by Joe Meno
THOUGH IT’S SNOWING AT TEN SECONDS AFTER EIGHT A.M.
On that Monday at the end of January, Jack Blevins, a questionable young man of twenty-five, rides his blue bicycle beneath the flurry, with tape recorder in hand. The snow falls in dark wet flakes across his eyelashes as he listens for something interesting to record. But today there’s nothing. The buildings downtown have become a soft white blur while the rest of the city has gone silent. At the moment Jack is wearing his frayed blue winter hat, pulled tightly over his ears, the ball at the top bouncing back and forth; also the amateurishly repaired black plastic glasses which have been taped in two spots and are now fogged up with frost—the prescription for the glasses several years out of date—a gray winter jacket, and a red scarf which is fitted firmly over his nose and mouth. Beneath the gray coat is a black tie and a white dress shirt that’s two sizes too small. In his left hand, which is covered in a threadbare black glove, he holds the handlebars and does his best to steer the blue ten-speed through the snow; in his right hand, he holds the silver tape recorder, daring to record anything beautiful—the pneumatic hush of the chrome bus doors as they whisper shut, a murmuration of pigeons swooping overhead, the squeak of a wisecracking child walking along in green rubber boots. It’s still dark out, the sun reluctant to rise. Did he shave today? No. He did not. And his brown hair is falling in his eyes. And then he runs into a girl he knows—waiting at a bus stop on the corner of Damen, reading some French novel—and does what he has to to ignore her.
BECAUSE TODAY HE DOESN’T WANT TO TALK TO ANYONE.
He doesn’t want to have to explain to anyone about Elise and so he pedals on before the artless, shifting crowd of commuters downtown, all of the other office workers huddled beneath their unwound scarves and bulky winter coats, and then he circles around to record the sound of a pink balloon disappearing above an electronics store and almost falls off his bicycle doing it. People stare at him, wondering what it is he thinks he’s doing, watching him hold out the silver tape recorder, slush spinning from the bicycle chain, darkening the bottom of his gray corduroy pants. Ten seconds of the balloon hovering there and he says “A pink balloon” into the small circular microphone and then rides on.
THE ASYMMETRY OF ADULTHOOD.
At an earlier, perhaps less pathetic time in his life, Jack had been recognized as a boy who was terribly handsome, with a swath of dark hair sticking up along the back of his head, an expressive mouth with lips that were flattering but drew no attention to themselves, handsomely proportional ears, a nose that was neither snub nor Roman, and curious gray-green eyes, which no one else in the family possessed. But now, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, in the first flush of adulthood, a decided awkwardness has crept into the lines of his cheeks and forehead, and overall, the feeling one gets when looking into his face is that of an unquestionable anxiety. There is nothing the least bit remarkable about him; everything, including his facial features, is completely, hopelessly average. Watching him ride through the early-morning traffic, it’s as if this young man had not so long ago entered an age of dreaminess and confusion, and the features of his face only recently rearranged themselves to match. What is he doing with himself? Where is he headed in life? When, if ever, is he going to do something great? Is this, his average face, his lack of ambition, the reason Elise is going to Germany? He checks his calculator watch and sees he is going to be late again.
BECAUSE AT THIS POINT IN LIFE JACK IS KNOWN FOR ONLY ONE THING.
Jack is famous for having taken his testicles out at last month’s holiday party—taking his testicles out of his pants and putting them on the punch ladle, and then walking around the frolicking office, offering his testicles with the ladle, and pretending like nothing was the matter. There are now several descriptions of this incident in his personnel file. Although he was severely reprimanded the next day at the office, Jack did not feel bad. To be honest, this is what Jack has always done whenever he gets drunk. Ever since high school, even on the tennis team. When he drinks too much, he ends up taking his testicles out, which he knows is inappropriate and weird but always ends up happening. Maybe, he thinks, as he’s riding on through the snow, maybe this is why she’s leaving. Maybe she fell in love with me when we were kids. And now: and now: and now: we’re not kids anymore.
AT THE EIGHT-THIRTY A.M. MEETING.
