And it was as if he’d woken up swimming: first aware of words in effortless rhythm, seizing on recognizing his own voice, buoyancy lost he’d sunk into his silent clumsy self. He’s at a barbecue in a North-side courtyard talking to a woman he doesn’t know. She’s wearing a sweat-damped polo shirt, and he doesn’t want to falter. A silent beat more and she passes him a bottle, a liquor cabinet-sized bottle of whiskey, which he swigs shallowly and passes back. Really great luck, really, finding her on a day that had started with typical headache and nausea. It doesn’t matter that he’s forgotten her name, he’s sure he’ll go home with her. He’d never sleep with her: he will go home with her in order to refrain.
She offers him the bottle again, but as he reaches for it she snaps it to her own mouth, turning it upside-down. Whiskey splashes through the bottleneck like dirty sunlight behind a row of buildings. She offers him the empty and laughs. Her laughter resembles braying, her open mouth pointed at him, and it is dusk. He will go home with her.
The litmus moment outside. A stairwell spoiled with cooking smells. A double-locked door into a darkened room. A non-sense offer of a glass of water. They’ll hack through the domestic undergrowth covering her bed: eye pencils, phone bills, tangled tights and a laptop. Slurred fingers and genital mouths – he will stop. The image is so clear he’s sure it will happen.
He’d come to the barbecue alone with two six packs, and he’d rung at the front, waited, then rung again before seeing a handwritten sign saying to come around back, which he should have known anyway, because barbecues by necessity happen outdoors and, if you listened, you could hear chatter. He was sweating, his ears and eyes put objects at contradictory distances, an infinite volume of loose change had spilled from his pocket in the liquor store, and his voice seemed to echo in his skull before leaving his mouth.
The courtyard was a crowded, bright square of grass bounded betweens buildings and the alley. Bean bags were thrown in slow arcs and landed loudly in plums of dust. An overweight, yellow Labrador went from person to person, forcing his nose between legs while wagging sycophantically. Beer cans were tucked around the keg in its tub of ice.
He worked at restoring himself. Mechanically he mouthed a burger. The gummy, white-bread bun clogged his throat. Light-headed, not quite choking, he opened a beer and took a dislodging swallow. He finished the beer, and then he felt better. He’d spotted her – Or were they introduced? Horse flies were hungry for black, blistered hotdogs and splattered mustard. He and her didn’t know anyone and they talked about that, how they hated that. From a patch of shade they watched the grill send smoke through the wood beam back porch. Strangers stuffed paper plates into a trash bag. Bees buzzed beer bottles. The first time she pulled that full-sized whiskey bottle out of her purse it was a third empty.
“I’m sure I already shared it with someone,” she said.
The image of taking her home is clear that is is more a like a premonition. Why? he wonders. He suspects that you can remember important events in your life before they happen. Meeting her, going home with her, not sleeping with her, this is an important decision. When he finds that she lives with hostile roommates, who are sick of the sex-inclined strangers she brings inside their apartment, he’ll be sure he’s doing the right thing. Is that who she is? Is that how she lives? She’s only somewhat present behind her eyes. He thinks to himself, “so this is how my own eyes have looked so many times, eager but wet, distant but hungry, violent yet weak.” That night he’ll be different, cognizant and deliberate. A wedge of streetlight or moonlight, pale and at a slant, will scatter off the row of bottles she keeps on her windowsill. She’ll tell him to come on. She’ll want to know why he’s just standing there. Why the hell was he wasting her time all night? Unless you got me here and now there’s something wrong with me? Asshole. Shortly she’ll pass out. He’ll leave her room but not the apartment. It’s because he can’t picture being there in the morning that he will stay. He will wake up early with a clear head, and he’ll discover, with some remorse for his own lost time, just how many morning hours it takes to sleep it off. He’ll watch her find him. What face will she make when she finds a guy who did a good thing? Not without shame, he’s aroused by her appreciation.
Dark now, they’re still talking in the courtyard. Tiki torches burn at intervals along the fence. Someone must have walked right by them to light the torches and how this happened without him noticing is a mystery. He’s fallen silent again. A night breeze makes synchronous wavers in the tiki flames.
“So when did you move to – ”
“You just asked that.”
“Clearly you don’t care. What are you really curious about?”
Her face is allusive by torch light, and from moment to moment she becomes a fresh stranger. Blue, iris or eye shadow. Red, lips or her forehead’s greased speckles. She grabs his blazer by a button hole and pulls towards the gate.
“Maybe you’ll be more interesting alone.”
They leave into the alley. Gnats swarm a buzzing streetlight. She has made herself so vulnerable; there are so many shadows and nobody around. He won’t bludgeon her with an empty bottle, he won’t tear tights from twitching legs to garrote her among the recycling bins – but how does she know that? They talk and talk, although he’s as unaware of her words as he is of his own. She really needs a good guy.
