I first saw Boop two weeks ago when I came in to the library to kill time before my dentist appointment. I don't know her real name, but she has short dark hair, thick and wavy like Betty Boop, and almost no tits. I like the contradiction. I don't care what her name is even though she'll probably tell me. I'll block it out; I can do that. When a person speaks to me, I know right away which words to remember and which to let dissolve into the motion of their lips and tongue. Call it a gift. My theory is that I won't remember anyone whose true name I don't know.
I've watched her long enough to know when she'll be here. She reads books fast. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons she comes back for another. I learned this through patience; that first week I came to the library five days in a row. Today is the eighth time I've seen her, and I'm pretty sure she's on to me. It's Tuesday.
Boop reads romance novels. All the women who read those books are the same to me. Same weepy daydreams, different husband. Or cat. For them, passion and lust are forms of love, an enlightenment of emotions. But only characters in books experience love this way. Women like Boop want what doesn't exist.
Boop noticed me for the first time last week when I stood leaning against the second floor balcony railing. I watched her search for her next romance. She has a meticulous way of selecting books. They are kept on three black wire racks, and she starts at the one by the wall and runs her fingers across each title, then quarter-turns the rack and continues. Maybe she's searching for a new story; maybe she's remembering plots that haunt her. She likes to display her wedding ring as she does this, and I assume she's not very well off since her watch face glints more than her diamond.
If another woman gets in her way, Boop faces the woman and taps her foot. Not loudly but with a lot of motion. Boop. She's so bold and crass. How can I not look? After combing the racks, Boop homes in on her choice with the precision of radar. Her fingers dart directly to the book, spinning the rack and snatching the novel in one motion, the revolutions easing to a halt as she walks away.
She hasn't seen me yet today; she expects to find me looking down on her from the balcony. I glance at the library's front door I've just walked through, a part of me wishing I could turn and leave. But I can't. I don't have to stand on the balcony though; I do have some control, so I duck through one of two doorways leading into the children's room and find a table cluttered with books. The romance racks sit just beyond the other threshold of this room, and here I have a clear view of Boop. She crouches with her back to me and starts on the second rack. I take my coat off and drape it over a chair, stack the books on my table into a neat pile, and place one in front of me. I want to appear as if I'm selecting a book for my child. If she glances my way, maybe she won't recognize me at first.
On weekdays at this time, not many kids are around. The schools don't let out for another hour or so. I glance at the books I have stacked. Some of the titles I recognize: Danny and the Dinosaur, Frog and Toad, Stuart Little. I used to read these kinds of books to Trina on Sunday mornings while I drank my coffee and she slurped milk from her cereal. Stories of animals and people and harmony. All too happy. The stories bored me, but I enjoyed reading out loud. I used my voice in a way I never did in public. I spoke long sentences, without watching for another person's reaction or remembering what lies I had told. The script was in front of me, and I could sound out the appropriateness of the characters' actions.
I thumb through a book and tilt my head so it looks like I'm glancing at the page, but I focus on Boop. I imagine us in a hot tub, tendrils of steam dewing our brows, pockets of warmth bubbling around our skin. Her foot snaking toward me under the water, concealed by foam. My foot inching up her calf. Then thigh. I move the book from the table so I can press on my erection.
Boop skims the titles on the third rack. She will choose her book soon. I don't think she's aware of me yet so I set rules for myself. I can only approach her if she sees me. If she doesn't look my way, I won't have anything to feel guilty about.
The anxiety and excitement I feel waiting for her to turn around I've felt before. It is a buoyancy, this feeling, my body distended, on the brink of floating. But each time the feathery nervousness surprises me. That I could feel so alive and real surprises me. This pure rawness is what life is all about. A feeling maybe pregnant women experience the first time their baby rustles inside them.
She passes the doorway to the children's room on her way to the front desk, moving so fast I almost miss her. I wait to see if she returns, but she doesn't, so I walk to the doorway. Through breaks in the stacks I can see her standing at the desk, chatting with the librarian, her book clutched in her hand. I'm still hard so I slip into the bathroom next to the children's room. I stay there for ten minutes, longer than I need to finish the job, and sit on the toilet until the intensity of the moment passes and all my senses are back to normal.
