Do You Come Here Often?
Page 7: (next to the picture of Uncle Harry in front of the park blocks on Broogles Corner, 1978) “Listen, I think we should see other people.” A lateral line of ink connects Uncle Harry’s photograph and inscription to Aunt Jeanette (wearing a raincoat and a stylish hat and smiling on the deck of the Esquire Globe pleasure-cruise vessel, 1975).
Aunt Jeanette’s response: (looking behind her, certain this stranger could not have been speaking to her) “Excuse me?”
And with this, Uncle Harry hit a twenty-year homerun (I’ve heard this story recounted at twelve thanksgiving dinners, and every year it gets better): “Don’t be stunned, sweety. We’ve been seeing each other for a year now. Just ‘cause it’s in my head doesn’t cheapen what we had. When I first looked at you, I knew we’d be special friends, but I didn’t have time to wait for you to see the good in me, so I imagined it all; I surprised you on your birthday with an ice cream cone, you were upset because another fellow wasn’t appreciating you, I held you close, you wept, we talked, I courted you, we fell in love, went vacationing in the Poconos, we had some problems, we worked through ‘em, I won’t bore you with the details now, sweety, but I just came to tell you I’m sorry, things aren’t working out. Since the relationship was all in my head, I figured I’d be a crummy fellow if I didn’t have the decency to at least break up with you in person, so, here I am. One last kiss before we part, whaddya say, pretty lady?”
Page 16: Cousin Lonnie stands by the antique telephone pole wearing his Navy uniform, his back so straight it could carve glass without shattering it. 1985. The gothic style squiggly line—drawn with Grand Pappy’s fountain pen—stretches across to the next page, joining the picture of Patricia Maddox riding the Blue Ghost rollercoaster with her hair flying up and her face thrown back, 1986. In the middle, the squiggly line opens into a bubble containing the transcript of their first conversation.
Patricia Maddox was a fortune teller working the boardwalk. Cousin Lonnie had been sitting on the edge of the dock, watching her. When she got up from her booth to walk to the bathroom, he darted up immediately and said, “Excuse me, miss, we haven’t met, but the mermaid in that lovely tattoo on your arm was in the middle of telling me her life story, and I think that was mighty rude of you to interrupt our philosophical conversation. In fact, that mermaid understands me in a way that no land-woman ever could.”
Page 21: Blank.
Uncle Harry and Aunt Jeanette were the first unit of my family to hire young actors from the community theater to reenact the scene of their first meeting at their anniversary celebration at Eagle Lodge. The wealthier members of the family—the Coleberg side, that is—made the reenactments an annual tradition, depicting word for word, the hook line and sinker, for posterity’s sake.
Some families make music. Some families operate lucrative businesses. Some families rock-climb. We make complete strangers crumble to a teary-eyed frenzy with the impetuous knowledge that they cannot live without us. It is rare that any member of my family ever delivers a pickup line to a person who does not become their spouse. No pickup line gets rejected, and no pickup line results in a one-night stand. Most of us will only perform one pickup line in our entire life, and that is why we’re so good at them.
I try to imagine the line of expensive ink that will twirl and dance across the page from my image. I wonder what I’ll be wearing, how I’ll be posed. I wonder what she will look like. I’ve closed my eyes and opened to the page so many times and I can’t…
Laura sits on the corner of her bed, reading a book. I cannot see the cover of the book because the room is dim. I used to always know what book she was reading before she started reading it, because she read the same books I read. She could be reading anything. I want to tell her that it’s too dark in the room to read, but I’d better not.
I also want to tell her it’s too dark to see the posture of her body under her sweatshirt and loose jeans huddled in the corner of her bed, but I just came here to get my stuff.
Laura is not really reading, and she is not really ignoring me. She is not really doing anything and I think she’s waiting for me to decide what she is doing but I’m not sure, and as long as I labor to remember what this is like right now, it’s all I’ll need to remember. It makes my neck muscles clamp up.
I’m standing in the doorway in my jean jacket and I can feel her skin become a second skin that might be a moistureless exoskeleton. The oxygen in the bedroom clicks shut like a lock, one atom whispering to the next. I could walk toward her and I could nullify her resistance toward me walking toward her. I could gently take the book from her hands, and I could place a hand on her back. She would cradle it to her cheek, while maintaining her frown, and her postureless clothes on the corner of the bed.
The room would still be dim, and we could talk about what went wrong. Or we could just be there on the corner of the bed and not say anything.
I think of Page 21 in the family album, the blank page reserved for me, and I don’t walk toward Laura. I try to think but cannot actually remember the first words we spoke to each other. It was never like Uncle Harry and Aunt Jeanette, or Cousin Lonnie and Patricia Maddox.
On the drive home from Laura’s apartment, the two boxes (she had them prepared for me in the middle of the room, on an unusually bare floor, creating an appearance of distance, like a bowling alley; Laura used to work at a bowling alley) cast shadows on the windshield. It looks like the boxes are getting wet, but the rain is outside, and the droplets only look like they’re on the inside of the glass. I turn on music.
Sitting on my couch with a glass of beer, I uncap a cheap ballpoint pen and scribble on Page 21, the ink hugging the crease in the binding, “I do think I could tolerate falling in love with you.” I don’t know who I’ll say that to, but that is what I will say when it is something I am sure of.
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Portland Fiction Project
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