stiff office buildings and the less resolute, more jejune-looking restaurants squeezed together, infirm in their denseness. The clubs lining the wide street were depleted, except for Circus, where there were a group of women wearing canary-yellow dresses so short you could see the fake wedding garters on their thighs.

Mix had a ritzy walkway. Doug valeted his keys and we stepped into line.

“There’s a guest list?” I asked Doug.

“Ed and I are on it, but you’re not,” Doug said. “But don’t worry.” He sounded a little over-confident. I didn’t say anything.

“This guy knows Amanda,” Doug said to the bouncer, when we were at the front. “He’s good for it.”

“Nuh-uh.” He waved me to the side. I watched the two women behind me – Asians, highlighted brown hair tied up in a messy bun that looked effortless but probably required effort – strut in. There were ten or so other men off to the side who watched with me. One was wearing a Hawaiian button-up shirt, each button one off so the shirt looked askance, but only from up close. All the men seemed to slouch a little. I straightened up.

“Hey, no worries. We’ll grab someone we know. Chill for a minute,” Doug said. He disappeared into the club, Ed following.

“We’re going to get you laid tonight!” Ed exclaimed over his shoulder. I was going to respond, but they were already gone.

I took out my phone. No missed calls, nothing. I pretended to send a text message, and made sure to chuckle to myself. The misbuttoned man glanced at me. I gave him a small nod. The line for the club was growing exponentially, and it devolved from single file into clumps. A girl squeezed by me, leaned against the velvet rope, asked the guard to let her in. After a couple of minutes, he did.

When Doug came back, my stomach was teetering, the kind of hurt that required two spoonfuls of Peptol-Bismol. I pushed against my stomach with two fingers.

Inside, the lights were puking neon colors over the ceiling.

Doug found Ed at the end of the bar, sitting with a white girl and an Asian girl. Both were veterans of the 1a.m., and this early in the night, their gold heels were still on, their pewter necklaces still centered. Doug slipped his arm around the white one. He introduced me to the other. Her name was Sandy. I mumbled when I told her what I did for a living. She looked dull, a McDonald’s worker taking an order. The In-N-Out servers were so friendly all the time.

“Are you rolling?” the one Doug had his arm around asked.

“We’re not at a fucking rave,” I responded, hesitating, not sure if this was a good-enough answer.

“He’s not,” Doug said. “But he’s going to be.” He glanced at me expectantly. I was surprised that he wanted to do it here. I thought about taking a cab back home, but we were really far away. $45 fare, at least. Maybe I could call Sarah.

“Sorry. I can’t do this,” I said, after a bloated delay. I surprised myself with my lack of equivocation.

“Alright, get yourself a drink. We’ll be right back,” Doug said. He looked a tiny bit disgusted. They headed for the bathroom.

“Hi!”

I turned around. This petite Asian girl was suddenly all up in my personal space on the barstool next to me. She sounded like she was tipsy. I glanced at her shirt. The sequins glittered, faux-classy. “I’ll have a Scotch on the rocks,” I said.

“What?” she said. She looked confused.

“Or a Bud Light.”

“Oh, I’m not a waitress.”

“I know.”

She watched me for a few seconds, trying to decide if I was serious or not. I stared at her. She stood up and walked briskly away, definitely not tipsy. She was no fun at all. I thought about what it would be like to consummate a relationship with her – we’d start off stale, fastidiously mold away.

I turned around and asked for a Jack-and-coke. There was a little black straw floating in the drink, so I lowered my head to suck on it, the shelf of my chin grazing the glass rim. I smelled the faint, familiar odor of day-old pesto sauce leaking from my armpit. I hadn’t put cologne on.

When I finished the drink, I scooped each ice cube out and carefully laid them on the counter. I tried to build a pyramid. Centering the three cube base was easy, stacking two cubes over it was manageable, but I couldn’t get the top cube to stay on. I took it and wiped it on my shirt. The cube stayed on now. Proud of my handiwork, I looked up and saw the bartender, discomfited, looking back at me.

“Isn’t that amazing?” I asked, nodding to my ice sculpture. It was all I could say.

We ended up talking, the bartender and I. She had a slightly neurotic personality, early twenties, with a tattoo of a misspelled Chinese character on her right arm and stringy, thin blonde hair. I ordered three Jack-and-cokes from her, and when I was into my second one I started to become talkative, mixology this and endangered virtues that.

“You know the biggest problem in middle-class America these days?” I asked her, rhetorically. “Lonely men at bars. They don’t get laid, and all that pent-up frustration, they take it out on other people.”

“Speaking from direct experience?” she asked.

“Nah, I’m talking about my co-workers. Those sons of guns. I put the team on my back, and they can’t see who’s carrying them. Just like I put this team,” – I pointed to her and me – “on my back.”