The image is so clear. In the morning he’ll present himself. She might be angry – no one ever wants to find a stranger on the couch. But she must take better care of herself and he’s probably the only one who sees that, or who still cares to persuade her, because it’s clear from the way she slings whiskey and pulls strangers into the alley that she doesn’t believe in real danger. A worse person than him could’ve been at that barbecue. The night is significant and good because he is being good to her. He is swimming.
They find a dive that doesn’t care about the city’s smoking ban. They scratch a pool table and bang cue butts into the wall while trying to play a game. For an awkward shot, she foregoes the bridge and hops onto the table, her bottom softly spreading to fill an inelastic skirt. The bartender yells for her to get off, but in a way she must think is flirty she tells him to make her. The bartender doesn’t answer and she hops down. His cue traces sloppy circles and he has difficulty bringing it to rest on his left hand.
“Switch to water,” she says, laughing, “if your stick is getting wobbly.”
Doesn’t she know that her joke is just the sort of thing that re-assures a date-rapist that he’s chosen just the right girl? She must not realize he’s looking out for her. He finishes his beer with a defiant swig and orders another. His next shot is hard and wild.
He will become her friend, inviting her to plays and to go used-book shopping. They’ll walk out of movie theaters into warm dark evenings. They won’t drink. They’ll smoke less. It will be entirely platonic. It’ll be hard for him to break his habits and to controls his moods – a raging nicotine craving, the gnawing energy of a sober Friday night – but it’s important that he be the strong one.
“What are you thinking about,” she’ll ask as they walk circles in an empty park at night. Faintly, a bottle rocket will sing and pop.
“Trying not to thinking about it.”
“Isn’t that a bitch?”
She’ll take his hand and she’ll run her thumb along the grooves of his finger bones, and for awhile it’ll break up his thoughts.
A certain weight will disappear. Their cheeks will grow elastic and healthy. Breathing will be easy and plush. They’ll talk in the present tense because memory holds all temptations and they cannot picture a future without regression. They will come to talk with each other in the daylight in the manner of nude moments before dawn. In the fall they will talk about vague urge to return to college.
She’ll say, “But it’s not just missing the friends.” They’ll kick through a pile of leaves as he considers an answer. He’s wearing a knit hat and his hands are slung in his pockets. Her arm is intertwined with his.
He’ll answer, “I do miss them, but you’re right, it’s something else.”
The trees will be dense with red and yellow and the ground covered with leaves so colorful that it is like walking through shattered stained-glass. They’ll find a bench with pealing green paint. He’ll brush off a place for them. The wood is cold when they sit down and they’ll press against warm one another.
She’ll say, “I haven’t learned anything in years.”
“I think it’s the structured progress, square by square, like a board game.”
“It’s funny, because I miss it so much, but at the time I’m sure I was miserable.”
But then something will happen. A few words that were supposed to mean something small and specific will become a lot of words about something important, amorphous and large. She’ll yell. She’ll accuse him of trying to change her, and she’ll tell him how repulsive, condescending, unnecessary that is. “I can’t stand that you think I have something wrong with me.” They won’t see each other after that. He’ll think of this night, the night they met, and wonder if she’s stumbling around with another stranger, and he’ll wonder if this stranger will act as responsibly as him – impossible. Jealous and restless, his calls will go straight to voicemail. He’ll work himself into blacking out, and his headache the next morning will only be understood as longing for her. But then they’ll find each other, they’ll drink together and, for the first time, make love. By winter, their habits will return as tendencies towards one another. There’ll be no changing things then, it will be glass after glass, night after night. They’ll give into what they both want and it will be right.
He can picture it so clearly that he hardly feels himself on top of her. They roll, and now she’s on top of him.
Later they’re still. The air in her studio apartment (How had he not noticed this earlier?) is sour and rough with cat piss. It’s hot in there. A single window opens to a stagnant air shaft. She points to his shoes. He is exhausted and dizzy, standing at her door. She’s fallen asleep and the image is still so clear. None of it will happen and he’s angry that he can see it so clearly. She’d sabotaged him; this is her fault.
Soaking in the kitchen sink, which is not more than five feet from her futon, there is a cast iron pan. On its face is the burnt shape of whatever she cooked last. She snores loudly. The pan is heavier than expected. It would take both arms to swing it. He can picture it so clearly. He wraps one hand around the other on the handle. He takes a step forward.
Brown water rolls down his elbow. He notices again how filthy her place is.
He returns the pan to the sink and starts scrubbing. The plastic dish-soap bottle gives exhausted spittle. Sweat stains his shirt by the time he’s finished. He sets the pan in the empty drying rack. He looks at her once more. She is snoring. He leaves quietly.