The bar is small with a low black ceiling and a cement floor lit by red lightbulbs. “I Fall to Pieces” plays as she walks in.
He wears a black T-shirt with a picture of a gold toad on it and the word “TOAD” in gold letters underneath.
It’s funny, she thinks, what seeing a person out of context will do. She remembers his words at the meeting the other night: I’m a sucker for silk. For lace. Stiletto heels. I like to feel them scrape along my back. His obsessions were creepy, but she realized they were all there for something similar.
They often said in the group that we discover—sometimes for the first time—how much we have in common with people who seem totally different from ourselves. She doesn’t buy the closing words: You’ll come to love us in a special way—the way we already love you, but she needs something to hold on to, a connection. She doesn’t use the word loneliness. In fact, she’s careful never to use it. But sometimes she wonders if it’s like a toad trying to hide its bumps. A losing battle, that is. Something is missing; she feels a faint draft lifting the hair that falls along her neck. She hangs out, waiting for a piece to come and magically snap into place; make the empty feeling go away for a while.
“You look like you’re waiting for someone,” he says.
Not you, she thinks, but she says, “I came for the open mic.”
“Is your real name Dakota? That doesn’t sound like a real name, unless you’re an Indian. Did you hear that joke? Well, it’s not really a joke; about the guy who used to be in a band called the Injun Chiefs; now they call it the Native American CEOs.”
“Ha, ha,” she says flatly, twirling a strand of dark hair around her finger.
She often reads poems at the open mic. She’s working on a series: Parabola Poems. They ascend but then fall dramatically like so much in life.
She knows they’ll end up in bed. Now that they’ve run into each other like this, outside of their usual meeting. Outside of the anonymous group they attend—sometimes two or three times a week.
“Beth. My younger sister, Beth, got married today,” she tells him. She looks at the luminescent numbers on her phone. It’s already past midnight. It’s too late to do anything about it.
She doesn’t say anything about why it upsets her, or why she wasn’t there for the wedding. She’s glad to be with him; it distracts her.
“In real life I sell things,” he says. “Mostly binoculars, cameras, even telescopes. I’m Rob. Well, you already know that. But Rose is the last name.”
The country music stops abruptly, and a jazz trio sets up at the back of the bar. Their music is discordant. The poet who accompanies them isn’t very good.
She watches Rob as he scans the scene. He cranes his neck and squints. If he had binoculars he’d probably be trying to look into the back room.
“I’m not staying to hear this,” she says. “Are you?”
“I could leave any minute.”
I want to stop myself, but I can’t, he would often say in the meetings.
Now he opens the bag of potato chips he’s holding and digs in.
“Your place?” she asks as he looks toward the door and then adds: “I didn’t mean to answer the question before you asked it.”
She walks out with him and feels him touching her with his eyes. By the time they reach his place, she wonders if they even need to have sex. She’s regretting the whole thing. But they’re moving that way, and she can’t stop.
Beth married a man a lot like their father. The kind of person who likes to snap flowers and twigs off branches.
While they were growing up, their father watched them both with the intensity of a hawk. As soon as she could, she moved across the country. Beth stayed.
They walk up the winding stairs to his apartment. She feels the air between them pulsing with chaotic atoms. Her breath comes quicker.
“I don’t have fancy sheets or nothing,” he apologizes.
They skip the formalities. He doesn’t offer her a drink or ask her to look at his art books.
“We met at a meeting. We shouldn’t be doing this. It’s not good program,” she says, unrolling her black lace pantyhose.
“We can talk about it. But everyone has slips. You know, like having a cigarette or a drink,” he says. “I mean, we could spend all our time beating ourselves up about it, but what good would it do?”
His bed smells of smoke and peanut butter. When she kisses his lips, they feel like a toad’s dry, bumpy skin.
“What are those bumps on your lips?”
“Are you afraid I have a disease or something?”
“Just wear this,” she says and throws a condom across the bed. It lands on his stomach like a flying saucer.
He’s already hard. When she touches him, he shudders and bends toward her.
For a moment, she can forget how all along the edges her life unravels and feels flat. Like a stale ginger ale. Something you can’t put the bubbles back into.
She imagines the peonies back home that never opened—shriveled into hard balls covered with tiny ants. Her hair is like black lacquer shining. Her lips are stained pomegranate.
Most days she drifts. Rarely remembers her childhood. But beneath that forgetfulness is an anger always about to strike—the way she saw her father lash out over a lost key, misspelled word, any small thing—forgotten or never found, done wrong.
