Originally inspired by SKoW Challenge #23
Bolded lines credited to Kimya Dawson's "Tire Swing"
Thank God I didn't use staples.
That's all I could think. He was staring me in the face, mocking me with that sweet dimpled grin, and all I could think of was my wall.
We all knew I was insane, but this was going a bit far.
"Paul? It's Gret. I took the Polaroid down in my room." Paul was my shrink. Fresh out of med school. Free because technically he couldn't practice yet. My kind of guy.
"Gretel, it's two in the morning…" Poor Paul. He was obviously still asleep. I could hear him snoring even when he spoke.
"It's that damned medicine you gave me. I can't sleep."
"Yeah, well some of us can, and would like to, sweetheart." I'm sure technically there was some law out there decreeing (in a nasally voice) that Paul couldn't call me sweetheart, or any derivative there of—but that was just Paul. He always said he'd be stripped of his M.D. because of it—and I agreed; but M.D. or not, I'd still come to see him. So long as I didn't have to pay, I'd joke.
"It's your comeuppance for prescribing it! Now talk to me, doctor, or I'll sue you for malpractice."
"What'd I do now?" he moaned groggily.
"Damn you. Okay, I'm up, I'm up. Talk to me, babe. Why'd you take the picture down?"
'It…It just makes me sad whenever I see it."
"Gret, we talked about this."
"I know, I know. He's great and I know it. It's just…I know he's cheating on me—"
"You don't know that at all."
"The guy was wearing a purple hat. How many guys that you know wear purple hats?"
Paul sighed. He always deadpanned when he was tired. "None, okay."
"And he loves blondes. Why didn't I dye my hair blonde? Why? Why?"
"Gret, that's ridiculous. You have gorgeous hair—I doubt he cares what color it is."
I scoffed into the receiver. My phone was shaped like a banana, and had a face. It actually weirded me out—it had to be face down at all times or I couldn't sleep, even without the medicine—but I was afraid that if I threw it out, it might get mad. I had paranoid thoughts like that sometimes. And I had trouble sitting still. And sleeping. "All guys like blondes best."
"I like brunettes, thank you very much."
"Your girlfriend has blonde hair, you bozo."
I heard this screaming silence, and I knew something bad was coming. Tears pricked in my eyes, and spilled out before I could choke a first word. "You broke up with Alexandra? You jerk, how could you even—"
"—She is the most wonderful girl you will ever get, I hope you know! Did you cheat on her? God, why can't you guys just keep your pants—"
"What?" I cried, full-on sobbing.
"I proposed and…Alexandra said no. I didn't want to tell you. I knew you'd be sad. I hate it when you're sad—Gretel? Gretel, honey, don't cry—"
Sometimes Paul would hold me. He would hold me when I cried and I would feel safe, but happy too, because I knew he had Alexandra who would love him and keep him warm at night, when it was just those moments he would hug me that kept me warm. I had a collection of men in my pocket—men I liked, that I could love, if I didn't think I'd lose them. They were safer snug as a pen in a pocket protector.
I could never keep a man. I liked to be gone a lot of the time—impulsive road trips with people I'd flag down hitchhiking, a random stay in the hospital because I liked the color white. Home was just boring, you know, even with him—whoever him was—in it. I had a nice house, a big, white second home I shared with my parents before they gave it to me when I dropped out of college. I think they were still so shocked I got in to college that they didn't mind that I couldn't finish.
Paul thought it was hilarious my family had money. I didn't get the joke.
Joey was the only sex-addict I'd ever met. He called girls bikes, just for an excuse to say the word ride. And Joey never met a bike that he didn't wanna ride. Girls didn't know quite what to say around him—they looked into his big, baby blue eyes and went weak at the knees, and somehow their brains turned into Jell-O in the process. I saw it happen a few times; the bike would abandon whatever unfortunate boyfriend she was trailing along, and happily take Joey's arm, completely oblivious to either the wide-eyed stare of the woman left behind, or the fact that said lady was hitting Joey with her bag repeatedly.
He was the king of the one-night stand.
They frequently occurred in my house.
Officially, he said, he was my boyfriend. But I had to understand, he had needs. And I did understand (something I later tried to explain to Paul numerous times); I had my own impulse issues, just of the brain and not the genitalia.
Sometimes, in order to escape the suspecting stand-ee, Joey would sneak into my room and sleep at my feet, under the covers. He never tried anything with me, though, not unless I initiated it. Paul said that was why I loved him, but I wasn't sure. I thought that's maybe why I finally let him drift away.
