A simple premise; a bold promise
To present one story per day, every day—
providing exceptional authors with exposure
and avid readers with first-rate fiction.

Today's Story by Cary Tennis

I got the girl once in high school. She was the homecoming queen. But I threw her off a cliff. It's been incidents like that ever since.

Éric Gagné and Me

Fiction365 is taking a vacation this week, so we’re presenting a few (just a few) of our favorite stories from our first year.  We’ll be back with works of original fiction in 2013!  

This story first appeared on April 25, 2011.

I never will know what she thought about the flowers the first time I left them on the hood of her car because I never told her they were from me. I watched from the cafe, wiping the inside of an espresso cup and hoping she would react like in a movie with a look of curiosity and pleasure, but she was wearing that everyday sundress the color of a new tennis ball and her hair was not even washed very well but just hanging down her shoulders like a horse’s mane, by which I mean it seemed thick and meant to protect her shoulders but you wanted to grab it too, and get on top of her and yell Go! And she picked up the flowers like nothing and threw them into the backseat. She did not pick them up the way you pick a parking ticket off the windshield, with a look of annoyance and contempt, but just the same she picked them up as if it was no surprise to find a bouquet on her hood, but I know it had to be a surprise because I know nobody had ever left flowers on the hood of her car before, at least not that many flowers on hood of her car, at least not that many chrysanthemums.

I drank that day and blamed it on her. But after that I went a week with only an occasional beer, sitting in the bar across the street after I shut down the cafe. She must have parked her car on a different street after she found the flowers on it because I didn’t see her all that week.

She had a certain shape to her thigh that when she wore a certain pair of shorts it had the effect that certain paintings have, a happy jolt a little stronger than you expect, so you fight it a little but it doesn’t do any good because it fights you back. I didn’t need that. But I run the cafe and it makes no business sense to turn away a customer. They were regular beige, those shorts, but the way they lay over that luxuriant curve was the thing. I just shouldn’t have looked but that’s how I got the steam burn. I burned myself with the cappuccino steamer like in a romantic comedy except it’s not funny when I get angry. I break things and it’s not funny and the police become involved, which is why, as I’ve said, I didn’t want to feel the small of her back with my thumb and go through what I’m going through.

But the next week she came into the bar where I was sitting with that guy Kevin who used to tend bar at the Rite Spot before he got his eye shot out by a guy in a fight over some woman who dealt cocaine. This time she was wearing those jeans that gave me a tightness in my shoulders, like I wanted to lean forward and had to stop. She sat down the bar from us. I got up and walked over to the jukebox so I could look at her from behind. I liked looking at her from behind for the intensity of the experience except I did not like it for the hopelessness of it. I played “London Calling” by the Clash. It’s very typical of me, that if I did not know how to express how I felt at the moment I would put on “London Calling” by the Clash. So I went over next to her and I said to the bartender that I wanted a Pellegrino with lime because I had to go fix the espresso machine at the cafe. It sprayed me with hot milk, I told him. He laughed and said that must have been hot, and he glanced at the woman. I said it wasn’t funny and asked if he wanted to see the burn on my hand and he said yes, let me see it. He said he had some ointment. I said never mind, and tipped him, and turned to my left to look at her as she sat at the bar with a brightly colored drink in front of her and her straw-woven purse with a hibiscus flower on it sitting on her knees under the bar, her knees together, her feet together, her lips closed, her eyes on her brightly colored drink, maybe a mimosa, I don’t know the names of all those drinks because I never drank them because it seemed to me only people with more money than me drank those drinks. I could have afforded one now that I owned the cafe but I don’t think I would ask for a drink like that. They probably taste good, I just never found out. I had drunk so much that it was surprising I’d never had one of those brightly colored drinks, or that’s what my counselor in the treatment center said. He seemed surprised that I had done all these various things but had never had one of those brightly colored drinks. It made me angry that he said that, and I had to think about it later, why it made me angry, and I guess you could say I have some issues about money and social class though I wouldn’t have put it that way before I went into treatment.

