So What If I Love You That’s None of Your Busi­ness

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Am­ber Der­mont

In June, I dreamt of Win­woodie, again. The one where he’s wear­ing a black fire­man’s jacket, I’m in a vo­lu­mi­nous bal­le­rina skirt, and we’re hurtling through my an­cient his­tory in a glass-domed train. Land­scapes of in­glo­ri­ous trans­gres­sions flicker out­side the windows: the au­thor rid­ing shot­gun with plas­tered bas­tards, the au­thor break­ing her face against comic book fists, the au­thor dar­ing strangers to un­tie her from rail­road tracks. While Malachy Win­woodie nar­rates the in­eluctable mis­takes I’ve made with fin­ger­tips and mouths, I reach out to un­lock the brass hooks and D-ring buck­les that se­cure his flame-re­tar­dant coat. Win­woodie de­flects my touch, points to stock footage of me wak­ing up alone. “Self-ex­ile, huh? That’s a loser’s game.” With a sin­gle spark of his eye­lashes, a chalk­board ap­pears. In lieu of chalk, Win­woodie lights a cig­a­rette, sketches a pyra­mid in ash. “Be­hold, your fallen em­pire.” Smoke and cin­ders fill the train and set my skirt ablaze. I wait for Win­woodie to save me. “Re­lax,” he says. “You’re just smol­der­ing.” When I fi­nally men­tioned my dream to Arlo, he said, “Well, the nice thing about that dream is that we don’t have to in­ter­pret it.”

In an ef­fort to dis­close ev­ery aw­ful rea­son to dis­like me, here are a few facts: I am a writer. I am a writer of mod­er­ate suc­cess. In his blurb for my first novel, Arlo refers to me as “a great new Amer­i­can tal­ent.” Strangers of­ten pay me noth­ing to fly to dis­tant cities, stand at am­pli­fied podi­ums, and read my widely un­read sto­ries to sparse, fid­gety crowds. After th­ese read­ings, my hosts in­sist on tak­ing me out for pad thai to apol­o­gize for the poor at­ten­dance/weak book sales and to ask when I might take it upon my­self to write some­thing “more up­lift­ing.” For most self-hat­ing nov­el­ists, this level of ac­com­plish­ment would seem pos­i­tively tri­umphant. But if you asked me about the defin­ing con­tours of my life, I would tell you that I’m newly or­phaned, that I’m re­cov­er­ing from lon­gover­due surgery for “max­illo­fa­cial trauma,” and that I know bet­ter than to be­gin a story with a dream.

At the start of the sum­mer, I was still slug­gish from the anes­the­sia, hav­ing gone so far un­der, I had yet to resur­face. In the hopes of dis-

tract­ing me from my fa­ther’s re­cent pass­ing and my own post-sur­gi­cal de­pres­sion, Arlo had in­sisted I move into the guest bed­room of the mid-cen­tury mod­ern ice storm he shared with his hus­band, Vance. We de­clared this “Our Sum­mer of Vin­tage Atari,” of Arlo pro­cras­ti­nat­ing with me, Mis­sile Com­mand, Blas­teroids, and Ram­page. 3-D tech­nol­ogy gave us mo­tion sick­ness. We pre­ferred sim­ple point-and-shoot mis­sions through poorly pix­i­lated worlds. The flat fast­ness of Mil­li­pede calmed our wild anx­i­ety. After joy­stick­ing our morn­ings away, we’d re­deem our­selves by walk­ing Arlo’s pugs, Ghost and Ms. Pac-man, through the priv­i­leged woods of Con­necti­cut. Arlo and the pugs had long suc­cumbed to Lyme dis­ease, so we hardly wor­ried about ticks. We wor­ried about meet­ing our dead­line. Arlo and I had be­gun col­lab­o­rat­ing on what only the most com­mit­ted nov­el­ists dare to write: a tele­vi­sion show. Ev­ery morn­ing, be­fore head­ing into the city, Vance checked the su­tures in my face, ir­ri­gated my nos­trils, and changed my blood-soaked gauze, then I sucked on a bub­ble gum–fla­vored mor­phine lol­lipop, Arlo toked on his vape pen, and to­gether we can­ni­bal­ized drafts of aborted short sto­ries, search­ing for scenes where overly ver­bal id­iosyn­crat­ics in­di­rectly com­mu­ni­cate their ir­re­sistible ge­nius—all of this in the hopes of mon­e­tiz­ing our least com­mer­cial work. Our agents had con­vinced us that tele­vi­sion was a sa­cred realm where show run­ners were lauded as gods. We’d given our­selves un­til Septem­ber to con­ceive an en­tire TV se­ries and pre­pare a pitch for ex­ec­u­tives who would ei­ther dis­count us or make us mon­strously rich. Arlo car­ried him­self with an in­tel­lec­tual glam­our: but­ton-down hand­some and bril­liantly dis­mis­sive. Mean in the best pos­si­ble way. I trusted his opin­ion on what to wear, when to protest, and whom to love. We’d first met in grad school at a party for a Pulitzer prizewin­ner nei­ther of us had read nor, in truth, ever heard of—a big­headed blowhard who greeted his party host by ask­ing, “Where are the Work­shop sluts?” That night, Arlo was trac­ing hard on bour­bon and ditch weed, while I was sober as fuck. Back then, I never drank, never smoked. This made Arlo sus­pi­cious. To show him how truly dan­ger­ous I could be, I dared Arlo to jump onto a tram­po­line from a sec­ond-story bal­cony. Arlo bragged that in high school, he’d sur­vived a rooftop drop into a brack­ish swim­ming pool. “I was pushed in by some preppy cunt. Ac­tu­ally, she looked a lot like you.” Thus be­gan our sin­gu­lar friend­ship. Even on our na­ture walks, Arlo wore fit­ted Ox­ford shirts, selvedge denim, and musky car­damom cologne hand-mixed by Vene­tian monks. He cu­rated his life with fo­cused care. Arlo over­paid for clas­sic video game car­tridges, vin­tage cir­cus punks, and Scan­di­na­vian fur­ni­ture. He railed against the evils of Mon­santo and Made in China. Arlo was a