"I'm going to go," Joey said, his beat-up rolling suitcase open on my bright yellow bedspread. The light through the window made a funny pattern on the fabric, and I stared at that instead of his big, baby blue eyes; they looked sad to me. We'd had this talk before.
This time, though, it didn't feel like déjà vu. And I wouldn't just let the moment drift past without getting in a last word. "I know," I said, and he looked surprised. He liked it when I begged, I think.
"I'm leaving you!" His words were aggressive. Testing. Prodding. I wasn't moved, unlike the shadow on my bedspread, slowly inching to the left, even if I couldn't see the movement.
"Then get out!" I shouted back. My hands began twitching, like they sometimes did when I got hot. "You don't love me—and I'm not letting you use me anymore! My mom's right, I'm an idiot."
Joey had his back to me now, was slowly zipping away his leather pants, white, collared shirts, and 200-pack box of Trojans. "That's not true," he said softly.
"What?" I cried angrily, furious at myself for being on the verge of tears.
"I do love you." His beautiful eyes bore into me like stakes, I felt, and then I was sobbing into his shirt, clutching at it, digging my fingernails into his firm, tan skin.
"But you can't love only me," I finished once my hiccups ceased. I was still wrapped in the heavily-starched comfort of his shirt, but felt him nod against the top of my head.
"I'll come back and see you—"
"Don't." Knowing Joey, he'd come back only when he had contracted some STD, or needed money for drugs. Good intentions aside, he was still himself.
"—when I have my life back toge—Oh."
"Just…don't come back, okay? It's easier."
"Easier. What about better?"
"Easier is better, Joey, just—just go, okay?"
"Gretel—I'll always love you most. Remember that."
I couldn't sleep that night. I curled at the foot of my bed, under the covers, and wondered why the sheets didn't smell like him—according to all the books and movies, they should have smelled like him. But then I remembered that I didn't know what Joey smelled like in the first place.
"Have you talked to him?" Paul asked, stifling a yawn.
"Hell no! What kind of conversation would that be? 'Hey, lover, I saw your purple hat fraternizing with a blonde'?"
"Well, that's exactly what you're accusing him of." Paul had the best exasperated voice. It almost made me feel guilty. Almost. I just laughed darkly. "So let me get this straight, Gret. You leave him a voicemail saying 'I know what you did,' ignore all of his phone calls, refuse to open the door for him, and then start stripping him out of your life, even after I told you not to? What's wrong, sweetheart?"
"I'm remembering," I murmured, digging my fingernails into the rubbery surface of my banana phone.
Paul sighed. "Remembering what?"
"How I liked all of them."
I learned the right way to ride a Toby when I was twenty.
The first one's name was plain old Toby, shortened from nothing. He was a friend of my father's, and much too old for me, like my skirt, that day, was much too short.
"Are you a tennis player?" he asked, sliding into the stool beside me at the bar. His hair was inky black, with a little gray at his temples where he'd either missed with the dye or let it grow out. Both ways it looked tacky. We'd been introduced earlier by my father, so I didn't put old Toby off right away. I rested my elbows on the bar and stared at him balefully. "Because you have great legs."
I liked old Toby. He knew how to flatter a girl, how to take her out to dinner and make her forget that he was as old as her own dear father. He made love like I knew he would when he first placed his hand on my knee at the bar. Best of all, he was gone in the morning, and didn't use too much sexual innuendo around my innocent father. Out of gratitude, I didn't scoot my chair away when he inched his hand up my skirt at the family dinner.
He had a piano in his hotel room, for reasons I never discerned. My favorite memory, I think, is playing Yankee Doodle on it, naked, in rhythm with old Toby's snores.
Paul was livid when I told him about old Toby. I'm not sure shrinks are supposed to lecture you, either, but mine was at least for half of our allotted hour. I tried to explain that it wasn't anything lasting, and that I genuinely liked the man. We both were just looking for a quick fuck, no strings attached. Later that year, in the winter, I saw old Toby again, met his elegant wife and two children, the younger of which was my age exactly. We shook hands and smiled secret smiles. I hoped mine conveyed a thank you.
Tobias came just a week after old Toby went back to Florida with my father. This new Toby was shy. I didn't meet him in a bar. He didn't kiss me until our third date—the next day, I ended it, and not because the poor kid didn't know how to use his tongue.
