by Kim Bussing
part 1 of 2
Monterey in the winter. We would strip down to nothing, down to goose-bumped flesh, and for a moment we would stare and judge the very animalism of nudity. It was an Adam and Eve type of thing. Our bodies hovered on the precipice of original sin.
And then you squeezed your eyes together until they could have been sewn shut, that’s how closely flesh cradled flesh, and you jumped. You crossed your fingers, or maybe your toes, and prayed that you would narrowly miss the rocks. You prayed that your life would flash before someone’s eyes and they would consider it interesting enough to let it continue.
The water was cold enough to kill. It seized your soul away from your body for the instant you jack-knifed between the waves, broke the boundary between air and molten ice. If you were brave enough to open your eyes in search of some other world, you would only see blue. Maybe black. Black, because the pain of that water, so close to frozen it burned, would gnaw away at your vision and your ability to tell which way led back to the surface.
We always said choose the road less traveled, because the way down always felt the most familiar.
That was when we were 24 and 21. He was older in the sense that he had tried a lifetime of things. He had found the meaning of life at the bottom of a bottle and in a pill tickling his tongue and in white powder on tinfoil. He had kissed everyone there was to kiss. He wore his All-Stars with everything, like he had known enough of life to know that no one could tell him he couldn’t. With shorts he had mangled from old jeans. With suits. To art showings and to dinners at his mother’s and when he went on runs.
The only time he pried off his shoes was when we jumped from the cliffs. Then they sat there as he looked outwards and wondered if this was the moment he wouldn’t be so lucky. They sat there with kind of grey laces, with the tongue curled slightly like the tongue of a dog.
* * *
We are 25 and 22 now. We are in line at a Starbucks near the place I get my hair cut. Joe orders fast, with arbitrary abandon, shutting down any cognitive senses and simply saying the first thing he sees. Today he orders a strawberry frappuccino, the kind they make for parents to buy their kids. I order a latte. No foam, a little vanilla syrup, but not too much. It costs almost $10.
“I didn’t even want something cold,” Joe says as we’re waiting for our drinks. He drums his fingers on the countertop, avoiding a little mess of spilled sugar.
“Then why did you order it?”
“I don’t want to be in a rut.”
“Let’s go somewhere soon.”
“My mother called today. Apparently Susan’s daughter got into that private school.”
“Let’s go somewhere tomorrow.”
We get our drinks and walk outside, since Joe is not a fan of stillness. He sips his strawberry frappuccino. He takes the green straw out and licks whipped cream off of it.
I might say that I love Joe.
His Converse shoes make slapping sounds on the ground. There are holes in the soles. He hates buying new pairs. He hates the look of newness. It’s like losing a game, going back to square one, tumbling down the chute while someone else is scrambling up a ladder.
I would say that I love Joe.
“Do you remember that time, in Monterey?” asks Joe.
Joe does not mention Monterey, not even after, really. After the cliffs. Still in Monterey. Monterey was more than just the cliffs. I got pneumonia. I remember going to the hospital. I remember sitting upright on a hospital bed in a hospital gown and the nurse and I talked about Saturday Night Live and how she once saw Alec Baldwin walking next to that one coffee shop.
“It was cold there. I’ve never been that cold again,” Joe says.
“I’m never cold when I’m with you.” I tug Joe’s arm. I wrap myself around it like a snake coiling around a mouse and kiss his cheek. Sometimes I have moments where I especially love Joe, where I feel like I am some clichéd heroine in a clichéd love movie and that’s a great feeling.
“Okay,” Joe says and pats my head with his free hand.
I do not mention the hospital because Joe says it’s a bad idea to think of bad things. It’s a good idea to think of good things. That’s how happy people stay happy all the time.
If you ask Joe, he will tell you he’s happy all the time even though his shoes have holes in the soles and the street’s a bit wet, and I wonder if his socks are damp.
The rain gets heavier. He pulls me into a McDonalds. Across the street is a café I read about.
“Let’s go there,” I tell Joe.
“Why would we do that?”
“I read about it. They’re gluten-free. I’ve always wanted to try being gluten-free. Or vegan. They’re vegan, too. They have house-made kombucha. They make muffins with almond butter.”
“Should I get a Big Mac or maybe something with chicken?”
“I want to go to the other place.”