nov­el­ist, but he’d scored his real for­tune doc­tor­ing screen­plays. The vil­lain’s catch­phrase ut­tered mo­ments be­fore the he­li­copter explodes? Arlo wrote that. The hero’s con­fi­dent re­tort? Arlo once again. Though I was of­ten con­tent to stare at my thin wrists and sur­vey my own weak pulse, Arlo put me to work, coach­ing me on Comme des Garçons, Bru­tal­ist ar­chi­tec­ture, snappy di­a­logue, and the dan­gers of pes­ti­cides. We spent hours browsing dis­count Ital­ian fash­ion web­sites and sign­ing on­line pe­ti­tions to ban Roundup. But we also went to MOMA to see Tilda Swin­ton sleep in a glass cof­fin. We ar­gued over whether we were too smart or maybe not smart enough to write a tele­vi­sion show. While we hiked among the hick­ory and sumac, the fawn-coated pugs dart­ing over our feet, Arlo con­fided that he and Vance were once again in the throes of at­tempt­ing to adopt a child, any child. Their first failed bid had nearly ended their re­la­tion­ship. A sec­ond strike led to Vance spend­ing less time at their coun­try home, sleep­ing most week­nights in the City, where he hedge-funded his way through their mar­riage. The last gasp would end with ei­ther a baby or a di­vorce. Vance had a swimmer’s body, an ob­scenely sculpted chest, and arms that never failed to make me feel safe. Though Arlo was my clos­est friend, I feared a life with­out Vance. He man­aged al­ways to smell like the ocean, like my own lost fa­ther after a day of sail­ing: Bay Rhum and sea air but also hon­eyed diesel fuel. I was happy for Arlo, cer­tain that he and Vance would make out­stand­ing fa­thers, but ear­lier that morn­ing, after a fit­ful sleep, I’d heard Vance say to Arlo: “What­ever you do, do not al­low her to read the Wed­ding Sec­tion.” My ex-boyfriend, The Poet, who’d bro­ken my nose if not my heart, and a for­mer ac­quain­tance, for whom I’d once pur­chased bleach cream (for her mous­tache), had mar­ried. A volup­tuous pro­duc­tion in the Hamp­tons that The Times billed as “A Me­dieval Moroc­can Equine Fan­ta­sia.” I asked, “Would you re­ally want the word ‘equine’ in your wed­ding an­nounce­ment?” Arlo said, “No one that out of shape should get mar­ried in his pa­ja­mas while rid­ing a white horse.” I paused and looked off into the mid­dle dis­tance of the woods. The wed­ding col­umn had left me feel­ing party to a crime. Arlo was say­ing ev­ery­thing I wouldn’t al­low my­self to think. The Poet did look chubby and ridicu­lous in his sparkling gold tu­nic astride a list­less, likely flat­u­lent geld­ing. That morn­ing’s mor­phine lolly had al­ready worn off, leav­ing me with noth­ing more than a mouth full of sickly sweet spit. I could feel the tiny sur­gi­cal stitches hold­ing the in­side of my face to­gether. It was hard to rec­on­cile the fri­vol­ity of the wed­ding pages with the for­ever

mem­ory of my ex-boyfriend’s knuck­les slam­ming against the parts of me he hated most. I turned back to Arlo and said, “I want to find that white horse and save him. That horse is the only one who truly un­der­stands what I’ve been through.” The hard­est part was see­ing so many friends smile across the slide show of the Wed­ding Sec­tion, toast­ing a man who had once beaten his girl­friend so badly that she could hear the big bang of her face frac­tur­ing into white stars. There was no eti­quette, no an­nounce­ment sec­tion for what she’d been through. She could take a hit—was even proud of this fact—but just a few years later, she would not only still feel the break in­side her head, she would suf­fer a near-fa­tal col­lapse be­cause of the scar­ring from those wounds. I hated think­ing of my­self in the third per­son, but it was dif­fi­cult to ad­mit that my per­sis­tent in­tractable headaches and grand mal seizures had come at the hands of a poet.

That night, for the first time in years, I dreamt of Win­woodie.

