Fiction

The Girlfriend

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 FICTION



John doesn’t know what to do about this girl. She keeps saying, “If you love me, you’ll move with me to Texas.” She sulks and smokes Marlboros in the backseat. She has dimpled white skin like balls of dough pressed together and wears the most wonderful old dresses, flowered with bell-shaped skirts, the kinds of dresses Doris Day would have worn while shopping for cucumbers, zucchinis and yellow squash. She has a cherry Life Saver on a string around her neck. Between cigarettes she sucks it, then lets it fall onto her chest, where a red stain spreads across the bow of her clavicle. John leans over to lick the stain and she swats him away. This may not be love, he thinks, but it’s an intriguing facsimile.
    At night he lies on his back and listens to the neighbors having sex: first she makes a noise, then he makes a noise, and so on, back and forth. He takes Betty’s hand in the dark. When she pulls it away it’s as cool and boneless as an empty glove. He stares ahead into the darkness, thinking: I should have gone into advertising.
    They end up renting a lousy house with a wonderful porch and a yard full of feral cats. Everything smells like cat piss. They trot along the fence and jump on the roof with a soft thud.
He lets his hands wander all over her cotton panties until he feels a wet spot spreading toward the hem.

They shred the State Bird of Texas and leave it on the porch. The feet are in a separate pile. Betty says she hates the cats, they’re dirty, infested and multiplying, and to please her he agrees. He agrees with everything she says and she still comes home in a fighting mood, tucking her legs up under her dress and repeating every joke she can remember about how lawyers are like sharks, roaches, catfish, gutless bottom-feeders, because she puts things in files for them all day and takes things out of files for them all day and is not often appreciated or even looked at, in her fresh dresses, in her sweet 1950s cat-eyed glasses that make her look like a sexy librarian in an educational film. John decides he’ll love her anyway, for the sake of her clothes, for her dainty feet and for the mole on her neck, though she is in every other respect distant and spiteful.
    She says she’s never stopped thinking about some other guy. Someone less nice than he is, who rides a Harley.
    He says, “Fuck you, Betty” and likes it so much he says it again. He says “women” like some venomous husband on an old sitcom and with this uxorious pronouncement loves her all over again: smitten, fucked up, gone.
    He spends the days driving around, the land stretching out flat in all directions. Why are there no horses in Texas? No cowboys, no hitching posts, no dinner bells clanging at dusk? He pulls over and buys a donut from Vietnamese immigrants at the Wagon Wheel Donut Shop. He gets the oil in the Caddy changed at a Jiffy Lube — an entire franchise with heavy equipment and credit card verification entrusted to the care of teenage boys. The West spreads out before him, a grid of mini- malls, postal centers and check cashing joints squatting beneath the sunset, the sky crisscrossed by jet streams as orange as poster paint. She lets him fuck her about half the time. He cannot flat-out ask. He cannot murmur any endearments or words of lust. He must wait until she’s half asleep and then come up on her from behind, pressing against her in a casual, aloof way; and then act as though he is really asleep and so not actually possessing any desire.

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He lets his hands wander all over her cotton panties until he feels a wet spot spreading toward the hem. At which point she’ll usually let him do whatever he can think of.
    She has brought him here as though she wanted him for something, but maybe she doesn’t want him. Maybe she wants something else. A wheel and not a donut.
    One of the cats that turns up on the porch seems to be at least half-tame. He finds Betty standing on the welcome mat, clucking to her. The cat cringes under an old chair and meows. John gives her a saucerful of milk, like the boy scout he once was.
    “You’re not supposed to give them milk,” Betty says.
    “Why not?”
    She thinks it over. “Because they like it.”
    The cat is black and silky, a real Breck girl. Once she’s tasted milk her personality transforms. She sits outside on the porch all day and cries and cries to come inside. She’s relentless. Every time they crack open the door, she makes her face very sweet, very heart-shaped and soft, and emits a pure, high-pitched meeee. If they move to another room, the cat follows and pleads from outside the window. Finally Betty relents and lets her in. She sniffs the baseboards. She crawls under the bed and emerges loaded with dust.
    Then the cat sits in front of the back door and cries and cries to be let back out.

The emptiness of days spent on unemployment is wearing John down. He’s left everything behind for Betty — maybe it was not the most brilliant career but it was something; a little design business, a little D.J.ing on the side, a life full of style if not cash.

She crooked her finger and he pulled up his pants and ran, a chump for love.

He ditched it for her without a second thought; she crooked her finger and he pulled up his pants and ran, a chump for love, like all of his friends, guys from college who’d been made fools of, a whole club of guys jerked from the end of a whip by one girl or another, beautiful girls with histories of abuse or mistreatment, the flamboyant ones, the ones that needed everything and then fled when they got it, wild and smart but stupid about life; stupid, stupid—and the boys too, all of them, stupid. It was glorious. The boys were in Rhode Island. He was broke.
    At night they take walks when the heat is bearable. The streets are empty of humans, empty of cars, but six or eight cats are sitting on the sidewalk, grooming themselves or staring ahead vacantly with their aura of cute badness, like schoolgirls smoking. There are cats in ones or twos striding down the sidewalks, on missions of roach-catching or fence-sniffing, full of purpose.
    Betty tries to lure them with tongue clucks but they dive under parked cars, terrified.
    “You can’t pet them at night,” he says.
    “Why not?”
    “You just can’t. They’re not in the mood.”
    “How about that one?” she says, pointing to a fat housecat sleeping on a porch swing. “That one looks like it doesn’t know it’s night.”
    She tries the tongue cluck. The housecat opens its eyes, tries to go back to sleep, but the tongue cluck is mesmerizing. It does the Halloween stretch and then shambles over.
    She kneels down and pets it with a flat palm, like a little girl. The cat allows this for a minute, then rubs against the fence, then allows it again.
    “What’s it thinking?” she asks.
    “Pet me,” he says. “Pet me. Go away. Pet me. Go away.”
The cat has something wrong with its vocal chords. It cannot properly meow and instead makes a coughing sound. “That’s cute,” she says, “like Rod Stewart.”
    If she can love a cat, he thinks, then she sure as shit can love him.