It’s impossible to pay attention. Jack works in the production department of a medical advertising firm. It is not rewarding work. What he does is help sell drugs and medical products to people who sometimes do not need them, in advertisements like Prozac, Live Life Again and Your Replacement Hip Could Be Better, by helping to build models and sets which are then photographed and made into glossy ads. Four years of art school and this is what he does. Today he is distracted by other things, big, big things. Someone across the table asks what kind of production budget they will need to build the set for the new aortic valve shoot and he is staring out the window at the snow and Mr. Munday calls his name and he nods and pushes his black glasses up the bridge of his nose and looks down at his notes and he murmurs the first number he sees and everyone is looking at him and Mr. Munday asks, “Jack, are you okay?” and Jack shakes his head and says, “No. Excuse me,” and then he stands, walking out of the conference room, and heads over to his desk. He opens his briefcase and finds the silver tape recorder inside. He hits rewind and then play and listens to the pink balloon hovering in the air. He hits rewind again and listens to it once more and it is like he is not there, at his desk, in the office, falling into his seat. And then the black telephone begins to ring. And he places it against his ear and is surprised at how cold it feels.
“Hello,” he says. “Production department.”
“Hi,” she says. “It’s me.”
“Oh, hi,” startled all of a sudden.
“Are you still going to go with me tonight?”
Jack nods, even though she can’t see. “Sure.”
“You don’t have to, you know.”
“No, I know. But I want to.”
“Jack, I think maybe . . .” but she doesn’t finish her sentence. There is just the steady electronic pulse of neither one of them speaking, until finally she coughs a little and says, “My flight’s at eight.”
“I’ll be there,” he responds, and then hangs up the phone, staring at its black rectangular shape, as if it has just betrayed him. And he holds the tape player up to his ear and listens to the sound of the balloon playing there again. And for some reason it reminds him of her. And so he does no other work for the next hour, only listens to the tape playing, ignoring the noise of the people moving all around him. And then he remembers what he’s supposed to do today and so he climbs out of his seat and sneaks across the office.
A few moments later Jack walks past the girl Jill at the front desk toward the PHOTOCOPY DEPARTMENT and the four machines are already going and the intern Daniel is looking over the copy requests and the sound—the thrum, the mechanical buzz, the paper whooshing into the tray covered in fresh ink, the clatter of the stapler, of the paper as it is automatically collated—it’s the sound of these copiers that he loves the most about working in the office. It’s like the sound of nothingness. Or airplane engines crashing. Daniel says he’s going to go get some coffee and Jack says great and then Daniel leaves and then Jack glances over his shoulder to be sure no one is watching and switches the job on copier one to copier three. And then it’s go time.
BECAUSE HE’S A CARTOONIST. AND A MUSICIAN. AND A DABBLER TOO.
Because he works at a faceless corporation, he is often asked by various friends to make fliers for their awful art bands, bands with names like VIDEO GAME FEVER and STANISLAV LEM’S NIGHTMARE. And he sneaks these onto the copy machines whenever he has a chance and sometimes his friend Birdie asks him to make copies of her cut-and-paste zine, which is called YOU AND YOUR VERY INTERESTING BEARD, and there are always pencil drawings of many different hairy beards talking to one another, having these very philosophical discussions about art and literature, like Lenin’s beard talking to Walt Whitman’s beard, but today he is making copies of his own work, which is a comic strip he started back in art school called LOG, about a young boy who goes to a museum and sees a petrified log, and how the boy falls in love with the log, and escapes with it, and the comic strip follows their adventures together, which is secretly all about his relationship with Elise, though even to her it’s thinly veiled, and almost always upsetting. And in this episode, which is just crudely drawn black-and-white line art depicting the boy holding the petrified wood, the boy is asking the log, What do you want me to do now? and the log does not answer and so then he drops it over a bridge into a snowy river, and the log, the petrified wood, floats away, and the boy waves to it and then rests his head on the railing of the bridge and says, What the fuck do I do now? and then the docket is cleared on machine one and he slips the comic strip onto the machine, and it is at that moment when the office manager Charlie comes in, her long earrings dangling, flashing like some kind of alarm.