It had been well over a decade since I’d last seen him, but, even in my sleep, I rec­og­nized his sneer, the sexy way he looked down on ev­ery­one. Malachy Win­woodie stood over me smok­ing, while I knelt be­fore him braid­ing gar­lands of ivy and ex­ten­sion cords. “You’re do­ing it wrong,” Win­woodie smiled. He in­serted the plug from one of the cords into his palm, il­lu­mi­nat­ing a string of starry lights that warmed my face and bright­ened his pale eyes. Win­woodie tossed pieces of pink candy at me, and, like a child chas­ing a pa­rade float, I caught the treats. As I un­wrapped the foil, each lozenge turned into a num­bered poly­he­dron dice. I asked, “What was my first mis­take?” Win­woodie clutched his free hand over my fists and shook the dice in my palms. “Lose first then be re­warded.” The ini­tial dreams felt like a side ef­fect of the mor­phine lol­lipops, of sleep­ing in a guest bed­room in a glass house that whis­tled and shook with the wind. But soon, other dreams of Win­woodie fol­lowed: a mis­ad­ven­ture in a for­est with in­vis­i­ble hunters shoot­ing ar­rows, a shoplift­ing spree in­volv­ing squadrons of flu­o­res­cent army men, a space-age fan­tasy of Win­woodie in a fly­ing saucer straf­ing Mar­tians with minia­ture rock­ets. Win­woodie wasn’t af­fec­tion­ate. Even in my dreams, I couldn’t con­jure kind­ness from him. Once, he tucked fly­away strands of blon­de­ness be­hind my ears and said, “You’d look bet­ter as a brunette.” An­other time, while I tripped down a fire es­cape in a ball gown, he leaned against a brick wall, the type of wall you ex­e­cute peo­ple in front of, and warned, “Keep your dis­tance.” When I dared to ap­proach, Win­woodie slid his

warm hands down my ex­posed back, looked me dead square and said, “I won’t dance. Don’t ask me.” De­spite Win­woodie’s lack of ro­mance and my in­abil­ity to incite af­fec­tion, th­ese dreams felt oddly erotic. A valen­tine from my imag­i­na­tion. My un­con­scious mind whis­per­ing, “This is the boy you should have loved. The one boy strange enough to love you.” It was mid-july be­fore I men­tioned the dreams to Arlo. We were stoned and wan­der­ing in our woods hav­ing made mar­ginal progress on our pilot script—a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic love tri­an­gle be­tween an in­ter­ga­lac­tic mail­man and a gen­der-shift­ing com­puter scientist. Dur­ing some episodes, the scientist would be male, other weeks fe­male, but, ei­ther way, the mail­man would de­liver his love. We called it Space Odd­ity after Bowie. Our com­puter scientist was in­spired by Jamie Fen­ton, the trans­gen­der soft­ware de­signer who had cre­ated Arlo’s fa­vorite video game, the im­pos­si­ble-to-win Gorf. With ev­ery wrong move, the game ad­mon­ished its play­ers with our fa­vorite insult: “Bad move, Space Cadet!” I kept propos­ing we switch our fo­cus away from scripted tele­vi­sion to­ward de­vel­op­ing a re­al­ity show. All we needed was a con­cept and a catchy ti­tle: My Fat Wife Can Beat Your Fat Wife. Zaftig brides bat­tling it out, while their skinny part­ners urged them on­ward. Arlo sug­gested, Wife Fight. “That way, no one’s of­fended.” I said, “We can pitch the show with the tagline, ‘If you love some­thing—let it fight.’ Even Win­woodie would ap­prove.” Arlo chased after Ghost who chased after Ms. Pac-man who chased after an imag­i­nary deer. “Why didn’t I know that you and Win­woodie were friends?” “It was grad school—we flirted at par­ties some­times. Once, when we were wait­ing in line for the bath­room, Win­woodie told me my name was an ana­gram for ‘Bad Men Tremor.’” “Ah, po­ets. I thought you were done with po­ets.” Arlo smashed down the backs of his Sperry Top-siders, and I could feel him con­tem­plat­ing his words be­fore sug­gest­ing, “You should friend him.” “I did.” I pointed to a cir­cling tur­key vul­ture. “He hasn’t re­sponded.” “I al­ways worry about rap­tors sweep­ing down and car­ry­ing off Ms. Pac-man. Ghost could frighten them away, but Ms. Pac-man would be mince­meat.” “Right now, if a claw de­scended and lifted me up to the heav­ens, I’d be grate­ful.” The tur­key vul­ture landed on a bare tree branch, and Ghost barked. An­other tree, cov­ered in black leaves, shook in re­sponse, and then a

