The night the power died, it became clear that Bernd’s ability to cope with emergencies was underdeveloped.
“What do I do?” he asked me over the phone.
“Get a flashlight,” I said. I was huddled under my quilt, reading by the glow of my headlamp. The lamp had sat unused since my shortlived spelunking days. The novel was riveting.
“I don’t have one.”
“Light some candles, then.”
“We don’t have any. Arminda burned them all.”
“Burned them all?” I asked. “Was she doing some sort of project involving wax?” I couldn’t imagine a house without candles; even the least adult among us had the odd votive kicking around.
“No,” said Bernd, “she just can’t stand the smell of bacon. Or ginger.” He paused. “Or any sort of cleaning solution. I’d switch to vinegar, but she hates that, too.”
“Jesus,” I said, stifling exhaustion. I’d found a bookmark on the nightstand. “What can she stand the smell of?”
“Huh,” I said. “That’s not totally unlike ginger. Similar piquancy . . . ”
“The lights!” Bernd wailed.
I set my book down and respread the quilt. “You’re sure you don’t have any candles?”
I heard nothing but rushed, forceful breaths. “Hang on,” I said. “I’m coming over.” I tossed my batteryoperated lantern and some Clif bars in a tote and readjusted the straps of my headlamp. Moved carefully down the stairs, stepping where I knew the boards were the strongest.
Arminda was Bernd’s latest girlfriend. I say girlfriend because she’s unclassifiable and this term best approximates her role. I say unclassifiable because, although Bernd had announced his commitment to her, it didn’t seem she’d paid him the same courtesy. Every few weeks, Bernd would call me, frantic because he hadn’t heard from Arminda in three days, because she hadn’t even texted! After these calls (which usually came around 9:30 on Saturday nights), I’d make conciliatory brunch plans with Bernd—the only thing that would coax him from his ledge of panic. The next morning, three mimosas deep, he’d sheepishly fess up that he’d forgotten about Arminda’s plans with girlfriends.
“Wine night,” he said, “or whatever you ladies call it.”
I hadn’t yet met her but was getting to know her slowly, anecdote by marginal anecdote. She was born in North Dakota to Bismark natives who wanted their daughter to be noticed, exemplary. Having little faith in nature and their own genetic legacy, they’d chosen this singsongy name. Arminda was almost vegan, the transition to dietary austerity evidently more difficult than she’d predicted. And she was the most creative person, male or female, Bernd had ever met.
Bernd was no schlump when it came to dating, a phenomenon that to this day astounds me. Considering that, professionally speaking, Bernd and I don’t run with the big dogs—that we don’t even run but trot—and considering too that Bernd’s midsection, during the busting of selected moves, quivers with the same frequency as aspic, it would follow that Bernd would attract a certain type of woman. Certainly not the type whose procreationally motivated Brooklyn condo purchase would make the Times style section, but more likely the type who pronounces quinoa “qwinyo.”
It would follow that Bernd would date at his level, but such was not the case. Once he entangled himself with a model newly arrived from Latvia. She looked perpetually bored, an effect owing to her lovely, sloping Eurasian eyes, and in her stockings she stood four inches taller than Bernd. After that he saw a local politician of some importance, a woman in navy suits whose platform centered rabidly on reproductive rights. Her name was Mary or Sam—something familiar. Most recently, he dated a jewelry designer whose wares are targeted toward women recovering from eating disorders. She worked mostly with semiprecious metals, refashioning discarded utensils into pendants and brooches.
“I’d like to show the recovering,” she was quoted in a style blog as having said, “the beauty that can be found in silverware.”
Arminda seemed the most exotic of them all. She was a fiber artist, Bernd explained, her antipathy for acrylics unrivaled. She was extremely punctual, and dried all her clothes on a line strung from one end of her bathroom to the other. She dyed handspun wool with boileddown lichens; she nightly practiced throat singing. I imagined her as darkhaired and longlimbed, smoking the occasional Gauloises, though only when no one was looking and no one would find out. Bernd was allergic to smoke.