And at first she just smiles awkwardly, places her copy order sheet on the pile beside the work desk, and does not say anything—and he tries to stand in front of the copier as it shoots out page after page of his comic which ends with the gigantic phrase, What the fuck do I do now? and so he asks Charlie, “Did you get that info on the Plaxic shoot? They want us to build another giant stomach?” and she coughs a little and says, “I think so,” and he says, “Great,” and she says, “Good,” and he sees her glance down at the copier behind him on her way out, looking more than a little stiff-necked. But nothing happens right away. No one calls him from the black telephone at the corner of his desk, no one peeks their head inside his cubicle to see what he is up to now, and at noon, when he goes to lunch, no one says anything.
But when he comes back, there is a pink message that says, See Charlie, and when he looks up there is the office manager at the end of the aisle, nodding at him. She’s motioning to him, entreating him to come talk to her, her drawn-on eyebrows rearing up. And he doesn’t go. He doesn’t know why he doesn’t go. He knows he is not going to be fired but he doesn’t want to have to talk to anyone right now. He doesn’t want to have to explain everything, why he walked out of the meeting, what the comic means, and his lack of attention these last few weeks, and what’s going on in his personal life right now. And so holds up his finger, like he’s in the middle of something, and then grabs his coat from the coat rack in the break room and runs out.
And he does not go home right away. He does not want to see Elise, he does not want to see her pale yellow scarf, he does not want to see her put on her white winter hat with the ball on top and then pick up the matching suitcases, which were actually a gift from his stepfather, and say whatever it is she is going to say. And so he rides around for three more hours, until it’s dark, through the ice and wind, recording the lost sounds of the city. As he pedals, he notices that on almost every other corner there is a shabby newspaper stand, and on the covers of all the newspapers and magazines are headlines shouting some remarks about the ongoing impeachment trial. There always seems to be some new and lascivious detail or a photograph of the president looking contrite. Jack has been ignoring all of this, as his own personal life is depressing enough. And so he rides along, trying to distract himself, recording the unending disquiet of the people passing along the crowded streets: A woman coughing at a bus stop. A neon-blue pharmacy sign buzzing. A trumpet player blowing his instrument in the cold. And there, at the corner of Michigan and Oak, he stops and sees a green glove lying in the snow.
It’s one of the most interesting gloves he’s ever seen, elbow-length with narrow fingers, obviously some girl’s.
And so he reaches into his gray coat pocket, finds the silver tape recorder, and then leans over, recording ten seconds of the glove lying there. “A green glove in the snow,” he says. “Do they have green gloves in Germany, Elise? Probably. Probably. They’re probably better than the ones we got here. They’re probably way more functional. They’re probably all going to grad school and studying economics. And they’re all going to be way happier. Happier than they ever thought,” and he says all of this directly into the small microphone. And then he slips the tape recorder back into his pocket, pulls up his hood, gets on his bicycle, and begins to pedal toward home.
IT’S ALL BEING ERASED.
And the front door is unlocked and there are the two suitcases, placed side by side, to the left of the sofa. And she is pacing around, asking, “What did I forget?” and he wants to say, Everything? and he takes a seat on the couch, which no longer feels like his couch, their couch, and the gray cat comes over, and it acts like it doesn’t recognize him, because it’s her cat, really, even though it’s staying with him, and the cat has an air about it now, it arches its neck against his hand and he gives it a pet but it does not seem interested, and everywhere there are his stupid shoe boxes, stacked eight or nine or ten high, in awkward-looking towers, dozens and dozens and dozens of these boxes, and each of these boxes are labeled by theme, like CRYING or CRIME or EPIPHANIES, and in each of these boxes there are four or five or even ten minicassette tapes, each of these labeled by theme again and also date, and Jack sits on the couch, staring at the idiotic shoe boxes sprawled around, knowing this is one of the reasons why; all this childish nonsense, all these unfinished projects have to be what’s ended this, their relationship, and there in the corner is his desk, which is piled high with manuscript pages for a screenplay he will never get done, and there beside the reclining chair is his oboe, which he hasn’t played in months, and Elise has curled her hair for some reason, and it looks elegant, and he can see her clear braces which make her teeth sit funny, and she’s doing that thing, tilting her head to put on her earrings, and Jack stands and says, “I recorded the sound of a balloon today. It made me think of you.”
