By Lynnette Curtis
Shannon’s new poem is about what it’s like to be a feminist with Double D boobs. Its first line goes Eyes up here, and she points at her radiant face when she recites it. The way she purrs her stanzas into the microphone atop the coffee shop’s makeshift stage reminds me of that old clip of Marilyn Monroe wishing President Kennedy a breathy happy birthday. But Shannon feels more like Gloria Steinem, she says, trapped in the body of Jessica Rabbit. Not bad, just drawn that way.
I have long appreciated the way she’s drawn, along with her many other attributes. If she weren’t married to Carlos, I’d sweep her right off her feet. Not literally. She’s nearly six feet tall and probably outweighs me. Her curves can take your mind off anything. I even forget for a moment what’s waiting for me at home. This was the whole point of the evening, but I didn’t expect it to actually work.
The rest of tonight’s open-mike crowd consists of Goth girls, college kids, senior citizens and freelance hipsters in skinny jeans, all clustered around a handful of carved-up tables. A solo Rastafarian squats near the pastry counter, dreadlocks drooping down his back. It’s been days since I’ve interacted with anyone other than Dad, Jimmy the nurse and an occasional hospice worker with a clipboard, so this jumbled patchwork of thrift-store sweaters, tattoos and hairdos feels especially vivid, like I stumbled into the wrong end of a human kaleidoscope.
Shannon concludes with a girlish curtsy, steps offstage and makes her way to where I’m slouching in the corner. People continue to applaud as she grabs my elbow and leads me all the way to the closet-sized unisex bathroom.
“Pretty sure this is meant to be single-serve,” I say as she locks the door behind us. “Not that I’m complaining.”
“Mon dieu,” she says, having once spent a semester in Paris. She turns to the side to consider her outstanding profile in the mirror, smoothing the sparkly gold sweater over her stomach. Meanwhile, I examine my scalp, which I recently mowed to a reddish stubble in an effort to disguise my already receding hairline. I look like a pasty Howdy Doody joined the army.
“That felt good,” she says.
“You were so great,” I say.
“Thanks again for coming along.” She still sounds a little breathless.
“You wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“You needed a break,” she says. “Plus, Carlos wouldn’t be caught dead here.” She shakes her head at me in the mirror, then tilts it to the side and smirks. “You wouldn’t want me to go it alone, would you?”
If I didn’t know better, I’d call this flirty.
“Never,” I say, placing a steadying hand on the bathroom wall. Watching her dark hair float across her shoulders at close range gave me vertigo.
“That’s why I love you.” She jabs a finger into my chest. I feel it in my heart.
“Ah, platonic love,” I say, “the celibate’s consolation prize.”
“Can’t board a ship that’s already sailed, chéri.” She presses a cool palm against my cheek. I wish somebody would toss me a life buoy.
“Story of my life,” I say, and it really is.
I met her fresh out of college, when I took a job at The Learning Center teaching high school kids how to score better on their SATs. I had just stuffed a handful of vending machine Cheetos into my mouth when she appeared in the employee lounge as if from nowhere, wearing a snug tank top with the words OUT ON BAIL printed across the chest. She smiled and stuck out her hand while I frantically wiped the orange Cheetos dust from my fingers onto my khakis. She said her name but it didn’t register. My lizard brain had hit DEFCON 1 upon noting how mouth-wateringly fertile she looked, all hips and lips and mammary glands, as though God had chosen her to single-handedly overpopulate the planet. My gaze searched for a safe place to land. Her eyes were a disturbing shade of blue. Her tank top was a no. I settled on the one-legged pirate tattooed on her shoulder.
“It’s my first day,” I stammered. Then I gestured toward her top. “Are we allowed to wear that?”
“Oh, it’s my day off,” she said, frowning. “I just forgot to fill out my timecard.” She pretended to pinch a joint between her index finger and thumb and then smoke it, crossing her eyes. “Quel dommage!”
I just stood there staring at her tattoo, the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, until she laughed.
“Your face,” she said, pointing at it.
I looked into her unsettling eyes, then away again. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s always been a problem.”
I wonder about the barista. She serves me two free mochas in a row. That’s like giving me ten bucks. Then she laughs at my joke about how she manages to stay so thin with cream cheese pastries surrounding her like insistent lovers. She has a long, supple body, dark pools for eyes, and Levis she must have had to lie flat on her back to zip up. She could eat me alive.
Shannon pays no attention. She sits across from me, ample bottom scooched to the back of a folding chair, and listens politely to one of the hipsters reading a sonnet about losing his virginity on a hayride.
