The boy sat drinking his cup of coffee by the cracked window. A wisteria branch had pushed its way through the crack in the window, widening it. Perhaps it had made the crack. A splash of purple flowers grew like grapes at its end, filling the cheap college slum with a sickly sweet smell. The man put down his too new textbook, gulped the rest of his coffee, and stared at the window. The gap in the window was wide enough that pine pollen entered in little puffs when the wind blew right, backlit by the sunshine to a golden sheen.
The man thought back to when he first met the girl he was waiting for. Two, perhaps three years. He’d met her skinny dipping at their hometown reservoir with a gaggle of other high school hippies, back when the police in town where a little more lenient about such things. The girl and he’d become friends, mostly because they both were happy to meet someone else who felt estranged from the intense beauty of the moment that all the high school hippies seemed to dwell in. Graduation came, and she moved up to the mountains, and he moved cross-town and started college.
A faint knock at the door. The boy rushed to open it, a little too suddenly perhaps. On the threshold stood the girl, a huge smile on her face that made her look, more than anything, like Mickey Mouse. They gave each other a hug, touching only briefly at their shoulders. She sat down on the couch, lit a cigarette, and began to drink the cup of coffee he brought her. There was a pause, not necessarily an awkward pause as they’d been friends too long for that, but a pause nonetheless. The boy reflected on the fact that he’d always admired how she could wait forever in such a situation and stay serene.
“How you been, Columbia?” The boy broke the pause.
“Okay.” A flash of some emotion passed through her eyes. “I’ve got a job waiting tables at some Greek restaurants. Good tips. And I found a little studio, close to downtown.”
They traded chit-chat this way for a while, the boy talking about life as a sophomore and the girl talking about life as a waitress. They obligatorily talked about each of their common friends, what they were doing...
“How are things with Mary?” the girl asked.
“We broke up after she graduated. She’s in Europe now working for some banking company.”
“She broke up with you, or you broke up with her?”
“She broke up with me.”
“No, it works out. It was never really all there in our relationship, you know? We both knew it was time-limited from the start.” The boy cleared his throat. “How’s things with Sam?”
That same flash of emotion passed her face. “We’re starting to fight a lot, ever since he moved into the studio with me. He doesn’t pay rent, and the bastard has a temper when I bring it up.”
This time the pause was awkward. The girl knew the boy and Sam were friends, and was afraid of offending.
The boy broke the pause again. “No, it’s cool. Sam does have a temper. I’ve always felt like Sam and I were the same, except inverted. When he’s mad he directs it outward, and I just get all introspective...”
“Anyway, I still totally love him, I just wish he’d chill out some.”
“Just tell him he needs to cool it, or his ass is out on the street.”
“I don’t know if he can cool it. Sometimes I think we both know the arguments coming and just want to get it over with, you know?”
They talked for several hours more, about music and amusing parties and how all of the old high school clan was doing. It was the nostalgia of old high school friends. Eventually, her phone beeped, she got up and gave him another hug, and let herself out the front door. He shut the door behind her, and smiled as he saw a wisteria bloom stuck on the back of her hair. He let her go anyway without telling her.
The boy didn’t talk with the girl for several weeks, except for occasional cell phone calls. He was vaguely worried for Columbia, wanted her to be happy, but also loyal to Sam as a fellow man. He suspected in his heart that the girl wasn’t all that easy a woman to be with. And mostly he was too busy, struggling through organic chemistry and the inevitable flirting with classmates that occupies most of the synapses of a sophomore.
Still, somehow spring break came and he found himself driving up the interstate to the mountains to see her. He had no particular plan for the weekend, just a desire to escape to the sleepy mountain city and explore some streets that hadn’t already been painted with memories, like those in his hometown. He smiled as he hit the steep uphill that marked the break between the piedmont and the true mountains, joyed at speeding past 18-wheelers that were grinding gears to deal with the incline.
He pulled into the city around 12pm, parked in the maze of residential streets by the river, and walked the couple blocks uptown. He’d arranged to meet Columbia at some late-night vegan restaurant downtown, the kind of place that was almost chic enough to scare off its desired hippie clientele. She was sitting at the bar drinking a mimosa, which to the boy seemed like a thoroughly inappropriate drink for a Friday night.
