Fiction

Twenty-Six Hours, Twenty-Five Minutes

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 FICTION








Twenty-Six Hours, Twenty-Five Minutes by Daniel Hayes


How do you ask a woman out? Bob asks me. Just like that, I say, pointing at Bob and encouraging him, lying just a little about the simplicity of it all. You just ask, I tell him, like you’re asking her for the time. What about the small talk? No small talk, I say. If you have the small talk, that’s fine, but if you don’t, that’s okay, too. So you skip the small talk? No, I tell Bob, you don’t skip it. You give it a try, but if it’s not going well, go ahead and just ask her out. To what? Bob asks. To what what? Ask her out to what? To whatever you want, Bob. A vacation? Okay, no, I say. Not a vacation. To ask a total stranger to go on a vacation is like shooting yourself in the foot. Or giving her the gun and asking her to shoot. Instead, I say, it’s sort of step-by-step: the coffee, the lunch, the dinner, the trip to the seventh arrondissement in Paris. So why the stalking? he asks. This bothers me a little — the way the word stalking has lost its prohibition in our conversations, as though Shoshana, my ex-girlfriend, was doing the talking. As if she had wormed her way into the safe, male bastion Bob and I create during these late-night discussions. I don’t want to talk about Shoshana, so I ask Bob whether he ever gets the feeling that maybe he should go outside more, junk the television, rub shoulders with the masses, get some exercise, do some girl-watching if nothing else. Some stalking? Bob says, adjusting his thick glasses. No, I say, that’s not what I mean.


    

When Shoshana gave me her phone number, after I’d actually met her in a drug store — a pharmacy, she always insisted — I can remember staring down at the little piece of paper and feeling warmly satisfied that the numbers, in that particular configuration, met up exactly with what I already knew her phone number to be. Like magic, like coincidence. It only made sense that

Shoshana’s phone number, address, place of birth, place of employment, ex-boyfriend’s name — not to mention her brother’s dips into religious activity of a questionable nature — were consistent with what I’d already found out by following her and doing a little investigative work on the Internet. And somehow I’d thought of that as a good sign — the consistency. What was I thinking? Now, a year-and-a-half later, I know everything there is to know about Shoshana, but I’ve got nothing to show for it — just this one picture of her taken in a photo booth in Galveston, Texas, of all places. And, who knows, maybe I was splitting hairs, not admitting to it all, trying to separate myself from the image of some crazed, drooling loser in a cum-stained trench coat. Maybe the whole time I’d been trying, in the narrow corridors of my mind, to give it a slightly romantic flavor, as though stalking, or whatever — following, let’s call it — was just the first, initial step in the path of any romance. Like picking up a dropped pen or shaking hands or exchanging names and phone numbers or making conversation about the tabloids with a total stranger, who happens to be wearing a killer bikini, in a coastal town’s supermarket check-out line. Yes, that could’ve been my mistake.


    

Truly, the first thing I ever noticed about Shoshana — besides whatever scattered information I’d gotten from furtive glances in public places — was how the bridge of her nose rode an almost uninterrupted path from her forehead to the nose’s tip. Not quite a straight shot, but it was

the not-quite that made up its beauty in the miniature museum of my mind. It was impossible for me — and there’s no telling, but maybe it would be for you, too — to look at Shoshana without feeling as though the strength of her face emanated from the upper slope of that nose. The nose itself wasn’t large, but the straightness of the bridge gave it, for me at least, an irresistible weight. Coupled with an unconscious habit of slightly elevating her chin, so that she showed off her elliptical nostrils without a trace of shame, Shoshana’s nose drove me crazy. And I have no shame in telling you — though I wouldn’t tell Bob, since he might incorporate the image into his daily wank — about how a month into knowing Shoshana I asked for, and was granted, the privilege of putting that nose in my mouth. No teeth, I swear. Just holding it there, giving it a place where it could secretly shine like some fistful of flashlight in a dark cavern. But then maybe I’m just speaking of my own private obsessions. After all, when I showed the Galveston picture to Bob, a few weeks into my relationship with Shoshana, he said nothing about her nose. But he did sort of shudder at the sight of her: a sudden sucking-in of air, a hand shooting to his mouth. A moment later he pointed out Shoshana’s resemblance to Elisa O’Donnell, the actress. Resemblance is too weak a word, Bob said. The eyes, the hair, the smile. You’ve seen her, he said, as though speaking of some ubiquitous presence in the neighborhood. And then Bob mentioned an HBO movie, which I told him I hadn’t seen. I claimed ignorance; I didn’t want to add to the fervor, I guess. Yes, okay, I’d seen her in a couple of lousy movies, I finally admitted, but so what? Was Bob saying what I thought he was saying? I tried to erase the resemblance from my mind, and yet for days afterwards — in bed, lights out, during frenzied sex with Shoshana — I found myself thinking of Elisa O’Donnell, over and over, in inappropriate ways.