“Oh really? I’m the one supplying the booze.”

“You’re the water boy. I’m the QB here.”

She laughed, and started to rearrange the black plastic straws behind the counter for the second time.

We ended up walking out together at the end of her shift an hour later. I texted Doug, but never checked to see if he responded. He was probably having a good time.

Outside, the slight breeze brought the youngness back to my cheeks. We decided our goal was to get to the In-N-Out three blocks away. The yellow, curved lights teased us with their effervescence.

“You’re such a loser, you know,” she said. I knew she was testing me, but still, I was slightly miffed.

“You just don’t know me well enough,” I said.

“Au contraire, monsieur.”

The French jarred me. The last time I’d heard those words were when Sarah uttered them during our three-month date. It was a strange period: our infatuation had just petered out, and acquiescence no longer bloomed from our concealed insensitivities. We were eating at a cheap bistro, a $20 entrĂ©e one, biding time with a menu splattered with French.

“What’s Epinards aux Concombres a la Grecque? And Champignon Parmentier au Gratin?” she asked.

“Some kind of spinach salad and mushrooms,” I said.

“That’s not what they sound like. Au contraire, monsieur,” she said, giggling at her own wittiness.

“You’re not saying it right. It’s Au contraire.

“Au contraire, monsieur. Au contraire, monsieur. Au contraire, monsieur.” She started singing, lilting the accents in an egregious meter.

“Sarah, stop it! You’re acting like a child.”

“What? Don’t act like you’re any better.”

“At least I know how to pronounce French words.”

She glared at me. “You think you’re so cultured, but this place isn’t worth anything. And I bet you’ve never ordered French food in your life.”

“I have. Just not with you.” I knew it was a mistake as soon as the words left my mouth.

After a few seconds, she grabbed her cell phone and punched out a furious text message. We didn’t talk for the next ten minutes. I was a little embarrassed when the waiter took my order – Supreme de Volaille – and then turned to Sarah. She wouldn’t eat. He looked at me with a touch of pity. When the food arrived, Sarah and I both looked a bit glum, and neither of us wanted to fix it.

Of course, the sex that night was incredible. It wasn’t make-up sex; it was I-accept-you-for-who -you-are-sex. Static electricity clung to every inch of skin on her body. After five minutes, she moaned loudly enough to split the air between us, and without its buoyancy we clattered on top of each other. I never saw her quite like that again, her flesh turned inside-out, the nerve endings opened and caressed after a lifetime of inadequacy.

At that moment, I thought that my relationship with Sarah was perfect. Then a little voice sang: au contraire, monsieur.

--

At In-N-Out, the line was ten-deep with local high school kids.

We got two double-doubles, with secret-menu animal-style fries. What can I say about the food? The burgers were just greasy enough, the meat juice burdening the ends of the wrapper, and the fries, when we pinched them from the goo of cheese and onions, were parcels of greed delivered to our tongues. An old woman in a sparse floral print dress sat on the plastic bench outside and folded a napkin over and over, into increasingly smaller squares. We looked at her, but didn’t say anything.

I snagged the last fry, and brushed the leftover sauce and salt onto my jeans. The bartender was looking at me, her head perched on her hands.

“Do you want to kiss me?” I asked.

“What? No!” She tried to look shocked, but I could see through it.

“Well, I didn’t say I wanted to—you just looked like you wanted something,” I said.

“No no no no.” She was laughing now.

We took a cab through hundreds of arches of deserted lamplight, deposited ourselves in front of my apartment. I kissed her optimistically on the sidewalk and dragged her to my door. It was a struggle to insert my house key into the lock. I made a ruckus, jingling the handle, muttering invectives under my breath. She held onto me from behind.

“You sure we’re at the right house?” she asked, squeezing my abs.

“Maybe I’m just not sure about letting some strange woman into my apartment,” I said. I winked at her.

She gave me a pretend-hurt face and began to shift away. Laughing, I turned and pulled her close. “I guess that means I’ll just have to get to know you better,” I said.

I finally got the door open and swung through, announcing my entrance like a grand boxer at weigh-in.

Sarah was standing in the doorway, stark naked, a bathrobe hanging by her ankles. The bartender squealed.

“Good night?” Sarah asked.

I stared at the diamond-shaped birthmark on her right pelvic bone. “Could have been better.”

She gave the bartender a once-over. “The girl at the beach was cuter.”

“Yea, but she can’t serve alcohol quite like this one can.”

The bartender was mortified. “I think I’m going to go,” she said, squeaking. “I’ll see you later.” Her heels turned, struck the sidewalk like a chisel.

Sarah watched her leave, then looked at me. “I’ll heat up some leftovers, if you’re hungry.”

A song flitted through my head. “I’m alright. Just had In-N-Out.”

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