She didn’t look over at me, and I couldn’t tell if she knew I was looking at her, so I turned to walk out. As I walked out I wanted to turn around and look at her from behind again but I couldn’t bring myself to do it for fear of looking like a man who leers. It was after 10 o’clock p.m. by that point and I had already closed the cafe. I put the key in the door of the cafe and went in and bent down under the counter and got a screwdriver and took off the top of the espresso machine so I could look inside and see if maybe there was a bad gasket or a worn fitting. I worked on the espresso machine for about an hour, down on the floor behind the counter, and couldn’t find anything wrong with it. It’s tiring working in a bent-over position on the floor behind the counter. I don’t know why I didn’t put it on top of the counter to work on but that’s how I am, I get started doing something one way and I just keep doing that. It doesn’t occur to me to adjust. So I was sitting down there but my back started to hurt so I stood up to stretch and looked out front and she was pressing her face against the glass of the cafe, looking in, standing on the sidewalk. I looked at her and she pointed at her watch the way people do if they want to know if you’re open or closed. And I said, “We’re closed! Closed!” I mouthed the words. Then she just stood there like she was waiting for me to say something else, but I just repeated, “We’re closed!” Then she shrugged and walked back across the street and then of course I realized I’d missed my opportunity to let her in, and I kicked the espresso machine across the floor, and then I got my baseball bat.

It was apparent to me after I finished with the baseball bat that I would have to discuss this with my counselor. I felt a slight sense of relief about the prospect of discussing it, but it still made me angry how I had responded automatically, like a stupid animal. It made me mad. She went across the street into the bar without looking back. I sat on the floor behind the counter and counted sugar packets. There were 467 packets in the box.

The next day I had to go buy a new espresso maker.

I told the guy at the espresso maker wholesaler that I had destroyed my machine. He asked me why I didn’t seek to have it repaired. I told him it was all bent up. He went on about how most machines can be repaired. I didn’t mention about the baseball bat. I did not go into all that with the man from the espresso maker wholesaler. Espresso people talk to each other. It would not be good for me to be seen as a man who had destroyed his own espresso machine with a baseball bat.

I brought the new machine back to the cafe and set it up and told my assistant, Jason, that I was taking the rest of the day off and went across the street to the bar. Kevin was sitting at the bar. I sat down next to him and ordered a Pellegrino and lime. We started talking about women. I don’t remember how it started. It is possible that I mentioned this woman who lived above the cafe and asked if he had seen her around. He asked me if I was going to ask her out. I told him that yes, eventually I would.

“Why not now?” he asked me.

“Don’t push me,” I told him.

He looked at me with his good eye, which was his right eye, and then walked to the back of the bar where the men’s room was. When he came back he asked me how the not-drinking thing was going and I told him that in the area of harm-reduction it was going well, but in the area of total abstinence it was only going so-so. I told him that I wished I could just give it up and completely change.

“But I am just the same guy I was before,” I said. “Except I can no longer stand on my hands.” When I was a gymnast in high school I could stand on my hands and walk all the way across the street on my hands. But that was a long time ago. I no longer have the shoulder strength.

He said that it didn’t sound like I was being straightforward with him about the drinking, that there was a layer of bullshit there, that I should either quit or not quit and either way maybe just stop talking about it. But what was I supposed to do? I replied if I was going to drink I was going to drink. If I was going to spend a full hour picturing in my mind the shape of a certain woman’s ear, and the way her hair curled around her cheekbone, and the way a tiny space the size of a little heart appeared between her thighs where they met the rest of her body, so be it. That would have to be OK.

Kevin and I talked about baseball and women then and I began to feel better; I could tell at first he had been angry when I told him not to push me but we renewed our friendship by talking about baseball and women. We talked about women in general, not about this woman in particular, which was a relief. But as a result of talking with Kevin about women in general I came to see that I really did have to ask this woman out. So I prepared to do that. I went over it carefully in my mind.

My experiences with women had not been uniformly positive. There had often been police involved, not because of anything I did to the women themselves, but because of situations that would arise. This was long ago, in another city, long before I became a cafe owner. Nonetheless, it was necessary for me to sit up in the cafe alone after closing time for several nights, cleaning the espresso maker, washing cups, stacking dishes, wiping the counter and thinking of how I would form the correct words, and how I would handle any difficult situations. It was my intention to ask her to accompany me to some event such as a baseball game or a parade. It seemed to me that I could make it appear that the idea had just then occurred to me out of the blue.

