Murakami II

I check the clock on the dash. Sure enough, it’s 7:22 and there to my right, one car ahead of me in the next lane, is my friend in the Porsche Boxster.

We often meet like this, he and I, at this one traffic light between 7:22 and 7:24 in the morning. Sometimes one of us is just a little off and makes the light, but I would say it’s about three times a week now that we find ourselves here waiting at the red together. Usually he is just ahead of me and I wink at the tiny, black chip in the fiberglass of the back bumper. It’s like that one thread out of place in a Persian rug.

I suppose I first took notice of him because of the car itself. I’d always said that if I could have one sports car, it would be a Porsche. Obviously, the 911 is a more coveted machine, but I think the Boxster is a respectable choice. Less showy, less ostentatious.

I respect that about my friend in the silver Boxster. He might have stretched his finances further and gone for the candy-apple red 911, but no, that wouldn’t be responsible. He chose well.

Maybe someday we’ll take a trip together, he and I. A nice getaway. It’ll have to be on his dime, of course, since he clearly makes more money than I do. Maybe a road trip in the Boxster itself. We could go up into the mountains, creeping carefully up the icy roads to a ski lodge. The Boxster is rear engine and rear-wheel drive, after all, so we’d probably be fine. At first, we’d probably think about skiing, but then maybe the weather wouldn’t look too good for that and we’d have to just stay in for that first night. He’d talk about his life in high finance and I’d confess it troubled me how much difficulty I have hanging onto a job.

Then, as the sun set and things got dark, maybe we’d find ourselves falling silent for a moment. In that moment, maybe my friend with the Boxster would realize he’s been missing something all this time, maybe he’d see himself as a fundamentally lonely person, and he would look up then and see me, really see me for the first time and realize, all at once, how important our friendship that started at that intersection in the morning between 7:22 and 7:24 really is.

I think then he would come over to me and sit down, place his arm around my shoulder like a chum–just like a chum, mind you–and smile.

Yes, maybe someday we’ll do that.

End Times

Yesterday I started writing a story (posted today) about an unabashedly positive and optimistic reaction to crisis–a hypothetical portrait of the best in the human spirit prevailing in the, literally, darkest hour. I don’t remember at what moment yesterday I looked up and imagined the sun going out, but I do remember thinking right away that the story taking shape in my head would be a foil to my earlier portrayal of the same kind of resourcefulness mustered for narrower, more selfish ends in “Mending Wall.”

“Mending Wall” was a little story I wrote back during the financial crisis and the rise of the Tea Party. It reminds me now of the people I see on Doomsday Preppers (not that I watch that show…much) and the figures from the gun debate who insist that we need to have the right to bear arms for the (they seem to think inevitable) event of social collapse.

So I found myself thinking again about the anti-government sentiment often expressed by those people who are so certain that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and that there’s nothing our institutions can do to stop it–in fact, many of them believe it is government itself that will cause this cataclysm. In a way, they’re right. In this spending/debt crisis coming to a head yet again this week, the government is the problem. The Tea Party House pressed for spending cuts in the midst of a recession, leading to brinkmanship politics and this sequester. That government, though, was acting at these voters’ behest. We created this crisis through government. The whole mess is a self-fulfilling prophecy brought on by people who voted in a government that doesn’t believe in government!

These folks need a civics lesson. In a representational democracy, the government is our government. It’s ours. It’s us. So this disdain for government, its contention that it can’t be trusted to solve any of our problems is really the assertion that we can’t fix our problems, that we can’t progress. It’s the same fatalism that leads so many conservatives to stockpile weapons for the presumed collapse of society. It is ultimately a dogged determination not to be part of the solution, and you know what they say about people who aren’t part of the solution…

Unabashed

It happened so quickly, I don’t think many of us noticed it.