He was just a hulking clump of black fabric in the back of my favorite coffee joint. There was only one stool in the entire place—and he was always occupying it. I didn't even know it was a guy until I peeled off the black hood covering his face and peered into his eyes. Dark brown, almost black. Frightened. He let out a yelp and fell backwards out of his seat. I sat down, took a sip of his coffee. More sugar than caffeine. I made a face.
On the third date, when he kissed me, I was in his apartment.
He was shaking when he pressed me against his living room wall. Almost all of the walls were bare, and I wondered why he chose this particular one—I could tell it had been planned out. I ran my hands down his skinny, shrunken chest slowly, liking that I could make him shiver so badly. I liked being in control.
"I've never," he swallowed. "I've never done this before."
I could imagine. He was seventeen, and a bit on the funny-looking side. His skin was beautiful, though, golden-brown, caressing his Asian eyes. I ran my thumbs over his high cheekbones, smiling to myself. I tilted my head, kissed his bobbing Adam's apple, trailed down his neck to his exposed collarbone. He put his hands on either side of my face and crashed his lips to mine, just to stop their roaming, I think.
The sex was reminiscent of my awkward high school fumbling, but the kid was sweet, so I didn't mind. I decided to make it a point to teach him how to do it right before I set him loose—and I did intend to keep our relationship short, not that I detailed that out for little Toby.
I laid with my back to him, listening to his grown-man snore. Quietly, I got out of bed, dressed myself, and let myself out of the apartment—he had said that his mother wouldn't mind me staying the night, but it didn't feel right. The next day, I let myself into his apartment (he kept the key on the small ledge above the door, like I knew he would), threw a great deal of his clothing into a bin, and wrote him a note explaining how I was sorry, but it had to stop there. He would probably feel like I had used him—maybe I had; I frequently questioned my own motives—but I found the only thing I regretted was having to give up my daily trips to that lovely coffee shop.
I was feeling desperate for a cigarette, and I had never smoked before. Strangely, I had never experienced peer pressure in high school—no one had asked me to do more than sleep with them, and I had no qualms about that. I drank by myself, or at parties, in daylight, or at night—the kids at school had nothing to do with that nasty habit. Cigarettes and weed, however, were not readily available, and weren't offered, so I had never tried.
Watching the gaggle of people smoking in the designated section of the airport, however, made me itch for death in my lungs.
"Hey, could you spare one?" I asked a dark-skinned man in a sports jacket, store-distressed jeans, and a buzz cut. He raised an eyebrow at me, but flipped me a cig. "How about a light?" His lighter was silver, and he was so quick lighting it that I nearly missed how it worked.
I coughed and spluttered on my first inhalation.
"Hey, you all right?" he asked. His voice was one of the deepest I had ever heard.
"Sorry," I choked. "Don't really know how to do this."
He stared at me. "I gave you your first cigarette? You are eighteen, aren't you?"
"Twenty-two," I wheezed, attempting another breath of smoke, and failing.
"You gotta hold in your mouth until you get used to it," he explained. I tried what he said, and managed not to cough. "Very good." He put on an ironic smile and took a drag on his own Marlboro.
This Toby licked the roof of my mouth and I liked it. He sucked my neck and I liked it. Hell, Toby pulled my hair and I liked it. I look back on it as a weekend well spent, nursing two of my newest addictions.
Scotty was so typical that I hadn't met anyone like him. He was the essence of the stereotypes "mama's boy", "nerd", "desperate loser", and even "brace face." He even worked in the library, for Christ's sake.
I had the most disgusting cough the day we met, a Tuesday. I'd gone into the public library for the restroom, with one hand covering my snot-covered face, and the other grasping my purse with a white-knuckled grip as loud, growling, ripping coughs once again wracked my entire body. The entire library population turned to stare at the woman who dared to disrupt their tangible quiet. I just kept on toward the bathroom and courteously opened the door with my hip. After taking care of my nose, I just stared at my sallow reflection for a while, contemplating when, exactly, was the last time I laughed. Not counting the ironic, sarcastic laugh I'd perfected over the years, I honestly couldn't remember.
I wasn't wearing any makeup, so I had no qualms about dunking my head in the sink. The shock of the cold water felt good, and for once I didn't wonder if I could drown myself this way. When I reemerged, I looked more sunken than ever, but felt much more in control. I coughed halfheartedly as I dried my face, squared my shoulders, and went out to face humanity again, wishing, as I was more and more those days, that I could will them away once in a while.