I had to wait for the right moment, yet I had to have the words prepared. So I sat up late in the cafe there on Potrero Hill, looking down the hill at the diamonds — which is what I call the houses; they just look like diamonds —  wiping the counter. I would ask her out with simple words at the right moment. I would ask her out calmly without a hint of impatience or desire. I would ask her out as if I had other options if she was not interested. I would ask her out as if I had not seen her standing at my window asking if the cafe was closed and had insisted that it was closed, instead of offering to let her in and make her a cup of coffee so we could get acquainted in a way that seemed charming and accidental. I would ask her out casually as if I had not sat next to her smelling her perfume that made me forget where I was. I would ask her out as if I had not walked behind her to the jukebox in order to stare at her from behind. I would ask her out as though I had not duplicated the key to her apartment and had not been watching her for months.

I sat in the cafe thinking it through and decided that the words would be approximately like this: “Hey, speaking of baseball, would you like to go the Giants game with me this Friday?” Or, if the subject of the parade came up instead I would say, “Hey, speaking of the parade, would you like to go to the parade with me this Saturday?” Then I would say something like, “It looks like it will be a fun parade,” or “It looks like it will be a good game.”

I got a chance to ask her out sooner than I had expected. I saw her in the bar on the third night and I sat next to her at the bar and ordered a Pellegrino with lime.

“How’s that burn?” the bartender asked.

“The burn from the espresso maker?” I said, looking at my hand.

“Did you ever put some ointment on that?” he asked.

When he said that, she turned toward me and looked at my face and then at my hand, which was red still on the top from the burn.

“Let me see that,” she said, and took my hand in hers. She held it palm down on the bar and traced the outline of the burn with her finger and said it looked like a bad burn, but it would heal.

“Would you like to go to the baseball game with me?” I said.

“What baseball game?” she asked.

“I think it’s going to be a pretty good game,” I said. “The weather should be nice and I can pick you up or we can meet there.”

“What game is that?” she said.

“I have tickets,” I said.

“Tickets are nice,” she said.

“It’s the game this Friday night between the Giants and the Dodgers, at Pacific Bell Park,” I said. “I have some tickets and I thought you might like to go with me. We could eat hot dogs.”

“I used to root for the Dodgers,” she said.

I had anticipated that as a possible response, and I was ready.

“That’s OK,” I said. “You can still go.”

“That’s nice of you to ask me,” she said. “Is that this Friday?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s this Friday.”

“I think I’m free,” she said.

“OK,” I said.

She let go of my hand and I took my hand back and put it on my knee and sipped my Pellegrino.

“So,” she said after a few minutes, “how do we do this?”

“How do we do what?” I said.

“How do we do the game?”

“I can pick you up,” I said.

“I only live right across the street.”

“I know,” I said.

“I know you know,” she said. “You don’t have to pick me up. We could just walk.”

“OK,” I said. “We can meet here then.”

“Why not meet at the cafe?” she said.

“I might be working,” I said.

“Is that a problem?” she said.

“OK,” I said. “We can meet at the cafe.” I wasn’t as fond of the idea of meeting at the cafe because it is where I work. But I agreed to do that.

So I had to meet her at my cafe on Friday, the day of the game, and we would walk to the game together. I stayed up late that night looking at pictures of her that I had taken from the cafe when she was passing by or getting into or out of her car, or when I saw her in the hallway outside my upstairs office, on the same floor as her apartment. I had been in her apartment twice performing routine maintenance tasks on behalf of the owner, with whom I maintained a cordial relationship as a business tenant. That is why I duplicated the key. I had taken note, when in her apartment, of some clothes that hung there, but I refrained from suggesting she wear any of those particular clothes that I remembered, for fear that she would then know that I had entered her apartment during the day when she was not there.

I called my counselor and left a message saying I wanted to schedule a session because I had a potentially destabilizing event approaching but his message said he was out of town until the following Wednesday. This displeased me but I attempted to do what he had suggested, which was when something displeased me to try to see it in a neutral light, or to look for other more positive angles.

So I spent the two days thinking about what would happen when she showed up at the cafe. When she showed up she was wearing some tight jeans. I complimented her on her appearance. We walked down the hill toward the stadium. The lights were already on, well before twilight, and there were boats on the bay.

