So here I am, pissing in the snow to ring in the New Year with a bunch of groupies I was never a part of. Another guy runs past me to claim another spot and I hear his trickle in a minute. Its all darkness, but I can hear the flow of clop that is drowning out the fresh powder. He shouts something at me and I say yeah.
I zip-up and head inside, where a countdown has begun. I opt out of the countdown to warm my digits in a cupped fashion at the end of my mouth. They're cold to my lips, but I can't feel them when they move. Everybody starts to run outside following someone with a bottle. I join them near where the snow starts to crack beneath our feet, gently, and we look down and are standing on the lake. They count one and can't get the bottle open. So I take it from one of the girls and it bubbles over with a pop. Then I'm a hero for about four seconds until one of the other guys takes it for a swig and shakes it up to spray down his date.
I turn to my date for a kiss, but it feels like the girl hardly has a part with me, other than as a date. Looking at the other guys around me, I wonder if it was a sort of gag, like revenge for a bring a pig to the prom thing. But I kept quiet about it as the night went on and swallowed hard on Miluakee's Best (the Beast as it came known by the end of the night) whenever my thumb didnt hit the table at the right time.
By the time were done, goddamn dizzy and nobody can think straight and a fire starts in the other end of the cabin. The girl next to it just looks at it if it were a toddler trying to make sense of a rubick's cube. Someone else yelps. No, I thought, I'm not sleeping in the car because this dumb bitch burned down the cabin that doesnt even belong to the girl that led us all here. I found a nearby cloth and put it out and was a hero for about 12 seconds. My date kisses me, but when I kiss her back she pulls away.
The next day we trek back along snow-muddied dirt roads from the lake cabin in her red Mazda with a sport rack on top. She puts a tape in of dance mixes she fell in love with while in Germany from some club I'll never see or smell or understand. But my memories are of the teenie-bopper songs that were played constantly on the radio to the point where I gave up and put a CD player in my car.
I met her years ago during high school when I worked up the courage to ask her to the prom. But as I approached, someone else took my place. She met me two years later in one of my college courses and we went out to coffee. We went to a trendy place with one of her friends, who she'd been to Europe with and seemed joined at the arm, with one clinging to the other at almost every opportunity.
Inside the coffee house we stomped snow from our shoes and welcomed the heat of the place. We talked about the class, about her and her family, her goals, her wants. We sat near the counter where a woman brought her small child and set him on the countertop while she dug through her purse for a coffee punch card. The child picked up the cup of tips, mostly pennies and nickels and a business card, and fumbled it on to the floor. We watched as each glimmering extra tapped eachother in their race to the carpet. My date snapped her eyes forward and tightened her lips to hide a chuckle, but I kept watching. The woman pressed her hand to her forehead and apologized to the barista, shaking her head and gathering up the child. She bent with the thing clinging to her side and helped rake up the mess, saying I'm so, so sorry.
Thats so sad I say and she says what. That woman, she's so embarrassed. Well, she says, being interrupted as the child starts screaming, that's why I'm never having children. Never. Ever. Then she lets her chuckle out and hides it with the coffee cup pressed close to her lips, eyes forward. Because they spill change I ask. No, they're just, I'm not having children.
It started to snow outside and a group of high-school kids came in from the dark, stomping away the cold. I knew one of the girls but didn't say hi. So, what did you do in Germany I ask. Same thing I do here. Study. The food there is so good, though. When we first met she talked about the food, about how we Americans are so full of preservatives that we lose the flavor. Now she is telling me again. And the coffee is weak here. It seemed our only conversation point because that's all she wanted to talk about. That or school or not having children.
I blew my coffee. I probably shouldn't be drinking it because I'd never get a few hours in before work. I'd be tired again, but she didn't seem to mind. We later had teas at Denny's, driving through the dark defensively in my little car. Sometimes she'd squeal if the car spun out but I never told her I did it on purpose. Woops, I'd say, and think that maybe tea and coffee isn't good enough to live off of.