The books were listed by author, so the ranges in ages were wide. I ran my fingers over the spines, liking the different textures, how the old books were bound in soft, torn fabric, and the newer editions in hard, impenetrable plastic. I knew that if I had my eyes open, I'd be drawn to the bright shiny covers of more recent books, so I kept them closed and searched by feel—a new method of judging books by their covers.
One had raised letters; I took it from the shelf. Another was thin and long, sticking out from the other books; I added it to my stack. The second two I chose at random, twirling myself until I was dizzy and fell forward onto a shelf. I didn't look at my choices as I wound my way to the checkout counter.
"Did you find everything you need?" The man was older than me, I noticed, but still had bars of metal across his teeth. His acne looked little improved from his adolescent years, and his voice was nasally—I could hear every breath he took. I immediately found him endearing, but not near enough to stay and chat.
"Need? No. I didn't even want these." I dropped the books on the counter.
"Oh?" He gazed at the first book. "Ordinary People by Judith Guest. Interesting. I haven't read it."
I rolled my eyes to the ceiling. "Neither have I. That's why I'm checking it out."
The man nodded, and picked up the next book. It was a Where's Waldo? picture book. "Eclectic taste," he noted. I was actually excited about reading that one, and didn't appreciate his sardonic tone.
James and the Giant Peach was easily explained by a love of children's fiction—why this man wanted to know, I couldn't figure out, but passed it off as his being chatty—but The New Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein was harder to explain. I didn't say anything in response to his cocked eyebrow—what did I care if he thought I was gay, after all, and who was he to judge, in any case?—and merely walked out of the building after collecting my books. I started when I heard, "Wait!" yelled from behind me.
"Yes?" I asked, surprised. It was the man.
"I'm Scotty," he said, holding out his hand. It was too small for his wrists, and made my mouth pull into a half smile. He was a few steps higher than me, so I reached up to grasp it.
"Gretel," I told him.
"Gretel," he repeated, but not in the incredulous way some people say—no, he honestly seemed happy. I gave him a real smile.
"Would you mind if I wrote down the names of the books you're getting? I'd like to read them, too. We could compare thoughts."
I stared at him. He was so earnest, it touched me. "You know—what was your name again?"
"Scotty," he offered, unperturbed.
"Scotty—I probably won't get around to reading them. A lot of times," I paused, hardly believing what I was saying, "A lot of times, I start things, but don't finish them."
He blinked at me, his small, watery eyes made even smaller by his concerned eyebrows. "Give them to me," he said. "I'll read them for you."
"I'll keep the Waldo book."
I wouldn't call what we had a relationship. It might be stretching to even call it a friendship, though "acquaintances" was completely off the mark. Scotty wheedled my phone number out of my fingertips, and he shoved his own into my purse when I wasn't looking. He drew a little heart next to his name. I crumpled it up and threw it into the fire the maid, Marian (I was borrowing her from my parents), started for me. I wasn't angry, I was indifferent, and it was the closest means of disposal.
Still, the next Tuesday I found myself at the library again.
"I only work today," he said. "Well, volunteer, actually. A friend of mine usually has this shift, but he gets to visit his little girl on Tuesdays, and, you know, that's special."
I smiled at him warmly. "How are the books?"
"They were great."
"You've read all of them already?"
I was itching to ask him what, exactly, was great about The New Joy of Gay Sex, but discovered I really didn't care about the answer—just the perfunctory resulting expression. I was careful asking Scotty questions, because the man loved to hear his own gravelly, high-pitched voice.
Our "thing" continued for several weeks. I only ever saw him on Tuesdays, and wasn't really interested in making our meetings more frequent. It was nice to have something to look forward to; Scotty was doting and flattering, and seemed to really like me. I didn't mind the crush, or listening to his long-winded rants about nothing. I'd sit behind the desk, with my feet on the counter, gazing around at the turning pages and settling dust, and occasionally nod at whatever Scotty was saying. I very rarely needed to respond, and that suited me just fine.
On our last Tuesday (though we didn't know it), Scotty wanted to take me out for drinks. I was having an unusually happy day—I think it was my freshly steamed carpets and the fourteen hours of sleep—so I agreed with good humor. Scotty scribbled something in the little black calendar book he always had with him, and we set off. When I asked him what he wrote in there, he just shrugged and said, "Oh, you know…" I wasn't curious enough to pursue it.
