This is a piece of short fiction I wrote more years ago than I care to remember. An agent from the William Morris Agency contacted me after the (now defunct) Blue Moon Review published it. He wanted novel-length fiction, and I didn’t have any, so the opportunity was lost. C’est la vie.
We were pulling into adjacent spaces in the parking lot at Foodmart when he dinged the fender of my old Pontiac. Though we didn’t bother to exchange insurance information, the next morning I woke up with him in my bed.
‘Good morning.’ He sat up and grinned at me, like he knew something I didn’t. His red hair stood up on top of his head like flames off the tip of a match. Freckles spattered his cheeks. I shook off the startled sensation of waking with a new man and barely remembering what he looked like from the night before.
‘Hey,’ I answered. As he glided out from between the sheets with easy confidence, the evening started coming back, the stirring of muscles under the pale skin of his solid thighs, like the flanks of a horse in full gallop. Something sparked inside me and I swallowed fire. I stared as he pulled on paisley boxer shorts. Cotton, thank God.
The next thing I knew the man was in my kitchen. ‘Where do you keep your coffee filters?’ he asked. I watched his shoulders surge as he reached up to explore the top shelf of my cupboard. I always view a half-naked man standing in my kitchen scrounging for coffee filters as a fortunate turn of events.
I stumbled over and stood next to him, arms crossed over the front of my terrycloth robe, both of us staring into the same cupboard. ‘I’m probably out,’ I said. ‘Use some paper towel.’
Somehow, he made coffee, this guy, good, strong coffee that eroded the cotton batting in my head. And he made scrambled eggs and toast. I was afraid to tell him how long the eggs had probably been in the old Kenmore. Still, they tasted better than restaurant eggs. The guy watched me fork food into my mouth like a starving child and winked at me. Winked!
‘I add a dash of cinnamon,’ he told me. Somehow he’d managed to harvest cinnamon from my barren cupboards. He gestured a lot as he spoke, and I watched his hair tumble around his head with every twitch and nod. ‘Cinnamon gives it a special sort of flavor. Gives it class, I think.’
After we finished breakfast, I told him he’d better go. He looked at me like he was a frail old man and I was the evil landlord booting him out onto the streets so the building could go condo.
‘But can I see you again?’ he asked.
‘Jane, if I’d known you only wanted –‘
I leaned against the door frame and nodded for him to step out into the hall, which he obediently did. ‘It’s not like we’re soul mates,’ I said. ‘We met over a dented fender. We found an interesting way to kill an evening. It’s biology.’
‘I thought –‘ he stopped himself. ‘Never mind what I thought. It doesn’t matter. Take it easy, okay?’
‘Yeah, you too.’
I watched him for a moment as he walked away, my eyes locked on the waves of hair at the nape of his neck. There’s something vulnerable about the back of a man’s neck. I closed the door behind him and heard the sound of his footfalls trailing off down the apartment hallway. I may have listened a little longer than I usually do.
Three weeks later I saw him at Foodmart. It was about the same time of day, and on a Wednesday, the same day of the week as when I’d met him the first time. The guy must have shopped on a predictable schedule. It wasn’t like I’d planned it.
I walked up beside him in the produce section and picked up a head of lettuce, hoisting it in my hand and squeezing it to see if it had some bulk. My mother always warned me if you buy light, squishy lettuce you get fewer greens because it’s filled with air. I noticed the guy fondling lettuce, too.
‘Hey, it’s you,’ I said to him.
He turned and grinned. ‘Hi, Jane.’
He was a little more handsome than I remembered. His red hair was tamer that day. His skin glowed with the honey-colored tan fair skinned people get, which made his light green eyes glitter like peridots.
‘You squeeze lettuce,’ I said.
‘My mother taught me to be a smart consumer. Plus, I’ve been short on things to squeeze lately.’
I laughed at that. I gave him a real, genuine laugh to keep, and I knew he started thinking he might actually have a chance with me. He cocked one eyebrow and smiled.
‘Well, see you later,’ I said.
A few hours later, we were back at my apartment. It seemed our meeting at the store was kismet because we were both shopping for the ingredients for spaghetti dinner. It also seemed a waste, us preparing the same meals at different apartments, so he offered to cook for me. I accepted because I never pass up the opportunity to lie back while somebody else cooks.
After dinner, I waited for us to tumble into my bed, a natural and familiar transition. My apartment was a studio, so the living room and bedroom were one in the same. He sauntered over to the couch instead and I thought, okay, different venue tonight. I sat next to him as he leaned his head back against the cushions and smiled like a large, contented animal, gazing up at the ceiling as though he saw a field of stars.