En route to Bernd’s, I drove slowly, my car the only one on the street. The neighborhood looked uncanny, a bluish dream of its former self. I’d turned off my headlamp for the trip, wanting to save the battery though the thought of driving with two sets of lights amused me. Except for my headlights, I was engulfed in subterranean darkness; it took my eyes a full five minutes to recognize the outlines of buildings I pass daily. When I got to Bernd’s house, my knocks went unanswered so I let myself in, swinging my head back and forth to size up the front hall. From the living room came the warbles of Joni Mitchell, fuzzed over by repeat listens. Bernd sat on the sofa, boom box balanced on his lap.
“Whoa, a tape deck.” I switched on the lantern and shone the beam directly at the black box. “I’m not sure I still have mine.”
“It was either Joni Mitchell or Judy Garland,” Bernd said, ignoring me. “I wasn’t in the mood for Blue, but I’m never in the mood for Judy.”
I thought of my own dwindling cassette collection: some Sinead O’Connor, some Bob Marley. Mixes with tracklists scrawled broad like tiremarks on a vacant shoulder.
“Here.” I set down the lantern. “Light. Let us rejoice and be glad.” Thus illuminated, the living room walls looked like cardboard, the furniture just menacing hulks.
“Oh, thank god,” Bernd said. “What else have you got?”
“Slow your roll, greedy!” I smirked and pulled the Clif bars from my bag. In olden times, these would have been candy bars; back then, in situations like these, survival by any means was the primary concern. It’s still the main concern, sure, except now we expect salvation to be virtuous, our calories wellratioed and low glycemic index.
“Thank you,” Bernd said. He took a bar, peeled back the wrapper, and, bit in.
I sat beside him. “You’re welcome. What’s the plan?”
“Well, Arminda is unreachable. I’ve called her five times.”
In the semidark, I sighed. “I’m sure she’s fine. Did you leave a voicemail?” “Yes. It’s just . . . ”
“And you texted?” The lanterncast shadows made Bernd look jowlier than ever. He frowned.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “She’s from North Dakota. They didn’t even have electricity until five years ago. She’s probably telling you, telepathically, that she’s fine.” I stood.
“Where are you going?” Bernd asked.
“Somewhere they have light and booze.” Bernd laughed. Alone, neither element was quite as enjoyable, and here we had neither.
“You in?” I asked.
He hesitated, chewing. “Sure. I mean, it’s not like I’m going anywhere but here.” He swept his outstretched arms in a grand and vapid gesture, his shadow effacing itself where the light tapered off.
Bernd and I had semidated in college, a relationship I’d then classified as midrange and still, come to think of it, consider a reasonable length. We hadn’t gone to the same school but sister schools—his in Iowa, mine in Wisconsin—rivals staring crosseyed at the border. The January of our sophomore year we met at an undergraduate conference on union organization strategies, or something. I’m ashamed to admit that, even now, I’m not fully certain of the details. My sociology professor had urged me to go, citing the wonderful opportunities I’d find.
“And if we don’t fill the van, we might lose funding for next year’s trip,” she added, readjusting her Ray Bans. She was a terribly practical woman.
So I went, agreeing in the tepid manner I had then. Sandy hair hanging in dull little layers, quiet voice. No strong opinions about union politics. I packed the least offensive clothing I could find, which proved to be not that difficult.
Bernd’s situation wasn’t dissimilar: his rabid Marxist friend had convinced him to attend. Bernd, seizing upon the excused absence from statistics, agreed. At the openingnight mixer, held in the ballroom of the Cleveland Weathervane Inn, he asked me to dance.
“Thanks,” I said. “I don’t dance.” Around us, boys in polyester and unshaven young women paired and swooped, scuffing the highgloss floor.
“No,” I said, moving closer to the wall until I sensed the sandy wallpaper behind my shoulders.
“What do you do, then?”
“Stand,” I said. “Sit. Watch other people.”
I didn’t quite catch his drift. “Sure. Sometimes.”
He pulled from his pocket a drawstring bag. Rough, colorful material partitioned by stripes, interwoven with gold thread. “You want to now?”
I looked him in the eye. His face was beaverlike: round cheeks, stubby nose. Hair gelled into small peaks. He fiddled with the bag.
