She was only half-aware of being addressed, just as she had been only half-involved in every conversation she’d had all night. While she was politely inquiring of several pregnant girls when they were due, and helping Jodi Rudd find the bathroom when she was too drunk to stand up, Erica was also carefully monitoring the movements of Jon Pope, who had left Bakersfield after he got expelled from Caesar Chavez High School eleven years earlier for doing meth on school premises. For years, she’d wondered if he was still alive. She’d had a terrible feeling that she would hear that he was dead and feel that if only she’d been there at that last moment, she might have been able to help him turn it all around.
Then her internet searches had begun to lead her to international art magazines and glossy web sites for galleries in New York and Berlin. Someone named Jon Pope was an “up-and-coming” American talent, and someone named Jon Pope had scandalized the British press when he used a large arts grant to bribe union workers to perform their jobs poorly. At first, Erica assumed that she had only been shown those search results because most of the products she bought online were art supplies. She assumed it was the mistake of an overly ambitious algorithm, that supposed she was looking for the artist Jon Pope, instead of the probably-dead boy from her high school. Then finally, an article in the Los Angeles Times put the story together. He had moved from Bakersfield to Skid Row to Brooklyn. He got arrested for graffiti and started working on canvas. He got picked up by a big Chelsea gallery when he was only twenty, and soon after that started working with performance, video, and installation.
From his appearance, it seemed that he no longer needed to be rescued by her. His hair was shorter than it had been in high school and his posture was straight. He stood with his back to her, talking to one of the husbands whose names she could never remember. His hand drifted carelessly along the Oaxacan table cloth. The edge of a tattoo crawled out from the cuff of his white shirt on to his wrist.
“E,” said Blake.
“You want to leave?” she said.
“I drink anything more and you’re gonna have to drive us home,” he said, a joke to Garrett Davis, a dumb, big-toothed guy who always laughed at anything. “And I can’t afford to let my insurance premiums go up.”
Garrett Davis laughed.
“You don’t even know about the time she crashed the truck because there was a cardboard box in the road,” said Blake.
“I needed glasses.”
“She wears contacts now,” Blake said. “But still needs glasses.”
Jon Pope left the conversation he was in and approached the host. He was saying goodbye. He was leaving before Erica had taken her opportunity to say hello.
“I tell her she’s secretly Asian from the way she drives,” said Blake.
Jon Pope reached across the table, plucked a few pieces of ice out of the cooler and dropped them into his red plastic cup. Still nodding in conversation, he poured himself some more cranberry juice. Erica’s whole body flooded with relief. He was staying. She was happy enough to laugh at Blake’s disgusting joke. “I’m a good enough driver now.”
“See you later, dude,” Blake said to Garrett, putting his arm around Erica to lift her from her chair. His movements were heavy with beer.
“Why don’t you just go?” Erica said.
“I’m going to stay at my place tonight.”
“You guys don’t live together?” asked Garrett.
Blake flexed his jaw in anger and swallowed.
“We did,” said Erica. “We will again.”
“I had to get the complicated girl,” Blake said. He grabbed his jean jacket off the back of his chair and lurched for the door without looking back. Normally she would follow him and they would yell at each other in the driveway, but she let him go. He was wasted. In the morning, he wouldn’t remember why he was furious, only that he was, and that would make it like any other morning in his miserable life. Maybe he would total his car and die.
“Good dude,” said Garrett Davis, sparking a giant spliff and inhaling deeply.
“Yeah,” said Erica. She stood up, went into the kitchen where the second bar was ravaged and abandoned, and poured herself a large glass of Southern Comfort, the only hard liquor left. She shot it back without difficulty, counted to ten, as she had when she was a child coaching herself to get into a cold swimming pool, and walked through the swinging door that led into the carpeted foyer, a few steps from where Jon Pope was standing in the living room.
She made eye contact with him and half-smiled, her best impersonation of a woman just barely recognizing a man from her distant past: “Jon, right?”