But sitting across her I watched her look around at other tables and make remarks about that guy over there fighting with his girlfriend or that old woman counting her change at the counter and coming up short every time. I teased her about the gay waiter and how he wanted to get down her pants. She said shutup. Then she hid her mouth with the Denny's mug that didn't say Denny's like Dad's dad's.
I knew there was more going on than what she let up. She shared a calculating trait that I had come to fear from Brenda and I was careful to keep up my guard.
Brenda had taught me well of the game. It was a cruel power struggle that she constantly wanted me to fight over and to win. I didn't understand and always lost, so the cycle continued for months. We'd make up, things would be normal, then her green eyes would rear back and dilate like a cobra's neck. Something I said or did would become a topic for intense debate as to my loyalty to her, my faith in our relationship and I'd end up telling her how much I loved her and wanted her just to make her stop. She made me convince myself.
But not this girl. She wanted nothing of love or lasting relationships. Nothing of marriage or children or commitments or loyalty. I later realized that this was why I wanted her so much. Her head was familiar, but her motivations were the opposite. So far opposite that there wasn't enough room for me to say how I felt about the two of us and not make it sound fake or too rushed.
She was a mouse sitting there with her tea cupped to her lips, still thinking and analyzing, but shy of any notion to commit to more than the bottom of the drink in front of her. In a way I didn't mind. I knew she wouldn't be around to find out so I felt comfortable keeping it a secret, even though she was so blunt about her feelings toward children. I didn't even stop to think about how to tell her. It was just too easy to let it alone and live this up while I could.
I hung on as long as I could. She was house-sitting for an aunt and had an entire two-story house to herself. We made use of it by listening to nothing but each other and knowing that nobody would be coming home or interrupting us. We let the phone ring. But when she was alone she answered it if I called and deleted the interrupted message afterward.
But our dates soon grew boring after having no place to go but the same coffee shop or booth at Sherry's Restaurant where the waitress had learned our names. She was pregnant and I chatted with her when she took our order. The usual. Two teas, one mint, one orange. When she leaves I wait until the drinks come and fiddle with the cup she left behind. She gets nervous across from me and asks what I'm thinking. I was just wondering where you want to go with this and she says what do you mean, I don't want to go anywhere. I didn't know we were going anywhere. Who says we need to be going anywhere she asks. I say nobody. I was just wondering. The drinks come in small viles that look like chemistry bottles with a round base and rubber-coated flute containing hot water so we can pour it ourselves. That's why she likes it here.
I look down into my cup, slouching in the booth and stirring the water from a tea bag dangling from a white string. The bag releases a dye into the water and starts to tint the string a light brown where it reaches the top of the water. She looks out over the other tables and at a couple sitting in a booth behind me just in view and stares at them while dipping her tea bag in a little at a time and bringing it all the way out before submerging it again.
I imagine myself grabbing her wrist on the way back down and pulling it out so I can catch a drop from the tea bag on my tongue, but I've learned she fears public affection more than children and I dismiss the idea without reservation. Instead I watch as the waitress busses a table nearby and blows a strand of hair from her face with the corner of her mouth.
I don't think there should be an us she says. There's you and there's me and we're together, but the second there's an us there's no choice and we're both trapped. Yeah, I guess you're right. After all, I thought, that's why this relationship worked this long. But it's the end of a dead sprint and while a finish line awaits in the distance we both stop and agree, bent over panting with hands on our knees, that there's really no point in running, or even in heading that direction in the first place. But, I say, it would be nice to have something solid, something tangible. I disagree, she says, adding that the only thing that ever comes of relationships is bickering and someone is always on one side or the other. Again, she was right. I'd seen it in all of what few relationships I'd been in and in all of them I was sitting where she is now. I had nothing to tie me down, nothing to hold me back from trips to Germany or South Africa or a small diner in Mexico that only serves beer and goat ribs.
But now I feared I did and even though the glimpse of adultery exists, it could well be my cherished time alone would soon be shattered by late night screams and dirty diapers and bills left unpaid.
I suddenly wanted a drink. Not tea. Her voice started to crumble into a phonic nightmare as she talked and I murmured a yeah, uh-huh, when it was my turn. She asked if I was listening and I said yeah and she wanted me to prove it so I recited the trite phrases and slurs back to her and she went on yapping.