I was about to walk past the curb on 34th when suddenly the gray asphalt I was about to step onto went black. I pulled back my foot in confusion, as if the street had vanished, but it was everything. Everything had gone dark. Around me, cars screeched to a halt and for a moment, before the drivers thought to switch on their headlights, the only illumination came from the green and red globes in the streetlights overhead and the fluorescent glow of a drugstore behind us.

The sun was gone.

“What’s happening?”

Murmurs everywhere. The throngs on the street were frozen.

“What happened to the sky?”

The sky was fine, though. There was no cloud cover. Peering up, we could see straight through to the stars. Orion’s belt drifted over Broadway as lights flickered on in the buildings above us.

“It’s not the sky,” someone said. “It’s the sun. It’s gone.”

Gasps. Profanity. In a few moments, we could see that we were wrong. It wasn’t gone exactly. It had gone dim.

“Is it an eclipse?” someone else asked, but no, it clearly wasn’t. The disc of the sun wasn’t blocked, it was simply browned out. An ember at best.

“How could this happen?”

We were all silent. Noon in Manhattan without a sun and we stood there, mute.

“It’s the end of the world,” someone finally said.

And it seemed true. Panic started to boil in each of us.

“What will happen?”

No light. No food. Everything would die.

“Nothing can survive without the sun,” I said in a whisper, but it felt as though everyone heard me.

There were shrieks now. People grasped onto one another. I couldn’t say whether they were strangers or lovers, but they held fast.

“Hell it can’t,” a voice said beside me. I turned and saw him. He was barrel-chested. Yes, that’s what they would call it. He was a barrel-chested man. He was wearing a suit, but it was a suit that had been stripped down throughout a long day. The trousers were still pressed, pinstripe gray, but his jacket and tie had been left behind somewhere and the sleeves of his silk shirt were rolled up to his elbows. As more lights came on around us, I could see the orange stubble on his chin. It was as if he had been working on this problem already for a full day–unflappable and unwearied.

“We’ve got to get moving,” he said.

“But–” someone began.

“If the sun’s gone,” he interrupted. “Then there’s no time to fart around.”

“There’s no time for anything,” someone else protested.

“You three,” he said, ignoring the dissent and pointing at a group of denizens still awestruck by the darkness. “Head uptown to the UN, tell them we need a concerted effort to gather up every last scrap of biomass that we can.”

“Biomass?”

“Anything edible. We’ve got to get it right now, while we can. Preserving it shouldn’t be a problem, since I expect things are going to get cold fast, but we need every harvester out in the heartland to run until its blades go dull and every fishing boat working overtime. Hell, if we could catch us some blue whales, that would go a long way.”

“You want us to go to the UN?”

“Hell yes, we need every government coordinating this right away. Every last scrap of food on the surface has to be gathered. We need supplies to last until we get hydroponics going.”

The three looked at one another. Again, I couldn’t say whether they had been traveling together or not, but now they nodded slowly to each other and then back to him, before turning and heading toward the East River.

He singled out another cluster of people, “Why don’t you two head over to NYU and find somebody in the astrophysics department–”

“Find out why this happened?” one of them asked eagerly.

“Too late for that. We need to know what’s going to happen now. How bad is the weather going to get? How fast is it going to become freezing? We need projections.”

“Right,” the young man answered. He laid his hand on the shoulder of the woman beside him and then they set out.

He barked a few more instructions and then said in a booming voice to catch all the parties starting to spread out from the intersection, “Everyone rally back here in two hours!”

Dazed, I watched the others scatter into the dark, then I felt a fist close around the shoulder of my coat. “Come on, buddy.”

“Where are we going?”

“I know they’re digging that new tunnel beneath Grand Central. We need to get down there, see if they can point that giant drilling rig downward.”

“Downward?”

“We’ve got to dig deep to survive this.”

“But…how can we survive? Even if a few can make it, most people–”

“Stow that, mister. We’re not going down that road. As far as I’m concerned, we need to be digging seven billion berths in the rock down deep where there’s geothermal power and heat. We don’t have time to think about anything else, got me?”