He had not been good-looking in high school, but he was now. His large features were better suited to an adult. He had his Mexican mother’s complexion. Light freckles clustered across the bridge of his nose.
“Erica,” she said, with an awkward gesture toward herself.
“I remember,” he said, but there was no clear indication that he did.
The music changed, from up-tempo steel guitar to a ballad, and Erica wished she had taken a larger shot of alcohol.
“Congratulations on your career,” she said. “I’ve followed it, a little.”
“Thank you.” He was looking over her head for someone else to talk to.
“Are you in town visiting your parents?” she said, trying again.
He looked back at her. “I’m so sorry, I was just distracted for a second. What did you say?”
“I asked if you were here visiting your parents, but I realize that’s probably a more personal question than I meant, since for all I know, you’re totally estranged from them. I mean, how have they handled your work? How do they feel about the ‘Self-Portraits with Dick in Hand’?”
He laughed. “Oh, so you’ve actually followed my career.”
“My parents moved out of Bakersfield,” he said. “I’m here for a research thing. Are you an artist now?”
“I figured that’s why you know who I am.”
Garrett Davis wandered by with a sprouted red onion, volunteering to be dared to eat it like an apple. “I will,” he said. “I totally will.” He reached a sympathetic audience in the kitchen. Their muted voices sounded like the static on a live record before the band starts playing. Out the window, the moon was a soft, bloated wedge, a few days over half.
“You don’t want to get out of here and have dinner with me, do you?” Erica said.
Jon Pope looked toward the garrulous huddle that was forming around Garrett Davis and the onion. “Sure.”
They had one class together junior year. She knew him, but everyone knew him. Mostly he was a menacing ghost, stalking the halls and doing whatever he wanted. School authorities had made the calculation that it was more trouble to try to discipline him than to just let him slowly deteriorate. But he was different from the other lost kids, because while they were bleakly predictable, you never knew what Jon Pope was going to do. Erica had English with him. She got straight A’s, the way she always got A’s. She was quiet about it.
One day Zhong Mei Zhang was talking about how they shouldn’t have to read The Scarlet Letter because it was too old to relate to when Jon Pope raised his hand and said, “It’s one person who’s legit and one person who’s legit and pretending not to be, and everyone else is an asshole. It’s every place in America.” The teacher was commending him on the thoughtful insight when he got up, walked over to the window, squeezed himself through it and jumped two stories, cracking his femur.
That same spring, when the heat was becoming unbearable again, Erica used all the money she had saved from her job selling concessions at the movie theater to buy a blue dress that she had been admiring at the mall since Christmas. It looked like something she had seen a famous woman war correspondent wearing in an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. Its neckline swooped down into a sophisticated, overlapping V, and a line of silver studs dotted the waist. She tried it on at home in front of the warped full-length mirror in her bedroom and thought maybe she could read the news or become a lawyer or a psychiatrist. In the fine blue fabric, her breasts seemed like inevitable contours in a larger curve, rather than her one and only focal point. Even her thin, bottle-bleached hair looked right, as though it had volume. She looked at herself and imagined that she was a boy, looking at her. She lowered her eyes to her clasped hands and then raised them up to meet the gaze in the mirror, smiling, lips pursed and parted, eyebrows slightly arched, as though caught off-guard. She was already dating Blake then, but the boy on the other side of the mirror was always someone else.
She spent five glorious after school evenings that way, rushing home to try on her new dress with the same kind of fevered excitement with which she had hurried off to bed after she first discovered masturbation. Consumed by the fantasy, she turned her music up so high that even her mother, usually catatonic at night, rapped on the door with her large knuckles, saying, “Turn it down, I can’t hear my shows.”
Erica resolved to wear the dress on a Tuesday. Monday seemed too obvious. Everyone always tried to show off what they’d done over the weekend on Mondays. Tuesday was a blank day, open and long, before the landmark of Wednesday or the hope of Thursday. It was the only day of the week that felt like a plateau. It would be all hers.