chat­ter­ing of star­lings lifted all at once to re­veal a bar­ren oak. I mar­veled as the rest­less life aban­doned the dead tree. Arlo leaned down and rubbed Ms. Pac-man. “Win­woodie is kind of a dick or maybe more of an ass­hole. But he’s cool and Rhodes-scholar smart. I don’t think he ac­cepts many friends. You know, he lives in San Diego. With his girl­friend.” Arlo was will­ing to in­dulge me but only up to a point. The sum­mer sun had scorched our woods. With­out the lux­ury of shade, there was nowhere to hide. Breathless and over­heated, still un­able to breathe through my nose de­spite my surgery, I felt our woods burn­ing, a great con­fla­gra­tion ex­haust­ing the air. I hadn’t had a seizure in weeks, but in­side my skull, I felt an ap­proach­ing storm of electricity spark, an aura of black and green sim­i­lar to the Mid­west­ern sky be­fore a tor­nado. A metal­lic taste trick­ling down my throat as if from bal­anc­ing a ball of mer­cury on the tip of my tongue. Col­laps­ing onto our beaten path, I thought of the for­est ser­vice hot­shots who lit­er­ally fight fire with fire. Where was my fire? My fight? When I awoke from my fit, Ms. Pac-man and Ghost sniffed, yelped, and licked my face. Arlo kneeled be­side me and asked if I was okay. It took me a few min­utes but I re­gained enough of my­self to nod and say, “Why won’t Win­woodie be my friend?” “You’re right, we should do a re­al­ity show.” Arlo helped me to my feet and said, “Here, watch as this bril­liant young woman is di­min­ished by a se­ries of un­wor­thy men.” “Isn’t that ev­ery re­al­ity show?” As we slowly made our way back to­ward home, Arlo snapped a photo of Ms. Pac-man mount­ing Ghost. “Look,” Arlo said. “We’ll fight for the heart of Win­woodie. I’ll tag both of you in a post. When he sees that we’re friends, I bet he ac­cepts your re­quest.” “Thanks,” I smiled. “It’s just like a Henry James novel.” Arlo and I spent the next morn­ing tour-guid­ing through web­sites loaded with pic­tures and pro­files of chil­dren in fos­ter care. In the pho­tos, most of the po­ten­tial adoptees folded their arms against their so­lar plexuses and smiled with­out show­ing their teeth. In my ar­ro­gance, I thought I knew how they felt. Pro­tect­ing them­selves from be­ing un­wanted. I said, “Put them all in my cart, and we’ll check-out us­ing Pay­pal.” “I wish,” Arlo scrolled through pages of aban­doned tod­dlers, ne­glected tweens, moth­er­less teenagers. “The so­cial worker claims Vance and I would be a bet­ter fit for an older kid, but Vance re­ally wants a baby. He keeps talk­ing about sur­ro­gates.” “If you in­sist,” I said. “I will carry your child.”

“And ruin your beau­ti­ful body?” “We’ll work ther­mal li­po­suc­tion into my con­tract. Also, you and Vance both have to fuck me. None of this tur­key baster bull­shit.” I paused. “You know, we re­ally should write down our di­a­logue and work it into the pilot.” “That’s gross.” “When The Poet and I fought, he com­plained that ev­ery­thing I said sounded scripted. Iron­i­cally, he also claimed I wasn’t a real writer.” “Yes, and don’t for­get, you fin­ished writ­ing your books once you were sin­gle.” Arlo showed me a fif­teen-year-old with a faux hawk and an eye­brow pierc­ing. “The hard­est part of adoption is that you can’t be­lieve you’re ac­tu­ally sav­ing some­one’s life.” “Not even your own?” I asked. “Es­pe­cially not your own.” After win­dow-shop­ping for chil­dren, Arlo al­lowed me to scroll through Win­woodie’s pro­file. I wasn’t sur­prised to dis­cover that he liked ob­scure Ja­panese girl groups, Crea­ture Dou­ble Fea­ture hor­ror flicks, the Sword and Sor­cery sto­ries of Robert E. Howard, and Cheap Trick, but I was im­pressed that he had a weak­ness for videos of baby ele­phants tak­ing baths. This is how we loved now: in a quiet stalker-ish way that en­abled us to learn, at a dis­tance, far too much about those we de­sired. To my great dis­ap­point­ment, there were hardly any pho­to­graphs of Win­woodie, and though I re­strained my­self from search­ing too hard for them, I did stum­ble across a few pic­tures of a woman I as­sumed was his girl­friend. She had straight, dark hair and looked as if she shopped in the petite or ju­niors’ sec­tion at Macy’s. I would have tow­ered over her. In the years since I dated The Poet, I of­ten stud­ied women’s faces, won­der­ing if they’d ever been hit. By her sweet smile, I could tell that this woman had been loved, was be­ing loved. If a man brought his hand up to her face, she would not flinch, she would as­sume that he meant to stroke, not bruise her cheek. Though it was dif­fi­cult to gauge just how Win­woodie had aged since grad school, in my dream life, he would al­ways be a dark Vik­ing, a punkrock loner with eyes so blue they were green. If I could, I would have clicked on his full lips “Like,” his side­burns, “Like,” his sav­age in­tel­li­gence, “Like,” his lack of van­ity, “Like,” his con­tempt for humanity, “Like,” his high fore­head, “Like,” his mis­trust of false sen­ti­ment, “Like,” his spleen, “Like,” his bru­tal heart, “Like,” his quick­en­ing pulse, “Like,” his thick cock, “Like.” And that too was part of my de­sire: Malachy Win­woodie looked like he knew how to fuck. Like he might fuck away all of my dis­ap­point­ment.