I looked at him in the growing glow of artificial light. I opened my mouth, but found I could think of nothing to say.

“Yes…yes, alright,” I stammered. “But what about the others? There are millions of people–”

“We’ll tell them on the way. Now, come on,” he said, pulling again on my coat.

And we went.

Forcing Inspiration

Dance of the Muses

It’s been a lousy day.

Not terrible, mind you, but lousy to be sure. It’s the kind of day you don’t exactly feel at your most creative, your most alert, your most inspired. Yet, I found myself at home with a few minutes alone before the wife and kids tramp through the door with stories from school and requests for assistance on homework, so I felt I had to try–at least try to write something.

So in the process of trying to force out some kind of inspiration, I thought of the students I worked with today. Beyond my regular classes, I’ve been working one-on-one with a number of students who I’ve just met recently. This week, I’ve got them writing literary compositions–short, one-page narrative stories. I go through the usual motions: stress “show, don’t tell;” try to get them to focus on images; pinpoint moments for character development; all while addressing run-ons, spelling problems, verb tense errors, and the like.

Basically, I’m teaching them how to write flash fiction.

And I’m doing it because of a test.

Texas has decided that one of the modes of writing students should be proficient in is microfiction. Granted, the state board of education doesn’t call it that, but that’s what it is. As freshmen (and sophomores if they don’t pass it the first time like the kids I’ve been working with this week) they have to write both expository essays and literary compositions. These have to be no more than 26 lines long, develop character and plot, and utilize other literary techniques like dialogue or figurative language.

For their efforts, they will receive a number: 1 to 4. 3 and 4 are good. 1 and 2, not so much.

I’m obviously all for assessing writing. If I got to design a single end-all-be-all exam for the nation’s schools it would, not surprisingly, be almost entirely writing. (I’ll grant my colleagues in math some multiple choice questions if they want, but I’d still prefer a written response explaining mathematical reasoning.) So the fact that Texas has placed such an emphasis on writing doesn’t necessarily bother me, but when we were first introduced to these new testing standards a few years back, I was more than a little alarmed. Only four points on the rubric? A single page for every composition? Three essays on one four-hour exam?

But something interesting has happened. In the last two days, I’ve had moments of pride for these young writers–most of whom would probably never call themselves “writers.” When I see a really clever phrase or a well-deployed simile, I’m proud of them. Sometimes, I catch them being proud too. When I applaud their little victories in prose, there’s often a smile, a glimmer of self-satisfaction with their own creativity.

These are moments we wouldn’t have had–these students and I–if it weren’t for the test.

I’m not sure how to feel about that. I’m an outspoken opponent of standardized testing. I think it leads to lowest-common denominator strategies in education. I think it ratchets up the pressure, at the expense of the very joy in learning I’m describing above. I hate these tests. Hate them.

Yet there it is. Even in the dismal forest of standardized test prep, there are moments of real humanity between student and teacher. I suppose ultimately, that’s the thing I wish I could convey to all my beleaguered and wary colleagues–my comrades in arms–all across the nation. Many must have faced a day like I did today. Frustrated, tired, feeling beaten down, we trudged on. Sometimes we must all wonder if it’s worth it–in this climate of “accountability” and high-stakes tests, dear God, can it really be worth it?!?

And the answer is “yes.” If we keep our wits about us, stay true to what’s important–fostering those moments of actual learning–above everything else, then yes.

Finality

After weeks of secret saucers of milk and clandestine naming of the kittens, she snuck out to feel the frost on the grass crunch beneath her bare feet and found instead a sticky mess under her toes. She looked down and it took several moments for her to understand what she was seeing. Gray fur smeared with red paste and protruding ebony tooth picks.

At last she realized that it was one of the kittens. Frozen in the night and cannibalized by its brothers and sisters, perhaps even its mother.

