By Mara Grayson
The boy doesn’t believe in words like soul. They are abstractions, he says, spitting the word like the idea is toxic, and poor approximations of the truths we too easily label feelings, concepts, ideas, understanding. He lists these on his fingers and shakes his head, sips his whiskey and puckers his lips. The girl waits for him to smile or at least glance back at her but his eyes are focused loosely on the watermark his glass has left on the bar top. She is quiet as she remembers something from long ago. A boy was involved, and a humid, enigmatic summer night, like this one.
The girl agrees with him – about soul, definitely; not as much about the others – so they talk about this and other trivialities with sincerity and false import until the bartender, bar rag in hand, urges them to make their way home.
She wonders later: what if that was not the way they met? What if they instead had met at work, if they had dropped their papers at the same time and bent to scoop them from the carpet? Each might have said hello to the top of the other’s head as they scrambled to gather their belongings before turning back to their respective cubicles. She might have turned back once to smile, and then, not immediately, but a few days later, he might have invited her to lunch. This is the normal course of affairs, the girl thinks.
This is how the couples she knows met each other, like her newlywed college roommate, Jennifer, who met her husband in their university’s cafeteria by spilling a lukewarm cup of coffee on his expensive new trousers. He’d been dressed up, he joked in his speech at their wedding reception, because he had a job interview. He got the job, Jennifer interjected, stains on his pants and all. Jennifer and her new husband laughed and kissed politely as the room toasted their champagne glasses to the happy couple. The girl felt lonely.
It would have been better if they had met in a way from which a story could be told. If they had left the bar separately and not exchanged numbers, but somehow met again days later. That would have seemed like fate to the girl, or coincidence to him. They would have smiled, touched hands, kissed their first kiss in the bar, laughing at their good fortune, instead of sloppily falling into each other on the street outside, sweat rising at the nape of her neck and between their crushed foreheads.
She is tipsy this first night, but not drunk. It’s pleasant, gentle, the way he places his fingers between her legs, touching first her knee, then her thigh, awaiting her permission.
The girl is young, no younger than the boy but still young. She has yet to find her way in the world, her father often says vaguely on their long-distance telephone calls.
I am lost, she confesses to her father. This too is abstract, she thinks.
Don’t worry, he says, you’ll get there. Her father is supportive but nonspecific. The week she meets the boy, she doesn’t unburden herself when her father calls.
The second time she spends the night with the boy, she lies awake searching for shapes in the ceiling, but all she sees are tiles. She begins noticing the abstractions of the world: confusion; fulfillment; hunger. What is she hungry for? She must ask herself. It is not enough to express hunger. I want Chinese food, she must say. I want vegetable lo mein. I want two egg rolls with duck sauce.
She decides she likes the impreciseness of things.
Where the girl is from – far enough from here that the differences are distinct – life is linear and carefully plotted. Girls marry boys they meet in high school. They go to good schools and get good jobs or they stay home and have babies young. They buy houses close to the homes where they grew up.
Good girls do not quit school, her mother scolded when she left, to gallivant in New York City with nothing to their names.
Her father is more understanding and sends her money from time to time. The girl works half days in a small, crowded office where the rest of the staff is male. She answers phones and impatiently taps her feet beneath her desk, a book hidden in her lap.
She knows few people in New York. There is Jennifer, the married girl who meets her in the city for cappuccino from time to time. Jennifer lives in the suburbs; she works hard and will have a child soon. The girl knows that when that happens, they won’t see each other often.
The girl is polite at work, even friendly, but is never invited to happy hour with the boys. Often they flirt with her and she coolly smiles or raises an eyebrow in a given direction, but it is a game: they are intrigued by her bare legs beneath her proper skirts, the long hair she ties back, her quiet voice when she answers the phone.
The boy is different, as are all the boys who really matter. He is a college graduate. His family has money and a townhouse on the East Side but he rents a studio uptown, close to the apartment she shares with two roommates she barely sees. He works from home, writing instructional manuals and medical copy. He is a writer, and these are not the things he wants to write. He hasn’t shown the girl his stories.
A few nights after they first meet, they sit in his bedroom and listen to jazz. He owns a vintage record player; it makes her think of something out of a movie her father might have watched.
“Listen to that trumpet,” he instructs. The walls of his bedroom are cluttered with big music posters, small unframed paintings, and a tapestry that looks hand-woven. She closes her eyes and tries to focus on the simplicity of the single horn, the complication of a cymbal pulsing in the background.
“What is this?” the girl asks.
“Miles Davis. Listen,” he says again. When the record is finished he turns it over to hear the B side. They listen to the entire record twice. She can feel him watching her. She wants to know the titles of each piece; she wants to know what they mean. The boy tells her she can hear it in the notes if she listens carefully enough. They make love on top of his blanket, slowly this time, with his breath in one of her ears and a slow, sad trumpet in the other.