She woke up early, washed and blow-dried her hair, and applied her make-up. Risking a glimpse of herself in the accurate bathroom mirror, she was pleased to see that she looked nearly as good as she had in the defective one. She touched up the color on her toenails and dunked her feet in ice so they would dry faster. Then she put on her favorite platform sandals, and walked out the front door, her good mood buoyed by the accompaniment of the feminine tapping of her heels.
“Oh hello,” said her mother, lying in an oversized bikini on a chaise lounge in the driveway. Already tan and slick with oil, she was splayed out like a forgotten chicken in a rotisserie grill. “Remember me?”
Erica’s mother’s doctor had told her to try not taking any pills until noon, so Erica had been studiously attempting to stay out of her mother’s way in the mornings. “Of course I remember you,” she said, as pleasantly as possible.
“Where did you get that dress? Did some boy buy it for you?”
“No, I bought it for myself with my money from the theater.”
Her mother sat up and stared for a long time, long enough for Erica to feel herself slipping from confident into uncomfortable into terrified, and then into angry enough to feel almost confident again. “Well, it covers up your thighs,” her mother said. “But it doesn’t do anything for those fat lower legs of yours.” She lay down again, on her stomach this time. A drop of the tanning oil rolled off one of her red-painted fingertips, spreading into a slick stain on the cement.
Erica told herself that under no circumstances would she give her mother the satisfaction of having made her cry. She continued most of the way down the driveway. Her footsteps now sounded clobbering to her, but she ignored them. As she approached the curb, too late to be cutting, she turned around. “Thanks for lying out here and giving me a good idea of what could happen to my body if I don’t watch those fat legs.”
“What did you say to me?” roared her mother, jumping up with shocking alacrity and seizing Erica’s wrists in her slippery hands.
“See how far you get being clever,” her mother said, letting Erica’s wrists go with a shove, and then returning to the chaise, where she flopped down on her back and tossed a supermarket coupon book over her face for shade.
Erica went to school.
“What’s wrong with you?” said Blake between second and third period.
“Do you think my legs look fat in this dress?”
Blake leaned back against the lockers to get a more complete view of Erica’s figure. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re a tits girl.”
The bell rang, so she didn’t have to respond. She thought she had her feelings under control, but midway through English class, she felt her eyes brimming. Ms. Henderson was talking about symbolism when Erica stood up, took the pass, and left the room. She walked down the linoleum hall until she could safely see that no one else was in the girls’ bathroom and then she started sobbing. The paper towel dispenser was empty so she had to cry into a ball of flimsy toilet paper that kept shredding. There was mascara all over her face by the time the door burst open and Jon Pope stood there glaring. He and his neon leg cast, decorated with sketches he had drawn of skulls and roadkill, were the final straw.
“This is the girls’ bathroom!” she yelled.
“Why are you crying?” he said.
She clasped her hands together into a double fist and swiped at him. “Get out of here!”
His body was surprisingly firm. She returned to the sink and gripped either side of it, as though it were a toilet and she were about to throw up.
“Tell me why you’re crying.”
“Fucking tell me!”
Lifting one hand from the porcelain, she turned around to look at him. “I’m crying because I’m a loser with fat lower legs, okay? Blake Avery and my mother both think my legs are fat. Are you happy now? I’m crying because I’m so pathetic that I actually thought I looked good.”
Jon Pope spun around and slammed the steel-toed boot of his good foot so hard into the garbage can that the clatter made Erica scream.
“Fuck that!” he shouted. “If your lower legs are fat, then fat lower legs should be the fucking standard, because I fucking love them!”
They were standing several feet away from one another, beside the graffiti’d mirrors.
“Really?” she said.
The bathroom door swung open and two senior girls came in and told Jon to get the fuck out, and uncharacteristically, he did.
