My hair is spiked up to one side and I can’t tell if it’s the wind or Her fingers that have been running it through. I try and pat it into place, the taste of Her lips still on mine, but it stands up, as vivid of a reminder as the aroma t...
My hair is spiked up to one side and I can’t tell if it’s the wind or Her fingers that have been running it through. I try and pat it into place, the taste of Her lips still on mine, but it stands up, as vivid of a reminder as the aroma that fills the car.
I pull into place, mindful this time to shut the sunroof; no need for a repeat of the previous evening. My mind has to return to my work as does hers. Reality comes crashing in with the din of a rental bill and a new smartphone, no matter how wonderful those nights and days have been.
I step into my office: an ubiquitous coffee shop that is generally found about two or three blocks away from any major chain. The food is better, the service is better, and those strangely dressed mussy-haired cretins perched in front of their laptops actually seem to be working.
The lady at the till (thanks to Starbucks I can only think of them as “baristas”) takes my order and hands over the change, itself destined for the tip jar just beneath her overworked hand. The order is the same, the drink is the same. Most of the people are the same, including those lined up ahead and behind.
But it’s different this week. There’s something amiss in the air. Things are falling too quickly into place. While this has never been a burden to me—indeed, I actually prefer the chaotic to the tedious—the troubling sense I have is that of a turn. A direction I had not anticipated.
It is not only Her, but She is part of it. She is but one part in self-constructing puzzle.
If one has ever played a game like Tetris, say, where points are scored by a combination of construction and subsequent destruction of walls pitted against an ever-increasing falling speed of oddly shaped bricks, one understands the feeling of getting into the rhythm of the game, if even for a moment, where all the pieces that one needs fall into place and lift your score higher and higher—pitting the odds against you more and more quickly. Build correctly, however, and it all falls into place at a faster rate than you could anticipate.
Your subconscious mind takes over, the rhythms hypnotizing you into responding at a quicker rate than you ever could consciously—you are in that proverbial Zone, a performance X-factor.
That’s what this week is. She is that X-factor.
It was hardly surprising that we met, although the series could at best be described as Happy Accidents. She frequents behind the kinds of bars that I frequent in front of. It should be no surprise that we have a similar mind-set, I have often noticed the mind behind a certain look, and behind every bar that I have patronized more than twice, I have crossed paths with one whom I could easily call friend (granted, acquaintance may be more accurate, but I prefer “friend”). So we swap smokes and stories and before long the night has passed its zenith and the law takes over and we are ejected onto that street to ask each other and ourselves the common question between two such entwined minds.
To have two days thereafter whereby serendipitous alignment allows for a clear schedule is more than a little too perfect, and so that is how I know I am going to be paying in the long run for such unbridled indiscretion.
I have to watch my step as I wait for that other shoe. I have to keep an eye on sidelines and a hand on the ejector. I haven’t been down this particular highway before, but I am familiar with the weaves and folds of the type of terrain.
I clear all this from my mind with a few breaths and a cursory glance over my notes. I am settling more now into the rhythms of a terrain I am much more so familiar with: the recesses of my creative unconscious. It is remarkable how easily I can set Her aside in my mind and focus on that which matters. There is work to be done, and I have no trouble focusing on the task at hand.
The coffee is down to its last dregs now. Cold, gritty. The air-conditioning muffles the canned soft rock, the daily lineup long dissipated to one or two patrons at a time. Still busy, still cooking and still brewing. Time has passed unawares, my work has continued unabated.
Then the phone dings with a text message. Without looking I know who it has to be. I check the message:
no check. no answer. i need to cool down. meet u at the fox?
Looks like a half-day of work after all.
I pack up my things and slam the last gritty, cold dregs of the coffee in a masochistic effort to prove to baristas who have long since ceased to notice my existence that their efforts have not gone unappreciated.
On the way there, using God’s own transportation, I find it easy to continue my work in my head. The stories, the travails of people both real and imagined dot the mental landscape as I, for the first time since school, am conscious of looking both ways down the street, although it is a one-way street with a red-light crosswalk during the quietest time of day.
Mindful of any and every possibility: Everything has been too synchronous to not have a major repercussion at some point here. A cement truck barreling out of control the wrong way, a road-blind tourist in a minivan, a brief glance skyward to ensure there are no wayward asteroids or comets—all very realistic hazards at this point.
A block away from the Desert Fox. A brief glance at the side of the road. No gangland warriors, no mafia hitmen, no FBI agents who might have learned that I was in country and may have a few questions. More realistic hazards.
Into the doorway of the Desert Fox. She sits there at the head of the bar, the place usually reserved for locals and close friends of the staff. A purse to one side, a barstool with its back to the bar waiting for me on the other. She looks every much like Her self-described “Hot Mess.” She is staring at her phone but knows I’m about to sit down just before I do.
John Lee Hooker drawls from the Great Beyond with One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer. Two of three are lined up in front of her, an empty third glass before her as she sends a reply and sighs with relief as I sit down and rest my dogs. The phone is slapped down and the head rests, supported at the temple by those hands that have given my hair a stylish spike on one side not so long ago.