    

So why did you tell Shoshana that you’d stalked her? Bob asks me. I didn’t, I say. Not then. You did eventually, Bob says. It was a mistake, obviously. I heard the same voices you hear. I got vulnerable. It must’ve scared her, Bob says, to learn more about you than you thought you were

revealing. This just comes flying out of his mouth, and I have to take a moment to consider. Have you ever stalked before? Bob asks, and I wonder why he’s asking. Is he trying to depress me? Would Ricki Lake, in this situation, ask that question? Is he trying to make himself feel better, since clearly he’s not the type of man who takes chances? Anyway, how am I to respond to this question? As a kid, I say — and I know what I’m doing, skipping right over the real answer and slipping into its place a convenient truth of the past — I once followed a girl named Dorothy all the way home and just stood there, out on the sidewalk, and got invited in without even asking. In her backyard, it turned out, she had a white-haired pet llama. And it wasn’t even in a cage. Everywhere you took a step, there was llama shit. And her father had white hair, too — I remember that — and he was a minister in a local church, even though he didn’t seem like a minister. She didn’t seem like a minister’s daughter, either. Bob listens patiently to the entire story and asks, What was the llama’s name? Grace, I say, with no hesitation.


    

So that was my mistake. After living with Shoshana for a year, I happened to tell her that in a strange sense I knew her even before I’d actually met her. Not very precise, I know. It begged the question, which she went about asking after first giving me a frown that spoke painfully of confusion. Innocent confusion? So I went on to say that before I met her I’d been following her. I meant following in a couple of different ways, but I was hoping that she’d see it as the idea of a person giving thought, or paying attention, to another person even though that first person doesn’t really know the second person, not personally. Like following someone’s career. I may’ve even said that, trying to make her feel like someone other than a lonely victim of a lonely man. A movie star. I can’t remember, but I probably said, You know, Sho, like someone following someone’s career, like with a movie star. And she said, You mean stalking. Stalking? I didn’t think that was exactly the word. But after she waited, and I gave her a complete explanation — it took five minutes or so,

a quick speech that didn’t really go very well, or it didn’t seem to make much difference — she looked at me and said, So it was stalking. And what could I say? She made it sound like I was one of those guys who owns a restaurant and sets up a hidden camera in the ladies room. And so, in short, that was my mistake — surprising Shoshana, popping it on her, telling of this little secret about how I knew her before I actually knew her — because it changed the
nature of our relationship. I won’t say it ended our relationship, though within weeks it was over. If you were to ask Shoshana why the relationship ended, she’d say something about how she lost trust in me or began to think that maybe I wasn’t the person she thought I was, which scared her. How couldn’t it? But take away the secret, take away the stalking, and there wasn’t really much to the idea of me as an untrustworthy person. Not that I am trustworthy, mind you. Just that Shoshana didn’t know enough to have any reason to think otherwise.


    

It’s funny what you find out about women, even after you meet them. Whenever possible, Shoshana ate with her hands. Honestly, I used to marvel at it. I remember one time spending an afternoon conjuring up my specialty from cooking school: poulet aux champignons. And there I was, that evening, switching the fork from my left to my right hand, having ripped off a piece of savory chicken with the aid of a knife, and there she was, across the table, with the breast right up there in her face. She was using hands and fingers and, most of all, her teeth to tear the meat away from the bone, without so much as a drop of sauce smudging her face. I tried this once, just to see. Very messy on the hands and face, not to mention the food slipping through your fingers. I had to get up twice for another napkin, and it was the second time when Shoshana sighed. You’re just afraid, she said. Afraid? Afraid of what? I asked her. I don’t know, she said. You tell me.


    

One day, after the break-up, under the illusion that Shoshana might actually want to talk to me — not exactly to take back her rejection, but maybe just some of her outrage — I dial her number. Free and easy. How does this happen, after not having talked to her for all of those weeks? Well, we all suffer momentary lapses; forgive me for saying this, but I’m no different than you in that department. She might’ve even been expecting my call, I told myself. And so, suffering this lapse of reason, I dial Shoshana’s number, and, in dialing — in remembering having punched those numbers before I’d even met her, just to hear her say hello — I begin to realize, if somewhat vaguely, my mistake: this sequence of numbers is tantamount to a secret entrance code to a place where I’m not entitled to go. Don’t go there, you shouldn’t go there. As it turns out, she isn’t there anyway, and I hear her voice all over again and then I leave a message. The message says the following, and I’ll try to keep it factual: Shoshana, hi. It’s me. Don’t know if it’s okay to call or not. I hope you don’t think I’m trying to bug you. Just calling on a lark. I was hoping, you know, just to say hello and see how you were. Are. And I guess to ask you whether it was okay — for you, I mean — to

try one more time in explaining. That’s me explaining. About following you, way back when. And I hope you don’t think that that’s what I’m doing. Following you. Now. I mean, just by calling you. I’m not that crazy. Boy, the lessons I’ve learned. So anyway, as usual, it’s always nice to hear your voice. On your out-going message, I mean. And then, pausing for a moment and thinking of the awful, out-of-control spontaneity of leaving a message on an answering machine — that is, my message, this message, this awful explosion of verbal mumbo-jumbo — I stop talking, hesitate, close my eyes, and then reach to hang up the phone. I put it back in its cradle like it was a long dead baby. Resignation isn’t strong enough a word. It’s like lowering myself into a casket, which in turn gets lowered deep into the ground.