“Yeah,” I said. “Why not.”
We left unnoticed, hurrying past couples gyrating, couples chatting. In the elevator, I found my reflection in the mirrored ceiling; if the floor had been mirrored, I’d have spectated my squinty face into oblivion. Finally, through the lobby and beyond the parking lot, Bernd found a space to plunk down, right there on the froststiffened ground.
“Here?” I asked. “My skirt will get wet.”
Bernd let out a grumbly sigh and removed his coat.
“Here,” he said, spreading it flat. “Princess.”
So I sat, slipping a little on the coat’s lining, stiffening each time I sparked the bowl.
Coughing in the cold, each burst of smoke condensed before me.
Afterward, Bernd and I raided the fifth-floor vending machine.
“Shhhhhh,” he whispered, looking wideeyed down the hall. It was silent but for the hum and rattle of the icemaker. Bernd deposited a fistful of quarters, selecting every snack he could until, in the process of vending some beef jerky, the machine’s mechanical spine froze, the jerky caught middrop.
“Damnit!” Bernd shouted, pounding the Plexiglas. “Damnit, damnit, damnit!” Pound, pound, pound! I sank to the ground in laughter, the carpet pile roughing my bare knees. If I’d been another type of girl, the raw patches might have caused some raised eyebrows, but I wasn’t and they didn’t. Injuryprone though I was, none of my abrasions held the allure of sex.
That was our meeting, random and inauspicious. We stuck together for the rest of the weekend, he saving a seat for me at the keynote, I grabbing an extra “Organize NOW!” shirt from the swag table. We wandered the halls, identical with their landscapes and sconces. Between panels, we retreated to Bernd’s room to smoke but not fuck. The Marxist friend nowhere to be found, we binged on cable.
“Isn’t it hilarious,” I said, pointing to the Twist & Chop being advertised by a British man. Five hundred channels and still we were drawn to the infomercials.
“Why is he always British?” Bernd wondered. “The man selling the knives and the food dehydrator.”
“The coin collection,” I said. “Don’t forget that.”
“No, that’s the lady.”
“Yeah.” My concession was dreamy. “Red suit and pink nails.”
“It’s more trustworthy, that accent,” Bernd declared. “Proper.”
We continued like this until Sunday night when, after a farewell banquet of chicken breasts and limp beans, we parted.
“So long,” I said. “Farewell. Auf wiedersehen, goodbye.”
“Here.” Bernd pressed into my hand his phone number, folded, on graph paper. “Stay out of trouble.”
“Sure,” I said. “I will.”
Thus began our relationship, an amiable prolonged volley. When I visited him, he took me to the graveyard to drink. Our bottles in paper bags, hand in hand, we stepped around the tipped stones and found a spot to sit. Look at those stars, I wanted to say, but nobody ever said that, or schucks did. The only constellations I knew were Orion and the dippers: astronomy for dummies. I didn’t even fret about sitting on the damp grass.
“Somewhere there’s an arch that says, The Dead Shall Rise,” Bernd told me.
“A call to all the zombies.”
He frowned. “It’s biblical, I think.” Back then, we knew everything.
When he visited me I took him to the practice room and made him listen to whatever I was learning. Piano lessons had been a longtime dream, the fascination spurred by a childhood lack. It’s not that my parents were too poor for lessons: they were too cheap. They once bought me a Casio keytar, but that was their only acquiescence.
Bernd was invariably stoned when I played, slumped against the aqua tile wall. What did you think? I’d ask after each plinking performance. Without fail, he nodded and said, Yeah. Maybe he really was listening, moved by the chords I’d forced my fingers to recognize. Or maybe he was imagining the parties we’d attend that evening, my own town’s unexplored graveyards. Who knew? I sighed, careful not the bend the corners of my sheet music as I slipped it into my tote.
We never broke up; I just got tired of traveling to see him. At first, the longishdistance thing worked well. I’ve always been a fan of the shortdistance road trip, and I memorized the sequence of rest stops on that stretch of I90; I saved my change for gas station Pumpkin Spice cappuccinos, dispensed in spatters from litpaneled, countertop machines. Bernd was never as stoked on the drive, and he missed his social scene more than I did mine.