I have to grab my coat first, and I notice it before I even get to the table. She has left a book for me. Creases grimace the cover, and many of the pages are dog-eared. On the front, a man stands behind a woman, wrapping his arms around her waist, cinched small. One hand creeps toward her breast. They wear clothing like characters from Gone with the Wind. Is this what she wants? Southern belle boobs bulging against a corset? All the sex scenes acted out? I flip through the pages, wondering if there is more of a message. Maybe she's underlined passages or left her phone number.
I find a folded page from last week's Potawa Times. Jackie and I subscribe. We even read this article together, about Harry Jacobs refusing to cut his lawn. It's accompanied by a photo of the Jacobs kid kneeling in the foot-long grass, waving. Jackie and I joked that someone should just let a couple cows loose to graze the shit out of their yard.
"That's what I do," voice behind me says. I turn, and she's already smiling at me.
She laughs. "No, write. I'm a reporter for the Times." I can tell she enjoys saying "the Times," as if hoping to be mistaken for a New York Times writer. When she speaks, I try not to look into her eyes. They're small and uneven, as if her head was tilted permanently sideways. I don't know which one to look at, and I'm afraid I'll cock my head in a gesture she may find mocking. I fold the article back up and stuff it in the book before I'm tempted to look at her by-line. Aside from being crooked, her eyes are also too close together and with her small pucker mouth and button nose, her features appear squashed into the center of her face.
"Now tell me something about you," she says.
"I want us to know at least one thing about each other." She stands with one hip cocked, fingers dipping into her pockets. Is her whole body off balance? "You know . . . first."
A reporter's notebook juts out of her purse. I picture her recording our conversation or remembering my quotes so she can scribble them down the first chance she gets. I imagine what I say enlarged to an oversize, boldface font. I will have to lie.
"I used to have a cow." I hate cows.
"Huh," Boop says. Not a question, just a statement. "Did you name it?"
"Yeah, Pepper." Pepper was the name of every stray dog I cared for as a kid. Three total.
"Cow," she says and turns to go. She smiles and seems satisfied. I smile back at her because we share something now, but it's not enough.
At home, because I feel guilty and because I know I will do it again, I offer to clean up after dinner and help Trina study for a math test. I help her understand the relationship between fractions and decimals until she can convert one to the other without hesitation. I watch her concentrate over the numbers. Her jaw sets in a look of rigid disapproval that vanishes as the book closes. She tucks her hair behind her ear and twists an aquamarine stud until her lobes are red. She has pierced ears now?
Later, in bed, I massage Jackie's back, continuing to rub slow circles around her shoulder blades and along her spine long after I've grown tired. "Good man," she tells me and reaches her hand around to pat my thigh. Her sparse body is easy for me to understand, just the necessities of skin and bone, no excesses. While my hands knead, her breathing slows to a monotony of inhales and exhales. She sleeps, I think. I want to lull her into a dreamy unconsciousness where I do not clutter our lives. Where eating dinner and showing Trina the correlation between three-fourths and .75 are enough for me. Where the pressure of my palms coax comfort and forgiveness. Jackie stirs, and I remove my hands, cramped at the wrists.
"Thank you," she says sitting up. She stretches her arms above her head and props the pillow against the headboard. She is awake. That's all I can think as I watch the pleasure linger in her smile, then droop slowly. I could not lull her anywhere.
Jackie begins to rubs my shoulder, but I slide down onto my back. I do so slowly and with a smile on my face so she won't think I'm snubbing her. I need her to love me. But sometimes I must prove to myself that I don't need to be touched. This is a game I play. I touch my wife but do not let her touch me. I rub myself three or four times in the shower but no more. I strengthen my will with familiar touches so I will be able to fend off unfamiliar ones. This is a slow process, like losing weight. I can only gradually shed my shortcomings.
The next morning, I arrive first at the office. Four of us work here, three agents and a secretary. Everyone else comes in around nine, but I like to get in at eight, sometimes earlier. I catch up in the quiet, and if I'm settled when the others arrive, they won't question if I'm absent later in the day. So far it's worked although I have the lowest sales record. I just want to sustain my lifestyle, though. If I sell too much my boss and Jackie might come to expect the improved performance.
