by Holly Current
I sit on the step and watch him compose himself. Perrin, I’m sure, will be the death of me. In some obscure, domino-effect type way, he will kill me.
“You are not literary enough,” he tells me.
“You forgot to zip up your fly,” I tell him.
“I would not forget this, if you had not stopped in the middle of things.”
Perrin is French. He came to the U.S. when he was a child, but his beautiful accent still gets in the way. “You mean literate?” I ask. “I read, Perrin. You see me read all the time.” It’s one of the few benefits of working at a small, near-bankrupt bookstore. The only benefit.
“No. I mean literary.” He takes out a cigarette and points it at my notebook.
I take a deep breath of sticky, wet heat. We instantly begin to sweat, just sitting there in the muggy night. Even after the “things”, Perrin and I had been “in the middle of”; I am still clear-headed enough to bring my notebook out on the stoop. I never know what one of Perrin’s abusive quips might inspire. I watch him lean against the rusty pole of the awning above us, blowing smoke rings like a sophisticated, handsome Frenchman.
I fan myself with the notebook. “At least some good use can come out of my poems,” I say. “They make a nice breeze.”
“My thoughts exactly,” he agrees, smirking.
I look past him, willing headlights to emerge through the trees that line the dirty one-way street. Perrin turns and does the same. Our anticipation is palpable in the air. I feel as though I can grab it, wring it out, and produce moisture, like I could my damp dress.
“I’m sorry.” I realize how odd it sounds, apologizing to the person who has just insulted me. “I’m too distracted. It’s…it wasn’t going to work with—”
“With him so close?”
“I know what you mean. I’m nervous too.” He sits, but there is a good gap between us. We aren’t lovers who hold hands. We don’t twine our legs together. He doesn’t play with the tangles in my hair.
“But where you view Max as the distraction,” he says, “I view sex as the distraction from Max. I can’t believe how nervous I am. Freaking out, as you might say.”
“Perrin, don’t get away from the subject. You were in the middle of criticizing me.”
“Your art, ma puce. Not you.”
Perrin calls me his “little flea”. I almost slapped him the first time I heard it. I thought he was being vulgar. The French and their little pet names.
“They are the same,” I say. He gives me a look of doubt, like my statement lacks conviction. “Well?”
“You see that star?” He asks. We look up. I make out four or five different stars that manage to shimmer through the city’s light pollution. Perrin points to the brightest one. He asks, “What do you have to say about that star?”
I don’t answer this, because it’s obviously a trap. He takes a drag and nods, as though I’ve proven his point.
“Maxwell encourages my poetic endeavors,” I say. I lower my suddenly strained and whiney voice. “He doesn’t complain about my illegible print or ‘emotional redundancy’. He gives me honest feedback.”
“My feedback is honest.”
“Max is supportive about it.”
“And what would Maxwell have to say? What would he say about that star?”
“What would Shakespeare say? Or Homer?”
“You are comparing Maxwell to these?”
“Aren’t you?” I counter. “He’s a genius, and I’m emotionally redundant, right? That’s where you’re going with this?”
“You know how to install windows—”
“Create and restore stained glass. It’s different.” In addition, at a church a week, I’m not lacking for the opportunity to reflect upon past sins. They seem to bounce at me from the deeply colored glass, heavier than the lead I work with. The shape of my indiscretions are ill fitting in the religious imagery—the panes of bright halos and bloody saints.
“You drop out of the university. Take the job your father offers. Take the second job with our bookstore.” Perrin shakes his head aggressively. He doesn’t like that I work two jobs. It goes against his artist’s credibility. But he sure doesn’t complain about the variety of gourmet coffee I keep stocked. It’s one of my guilty luxuries.
“You had never even heard of Puccini before Max came along.”
“I loved La bohe’me! I loved that night we all went to the opera.” (It had been my first time; I admit it!). “You think it’s a pose? A big ruse to get Maxwell’s attention on me?”
“You don’t need any additional help to do that. Look at you.”
Perrin looks me up and down. I’m aware of my bare feet, my gray slip dress. My lack of a bra. It’s sweltering out. But the way his eyes roam my body begs the fact that it is a bit cliché: the wanton creature look. He thinks I’ve put an effort into making Maxwell lust after me since he’s been away so long. He’s right.