And she looks at him and smiles a sad little smile, the smile of a kindergarten teacher looking at the drawing of a rather dull student, and she tilts her head to the other side now and affixes the left earring, and he says, “I recorded some snow too. In case you wanted to take it with you. The snow in Germany might sound totally different,” and here she pats him on the shoulder, and the pat just about breaks his heart, because it is the pat of someone who is about to leave, someone who is done, someone who is going away and never coming back, and she says, “You keep it,” and she turns to pick up her purse and it’s then that Jack kicks the cat.
“Why did you just do that?” Elise asks, eyes filling up with tears. She leans over and holds the cat to her chest and it leaps from her arms to go hide behind the radiator. And Jack does not know what to say.
“I really don’t know,” he says, and they both stand there, staring at the spot where the cat had just been kicked. “Shit. This is what you’re doing to me. This is the kind of person you’re making me.”
“I got you some Christmas presents. A few months ago. I didn’t give them to you because . . . But I want you to have them now.”
“No,” she says. “I don’t want them . . . Besides, I don’t have any more room.”
“They’re Christmas presents. There’s nothing wrong with them.”
“Thanks. But I can’t.” And she nods, tears still coming on in full.
“I’m really going to miss your braces,” he says, and then she is smiling and crying at exactly the same time. “They’re kind of my favorite part about you.”
“I don’t know too many other people who are in their twenties and who decide to get braces. I think it’s pretty great that you did.”
“Do they have good orthodontists in Germany?”
“It’s not like I’m not going to be back here at some point. My parents still live here and everything.”
“Okay,” he says, and then looks around the apartment once more. “You know, we were married for less than a year. Your mom was right: we were way too young.”
“Yeah. Somehow it seems a lot longer than a year.”
“It does. So do you still have your keys?”
And she nods to the small card table where she has left them.
“Okay. Then here we go,” he says, and switches off the lamp. And then, in the near dark, it’s like neither of them exists.
IN THE SNOW-COVERED CAR WHICH IS A HATCHBACK.
And the same car he had back in art school. The tape player spits out a song by Guided by Voices and as soon as it comes on, she switches it off. It’s from a tape she made him and they both know it. So they watch the snow come down in silence and let the beat of the loosened heater belt be their parting song.
OVER THE NEPTUNE.
The snow piles neatly along the airport’s windows though her flight has not been canceled. Below their waists are two pairs of nervous knees and two pairs of uncertain shoes: there are her silver and white heels, and his gray-looking loafers. Neither of the shoes’ owners will look the other in the eye and so this is all they see.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Yes, I do.”
“We could maybe try . . .”
“No. Not anymore,” and here she points the toe of her shoes away from him.
“But why don’t we—”
“Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” she says.
And then they both laugh nervously.
“But why? Why Germany?”
“It’s the only place I can do this. You know that. Okay. I’ll call you when I land.”
The boarding call warbles its garbled message over the intercom.
“It could be different,” he says. “You don’t have to leave.”
“No, it can’t. And yes, I do.”
“Please,” he says, looking around. “Don’t go. Please. Let’s not do this. Let’s stay married.”
And she begins laughing and he isn’t and then she sees he isn’t and then she feels embarrassed for the both of them.
“This sucks. This is bullshit,” he says.
“Auf Wiedersehen,” she says, and he can see her feet disappearing into an aimless-looking line of sneakers and dress shoes and comfortable slippers.
(THEN THERE IS THE SOUND OF AN AIRPLANE TAKING OFF.)
And he records it with the small silver tape recorder, hoping it is hers, knowing it isn’t.