Around quarter to nine, while I'm still alone, a young couple walks in. They look like they're still in high school, but they wear wedding bands and hold hands.
"We're in the market for an apartment," the wife says. Her words sound practiced. Her mother probably coached her through this visit. She wears an old Nirvana T-shirt that shows off her belly button. The husband is skinny with long hair, the kind of kid whose main interest is listening to loud, fast music and collecting concert T-shirts.
"Well, you've come to the right place," I say, extending my hand. "I'm Ray Only."
"I'm Theresa and this is Craig," the wife says scanning a finger between them. "Mr. and Mrs. Theresa and Craig Green." Thick foundation outlines her face, brown eye shadow her eyelids. Orange-red lipstick smears across her front teeth. A real chippy.
We talk about their financial situation, their wedding reception at a Knights of Columbus hall. Chippy tells me they'd love to see houses, real houses she calls them, but can't afford them yet. She wants a black Tudor (she pronounces it two-door) with white shutters. An authentic pinball machine. A swimming pool. Craig doesn't say anything, but Chippy's excitement grows. If I'm not too busy, could I show them one? I kill time until the other agents arrive and see me working, then grab the keys to the only two apartments we have available and the Conrad house, a colonial I like. I'd rather be driving around than be cooped up in the office, and even though she's not a looker, Chippy's a sweet enough kid.
Potawa hasn't yet succumbed to the push and shove fervency overtaking cities north of Detroit, giving rise to new subdivisions and condo complexes, rows and rows of the same make and model building, same front doors. It won't be long, though, what with its lakes big enough for water-skiers and waterfront property. For now it's a predictable town of eleven thousand, more willing to go along with the rest of the world with its chain establishments, its Domino's Pizza and Dairy Queen and Ace Hardware, than to cultivate its own space.
I look at Craig in the rearview mirror, feeling less respect for him since he didn't sit in the front seat but opted for the back with Chippy like I'm some chauffer service. His hair falls into his eyes so he looks out from behind a curtain. He hasn't spoken much and when he does, he seems kind of slow. Not retarded slow but no Einstein either, like he thinks his words through carefully.
After I show them the apartments, I drive to the Conrads' yellow two-story with dark green shutters, and Chippy's face falls all serious when she sees it. She turns to her husband and says, "Oh Craig, it's beautiful," like they're looking at a newborn baby or something.
I play along, nod vigorously. "It is. It is." I'm good at making people feel their opinions are right on track with reality. "And it has two-and-a-half baths, a walk-in closet, a built-in lazy Susan, and a new hot water heater." Chippy's in awe. Must have been the hot water heater.
"Is this a nice neighborhood?" she asks. She strains her vision down both sides of the street, but there's not much to see, just a couple abandoned skateboards and an open mailbox.
I tell them that an engineer, a Chrysler salesman, and one of the junior high counselors live on this street. Young couples, older couples, a real cross-section of the town. "All fine people." I don't mention that I've slept with three of the women.
The Conrads left a spare set of keys at the office in case we have to show the house while they're at work and their two kids are at school. That's part of the appeal of my company. We didn't insist on a lockbox the way some places would. Still, we're supposed to give them sufficient warning before bringing people through.
A heavy mirror faces the doorway, reflecting our entrance. I glance at Chippy sucking on the tip of her pinkie. Her eyes bug. I usher them toward the kitchen, which smells like rubber cement and scrambled eggs. On the table sits a Popsicle-stick log cabin, minus roof, with a Star Wars figurine lying by the door. It's lopsided without its top, like a barn listing with rot. Next to it is a child's crayon drawing of a square house, puffy cloud, even slab of green grass. Straight rays emanate from a half-circle sun in the corner. I love pictures like this, the simplicity of objects reduced to basic shapes without depth or interior. I know I'm experiencing all there is of them.
I show the Greens the first floor then take them down to the basement rec room, made homier with leftover living room carpet. In one corner, the daughter's baton twirling trophies clutter a picnic table slathered with red paint.
