Even though it’s summer, the air is cold at two in the morning. “Dammit,” I say through chattering teeth.
Even worse than insomnia, I hate being cold in the summer.
I try to remember helpful hints from old magazine articles, “How to Quiet the Mind”, very Mother Earth, very now, very convenient for wishy-washy naysayers like myself.
I throw on an old Harvard sweatshirt over my stained Hanes T-shirt, both of which I stole from a guy that lived upstairs from me. I can never remember his name, something like Brian or Jeff. He would always wash his car on Thursday afternoons, and I would drink Rolling Rock from his fridge. I slide into my gray flip flops and go for a walk.
I avoid cracks in the sidewalk and dog shit. I half whistle and wonder if I’ll ever remember what sleep feels like. I notice a guy walking cat; I rub my eyes in disbelief. Maybe sleep deprivation has given way to visual hallucinations.
He sees me and does a half-shrug head-nod frat boy greeting. “This is Selma,” he says in a whiskey voice.
“I didn’t know you could walk a cat.”
He digs his free hand in his front jeans pocket and smirks, “I bet there are lots of things you don’t know.”
I grind my teeth. “You know what? You’re absolutely right. And at the top of the list of things unknown to me is why I’m talking to you.” I go back to my apartment, and for the first time in months I feel exhausted. I sleep for 5 hours.
I have a terrible job at the county court house. Actually I work for an independent photocopying shop that needs me to work at the county court house faxing, mailing and, of course, photocopying bankruptcy documents. I have read 10 books this summer because of my shitty job.
The fax machine makes it slow grinding noise; I sigh and put down Slaughterhouse Five. I love fax paper; it has a slight waxy feeling to it and it curls under like a town crier’s bulletin.
“Hey check this out!
I look across the street with my binoculars to see Greg leaning against the counter listening to The Fall. Greg says he used to masturbate to Mark E. Smith when he was in high school. Knowing Greg, it’s probably true.
The New York Times has put out a list of the 100 greatest books of the 20th century. I put green asterisks next to the books I have fully read and orange asterisks next to the books I have partially read.
I pick up the binoculars again and study the busy people on the street below. I gasp; it’s the cat walker from last night. I rush down the marble stair case just in time. The cat walker has a toothpick in his mouth and is much more attractive than I remembered.
“No cat today,” I say smiling. I’ve been told I have a beautiful smile.
Maybe this time I’ll be lucky, he has an aura of optimism around him. I feel like the 13 year old version of myself. I adore having a crush.
“Knowledge is power,” he says.
I blush and stammer something about loving School House rock.
“Do you also love happy hour?”
“Where can I meet you?”
He takes my hand and walks me to the corner. We stare at each other and he sighs and shakes his head. He leans in close; it feels like we are going to kiss.
He whispers and I swallow hard, “5:30, ‘Palais Royale’.” I stare at his face; he has sleep dirt stuck in the corner of his soft green eyes.
I wander back to work as if in a fugue state. I stare at the clock until it says 4.
I bustle back across the street, bursting to tell Greg about my good luck. Greg stares at his navy blue Chuck Taylor low rise sneakers while I’m babbling about my beautiful new crush.
“Did you see that new X Files movie yet?” Greg asks, unimpressed with my news.
I go in the back and sit with Mamie. If I didn’t know Mamie I would hate her, impossibly thin, impossibly blonde and ageless. When she told me she was 31, I choked on my Nutella and banana sandwich. Mamie knows the Heimlich maneuver too.
Mamie is doing date entry and listening to obscure Brit pop, music is the only thing we have in common.
“Mamie, would you consider a man that walks a cat?
“Oh I know that guy.”
“You’ve dated a man that walked a cat.”
“No, I mean I saw were talking to Hesh on the corner. I spent a weekend with him in the city. Paid for everything and I never called him again.”
I feel sick; a cast off of Mamie’s, no good can come from this.
“Aww don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll be a much better fit for him,” Mamie has slight underbite that makes her seem even more adorable.
“Did you say his name is Hesh?” I ask with a forced breeziness.
Mamie smiles as if she were in a dream. “His real name is Helmut. Hesh’s mother came from Stuttgart. Hesh is short for Hessian, you know like those paid German mercenaries from the Revolutionary War. I think it was rather creative of me.”
The Palais Royale is the type of bar that William S. Burroughs would go to if he had been kicked out of everyplace in all five boroughs of New York and couldn’t score any heroin. It attracts wannabe writers and casual hangers-on. I went there once with a guy that said my eyes looked too hard for someone my age.
Then he left with a girl that had buzz cut.
He is sitting right in the middle of the bar, sipping a beer with a lemon wedge floating in it. I get nervous, what if I start belching or I chip my teeth against the beer bottle.
“I’ll have a whiskey sour, please,” I say blushing.
“My nana likes to drink whiskey sours,” he laughs and shakes his head.
I pretend not to care and stare at his hands. He has dirty fingernails and hairy knuckles.
“I was painting all morning,” he says and picks at his fingernails.
“No, I’m working on a black and white series.”
I feel stupid and wonder why this guy is interested in me.
The bartender hands me my drink, making the glass smudgy with her greasy fingertips. I take a sip and sigh. The bartender slaps her gnarled hands down on the bar and squeezes.