The man who took my ticket at the turnstile looked like a man I had had a fight with once outside a bar. It was a fight about nothing except two men being drunk. You know how years later you can run into someone you had a fight with once over nothing, a mispronounced name or a hockey score, nothing even worth a shove much less a punch, once when you were drunk outside a small-town hick bar on your way to a job or a funeral, and you just stare at each other because maybe he has a moustache now, and a wife and kids with him or a pretty girl, or he’s taking tickets at a ballgame, and things have changed since you were both in the mud, and the moment makes you sheepish and maybe you fall silent after you see him and the woman you’re with asks, “What’s the matter?” and you say something like “I think I knew that guy from somewhere,” and she says “Why don’t you talk to him?” and you say, “Nah, that’s OK,” and if she drops it then the evening will go OK and you’ll have some eats later but if she won’t drop it, if she tries to be too helpful, then you may become too insistent that she drop it and you may raise your voice and hurt her feelings and then you will have to explain yourself and apologize or she may retaliate and then you have a difficult evening on your hands. So we went through the turnstile and I felt him looking at us but I said, “Let’s get some snacks.” And she looked back at the guy as if she sensed something too but she did not say anything about it. We got garlic fries and a hot dog and a chocolate shake and a root beer and went down to our seats along the first-base line.

It was a warm evening. It was the Dodgers. She looked really good. The air was good. You could smell the sea. The sky was lit up. It looked deep and gigantic the way it will sometimes look when you are outside eating snacks with a pretty woman, and the big lights on their towers seem to light up the back of the sky’s mouth. I was thinking exactly what color or iridescence there might be on the back of the sky’s mouth when she said that she was a little cold and I gave her my jacket and put my arm around her. Then she kind of nuzzled up against me. It was a comfortable feeling and I did not have the sense of being afraid of her or of thinking that I would never get to speak to her. It seemed just fine. This was unusual. I was not accustomed to this. I did not know what to do next. I tried to concentrate on the game. But her little blonde head, like the head of a goddess in a book of mythology, was under my chin and I was breathing her shampoo.

The game was good, too, but I could not become lost in it because I was thinking about how I was holding her, if it was the right way, if there was something I ought to say at this point. But no, whatever, it was OK, we just watched the game, and she talked about her job as a fashion designer and I asked her what it was like and she said being a fashion designer was like being in prison but a very expensive, beautiful prison where everyone dresses well and kisses you, and she asked me where I got the Bay Bridge tattoo and I told her, one, that I had worked on the Bay Bridge as an iron worker and, two, that a guy I knew died on the Bay Bridge, fell off right next to me actually, and I had felt bad about it and had gone out and gotten drunk that night and had words with my crew chief over the frequency of safety procedure training, and then got this tattoo in Oakland as the sun was coming up over Mount Diablo, in a little tattoo parlor run by a cousin of a Taiwanese metal worker who worked on the same job and gave me half off on account of the connection. I told her some other things too, how I came to own the cafe, but not about any of the jail time or my “struggle with alcoholism.”

At the seventh inning stretch she kissed me.

For a long time I have hated Dodgers closing pitcher Éric Gagné. Recently someone in a bar asked me why I hated Éric Gagné and I was surprised because I thought it was obvious why someone would hate him but I guess not. Éric Gagné seems selfish to me. I see a lot of selfishness around me — that kid who won’t give a seat to an old guy on the train, dozing there in his seat, his young smooth skin like some kind of arrogance you can’t put your finger on, and the woman next to me on the streetcar eating cherries and throwing the pits on the floor at my feet! But of course, trying to stay out of trouble, being a cafe owner, I let it slide. But Éric Gagné, the Dodgers closer, I find it hard to let that slide because with those glasses he doesn’t even look like an athlete; he looks like an accountant or a metal worker. It isn’t right how he is simply efficient and effective but not like any guy you ever played ball with as a kid; he’s like a machine, I guess is what it is. And whenever he comes into the game, you know all the fun is over and you might as well go home.

Since I was released from prison, I have given much thought to my intense dislike of Éric Gagné; I have, under the supervision of my counselor, a clinical psychologist, examined some Gagné-inspired episodes of antisocial behavior and attempted to identify other more suitable protests or expressions that might have yielded less jail time. But my feelings toward Gagné have persisted.

Our seats were three rows back but we had moved down to the front row. It was better there. We were closer. I had my glove. She had her glove. I hadn’t expected that, but I liked the fact that she had brought a glove along.

When Éric Gagné came on to pitch in the top of the eighth, with the Giants behind by one run, I felt a disturbing sadness and sense of loss. I had seen this too many times, a series of hopeful hits and skillful outs and well-orchestrated scoring opportunities squandered at the crucial moment, to leave the Giants one run behind when Gagné comes to the plate.