I should check in at home, but decide to measure how long I can stand the guilt and numbing fear that Dad could die while I sit here listening to (mostly) bad poetry and trying not to objectify my best friend. The only one around to hear his last words would be Jimmy the nurse, who is as nonchalant as a teenage babysitter. Dad doesn’t say much anymore, anyway. And he’s mostly incoherent because of the morphine. Sometimes he sees things that aren’t there, curls his thin fingers into fists and swings weakly into the empty air as though he’s punching a ghost. It’s the sort of thing he’d joke about if he were well. “My equations aren’t adding up,” he’d say. He taught high school math for nearly 40 years.
The barista takes a break from brewing coffee to step onstage and deliver an ode to fresh produce. She seems particularly fixated on the smooth textures of banana peels and crookneck squash, how they feel when she strokes them. She closes her eyes to whisper the line, “Naked cucumber skin.” A tiny diamond stud lanced through her right nostril catches the light. When she returns to her station behind the counter, she notices me watching her and smiles. I look away and don’t make eye contact again. The last thing I need right now is another woman who makes me feel like a dog begging for a bite of dinner.
We got to know each other over daily lunches at the deli next to The Learning Center. Shannon sat across from me chewing potato salad and stabbing the air with a fork while talking about her obsession with 19th-century French poetry, her intelligence like a current across the table. She was applying to grad school with plans to become a real teacher, and already I felt left behind, having yet to figure out what to do with my unfortunate English degree.
She told me about her childhood spent on a Colorado dairy farm, how her parents had home-schooled her and how she wore nothing but overalls until she was thirteen years old. (I would think about this later, alone in bed, picturing her full-grown but still barefoot and pig-tailed, straddling a white horse and clutching a battered copy of Les Fleurs Du Mal.)
She told me about the bad breakup she went through with her most recent ex-boyfriend. (“He went to jail,” she said flatly.)
She told me she wanted to become a poet.
At work, she wreaked havoc on my fragile male psyche by playfully jabbing my shoulder whenever we passed in the hallway, sprinkling her laughter and pheromones along the way like a trail of invisible breadcrumbs leading the way home.
I liked everything about her, including her mildly criminal quirks. She pirated quarters and candy from everybody’s desk drawers and swiped the Cokes I stowed in the lounge’s mini-fridge. One day I saw her casually shoplift a Cup-a-Soup from the 7-11 next to the deli. One night after class, she convinced me to hop a fence, strip to my underwear and swim with her in somebody’s heated backyard pool. Another night, she talked me into trying mushrooms at the park. (I threw up.)
In short, she both terrified and excited me. As the weeks ticked by, I convinced myself something undeniable had sprouted between us. I considered making my signature move, which involved standing real close to a woman and accidentally brushing her arm, but I wanted to wait for the perfect moment. This felt too important to rush. Then, on the last day of work before Christmas vacation, she beat me to it when I walked her to her car.
“I’m going to miss you, chéri,” she said, planting a lingering smooch on my cheek.
I swallowed hard, staring at a passing airplane, and thought about everything the New Year had in store.
I said, “I’ll see you at the holiday party.”
The final poet tonight, a saucer-eyed blond woman in a French maid’s outfit, sashays to the plywood stage, brandishing a feather duster. She takes a moment to collect herself with a series of sighs before launching into a fast-paced number about her lucrative career as a cam girl who lets paying customers watch her clean house in various states of undress.
“I knew she looked familiar!” I whisper to Shannon in mock triumph. But she doesn’t even look at me, just shrugs in my general direction. She fingers her golden anchor necklace and listens intently to the enterprising sex worker, maybe considering a new profession. Grad school doesn’t exactly pay well.
The woman has a thunderous voice that belies her petite body. Her eyes appear haunted as she tells us that she might have killed herself had lust not entered her “dead-end life.” She looks suddenly terrified, scanning the room anxiously as though afraid one of us plans to assassinate her. Then she snaps her dainty fingers and makes a low whooshing noise that makes me think of the oxygen streaming through Dad’s nasal tube. She stares up at the ceiling as if expecting a phantom missile to burst through the air vent. A long moment of silence passes before anyone realizes she’s finished, followed by a spattering of applause. She grins as a couple of people ooh and aah.
One of the hipsters approaches our table and invites us to join him and his friends for cocktails at a bar down the street.
“Thanks,” Shannon tells him, “but we’re on our way to the movies.” This is news to me. It’s getting late. By now, Jimmy the nurse could be drinking liquid morphine from my Disneyland shot glass while Dad thrashes around in pain. But the thought of going home fills me with dread.