As the senior girls plucked their eyebrows and reapplied their lip-liner and talked shit, Erica had the strange sensation that there was another person who went to her high school. The feeling didn’t quite make sense—her high school of full of people—but it came back later: I never knew there was another person at my school.
Two days later, a cop car happened to be driving by the back parking lot when Jon was getting high. He was expelled that afternoon. The school almost got in trouble with the state for not having done it sooner. #
Jon Pope started the ignition of his rental car and the dashboard lit up orange. “So tell me about your work,” he said.
“Oh.” The last time an artist had asked Erica to describe her work, when she had gotten up the courage to go to an open house at the Otis School of Art, she had said I do very flat and boring paintings of Bakersfield. Her intention had been to say that her subject matter was flat and boring, and she tried to represent that in a realistic fashion by infusing her images with the desperation of the world around them, but once she had realized what she’d said, she could only continue in the same vein. No nuance, that sort of thing. The professor seemed genuinely baffled. Erica got the impression that he had not heard that version of a soft sell before. She ended the afternoon eating three donuts over the trashcan at the office of her part-time job, filing medical records.
“I mean, I know everybody hates that question,” Jon Pope said.
They pulled up in front of Carls’ Jr. and the sign was bright, but the dining area was empty and the chairs were on the tables. The only person inside was a teenaged cashier, leaning against a mop, talking on her cell phone.
“Hm,” he said. “If memory serves, pretty much everything else is closed too, right? I mean, we’re in Funyons at the gas station territory now?”
“You could come to my studio,” Erica said. “If you’re curious about my work.”
He put the car into reverse. “Let’s do it,” he said.
‘Studio’ was probably a grandiose word for the garage that Erica rented for two hundred dollars a month. A little box with cheap, blue siding, it suddenly embarrassed her as Jon Pope pulled his rental car to a stop outside. At least he wouldn’t be able to tell that she was living there now; her landlords probably would have charged more if they’d known, so every morning for the past two and a half months since she’d moved out of the apartment she had with Blake and commenced their problematic attempt to ‘just date,’ she had folded the futon back up and put all her clothes away in two cardboard boxes, in case anyone went inside to snoop around.
She looked out of the car window and tried to see what Jon Pope saw: A split-level house with all the lights out. She was filled with regret that she had brought him to this depressing place. She tried not to think about the high ceilings and portrait windows of the real studios he was used to, where people with grants and residencies made real work.
He opened his car door and the motion sensor flicked on, illuminating the houses next door on either side, and across the street, a broken motorcycle on its side. “Are we going inside?”
Jon Pope stood in front of Erica’s most recent painting. Any time Erica had ever imagined a circumstance like this, she had imagined that she would be nervous. She imagined that she would be more than nervous. It was dread of just how nervous she would be that had kept her from ever showing her paintings to friends or family or anyone. If this had been her anxious fantasy, she would have been watching Jon Pope, certain that he was silent because he was struck dumb by her incompetence. But standing there in her studio, looking at his back, and beyond it, at her image of a leaking fire hydrant on an empty desert block, Erica knew that her painting was not bad.
“This is really good work,” he said finally.
He turned around and studied her face with a different kind of focus than he had before.
“I remember you,” he said. “Were you the girl crying in the bathroom?”
She peeled and sliced a mango for them to eat as she explained the inspiration for each of her pieces. For two years she had done nothing but gas stations. Another year, she did wind turbines. They were all images of the everyday in Southern California: surplus stores, cinderblock churches, art deco storage warehouses. Only the sky was ever grand. It was vertiginous, backlit, alien blue. It was a smudge of cloud, gilded, curving through dusk. Recently, she had started doing the nighttime, its streaks of headlights and moon shapes and passing airplanes.
“So do you show at a gallery around here, or in L.A.?”
“You don’t show?”
“Yeah, why rush into a commercial context? I always envy my friends who went to grad school and actually took the time to build a decent foundation for their work. Plus, you’re actually painting, which already distinguishes you. Whenever you start showing, it’s going to be obvious that you’re serious.”