She knew then there was nothing of the quick black eyes that had watched her from the hedges left in that once-living debris. She also knew it would be the same with every living thing, including herself.

Right there, nine years old with feet going numb in the cold, she faced the terror, the terror of seeing the edge of you just ahead, because the edge of you is the end of everything, and once you are gone, everything will be gone. Your lens on the world blacked out. Your thoughts snuffed out. The ultimate oblivion. She knew it and felt its grip, felt and knew that it was coming, someday.

And at the same time, she felt a resolve, a stubborn, hateful determination not to. Not to die. Not ever. Through sheer will, she would prevail, she would persist. This, too, she knew.

That is why, as the doctor spoke, all those years later, spoke about metastasis and prognosis, she nodded slowly, unafraid.

the measure

the awareness of time is itself a curse
without the clocks
we’d be unburdened by the future
safe in the warm now
beyond the reach of the tempo
of the twisting tension of the watch spring
unaware of the growing mass of second ticks
one billion
one hundred eighty two million
and on
and on
envy the untouched tribes
beyond the delusion of cargo cults
living only by the sun and solstices

Lena Dunham and Cameron Russell

I have a daughter.

Which means I consider myself a stakeholder in how women’s bodies are portrayed and objectified in our culture. Already my thirteen year old girl has made comments about her own body and so we have had conversations about body image, about the media, about being healthy, about eating disorders, about men’s attitudes toward women, about all the fallout of our culture’s predominantly unhealthy fixation on the physicality of sexuality and on certain aesthetic standards for women in particular. I worry not only about her, but about those who will seek relationships with her. Already she must be the subject of pubescent boys’ appraisals, and undoubtedly those boys’ standards are fueled by the collective image of women and sexuality that bombards us from all angles in today’s media.

Our conversations parallel a larger discussion in modern America. The lament over this construction of female “beauty” has been raised enough that to some it feels like a cliché, but the long shadow this construct casts over both women’s mental health and the formation of healthy sexual and romantic relationships warrants its continued injection into our contemporary discourse, such that it is. One new angle on the issue is that we now know there are some actual biological foundations for female “beauty.” Across cultures, studies have shown that a hit to waist ratio of .7, a balance between novel and normal features, and basic symmetry often dictate what the male brain reads as “attractive.”

Beyond these basic attributes, then, there is socialization. Different cultures have elevated various traits, sometimes bizarrely, to aesthetic prizes. Foot-binding in pre-Communist China and lip-plugs in the Omo River Valley attest to human culture’s penchant for warping standards of beauty along with the human body.

The real question, though, is whether modern America’s standards of beauty–and those of the world now hopelessly enamored with our cultural exports–are any less perverse than cultures that practice such mutilation. Plastic surgery has become a ten billion dollar industry geared toward maintaining various elements of the unrealistic standards of beauty through operations performed by men (and other women) whose first oath was to do no harm (hypocritical oath, anyone?).

Two different and noteworthy young women have recently entered into the landscape of this ongoing cultural conversation. Both have been hailed for their “bravery” while also falling victim to sexist slurs.

Lena Dunham’s cable-television show Girls, which I will admit to having seen exactly two scenes of, has been lauded for its humor and authenticity, but also has received a great deal of attention (and some cheek from Amy Pohler and Tina Fey at the Golden Globes) for the frequency with which its creator and star appears without clothes, which is quite often if the buzz is to be believed. Dunham’s show is meant to present an artistic interpretation of her experience of, admittedly privileged, 20-something womanhood in New York City. The frank, and unromanticized vision of sexuality on the show pairs with her own candid nudity. Because she does not fit the idealized vision of feminine beauty projected by the media, she has become an unofficial standard bearer for those pushing back against these frequently unhealthy expectations of “beauty.”