However, when he left the little book lying provocatively on the café table in front of me, I couldn't resist. He'd gone to get drinks, and the line was long. I picked it up, flipped it to that day, and felt my jaw pop as it dropped open.
He had a woman's name written on every day of the week. Sunday, Maura. Monday, Dana. Tuesday, Gretel. Wednesday, Evangeline. Thursday, OPEN. Friday, Joanne. Saturday, Kathy. Under my name for that day, it read, agreed to coffee—+1. I flipped back a couple weeks, to the last entry with a name for Thursday. Irene, scored; mediocre. Jennifer better.
Scotty came back with the drinks. "They didn't have hazelnut, so I just got you—hey, what are you doing!"
"Oh, Scotty," I said. I gave him a look of extreme disappointment, shook my head, and walked out of the café, leaving his chubby, collapsed face staring at the block-letter "You didn't even read the books, did you?" scrawled in Sharpie in his little black book.
I didn't have a single fling for the next two months. I tried out my other impulsive tendencies—Paul said they werethe real ones, and the whole sex-drive thing was completely normal, but whatever—including whittling hundreds of mini-carousel horses, working as a ride-attendant at a local fair, and I even went to church for three Sundays in a row, because I liked the giant Jesus they had stuck in the earth outside. Part of the wood on his face had chipped, and it appeared he was smiling—until you looked up close, and then half of his upper lip was missing. I kinda liked it both ways.
The old woman had no toes. That wasn't the first thing I noticed about her; no, what really made me stop was the fact that her change-collecting mug read "#1 Dad".
"Where'd ya get that mug?" I asked, deciding last second on my Brooklyn accent.
"What?" the old woman barked. Her hand shook as she held the whittling knife—I guess I should've been alarmed; one of her eyes stayed staring left, after all, but I just felt mild curiosity. "What did you say? Come closer!"
I did, crouching in front of her, adjusting her threadbare shawl so it hung straight. "How's business?" I asked as if I were an old friend.
She squinted at me, her mass of leathery wrinkles folding over one another. "You're not Marky?"
"Nope, not Marky. Gretel."
"Oh." She looked pleasantly bewildered. "Do I know you?"
"No, not really. I was just admiring your mug here."
The old woman smiled proudly and said, "Yeah, Marky gave it to me."
"I bet he did. Here, let me help ya with that." I took her whittling knife, and began carving another of the little horses she had laid out in front of her—at least, I thought that's what they were. I wasn't an exceptional artist, or anything. I just knew my slender fingers could do better than her shaking, arthritis-y ones. "Now, tell me about this Marky. Is he your son? ..."
I almost tripped over the Ferris wheel at the fourth of July fair. It was the second of July—I was going through my mindless wandering phase, where I would meditate while walking; it was not productive, practical, or safe, but that was how I lived my life, so I didn't mind. The Ferris wheel was a skeleton of what it would become just that evening—lying on its side, unlit, it seemed so unmagical that I kicked dirt on it and pivoted on my heel, intending to get a two-o-clock vodka on the rocks at the first bar I came to. Instead, I came face to face with a handlebar mustache.
"You the kid?" the man asked. He was massive, and not in a muscley way.
"Marian said you were bigger." I shrugged. "Well, this is her," he said, gesturing at the Ferris wheel.
"What's her name?" I asked absently, watching various trucks being unloaded around me.
When I turned towards the man, looking for an answer, he wasn't there.
The maid, Marian, had gotten me the job. Apparently her nephew had broken his leg at a construction site, and needed someone to fill in for him at the fair—I hadn't been her first choice at all, but I overheard the conversation, and volunteered.
Even one-hundred feet tall and lit up, the Ferris wheel made me sad, somehow. Maybe it was the fact that it had lain down, and would be laid down once again on July sixth. I named it Susan, because its carts rocked very little and the latches locked very tightly. It hardly squeaked at all. Susan had always felt like a motherly name.
My job was to lock the carts. It wasn't especially grueling, and it was a nice chance for me to observe people in what was supposed to be a fun setting. The couples didn't make me as sad as they did normally, and I gave them all a special smile.
One of the men I let on was alone. He was attractive; his light-brown hair was thick and his lips were wide and full. I asked him where his girlfriend was.
"She's at home," he said, smiling at me. I couldn't help but be a little disappointed, even if it was ridiculous. He was a complete stranger, and hadn't even come on to me first. "She doesn't appreciate the magic of a good old Ferris wheel ride."