The Greens seem more impressed by the couch and TV here, by the idea of a fixed-up basement, than by the rest of the house, so I retreat upstairs to look around.
Upstairs, the bed in the master bedroom is unmade and a crumpled pair of boxers lies in the middle. I like feeling the space the way other people do when they wake up. It is real, this air, what I imagine pure oxygen to be. I think that if I lived here, this air would change me, make me a good husband and father. Satisfied. I lie carefully on one side of the bed and look around: two windows with blue mini-blinds, an old oak dresser, and a dirty ceiling light. It feels the way my room in college did. Laundry on the floor, drawers half open, closets gaping. The residue of a rushed morning.
After a while, I go into the baton twirler's bedroom, a tribute to the color peach. In the middle sits a canopy bed with a lacy top and a satin comforter. Lacy curtains billow over the window panes. Satin and lace throw pillows adorn the bed. It's the room of a Southern belle, and I think of Boop. She would like it here. I can picture her waiting for me to come home from the war, reading a sleazy sex book under the covers.
I look at my watch—10:50. Still too early for Boop to be at the library. I hear Chippy and Craig on the stairs, and Chippy's laughter annoys me. It's my fault for bringing them here, but I want them to leave.
I drop them off at the office where their old dark Trans Am sits like a blackhead on the parking lot's smooth concrete. The only other car in the lot is Barb's, the secretary. I don't even have to bother going inside and pretending I have to be somewhere. I can just get in my car and drive the twenty minutes to the library. No, I won't. I'll stay here and think of my family. How I'll make them hot caramel sundaes tonight. I will tell Jackie she looks beautiful, Trina she looks older. They will love me. I exhale heavily. I can do this.
I know as soon as I walk in that she's not here yet, even though I can only barely see the romance novels from the front door. In the biography section, I open one of Dolley Madison and pretend to read.
I wait for almost an hour. When she walks in, Boop glances up at the balcony then peers into the children's room, all business the way she quickly scans the building for me, as if we're playing hide and seek. While I wait for her to reach the biography section, I start feeling it. My tongue grows full; my thigh muscles flex on their own; my toes become distinguishable, one from another. I feel happy to be alive. Swelled into my body.
She looks surprised and relieved when she finds me. "Eureka," she says but not loudly. She's the type to keep quiet in a library.
"Shall we?" I nod toward the door.
As we walk to the parking lot, I listen for the scuff of Boop's hard-soled shoes on the pavement and the rustle of her white pants scraping together between her legs.
"This your car?" she asks as I approach my Infiniti, the only car in the vicinity. I nod and consider asking who else's car she expects it to be, but I don't. She's impressed by my I35 sedan, and I leave it at that. Truth is, it impresses me too. Even though I bought it used with almost a hundred thousand miles on it. Even though Infiniti no longer makes this model. It's still a respectable car, and once you own it, people just see its sleek lines, the wide soft leather seats.
In the car, she opens a new pack of cigarettes and rummages through her purse for a tube of lipstick. She depresses the car's lighter, clicks her nails against the window. The lighter pops out but she doesn't reach for it right away. Instead she plays with every knob and button on the dashboard. She turns on the radio, turns on the heat, cranks the fan to high, switches to air conditioning. I pull out the lighter and hand it to her. While she lights her cigarette, I turn the air conditioning and radio off.
"Some people smoke after," she says. "Me, I need one before." She looks at herself in the mirror, dabs on lipstick. "And after." She laughs haltingly and thumb wrestles herself between puffs, waiting too long to flick her ashes into the ashtray. "Oh, do you mind me smoking?"
I do mind, but sometimes I have to make sacrifices. I glance over and shake my head. She wears a lot of eye makeup—black liner and heavy mascara that clumps onto her bottom lashes. She's not what I would consider attractive. She has a certain confidence though, the way she sashays her hips when she walks. The way she left that book on my table. And the way she leans down to look at the rack of books, showing off her ass. There's something so appealing about unattractive women who flaunt their stuff, who know the good parts of themselves and offer those to you so seductively. I love that confidence. Women like that can make anything look good.