By contrast, Cameron Russell does fit those expectations. Tall and lean, she is every bit the image one expects from a Victoria’s Secret model (because she is one). Russell, though, has recently also become another champion of those pushing back on unrealistic images of feminine beauty by giving a frank and honest TED talk deconstructing the process by which she becomes photo ready and discouraging girls from “pursuing” modeling, attributing her “success” to external factors beyond individual control. In critiquing the very aesthetic standards that had led to her success as a model, she noted that the fashion world venerated only a “narrow definition” of beauty, one that favors a particular “genetic legacy.”

(Interestingly, both women are white and both their stories have a racial tension as well. Dunham’s program has been criticized for representing almost no characters of color despite being set in the most diverse city in America. Russell, though, is the one who has called out her industry for overwhelmingly favoring white models.)

Both these voices make a valuable contribution to an ongoing conversation that seems as enduring as it is, unfortunately, impotent to improve the situation for girls with eating disorders or others suffering because of the stigmas of not fitting some warped set of expectations. Those contributions raise many questions (and eyebrows) but the best question may be one that grows out of those posed by Russell herself in her CNN response to the attention her TED talk had spawned. Pointing out that she was not a “uniquely accomplished 25 year old” and had no special right to expound on the issue, she asked whether she was even “the right person” to tell the stories missing from the media.

Implicit in this question, I think, is the larger one, the one always unanswered in the conversation: How do we really change these cultural expectations? I suspect Ms. Russell knows the real answer to how she can best make a statement about this problematic status quo. The right thing to do would be for her to turn her back on the industry and its ego-destroying, racist standards of beauty.

But then, that’s true for all of us. She is no more complicit than we all are. America endorses these standards through consumption. We are all part of the problem.

Even as I recognize our complicity, I still worry about my daughter. I realize I should be paying equal attention to my son, of course. How do I keep him from internalizing the same warped sense of female beauty so that he can form relationships unencumbered by the friction those ideals bring when they collide with real, live human beings? For now, I will have to hope that conversations can make a difference and hope that I can find enough counter examples in the media to drive the lesson home for both my children. All the while, I have to wonder, how many Lena Dunham’s will there have to be to erode this burdensome set of expectations?

Criteria for Publication?

You know, I need to figure out some sort of consistent criteria for elevating stories to the actual stories page. As of now, what I seem to do is just sit on a story long enough and if it occurs to me to do so, I go ahead and elevate to permanent link status. So it is with “Daemonus galateus,” which is now linked in on the stories page.

As an unrelated side note, autocorrect keeps trying to change the second half of the title to “gluteus.” Go figure.

Update, Dec. 2013: “Daemonus galateus” pulled for revision.

Rota Fortunae

It was overcast and the heat got stuck above the thin clouds, so he found her just leaning against the side of her goldish Honda Civic in the parking lot of the stadium–just where they’d discussed in the brief phone conversation three nights before.

“You Michael?” she asked, not budging from her repose.

“Yeah. You Brenda?”

She didn’t exactly answer, but popped up off the side of the car as she took out her phone. She held it up and pointed it at his face. He heard the camera make its artificial shutter sound. “Can I see your ID?”

He nodded and fished it out of his wallet, cracking a flake of old leather off in the process. It floated lazily toward his boot’s toe as he passed over the plastic ID card.

She lined it up in her hands in front of the phone and snapped another picture.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m texting these to my brother. He’s six foot four and a Navy Seal. The share-a-ride people have got your info already, but I want you to know that he’s got it too, in case anything happens to me.”

He shrugged awkwardly and nodded.

“I don’t mean to come off as paranoid, but you know, insurance.”

“Sure, sure, I understand,” he said, hands in his pockets.

“Alright, let’s go.” She bounced around the front of the car. He watched as the meat of her fleshy thighs quivered with each step while the pinching denim skirt kept the bulge of her buttocks locked in place.

After throwing his single bag in back, he opened the passenger side door and sat down. Still fumbling to pull back her hair in a band, she cranked the engine with her free hand and then kneed the gearshift into first.

The car lurched forward and she swung toward I-35.