"Her name is Susan," I told him, locking his gate with a metallic snap.
He turned around in his seat to call to me, "Whose?"
"The wheel's!" I yelled back, and he grinned before turning back around. I was still smiling as I ushered the next couple into their cart.
We had some technical difficulties, and the ride screeched to a halt. Anxious voices came from each of the carts, but they shouldn't have been bothered; according to Johnny, the guy monitoring the ride's big red button, this happened all the time. Poor Susan. It was my incredible luck that the good-looking man's cart stopped just within speaking-distance.
"And what's your name?" he asked me.
"Gretel." I gave him what I hoped was a coy smile. I wasn't used to having to attract men, but I had this pull to make this man like me.
"What an interesting name. I'm Paul."
"Hello Paul." I grinned.
"How did you end up attending a Ferris wheel?"
I decided on the truth—I was known for making up extravagant lies on the spot, but I wanted to be real with Paul. I honestly couldn't explain. I think it was his eyes—they were so warm and trusting. Though that might've just been the brown. "My maid's nephew needed a stand-in. He broke his leg."
"And you frequently do favors for your maid?"
"I was bored."
"Now there's probably a more accurate explanation." We smiled at each other again for a moment, before the ride started creaking forward again. I watched the top of his brown head until it disappeared up the curve of the sky.
"It was nice meeting you, Gretel," Paul said, stepping awkwardly out of the ride. He bumped his head on the top of the cart—not a rare occurrence for riders over six feet—but that just made me like him more.
"The same, Paul." We smiled at one another as we shook hands. His were so warm that I decided it wasn't just the brown that made his eyes so lovely.
"Your hands are cold," he commented. "Always," I replied. And he was gone.
I saw the church first on a Sunday morning, around five o' clock. I hadn't gone to sleep that night, had preferred to spend the night driving around, observing what life I could in the early hours. I found it strangely peaceful, felt a connection with the dedicated runners, muttering nutcases, and milkmen of the world.
Jesus stared at me. I stared back, tilted my head to the right. He didn't mimic me.
They had a seven o' clock service, and I sat in the McDonald's next door, buying McFlurry after McFlurry (every flavor) until six thirty rolled around.
I sat in the back of the church and greeted everyone like I belonged.
The next week, I found myself back again. This time, I sat in the middle, on the far left, in the colored light of the stained glass window. One of the Saint's faces sat on top of my head, and I fancied I felt safer. I spoke to no one, and left in the middle of the service.
The following Saturday, I had resolved not to come, but my medicine refused to allow me shuteye, so I hopped in the car. I felt pissed off at the Jesus, that Sunday—it felt as if my will was being compromised—but I quickly got over it.
I sat in the front of the congregation. I sang along to the hymns, even waved my hands in the air as if I were channeling the spirit. I signed up for the church's bake sale—told the woman at the desk that I'd be bringing brownies. I shook the priest's hand on my way out, allowed him to bless me. I never came back.
A friend recommended me to Paul's hospital. She said the old shrink there was really good—which meant he was really generous with his prescriptions. I saw the doctor, and he seemed perfectly nice, but he kept staring at my knees, which freaked me out, so I left. I stopped in the hospital cafeteria for some iced tea, and heard my named called.
"Gretel! Here!" It was a man's voice, so I was hesitant turning around.
He was dressed in the long white coat of a doctor, but it was open, and underneath he was wearing a dark green, snug fitting sweater and Levis. "Paul!" I said, pleasantly surprised. "You're a doctor?"
"What, doctors can't ride on Ferris wheels?" He looked even better in daylight.
"No, doctors can't be twenty-five." I gave him the same grin I had that night, and he did the same. I felt like no time had passed between now in then, when in fact it had been over a month.
"Twenty-six, and you're right, I'm a resident."
"Tsk, tsk. Awfully misleading."
"Aw, come on. I have all the same responsibilities."
"What do you do? Cure sore throats? Apply band-aids?"
"Nothing so gallant. I'm a shrink." He hung his head in mock chagrin, but I could see him peeking at my expression from under his eyelashes.
I swallowed, wondering if I dared. The heck with it, I decided. I looped my arm in his. "Well, Paul, that happens to be just why I'm here."
The salon was orange—I think that's what brought on the impulse. Odd things get my attention; an inappropriate color or slogan, and suddenly I'm buying it, or attending it, or whatever.
