Wild Stabs at Love or Something Like it
A short story collection by Jessica Harman
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© Jessica Harman 2013
Edited by Frank Burton
Published by Philistine Press
The pool tables in the bar named after a Jean-Paul Sartre novel were bathed in red light. Their green velvet looked like a deep black. I perched on the edge of the smooth wood of one of these tables. The shot was difficult, but if I shot with the stick behind my back, maybe I could manage the yellow striped ball in the left corner pocket. I imagined the trajectory as if I was a sniper and my life depended on it.
Analyzing geometry was fun, but it wasn’t as much fun when you were trying to look beautiful. I knew I didn’t look beautiful yet, tonight. I hadn’t been able to switch on the light within me this evening. Everyone was feeling it. After all, Jimmy and Kevin were here with me because I had been so beautiful on the train, and at dinner, and now here I was looking like a facecloth on the floor. I was playing pool badly, to boot.
The reason I wasn’t looking beautiful was because I was too nervous to look beautiful. A little voice within me was saying, “You’re not it. You’re not it.” And “it” meant beautiful. When I was relaxed, it came almost naturally. I still had to pump myself up a little bit. I’ve learned that if you pretend you use really expensive four-hundred dollar face cream, it’s just as good as using the real thing. Mind over matter.
“Do you guys believe in Mind over Matter?” I asked suddenly, as I was perching my ass in tight black denim on the edge.
There was a three-second pause.
“I guess,” said Kevin.
Jimmy said, “It can work, I suppose.”
I remember around the antebellum mahogany table with a turkey in a state of being carved, the suburban Virginia darkness outside the picture window glistening a little in the rain in the darkness, my brother said, “Jodi Foster says beautiful isn’t something she is. It’s something she does.” I’ve always remembered that, and my brother gazing into the turkey as if it were a crystal ball telling him that one day he would meet Jodi Foster, though he would not.
That was when I talked to my mom and stepfather. That was back when my brother would talk to me.
I prayed a little bit as I pointed my cue stick at the white ball. I felt Jimmy’s eyes on me. In a moment when I wanted choirs of angels around me, but felt they weren’t there, I took my shot, and missed.
I wanted to sink into the black wallpaper of Nausea, this cool bar, but of course that’s impossible.
I slid my ass in my tight black jeans off of the pool table’s edge, to give him room. His grunge hair fell in twirling locks that verged on dreads. He was the kind of guy I dated in high school, not so long ago, who smoked pot but was still really good at math. Of course I couldn’t ask him if he smoked pot, but he did smell of patchouli, which I took as a clue. He reminded me of a cowboy but without the hat, horses, or cows, and with dreadlocks starting to form. He had large hairy nostrils. This was one of the reasons why I didn’t find him to be good-looking, which is why I was trying to get Jimmy instead. Also, Kevin was tall, and I never like to be into guys who I feel could pound me into the earth. I like to have a leg up on them: I liked the shorter guys, the skinny ones.
I studied Kevin’s features, almost too big for his face in a roundish way, as he walked around the pool table, deciding what to do.
He got a blue solid ball in.
Jimmy began walking around the table. I liked Jimmy’s scarecrow thinness and pointy nose. He looked like a poet-lover-boy in a beret, back in Paris in the day, though he couldn’t really speak French (whenever we came in contact with someone who only spoke French, like that waitress at The Shed Café, they called upon my shaky expertise, which might have been shaky, but was still there, nonetheless). Jimmy was on my team: the two of us against Kevin as we oscillated turns.
I wondered if Jimmy was fixated on me secretly. I wasn’t at my best tonight. He said something to Kevin and they laughed, but I couldn’t hear, because a Metallica song started playing on the sound system. I wondered why there was heavy metal in a punk bar, but I suppose there’s some cross over.
I went through the motions of the game. What was at stake? Coolness. Being desirable. I was young, only twenty-one, and I wanted to make some memories I could keep. I remember once meeting a sorority girl, who said her main goal was making memories she could have after she graduated, then got old. It was lame, I knew, but I thought much the same thing. The memories I made were in a bar named Nausea, though, instead of at rugby matches.
What was also at stake was whether or not I could sleep with Jimmy. It meant something to me. I didn’t want to marry him or anything. It was a sense of fate that was driving me, nonetheless. We had something we needed to tell each other, or learn from each other, or exchange, so that we could possess that, and go on to the next thing.