She knows the boy isn’t beautiful. His hair is too coarse, his cheeks too narrow, his lips set straight, perpetually ornery. He is striking, a word her mother might have used to describe men in old films. It is better to leave an impression than to only be pleasing to the eye. There are parts of him that excite her: his eyes are blue and cold; they catch light when he stares at her. If she could, she would take them in her fingers and hold them up to the sun like prisms, to watch its beams dance across their surfaces. He is slight, unlike the boys she knew as a teenager, all gym rats and athletes, who liked to carry her over their shoulders, kicking and screaming, laughing, because she was small and they had the power. This boy’s weight on hers does not press down, does not suffocate. Most, she loves his hands; they grasp hers tightly, with necessity, with the terror of letting go.
The girl complains about her job. She is bored, she tells him; they don’t respect her. Maybe she should go back to school.
“I can help you out,” he says one evening when she cries spontaneously upon walking through his door.
“My mother was right,” she spits between sobs, his hand on her back, guiding her to sit. “I can’t take care of myself.”
He wipes her face with a tissue.
“I can help,” he says. She knows what he means by this. She wants to say, No, I don’t need your money, I am a grown woman, I can do it myself. She shakes her head but says nothing. He kisses her forehead like he would a child’s.
She spends August on the edge of quitting. Each day, she arrives at work by noon, prepared to give her notice. Each day at one, she loses her courage.
The first Friday in September, the men at work talk amongst themselves about happy hour. She feels lonelier than ever before and she doesn’t come into work on Monday. On Tuesday she gives her resignation. No one seems surprised as she packs up her desk, tucking into her purse a few books and magazines, her favorite pen, an umbrella and a pair of high heeled shoes.
The boy pays her rent this month. “Take your time and figure out what you want to do.”
She reads a lot of books and searches the internet for job postings until she can no longer pay her cable bill. She wants a job where she can talk to people. It seems so romantic to be a bartender or a restaurant hostess, to speak with people all night at work, earn tips by being friendly.
“Do you think I could be a bartender?” she whispers to the boy one evening over beers. The bartender, a bulky young man in a sleeveless tee shirt, daintily tops a martini with a toothpick of olives and places it gently before an older woman at the other end of the bar.
The boy is taken aback, briefly. “But you’re so quiet,” he says. He reaches out to touch her cheek; his hand is beer-moist and cold. “Plus, you’re smart.”
When he takes a sip of his beer, the girl looks down toward the bartender – he is smiling, taking an order from a young couple who’ve just walks in. He doesn’t seem unhappy.
She never wanted to be a schoolteacher, like most of the girls she knew in school. She enjoyed the theatre, too, the history of drama and the live performance. She’s never told the boy this – for some reason she is embarrassed – but when she was on stage, she spoke, loudly, confidently. She wasn’t shy at all. She felt like a completely different person.
She calls one of the City University campuses and gets a transfer application for next fall.
She spends little time at her apartment, and almost all of her time with the boy. They go often to the cinema, to shows off-Broadway (which he always pays for), and to tiny new restaurants far downtown. They try the most exotic foods on the menus: she develops a taste for Indian eggplant bharta; he becomes enamored of Moroccan merguez. They take cab rides back uptown, lying low in the backseat touching, sucking the taste of cumin from each other’s mouths.
They don’t socialize. The boy has almost as few friends as the girl has. She wonders if he is lonely – he seems sometimes that he is so deprived of contact, his limbs could break apart if she held too hard. Now that she is not working, she spends her days in his studio, watching him work on a typewriter. He is a poor typist – he makes frequent errors and sends piles of paper to the wastebasket – but he doesn’t own a computer. He wants to feel what he is writing, he says.
One afternoon, while she is propped upon a stack of pillows reading a Henry Miller book of the boy’s suggestion, he curses aloud, crumples a sheet of paper and hurls it at the closed window.
“I can help you,” she offers, meekly, careful not to insinuate that he needs the help.
“You want to type for me?” he asks. He turns in his chair. His teeth suck petulantly at his bottom lip; he looks like a child. He tries to smile. “It’s fine,” he says. He turns back and reloads a sheet of white paper into the typewriter. “I should do it myself anyway.”
He wants it to be difficult, she realizes, and she cannot fathom why.
By November, her friend Jennifer is seven months pregnant. She has a co-ed baby shower, as people do these days, and encourages the girl to bring a guest. On the phone, Jennifer talks nonstop about the baby books she’s reading, the room her husband has painted genderless in green and yellow, and the names she has come up with for a boy or a girl. Jennifer makes her promise to bring the boy to the party.
The girl is quiet on the phone. She has mentioned the boy to her friend, if only to say that there is a boy she knows, but she speaks little about their relationship – how do words express such feelings? Jennifer is so at ease with them, but her explanations of the ins and outs of pregnancy and the excitement of impending parenthood do little to explain to the girl what she is feeling. The girl has no idea what pregnancy is like; words, she thinks while Jennifer rambles, symbols that they are, cannot convey experience.