One night in Au­gust, Vance came home early in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a phone call from the adoption mafia. Con­necti­cut was no­to­ri­ous for its dropped cell-phone calls, and the liv­ing room had the best re­cep­tion. Although Vance and Arlo had both in­sti­tuted a ban on eat­ing Fun­yuns on the Finn Juhl Poet Sofa or drink­ing Shi­raz on the Eero Saari­nen Womb Set­tee, the three of us tucked into the liv­ing room with our bowls of gaz­pa­cho and waited in mu­seum si­lence while the pugs sat at our feet. After din­ner, we stayed in the liv­ing room. Arlo and I stud­ied our lap­tops and shuf­fled note­cards with var­i­ous scenes from our TV pilot: our space mail­man smug­gling stolen or­phans across the galaxy, our com­puter scientist leav­ing an abu­sive spouse. Vance gen­tly sur­veyed my face and com­mented on how well I was heal­ing. Just a lit­tle swelling and ten­der­ness. I could al­most breathe again. Vance asked, “So, have you heard from this mys­te­ri­ous Win­woodie fel­low?” I said, “No. The best love sto­ries do not in­clude me.” An­noyed by my own self-pity, I added, “Plus, we all know that the in­ter­net was not cre­ated for book­ish straight girls.” “True,” Vance smiled. “The in­ter­net is part of a vast Chris­tian con­spir­acy to en­tice ho­mo­sex­u­als into a life of sodomy.” “Amen,” Arlo raised his glass. “I wish the in­ter­net ex­isted when I was a teenager. Would have spared me the trou­ble of tear­ing up my fa­ther’s Golf Di­gest and jack­ing off to ads for Paco Ra­banne.” Vance picked up his cell phone and stud­ied it. “When I was fif­teen, my par­ents took our en­tire fam­ily to New York City. It was Christ­mas­time, and I wanted to pa­rade down Christo­pher Street. Trou­ble was, I couldn’t es­cape my fam­ily. On our way to the Frick, we passed a bar called Swing­ing Richard’s. I knew ex­actly what sort of place it might be.” Arlo and I squealed, “Swing­ing Dicks.” Vance nod­ded. “We were lucky enough to stay at The Pierre, and just be­fore we left for the air­port, I took the Man­hat­tan Yel­low Pages from the bed­side drawer and tossed it into my duf­fle bag. When we got back to St. Louis, I couldn’t wait to hide in my room and study the names of all of the bars and night­clubs in Man­hat­tan. I still re­mem­ber: ‘The Man­hole,’ ‘The Mine Shaft,’ ‘Woody’s,’ ‘Stud’s,’ ‘Her­cules.’ All through high school, on Tues­day and Wed­nes­day nights, I would call one of the bars, chat with the bar­tender un­til he got too bored or too busy, and then I’d ask him to hand the phone off to one of the pa­trons. I’d get off while th­ese old men told me all of the re­mark­able and filthy things they’d love to do to me.” I turned to Arlo and said, “You re­al­ize, your hus­band in­vented phone sex.” Ghost and Ms. Pac Man barked at me.

Arlo calmed the pugs. He cocked his head and gave a half smile. “And what did th­ese men want to do to you?” He looked as though he’d never heard this story be­fore. “The usual. They wanted me to de­scribe my­self, my chest, my ass, my prick. I got to know a few of the reg­u­lars from var­i­ous bars and be­came a kind of club mas­cot. One of the old gey­sers ac­tu­ally wrote me a let­ter of rec­om­men­da­tion for Co­lum­bia. You should just reach out to Win­woodie. Why not call him?” “Maybe,” I said. “It’s a bet­ter story if Win­woodie never ac­cepts my friend­ship re­quest. If I just keep wait­ing and wait­ing.” “There are plenty of other hand­some pri­mates,” Vance said. I put aside my lap­top. “But I think my fa­ther would have liked Win­woodie.” Arlo asked, “Did you ever tell your dad what The Poet did to you?” I nod­ded. “He threat­ened to kill The Poet, which was funny be­cause at the time, my dad had th­ese oxy­gen tubes stuck up his nos­trils and a set of mag­nets where his heart should have been.” Vance said, “Never date a poet.” “It’s not that Win­woodie is any­thing like my dad, it’s just that I can imag­ine them in a room to­gether en­joy­ing each other’s com­pany. I still think about th­ese two sto­ries Win­woodie told me. One was about this video game he played that in­volved an as­tro­naut land­ing on a planet and fight­ing aliens. When he ar­rived at the fi­nal level, just when he thought he’d saved the planet, this alien came out of nowhere and fright­ened him to death. Win­woodie lit­er­ally jumped up and hid be­hind his couch. I can’t re­mem­ber the name of the game, but the way he de­scribed it, well, it was the first time I’d ever heard a boy my age be vul­ner­a­ble.” Vance did not look im­pressed. “Okay, what was the sec­ond story?” “I only heard part of it.” From what I could re­mem­ber, a high­storm of knights had dis­cov­ered a for­est of trees painted with archery tar­gets. Shot through the dead cen­ter of each bull’s-eye was an ar­row. The king, ter­ri­fied of any threat to his king­dom, or­dered his knights to find this marks­man with the per­fect aim. The knights found an old hunter and brought him to the king, and the king asked the hunter his se­cret for hit­ting bull’s-eyes. “And what did the hunter say?” Arlo asked. “That’s the prob­lem, I never heard the end of the story. I think you had one of your Paxil melt­downs and begged me to leave the party.” “It’s prob­a­bly just some dumb Dun­geons and Dragons para­ble.” “Maybe, but it’s al­ways both­ered me.”