After our game of pool, which Kevin won, we sat at a table in the back of the bar, on a raised platform. We ordered a pitcher of beer from a waitress with a retro blonde beehive, which was certainly outrageous in a punk bar. Fifties in a punk bar? That takes guts. Her big smile broke my heart. I couldn’t imagine smiling at people all night. In fact, I don’t think I’d smiled much this evening.
“Ten dollars,” she said.
I didn’t have much money, but I was still able to contribute to the pitcher without being a mooch. I produced a blue five dollar bill from my wallet and put it on the table, where Kevin also put some money, and Jimmy was good for the tip (he bought the previous pitcher all on his own).
I was the kind of feminist who didn’t want guys to pay for me.
I was the kind of feminist who was confused. My body was mine, I knew that. I could take it back from society. And do what? The world hungered for me as I hungered for it. I knew there’d be a time in the future when both of these things would be true. This is what it was to be alive, just sitting in Nausea with Kevin, the unattractive big grunge dude, on one side of me, and Jimmy, the thin rocker with long black hair who wore Drakar Noir, on the other side of me.
Jimmy made me want to climb a tree and jump off it, pretending I was a bird or an angel. Maybe I could fly. He made me want to be an airplane or a rocket ship going to Mars. It would be great to go to Mars. All that red soil to play in. Who knows? Anything’s possible. He made me want to forget who I was and just be silly. We had not reached that stage in our relationship where silliness was allowed, though, and I wondered if we ever would. We wouldn’t have time, though, I knew. He lived in a different city and was just visiting his Dad who lived in Montreal. Within a week, Jimmy would be back on the train to Virginia.
The city was as sad as a weeping willow in autumn. Reflections in store windows looked like the soft branches of a willow sweeping a blue pool of water, just barely choppy with waves. I saw maps of sad unknown states of mind coagulate and converge and then dissipate when I looked at glass while cars were going by in the streets. I looked around me as the three of us wandered down St. Catherine Street with its expensive Canadian clothing stores and cafés.
The city was a bit of a wind tunnel, too. We could not escape its grayness, even though the three of us smiled a lot at each other, perhaps a little awkwardly. Sometimes we just looked at each other in wonder, lost in our own lives, as if the meaning of life was perhaps lost on us. We knew it, too. We walked side by side downtown after getting coffee at a small café called “Calories,” and I wanted to take Jimmy’s hand, but knew better. Something just told me not to.
We walked to the mall on Rue Ste. Catherine, called Le Faubourg, again, where the crêperie was, making sweet-smelling confections next to the Arabic place that served mint tea in Styrofoam cups, in which real mint sprigs were steeping.
There were kiosks of restaurants, much like a food court except it was a hallway. You got your food at a kiosk in the hallway then sat at one of the seating areas, which were also long. Montreal dealt with space differently than an American place. It was less convenient, but in the end, it worked out.
Soon, Kevin, Jimmy, and I sat in the food court’s oblong table section again, eating crepes. There was a wall made of windows that looked out onto St. Catherine Street, and we could people-watch while we twirled whipped cream and maple syrup into our mouths.
Jimmy opened his wallet to reveal the Canadian money that his Dad gave him, which was good for him to spend on us, here in Montreal.
He said, “Monopoly money,” which offended me. My country’s money is not part of a game. Well, maybe it is. We’re part of Americas’ big game of Monopoly. It made me sad and angry, at Jimmy, in particular, for making me think these things and feel ashamed at the truth. Maybe I was angry at Jimmy for making me think a lot of things, or maybe I was grateful to him. It was hard to tell exactly what he made me feel and why, and this is what drew me to him.
The crepes we were eating were filled with strawberries with whipped cream and maple syrup. As I put a bite in my mouth with the plastic fork, I thought for a moment that this was heaven. The company of my newfound friends who I met on the train and a good breakfast after a night at Nausea playing pool was all you could really ask of life. I knew it was all downhill from here. The sunlight came in the window of the food court at a certain angle, and I didn’t know what to say to sound interesting, so I fake laughed at Jimmy’s bad joke about Monopoly money. It struck me that that’s how you played the game even if you were nervous. Why I was, I don’t know.
“I’m having fun with you guys here,” I said, then realized that was rather a dorky thing to say.
They both kept eating, but did glance up and nod as if to say a sort of “yes.”
Jimmy, Kevin, and I were going up in the elevator of Jimmy’s Dad’s building. I noticed there was no 13th floor, just 12 and 14. Musing on this, I stood between my two new friends. They were my warm-blooded American friends, who were shivering in this cold.
