So we went on a date. April caught me after work and asked if I wanted to buy her a drink. She gave me directions to a place she knew. “Turn right here,” she said. “Left up there.” She used her unlit cigarette as a pointer. She said she liked my car. It’s a ’69 Olds that belonged to my father, and he took good care of it. Change the oil every three months, he told me, wash it every other week, catch all the rust spots before they spread—do that and a car will last forever. That’s what my father taught me. April said that’s a good tradition to have, keeping the family car in shape.
The bar we went to was on a frontage road that looped north of the airport. It reminded me of every other bar I’d ever been in, with carved-up tables and wobbly chairs and ratty loveseats against the wall. There were TVs mounted in the ceiling corners, all of them on, and a jukebox going, and people hooting around the pool tables in the back. And there was the smell of the place. I read somewhere that smell is the most primitive of the senses, that it can trigger memory more strongly and deeply than any other sense. This bar had that smell, and it all came back to me. You can say I still have a nostalgia for these places. I was a different person back then. But just because you change your life doesn’t mean you don’t miss things. I miss things.
We sat at the bar, and the guy behind it knew April by name, and gave her the usual, a vodka gimlet. I had orange juice. I wanted a beer. I admit that. But I didn’t have any beer that night. Beer had nothing to do with it.
She handed her cigarettes to me and told me to ration her. “I’m cutting down,” she said. And then she just started telling me things—where she was born, where her folks were born, what they did for a living. She had three sisters and two brothers, and she told me what they all did for a living. Some of what she said I never would have guessed. She was married once. She called her ex-husband The Mistake. And she had a kid somewhere, which she never saw because The Mistake was such a dick. But she thought about the kid all the time. She was learning how to crochet, taking a class in it at the extension college. And she was a big reader, mysteries and true crime. “You know, crap,” she said. Then she ordered us another round, and said, “OK, your turn.” So I told her where I was born, where I went to high school. I told her about my folks being dead, and what I’ve done to the house, fixing it up. I didn’t have much else to say after that. But again, she didn’t seem to mind. She asked me a few questions—what did I do in high school, what did I do for fun. When I couldn’t answer, she just asked me for a cigarette instead, and held it out for me to light, and thanked me. The bar was getting busy. Everybody was coming up and saying hello to her. Her life seemed filled with people, crowded with them, and I wondered how she could stand it. She asked me what I read. I told her I didn’t read anything. I told her I didn’t like to read.
Then somebody shouted her name from the back, where the pool tables were. “Come on,” she said, “let’s play.” I told her to go ahead. “Come on,” she said again. “One game.” She put her hand on top of mine, and said she’d teach me. But I told her to go play pool, and I guess she got the way I said it because she held her hands up. “OK, OK,” she said.
There was a baseball game on the TV. I hadn’t seen one in a long time. There were two guys next to me watching it. Whenever anything happened, they hollered and banged their fists on the bar. One of them kept elbowing me accidentally and apologizing for it. Sure enough, he knocked my orange juice over. He apologized again and bought a round. He sent April’s drink to her. He told me that April was a great gal. I looked over at where she was, and when she got her drink she bowed to us, and me and the guy next to me waved back. I watched her back there. She was having a good time, getting drunk. They all were. I turned back to the TV.
After a while I felt something on my leg, and when I looked down I saw April’s hand, sitting there on my knee. She leaned on it and slid into her barstool. “I won,” she said. She leaned into me and laughed. Her hair was against my face. She was asking how we were doing, how things were going with us. I told her: Fine, things are fine. She was saying that she liked me, that she liked the shy ones. She was telling me this with her mouth next to my ear. I could feel her breath. I looked over at the drink she had put down on the bar. The glass was smeared with her lipstick, all around the rim and halfway down the side. It made me sick. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
So I told her about the guys making fun of her behind her back. She stiffened up, then pulled away to look at me. It was like she’d sobered up immediately, as if I’d just come into focus in front of her. “Tell me something I don’t know,” she said. I didn’t expect that, that she knew. I asked her how she could let them degrade her like that, how she could think so little of herself. “Why do you put up with it?” I asked her. And she smiled her little smile and said, “Same reason you do.” Then she grabbed her cigarettes and her drink and went back to play pool with her friends.