“I wonder what they’re doing now,” he asked one night, close to the end. We’d scaled the fence of my college’s field and lay on our backs in the dampening grass, passing a joint.
“Who?” I had asked.
“Everyone,” he said. “There were mad parties this weekend. An Edward Fortyhands and a Jungle Juice.” He didn’t look at me when he said this; his voice did not carry overtones of blame. But, as Bernd had already demonstrated, his natural role as That Guy Who Shotguns Three Consecutive Beers While Everyone Stands On In Amazement, outweighed the necessity of my company.
Cajoled from his living room by the promise of brown liquor, Bernd lowered himself into my passenger seat, looking with amazement at the dome light.
“Beautiful,” he said. “We could just hang out here.” He ran his hand over the water dimples in the cloth ceiling, humming.
“Maybe.” It was possible, I guess, this caraslivingroom notion, but I wasn’t sold. “Where to?”
“I don’t know. The Black and Tan?” “You think they have power?”
Bernd wasn’t sure; I agreed to check it out. I was shocked at how well I could see without the streetlamps. Normally a mothy black, the sky was an echoic blue, cold and edgeless. Maybe it was always this color.
“Arminda named a star for me,” Bernd said finally.
I laughed—a constrained, casual laugh. “Oh yeah? Which one?” Even in the dark I could sense his frown.
“It was for my birthday. She made a certificate and everything.”
I was confused. “Did she go through one of those services that names stars for you?”
“No, she did it herself.”
I couldn’t stifle my urge to argue. “You can’t just claim a star to be yours,”
I said. “There are too many people. Who vests the authority?”
“What do you mean, who vests the authority? What authority needs to be vested?”
My face grew warmer. “Stars belong to everyone, everyone who ever lived and who will live.” I felt like a Sundayschool filmstrip, blurry and sputtering. “What I’m saying is, claim a star if you want to—have Arminda claim one—but just be aware that hundreds of other people have claimed that star, too. Thousands, even.”
“Irrelevant,” he said. “If all of us own the stars, then all of us have the right to claim them, even if they’re spoken for.”
Fine, I thought: I’ll claim them all. Take them out and replace them with my name and the sky would read like a panel of egofueled binary code. Or I could give the stars all the names, male and female, that I would have preferred to my own. Not as smothering.
We drove for a few blocks without speaking, the engine’s hum cutting the silence. I wished the streetlights were on so I could count them, occupy myself with a menial task to distract myself from my anger. Bernd leaned his head against the window.
“Anyway,” I said at length. “So, anyway, this darkness.”
Bernd grimaced, the same look he uses when I misremember names and capitals. Then, his face softened. “You really think she’s all right? I feel like she would have called by now.”
I did not pull over and slam into park, take Bernd by the shoulders and shake him. I did my best to act reassuring. “This is what probably happened,” I began. “She probably forgot to charge her phone and shut it off to save the battery. You know, if her ceiling caved in and she was pinned under a beam, she’d never forgive herself if she used all her charge chatting with you.” I paused. “In that case, she’d be dead,” I continued, “and in death there is no forgiveness.”
In my peripheral field of vision, Bernd glowered and shook his head. “Actually,” he said, “in death there is all forgiveness. Jesus forgives everyone when they die.”
“Really?” I said. “I thought you had to ask for it first. I mean, if forgiveness were offered to everyone, regardless of if they wanted or needed it, wouldn’t it be totally debased?”
“Well,” Bernd clarified, “you can ask for forgiveness up to the moment of your death. And I’d pry from her any beam that fell.”
“Seems like cheating,” I said, in reference to Jesus. “What good is it if you haven’t wanted it all along?”
Bernd looked sideways at me. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I don’t have the mind of a zealot. I’m not your man.”
We were mere blocks from our destination when I asked about meeting Arminda. “It only seems right,” I said. “Being that I’m spending my Saturday night distracting you from thoughts of her possible death.”
“Very kind of you. I only asked for help with the lighting situation, but I’m touched by your boundless concern.”
I sighed. “I’m being serious. It seems like you guys are getting along pretty well?” This last bit I inflected with what I hoped came through as genuine interest.