Kevin looked like a big loveable Sesame Street character with his wild hair. I didn’t know if this was on purpose. I kept noticing his hair throughout our visit, because it disturbed me. He didn’t do anything with it. He didn’t care. His hair said, “I don’t care.” Later in life I would learn that this was a feeling for things, a deep feeling for the irrelevance of American capitalism. But back then, when I was riding in the elevator snug between Jimmy and Kevin, it was Jimmy who looked like some sort of gothic rock star medicine man who I wanted. He was clean shaven. His long black hair was combed. I was in love. I wanted to find words for this love, but I looked over at him and no words popped into my mind. I couldn’t tell him anything. Really, I had nothing to say. Desire sometimes has no words – it’s all intuition and the scent of blood, or the scent of Drakar Noir, which Jimmy was wearing.
I thought it would be amusing if the elevator got stuck, and we were the last people on earth. I would have to choose who I would repopulate the earth with: Jimmy or Kevin. As the elevator went up to the nineteenth floor, I watched the numbers above the elevator door illuminate. I looked at that light like an idiot, even though I felt like I should be entertaining my friends with witticisms from Jane Austen novels or something. I felt like I should be literary and alluring. But I wasn’t. I just couldn’t find words.
That’s when the elevator stalled.
I gave out a little yelp. Neither friend looked at me: they just kept looking straight ahead.
The doors opened and a lady with white hair dyed red walked on—her roots showed. She had a toy poodle in her large patent leather purse. She wore comfortable old-people shoes, unlike my boots with high heels.
I realized then that we were just at a floor, and we had not stalled. Nothing unusual was happening. I just felt weird, and I didn’t know why.
We got off the elevator and the woman with the dog continued up.
Jimmy turned the door of 1909, and we were greeted by Jimmy’s dad, who was short and round and bald, and looked nothing like Jimmy.
“Who’s your pretty friend?” he asked.
I realized that he was talking to Jimmy and Kevin, that I had both of them. Did both of them want me? Was I being mean to Kevin? Did my meanness matter? What did Jimmy and Kevin say about me when I was not around? I didn’t care, actually. But this old squat man insulted me, for some reason.
In we went, though, and sat down on the sofa and started watching TV. Jo-Jo L’Astrologiste was on. Jo-Jo was a buxom blonde who gave the week’s astrological forecasts. Me and all my friends from Montreal loved her because she was so very Montreal in a wonderfully tacky way.
“It’s Jo-Jo,” I said. I wanted to say so much more, but I had no words for the hormones coursing through my veins.
I looked at Jimmy but he was looking at the TV, then he turned around to say something to his Dad, which I did not catch.
Jimmy’s long black hair fell in front of his face, and he said, “Kevin had to go back to Alexandria. We’ll have to hang out alone, now.” He smiled. His smile was like a bowl of cherries in spring sunlight. It was like the happiness of finding one’s room warm and lit up after a long walk in the cold. It looked yummy and warmed me down to my toes, which were in boots, which was good because the first frost had happened last night. The sidewalks were a little slippery.
I was going to ask him why he didn’t tell me Kevin was leaving when I had last seen them, but decided not to. It was irrelevant.
The concrete apartment building where his Dad lived rose to the sky in the background of the image of Jimmy in his long black coat, which was appropriate for the weather, but also for his gothic vibe. His eyes were a dark chestnut color. I saw fire in them. He was beautiful. I wanted to tell him this, but I knew the words would fall flat. Besides, I knew he knew I liked him, because when we met on the train, I gave him a certain unmistakable look made of blue fire.
Before that moment when I first saw Jimmy in the café car on Amtrak as he sat across from his friend Kevin, I’d never walked into a room (or train car, etc.) and thought, “I can get that guy to sleep with me.” Yet that’s what I did when I saw Jimmy. I’m not sure whether I thought to myself, as I walked up the aisle of the train cars to the café car, “I’m going to sleep with the best-looking guy in the café car,” and then selected Jimmy from the crowd of reasonable-looking strangers, or if I saw Jimmy first, looking sultry, and then got the idea in my head. All I know is that those words definitely went through my mind in a very audible way. A feeling rose in me like fire from a Bunsen burner in chemistry class as I walked past Jimmy and Kevin, whose names I did not yet know, and sat at a table where I was facing Jimmy. It wasn’t the table directly next to them, but a few tables down. It was the only table left vacant in the café car, and it had a perfect vantage point from which to make seductive eye contact with the hot stranger.
Jimmy came up to me and asked, “Where are you going?”
It happened so quickly I didn’t feel anything. I just began answering, “I’m going to Montreal.”