"Where are we going?"
"I have a surprise for you if that's OK." I pat her thigh and speak carefully. I don't want her to tense up and change her mind. "You remember that book you set on my table? What was it, Confederate Passions?"
She nods, smiles a little. "One of my favorites."
"I thought so."
She folds her hands in her lap and settles in for the ride. She doesn't have to say it, but I know she's thinking how she loves surprises.
Uncomfortable silence, like dead air time from a radio station, fills the Conrad house. In the mirror by the front door, I see my face flush, my skin almost pulse with anxiety. We are here together, inside this house. Sometimes when I stand in my own house, I feel as if it is dimensionless, as if I am dimensionless. But here, I can feel my body's depth and interior. I feel whole. Boop looks around, peeks into the living room off the entranceway. A family photo in a thick silver frame adorns the wall. I'm not in it. "You don't live here," she says.
Brilliant, this one.
"I'm selling it. You saw the sign out front." That's all I will reveal. Enough so she feels I'm being straightforward with her. "Up here." I motion toward the second floor.
Boop grabs my arm. "Shouldn't you see if someone is here?"
"Don't worry." I jog up the stairs, my steps light. I reach the bedroom before she does, so I close the door and wait.
"Is this my surprise?"
I nod and open the door, watching her face as I do. Her eyebrows furrow; she licks her lips. I can't read her expression. "It reminded me of the book," I say. She turns around slowly and touches the satin comforter.
I reach over and touch her collarbone, nervous, the same way I felt watching her in the library. I could fly, I think. All I would need is a ramp and a good running start. This feeling will fade quickly, I know; it won't even outlast the sex. But for now everything inside of me, all the biology and psychology, seem drained of gravity. I draw her down to the bed.
She stops me. "This is a little girl's room." Her eyes squint. I can't tell if she's appalled or nervous.
"Don't worry, no one's home." I rub her arm, smooth her short hair.
Boop is uncomfortable now. "I saw it and thought of that book," I say. "It must have rooms like this."
She looks at me, then again at the room and shakes her head. "Not here. We might . . ."
"You know," she says.
I shake my head.
"Drip." She enunciates. God, she's fascinating.
"We might," I concur.
Boop moves as if to leave. "Wait." I point to the wooden desk chair. There's no cushion on which to leave a trace.
We're undressed but not finished when I hear a door close. I can't tell where the sound emanates from, just that it's close. Boop hears it too because she stops, and her eyes widen. We scramble for our clothes. This danger of being caught is better than the sex.
I listen for voices but hear only a hollow, plastic scraping and a muffled rustling. Boop dresses efficiently and when she finishes, holds my pants out in front of me like a mother helping a toddler dress.
"Move," she whispers.
I hear other noises: a snort, a shush, a creak that could be someone climbing the stairs. I move.
No one comes up, so we walk downstairs, my hands poised to display moldings or smooth over the wooden banister in case we're caught and I have to become a realtor again. I hear the refrigerator open. It could be one of the Conrads, home for a late lunch, but they know my car; they would have seen it parked in the driveway and called out to me. I envision a muscular thug dressed in black ski mask, a brutal scene involving lots of duct tape. I don't want to move, but Boop pushes me along from her hiding spot behind me.
I turn into the kitchen and see a half-shirt and stringy hair draped over the Popsicle-stick log cabin. Jesus, it's Chippy. She stands the Star Wars figurine by the door, pretends Han Solo knocks, then looks up. I turn toward the fridge. A piece of old pizza hangs from Craig's mouth. Neither one looks scared or surprised. The basement TV, a 19-inch Magnavox, sits on the counter.
Craig holds up his hand, pizza slice still in his mouth. "Hey, Bro," he says.
"How did you get in?" I ask Craig. He shrugs.
"How?" I say louder. I narrow my eyes at Chippy. She sighs and points to the patio entrance. "The door. Relax, Killer."
For a few moments, everyone falls silent. They wait for me. I should tell Craig and Chippy to leave, but that seems too obvious.
Chippy speaks first. "This log cabin too." Craig nods and brushes the hair out of his eyes. It's the first time I've seen his whole face.