His lips were shiny from the mango. They were reflecting the Christmas lights that Erica had hung a few years ago in the corner and never taken down. The little flecks of white iridescence made everything that he was saying seem that much more wonderful, as though it was coming from out of a jewel.
“And it’ll make you less vulnerable,” he said. “I was completely wasted for the first couple years of my career, so everything was awesome, but then… Getting sober is a crash course in self-consciousness no matter who you are, but waking up in the middle of the art world was a nightmare. I was sure I was a complete fraud and the whole thing was a total hoax. If the gallery receptionist looked sideways at a piece, I took it down.”
“Oh yeah, totally pathetic. But the way you’re doing it, the people you’re speaking to are going to love it, and whoever hates it, fuck them, they don’t get it.”
Erica had once shown Blake a painting. It was of a few shopping carts in the parking lot behind Rite Aid, and beyond them the horizon, and the sun going down. He had looked at it for a long time. Why don’t you paint something artistic, like my pecs? he had said finally. Afterwards, he was hostile. For a few weeks he was rough with her and only wanted to have anal sex.
“But you can’t be this good and not show for too much longer,” Jon Pope said. “It wouldn’t be fair to those of us who have to go to openings every weekend and pretend to be moved by another critique of capitalist aesthetics.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“Are you kidding? Thank you. You rescued my night. Those bros at the party were about to realize I haven’t seen a Lakers game since the 90s. I might not have survived.”
He jumped to his feet. “Some place must be open,” he said. “Let me take you to a nice restaurant to celebrate you and your work.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” she said. “Why don’t we go to your hotel room and order as much room service as we can, and eat everything in the minibar?”
He looked at her for a moment and then he smiled. “You’re a weird girl, Erica. And I like you.”
In the elevator on the way up to his room at the Ramada, there was an awkward silence. Their shoulders were nearly touching as they went up past the second and the third and the fourth floors. Suddenly she turned and kissed him. She was pretty sure that was what she was doing there, but not entirely, and the possibility of imminent humiliation added to the thrill. By the time her lips touched his, he was already kissing her back. Her hands were in his hair. The sandpaper roughness of his cheek woke up her nervous system. Their bodies were slamming against the far handrail in the elevator.
There was a journey into the bedroom. That was her chance to change her mind. He ran four fingers across the small of her back as he guided her through the doorway.
“I have a boyfriend,” she said. “I still want to do this, but I just want you to know.”
He pulled away. “Are you sure?”
“We’re breaking up,” she said. “We’ve been breaking up for years.”
She had sometimes wondered if she would have known how to have sex if she had never been told. It had always felt arbitrary the way Blake shoved his tongue into her mouth, shoved his face between her breasts, made sure she was wet by swiping an index finger, and then shoved her legs apart with his wide body and pushed inside. Her few other experiences with men had been even more disappointing.
With Jon, it was different. Her desire to touch him seemed as intuitive as his erection. As she felt his naked body moving with hers, every thought she had seemed to be a good one, maybe her best ever, and there was no reason why she shouldn’t speak it.
“You’re a beautiful man,” she said. “You’re such a beautiful man.”
He closed her eyes with his palm and kissed one eyelid, then the other.
“It would just be so sad if you didn’t know how beautiful you were. I couldn’t stand it if I thought that for even a second.”
“And what about you?” he said.
“What about me?”
“Do I not have to worry about you? Because you already know how beautiful you are?”
When she came, she did something she’d never done before without trying: she said his name. Later, she realized she couldn’t remember whether or not she had slept in his arms. She thought she had not. But there was something gorgeous in the not remembering: she had felt comfortable. When does a person ever feel comfortable?
Sun streamed in through the east-facing window. Erica thought Jon would be busy, but he didn’t seem to be in a hurry. He went down to the Continental breakfast in the lobby to get two cups of coffee and then took his clothes off again when he came back.
“I should go,” said Erica, not wanting to overstay her welcome.