“Why would you want to do what everyone else is doing?” Joe asks and gets in line.
“Do you think I should get one of those milkshake things? With the candy stirred in?” Joe asks.
We get to the cash register. I order something off the kid’s menu. Joe orders his milkshake and a Big Mac and a side of fries. It’s just over $10.
“Isn’t it funny how ten dollars can mean so many different things?” I ask Joe. My vanilla latte is still half-full. There are little rain splatters drying on the white top.
We get our food and, when I walk to a table, Joe walks over to the place where parents put their kids. He hands me his food and his milkshake and climbs through a ladder in a colored plastic tube. He sits at the top. A boy stares at him. A parent glances over but doesn’t say anything.
“Okay. Hand me the food,” Joe says.
My hands are full and the vanilla latte is squeezed in the crook of my right arm. I wiggle into the tunnel and stretch up to hand him the bags sweaty with oil and fat. He leans down and takes them. He scoots over and pats the ledge beside him.
“We’ll eat here,” he says.
The boy stares at him and then loses interest and walks to the ball pit.
“Remember Monterey?” Joe asks when I sit next to him and let my legs dangle over the empty space next to the ladder. I used to be claustrophobic, but it’s roomier up here. It’s just going up and down the ladder that’s bad. But I don’t tell Joe.
“What if we climbed to the top of this and jumped into the ball pit?” Joe asks.
“It might hurt.”
“It’d do more than might hurt.”
Joe bites into his Big Mac and there’s ketchup on his upper lip.
We finish eating and, when we try to go outside again, it’s raining harder. We don’t have a car and the nearest subway stop is far away if you think about it, especially when you think about having to sit on one of those dirty seats with your clothes all wet and the entire world clinging to the wetness of you.
“I have to get home to work,” Joe says and opens the door and walks into the rain.
Joe is writing a book. It’s a novel or a collection of short stories or a very long poem or maybe a bunch of essays. I’m not sure. He doesn’t like to talk about it. It disrupts the artistic process, he says.
“I’m going to get wet,” I say.
“You were wet once in Monterey,” says Joe.
I ask him why he always brings it up. It was so long ago, I say. So long ago you could almost forget it now.
Joe stares outside as the rain splashes against the concrete. The window is painted with grime, some kind of modern masterpiece that someone has taken the liberty of preserving. He bounces on the balls of his feet.
“I don’t talk about it that much,” he says.
He opens the door and a couple in line glances over as he holds it ajar and peers outside. He’s letting the cold air in. The wind smells like rain, like wet dog, like something so natural it must be vanquished by walls and ceilings and artificial heat.
“We have to go home,” he says. “I have to write.”
He steps outside and the door swings shut between us. I think about just staying there, and waiting. But I’ll still be wet. Either now or in a few weeks or swimming in a pool or taking a shower when I get home, so what, really, is the difference?
It’s like when someone says to eat slow, but you’re going to eat it no matter what, so why does it matter, I wonder sometimes. My parents are both doctors and my nanny only spoke Spanish so no one wanted to have these kinds of conversations.
The rain seeps down my collar and twists between my breasts. My hair is hard and wet against my head, like a hood of iron. I catch up to Joe and tap him on the shoulder. I’m shivering. My arms are bare. Joe’s jacket is suffocating in the wetness and gradually growing darker. He wraps it tighter around himself.
My mother does not like Joe. She calls him, “rootless.” I tell her people in general have forgotten to have roots. I ask her where her roots are. She tells me: in a medical textbook. And that my father’s are at the bottom of a bottle. My parents are divorced.
“You need new shoes.” I point to the wetness spreading in dark shadows on the red fabric.
Joe shrugs. I’m still holding the Starbucks cup. Rain is collecting again on the lid, drops slipping amongst each other in a race to, where? There should be a big book, somewhere, full of answers. Where do raindrops run off to? Where do feelings trickle away to, when you stop feeling them?
Joe darts through the rain as the storm picks up like a fish slivering through great gushes of waves that drain away everything else but the chill.
“Hey,” I call. “Hey, Joe.”
He glances back. His eyes widen, somewhere between faux surprise at a not-so-surprising birthday party and hearing the winner of American Idol announced.
“Watch out,” Joe says.
Copyright © 2014 by Kim Bussing