There was the mandatory hug, followed by the mandatory chit-chat. How’s school/work? Gorgeous weather, huh? Any good new bands/clubs? The girl seemed positively buoyant, despite having just worked a double. All was well for her—she liked her studio, etc.
She playfully asked, “So, how’s the love life, Ralph?”
“Not so hot,” the guy replied. “There’s a cute human rights activist I’m working on.”
“You and activists...” Columbia rolled her eyes. “What’s so cute about activists?”
Ralph shrugged. “They’re cute like hippies, but bathe and are less apathetic.”
The girl giggled an extraordinarily cute giggle. “Perhaps. But there’s a higher quota of sketchiness.”
“Maybe. How ’bout you? How are things with Sam?”
Columbia beamed. “Good. Passionate.” A faux shy pause. “We’ve been talking about getting married...”
“Cool”. A puzzled silence by the boy. “You guys are getting along better?”
“Yeah, he’s cooled off, at least for now. He got a job as a cable repair guy, which pays well.”
“Well, I’m happy for you guys, but take it slow, huh?”
“Don’t worry so much. At some level, I’m just following my bliss, so to speak.” The took a drag from her clove, a cheap knockoff brand that Ralph didn’t know. “Besides, I’d rather be on a rollercoaster than a pony ride, you know?”
Soon thereafter, Ralph finished his mimosa and headed out after giving Columbia a hug. He met another old friend, a potter down on Summer Street, had a glass of wine with the friend, and promptly crashed on the couch.
The heat from the street came in waves, little ripples of light across the pavement, hot and moist and sweet. It was a womb, cradling the boy’s apartment, strangling it, protecting it. The cat lay in the corner, stretching every inch of its fur-clad little body out to radiate out the maximum amount of body heat. Ralph lay in the easy chair, vaguely studying a microbiology textbook. Rather abruptly, there was a knock at the door. The boy jumped up with the combination of annoyance and curiosity people have when they have an unexpected guest.
By the time he had fully opened the door, Columbia was halfway through the door jambs. She was crying, and his first instinct—he remembered this later with pride—was to give her a hug. She seemed to him frail, beyond herself with grief. He got her seated on the sofa—she was already smoking a cigarette—and a flood of words came out of her mouth, about Sam and a fight, and she’s sorry she came without calling, but she had to talk...
“The bastard just wants a fight,” she continued. “All I did was clean up some of his stuff, which he leaves sitting all over the place, and he starts yelling at me about how I’m trying to control him, like I’m trying to be his fucking mom, right? And I tell him he’s being a jerk and can pick up his own fucking stuff next time...”
Ralph’s zoned out by this point. He was going to joke about how Columbia and Sam always fight, to relax, that it’s not the end of the world. But he’d noticed a purple-bluish bruise on her arm, almost under the sleeve of her tanktop, but not quite.
“Columbia, relax, relax. You got the whole night to tell me the story.” He was searching for a way to politely—he would later hate himself for being such a Southerner—bring up the bruise.
“Sorry.” She reflexively smiled her patented smile. “The bastard just gets on my nerves...”
“There’re other boys, you know?” he offered back.
“What, are you volunteering?” Now she was flirting, which disconcerted the boy since she still had a tear dangling from one nostril.
“No, I’m just saying if he makes you unhappy then kick him out. He still owes you rent, right?”
“Yeah, I could. It’d serve his ass right.”
A pause, which the boy finally broke. “What’s up with the bruise, Columbia?”
She blushed and looked flustered at the same time. “Nothing. Sam just gets upset sometimes, and he grabbed my arms...”
“Columbia, that’s never cool. You know that. Dump his ass.”
“Whatever, it’s nothing. It’s the first time he left a mark. Besides”—she took a last drag of her cigarette—“I still love him.” And with that, she resolutely changed the subject, and kept it away from Sam for the rest of the night. She left for the mountains the next AM, after crashing on the living room futon.
The late afternoon thunderstorm rattled the windows, and rain was beginning to slowly leak under the door. Ralph was cooking himself a classic bachelor’s meal, pasta with a bit of canned, cold spaghetti sauce on top. His housemate was babbling on about something, trying on various overly flamboyant shirts in a vain effort to decide what to wear to a date later in the evening. Ralph was vaguely listening, but was also vaguely thinking about Columbia, for the first time in weeks, when the phone rang. It was indeed
Columbia, which would seem to Ralph later like too much of a coincidence.
“Hey Ralph,” she began, “what’s up?”