I'd done it once before—I had walked into a salon, slammed my palms on the counter, and told the hairdressers to do whatever they'd like with me—and I had regretted it then. Now, just when my hair had gone back to its long, curly mass of dark brown, I did it again, and, lo and behold, cursed myself for it. I had a clown wig. It wasn't as bad as the ducktail I'd left with the first time, but God, I was seeing Paul the next day, and now I had a clown wig. The hairdresser kept smiling smugly to himself and calling me beautiful, froofing my hair up and adding more spray to it every few seconds. He urged me to buy some product in a green bottle, and I did, along with some hair-growth shampoo, because I had nothing else to lose.
I cried that night, partially because I'd bought the wrong size underwear, but mostly because the green bottle only made my hair frizz up worse.
Paul called the next day. Four times. At one-thirty, our appointment time, I was still asleep when he called. At two, I was awake, but too lazy to get the phone in my kitchen. By four, I was just flat out avoiding him.
Unwisely, I began playing solitaire, and I always forget important things, like not answering the phone, when I play solitaire.
"Gretel! I've been so worried! Where are you?"
"Home," I growled, bracing myself for a lecture. Paul loved telling me why I was wrong. But he told me what was right with me more often, so I forgave him.
"Gretel, why did you miss our appointment today?"
I understood why he was concerned. I hadn't missed an appointment for the entire six months I'd been going to see him. If anything, I'd gone above and beyond the duty of neurotic people—I called him at obscene times, forced him to meet me over coffee to talk about my dreams. What I didn't mention was that really, I just loved seeing his smile, and loved making them appear. Oh, sure, I was screwy. But just seeing Paul helped.
"I got a haircut," I admitted. Paul sighed. "The salon was orange; I told them to have at it."
"Why would that stop you from coming to see me?"
"I look ugly," I whispered.
"Why would that matter?"
"It does." I swallowed. "It matters with you." I hung up, and tried hard not to cry.
I'd been talking a lot about Joey, Scotty, and the Tobys. I don't think Paul understood, really, what they meant to me. He said something about how I was trying to use the men in my life as outlets—I tried to explain that really, it was just a circumstance thing. So much in life was timing, and they had all been quirky at the right moment, or wearing the right color on the right day.
Joey still had a grip on my heart. That was hardest for me to tell.
The Tobys bothered me the most. They were all so different, completely unique, impossible to blend together, and yet I couldn't find a difference in my affection for them.
Sometimes I wondered if Scotty had managed to make any of the Evangelines and Joannes of the world fall in love with him, and what he would do with himself if they had.
I had a dream that I had to drive to Madison to deliver a painting to my father—it was from his Hungarian lover, who'd come to claim my house, because my father had left it to her in his will. However, if I delivered the painting—a green plum—she would allow me to wait on her and live under the stairs. I believe I was a witch at one point, but I can't really remember.
Somehow, along the way, I took a wrong turn and ended up in Michigan, where Paul once told me his family lived. I wound my way around the curving roads, with the painting over the windshield—it didn't alarm me. Paul was waiting outside for me, underneath a giant tree; but then, he was giant, too. He seemed to glow as he picked me up in his hand and carried me to a tire swing, high, high up in the branches. It seemed doll sized, until he put me in it and made it rock with his breath. He started to sing—in a voice that wasn't his at all, but my dream-self didn't seem to mind—of beauty, and life, and love, and, ironically, dreams. I joined in, and as my alto curled around the tangible notes of his tenor, the leaves came together and formed a couch that we both sat on, doll and giant, suddenly of equal sizes. I forgot everything as I looked into his eyes, and dream or not, I knew.
"Gretel! Gretel, open the door, sweetheart!" I opened one eye, and felt distinctly like death. And not the warmed over kind.
"No!" I barked, and rolled over. I may have consumed one too many homemade bloody marys—even though I hated them—the night before. The pounding continued, however, so I got out of bed creakily, stepped onto the cold tiles of my bathroom, and slammed the door. The shower wasn't nearly long enough—I was hoping for twenty-four hours, but the hot water ran out after half of one.