Arlo re­ar­ranged our note­cards. “Why don’t you just write to Win­woodie? I bet he’ll be flat­tered that you re­mem­ber him and that you want to know how his story ends.” When my sur­geon first ex­am­ined my head, he knew that I’d been beaten. “Some­one did a real job on you.” It was a re­lief to not have to con­fess, to sim­ply nod in agree­ment. Then he said, “I don’t know how you man­aged to live so long with th­ese in­juries, but you would not have been able to live much longer.” When I told my fa­ther this story, he joked that I was brag­ging and that I was only proud of the worst things in my life. I said, “The Poet and his bride are go­ing to have a baby.” “How do you know?” Arlo asked. “Why else do peo­ple marry? For the kids.” It ter­ri­fied me to think of The Poet with chil­dren. “Plus, one of the last things he said to me was, ‘I want to be a fa­ther, and by the time I’ll want to have kids, you won’t be able to give them to me.’” My voice broke. “I walk around ev­ery day with lines like that burn­ing in­side my head.” Vance put down his cell phone and grabbed my hands. He ran his palms over the backs of my arms like a for­tune-teller coax­ing the fu­ture from a crys­tal ball. I waited for him to say some­thing. He and Arlo both said noth­ing. “What do we do?” I asked. “Where do we put ev­ery aw­ful thing that any­one has ever said to us?” “Don’t put it in a story,” Arlo said. “Look, I’m sorry The Poet was so aw­ful to you. But you need to stop think­ing that’s all you are.” Arlo leaned for­ward and held my cleft chin in his hand. “And you need to stop telling that story about buy­ing the bleach cream for what’s-her­name’s mous­tache.” “I could still have a baby,” I said. Arlo sat back and picked up Ghost. He held the pug on his lap and rubbed his soft belly. “You don’t need a child to love and be loved.” Arlo looked at Vance who looked away. Vance said, “It’s late.” Just then, my lap­top made a soft bird­song. Arlo glanced over at the screen and smiled. “You have a new friend.”

“Now what?” Arlo and I were on level five of Mil­li­pede, bat­tling swarms of drag­on­flies and ear­wigs, when he and Vance fi­nally re­ceived their call from the so­cial worker. Vance hated that we still messed around with video games—con­vinced that all we did in his ab­sence was smoke weed and play Pong. Vance ac­tu­ally smoked more weed than Arlo and I com­bined, but he’d stopped for the adoption.

“We’re num­ber one in line for this baby.” Vance swept into the den and turned off our game. “Please get dressed.” Arlo and Vance, the sole con­tenders for an eight-month-old baby girl whose par­ents had been ar­rested. “What were they ar­rested for?” I asked. “That’s con­fi­den­tial. We can’t dis­cuss it,” Vance said. “Drugs,” Arlo said. “Prob­a­bly meth.” Vance pointed at me. “Have you told her she’s go­ing to have to move out?” Though I’d un­der­stood all sum­mer long that it was com­ing, I was stunned by Vance’s words. In the­ory, I knew that I slept in the room that was meant for their child, but Arlo and Vance’s bed­room was up­stairs and mine was down­stairs. How would they hear the baby cry­ing, and wouldn’t they need me to play night nurse? They didn’t even have a crib—they joked about us­ing one of the draw­ers from their Ge­orge Nel­son dresser. Plus, Arlo and I still had to fin­ish our pilot script. Vance failed to in­vite me along to the hos­pi­tal. He just kissed me on the fore­head and said, “Wish us luck!”

They weren’t gone for twenty min­utes when Arlo called and asked if I would meet him in the city for lunch. “The baby’s grand­mother came for­ward. Vance went to work. I just want to wan­der around Bar­neys in search of a stylish noose.” At Bar­neys, we avoided the top floor’s ex­trav­a­gant dis­plays of de­signer cribs. Arlo told me that Vance was in­con­solable. “We were five min­utes away from the hos­pi­tal when the so­cial worker called. I’m just glad nei­ther of us saw the baby.” We ducked into a dress­ing room, and Arlo pulled out a gold-and-black vape pen. He took a hit. “To be hon­est, I’m re­lieved. I’m not sure how the pugs would han­dle be­ing around a baby. They’d prob­a­bly be jeal­ous.” Some­one had left sev­eral Junya Watan­abe black puffy jack­ets in the dress­ing room. Sculp­tural night­mares with scal­loped wings. I tried one on and Arlo said, “You look amaz­ing. Like a blown-out truck tire. I will feel so much bet­ter if you buy that jacket and never take it off.” We sat in the dress­ing room and got stoned. The hash oil numbed Arlo, but for me, all it took was one hit off the pen, and sud­denly ev­ery­thing I felt, I felt much too in­tensely. I dis­tracted Arlo with the news of Win­woodie’s first mes­sage to me. “He told me he checked my novel out of the li­brary.” “Cheap­skate.”

“No, I like that he goes to the li­brary. It’s sweet to think of a grown man pay­ing fines. I’m go­ing to mail him my short story col­lec­tion. I don’t think he writes any­more.” “So, you guys had a real con­ver­sa­tion.” “It’s just typ­ing.” Arlo stared at the mir­ror. “Prom­ise you won’t fall in love with him.” “I have an in­tu­ition about Win­woodie. Al­ways have.” “You for­got about him for nearly twenty years.” “But then I re­mem­bered him all at once.” We sat to­gether judg­ing our­selves in the mir­ror and rub­bing the backs of our hands over the coarse car­pet. “I never re­ally for­got about him. Win­woodie is the one I should have dated—not The Poet. Win­woodie’s the one that got away. Don’t you have one of those?” “I’m mar­ried, and Win­woodie has a girl­friend.” “They all have girl­friends. More im­por­tantly, they all have ex-girl­friends. Most im­por­tantly, we are all ex-girl­friends. Maybe I’ll write a story about him.” Arlo stood up and tried on one of the other black puffy jack­ets. He looked like a trash-bag matador. “You can’t write about this.” “Why not?” I asked. “Be­cause there’s no real story. What? You’re hung up on some guy who wouldn’t ac­cept your friend re­quest?” “But he did.” “Only be­cause of me.” “Then I’ll write about you, as well. You’ll be my sec­ond story. I’ll jux­ta­pose my in­fat­u­a­tion with Malachy Win­woodie against my real love for you and my sad­ness over the fact that you and I failed to have a child to­gether.” Arlo took off the jacket and tossed it near me. “We were never go­ing to have a child to­gether.” “Well, I’m go­ing to need to make some things up. Fic­tion writ­ers speak for a world that doesn’t ex­ist. In the story, I could be your sur­ro­gate.” I gath­ered the jacket he’d thrown and held its warmth against my belly. “Win­woodie is one of those ‘get your coat’ peo­ple.” “You are re­fus­ing to make any sense.” “Like, if I was at a party and he looked at me and said, ‘get your coat,’ I would leave with him.” “And where would you go?” “I would curl up on Win­woodie’s couch and watch him watch the PBS News Hour. I’d play Dun­geon Mas­ter to Win­woodie’s Anti-pal­adin. I’d re­string Win­woodie’s Doc Martens and iron his black T-shirts. I’d orga-