She feels Rob’s body coiled tight. Something that could fly apart if it was touched the wrong way.
He kisses her everywhere, like he’s kissing some rare and precious vase—but as he enters her, she feels his woundedness. He’s inside her like a mismatched shape. His fingernail scrapes her back. She shifts away in his arms to try to get him at the right angle, but it only gets worse. He’s huffing and puffing on top of her, and she tries to close her eyes tighter and pull him into her so she can’t feel anything else. They both keep trying to reach for a place that can be held. Again and again, it slips away.
“It’s good,” he says, but she knows he’s lying. “You’re quite a woman.” It sounds false, and she laughs nervously before she knows what she’s doing.
“It’s not a joke,” he says as if startled by her laughter. He grips her shoulder, and she feels him begin to shrivel inside her.
“See what you did,” he says.
She can’t stop laughing. It bubbles up, won’t stop.
In the midst of her uncontrollable paroxysm, she realizes it’s finished. Beth is no longer just Beth. Hasn’t been Beth in a long time.
Suddenly, she remembers a party her parents had. Her father greeting everyone, glass in hand, his mouth loose and his cigarette between his long fingers. Later, from the second-floor landing, she followed the glowing tip of his cigarette as he carried Beth to bed in the downstairs bedroom.
This won’t work, she thought, looking up at Rob. A bead of sweat on his forehead wobbles, about to drop on her.
“What are you laughing at?” She doesn’t say anything. “Oh, fuck, just forget it all,” he says. His hands tighten along her shoulder.
She whispers to him: “It’s nothing.”
It’s almost light. The sky is the color of watery milk outside his dirty windows.
“I’ve got one hand on top of the wheel,” he says, “and I don’t like what I see.”
She pretends to understand what he’s talking about but has no idea. His right hand moves up and strokes her neck. Gentle, at first.
“You think you’re so cool,” he sneers, tightening his fingers along her throat. “You and your Parabola Poems.” He spits the words at her.
She thinks this is beginning to remind her of driving when a guy cuts you off—or worse.
Dawn crashes in on them with the knocking and hiss of steam from the radiators.
“Listen,” she says, “let’s have some breakfast. And call it a night.”
“I don’t have breakfast. I have Pop-Tarts.”
“No sweat. I love Pop-Tarts. Especially ones with frosting. Oh, I guess they all have frosting, don’t they?” She tries to sound casual. His hand softens around her neck. She rises, slowly. Doesn’t want to startle him.
“Well, I guess maybe it’s not a great idea this happened,” he says. He gets up but doesn’t put on his clothes. She wriggles into her skirt and throws her sweater on. She balls up her pantyhose. He shoves her toward the kitchen. She feels his tension ease up and tighten, ease up and tighten.
“It is what it is,” she says and looks at the Pop-Tart he takes from the fridge. Blueberry with frosting. She told him she likes them but really hates them.
She picks up the Pop-Tart and then puts it down.
“What’s wrong now?”
She glances at the window and realizes it’s two stories down to the street.
“Eat it,” he says.
“I’m not hungry.”
“So, what difference does that make?”
He licks frosting off a Pop-Tart and grins.
It’s familiar—the scene. She knows they will both be left with a sick, slimy feeling afterward. Something no amount of showering can cleanse. Something they will talk about in meetings and try to expunge for weeks. Maybe months. Sometimes you carry it with you for a lifetime, she realizes. No matter what you do or don’t do.
She takes a bite. She’s afraid she’ll be sick, but she keeps chewing. She remembers thinking she knew him. How much we have in common with people who seem totally different from ourselves…
“Why won’t you come to my wedding?” Beth asked her.
“Because he’s giving you away. Like you’re his to give. Because you’re letting him. Because you never confronted him. Pretended it never happened.”
“And look at your fucked-up life,” Beth said. “Are you supposed to be a role model?”
“Get out,” he lashes out suddenly, jerking his head toward the door that he’s flung open. She looks at him through a blur or tears that have suddenly filled her eyes. His eyes move along the wall. Dart down her body.
She stuffs the lace pantyhose in her pocketbook. Tries to avoid looking at his naked body as he leans against the door. Two flights down. Beth, she thinks. They grew up on a prairie. The wind whooshing through the trees between their house and the pole barn and broken-down sheds and outbuildings. Funny, what she did to try to get rid of that sound. The sound of wind.
She wants to careen down the stairs two by two. But slowly, deliberately, her hand clutching the banister, she descends. Reaches for the doorknob. In the street, huge snowflakes fall on her hair, on her cheek. At the corner, a light in the diner comes on.