We didn’t talk anymore after that. I sat at the bar and waited for her to finish her game so we could get out of there. I watched TV. The baseball game was over. I don’t remember what was on after that. But I remember watching something, and drinking my orange juice, and eating the ice.
It was raining outside. The streetlights had just come on and you could see the drizzle swirling down around them. It had been in the seventies and clear a few hours ago, and now this. The weather was crazy that summer. There’d been a funnel cloud a few weeks before. I remember reading about it bouncing around the downtown area, blowing out windows and tipping over newspaper racks, trying to touch ground, they said, trying to become a tornado.
April was drunk, and walking wobbly. My car was a block or so up the street, and by this time it was the only one there. A chain-link fence separated it from an airfield. All the cargo companies were up here, and some of their planes were out, roaring around the tarmac, their lights flashing through the mist.
When we got in the car I asked her where she lived. She looked at me from her side of the front seat, all woozy, but giving me that look she gave me that day on the dock. She slid over toward me, and it seemed to take a while. The seats in an Olds are bench seats, and long, like sofas. When she finally got to me, she said my name and kissed me on the mouth. I admit that I let her. I let her because I’ve never heard my name said the way she was saying it, and because it’s been a long time since anybody’s touched me. Her mouth just slipped onto mine, and it was nothing like I’d imagined, and I let myself get all caught up in it, in this feeling that you’re part of a world with other people in it, and that you matter because somebody else seems to think you do. Her mouth was soft and warm. But it reeked of cigarettes and fruity lipstick, and when I opened my eyes there she was—April from work, with her face up against mine telling me how we were two of a kind, and how we needed to do something about that, her and me. She put her hand on my neck. I felt it hover there, small and light. I smacked it away and I gave her a shove. She ended up on her side of the seat, holding her hand like I’d hurt it. Who was she to say we were alike? There’s nothing of her in me. So I did something about it, about her and me. I pushed the seat back and got her down on it. She may have been yelling, but I’m not sure anymore, because it got really loud with the rain coming down hard and the planes outside roaring around like they were coming right on top of us. I kept one hand on her mouth and I started working down there with the other one until she stopped struggling, and she just lay there and let me finish. When I was done she eased out from under me and slid back to her side of the seat. She sat there for a minute with her head against the passenger window, like she was listening for something in the rain outside. It was really coming down now. And when she started putting herself back together, I told her to tell me where she lived.
She sat smoking her cigarettes the whole way. When we got to her apartment building I waited until she got inside OK. Then I cracked all the windows, to air out the car for the drive home. Then I drove home.
She was late the next morning. She came in with her wrist taped up. She told the guys she sprained it falling out of bed. They loved that. Nothing changes. She’s still friendly with them. She doesn’t talk to me anymore. For a while Dave was coming up to me, putting his arm around me, asking if the honeymoon was over, and if the bloom was off the rose.
She doesn’t talk to me anymore, but she doesn’t avoid me, either. At lunchtime she still comes in and out through the back lot and up the dock. I’m at my usual spot, and she’ll go up the steps, then stop and light a cigarette before going inside. She looks right at me the whole time.
So I eat my lunch in my car. It’s at the far end of the lot, back where the busted pallets are piled. From where I’m parked I can see her come in. I can see her walk past where I used to sit. My not being there doesn’t faze her at all. She just gets on with her life. When she’s gone I get out and grab a few minutes on the dock before going back to work, a few minutes of sun, at least, before it moves over the building, and then only until the fall. By early winter the sun’s too low, and doesn’t hit the dock at all.
I’ve started a new routine. On the weekends, I go up into the mountains for a long run. I stash water bottles in hiding places up there. I drive up and replenish them once a month. Above the tree line the roads end in cul-de-sacs, and from then on it’s nothing but fire trails that switchback through scrub and grass and rock. I take it easy getting up there, but once I hit the trailheads, I pour it on. I pound up that grade and I don’t ease up until I reach the plateau. I stop for water and keep going, and soon I hit my stride.
I go all day in those mountains. I’ve gotten lost up there. Sometimes I don’t get back until after nightfall, so depleted, so close to the brink that it takes everything I’ve got to just hang on and make it home. I’m weaving and staggering along, and I’m laughing. People have pulled over and gotten out of their cars to ask if I’m OK. They think there’s something wrong because sometimes I can’t stop laughing. But there’s nothing wrong. Sometimes that’s just how good I feel.
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