     

  


 FICTION



The day comes when she begins to ask him what he’s thinking in those long silences, those moments staring off the porch into the liquid dusk, swatting mosquitoes, filling up ashtrays. She begins to look at him when he walks into a room, and says his name, and waits until he answers.
    Maybe she wants him after all. Maybe then he won’t want her anymore. But he can’t imagine ever being tired of her, just the sight of her coming up the stairs jolts him with pleasure, the white fifties sundress with the turquoise flowers,
She looks at the floor and tells him how her stepfather forbade her to wear underwear at night.

her red lips matching the geraniums, her body plump in the slightest way so that she looks soft, quiet, like a carpeted room. She throws her leg over him in bed, wants to do the things she only put up with before, pops into the bathroom to apply a thick coat of lipstick before giving him a blowjob. Cats are all over the roof like tiles. She begins coming home late some nights and sleeps deeper into the morning and says of this: “I’m crepuscular.” She stops complaining about the lawyers and then stops going in to the office altogether.
    “No,” he says, “you’re nocturnal.”
    He’s hired on as a designer in a local ad firm but a couple of people quit in the first week and he finds himself instantly promoted to a director of commercials, radio mostly but he’s learning how to do some television too. His Western-themed, retro ads are a big hit, with their coconuts for horse hooves and stiff-voiced announcers declaring the usefulness of the product, which happens to be bottled water. Sales rise from the moment the first ad is aired. John is pleased. He’d long suspected his life’s calling was to make people want things they did not and would not ever need. He gets assigned a secretary, a tongue-tied girl with shaved eyebrows; she draws in substitute ones with a black Sharpie she keeps in a cup on her desk.
    When he gets home from work Betty serves him martinis in cone-shaped glasses. She’s wearing a black garter belt under her dress and makes sure he knows it. When he reads, she asks him what he’s reading. She slides her body across the newspaper and kisses him, crawling all over the paper until he wants to swat her off. She asks him if he loves her. He says yes. She blinks, then asks again. What’s the lifespan of a girl like this? Sixty, seventy years? She’s sweeter everyday and he thinks about getting in the Caddy and driving, no responsibilities, just Willie on the radio and a cowboy world coming up to meet the cowboy sky, a wide open place where anything can happen. He could visit every drive-in movie theater left in America and take Polaroids. It would be so cool. The boys in Rhode Island would be awed by his drifter ways, his dedication to sucking up the last shreds of the past, days of optimism, when cigarettes didn’t cause cancer and girls were made to be looked at and then pinched.

There’s a black cat with white feet on the porch every evening. It’s kittenish, grave-faced, with a little taffy nose. It likes to be petted but when he takes his hand away it meows with alarm until he lowers his hand and pets it some more. They go on like that for a while, the cat turning on and off like a switch.
    “That guy runs across the big road,” Betty says.
    “How do you know?”
    “His owners came by looking for him a few days ago.” Then, with feeling: “That’s how cats end up dead.”
    She starts to open up about her shitty home life, her scary girlhood.

He wants to be near her victimhood, her craving for love, but he doesn’t want to see it.

She looks at the floor and tells him how her stepfather forbade her to wear underwear at night, for reasons of health, and had a system for checking on this. This was when her mother had discovered Champale, a beer-champagne hybrid—she remembers it as being pink—and the liquor store delivered so many cases at once they unloaded them from the truck with a forklift.
    Later, when Mom and the stepfather divorced, she was left living alone, thirteen, with a can of mace and the phone number of the police taped to the phone.
    He tries to move her along, saying, “Yeah, yeah, the ’70s sucked for everyone. The long demise of the nuclear family. I could tell you stories,” but he doesn’t tell her any. His own scouting days were filled with tortures and absences he barely remembers; it’s better that way, and though he’s drawn to the fact that she’s a casualty, he doesn’t want to hear it. He wants to be near her victimhood, her craving for love, but doesn’t want to see it, doesn’t want to touch that current in himself, his own vein of fear, the thing that pushes him around and around and out into the night. Where he goes to buy his secretary a beer.

When he hears it, he hears it from the neighbors. They thought she was sleeping, they said. She looked so calm, like someone who had fallen asleep on the pavement. He runs into the kitchen. The door is ajar and the neighbors are lifting her onto the table. Oh no. The poor sweetie. The sweet dear. He loves her more than ever now, if that were possible, soft and asleep with her eyes closed, a trickle of dark red blood dribbling out of her mouth. Her little feet are just hanging there, hanging off the kitchen table, in those innocent fifties shoes that speak of easier days, fresh-baked cookies and Jell-O salads. Her dress is all dirty with a tire tread on the skirt — it looks so innocuous, as though she’d just brushed against the car. All the things they did together, never again: she offering him a glass of water, and then a cracker, and then a tissue for his sniffle, and then a blowjob. She slipping out into the evening, falling asleep on top of strangers’ cars, coming home smelling like someone else’s house, someone else’s food. She was always trying to get something, trying to get it wherever she could. She was so pretty. The prettiest girlfriend. He buries her in the yard and goes out the next day to get a new one.  

  

     






For more Stacey Richter, read:
What She Wanted
When to Use
The Ocean




ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Stacey Richter is the author of the collection My Date With Satan. Her stories have been widely anthologized and have won many prizes, including three Pushcart prizes and the National Magazine Award.

© 2003 Stacey Richter and Nerve.com, Inc.