I checked my email next, knowing Paul was probably making camp outside of my door, but not really caring—or so I told myself. He'd be there for a while, anyway, and I didn't want to cave too soon. There were thirty stupid forwards from Mom. I really should visit, I thought, deleting them all with a single click. I saw the Polaroid of Michael and I sitting on my desk—dear Michael. I hadn't really seen him with any blonde. Or maybe I had—but I was certainly less than positive, and had only accused him of cheating because he accused me of avoiding him. It had gotten ugly, and I didn't like him enough for him not to be attractive at all times. And, anyway, I was pretty sure he had a new girlfriend already. I sighed, crumpled the picture with my left hand, and walked towards the door. Better, I reasoned, to look like absolute crap than to just be a bit less pretty than normal.
"What?" I snarled, throwing open the door. Sure enough, Paul was sitting on the second step down on my porch. He patted the concrete next to him, and I sighed like a martyr before sitting down.
"I like your hair," he offered, fingering the ends of it.
"Nice try," I sighed, twirling a piece around my finger.
"No, really. It suits you. You used to be too small for your hair."
At five foot two, I was too small for anything, but I didn't say this to Paul. I thought of my lack of hips and unimpressive chest, and made a face. I pulled my knees to my chin and wrapped my arms around them. I reminded myself that I could make it alone—that's why everyone went away, after all; I couldn't bear to stay in one place, with one person. Well, until Paul. But Paul was just a dream, and like my own that night, he would someday drift away to the edges of my consciousness, and the more I would think of him the more I wouldn't be able to remember, until I forgot entirely, happily alone and oblivious to the aches and pains in my heart.
"You had quite a night last night, huh?" Paul put his arm around me, gave me one of his smiles that I was crazy about.
I shook my head. "No, just getting drunk and miserable by myself."
He gave me a stern look. "You haven't gotten back together with Michael?"
"I don't love Michael."
Paul softened. "You don't have to, of course."
I could feel my eyes burning, and wanted to get this out before the tears came, and the dream went away. "I love someone else."
"Someone I've known for a while."
"Don't tell me Joey came back." Paul had been worried that Joey would go back on his word to stay away.
"No, no. Someone good for me. But I don't think I'm good for him."
"Oh, really? And why not?"
"For one thing, he has a formal education."
"You're very smart, Gretel."
"And he's a different kind of handsome than I'm used to loving."
"Well, you're the kind of beautiful that goes with everyone, honey."
The tears came barreling out of my eyes. "And…and he's a much better person than I am," I choked out, trying my best not to sob.
Paul laughed, pulled me tighter to him. "I won't try to argue with you—maybe you could learn from him?"
"And he's my doctor and I think it's really noble that he sees his patients for free, me especially, and he…" I swallow, sobbing, "and he always makes me feel special and beautiful, and I don't think shrinks are allowed to do that at all."
I wasn't looking at his expression; I was both too embarrassed and crying too hard. But I felt his arms around me, felt him pull me into his arms, and heard him whisper, "I was hoping you'd say that" into my ear.
At first I was crying too hard to kiss him back properly, but Paul was patient. When I finally had myself under control, he was so sweet, and tender, and lovely, that I was sobbing again, but happily this time.
"I've loved you since the Ferris wheel," Paul told me.
"Alexandra?" I asked.
"Hasn't been living with me for months. I proposed to her as a last ditch attempt to deny the fact that I loved you, and to keep things the way they were—I'm a creature of habit, as you well know. But Alexandra saw right through me."
"She's a sweet girl." Paul nodded into my hair.
"You know, I think you're under a misconception. I don't give sessions for free."
"You sure as hell aren't charging me!" I exclaimed, wondering wildly for a moment whether he'd been taking money out of my bank account. "Are you?"
Paul looked deep into my eyes, traced my eyebrows, down my temples, and to my chin. "Sweetheart," he said. "I'd been talking to you on my lunch break."
I couldn't help but laugh. "I'm so clueless."
"That's what I love about you. One of the things."
"I'm a pretty impossible lady to be with," I felt compelled to remind him. This was so crazy, so, so unwarrantedly wish fulfilling, that I felt I had to warn him of what he was saying. Too good to be true ran through my mind, and I nodded at nothing.
He laughed, rubbed the back of his head, and gave me this look—one I'd remember at the altar, and again whenever I saw him smile out of the corner of my eye. A look that made me grin back, without conscious thought other than, "Finally." My whole body shivered, and it was more delicious than all the dark nights I'd spent with men, searching for this exact feeling. "I know," he said, still laughing, and looking at me. "I know."
It wasn't true, what they said about how if you taste happiness once, the rest of your life won't be as sweet—Paul and I managed to grasp onto an understanding of it and never let go. And, really, isn't that all you can ask for—to live and love with clear eyes?