“So,” she began, pinching her lower lip under her teeth for a second before continuing. “You a student?”

“No, just came out here to work.”

“So you’re from El Paso?”

“Yeah.”

“God, it’s awful to be going back, isn’t it? I wish they’d let me stay in my dorm. I mean, Jesus, who wants to spend spring break in Hell Paso.”

He shrugged and kept his eyes off the peak of cleavage below her violet top.

“You hungry at all?”

“No,” he said, then added, “thanks.”

“I guess we can stop later. I’ve already got like three quarters of a tank, so we won’t need gas until we’re at the ass end of the hill country.”

He nodded.

“I’ve got to warn you, though. I piss like five to ten times an hour, so we’re going to need potty breaks.”

“That’s okay,” he said.

“Geez, man, I’m just kidding with you,” she said. “I was trying to see what would get a rise out of you.”

“That’s cool.”

“How old are you?” she asked.

“Twenty-two.”

“I would’ve guessed that,” she said, but then gave up for a time on conversation. Every few miles she would pop in with a comment–on the traffic or some restaurant they had passed or the outlet malls.

He never did much more than grunt in reply.

Past Dripping Springs she started telling him about Austin–“Not the city,” she explained. “That was his name, my ex.” She told him how they’d dated their whole freshmen year, but then spent a summer apart, “to grow,” she said. Coming back that fall, things had been awkward. She’d noticed changes in the way he approached her sexually. “You don’t mind me talking about that sort of stuff, do you?” she asked.

“Nah, I don’t,” he said.

“Good. You never know. Some people are so repressed. I didn’t know if you were unusually religious or anything.”

“No, not really.”

As she talked on, with her eyes always on the road as if it was her listener, he relaxed from the stiff-backed posture he’d held for the first hour of the trip.

“So I really started to wonder if he was gay,” she said, explaining the climax of the Austin story. “Now I’ll tell you what, some guys can take that. Some guys you can say, ‘Hey, I think you might be gay,’ and they’ll be like, ‘No, I’m pretty sure I’m not,” and there’s like no problem. But not Austin. Holy shit, you’d think I’d killed his mother!” She described his fury, the shouting, the feeling she had that he was on the verge of getting physical, leading to her flight from his apartment without her shoes on. “So that was the end of that.”

He was silent for a moment, but he sensed he needed to say something, so he ventured, “Maybe that’s because he really was gay.”

“See!” she shouted. “Thank you! That is what I was telling my cousin just the other day. See what I mean? People are so repressed.”

They drove on through the dusk as the terrain shifted and the green of foliage dropped out of the world in favor of beige horizons dotted by olive-colored desert bushes. Without ever having stopped for the promised restroom breaks, they finally pulled off the road to gas up.

Having agreed that he would pay for the next tank, she left him at the pump, telling him, “Pull it along side the shop when you’re done. I need some privacy.”

Michael twisted his face up in confusion, but she stomped away too quickly for him to complain or question.

The auto-catch on the gas pump was missing, so he stood beside it, holding the lever in place to fill the car up. The rhythmic pulsing of the fuel flowing through the hose seemed unusually slow and his eyes began to wander. First over the white edges of the gas station sign at twilight, then over the distant ridges of the horizon. Finally, he looked inside the glowing white cube of the shop. Brenda was at the counter with a pile of chips and other junk food. The clerk, a middle-aged woman with graying hair was laughing at something the girl had said. From outside, they looked like life-long chums.

The pump stopped. Despite shaking the nozzle against the inlet, a drop of gas still caught his boot as he hung it up. Inside, he saw Brenda was still talking to the clerk–her groceries remained heaped in front of her on the counter. He did as she’d asked and brought the car around to the side of the shop.

A few minutes later, she came around the corner toting two plastic bags and smiling.

“Everything good?” she asked.

“Yeah, all done.”