I don’t make measured choices, says my counselor. I pick the impossible and then fail. He thinks I hate myself. I have given that possibility some thought, as I have most all the observations he has made from time to time, sitting down by the bay on quartersawn cedar and redwood timbers treated with creosote, eating a tuna sandwich and drinking Snapple with my shoes off and my feet in the water, watching the tankers, feeling that feeling he keeps talking about, that feeling of desolation that he says leads to these fruitless pursuits of the impossible woman or the impossible television show (did I mention I’d written a sitcom pilot?).

I got the girl once in high school. She was the homecoming queen. But I threw her off a cliff. It was just horseplay but her father sued and that was when I went into the Marines. She lived — it was just water and it wasn’t that far, and I dragged her out. But she said I tried to kill her, and it’s been incidents like that ever since. I just can’t make things turn out right. He says I hate myself and that’s why I give in to the impulses, that’s why I get so angry. But I don’t think it’s just that I hate myself. I think I just hate certain things about the world, and boredom. But again he says that’s all me — that the world with its Kilamanjaro and Proust and the splitting of the atom isn’t drab at all — and I said yeah, and also Angelina Jolie, and I told him about this Russian woman I saw at the airport in these tight pants and this smile over her shoulder that made me think of being on top of her from behind and he said There it is again, there you go with the impossible longings, and I said I could have had her, and he said See what I mean? So I sat on the abandoned pier and tried to like myself — he said it would help if I gave myself some credit for overcoming my many difficulties. Pussy, I thought to myself. He is a fucking pussy.

What he was trying to get at, and I do understand his reasoning, was that if I can come to regard myself kindly, I will act in more measured fashion and people won’t feel I’m putting too much pressure on them. So I thought to myself in the baseball stadium, what if I could just sit back and enjoy the game — and that’s when Éric Gagné, that murderous prick, took the mound.

I delivered a stream of verbal abuse.

She gave me that look.

I admit that when I stand to yell at Éric Gagné the unexpected phrase will sometimes emerge. That does not mean I am insane. But she just gave me that look, and frankly it was irritating.

It was during my delivery of this stream of abuse that Bonds hit the foul pop fly that came our way, drifting on a northwest breeze that had been swirling for over an hour now, and it clearly was coming to me, not her, but yes it did drift to my right, and yes as I followed it down out of the lights I did lean on her a little, and who’s to say I was not protecting her by leaping up and catching it as she held up her glove, protecting her from getting her nose shattered by a falling baseball, how do I know what kind of a catch she is, how do I know she’s not going to be injured by the ball, falling as it is at such speed, in such swirling wind? So yes, I did elbow her out of the way, and yes, she did tumble onto and knock the garlic fries out of the lap of an elderly man who later needed assistance exiting the stadium; but I caught the ball and in the same motion caught her about the waist and kept her from taking flight down the aisle and yes, holding the ball aloft I did kiss her on the lips there on the Jumbotron for all the moms in her home state of Kansas to observe. And yes she did put that cold stare on for the rest of the game, and it was no fun from then on; I sat tossing the ball idly from hand to glove and pretending to be interested in the rest of the game. Bow could I be interested with Gagné on the mound? Am I supposed to hope even against that kind of impossibility? I don’t think so. That’s what I’ve been saying to my counselor.

I became aware only of the cold stare on her face. I studied her face as I would the face of a cafe customer. I studied her face when I felt she wasn’t aware. What I was trying to understand was whether I had truly made a mistake in pursuing her — if this was about to end up in the kind of painful way as my last such encounter with a woman.

After I caught the fly ball I high-fived my neighbor, with whom I had exchanged baseball pleasantries throughout the first few uneventful innings. The ball was like all baseballs — good, hard, sphÉrical and of a satisfying weight, and I sat in my seat and tossed it a few times idly as she stared at me.

I told her we had to leave. Why, she said. Because I cannot watch Éric Gagné any longer. When he comes on, the game is over. But that’s silly, she said. She said, “It’s not over till it’s over.” I told her not to say it was silly and a look came over her face. So then I said come on, we have to go now. And she said the score is 5-4 Dodgers, there are two more innings, we have to stay in case the Giants can squeak one out.

That was a difficult moment for me because I had gotten this far and did not want to blow it with an angry, abusive command. But Éric Gagné had the effect on me as though it was not just a game, as though he were a Northern general burning our Southern town — that’s what he reminded me of: Sherman. So I felt a panic, as though she had to be removed from the field. I wanted to pick her up and carry her out of the stadium, with her little fists beating my back. I gave her a look that was intended to frighten her. But she was staring hard at nothing and so I just said OK, you want to stay? She finally said Naw, Sure, OK, We can go, and we got up and went down the steps without looking right or left because if I caught the eye of any guy mocking me or sneering I was going to have trouble viewing my violent impulses with serene detachment.