A car comes into sight. I bite at my nails to curb my excitement. Perrin stands and strains to see. The car’s a clunker. Its exhaust leaves a trail of black as it passes. It is not Max’s cab.
Our Max. I can’t stand him not being solely mine.
“You’ve never been out of the country. You don’t know wine.”
“You think that will matter to him? I won’t drink a drop now. It would be disrespectful.”
Three months in rehab. Three months without our dear friend. No visitors allowed, but there are lots of letters. Letters that make me question everything. Letters that make a dark, handsome French lover seem mundane and ordinary. But I am supposed to be the banal one, the uneducated innocent.
Perrin looks at me without blinking. It is a look of challenge. He stubs the cigarette under his shoe and sits.
“He is seventeen years older than you.”
“What are we talking about here, Perrin? Are you jealous of Maxwell? You are the one sleeping with me. You are the one living with me.”
“You never say boyfriend.”
“I think I’m too mature for that phrase.”
“You are not like us. And you know it. What can you say about that star, other than the fact that its light contrasts the dark or some trite thing like that? That is the problem with your poetry. That it is about the subject itself, and not what you can bring to it. What do you have to bring?”
I stop fanning myself with my notebook and set it down. It slips off the stoop and into the straw-like grass in the tiny yard. I don’t bother to pick it up. “Let’s go get some food,” Perrin says. He is not trying to gently shift topics. In no way is he trying to seek out an environment in which he can sincerely apologize for being superior. He’s actually kicking me when I’m down. Trying to throw more pain my way.
“I don’t feel like eating,” I tell him.
“You never feel like eating.”
“I can’t help it. I have a nervous stomach. We don’t want to miss his big arrival.”
“And you hate eating during the day.”
“I can’t help that my stomach takes forever to wake up. I do want more coffee, though. You?”
He shakes his head. I go heat up a mug of the dark roast I’d made two hours earlier. Even in the gross humidity, I need my coffee steaming.
When he first came to the bookstore, Maxwell loved to talk. He talked our heads off. Perrin and I listened hungrily. I found I could talk back. I easily shared things I couldn’t articulate to others. We talked philosophy and books, always steering clear of politics. He loved Proust and Kipling, and I had never read either.
Whenever we found ourselves alone in the store with no customers, and Perrin hiding away in back rummaging through stock, I admitted to Max things such as a secret love of B-movie horror, and the reason why my favorite classic novel was Jane Eyre. I expressed that I could certainly relate to her physical plainness. Then there was the fact that I hoped to envelope the same passion behind my dull looks that made her extraordinary. But she was described as little, and so probably had the tender thinness I so desperately craved to possess.
Maxwell gawked at that, at my skin-and-bones frame. He frowned and turned to greet a rare customer coming through the door. I had slipped, forgetting that I can’t see what others do.
I sip coffee and Perrin chain-smokes. We sit there for a number of hours, talking intermittently. We take turns slipping in and out of my apartment for something to drink or bathroom breaks. We slowly come to the realization that Maxwell will not be gracing us with his presence tonight. Did he decide to stop and visit some family? He never mentioned any, and I feel we have become his rightful family. Was there some other friend? Someone more important? Someone he loves.
“We could have had sex a dozen times by now,” Perrin says. “I don’t think he’s going to make it tonight.”
“I don’t think you could have sex a dozen times in a night if you wanted,” I point out. But I’m not trying to be mean, really. I’m just angry at Maxwell’s painful absence. So is Perrin.
“People who have nothing happen to them resort to doing things to themselves. You starve yourself because you think it will make you interesting. You think self-destruction gives you life experience and something to say?”
My silence only encourages him.
“You are obsessed with the physical. You are sad and you take pills. You think Maxwell will save you. You want family. Children, maybe. You believe Max would want that. He wouldn’t,” he says without leaving me any space to answer or defend myself. “He is past all that. He is older, done with the few, simple amusements a young girl has to offer. You are not like us, and you know you and I don’t work. You know this is over. We are over.”
He says this, not harshly, not with anger, but simply as a fact. He could be saying, “You are a female” or “You have legs”. It is how it is. The conclusion he’s come to is true, and needs to be said. But it still hurts. Someone I don’t want rejects me, and I still feel pain. It speaks volumes of my character. My braless, co-dependent character.