“Actually,” Bernd said. “Yes. We are. She’s meeting my parents in two weeks. She’s great. Smell thing and all, she’s great.”
“Good,” I said. “That’s great.” Awesome. In the total absence of light, the iceencased trees were just trees, saltbox houses meaningless structures of wood waiting for their reckoning with the wind.
The Black and Tan was deserted, parking lot empty but for a lone truck, bed drifted with snow. Without patrons milling inside its borders, the fenced patio looked more like a cage.
“No dice,” I said, shrugging.
“We could just peek inside,” Bernd suggested. “Maybe they’re serving by candlelight.” Before I could disagree, he’d unbuckled and climbed out. I followed, rolling my pantcuffs to keep them clear of the snow. Bernd moved quickly about the building, peering into each unlit window as though the act itself would bring the bar to life. The longer I stood outdoors, the clearer each tree became against the sky.
“Let’s go home,” said Bernd. He kicked at the ice glazing a parking spot.
But I wouldn’t. There’d be nothing to do in that darkness, no television or real music or even cooking: We’d have to keep the fridge shut to prevent the food from rotting. No reading, even—too difficult by candlelight. It made me wonder how the pioneers managed to squeeze all their required work into the thin frame of daylight. We could talk, of course, in the dark, but we could do that anywhere. We got back in my car and I drove on, the still houses differentiated by the slope of their lawns and the ornaments caught in the headlights. Birdbath, birdbath, gnome, blank. The first lighted building we came to was Classic Bowl. I pulled in.
“You’re not serious,” said Bernd but I unbuckled and walked and he only followed. The lot was full and the porthole windows glowed amber. Built in the ‘70s, the building mimed a cinder block in color and form. We’d come here twice before on nights when any possibilities for adventure were exhausted. I was always surprised at how large the place was, taken in comparison to the building’s squat exterior: lanes spanned the length of a football field and a row of arcade games flashed and wailed along the back wall. There were two separate snack bars—one that served only junk food, and one that served junk food and beer.
Inside felt like a party if the party were really a war.
The line of unserved patrons curled back from the register; we waited for fifteen minutes just to get our shoes. People craned and shuffled, edging past each other to get to their lanes, raising their arms for balance as they snaked through the massed bodies.
“Holy shit,” Bernd said. “Jesus.”
The room felt fevered and dim though all the lights were on, and people you’d never expect at a bowling alley threestepped and released, failing to indicate any social discomfort.
“I know,” I said, dazed. The scene was the closest to a bomb shelter I’d ever witnessed.
“Lane three, lady” the attendant barked, pointing.
While Bernd sneaked off to get us beers, I wiped my ball with a wetnap I’d found in my purse. Though the hygienic standards of this place left something to be desired, the atmosphere was priceless. The attendant didn’t say anything as I’d watched him spray my shoes.
“Hope this is OK,” Bernd said when he returned, setting down the cups on the table beside me. “There’s not much of a selection.”
“It’s fine,” I said, taking a deep sip to reinforce my approval. I settled into my plastic chair, nabbed when its occupant had risen to fetch a drink, and took in the commingled odors of smoke and burnt nacho cheese.
Bernd elbowed me. “Ready?”
“Yeah.” I stood. “Though I’m gonna hit the bathroom beforehand. I’d hate to interrupt the game.”
“Didn’t you go before you left the house?”
“Ha,” I snorted. “Be right back.”
I tried not to step on anyone’s toes as I wound my way back toward the restroom, but I nudged the man contemplating the jukebox.
“Watch it,” he said. I hoped I’d caused him to misselect.
Though the bathroom was mostly empty, the trash can spilled wadded paper towels and the air held the mucky scent of pet stores. Three of the walls were mosaiced with blue and green tiles, grout dull with mildew, but the fourth was painted deep purple.
“Some decorating scheme,” I mumbled. The woman by the sink, dabbing her lips with a plastic wand, set down her lip gloss and turned to me. Her cheekbones were lethal, her hair razored into asymmetrical oblivion. She had been the sort of girl I feared in junior high, one of those who’d loved the swimming unit in phys ed—it gave her the chance to show off her newly shaved legs. She was the sort of woman I continued to fear, one who cuts ahead in the checkout lane and, wordless, stares you down as if to indicate the damage that could be done, should anyone complain.