I had entered her apartment earlier that day because by this time I had very little control over my actions in matters concerning her. We had talked about that obliquely during the game, actually, it coming up because I said she was as beautiful as Cleopatra and she said why do you say that and I said I can’t help myself.

Yes, you can, she said.

No. Really, I can’t, I said.

You mean you can’t really control what you say or do? she asked.

That’s kind of it, I said. Certain things, I said, I cannot control.

But of course I did not admit to violating her privacy by inspecting her apartment (even though it was, nominally speaking, in the scope of my master tenancy, I knew the difference).

We were a block away, walking back up toward Potrero Hill when a home-town cheer erupted and I saw a white ball like a meteor in the night sky exit the stadium and fall into the bay. It looked like the kind of home run that Barry Bonds hits.

“I guess we left too soon,” I said. We didn’t really talk till we got back to the cafe and she had her keys out. It was one of those long, silent walks where each of you is thinking you wished you could do anything or be anywhere other than this.

But I tried to save the evening. I started to talk and she said, “Don’t even start.”

I said, “I can unlock the cafe and we can have a cappuccino,” and she said, “I don’t think so.”

On our walk back from the game I had tried to again put my arm around her shoulders — which were nice, straight, light, bony but resilient shoulders — but she removed my arm and stepped away from me. I told her I was sorry we had to leave the game so soon. I said I would make it up to her. She said she would see. There was something about me, she said, that attracted her, but something that disturbed her, too — she said she knew I had been looking at her and watching her and she found it flattering but also a little creepy. I said I understood. She said, “I doubt it.”

I told her I wanted to see her again. She said she’d had a bad breakup recently. I said I understand how some things can take a long time to get over. She said, “I doubt it.”

I said, “What the fuck do you mean you doubt it? Do you doubt that I would have let you catch that pop fly if it had been on your side?

“It was on my side,” she said.

“It was not on your side at first,” I said. “That ball was coming straight down out of a perfect night sky and maybe it was a little in the lights but that doesn’t mean I could not have caught it.”

“I had it,” she said. “The wind shifted and you stole that ball!”

And she went upstairs.

It’s true that I did sort of muscle her out of the way. It was a reflex. But the more I stewed on it the more angry I became. After all, a guy goes down the chow line and holds out his plate and the cook puts a spoon in the slop and plops it on your plate and that is what you get. Here, look on my plate. Here are my childhood beatings, my poor memory for consequences, my impulse control issues, my “struggle with alcoholism.”

You doubt it? You doubt that anybody from a little shack on a river could possibly have a clue what’s going on in that pretty little Georgetown head of yours? You doubt that a guy like me could make you shut up and pay attention to the rain? That I would sit up with you when you are sick and cook you soup and hold your hand and tell you about the fireflies down in old sweet Alabama? You doubt that any guy with a knife scar in his belly like mine could still cook seared scallops on a bed of white beans and crisp prosciutto? Are you afraid that in a pinch among your bald dressmaker friends and your little white dogs and your squeaky-voiced financial backers I might say the wrong thing about Averil Sharon and the Palestinians or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, or whether to laugh or cry at the death of the authorial voice and somebody with a Prada handbag will lift her eyebrows and I’ll want to kick her ass in the kitchen but I won’t, I won’t, do you doubt that? I’ve got some issues with impulse control but I’m not a psychopath or a liar or a two-bit hood or worse a fake or a hustler or a scaredy-cat like that twerp with the earring I’ve seen you with at openings. Do you doubt that I can speak your language? Do you doubt that I can handle your family? Why are you looking at me like that? Can’t you tell the difference between a man who’s angry but on your side and a man who can’t be counted on? I can be counted on. That you don’t have to doubt.

These are the things I was thinking but did not say.