I glanced at the ceiling myself and saw nothing but a long, jagged fault line zig-zagging through the plaster.
‘Dinner was great,’ I said.
Still reclining, he lowered his eyes to look at me. I wondered what he wanted from me. It would figure that he was one of those guys who expect a woman to make all the effort.
‘You know,’ I said, the words tumbling out of my mouth, ‘I’m really not the type to make the first move, so if you’re the kind of guy who lies around waiting for it . . .’
I tucked my hands between my thighs, a trick I’d learned to warm my always-frigid fingers. ‘I like things to be sort of mutual,’ I continued. ‘You know, mutual lust. I’m not really up to a passive guy.’
‘I was just thinking we’d sit here and talk,’ he said. He seemed nonplussed, but there was a seductive curl to his pale pink lips. ‘I didn’t expect us to do anything else.’
‘Yeah. It’s this concept where I say something, and then you respond to what I said, and vice versa. It’s easy once you get the hang of it.’
I plucked my icy hands from between my legs and planted my chin between them to cool the embarrassment painting my cheeks. My own fidgeting made me nervous — foolish and clumsy. The guys I’d known rarely wanted to talk about much of anything. Even so, we ended up draped across my couch, talking.
He told me as a teenager he lived on the south side of Milwaukee, next to a black family, and the little kids called him Spark because of the red hair. Their mother was a single parent, there were six children, and this poor woman would walk to work each morning hunched against the damp Milwaukee cold, her kids trailing behind on their way to school or daycare.
One bitterly cold February morning he hadn’t seen them heading off down the street. It worried him because every weekday they marched, no matter what the weather. He went over to the house, knocked on the door, and when nobody answered he just walked in. He found the kids huddled around a still form on the floor, sniffling and clinging to each other. He called 911 and the kids ended up in foster care for months until their mother was well enough to care for them again.
I found myself leaning in closer as he told his story, though what he was saying sounded like a CBS Movie of the Week. It seemed foreign to me, listening to somebody talk instead of the steady spanking of skin on skin punctuated by sighs. That sort of thing I knew. This talking and dining together made me feel strange and twitchy.
‘Now, you tell me something,’ he said.
I blinked at him and stared but he held his silence.
‘There’s nothing to tell,’ I finally said. I leaned back and away, crossing my arms over my chest and fixing my eyes on the street light outside the window. I’d found myself doing this from time to time, staring into the amber light and letting my eyes un-focus, and that fuzzy glow would look like a halo, or a light at the end of the tunnel.
‘Well, how about telling me where you grew up, or something like that. What was it like being you as a kid?’
‘Dull,’ I answered. I had no harrowing stories.
‘One-word answers don’t make for very interesting conversation.’
‘Okay,’ I sighed. ‘Dull and stupid.’
‘What was your family like?’
‘White trash, I suppose. Middle-class pretending to be something special.’ I snapped my gaze back toward him. ‘You want to play twenty questions, or what?’
‘There must’ve been something you liked,’ he said.
‘My horse. Nothing else.’
‘Your horse,’ he said. ‘That’s cool. Kind of rich-kid. Not many people I know could afford horse ownership.’
‘Neither could we,’ I said. ‘My parents ended up selling him.’
He didn’t miss a beat. ‘What was his name?’
‘I take it your mom didn’t name your horse.’
‘No.’ I stared at the fissure in the plaster again. ‘I did.’
He looked up, too, and said softly, ‘Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths…’
I recognized the words. I turned my head away and waved a hand in the air, ‘Yeah, that.’
Later, as I watched him walk down the hall, staring at the hole in his jeans just below his back pocket, I called after him, ‘Hey, Spark!’
He turned and shot me that sexy smile again.
‘Wait a second,’ I said. ‘Let me give you my phone number.’
I darted into the house and scratched my number onto a piece of paper towel with a dried-up pen. I thrust it out the door at him.
‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I’ll call you.’
I never give men my phone number, because they never call, but I was certain this guy would. He had a sort of trustworthy steadiness.
‘You don’t remember my name,’ he said out of the blue.
He was right. I didn’t.
‘Actually, I kinda like Spark,’ I said. Seemed like a good answer.
‘I’ll call you,’ he promised, ‘But when you answer the phone, you have to say my name or I’m hanging up. Deal?’
‘That’s so stupid.’
He was slowly vanishing into the dimness of the hallway.
‘It’s not stupid at all,’ he said. ‘Goodnight… Jane.’