“He would not even have gone to that awful place if it weren’t for you,” he says.
I can’t stay quiet at that. “Maxwell had a problem. The fact that he got arrested neither caused that problem nor made it apparent. It had been there for most of his life. Something had to give eventually.”
It was me, I think smugly. I am that something.
“His problem wasn’t that serious.”
“Denial will not help his recovery.”
“You American’s love to become addicted. You wrap your lives around it.”
“And you don’t think that a man who accidentally hits me with his car might have a problem holding his liquor?”
“He grazed your arm. You got out of the way in time.”
“I’m not having this argument again. I bled. I got seven stitches. Thank you very much.”
It had been dark in the parking lot. The store was closed, and I snuck out to check on things. I often feared Max would get too drunk and leave the place unlocked or something like that. It was just an excuse to see Max alone, really. Maybe so I could get him to want me.
The parking lot was black. He never saw me. He practically threw himself at the cops. I didn’t want him to leave either, but he told me it had come to the point where he was (literally) hurting those he loved most.
“You will have to move out,” I tell Perrin. “Most people around here get two jobs to make it on their own.”
“Maybe I’ll get a roommate,” he says ominously.
“So what was this, then?” I make a large sweeping gesture between us. “You were just feeling it out? Taking me for a test drive? Seeing if a woman feels good?”
“Isn’t that how it is with everyone?”
I play with strands of my long hair. It is stringy, coiled in the humidity. I wonder when I washed it last. My eyeliner must be smudging in this heat, too. I always wear it dramatically and Perrin is right about me. I use my looks. I do.
“You only held on to me because—”
“Because why? I’m the All-American slut?”
“Because you fear loneliness worse than death. But don’t depend on Maxwell. He may not be available to play hero.”
It starts to rain. No sprinkling warning—just a fat, romantic downpour that pounds the metal awning fiercely. The awning will most likely cave in on us.
“And what? You think I’m just useless?” I say. My voice cracks under its pain. Perrin rewards this with his undivided attention. He looks at me and I talk to the empty street. “I am useless. And artless. I might do something productive like swallow all those pills and rid the world of me, only I am too useless to even do that.”
“Look, I am sorry your mother left you at a hotel but—”
“Bed and Breakfast. It was a Bed and Breakfast,” I correct him. If he wants to play pseudo-psychotherapist and dissect me, he needs to get his facts straight at least. He’s right, though. I need a good warm body there, or my existence seems to fade. If I am single, I get in this hole, this numb disconnect with the world. Even Perrin is better for me than me alone.
My mother, on the other hand, seemed to have her choice of anyone. And one glorious spring morning, on a road trip to show her daughter the countryside, she took it. The management of the B and B contacted my father. The expression on his face when he came to pick up his abandoned daughter was one of stark acceptance.
Like well, yes, of course such a thing was bound to happen.
Said daughter learns damn well to jump at any chance she gets to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“But I don’t want to see you disappointed if it doesn’t go the way you plan. The way you need it to go.” He stands slowly, stiff from sitting on concrete all night. He turns to go in.
“Perrin!” I have to shout above the rain. He stops. I get up and get real close, close enough so he can hear that I know his secret.
“Does it bother you more that I am so typically dull? Or that someone so typically dull is your competition?”
I know for certain now that Perrin is not jealous of me loving Max. I know by the way his back straightens that he’s jealous of the possibility of Max loving me back.
We both realize that the reason for our coming out here and finally breaking it off is not even going to show. I take the bed. Perrin makes a big, emotional gesture of setting up the couch. There is a reason why he kept trying to get sex out of me, and why I kept refusing. We both wanted to prove points to each other that we wouldn’t say out loud.
Sometime before dawn I wake to the sound of Perrin’s car starting in my driveway. I jump across the bed and look out the window. There are two heads. I make out the lines of Perrin’s dark, ruffled hair and Maxwell’s sharp profile.
Looks like it’s guy’s night out. I wonder what Max will say. I wonder if he will let Perrin down gently, or if I will get rejected twice in one night.
One thing about personal disappointment: I know it too well. And where it should discourage me, it only makes me think of new ways to fight against it. It’s why I keep writing poetry.
I get up and set to work. I am already scheming which outfit will effectively show Max that I don’t plan to lose him.