“Let me drive you home.”
But when they got down to the parking lot, the valet guy was gone on a smoke break, and it was going to take a while for Jon’s car to come around.
“I can take the bus,” she said.
“Let me take you in a cab.”
He rubbed the back of his head with his open palm. “Listen, I’m in California for two weeks.”
“I’m sure you have better things to do than hang out with me.”
“That’s what I’m saying. I don’t.” The sun was shining into his eyes and he lifted a tan hand to shade his face. “I know you have a complicated situation with this other guy, but I really like you.”
“What happened to me last night doesn’t happen to me often, or ever.”
“I like you too,” she said quietly. She looked behind him down the street, where she could see the bus wheezing toward them.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said. He wrapped his hands around her waist and kissed her again.
When she ran across the street, and caught the bus just as the driver was about to pull away, she was already beginning to think Jon Pope is wrong about me.
He called at twelve-thirty the next day. Her cell phone was on the desk at the job where she worked on Mondays through Thursdays, filing records for a pediatrician. It was on vibrate, so as it rang, it skidded slightly across the wood-patterned vinyl surface. Beaming from her screen, the name Jon Pope seemed out of place in the dingy bungalow trailer where several practices kept their old paperwork.
He was probably trying to call during her lunch break. That was considerate but unnecessary. She worked alone, basically unsupervised, and could make her own schedule. She imagined herself on the kind of lunch break he was probably envisioning. She would be in a supermarket aisle, improbably flattered by the florescent lighting, carefully considering among the pre-made sandwiches. Healthful and decisive, she would choose hummus on wheat.
The phone lit up as it rang for the second time. It was zigzagging away from her. She wondered what determined the direction in which a vibrating phone would move. It must have been responding to a slight, imperceptible slope of the room. The phone easily could have zigzagged toward her. Maybe if it had, she would have been able to pick it up.
She reached for it on the third ring, but did not actually touch it. It had become a foreign, combustible object, the way her hands sometimes felt to her, after she had held the rail on the bus and before had washed them.
By the fourth ring, her heart was not beating so fast anymore because she knew that she was not going to answer it.
“Hey, it’s Jon. I am leaving you a voicemail like it’s the bad old days before text messages because… I’m calling to see what you’re up to tonight. I was thinking that we could mix it up and go to a restaurant that’s actually open, and isn’t called Carl’s Jr. Or if not tonight, maybe this weekend we could drive to L.A. There’s a place in Malibu I think you might like. Anyway, call me back.”
Erica’s voicemail gave her options. Press 7 to erase and 9 to save. She pressed 9. She scrolled to the missed calls log on her phone and her thumb hovered over his number, about to call him back.
She pictured him in a car driving to Los Angeles or Santa Barbara with a girl who looked like Erica. His left arm, sunburned, would dangle out into the salty air. He would be pointing out sights she had never seen: Houses where he had been to dinner parties with Jennifer Aniston, seafood restaurants hidden in the rocks. His other hand would lie absently on her thigh. She pictured his freckled shoulders, his elbows, his wrists, his long, tan fingers. She thought of the way his eyes fluttered when he came, and the soft but masculine sound his throat made. A dizzy sensation writhed down her spine. She felt breathless and had to sit down in the torn brown swivel chair.
She turned off her phone and hid it at the bottom of her purse. She worked overtime. A new box of records had arrived from storage several weeks before and she had been procrastinating the task of sorting them.
When she stepped out of the trailer and turned her phone back on, it was already seven pm. She called her voicemail, skipped over the other messages she had saved, one from Blake and one from a collection agency, and listened to Jon Pope’s message again.
She should have called him back right away. It was rude to have waited as long as she had. Now it was much too late to talk about dinner that night. She considered texting him and making up a story about her phone being broken, but that would seem like a lie. She tried to come up with another excuse for her behavior, but found that there was none. It was not the sort of thing the girl Jon Pope wanted to go out on a date with would do.
