"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.
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
"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?"
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.