nize his Mi­cro­nauts. I’d make sure ev­ery­thing in Win­woodie’s home was earth­quake re­sis­tant. I’d dust his Bo Did­dley records and watch him lis­ten to The Stooges. I’d do any­thing Win­woodie asked, and then I’d fold my­self into a pa­per swan and rest in his arms. That’s love, right? I for­get the pre­cise di­men­sions.” “Win­woodie, Win­woodie, Win­woodie. Will you please stop say­ing his name?” “It means, ‘The Cas­tle of the Dis­mal Gal­lows.’ Isn’t that cool?” “This ver­sion of you, the girl who’s ob­sessed with Win­woodie, I don’t care for her one bit.” Arlo was cor­rect; I was ob­sessed. After weeks of the mor­phine numb­ing my sen­si­tiv­ity, the hash con­nected me to ev­ery univer­sal truth. I’d al­ways been in love with Malachy Win­woodie. I would al­ways be in love with Malachy Win­woodie. I didn’t need to see him to know that he was per­fect. He ex­isted so deeply in my imag­i­na­tion that I could con­jure him. The un­flat­ter­ing lights in the dress­ing room were Win­woodie; the mir­rors on the wall re­flected Win­woodie; the cou­ture clothes were sewn from Win­woodie; when I breathed in the vape pen, I ex­haled Win­woodie; the sky out­side was clouded with Win­woodie; the hot sum­mer rain stormed Win­woodie; the laven­der top notes waft­ing from the per­fume counter were from flow­ers picked along the High­lands of Win­woodie; when I swam, I swam the River Win­woodie; I walked the Boule­vard of Bro­ken Win­wood­ies; the baby ele­phants at the zoo were play­ing with straw made from Win­woodie, din­ing on Win­woodie, shit­ting Win­woodie, bathing in Win­woodie. I too was Win­woodie. The stiches now long dis­solved in my head were made from Win­woodie. The electricity and aura from my seizures were a spec­trum of Win­woodie. The warmth ris­ing in my face was the tem­per­a­ture of Win­woodie. When I dreamt, I dreamt the Dream of the Uni­fied Field of Win­wood­ies. Arlo looked at me. “I think you’re just long­ing to be in love.” “And I think that you don’t re­ally want to adopt a child.” Arlo didn’t blink. “Why don’t you try dat­ing some­one who’s as smart as you are and who lives near you and isn’t a pro­jec­tion of your imag­i­na­tion?” “That,” I said, “is a hurt­ful piece of ad­vice.” We were stoned, but there was no stench of weed to in­dict us. “If you write this story,” Arlo said, “you have to change my name. And you have to make me the best-dressed char­ac­ter. Now stop cry­ing. We need to go home and walk the dogs.”

I bought the over­priced, over-de­signed coat and wore it out of the store just to make Arlo laugh. He couldn’t stop touch­ing the cush­ioned pad-

dings. I knew that on the train ride home, he would fall asleep in the silent car against my pil­lowed chest. With over an hour to kill be­fore our train de­parted, Arlo led us to a pizza ar­cade that smelled like burnt gar­lic and le­mon dis­in­fec­tant. Hun­gry and de­feated, we needed to claim a high-score vic­tory. “This place has the only Gorf in the city with a work­ing voice box.” We spoke in our best ro­bot voices, “Bad move, Space Cadet.” While some rich-kid poseur mo­nop­o­lized Gorf, we played sev­eral rounds of Ms. Pac-man. Arlo had the game mem­o­rized all the way up to the in­fa­mous kill screen. He beat me ev­ery time, but then he apol­o­gized by in­putting my ini­tials for the high score. We bought more to­kens and stood in front of the claw ma­chine con­tem­plat­ing the cheap furry toys. I told Arlo how The Poet was the only per­son I knew who had ever man­aged to ma­nip­u­late the crane’s claw well enough to win a prize. “What did he win for you?” “A uni­corn. He caught it by its horn only he didn’t win it for me. He kept it for him­self.” “I wish that kid would stop play­ing Gorf.” “Why do you like that game so much?” “I like that it’s five games in one, and I love that the ma­chine taunts the player. Did you know that Jamie Fen­ton made a Ms. Gorf game right be­fore she tran­si­tioned from male to fe­male?” “Have you played it?” “No. It’s writ­ten in a com­puter lan­guage no one can read any­more. It’s a read­er­less text.” “Who in this con­ver­sa­tion isn’t a read­er­less text?” “Yeah.” Arlo put some to­kens in the claw ma­chine, tapped a few but­tons and aimed for the tail of a shaggy puppy. The crane dipped into the pile of faux fur and came up empty-clawed. “I bet the only thing you love more than Win­woodie is the reader. That’s your true love, the only love worth chas­ing.” Arlo pushed the dog­gie door on the bot­tom of the claw ma­chine. “Have you ever seen those sto­ries where lit­tle kids climb into th­ese suck­ers? How do they do it?” I said, “I bet their par­ents help them.” “Why would they?” “To turn their child into an in­ter­net star. Ac­tu­ally, that would be a great re­al­ity show. Footage of chil­dren crawl­ing in­side th­ese claw ma­chines and giving away toys.” “That’s just the in­cit­ing in­ci­dent. The real show is what hap­pens after the par­ents are ar­rested. When we take their chil­dren away from them and raise them our­selves.” Arlo paused. “You know you’re go­ing to have to leave our house, right? Vance wants the guest bed­room back.”