She should have responded immediately by text: “I can’t do tonight, but this weekend sounds great.” How hard would that have been? It would have taken her only a few seconds.
Her lips felt tender from kissing him. When she ran her own tongue across them, she could almost imagine that she was kissing him still.
Perhaps there was a similarly acceptable text message that was available to her now: “I can’t do tonight (obviously), but this weekend sounds good.”
She was surprised and relieved to see how normal that sounded. He didn’t need to know that she had listened to the message midday. There was always a plausible alternate reality. She could work deep inside of a cement building, where there was no service. Her phone could have fallen, momentarily, off the grid. Or maybe she was one of those girls who played games. Maybe no girl would have called him back yet.
Reassured by the luxury of all of this possibility, she turned the whole apparatus off again. At 7:30, she took a bottle of Robitussin out of her toiletries bag, poured herself two doses of its pink liquid, got into bed and went to sleep.
She woke up the following day with the feeling that there was something important that she needed to do that she had not done. She took her car into the mechanic and got an oil change. She paid her late electric bill. She went to the store and bought Rice Crispies, congratulating herself on having the competence to replace her old box before she had gotten to the crumbs at the bottom. As she was about to pay, she thought about Jon Pope on the curb of the Ramada driveway. What happened to me last night doesn’t happen to me often, or ever. She felt her face redden at the register.
She threw two packs of gum on to the conveyor belt. Her blue nail polish was chipped and she made her hands into fists, trying to hide the imperfections from the pregnant sales clerk.
What happened to me last night doesn’t happen to me often, or ever. Erica imagined Jon Pope saying this to the version of herself that sat in the car beside him in Malibu. That girl would know just what to say to him as the breeze blew off the Pacific and thickened her hair. She would be used to compliments of that magnitude because she would deserve them.
The following day, Jon Pope called in the morning. Her phone was sitting on the kitchen table when it rang. She approached it, thinking maybe it was her mother, who had been more talkative since she started dating a divorced rancher she had met online. When Erica saw that it was Jon Pope, she recoiled.
Her phone usually beeped to tell her when a message had been left and her phone did not beep. He must have hung up. She pictured his annoyance as he hung up. Maybe it had been an accidental call, made by the device sliding around in his pocket. Then her phone beeped. That meant that he been leaving a message for the entire period of time since the phone had stopped ringing. She wondered whether he was sitting or standing, whether he was still in Bakersfield or had gone to Los Angeles, and whether he held the phone with his hand or in the crook of his neck as he performed some other activity, like turning the page of a book or organizing his credit cards in his wallet.
She stood on the tile floor of her kitchen, looking at the phone, and thinking about what could have been in that long message of his, until it was time for her to walk out the door. She worked overtime again. The trailer was too cold from the air-conditioning. She had complained, but the temperature was pre-set by the management company.
At the end of the day, walking out into the sweltering heat was a relief. She went to her studio. She boiled water on her electric tea kettle and made ramen noodles. She worked on the shadowing of a painting that was almost done. At nine, she walked to the end of the block to get some air and forced herself to listen to her voicemail.
“Hi, it’s Jon again.” He sounded different. He sounded more serious. “Hey, I hope I wasn’t playing it too cool in my last message. You’re with someone and I don’t even live here, so I get why you don’t want to see me again. Keep it simple, that’s smart. But I want to make sure you know that I’m not calling because I want to sleep with you a few more times. I’m calling because I can’t stop thinking about you and your work, and who you were in high school.” He paused and took a breath. “At least let me put you in touch with a gallery in L.A. So many people have so much confidence and so little to say. And you’re the opposite.”
The streets were dark and cold again. She hugged her jean jacket to her chest.
Four more days passed, including a weekend. In the middle of the Saturday, Blake called.
“What do you want?” she said. Sometimes she pretended that her screen was broken and she didn’t know it was him, but not this time.
“A million dollars,” he said.
“Well, then don’t call me. I’m broke.”