“Great, feel like a break?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

She twisted and squeezed her torso into the space between the two seats, brushing up against his shoulder in the process, and fished out a plastic bag from one of her suitcases in the rear.

Next, she produced some rolling papers from the little compartment behind the parking break and raised her eyebrows to entice him.

“Nah, I shouldn’t.”

“You don’t get high?”

“Trying not to.”

She shrugged and lit the joint, inhaling a long draw and popping the seat back in a single motion. “Oh, sorry,” she said, scrambling for the window control to add some ventilation.

She enjoyed another hit before looking up at him, sitting erect and silent again.

“So what’s up with you? What’s your story?”

“No story,” he answered.

“Everybody’s got a story. You’re not a student, but you’re going back to El Paso. Is it home?”

“It was, yeah.”

“But you left.”

“Right.”

“So, why’d you leave?” she asked before placing the joint back between her lips.

“Things just got messed up. I wanted to leave and some friends of mine were going to go to Austin, start a band.”

“And now?” she asked, peering through a haze of her own exhaled smoke. “Why’re you going back?”

“It was time.”

“That’s mysterious. There’s a girl, right?”

“What?” he asked with sudden alarm.

“There’s always a girl. Go on, tell me. What happened?”

He sat back in the chair and shook his head with a huffing laugh. “Might as well,” he said and then began. He first told her about meeting Selena, about how he knew she was too young, but thinking it would be alright, that it was just a little fun. Then it was more than a little fun and they’d ended up saying how much they loved each other. “And I did,” he told Brenda. “I loved her a lot, but she always wanted to hang out. I had work and my friends. We fought a lot, but I did. I loved her.” When he graduated from high school, though, and she was only a sophomore, he thought it was time to move on. He hadn’t done it well. Just stopped calling. Started messing around with other girls. “Then one day, I just saw her. I saw her at the mall with her parents and I saw her belly.”

“She didn’t tell you?”

No, she hadn’t, and yes, it was his. The scene in the mall had been ugly. Her father had shoved him. Michael had taken a swing in return.

It was his parents who had forced him to sit down with Selena’s family about a week later. They spent a few hours working out a plan for the two of them to “take responsibility” and “create a life together…for the sake of the baby.”

They’d lived with his family. When the baby was born, things had seemed manageable. They started saying they loved each other again. Selena, holding him and the baby at once, had said one night, “Maybe this was right all along. Maybe we were supposed to be together.” And they had smiled at that, both of them.

But then she went back to finish high school, and his mother pressed him to take care of the baby alone. “My mom said she was too old to be starting over and that it was my responsibility.” The tension started to build. Selena, worn out from feedings and colicky fits, struggled at school, and she brought the stress home. “I knew it was wrong, but I just never wanted to go back there, never wanted to be shut up in my old bedroom with a crying and fussing baby and its mother. All the disappointed looks. My mom and her would look at me the same way whenever I walked in the door.”

Brenda laughed. “They say you marry your mother, you know? You always pick someone just like mommy without meaning to.”

He continued, “After work one day I went out. At first there were a couple of us all together, but eventually it was just me at this one girl’s apartment.”

“Oh shit, I know where this is going.”

“So she left. Selena took the baby and went back to her parents’ house. My parents acted like they hated me, so I left. I crashed with friends for awhile, but eventually I just cut out of town.”

“And now?”

“The last few weeks, I’ve been talking to her.” Selena had gotten her G.E.D. She wanted to go into nursing. She could do it alone; she always could have. But she could use a partner. It could be him. “I talked her into giving me another shot,” he told Brenda.

“That’s what you want?”

“Yeah,” he answered. “Austin didn’t work for me. I lost two jobs. I was never happy. Nothing was right.”

“Without her?”

“Right.”

“Without them,” she corrected.

“Exactly.”

“How long you been in Austin again?” Brenda asked.

“About a year.”

“She’s taking you back after a year?”

“A year that shouldn’t have happened,” he said.

“Oh yeah?”

