Friday, December 28, 2012

Yesteryou, Chapter 2


"Did you miss me?" Beth asked, sarcastically. But in fact, James had. They had just seen each other two hours earlier, for the smoke break they'd agreed to take together, and now she was back, wearing a sweater unfamiliar to him that looked like a patchwork quilt, and she was asking if he wanted to sit with her on one of the benches outside for lunch. She always drank a fountain soda from the food court and always steadily smoked on her lunch breaks, but she only sometimes ate. Yet she wasn't painfully skinny. She had just the softest suggestion of a double chin. When she looked down at a novel held in her lap, he saw the extra fold of fat reveal itself under her rather pointy chin, and it only made her face more beautiful.
She thought he looked like John Lennon only with dirty blonde hair, and all the little rips and stains and awkwardness that hung about him, signaling a deficiency of self-worth to the straight world, only attracted her more, the way the girl characters in Shangri-Las songs go for the bad boy, only not quite the same, because while there was some of the mythical bad boy to him, he also had a bad back and a tendency to whine sometimes. She really, really loved him. More than that. She was obsessed with him, to the point of being scared for herself. As she stood in front of him this day, he told her he had to work through lunch because of missing his bus that morning, which made him get to work late.

"But you know what we should do sometime?" he asked, having planned to make this suggestion for weeks, "We should grab a drink after work one of these days, maybe at Bluejay's," which was a locally famous bar across the street from the library where they worked, in downtown Los Angeles--the bar was decorated in vividly colored Chinese themes inside with a light that cast pretty shadows across the drinkers' faces, and the owner, who tended bar, was what people call "a character," someone who'd "been around forever."

"Sure," Beth said, inwardly thrilling, "that sounds great."

"Really? Okay, when should we do it?"

"How about today?" She was giving herself a stomach ache from the stress of pushing the invitation like this, and from smoking more that she usually did while they talked, but it seemed like there'd be a time in the future now when she would know that he was hers and there would be no more stomach aches, no more need to solidify plans with him with a desperate worry at the back of her consciousness, dreading the possibility that he would cancel. By the time her work day was finally over and she was taking the elevator to the floor he worked on, she'd thrown up twice, retching quietly in the bathroom stall, waiting for the patrons to leave the bathroom so she could be sick in peace.

Most women Beth's age wore jeans and t-shirts and let their hair grow long and hang loose. But Beth had liked, since she was a teenager, how women look when they've put most of their hair up in a loose bun, so only a few wisps of it curl about their face, and women who adorn themselves with interesting pieces of jewelry, and when she grew up, that was how she made herself look. James thought of her look as sort of bohemian and timelessly feminine.

She was one of those people who believe they are cursed, and there did seem to be some truth to it.

Sometimes, when she got really upset, she hugged herself and rocked back and forth. In late middle age the thought would occur to her that, more than once, she'd observed mentally retarded children soothe themselves in this way as well, and this realization would make her feel hopelessly, almost tenderly but at the last second cruelly, sorry for herself.

In time she would come to hug and rock herself plenty on James's account, and, once or twice, on Richard's account, but less so, though Richard would become her husband and by all rights the man she should love most. The rocking motion approximated the comfort in the "shhh" sound of the ocean or of wind through the leaves of trees. Rocking herself was the comfort of feeling autumn's crispness after a summer so hot it raised little bumps of heat rash on the insides of her soft thighs, from the combination of sweat and friction as they rubbed together under her skirt when she walked.

Try rocking yourself right now, where you sit.

She was only 22 when she started working at the library where she met James, but already at this young age she sometimes got the Yesteryou blues about the inevitability of aging. She could take a drink or a toke to feel light-hearted, or pull some strands loose from her bun so that they fell along the sides of her face, to feel pretty, but there was no trick she knew to perceive the world the way she had perceived it when she was a teenager. Only, this one and only date with James, at the Bluejay Bar, came close to that delicious nervousness of the fun nights of her youth.

He met her on the steps by the tiled fountain in front of the library, and told her, "You look different somehow." And she said, "Thanks."
And when they got to the bar, he said, "Looks like Jay is wearing his Chinese Eagles shirt," familiarly, though he'd never been inside the bar before, only heard about it from their co-workers, who said that Jay loved the rock group The Eagles, and almost always wore a band shirt for the Eagles, the text written in Chinese characters.

And she said, "I don't like The Eagles," smiling as she stared at a space to the left of James's ear, too nervous to meet his eyes. They found a booth at the back of the small bar and they sat there talking and drinking for four hours, with his left leg pressed against her right leg after the first hour. She could feel the beat of her pulse in her throbbing crotch. As they sat there talking, he told her all the things about his life that she'd already learned from talking about him with her good friend Alice, who had a friend that worked in his department. "He's been married before, and my friend saw a picture of his ex-wife. Guess what? She sort of looks like you! You must be his type," Alice told her. Beth loved to spend the night at Alice's apartment in Hollywood on Friday nights, and always had to hide her excitement when accepting Alice's invitations. They both loved to watch the actions of Alice's cats and to order a pizza to be delivered, and then to watch the Late Show with David Letterman. Meanwhile, right outside the building, other women were walking around in their favorite dress-up clothes, trying to have as much fun being out in the night and talking to people as the amount of fun they imagined famous people to have. Alice and Beth both knew it was an odd thing to have these slumber parties, but Beth reasoned that if she had been one of those girls lucky enough to have gone away from home to attend college, she'd probably have been assigned by the college to share a dorm room with another girl who she'd end up eating pizza with and watching TV at night with, anyway. So the deliciously comfortable Friday nights at Alice's were her right as a young woman, and her consolation for not being born into a life where it was possible to go to college. The Friday before this date with James, Alice told her, "I think he really likes you, Beth, I do," and now, yes, there was no doubt, he did.

A group of five of their co-workers came in when Beth and James had been there an hour. One of the men in the group, meaning no harm, but not knowing how Beth, when uncomfortable, was bewildered by jokes, teased her. "Hey, I thought you were a nun," he said, at which she blushed, her mouth poised to say something it would never say, struggling with whether this was a joke about her seriousness (should she say something light in response?), or whether there truly was a rumor that she was a nun.

"God, I hope you're not a nun," James whispered in her ear, and when he brought his face far enough from hers for her to see it, her breath caught in her throat from the shock of how handsome he was, even this close, and how intently he was looking at her.

She would call what she felt for him love, even though they did not become lovers, because what she felt was so strong, it could not be anything else. She loved everything about him. Later, whether it was true or not, she would believe that she remembered many of their early conversations verbatim. And later still, when he was married to a women she'd never met, this caused Beth her first fit of -- what was it, hysteria, some other kind of uncharted constellation of grief? -- she called him several times a week, tormented with lovelorn grief, and thinking to herself, "I should be in a hospital," and "I want to die.” During these conversations, she wrote down much of what was said between them, with the shorthand method she'd learned in high school. In these talks, he said the same things often: "Beth, you have to calm down" and "You have to stop calling me like this."

Why is calmness so important?, she wanted to know.

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