She apologizes for being such a Hot Mess. I tell her it’s no concern, that there is every reason to be stressed and wouldn’t it be great to move on, etc. etc…
Words are of little comfort. Action is what is needed. Rent is due. Phone bills are coming in. Food is paramount for both her and her cat. It occurs to me to mention that she could eat the cat, but I don’t think such humor would be so well received.
Another territory whose terrain is familiar: shutting up and letting her listen. Familiar, but not easy. I crack a few more jokes, lame and ineffective, until the scotch glass is pushed an inch in my direction. I drink scotch, I hate bourbon. Vise-versa for her. Obviously, she didn’t save her first drink to have with me, but I’m okay with that. I lift my glass in a salute to John Lee Hooker.
A sniff confirms what I suspected: Johnnie Walker Black. Not a shooting scotch. I don’t want to waste it so I sip it. I hadn’t bragged about my favorite, but it was the one I was drinking the night we met. She must have remembered that. I didn’t remember much of what she was drinking—here is a woman with a liver at least as well-preserved as my own.
A hand on her shoulder softens the knots that have reappeared. A head lands on my shoulder as she begins to give the details of the non-answers and non-payment she is wrestling with. In a land of rich tourists the servants are paid the least to look the best. The attitude of their immediate masters are cutthroat and ruthless. One small misstep and you are out pounding the pavement yet again. And then at a quarterly review you hear time and again how good staff are so hard to keep, how the turnover rate is so inconvenient, etc. etc…
It occurs to me that the Human Animal appears to exist upon a series of paradoxes. Our society is built upon trying time and again to keep employed and employing, while Forces Which Be dictate in a cosmically erratic manner which rules Do apply and which Do Not, and almost everywhere in this society one which Does Not is that a person should be paid for the amount of work that they do.
I feel a brush against my shoulder. I think nothing in the first split second until I hear a voice:
“You know she’s married, right?”
I can see him walking in my peripheral. I wait until he stops, as I know he will; cowardly predators always take those few steps and then turn to reassess the situation.
Matter-of-factly: “Yeah, I do.” I am sure he knows that I know who he is as well.
So here it is.
No mob, no truck, no asteroid.
What he doesn’t know is that not only do I know who he is, I know his mind more intimately than he could ever understand. The paperwork is not finished, so technically he is correct: legally she is still married.
I have been in his shoes. I have seen the world as he does. I have seen how I look to him. I know the assumptions, both at her and at me and ultimately at us. To him, I am a flavor of the month. To him, I am arm candy designed to mock him. To him, I am everything that is wrong with the world and proof that his marriage was a sham to begin with.
I know this so well because, at the nadir of my own existence, I was him. Trapped. Hurt. Wounded and with no help. Friends are split. Loyalties are divided. The hurt one, the angry one, lashes out and finds that his world is now barren. The grief is strong enough to be associated with PTSD, the emotions wild enough to cause the most irrational, almost murderous (and in some cases actually so) impulses. I know the shame of betrayal and, worse, the inability to receive comfort from any source. The quagmire where we find that we have no worthwhile friends to help us through because, oddly enough, those who were our friends prefer to talk to the one who is making sense and not baring their hurt to the world.
When he returns from the washroom with taunts that are directed from a seat down the bar (a demotion as far as I can tell, as he is next to some free-stylin’ window-washer with “SO-CAL” tattooed on both forearms) I offer him the dignity of one response:
“You don’t know who I am, you don’t know what world I am from, you know nothing about my life and my experiences. If you are smart, you will step off.”
His focus turns from me back to her. His taunts move from me and current events to her and the year previous. He must have heard at this stage that she had been suspended from work. He has probably guessed why, although the official story and the truth have very little in common.
When a sentient being is trapped in a corner, the survival instinct kicks in.
Her back straightens with resolve. She stands up and walks over to him. While this is happening, three of the regulars are looking at the three of us. I know where their loyalty lies. I know all I have to do is shut up and drink my scotch—slowly and carefully and pensively. My focus must be kept neutral, my ears must be kept open. I can’t hear what they are saying, but their tones say it all.
She is telling him to step off. He is trying to bring up the past. She is smoothing it over. His arguments are irrelevant. They are the undead, they are ghosts who will not believe their bodies have been long lain to rest. Her expressions have a rising action, a climatic point, and a denouement. His are the repetitions of a man who is so used to talking to himself that he is unaware that he is still doing so.
Violent notions, violent threats have no place in the Desert Fox; it is a quality dive. I don’t believe there was violence insinuated in the exchange, but I have been told it was not out of the question. Knowing how I would have felt had I the stupidity to follow my ex-wife around in the real world to her favorite hang-outs, it struck me as a real possibility.
But the three regulars have her back before I could move. I am the newcomer. I have already stated my case. I have already rendered any dispute between he and I redundant and entirely upon him. Friends will defend her before a new man will—they care for her and they will ensure nothing untoward goes down, as it were.
I sit and sip at the scotch.
She leaves him and returns to me.
The three locals return to their seats.
Her ex-husband and the free-stylin’ window washer leave together.
I try to rub the knots away from her shoulders, but it is going to take much more work than that. Probably much more time than we have together—
--and so the other shoe has dropped.