I paid again and left a big tip, but only in comparison to the bill. She said she didn't understand why I didn't just tip the fifteen percent or nothing at all like everybody else on the planet. I shrugged and said I don't know, good karma, maybe and looked back at the pregnant girl bussing the table while I held the door for her to leave. She waited in front of the outer door and I opened it while she was fitting her scarf into her vest. She grabbed my elbow and we walked on black ice to the car, skidding some just for fun and I said woops.
The car turned over after a second attempt and we waited outside while it warmed up. I looked up at the clear night sky and found the constellation of three stars in a row. Orion's belt. When I found it I blew air up at it and my breath disappeared into it. She said what are we doing standing out here in the cold and I said looking. Well, let's look in the car, she said, I'm cold.
It was still a little chilly in the car because the fan was blowing cold air off a cold engine. She cupped her hands and blew and rubbed them together and balled them into fists and chucked me in the chin. I said ow, I think you broke it and she giggled.
That date was like almost all the ones before. With nothing else to do after having tea or coffee and driving around looking for a few minutes we would eventually decide to go back to her place that wasn't really her place.
The first time I went there the house was empty and her keys falling on the counter top echoed through the unlit living room and hollow hallway. It was much warmer than the crisp air outside and I forgot about the stars peeking through clouds or icy roads while I watched her take off her hat and scarf and set them down on the counter on top of the keys.
I watched as she let her hair down by grabbing the tight bun it was in and pulling out a pin hidden somewhere inside. It fell to her shoulders and she asked if I thought she should cut it. I said no and she made scissors of her fingers and pinched a section to curl the ends upward. She let it go and sprung from her hand but she said nothing in reply. I pulled up a stool to the counter and she said so. I said so back and something like these people have a nice refrigerator, turning to the stainless steel fridge with black rubber-coated handles behind me. It was next to the front door which was odd, but she said yeah all their furniture and appliances are nice. Too bad they're not mine she said and I looked back at her and she wasn't smiling.
She asked what I wanted to do and I said I dont know, what do you want to do. She didnt know either and I wondered what Id have to do to touch her or if it was too early.
I said, well, let's go to the store. I have an idea. She said but we just got here yet I could tell she was intrigued, having already started to reach for her scarf and hat. I said well we can come right back. I know what I need and it'll just take a minute once we get to the store. She said okay, lead the way and we wound up in a convenience store.
We walked together, her arm in the crook of mine, and as we approached the store she looked up at the bright white and blue signage that beamed overhead and asked what I needed to get. I said it's a surprise and she said she didn't like surprises. I stopped when she said this and she nearly kept walking with my arm. We can go back if you want, I say and start to turn. She pulls at my elbow, now with two hands, and says no, no, just tell me what youre getting. I say no, it's a surprise. We enter to the kishoop of the automatic doors and she makes a noise that resembles an uneasy mouse or ferret.
We walk in among the aisles and I take her up and down some of the canned or frozen food sections, picking up a can or bag of whatever here or there and coming back around to put it back. I thought you said you knew what you needed, she says. I said I did, it's a surprise. She made the noise again and said she didn't like surprises.
After a while she got impatient and said this is ridiculous and she wanted to leave. I said go ahead, I've got the keys and she said she doesn't like surprises. By now we'd picked up a basket, filled it, emptied it and put it back and the only thing I had left was a can of chili and whipped cream.
Oh no, she says, why do you have whipped cream. I say it's a surprise and she says I don't know about this, I've never, well, nevermind. Her arm gripped tighter and I wasn't sure if it was from nerves or excitement. I said, well, maybe we could just make some hot cocoa or something and she shrugs and smiles.
We walk up to the cashier and she lets go of my arm. I say go ahead and wait for me over there and she asks why. I forgot something but I'll have to ask this lady where it is so I'm not running all around the store for it. She asks what it is and I say it's a surprise. She says you're crazy. I say I know and nod her to the other side of the counter to wait. She walks around me quickly and turns to watch as if reading my lips from a distance might lessen the blow of this feeling she feared so much.