When she arrives at his apartment later in the day, he is fumbling with the record player. “Keeps stalling out,” he says, as though it were a run-down truck. “I’ve been trying all day to listen to this record.” Charlie Parker’s face stares up at her from the table. The boy gets fed up and shoves the record back into the cabinet. He grabs her wrists and kisses her hard hello. Once released, she sinks her nose into his shoulder; his tee shirt smells like alcohol. She wraps her arms around his waist. He kisses deep into her hair.
A bottle of whiskey is set beside the typewriter.
“Hard day,” he says. He pours her a drink and pours himself another. They rest on the bed pillows and he strokes her arm with his fingertips.
She sits upright and faces him. Why, she wonders, is it so hard to talk? Since she learned the importance of choosing the right words, she has become nearly mute.
“I would like you to come with me someplace,” she begins. Be specific, she tells herself. “To a party. A baby shower, actually. My friend is having a baby and she wants us to be there.” She watches for a reaction on his face. “I want you to come,” she adds.
He sips his whiskey. “A baby shower?” he asks.
“She is having a baby. Yes. Please.”
“I don’t know. I don’t like those things.”
“What things?” she asks. He runs his hand over his hair. “Be specific,” she tells him.
He laughs a sharp single chuckle. “I’ll think about it,” he says. He kisses her on the forehead and she pulls away. “I’ll think about it,” he says again. “I have some work to do. Shall we go to dinner later?”
She nods and he returns to his desk. He types furiously for a while, then sits motionless for a while, then types again and discards the paper. Watching his back, she grows bored.
She should go home, she thinks. She doesn’t keep a wardrobe in the boy’s studio, and he hasn’t suggested she share his closet. Your place is right nearby, he said the one time she complained that she had nothing to change into for dinner. You might as well use it for something.
Her apartment is cluttered, her bed a hamper of worn and crumpled clothes. Her roommates have their own quarters and they both have jobs, so their paths don’t cross hers. When she first moved to New York, she was excited about having her own place. The apartment had two bathrooms, so, for a little extra money, she had her own standing shower that smelled like her favorite apple shampoo. She thought that the three of them might share meals or watch television together, but the other girls were rarely home. On the first of each month, she left her part of the rent on the kitchen counter before leaving for work and it was always paid by the time she came home. Living with people only seemed to make the girl feel lonely.
She scans the records in the boy’s cabinet and fiddles with the phonograph. She clears dust from the needle and places a classic rock album she bought for him in the summer but hasn’t yet listened to on the turntable. The boy hates music with lyrics; words, he says, just cloud the meaning.
While he wrestles with his typewriter she closes her eyes, lies back on the bed; she listens to the singer’s voice and wonders if he means the words he sings.
The week before Christmas she buys a one-way ticket to visit her parents. She doesn’t ask the boy to come with her. She’ll call him when she’s back, she says. He looks her over in the doorway as she’s leaving. He kisses her long and hard enough that she gasps.
“I might never see you again,” he says softly.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says. She holds his hand tenuously then lets it go.
Her parents meet her at the airport, both smiling. Her mother greets her more kindly than she has imagined but does not once ask what her daughter is doing in New York, if she has friends, a partner, if she likes her work.
Before dinner, her mother pulls from beneath the tree a small wrapped gift box. It is a pair of earrings, small and delicate, womanly and adult. She hugs her mother gently. She has brought her mother a set of drinking glasses, voluptuous and playful, with cursive scrawled across the bowl of each: Cheers, Salud, Le Chiam. Her mother cooks a hearty meal and they serve red wine in the new glasses. Her parents clink their glasses with hers once. She lifts to drink, and across the table her parents touch glasses once again and share a kiss before taking their wine. They smile so calmly she feels like a spy, voyeuristic and intrusive.
She offers to help with the dishes but her mother refuses. She sits in the living room with her father, her toes curled beneath her on the sofa, her father beside her in the leather armchair.
What does it mean to be at peace? She wants to ask. Happiness is the grossest abstraction she knows. The peak is impossible to reach if it is never identified on the map.
“I am lost,” she tells her father, laying her head against the arm of his chair. He caresses her hair. She wants to sob. She wants to hide beneath the sofa cushions and only come out when she is older, much, much older.
“You’ll get there,” her father says.
Early in the spring, she runs into the boy on the street one evening as she makes her way from the subway station home. They stop on the concrete before the bar where first they talked, too long, then touched, too briefly.
“Work clothes,” he says, not a question. It is shortly past seven p.m.
“It’s a job,” she says. “It’s not my passion.” She is self-conscious now. Her shoes are too tight. “But I like it,” she quickly adds.
He opens his lips twice but closes them. Between them, a palpable distance, a phone cord’s length of air, impassible.
Mara Grayson is a PhD candidate in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a full-time faculty member at Pace University. Her stories, essays and poems have appeared in Fiction, Construction, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and Teaching English in the Two-Year College, among other publications. Mara was formerly a staff writer and theatre critic for Show Business Weekly.