THEN THERE ARE OTHER SOUNDS AND OTHER TAPES.
And he tries to record them all.
(There is the sound of an alarm clock. It’s ringing somewhere. Somewhere. There it is. Ten seconds of that.)
(It isn’t even his alarm, he realizes, hearing it. It’s hers, which she forgot to pack.)
(There is the sound of her empty gray pillow, of the empty side of the bed, which is like the sound of a gallows. Twenty seconds of that.)
(And a sigh he makes that is like nothing he has ever heard come out of a human being’s body. Which he does not bother to get on tape.)
(And there are his bottles of Lexapro and Wellbutrin, which he has not taken in days now. Four seconds of each of these pill bottles sitting beside the sink, unused.)
(And the song that’s playing on the alarm clock right now is Hall & Oates. And he records some of that. Why? Why not? And then he holds the tape recorder up to his mouth and says, “This is the sound of Monday, February 2. You’ve been gone twelve days.” And then he says, “I’m better off on my own. Really. Seriously.” And then he sets the tape recorder back in his lap. And then it’s time to get ready for work. But two weeks have gone by and he hasn’t been to work and now he probably doesn’t have a job anymore. And this is when he stops sleeping normal hours. And he doesn’t return anyone’s phone calls, not his friend Birdie’s or his other friend Eric’s. And so he begins riding around the city all night long, looking for interesting sounds to record.)
But it’s getting late and he’s been riding his bicycle around for a while now: it’s kind of awkward to watch but that’s okay. In the unplowed street, he almost falls off the bicycle twice. This city, it’s a random clash of single noises, and he tries to record them all, steering the ten-speed with his right hand, holding the tape recorder out with his left.
A couple holding hands, splashing in a puddle together. Five seconds of that.
The elevated train roaring by sounds like a kid whose teeth are all being pulled out at the same time. Ten seconds of that.
Someone sneezing into a pink handkerchief.
A car skidding in the snow.
There’s a poodle barking at its own reflection in an icy window. Five seconds of that. And he looks down at his calculator watch and sees it’s five to ten and he decides he will ride around until the sun comes up so he doesn’t have to try to sleep by himself again.
BECAUSE THIS IS WHAT HE’S BEEN DOING.
Ever since he graduated art school four years ago: recording sounds, almost any kind, the noises, the exclamations, the abstract music of the nervous city. There are minicassettes, more than four hundred of them, in shoe boxes rising like modern buildings all around the apartment, from the front door to the bedroom closet to the bathroom. All these tapes, all these shoe boxes, are probably part of the reason why Elise decided to leave. He knows this now and does not blame her in the slightest. Because it’s just one other unending project that keeps getting bigger and bigger. And he doesn’t know why he can’t just get rid of them all. Because there’s just something about the tapes that he loves, something he can’t explain. For example, in the shoe box marked CRYING, there are five or six tapes of nothing but the noise of people sobbing in public. And each of them are incredibly lovely in their own way. Another box is GIRLS ON SUBWAY, and mostly these are just tapes of girls, pretty ones, reading books or folding their legs, or dreamily staring out the windows of the train, or even snoring. And there are other boxes: BAD WEATHER, CRIME, HAPPINESS, FAMILY, NEWS, DEATH, MYSTERY, and BIRDS, each of them filled with tapes that are stark or strange or sublime. And it’s a whole world, a self-portrait of his life built through single moments of sound.
And there is a box, somewhere in one of those piles, which is marked FAVORITES, and there are exactly five tapes inside. One is from the intersection near Division Street and Ashland—an old woman singing “Look for the Silver Lining” to a fountain of warbling pigeons, their coos being what he assumes is the birds’ way of showing their appreciation.
Another tape is full of nothing but weather reports from the local radio station—the wordy weatherman describing a cloudy day as “gray cumulus, just like ponies jumping over a fence.”
One sound, which he has titled Mystery Sound #20, is a strange ghostly whistle, which used to come from the bedroom closet every night. And together he and Elise would listen in wonder and laugh.