I leaned into the cashier and whispered where's the oils and things and she raises her eyebrows and shakes her head. Well vegetable oil is right there and she points to a nearby aisle end. I say no, no, like your massage oils. She looks over at the girl standing there waiting and back at me. I don't know if we have anything like that she says, but Ill ask for you. I say that'd be great. The cashier shouts to a boy walking in with an orange vest over a wet, hooded raincoat. Hey, she yells as the boy starts walking toward us, where's the massage oil. He says come on I show you and I look at the woman as if my eyes could slap her and say thanks a lot. I look to see the girl with her hand on her forehead. Walking over I grab her hand from her face and say well, so much for that surprise and she puts her other hand to her forehead as if to avoid the security cameras.
We drive back and I'm bitching about how that woman spoiled the whole surprise with her big mouth and the girl sitting next to me puts her hand on my knee and pats it twice. It's okay, she says, I don't like surprises anyway. It's okay, really. I say yeah, but still.
When we reach her house my car crackles on the snow that has melted somewhat and turned to ice on the driveway. I put the car in park and turn it off. She doesn't get out right away so I look at her and she looks back. Shall we, I ask, wondering if I were inviting her or if she were waiting to invite herself and she smiles and nods. The house is still warm, still quiet, and she turns on Christmas lights strewn throughout the house that I didn't notice before. Little firelights sprung up everywhere and she walked over to turn up the heat. I asked why she liked it so hot and she said it's cold out. I was about to give some smart retort just for fun but she took her jacket off and I realized I'd never seen her without it.
I walked over to her for a kiss and she turned away after a peck saying let's put some music on. I agreed and took the oil out of the bag I held in my hand. You aren't allergic to any of this stuff, are you I ask and she says I doubt it. After she fumbles with the radio and gets one of the CDs working I lead her into the living room, which has lots of floor space despite furniture lining the walls. She lays down and I'm still looking at the bottle. I untwist the cap and remove a small cardboard disk at the rim and refasten the top. As I walk out of the living room she asks what's the matter and I say nothing, I just have to throw this thing away and she sets her head back down on her crossed arms in front of her, waiting.
I open the small plastic container and glop a drop of the liquid into my palm. It's cool and I swirl it in my palm with a finger and rub it against my thumb. Then I put my hand palm-down at the small of her back and she recoils with a screech. That's so cold, she says and I say wait a little bit and you won't even notice. Relax, I say. I'm trying, she says, it's cold. I say yeah, yeah and start rubbing the oil around in circles covering her back and shoulders. Her muscles finally start to relax so I take the bottle and let it drip a few times up her spine. She squeals again and breathes out.
My fingers sprawl across her back to rub the new oil in and my fingertips begin to burn. The mess of cuts and scratches from cardboard boxes and plastic zip ties and wire bundles and bleeding cuticles all lap up this perfumed oil while she starts to relax and lets out a slight moan. After a while she starts moving and gets up to put a CD in. I kneel on my haunches with my hands upturned and nearly dripping and still burning. She came back and was less tense and when the music stopped I kept going, swirling and pushing muscle out of the way, drawing pictures and going from a hard press to a touch breeze. When my watch alarm goes off I lift my hands to stop it and don't continue. She doesn't move. I wait a minute and wipe my hands on my pants and look again at my watch. She still doesnt move and looking from a different angle I see she's asleep, the skin on her face scrunched like a bad attempt at forced cleavage.
I put a hand on her shoulder and shake her gently while calling her name. She opens here eyes and slurps up what must have been druel but I don't see any. Hey, I say, I've got to go to work. She looks up at me confused and closes her eyes. Why do you do it, she asked and I said what. Work at night. It's not natural. I say I know, but it pays the bills and it works around school. She says so does my job, but I actually get to sleep at night.
I said yeah and stood up to get my jacket. She reached for her bra with a long arm and small fingers and put it on with her back turned toward me and I watched her while I wrapped on my scarf. I looked out the window at the new snow coming down and she said I was crazy for going out there. Crazy. But she put on her shirt and came close to grab my jacket collar and gripped with both hands as if to lift me to the ceiling, then let loose and patted her hands on my shoulders. She said drive safe and we kissed but it felt forced. Say, she says, my friend and I are going Christmas shopping tomorrow and I think it would be fun if you came. I said sure and knew I'd only get a few more hours of sleep before I was up again the next morning. Shopping.