“Definitely. I screwed up.”

“So, you’ve changed, huh?”

“I’m going to.”

“I don’t mean to piss you off,” she said, letting out a long trail of smoke between her grinning lips. “But people don’t plan to change. That shit happens, or it doesn’t. So either you’ve changed, or you haven’t.”

“I’ve changed then.”

“If you say so,” she whispered, closing her eyes. He watched her breasts heave up and down with each breath, wanting to throttle her.

“Let me drive,” he said through his teeth.

“Yeah, okay. I feel like a rest.”

He tore the Civic onto the road after they switched seats, but if she was aware of the driving expressing any emotional message, she gave no indication. Saying nothing more, she rolled into a ball against the passenger side door and dozed.

For two hours they rolled through the dark. The radio stations evaporated in the black and he rifled through a stack of unlabeled CDs looking for something to listen to. In the end he shut it off and drove in silence. He looked over at her every few minutes and muttered “bitch” under his breath, but each time he also looked at the back of her calves tucked up close to her. Occasionally, he would catch her stirring in the dim light and see locks of wavy hair slide over her cheeks. He fantasized repaying her for her remarks with debasing sexual acts and gripped the steering wheel tighter.

He wasn’t watching her when she woke suddenly and moaned, “Dude, let’s pull over.”

She startled him, but he made an effort to hide it, saying quickly, “We don’t need gas.”

“I need to stretch my legs,” she countered.

Van Horn was just ahead. As they pulled off, he turned the nose of the car toward the nearest gas station, but she wagged her finger and pointed away from the lights of the highway. “Over there,” she yipped. “Over there!”

She led them to a small adobe bar sitting among some sparse, low grass on a side street.

“We should keep going,” he objected.

“Night’s young.”

“You’re not even 21.”

“I haven’t met a bartender I couldn’t charm,” she said and slammed the car door behind her.

He made a show of dragging his feet behind him as she pushed open the dingy wooden door of the bar. There was hardly any activity inside. Two different couples sitting in booths along the wall looked up at them, but the patrons at the bar itself–three men in boots, but no hats–didn’t react to their entrance.

Brenda strutted past the bartender with a wink and disappeared inside the bathroom in the back. Michael sat down without ordering.

“Did I piss you off or something?” she asked when she returned.

“I didn’t like what you said.”

“What did I say? Shit, man, I’m sorry, when I’m high I don’t know what I say. Come on, let me buy you a drink…friends?”

She placed her arm around him and grinned madly.

He agreed to a shot or two. She began prattling on again, and as the warmth of the tequila hit his core, he found himself watching her mouth move while she talked.

She tried chatting up the bartender, but he was late thirties going on fifty from hard, leathering days in the sun, so she stayed in orbit of Michael.

“We’ve got to enjoy our last stop together,” she told him.

“We’ll still need gas,” he said, but his voice was light now and she laughed and he laughed back and they were friends now, drinking and enjoying one another.

“One of us has got to stay sober,” he reminded her after another pair of shots.

“We can just sleep it off,” she said before crossing to the jukebox and queuing up a rock ballad no one had heard since the late 80s.

She swung her hips from side to side in a parody of a music video half-remembered from their youth.

He laughed on with her, remembering the shape of her legs in the night outside.

Before he knew why or how or when, they were there again, outside in the dark, leaving a trail of boisterous goodbyes for the barkeep and the quiet couples and the silly old jukebox and laughing again as their feet crunched the gravel in the parking lot.

He climbed into the driver’s seat and she giggled her way into the passenger side. He tried to say two or three times that he shouldn’t drive, but never did. As he made the attempt, her chuckling subsided and they found themselves alone together in the shadows.

She turned toward him in the faint orange buzz from some lamp outside and he saw what was going to happen. He saw all his resolve melt and he knew, knew that somehow this would be the end of all his aspirations, of everything he hoped for.

He reached across the parking break and laid his hand on her hip.