I nod­ded and said, “I should move into my dad’s condo. Fi­nally clean out the place.” My phone buzzed. Malachy Win­woodie had sent a mes­sage. After our first chat, I’d writ­ten Win­woodie a long note ask­ing him about his video game story and his para­ble of the archer. I should have stopped there, but I went on to de­scribe my dreams, and soon I was writ­ing my most elo­quent and pol­ished prose declar­ing my long­stand­ing, un­wa­ver­ing crush. It was the kind of risk that seemed rea­son­able at two a.m. The poseur aban­doned Gorf, and Arlo sprinted off to play. I leaned against the claw ma­chine and read Win­woodie’s mes­sage.

Hey, Thanks for stroking my ego. I was sur­prised by your con­fes­sion. In my dim mem­ory of you, you dis­liked me in­tensely. I re­mem­ber be­ing at a party and telling you that your name was an ana­gram for “Bad Men Tremor.” You just scowled and turned away. Maybe it was some sort of boy/girl thing.

What’s funny is that your mes­sage is not the first of its kind. Three years ago, an­other woman from grad school con­tacted me. She wasn’t some­one I re­ally knew, and we’d never been friends. She was mar­ried, had chil­dren, had given up writ­ing but was do­ing well enough pro­fes­sion­ally. Any­way, she was go­ing to be on the West Coast, and she asked to see me, and then she asked to stay with me. When she fi­nally ar­rived, she an­nounced that she’d fallen in love with me (based on my in­ter­net post­ings—ha!). I had noth­ing bet­ter to do at the time so I in­dulged her. It didn’t work out well for ei­ther of us.

Not to thwart your ad­vances (I’m hon­estly flat­tered and a lit­tle stunned be­cause you al­ways seemed way out of my league), but I just thought I should spare you the trou­ble of lik­ing me. I’m a bit of a bas­ket case, and my girl­friend is kind of a saint for putting up with me.

Malachy

P.S. The game you are re­fer­ring to is Res­cue on Frac­talus! And the story you men­tioned, well, I think I was telling it as a cau­tion­ary tale to some lovesick loser. It ends with the king in­sist­ing that the archer re­veal his se­cret for al­ways hit­ting the bull’s-eyes. The archer is forced to cop to his own short­com­ings:

“I shoot first, and then later I paint the tar­gets around the ar­rows.” Kind of a per­fect metaphor, no?

In one quick rush, I felt an ar­row pierce the bark of an an­cient oak, felt the branches quiver and the star­lings take flight. My piti­ful no­tions of love were the naive delu­sions of some­one who had spent too much time lost in books. I was al­ways try­ing to write my way into a ro­mance. After weeks of be­ing high, of com­ing dan­ger­ously close to an opioid ad­dic­tion, I found my­self thrown back to my days as the sober girl. What could I have pos­si­bly ex­pected from my in­fat­u­a­tion: late night sex­ting ses­sions, dirty Skyp­ing, dick pics. At best, a ren­dezvous in some anony­mous ho­tel. I had reached the outer lim­its of my imag­i­na­tion. My fa­ther wasn’t com­ing back to res­cue me, and The Poet would never un­break what he had bro­ken. There was no an­swer to the ques­tion of why I’d been hit, of why I’d been such a per­fect tar­get. My fa­ther had asked re­peat­edly for me to ex­plain my rea­son for stay­ing, for al­low­ing my­self to be beaten. “You’re such a smart girl, why did you do such a dumb thing?” In the background, I heard Gorf say, “Bad move, Space Cadet.” Maybe I didn’t want love. Maybe now, I just wanted all of the Bad Men to tremor. Some­times, a seizure can feel like a dream. En­dur­ing Reader, please be­lieve me when I tell you that sud­denly, I was very small. A tiny crawl­ing cherub push­ing herself up past the dog­gie door flap and into the nar­row open­ing that led in­side a won­der­land of cut-rate plush toys. The chan­de­lier arm of the claw ma­chine dan­gled above me like the prom­ise of a shim­mer­ing Deus Ex Machina. Only I wasn’t go­ing any­where. I didn’t need to be res­cued. I was a blonde toddler and Arlo, my adopted fa­ther. From the other side of the plex­i­glass, he in­structed me on how to slide the finest toys, the ones most tightly packed against the windows, the ones the claw could never dis­lodge and cap­ture, down the nar­row chute and out from the heart of the ma­chine. Only they weren’t toys, they were ba­bies, and they were count­ing on me to save them.

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