I walked outside and she held the door for me and said I was crazy for going out into this weather and I said yeah, yeah, and she said yeah, yeah, drive safe. My feet crunched under me over the trodden path from the doorstep and when I reached my car the lights went out inside the house.
After work I went home but couldn't sleep. There was something wrong with staying up all night and not being able to enjoy the sunlight, which seemed to give a new type of energy the second I set foot out of work. I needed to catch up on sleep and that's all I thought about during work. But now all I wanted was to have a cup of coffee that Dad left slightly warm on the counter. I set my keys on the counter and they slid somewhat and I grabbed a mug. The coffee tasted slightly bitter but was dark. Not the tea color Mom always made and Brandon always razzed her for. It's flavored water, he'd say and she'd smack him on the arm after he said it enough and he'd laugh.
A few hours later she called and we met up at her house and took her car from store to store. She had little money and several people to buy for. But she looked at expensive things, shiny things, wasteful things, too. She stopped at a cappuccino machine and looked at it in front of me, lifted the box and said too much, let's go. The three of us walked together and her friend asked me questions, feeling me out to see if I were adequate for her friend. Either I answered too many right or too many wrong because before long she stopped talking to me all together. Instead, the two giggled and chatted and told inside jokes while I looked at things and made mental notes and kept a tally of what I'd spend this year on junk for the people I loved.
We wound up at a thrift store and while they looked I saw only the red and khaki color scheme on the racks in search of a new pair of pants or a red shirt that wasn't stained and could hold up to hugging boxes and ink smears.
When we were finished I said I needed to go home and get some sleep, having been told that I was snappy today by her friend. I didn't understand but said yeah, sorry about that, I must be tired. I stood at my car and waited for a kiss as she stood by me. She said I don't feel comfortable with her watching, I hope you understand and I said yeah, sure. She smiled and gripped my hand and walked away. She looked back and said to call tomorrow. Her friend yelled come on from a distance and her step quickened and I stood watching in my open door as she took her arm by the elbow and they went off together.
I followed them as they left and they turned off before me into the little coffee shop where the kid spilled the change. I looked at the road ahead that was still snowy and turned up the radio and let it thump my spine until I got home and passed out.
The next day after work I was ready to give up and I couldn't remember her smile unless her friend was around. I poured a cup of bitter coffee again but dumped it out after a sip. I took my shirt off and lopped it sidearm against the wall and went to bed. Dad woke me up later that night and said some girl was on the phone. I half wondered if something had changed in Brenda but it wasn't her. I thought you were going to call me, she says and I look at my watch. I was. I must have fallen asleep. Wow, she said, you must have needed it. Must have, I said. So, did you want to come over, she asked, saying that her friend had come over and they were making cookies.
I said sure and after I hung up I went into the living room where Dad sat watching TV. I sat next to him and rubbed my eyes and yawned. That overnight work is the pits, he says and rustles my hair that is already messy and sticking up in places from my pillow. I say yeah and at the next commercial I get up to change, slowly, and head over to her house.
She and her friend are giggling and they sigh and stop when I walk in. Her friend says hi almost shouting and I look around at the countertops to see if they'd been drinking. The house smells good like only warm chocolate can do. She says don't worry about her, she's just hyper and I shrug. The batch in the oven's almost done, she says. I nod thinking of something else and say smells like it. Her friend is holding a small egg timer in her hands that looks big compared to her petite frame. We make small talk until she starts a countdown and the timer goes off with a ding. She asks if I'd like to do the honors and I say sure and she hands me some oven mitts. I put one on and reach into the oven, holding the other hand up for the heat and remove the tray of cookies. I set it on top of the stove and we make more small talk while they cool. Her friend soon takes a cookie and says she has to leave for work and says how much she hates working in the afternoon shift. I nod and they hug. She stands at the door and watches her friend leave and waves from behind the door with a hand on her hip. She turns to me and walks up to grab my coat collars again like before and says we're finally alone. I say yep and lift a cookie to my mouth over her arms. She presses a hand down my front and says she's ready and I ask what for. She says you know and smiles. I raise my eyebrows and stop chewing and say oh.