“Not much. You?”
“Not much. Listen, Sam and I are in town, and we wondered if you wanted to get a drink down in the old port?”
A pause. “I dunno, Columbia...”
“Come on, it’ll be fun. You’re not studying, are you? You always study too much.”
“It’s not that...”
“Here, Sam wants to say hi.”
There was just enough time while they were passing the phone for the boy to think, clearly and distinctly, oh shit.
“Hey Ralph, it’s Sam.”
Another pause. “Hi Sam, how’s it going.” How does one bring this up?, Ralph thought to himself.
“Okay. I’ve switched jobs again. I’m a cabbie. It’s fun, although you meet some odd people, you know?”
“Druggies who want a ride to a certain street corner. Cross-dressers who want to get back from the bus station. You know.”
“I guess. It’s safe?
“Mostly. Listen, you going to come get a drink with us?”
“No, man, I’m busy.”
“Look, I haven’t seen you in almost a year. And we were buds way back before high school.”
“I’m not really in the mood to hang out, is all?’
“Okay, whatever. Let’s get together next time you’re in the mountains, okay?”
“Okay.” Click. The phone went dead. In the background, the roommate went on babbling about his shirt for the evening. The thunder had stopped.
The heat had finally broken, diminished to something tolerable. The trees outside Columbia’s studio had turned brown from a lack of water, and the first hint of chill was in the air. The boy walked up and knocked on the door, having been summoned up to the mountains by an e-mail from Columbia. Her and Sam were breaking up, she needed someone to talk with, etc.
She answered, already crying, as she let him in. He would remember later thinking this was odd, that she couldn’t have been crying 24/7, that perhaps his entrance made her resume her crying. She let him in, telling a story that clearly she’d rehearsed in her head before about “an argument... and that bastard... I’ve kicked him out... fuck him... and then he accused me of...”
He noticed that this time she wasn’t trying to hide the bruises on her neck, black marks that looked ominously like fingermarks. Maybe this time it was her badge, which made self-evident and justified her having kicked Sam out. In any event, the boy thought to himself, at least it really was over. Ralph was in a state of numbness and general hatred of his own gender, which was a new feeling for him, at least that type of hatred. More than that, he was scared that he probably would’ve killed Sam then, if he’d walked in the room. The rage felt more pure than anything he’d ever felt.
Columbia went on venting for perhaps an hour before Ralph said anything. Mostly, it was a night of nonstop consoling for Ralph. At some point, they both crashed, Ralph asleep on the futon and Columbia on her trundle bed, and as he was going to sleep he noticed there was a bird already chirping outside.
They got up the next morning gradually, groggily, at a time that Ralph’s mom might have called indecent. The boy woke up before the girl, and watched her sleeping on her lofted bed. She seemed quiet, so different from the scene the night before. He looked around the dingy studio for a while with bemused wonderment at the oddness of it all.
When the girl was finally up, she cooked them both some eggs from an old cast-iron pan. They ate the eggs perfunctorily, with too much salt. After a bit of preparation—grabbing a water bottle, putting on some boots—they walked out the front door together, and down a little path in the woods that emerged in Columbia’s backyard. The wisteria leaves along the trail were already yellow from the fall. As they got higher up, the trail got rockier, and the leaves of the maples turned slowly redder. The ridge they were climbing up into the foothills of the Black Mountain got skinnier, narrower, and the jagged bedrock reminded Ralph of nothing so much as an old man’s spine.
They reached a bluff with a fantastic overlook of the valley below, a patchwork of dark green pines and mottled technicolor hardwoods. Columbia sat down on a boulder she clearly had sat on before, rolled herself an American Spirit cigarette, and slowly smoked it while watching the sun slowly trickle down to the deep valley below. The boy realize he hadn’t spoken a word the whole hike up, which had made sense at the time, but the silence now rattled him. “You come up here often?” he asked, sheepishly.
“Yeah.” A longish pause. “Whenever I have some thinking to do.”
He searched for something to say. “You feeling any better?” He regretted asking the question as soon as it came out, afraid of prying too much.
“Maybe. It just takes some time, you know, to get used to it. I truly did love that bastard.”
“I know Columbia, but there are some boundaries no guy should cross, and he crossed them. You did what any woman would’ve done.”