“Cockroach,” she says in an unapologetic voice.
He brings me tea and toast, neither of which I enjoy but accept with a sheepish smile. He brings his hand to the side of my face and he stares at me with a bemused look on face. As if he couldn’t believe he was going to end up in bed with someone like me. I set the teacup on the floor; we hold each other for a brief moment. I spy a plaid tuxedo in his closet.
We’ve hardly said two words to each other all night. I feel like I’m having drinks with my boss.
“I have to pee,” I say after an age of silence. Hesh nods.
I go to the cruddy bathroom and step over puddles of what I hope is water. I stare in the mirror. When did I start to look so old? I rub my eyes hard and see red splotches.
Hesh is not at our table. I spy him at the bar talking to an ultra cool brunette with a sinister smile. My legs are made of spaghetti as I amble my way over to the happy couple.
The brunette is laughing and tugging on Hesh’s sleeve while he is tearing a paper napkin in half. He’s pretending to be the weakest strong man alive, that’s our private joke.
“You moved,” I say lamely.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Well Leila was all the way over here so, you know,” he mumbles, not really looking at me.
Leila smirks at me. I can read her mind, ‘I’m next, Bitch’.
“Well are you gonna sit down at least or are you going to continue to act like a jealous wife?”
I have vomit in my mouth and I can feel the tears well up. I slink out like I wish I had never been born.
I sit on cheap plastic lawn chair that I have in my living room/bedroom. I fished out of someone’s road side trash one drunken night.
It’s two in the morning, no phone call. My eyes burn but I have not shed one single tear. I go for a walk, back to the scene of the crime. Like magic he appears, like a nightmare he is kissing Leila. I feel like I’ve been sucked through a black hole. I stumble home and pretend to sleep.
I put all of Hesh’s things in a pile in the middle of my unmade bed. Every time I fold his shirts, I stop and breathe in deep. I cry at the scent of paint, sweat and that special Hesh smell. I have run out of tissue and I dry my tears with toilet paper.
I have seven or eight sketches of me Hesh did when he thought I was sleeping, usually after we had sex. I open up the bedroom window and liberate Hesh’s art. Lucky me it rained last night and they all land in a dirty puddle of water. I stare out the window all afternoon and smile every time someone walks by and stomps on the delicate pencil drawings of a contented me.
“Can’t we talk about this like adults?” Hesh asks in a hurt voice.
I am seething; I clench my jaw and try to form words. “Oh no, the onus is on you. Go fuck your hipster friend. Oh wait you can’t. She knows you’re a fucking scumbag.” So much for grace under pressure.
“I’m an artist, I’m unreliable. You knew what I was like when we started this thing,” he looks smug, as if he could burst into the “I told you so” song and dance.
“Don’t put your shortcomings on me!” I sound like a shrieky witch, like the kind of woman that will pick a fight with her husband at the supermarket for no real reason other than to make everyone else feel as bad as she does, the kind of woman that I hate, that I have somehow evolved into.
“I don’t want to argue with you anymore,” I say in a softer voice.
“Then just stop.” He folds me into his arms and I close my eyes.
I am knitting a pair of socks and drinking a brandy Alexander. Greg sits primly on my Naugahyde green recliner.
“What are you doing,” he asks.
“A garter stitch,” I say listlessly.
Hesh has not called in a few days, when I phone him I get his cool, detached voice mail. I feel needy and small.
“That’s it, Anne Frank. We are going out.”
“Can I wear my pajamas?”
Greg smirks at me and pats my head.
“Temerity,” I say out loud and blush. I hadn’t meant to say anything at all; the words crept out of my mouth of their own volition.
“Do even know what temerity means?” he asks, eyebrows twisted up in a mocking knot.
I ignore the line of questioning and concentrate one the bedroom walls. A wave of ambivalence washes over me. I can’t remember why I thought stop sign red would be a choice in wall color. I feel claustrophobic.
“I don’t know how I feel about red,” he says with a frown.
Though I can barely catch my breath, I argue. “Well I love it,” I say, my arms folded around my torso like a frustrated contortionist.
He smiles and squeezes my shoulders, “I have take out in the kitchen and a surprise.”
As if not speaking to each other for two weeks wasn’t surprising enough, I am pretty astounded by the thoughtfulness of a gift.
I rush into my kitchen which now seems gray and flat compared to the bordello like walls in my bedroom. Gerber daises lay in a heap on the table. I paw through my recycling and find six empty Orgina bottles.
“Why do you always do that?” he asks, “Did it ever occur to you to buy vases?”
I fight back hurtful words and line my flowers in the windows of my kitchen.
He eats and I continue to paint until I feel dizzy from the delicious smell.
“Can’t paint fumes cause brain tumors?”
“At least I’ll die happy,” I say sharply.
He pulls me down on the bare mattress and spoons me with a rough gentleness, a trait all of his own, a trait I can help but succumb to. I pick at the red flecks on my legs.
“It looks like I have the plague,” I say.
He is fast asleep.
Sue Bernardi is an almost 34 y/o well fed starving artist. She’s been making a meager living in the world of non-profit whilst dreaming of becoming a professional writer.