She said goodnight and went up to her apartment without kissing me or giving any hint of warmth or affection. I cannot describe her face to you but it was the face of a woman who wishes to hear no more from you. So I sat on the curb by her car where I had left so many bouquets on the hood — lilies, chrysanthemums, whatever looked good at the time. For a while, as my counselor had suggested, I just paid attention to the thoughts that arose in my mind, and the order they came in, and how they led to one another. The first thought was to get my baseball bat and start hitting her car with it. That thought passed — more quickly, I noticed, than similar thoughts at other comparable times. Then I thought of standing in the street and yelling up to her. What would I yell? You bitch! You beautiful cold-hearted bitch! You baby! You bad catch! You ball-stealing bitch! You fucking Dodgers fan! As I thought these things, as I had been trained to do in therapy I maintained a distance from the words that ran through my head, not disowning them as that would be “splitting off,” but not acting on them either, just feeling them. Then I arose and walked around on the sidewalk in front of my cafe. After a few minutes I felt calmer and went upstairs to my office, where I had a couch that I sometimes slept on. I sat at my desk but my head was still buzzing so I lay down. I lay down on the couch and the thoughts came with greater speed and intensity — large, vivid thoughts, angry thoughts. Again, as on the sidewalk, I attempted to monitor them without acting on them. This woman! My life! It had come to this, a 39-year-old ex-Marine with mental problems, inheritor of a hip cafe on Potrero Hill, doing so well for many months ordering the pastries and coffee beans, chatting with customers, wiping up the spills without overreacting as I have been known to do in the past at the sight of spilled coffee or syrup, drinking only on occasion at the bar across the street with the vertiginous blue view of tall buildings and sky, drinking one cocktail and calling it quits, quieting my mind with my nightly tai chi, reading the Good Book and marking passages, practicing with the rifle but only at the range, never in my room, allowing myself a modicum of secret pleasures, but always alert to the importance of discipline, always alert to my past propensity for violence, my trick brain like a trick knee liable to go out on you at any time and send you tumbling.

And then I will admit to you as I lay there I though of her in the next apartment undressing, I thought of the flimsy panties slipping over the hipbone and tailbone and firm resilient mounds and yes, I admit to you, as I lay in the dark bereft and inconsolable, I pleasured myself. And as I cleaned off with my handkerchief then again I was filled with rage and disappointment: What a waste of man! What a waste of energy and love! What a stupid cruel implacable woman she is! And the image of her car parked outside the cafe on whose hood I had piled so many flowers came to me and I grabbed my baseball bat, stuffed my handkerchief in my shirt pocket, took the stairs down to her car and assumed my batter’s stance by her fender. I stared into the dead headlights. But just as I was taking my backswing I paused with the bat long enough to think about where this was leading. This was leading to jail. So instead I hocked up a big loogie and spat it on her car. It fell with a gentle slap on her bare, innocent hood. I stood in silence a while and then went back upstairs.

Again I could not rest. Again more images and memories of violence and abuse filled my mind. I was wasted and distraught. I sat in agonized silence for an hour, reviewing the beatings both taken and given that marked like mileposts the race of my life, and I knew I had to go back to the street and wipe that spit off her car. I had to make it right. So I grabbed my handkerchief and went down the stairs again, somberly like a deacon coming down to address the congregation. I took out my handkerchief and just like wiping down a counter I circled the spit mark. I wiped off all traces of it. Then I folded my handkerchief and put it back in my shirt pocket. As I did so she came down the stairs and out the door of the apartment building and walked over to where I stood.

“You’re always hanging around my car,” she said.

I did not know what to say to her so I nodded and stepped away from her car.

“I was having trouble sleeping,” she said. “I usually sleep like a baby.”

I nodded again.

“One reason I couldn’t sleep,” she said, “I was wondering about the score. I never found out how it ended up.”

“We left a little prematurely,” I said. “It’s not usually like that.”

“You mean with all the other gals?” she said.

“No,” I said, “I mean with all the other games. I don’t usually leave a game early.”

“It’s that Gagné, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yeah, that guy gets to me,” I said. “He’s so all-fucking full of himself. He’s so all-fucking efficient.”

“But he got hit tonight,” she said.

“Yep,” I said. “He got hit tonight.”

“That guy’s streak is over,” she said.

I don’t know why, because there was nothing sad about it that I could see, but she started to cry then, leaning against the hood of her Audi in her pajamas and her robe. I reached out to hold her but she stiff-armed me with her left hand, kind of hard, actually, and with her right hand she snatched my dirty handkerchief out of my shirt pocket.

“Don’t wipe your eyes with that,” I said.

“Don’t fucking tell me what to do,” she said.


Cary Tennis writes the advice column for Salon.com

Read more stories by Cary Tennis



To comment on this story, visit Fiction365’s Facebook page.