"What do you mean too?" I say. "You're not taking anything." I try not to sound panicked, but my voice approaches a high-pitched wail.
"Turn around and walk away, Ray," Craig says. He actually sounds a bit mean, like next he'll say, and no one will get hurt.
"Everybody out." I point from Chippy to Craig. "And no one takes anything."
Still no one moves. I feel Boop pinch my ass. Despite my anger, I am anxious, filled with that temporary, beautiful restlessness. I can't stop these feelings nor do I want to, but they complicate my life, add spaces to it that I have to allow for. Like Chippy and Craig. I have to do something with them. A distant cowboy-like voice echoes in my head, tells me this house isn't big enough for the four of us, and I guide Chippy and Boop to the front door, pushing them with my hands pressed against their shoulders. I don't contemplate the most appropriate door for our exits, I just know that everyone, including me, has to leave now.
I come back for Craig. He stands hugging the TV.
"I mean it Craig," I say, pointing at his chest. I don't think I sound convincing, though. My voice is too scratchy and nervous. I wait. He doesn't move. "Put it down."
"Relax, Honey," Boop says. She's suddenly standing behind me, rubbing between my shoulder blades. I don't look back at Boop. I look at Craig the whole time. It's important that I not look away first, I know. "I'll be in the car," Boop says. I hear her backing away. Craig laughs abruptly then sets the TV down and walks outside.
Craig, Chippy, and I stand on the porch; Boop sits in the driver's seat of the car.
"Keep going," I say to Chippy and Craig, shooing them away.
Boop starts the car. Her left elbow juts out the window, the right grips the steering wheel. Country music cuts the air. A couple minutes pass before I realize she's swiped my keys.
No one seems to know what to do, so we all watch Boop. She pretends to turn the wheel, revving the engine with a few throaty vroom-vrooms.
"I've always wanted a car like this," she says above the music.
"You can't have it." I don't even pretend to joke.
"Still," she yells out the window and turns the music up. It's too conspicuous. The car running, the music, us standing on the porch. I no longer look like I belong here. There is too much danger now. It pushes on me, an unseen force.
I turn again to Craig and Chippy to tell them to leave when Boop backs down the driveway. I watch, hoping she'll stop and laugh, that Craig and Chippy will laugh and then they'll leave, and this will be over. But she doesn't stop. She waves and keeps driving.
"Your wife's taking off," Craig says.
I do have options. I could run after her, wave my arms and scream "Hey!" and pray it works. But maybe that's what she wants me to do. Maybe she wants me vulnerable, to show me up in front of housewives peering behind curtained windows. They would see my flailing arms. My panic.
They are too much, these thoughts. I turn to the Greens. "Leave," I say, pointing to the road, sounding like a father scolding unruly children. Chippy looks bored. She nudges Craig, and they step off the porch. She tries to hide it from me, but I see it and grab her arm. The Popsicle-stick log cabin.
She looks at the log cabin. "That lady gave it to me."
Boop. That must have been what she came back inside for. Chippy holds the structure up. A bubble of rubber cement catches some sunlight; Han Solo's ass and legs stick out of a window. "We need knickknacks."
"No . . . one . . . takes . . . anything." I say each word as if they were deaf. Chippy grunts and thrusts the half-house toward me before she and Craig leave.
I sit on the porch and wait. I have nowhere to go. If I start walking away, then Boop's won. I finger the Popsicle-stick house, hold it up to my face. I try to imagine it as a kid's drawing—flat, simple, empty. I can't do it, though. Through the windows I can see the shadows that the slanting sunlight makes, can see corners. I break off one side of the house and put the window, now just a square hole, up to my eyes and stare at the street. I can understand it better in small squares: the sagging willow tree across the way, the limp American flag next door, the rectangular newspaper in a driveway. I'm still looking through the window when Boop pulls up in my Infiniti. She honks twice, waves. She's laughing. I look at her too through the square. If I tilt my head and squint, her eyes seem to straighten, and her form flattens against the driver's seat. I watch her this way for several moments. She honks again, and I stir. I set the house piece down and look at the world again, now edges and insides, full.
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