“Maybe.” Another drag on her cigarette, almost gnawing on it with her lips. “You’d think you could tell that about a guy, though, that he’d go too far. I mean, shit, you were friends with the guy before I knew him. You ever think he’d be like that?”
“No, not really. I dunno, maybe yes.” Ralph felt defensive and cross. “Look, we all like the fact it was all out there with Sam. When he was happy he’d give you a big hug. When he was frustrated, he and I’d go out to the countryside in his car, and just floor it, see how fast his car could go before the governor kicked in. When he was sad, he’d get drunk and curse the world. It was all there, you know?”
The girl looked up and made contact with the boy. “Yeah, I loved that about him.” Another drag of the cigarette and she flipped the small butt over the cliff. “But I don’t want to stop being all there too, you know? At least a bit...”
At this point she switched the conversation to a new topic, and Ralph let her do it. He didn’t quite know how to respond anyway. They hung out the rest of the night, had a drink back at Columbia’s house, smoked a few bowls, and then the boy began the long drive down to the Piedmont.
Eventually the leaves fell off the trees, even by the boy’s apartment down in the Piedmont. The oak in his front yard never really even flashed orange, just went straight from a green to a dull brown. For weeks on end it hovered just above freezing, drizzling, and the dirt walkway to his front door became a mud pit. Ralph responded by retreating inside, studying for finals.
At some point in January, after the rush of finals was over, the boy called Columbia and asked if he could come up to the mountain town to visit. He didn’t really have a reason, at least that he’d admit to. He was just lonely, and sick of rain, and wanted to see some snow if it was going to be so goddamned cold. She of course agreed, and the Friday following the boy drove his old Accord back up the Blue Ridge.
He pulled into her studio before she got off her wait shift, and let himself in with the key under the doormat. Lacking anything to do, he took a bit of a nap. When she finally arrived she was carrying a carton of orange juice and some cheap Californian sparkling wine. They each drank a couple mimosas, and then the boy offered her a massage, on the vague masculine principle that touching a beautiful girl in any capacity is a virtue. She lay down on her bed, and the boy straddled her, massaging her through her sweater. At some point, he reached under her sweater to work on her lower back. She groaned appreciatively, and said carefully: “Wait a sec. It’s fine, I trust you.” And with that she deftly flipped her sweater and shirt up to her hands above her neck and laid quickly back down on her stomach, in the display of agility with clothing that women seem born with and which always befuddled Ralph.
He would play it over in his head many times, the slow way his touches became less relaxing and more playful, and the beautiful way her back arched to meet them. The two things were dancing, his hands, her back, around some invisible line. And at some point he felt bold, and bent down and kissed, gingerly, between her shoulder blades. And she turned over, and the line was gone.
He would remember her body being tense and lean and passionate. He would remember the scratches down his back that drew blood. He would remember the confidence with which she reached for a condom from a jar by her bed, and how much that shocked him, and how much it shocked him that it shocked him. And he would remember above all her nervous laughter when he was inside her, laughter spreading from her lips down to her womb and back again. But the rest he would forget. He forgot what they said afterward, as the cycled in and out of making love. But the laughter, the beautiful laughter, he couldn’t forget.
They only really discussed what had happened once. It was late the afternoon of the next day, and Ralph was collecting his stuff to go.
“Are things between us okay?” Columbia blurted out.
The boy smiled deeply but a bit nervously. “Of course! It was a hell of a night...”
She dismissed his sentence with a wave of her hand before he even finished it. “No, I just want to make sure you know you’re not my boyfriend or something.”
The boy looked vaguely hurt but nodded. “I know I’m not your type, Columbia.”
She smiled back. “You’re too bookish for my taste. Too inside yourself. I need a boy who helps me go the other direction...”
“You make it sound like your boyfriend’s a drug,” Ralph joked.
“Same difference.” The girl shrugged. “But we’re cool?”
“We’re the same people as yesterday.”
“Such a little philosopher.” She came over and gave him a little kiss on his forehead.
A pause. Awkward. “Take care of yourself,” the boy said.
“Take care of yourself. I’ll be fine. Give me a call when you get home, to let me know you made it safe.”
The boy nodded, picked up his stuff, and walked out the front door, his feet squishing in the wet snow with each step. He thought to himself that this was probably the last snow of the season, and he smiled.
|Copyright ©||Robert McDonald, 2004|
|By the same author|
|Date of publication||July 2005|
|Collection||The Fictile Word|
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