I closed my eyes before shutting the door and remembered the last lines of the Yeats poem:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
The phone rang at 11:30 that night. I picked it up and said, ‘Dave?’
‘Nope,’ a voice answered. ‘Talk to you tomorrow, Jane.’
Then the phone jangled me awake at 6 A.M.
‘Three and I’m out?’
‘Nah. You get unlimited strikes.’
At 7 P.M. that night: ‘Kevin?’
‘Aw, so close!’
‘Is it an R name, then?’
‘Only one guess per phone call, Jane.’
‘Give me a hint. Is it a weird name, or a normal one?’
‘I’ll give you one hint. It’s a popular name and it’s not Ryan or Rumpelstiltskin.’
‘That’s two hints.’
‘Consider it a bonus.’
4 A.M., waking me from a sound sleep. I literally screamed into the phone, ‘Ryann, Randy, Rick, Robert, Raymond!’
Static silence. I heard life on the other end of the line, soft breathing.
‘Mom?’ I said.
A snorted laugh answered.
‘It’s one of those names you just shouted at me,’ he said slowly. ‘And by the way, thank you; I think I’m deaf in one ear.’
‘Which one?’ I cried. ‘Not which ear. I mean, which name?’
‘You tell me,’ he purred. ‘If you can tell me in one guess, I’ll come over right now.’
I pinched my legs together to savor the luscious sensation awakening there. I felt a familiar glow rising in my body. I was fire-eating again. ‘If you come over, are we going to talk some more?’
‘At four in the morning? No. I was thinking we’d make love. But if you’d rather talk, or sleep . . .’
His laugh was warm syrup.
‘I mean, I like talking, but right now –‘
I couldn’t believe how he’d made me want him. The thing of it was, I don’t think until that moment he’d even known he was doing it. But in the midst of the talking and the curiosity, somehow this had become a sexy game. I breathed consciously, closing my eyes in the darkness, memorizing his fiery hair and gemstone eyes, how I’d straddled his hips that evening after the car accident, picturing the hole in his jeans where a patch of alabaster flesh shone through. And remembering how I’d told him about Yeats and he’d actually listened.
I whispered my guess: ‘Rick.’
Robert, Raymond, Randy . . . what was the other name? I had to remember the other name I’d shouted. I’d yelled five names; for some reason I remembered the cadence. Rick was one of them, and he’d hung up. Robert. He didn’t look much like a Robert, or a Raymond, for that matter. Randy was a possibility. I decided that the next time he called, I would use Randy and hope it worked. Otherwise, I had three more names to go, one of which I couldn’t remember.
I stared into the darkness, sprawled across my bed with the covers pulled up to my chin. The ticking of the alarm clock beside my head, the old-fashioned kind with a deafening ring, drummed on. I glanced over to look at the glowing hands on its face. It was about 4:30. The mattress groaned beneath me as I turned my back to the glaring clock. Tonight I was wide awake and I knew there would be no more sleep.
Suddenly I bolted upright in bed. I could call him! He’d never made a rule against me calling him. I snatched up my phone and the screen illuminated, glowing like a blue beacon in the dark. I went to Recent Contacts, looking for his number. I had never programed a man’s number into my phone, but now I was intent on not only calling Spark back but saving his digits. I thumbed through the most recent calls in horror — every one of them was marked ‘Unavailable.’
I howled my defeat, slamming the phone down and tumbling back onto the bed. I couldn’t remember ever feeling this way about a guy. After the high school crushes, the ones you remember with bittersweet nostalgia, there was nothing memorable. It was easier when they didn’t stay and you didn’t get attached. It was easier when you didn’t give phone numbers and you just said goodbye at the door in the morning, or even that same night, and they went their merry way.
I closed my eyes, hoping to sleep for just a while. It was Sunday, and I silently made plans to stay in bed at least until noon, or until I guessed Spark’s name, whichever came first. I waited for the phone to ring again. I wanted my next chance. It had to be Randy. It was either Randy or that other name I couldn’t remember. When I opened my eyes again to stare up at the ceiling some more, the room was a subtle shade lighter.
Then I heard knocking.
I stumbled out of bed and shrugged into my robe, naked beneath. When I flung the apartment door open, light from the hallway spilled in and I blinked at the shadow in the doorframe. All I could see, haloed by the hall light behind, was a tumble of matchstick red hair. I could hear his steady breathing and feel his solid presence there in the dimness. I could smell him, a soft natural scent like wind and sunlight.
‘Rick!’ I cried, and dragged him in the door.
This short story originally appeared in The Blue Moon Review and Conversely.