    

What’s the hope? Bob says. The hope, I say, trying the word on for size. What hope? You mean by calling her on the phone? I ask, trying to see what Bob has in mind. But he’s already shaking his head. Forget the phone call, he says. Say you never made the phone call, so then what’s the hope? What do you want her to do? Bob asks. Or what did you want her to do, he says, in making the mistake of telling her in the first place? Hey, listen, I say to Bob, I just wanted to own up to our own origins. Share the stalking. Get it out there, up front. Not stalking, Bob says. Following. And then he brings a finger to his closed lips as though to emphasize the sudden importance of words in the private, dark universe of his studio apartment. I just wanted to tell her about it, I say. Let her get an inside look into the mind of someone like me. I guess I figured she’d get a kick out of it, I say. Imagine that! she’d think to herself — and I slapped my own cheeks, in pantomime — a man who follows me around and takes an interest, both from afar and up close, and I never even knew! Bob looks at me without expression and says, No, women prefer fate. Like he’s standing there in a khaki jacket, a field guide in his hand, and speaking of some aboriginal tribe. Fate? I question Bob’s knowledge on this point; he’s guessing, I worry, or repeating something he’s heard on television about the often amusing gulf that lies between men and women. Or, who knows, it could be true. Maybe you’re right, Bob. Maybe she wanted to just meet me in the drug store, pure and simple. Pharmacy, Bob says. And he brings the same finger to the same lips, like he’s kissing the whisper of a dandelion.


    

Okay, I know what you’re wondering. So the first time I ever seriously followed someone — setting aside Dorothy, the llama girl — was back in my early twenties. She was a woman who’ll go unnamed who danced for a city-based ballet company, which was very impressive, since

back then I was living in a city where ballet meant something. Now, living in a cultural necropolis, my balletomane days are over and gone. Anyway, I went one night and saw her perform — the piece, I remember, required her to do fish dive after fish dive, in the arms of anonymous men — and then, for the next week or two, I kept thinking about her. I thought about her a lot. I thought about what it would be like to be a part of her life. I made up a cozy picture in my mind of her apartment, its interior — a lonely place in spite of her gold-framed family photos and her nostalgic collection of stuffed animals. And, of course, I got closer: I found out things about her by reading newspapers and dance magazines and, while masquerading as a writer for a small weekly located out in the suburbs, I even made calls to the ballet company. Once, I actually made the mistake of talking to her on the phone. After that fiasco — stuttering, mumbling, excusing myself, reaching for a glass of water and sending it plunging toward the kitchen floor — I kept a lower profile. I followed her just once, one day as she came out of a morning rehearsal in a black, sweat-drenched cotton outfit that left me dizzy. I kept count, and I ended up following her for the next twenty-six hours and twenty-five minutes. Just for the experience. Without sleep, or at least none for me. And for that period I was her guardian. She wore the tutu, but I was the angel.


    

So one night I’m sitting in Bob’s dungeon of an apartment — where else? — and he asks me to name my favorite memory of Shoshana. The question itself, hanging there in anticipation of my answer, had a little flame of wistfulness at its core. In another world, I might’ve thought Bob was leading me somewhere — if I managed to somehow provide an answer from the heart. But Bob’s mind doesn’t work that way; he just wants to know, and he doesn’t know why, or he doesn’t care to know why. And so I tell Bob about this one time, during our only shower together — after Shoshana and I had first slept together — how she leaned her wet head against the tiled wall, looked up, and gave me a kind of beastly snarl, sans sound. And this is your favorite moment, Bob says, very slowly, as though to give the television audience a wink of incredulity. The snarl wasn’t meant to

be taken seriously, I explain to him. It was meant to be playful. And so I said to Shoshana, What was that? What was what? That sneer, I said. That snarl. And then, before she could answer, I said to her, I feel like I’ve been granted entry. Did I actually use the word granted? Bob shrugs his shoulders. I can’t remember for sure, I say, but I can remember that she seemed somewhat taken aback; she obviously thought I was commenting on the love-making we’d just finished, back in her bed, banging away in a rudderless frenzy. Getting inside of her, entering her — that kind of entry. No, no, I said to her. I like that too, but I meant a different kind of entry. That snarl, I said, it means something about you, it means that I know something about you that I didn’t know. And Shoshana did it again, showing off the shoddy orthodontic work of her adolescence. It does, it does, I said, almost exuberant in seeing the snarl again. She looked exuberant, too, maybe in the act or in seeing how much it meant to me. She asked me what it meant — this snarl of hers, this splitsecond baring of misaligned teeth — and I wasn’t sure, but it said something about her. So what did it say? Bob asks, drawing his eyebrows up and over his thick glasses. And I tell Bob I have no idea whatsoever. But it was in that moment — not quite the snarl itself but the feeling of discovering something about her and feeling, because of it, exuberant — that I got sent right over the edge. Tumbling head over heels. Even in only now remembering it. And maybe you, too, know how it feels.


©1999
Daniel Hayes and Nerve.com