“Carlos won’t mind?”
Shannon rolls her eyes at me as if to say, Whatever. On our way to the door, she takes a quick detour to whisper her goodbyes to the sexy barista while I undertake an in-depth study of the pastry counter.
My old buddy Carlos, back in town after a stint in the Peace Corps, called to catch up the night of the holiday party and then invited himself along. I should’ve known. In high school, he had stolen most of what I liked to think of as my would-be girlfriends. I couldn’t compete with his chiseled pecs and unblinking sincerity, his ping-pong skills and the true story about how he gave his spare kidney to a third cousin. When I saw the way he and Shannon cocked their Santa hats at precisely the same angle, how purposefully they bumped into each other beneath the mistletoe, I knew I was already too late. They left together that night, without even saying goodbye, and I wound up with the measly consolation prize: best man at the wedding barely six months later.
Then Dad got sick, and I marveled at the many ways a heart can break.
The nearest theater is hosting a festival of classic Latin American films. We choose Son of the Bride because it starts the soonest. We buy several boxes of candy to complement our buttered popcorn and take seats in the center of a cool, empty theater. The large space feels intimate because we’re alone. Our fingers slide together as we pass a quart-sized Diet Coke.
The subtitled movie tells the story of Nino, an old Argentinian man whose beloved wife of 44 years, Norma, stricken with Alzheimer’s, lives in a nursing home. Nino enlists the help of his middle-aged son, Rafa, in planning the elaborate church wedding Norma always wanted, hoping that on some level she will understand and appreciate such a ceremony.
Nino wears his best suit to the nursing home to propose to his wife. He carries a bouquet of flowers. Norma, in a lacy shawl, her blond-gray hair pulled back, sits staring at a table, lost in the fading landscape of her own mind. As Nino nervously asks her to marry him again, she turns her wide brown eyes to him. A slow smile of recognition spreads across her still-beautiful face. She strokes his withered cheek with the back of her hand and says, Mi novio. My boyfriend.
I hear Shannon sniffling, so I take her hand, slick with butter, and risk resting my cheek on her shoulder. Her breast is less than an inch from my lips, her sweater soft against my skin, its neckline low and tight. I’d like to curl right up in there. She smells like licorice and lavender skin lotion.
Sitting next to her in the black anonymity of the theater, I wonder whether it’s really possible to continue loving someone you no longer recognize. Does Shannon love Carlos that much? Given the chance, could I feel about her — about anyone — the way the old man feels about his wife? In my vast romantic experience, which consists of exactly three failed short-term relationships, the woman always leaves long before it gets anywhere close to that point. Maybe she senses how shallow my emotional supply is, that I don’t carry a reserve tank in case of emergencies. Maybe her survival instincts kick in.
In my most honest moments, I wonder if I even love my own father enough. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, sitting next to the hospital bed Jimmy the nurse made up for him in the living room, I feel nothing whatsoever. I go completely numb, as though I’m under heavy anesthesia. This really spooks me. So I try to remember Dad as he used to be, strong and goofy and vibrant. I make myself think about the summers he dedicated to me when I was growing up — his penance, I suppose, for moving me away from my mother and subjecting me to a single-parent home. (No matter that we both knew I was better off without Mom’s detached brand of maternal affection.) We spent weeks together on the road, Dad drumming the steering wheel in rhythm to The Rolling Stones, because he wanted to take me hiking in every national park within driving distance. I think about his patience those many nights in junior high when I couldn’t “get” geometry, his voice as calm the hundredth time he explained Pythagoras to me as it had been the first. But sometimes the only memories I manage to muster are the too-recent variety. The daily worsening of his condition, how he has looked like a corpse for weeks now. How often I’ve woken to the sound of him gasping, unable to coax air into his diseased lungs. How many times I’ve leaned close to check that he’s still breathing, shocked at the new, sour smell of him.
Onscreen, Rafa visits his mother in the nursing home, hoping to somehow draw out of her the maternal validation she has long denied him. He sits with her on a white bench for an agonizing moment. “I don’t want to die,” she tells him. My throat seizes up. I clear it noisily. Shannon passes me the popcorn. “Is this OK?” she whispers. “Who knew it would be so … .”
“Apropos?” My voice sounds strange. I toss a handful of popcorn into my mouth.
“Say the word and we’ll go.” I shake my head and smile at her in the dark.
The movie ends with the long-anticipated wedding ceremony, held in the nursing home cafeteria decorated to look like a church. Norma wears her lace shawl as a veil. The officiant asks Nino if he promises to love her until death. “And afterwards,” he replies.