“Excuse me?” she said. Even in this light, her lips glinted like chrome.
“Oh, nothing,” I said. “Just commenting on the décor. Very nontraditional.”
The woman slid her lip gloss into her purse and turned to the mirror, fluffing her hair with her fingers. “Nothing wrong with nontraditional.”
“Of course not,” I said. “Arby’s is different, and different is good.”
The woman continued fluffing and for a moment, contained in that damp, psychedelic chamber, I forgot why I’d come. Then I remembered and took the first open stall. Crouching over the toilet seat, I could hear her unsnap her purse and take something out. A compact? A tiny tube of mascara? How many cosmetics does she have in there? I wondered, or maybe it was Xanax. Maybe something harder hitting.
I flushed, adjusted my shirt, and walked to the free sink. Beside me, the woman plucked strays from her left eyebrow. Her face was meticulously maintained, some wonder of suburban aesthetic ideology, but she wore a homeknitted tunic the color of hangoverconcentrated urine. Inky webs of veins spread below the tunic’s hem. Not the type who should go without leggings, I thought. Then I noticed something stitched to the left sleeve: three blue plastic buttons, shaped like smiling ducks.
“Nice ducks,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said in a way that meant, Go fuck yourself, and snapped shut her frame bag. “I’m a fiber artist.” Then she walked out, heels clacking the floor, legs jiggling slightly from her agitated gait. Vintage heels, vintage handbag: details arranged to produce the semblance of a composed whole. I dried my hands and walked out.
“For a minute I thought you fell in,” Bernd said, raising his empty glass. “What took so long?”
I slumped to the plastic seat. “I don’t know.” I reached for my cup but saw that it, too, had been emptied.
“I’m getting more,” Bernd said, rising. “You want anything else? A hot dog?”
“I’m good, but thanks”
“Bacon wrapped hot dog? They have those here.” Bernd smiled the knowing smile of those who enjoy meats with nitrates.
“Next time,” I said.
Bernd began his push through the crowd, careful not to sideswipe the other patrons with beers. He looked aged, paler and puffier, his tshirt taut around the middle. For a moment I expected that the farther he walked, the older he’d become, graying and decaying the closer he got to the snack bar. I scratched my name at the top of the scorecard with a gnawedoff miniature pencil. Arminda was nowhere to be found, though I scanned the room for her urineyellow sweater. The room around me clattered, heels and pins, the crack of a ball striking the floor, then another.
I wondered whether Arminda would find us, what Bernd would do when she did. Would he fault her for failing to call, bristling in his fauxnonchalant way that always just betrayed the depth of his anger? Or would he be so overcome with relief that he’d momentarily overlook her heinous Dakotan behavior? Probably, irritatingly, the latter.
Part of me—the deep, true, unlovable part—pictured her trapped, neck twisted at a grotesque angle, lips blueing, limbs partially visible from beneath the caved roof of her turnofthecentury apartment. Though I’d seen her, I wouldn’t be able to positively identify the body, if it came right down to it. Bernd would be on his own.
I took another quick scan of the room, and nothing. Half the town was gathered here; in this moment, at least, I was safe from another awkward encounter. I decided then that if Arminda turned up, I’d run, not giving her another chance to defend the terrible bathroom, her unskilled homemade tunic. I’d retreat to the cavity of my bedroom, swaddling myself in my quilt until natural light returned. I’d call Bernd or I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t make any decisions until the moment demanded it.
“You alright?” Bernd asked as he set my beer beside me. I fished in my purse for a bill but he waved my effort aside. “Get the next round,” he said. “You look spacey.”
“Just tired,” I said, smoothing my jeans, then taking a massive sip. “Busch?” “Bingo,” he said. “Classic.”
Classic Bernd. I swilled again and approached the ball return, waiting for my eleven pounder to be churned up. It wasn’t, so I grabbed someone else’s choice—a little too heavy and fingergreasy—approached the line, and released.
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