She walks past me to the stove, trailing her fingers across my chest and ribs and takes a cookie. I turned and wanted to ask her why but didn't bother. She says she's got the massage oil upstairs, crossing one arm under the other and motioning in that direction with the cookie in hand. Are you sure, I ask and she smiles. Well, okay, I said. I ran outside to get the CD I'd used before from my car and when I come back she's waiting in her room and lighting candles on the floor where she lies down when finished, bareback.
I put the CD in a portable player in the bathroom and set it on the floor in the hallway so we can hear. I take my jacket off and set it on the floor nearby and kneel down, kneading while my fingers burn until the candles start to flicker and die. I finish before the CD is over and she rolls over carefully for a kiss, exposing her small breasts and smooth tummy. I run my oiled fingers over her belly button and bite it while she grips my hair and yelps slightly, more of fear than of pain. Her chest heaves with each kiss trailing her ribs as her breath quickens and she tells me to go get a condom. I get up to find one in the closet and she's exactly where I left her. I fall back to her and set the condom aside and ask if she's really ready and she strokes my arm, pressing a finger up my tricep and nods. I almost shrug but stop myself and wonder if I'm missing some sort of anniversary or birthday or something and reach for the condom. She grins away a squeal as I tear the package and starts to unbuckle my pants.
After a few attempts her body finally gives me leave and she inhales sharply while gripping my arm. She arches her back and I kiss her exposed chin. I ask if she wants to stop and she says no, it's okay in a whisper. We move to the music while she continues to inhale and when I'm spent I notice in the candlelight of the only surviving glow beside me a faint trail of blood. She says thank you and I say you're welcome and kiss her collarbone. I step away to clean myself and stop the CD as I walk into the bathroom. When I come out she's putting her clothes back on and we rest on her bed until I have to leave for work. She tries to hold me back but I sit up and give her back her arm wishing I could give her back something else. She says drive safe and I call her the next morning after work.
Brandon was flying into town for a few days for Christmas and I'd have to pick him up from the airport. Erik was back already from school and we picked Brandon up together. It was dark when we got back from the airport and he wanted to go out so we picked up one of Erik's friends and the girl I'd been with the night before. Brandon is loud and reckless as always and Erik and I get play along. But the girls aren't impressed and after I drop them off she says he's a loveable ass hole when we're alone again at her house. I say oh really and that it was an accurate description, I suppose. She nods into a fresh mug of tea. I ask her about her day and she says she spent it wrapping presents and her mom was excited to hear about last night. She wanted all the details and I was confused, almost ashamed.
Christmas came a few days later and after we'd opened presents and had breakfast, the guys sat to watch football and Brandon and Dad talked about politics while Erik munched on Christmas chocolate and Mom did the dishes. I gave her a hug and left to drop off my gift and said Id be back in a few.
When I got to her house she was just arriving and said let's go inside. It's cold out here and I agreed. I held her present under my arm and she asked what it was and I handed it to her. For me she said and I nodded. She took it and when inside she set it on the counter. Hold on, I have to go get your present. She went upstairs and I watched her from behind as she swayed somewhat up the stairs. A few minutes later she came down with a small package and said sorry, she had to wrap it up. She handed it to me and I could tell it was a CD. She put her hands on her hips, then crossed one over her chest while bringing a finger to her mouth with the other. Open it, she said, so I did. I didn't recognize it and she said it was the one I'd mentioned while we were shopping together and I put it in the player so we could listen. I told her to open the present and said oh no, you didn't when she saw the front of the box for the cappuccino machine. She opened it up and found the few flavored coffee packets I'd put inside and plugged it in. I reached for the instruction booklet and she said now we won't even need to go out for coffee anymore. After a moment I realized that's all we went out to do and wondered what I'd just done as the first drops started to filter through and drip into the glass container below.