I haven’t cried in years, but I find myself tearing up. Shannon passes me a tissue from her purse. Somehow this doesn’t embarrass me. But I’m glad to be in a dark, empty theater where only she will know. I feel utterly at home with her, as though we ourselves are an old couple with a shared understanding that comes from years of compromise.
We step outside at about 1 a.m. The air has grown cool. Shannon takes my hand in the parking lot.
“I don’t want to go home,” I say. My mind fills with an image of Jimmy the nurse playing solitaire on his laptop while Dad chokes to death on his own blood. An intense stab of guilt hits my stomach for feeling like that might be a relief.
“I know,” Shannon says. She squeezes my hand and looks at me like she really does know.
I’m glad she insisted on driving. I would have had to take Dad’s Buick, still littered with wadded-up tissues stained black with blood from his lungs. I haven’t yet felt up to throwing out these leftovers from before he would admit what was happening, when he could still drive, still stand and sit up by himself.
Through the window of the house, I see the dim kitchen light. “No hearse in the driveway,” I say. “Good sign.” Shannon sighs beside me and shifts her Kia into park. “Hey, thanks so much,” I say. “This was really a relief.” I squeeze her shoulder.
“I should be comforting you,” she says, placing her hand over mine. Her fingers are warm. We sit like that, touching and not looking at each other. I think about how she’s changed since meeting Carlos, mellowed, sworn off drugs and shoplifting, the very definition of settling down. How happy she seems.
Then I think about reaching over to stroke her hair, her cheek. I think about leaning in, wrapping my arms around her and kissing her on the mouth — softly at first, then not so softly. Maybe, at this precise moment, parked in the driveway in front of the house where my father is dying, she wouldn’t mind. Maybe she’d even kiss me back, take my hand and place it encouragingly beneath her sweater. I get that feeling, anyway, from her damp eyes and the uncertain half-smile now playing at her lips. But I think she knows I gave up on all of that a long time ago, and I’m pretty sure she depends on it.
“Better see how they’re doing in there,” I say. “That Jimmy guy seems a little shifty. Probably not long since he was released from custody.” I smile back at her and open the car door.
“Un moment.” Shannon pulls a small piece of paper from her purse. “Almost forgot.” Under the dim roof light, I squint at the torn corner of a napkin from the coffee shop. There’s a phone number, with the name Janie written above it in green. A tiny, hollow heart dots the i. “The barista’s number,” Shannon says. “She said call anytime. She doesn’t sleep.”
I stare at the napkin and shake my head. “You’re amazing.”
“Do it,” she says firmly, her eyes blue flames. She makes her thumb and index finger into a gun and points it at my chest.
“OK,” I say, putting my hands in the air. “I surrender.” I feel a little unsteady, so I step out of the car and shut the door. I can’t see Shannon’s face through the window in the dark, but I wave anyway as she pulls away.
I find Jimmy asleep on the couch, drooling on the afghan my grandmother made. When I poke his shoulder, he bolts upright and looks guilty, as if I’ve caught him raiding the liquor cabinet. He shakes his head and mumbles, “No change.” Then he’s out the door, probably to a wife waiting at home.
Dad’s sleeping — that’s pretty much all he does now. His mouth hangs open and empty. We removed his dentures for good several days ago. His hair has grown long and thin. I press my fingers lightly against his forehead and say, “I’m home, Dad.” His eyelids flutter but he doesn’t otherwise react. It’s hard to believe he’s still anywhere inside that shell of a body. I check his breathing — just as shallow as when I left hours ago.
I sit beside him and try to imagine the color back in his face, the flesh thick on his body, the way he used to look at me with bemused affection. My eyes well up for the second time tonight. What would he say to me if he could? Probably, “Pull yourself together, son.”
The clock on the card table beside his bed reads 1:25 a.m. I stare at it until the numbers become blurry, as though I’m reading them under water. Then I pull my phone from my pocket and dial the numbers written on the coffee shop napkin. By the time it starts to ring, I’m already breathing in whoever will answer my call.
Lynnette Curtis is a former daily newspaper reporter and editor who studies fiction in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. She grew up in Utah, Colombia and the Marshall Islands and has lived in Las Vegas, Nevada for more than two decades. She attended UNLV, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. Her creative work has appeared in New South and the Red Rock Review, and has been anthologized in Fade Sag Crumble: Ten Las Vegas Writers Confront Decay. She is currently at work on a collection of stories set in or linked to Las Vegas.
Image: Flickr / Aaron Noble