Another tape is a series of long knock-knock jokes between two young black girls which Jack recorded on the westbound Chicago Avenue bus.
And then there’s Jack’s favorite tape ever, of all time, which he recorded at the Milwaukee Avenue bus stop, the sound of a young woman in a purple coat talking softly to the young man beside her, and which goes exactly like this: “I ate a plum today and thought of you.”
And he does not know why this is his favorite sound of all time, only that there is something so perfect in its briefness, in its sense of longing. It’s the way he has been feeling for some time, and in the sound of this other person’s words, the plastic cassette tape itself is maybe the most beautiful thing he has left in his life.
And so he will sit on the floor with all these tapes, ignoring the phone, ignoring the gray cat, and play cassette after cassette, searching through the stacks of shoe boxes for the perfect combination of sounds. And he will hold the silver tape player in his hand and hit rewind and then press play and there will be the sound of the pink balloon drifting through the air, the alluring distance of its soft flight, resounding from the single silver speaker. And he will smile and rewind the tape again and then turn, seeking out a white shoe box which once held a pair of beige loafers, and find it shoved in the corner, sixth from the bottom of the stack. Along its lid, the box says SNOW. He will lift off the white lid, remove a cassette labeled Snowstorm 12.29.1998, and place this new tape inside a second tape player, a rectangular black one, from the 1970s. And he will adjust the volume and then press play on this second recorder. And the sound of the snow—like a pause, like a musical caesura, almost silent—will echo from its small black speakers. And he will play the two tapes together—the sound of the balloon and the noise of the drifting snow—and then decide something is still missing. And he will search among the towers of tapes for one more box—ELECTRICITY—and finding it, he will select a third cassette. And this third tape will be placed inside an old answering machine. And then he’ll hit play again. And the third tape will fill the air with a hollow buzz, the sound of streetlights vibrating in the morning, and for a moment it will be perfect, the sound of all three tapes playing at the same time, and a city—a city of sound will surround him—and he will be among its quiet avenues and soft-lit boulevards. And the idea is that all these tapes, all these separate noises, are actually a city, a single town he has invented made of nothing but sound.
And it’s what he’s been working on for almost four years now, this invisible city, built one sound at a time, each noise a different place on an imaginary map, a different spot or intersection or park or corner or window in an imaginary town, where language is unnecessary, where nothing bad ever happens. It is the only part of his life that seems the least bit remarkable, this imaginary city, and nobody knows about it except Elise. And now she’s gone. And he doesn’t know when it will be done, if ever. And tonight as he’s pedaling around, tape recorder in hand, it begins to get cold and so he decides to call his friend Birdie because he’s always had a friendly crush on her, and she says hi and asks if he wants to come over and listen to some records and so he momentarily forgets about the imaginary city and says he can be at her apartment in ten minutes. How does that sound? Okay, she says, and off he pedals again.
LISTENING TO RECORDS.
And so he sits on the floor of Birdie’s apartment and she is listening to the Talking Heads and she asks how he is doing and her voice sounds concerned and he says okay and he says he doesn’t want to talk about Elise or anything and so he takes out his tape recorder and hits record and then asks her: “Have you ever done anything remarkable?”
And she looks at him and then at the tape recorder and says, “What? No. Once, in high school. On the swim team. I won this meet. I was the last—you know—on the relay team, and I usually was the weakest, but this one time, I don’t know. It all came together. I never swam that hard in my life. I think I actually pooped a little in my swimsuit if you can believe it. And that was the only time I did anything the least bit exciting.”
And he says, “I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. And I think I realized that I’m average, that there’s nothing remarkable about me. And I wanted to know if this is something other people think about.”
“Not really. You can ask me another question if you like.”
“Okay. Do you think I’ll ever do anything remarkable?”
“I don’t know. All signs point toward no right now.”
And then they both laugh sadly.
“Okay,” he says, thinking. “I have all these Christmas presents I bought for Elise. Like three of them. Do you think I should just throw them out?”
“Yes, I really do.”
“You don’t want a new hair dryer, do you?”