“Us too!” Jimmy said.
Now here I was locked in eye contact with him, standing on Lincoln Street, one of the couple of streets in Montreal named after American presidents. There were gold and red leaves on the sidewalk, and the toe of my boot touched a place where someone had scrawled , “Love-Moi” in the concrete when it was wet, so long ago. “Love-Moi” was the name of a movie in French that was very popular among young people in Quebec. I saw the beginning once, and a girl was saying that as she was prostituting herself, she picked up her Dad’s best friend. It was a movie about the harsh side of Montreal life, which luckily, I was spared.
I had a bit of money from when my grandparents passed away (my parents were pretty much out of the picture, now). I lived on Sherbrooke Street, across from Dawson College with its copper dome that had turned completely green. The downtown area was not too expensive, but it was not cheap, either. My place was not far from Jimmy’s Dad’s.
It was noon, and to the left of Jimmy’s Dad’s building, the neon sign of an oriental noodle place suddenly went on. I took the sudden illumination to be a sign that the light was going on in my mind, or that there was a good vibe made of light between me and Jimmy. I didn’t need to worry so much, anymore. I could just enjoy this experience, instead of forcing it, or bumbling along to the way time was stringing moments together for me.
“Shall we?” I asked, offering my arm, elbow playfully out, first.
“We shall.” Jimmy said, hooking his arm around mine. “Where to?” he asked.
The wind came and made a miniature whirlwind with a bunch of gold leaves beside us, then the wind dispersed left the leaves to untangle. We smiled at this occurrence, acknowledging the power of the weather.
I was aware that I looked good in my little black jacket with the gold zippers on the pockets that added a dimension of chic. My long blond hair fell in steppes as the wind ruffled its ends, lifting them.
I was a city girl, through and through. I felt even more “city” with Jimmy, who I knew was such a suburban dude, because I was familiar with the area where he lived. When he wasn’t on Thanksgiving break in Montreal, he lived outside of the Washington, D.C. area, in Virginia, near my sister, actually. My sister has a big house with a white spiral staircase and a chandelier in the atrium that spans two stories. I pictured Jimmy from the same well-manicured neighborhood with its clean lawns that were green until the beginning of December, and in the whole city, not a tacky lawn ornament was to be seen.
We went back to the food court where we’d had crepes the previous day, and had more crepes. I just had one, this time, instead of two.
We tried to rent a video at Movieland afterwards, but neither of us had a credit card for security purposes. We went back to Jimmy’s Dad’s place, walking everywhere we went, within the downtown area, which was no more than a mile radius.
In the elevator, we kissed, and I knew that we were on our way, then. I had proven something to myself. This is all that mattered. It was only a matter of time, now. A flock of crows was let loose in my stomach when Jimmy kissed me, and even though I didn’t know how to kiss in any amazing way, it was good enough. It was real and fake at once. We both knew each other and didn’t. He was an upper-middle-class suburban dude, and I was within the same tax bracket (not on my own merit, though). We recognized the punk goth in each other. It was on this basis that we later made love on the roof of the concrete apartment building, steam from the boiler room escaping from a pipe and illuminating the night with a white cloud.
We looked up, and saw stars, and felt the galaxy illuminated all around us. We felt the dark quietude of being on top of a high building.
As we stood next to each other looking out over downtown, we saw a fire in the old nunnery on Sherbrooke Street.
He said, “What’s that, burning?”
Finally, there was something to talk about, something other than the fact that we’d wanted each other so badly for reasons that we would never know because we wouldn’t have enough time with each other. And now here was something. Fire. Smoke.
I said in hushed urgency, “It’s the old nunnery, burning. But it’s just a part of it. Look—there are fire trucks there, and they’re putting it out.”
The city sirens blared in the streets below, sounding almost like whispers, or at least someone talking emergencies low into your ear. The emergencies were telling me something, but I didn’t know what, other than that a fire needed to be put out.
We stood there for a while and watched the action.
When the fire trucks left, there was just the city, and the damaged tower of the nunnery.
We leaned over the concrete railing that separated us from a thirty-story fall. Below, it looked like a Piet Mondrian painting in the dark.
Jimmy said, as if he were whispering an emergency, “Ants on fire for people.”
It made little sense, but I would go with it, because it was beautiful.
I said, “Rivers of black neon for streets.”
Suddenly, I felt very happy, as if what was needed to be accomplished was done, and what was needed to be said was said. It felt like my heart was a purring kitten in Jimmy’s hands, and I was safe. Even if he was going to leave, I was not sad. I had this.