And here Birdie laughs again and says no thanks. She is cute—with her black hair cut in a kind of bob and cat’s-eye glasses and the small buttons she makes for local bands in her spare time, which dot the collar of her various cardigan sweaters—but she has a boyfriend, Gus, who lives in New York, who might be a nimrod, because Jack only met him once and did not think much of him.
“What other questions do you have about life?” she asks.
And he asks, “Do you think I have a big nose?” holding out the tape recorder again.
“Do you think my nose is funny-looking?”
“What? No. It’s totally normal.”
“I think it’s a little too triangular.”
“You’re crazy.” And then she asks, “What about me? Do you think my head is too small for my body?”
“No. It’s totally proportionate. I always said that about you. She’s very proportionate.”
And Birdie laughs again. “What about my glasses? Do you think they’re dorky?”
“No. What about mine?”
“No. What about my hams?” she asks.
“My hams.” And here she stands and points to her backside. “My hams.”
“No. I think your hams are pretty okay.” And then he knows it is his turn and says, “What about my forehead?”
But she doesn’t answer because someone begins kissing someone else. And then Jack switches off the tape recorder and sets it down and goes on kissing. And he lifts her shirt and gets his hand down her pants and looks and sees she has written, in black magic marker, the word GUS’S with an arrow that points down to her lap, disappearing beneath the top hem of her pink underwear.
“I thought this was going to happen,” she explains.
“Nice,” Jack says, and Birdie laughs but they continue kissing. And Birdie is slipping off Jack’s belt and has her small hand down the front of his pants and so he decides to try and reciprocate, and puts his fingers down the front of her underwear, and she shifts her weight so he can get his hand underneath, and the Talking Heads are still playing and Birdie says, “Gus doesn’t care as long as I don’t fall in love,” but who’s to say how a thing like that happens?
APPROXIMATELY EIGHT MINUTES LATER.
Both of their heads appear above a white sheet. That’s all. It’s as if their bodies have disappeared. A pile of their clothes has been assembled at the foot of the bed. And Jack’s mouth tastes furry. And the girl, Birdie, turns her face, with its frame of dark hair, to stare at him.
“Was that a little weird?” Birdie asks.
“What? No way. It was nice. I mean, you . . . you’re great.”
“No. It was weird. It was bad.”
“It was nice,” he says.
“No, it was like . . .”
“Doing math,” he says.
“Like going to the dentist.”
“It wasn’t that bad.”
“No. It was. It was,” she says. “I think I stopped paying attention at some point.”
“Maybe it’s because we’re too good of friends,” he says.
And Birdie is sitting up, pulling on her pink see-through underwear, and then her jeans, and then she is finishing clasping her bra. And he starts getting dressed too, and she looks over at him and says, “I knew it was probably going to be bad but I didn’t stop you. It’s a problem I have. I’m only good in bed with Gus.”
“It’s okay. It’s no big deal.”
“Do you want to watch a movie or something? Have you ever seen Freaks? It’s by the guy who did Dracula.”
“No, I haven’t seen it. But I should probably get home. I’ve got this thing I’m working on,” he lies. “I think I need to finish it.”
“What is it?”
“Nothing. Just . . . this project. It’s nothing, but I just want to get it done.”
“Okay. Sure. Well,” and she doesn’t say anything else.
And then he pulls his winter coat on, even though his pants aren’t buttoned. And he thinks of how he will probably never be back in this apartment again, and how weird things will be with Birdie from now on, and he doesn’t know why but he decides to shake her hand very formally.
“Okay. We should never do this again,” he says.
“Agreed,” she answers, and then they do not look at each other, both of their faces going red.
He grabs his blue ten-speed from beside the front door of Birdie’s apartment and walks out into the cold before he even has his pants properly buttoned. So what? His shoes are unlaced and he almost kills himself trying to get down the stairs, but at least he’s not feeling as embarrassed as he was. And he decides he’s going to go home. He’s going to go home and really try to finish something.
© 2012 by Joe Meno
Office Girl will be published by Akashic Books (http://www.akashicbooks.com/) in July 2012.