“I have allergies,” he said. “What the fuck, right? I’m a nerd.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s the rug,” he said. “I never wanted to buy a white, shag rug.”
“That’s how I feel too,” Blake said. “I’m exhausted by this whole thing.”
“What do you want?” she said. “Do you want me to come over now and get all my stuff, including my rug?”
“I paid for half the rug.”
“Then what?” A few flies were stuck between the screen and the window in Erica’s bedroom and she watched them struggling to find their way out.
“I want you to move back in.”
“That’s touching, Blake.”
He was silent. She could hear that he was winding up. He seemed to want to control himself, because he took a deep breath. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”
Erica picked up a pair of scissors, walked over to the window, and stabbed a hole into the screen so that the flies could get out, but they were too dumb to understand that she trying to help them. They buzzed over into the other corner and resumed their desperate attempt. “You know what, Blake? Maybe get a lottery ticket. Maybe you can have something you want. Maybe you can get that million dollars after all.”
“Yeah?” he said. “You think so? Well how about if you’re not going to move back in, you come over here and vacuum this fucking rug, because I never would have bought this faggot rug, and now I’m sneezing all fucking day like a fucking fag.”
She could hear that it was true. He sounded congested. It had been a brutal September. Everyone’s asthma was flaring up and a few adjacent counties were on fire, but the Santa Anas had never bothered him much in the past. Maybe it really was the rug. She waited a long time until she said, “Fine.”
“In the next hour.”
“Do you still have the vacuum?”
“Where would I take the vacuum?”
“I don’t know what you do.”
“I still have the vacuum.”
She got in her car and drove to his house. On the stoop, she was prepared to try to make peace with him, but when he opened the door, he didn’t make eye contact with her or say a single word, and she was filled with rage again. He gestured to the vacuum, unplugged, with the cord still coiled around its body, and went into the other room, where she could hear a football game playing for the twenty-seven minutes it took her to vacuum the whole apartment. When she was done, she unplugged the vacuum, rolled up the cord, and left. She hoped that by not slamming the door, she could make him think she wasn’t angry, and that would hurt him more than if he thought she cared.
On the drive home, it felt like an accomplishment that she had not slammed the door, and she rewarded herself by thinking about Jon Pope for exactly five minutes.
He would only be in Southern California for eight more days. Maybe it was seven days. It could even have been six. Maybe he was rounding up when he had said two weeks. Every morning, Erica lay in bed and made sure that she could still remember every detail of their night together.
Her jeans, 20 percent spandex, have gotten stuck around her ankles. She has to sit up and stretch out her legs in order to tug her feet free of the inside-out denim. Once she has, she sees that he is leaning back on the pillows and looking at her. She might feel self-conscious in her matching black lace underwear, but she doesn’t. He looks amused and flattered. “Did you get your best underwear from your studio and change into it somehow before you came over here?”
If she thought she might have forgotten anything, she would panic, but then, more often than not, she could remember it again, and then she could continue to do everything she needed to do that day.
He called at around noon, and she didn’t even pretend to let it ring. She hit the ignore button as soon as she saw his name on the screen. He would know that she had done that because it would go to voicemail after fewer rings than it had before. It almost felt like a conversation between them.
As soon as he had left a message, she listened to what he had to say.
“Erica, it’s Jon. I was thinking that maybe you didn’t want to have sex the other night. Maybe I took advantage of my position as… Clearly I should just stop calling you. I’m embarrassing myself the way I always did in this town.” There was a long pause. “Maybe I’m cracking up because I’m back here.” He paused again. “I just thought it felt real, that’s all. It felt like something.”
Four more days passed. Jon Pope’s visit to the West Coast was drawing to a close. Erica pictured him in Los Angeles, having meetings in outdoor bars beneath the sandaled shadows of trees: sycamores, eucalyptus, weeping willows. He was with other women, tall women in Italian dresses, short and fleshy women who whispered do anything you want to me at art openings when no one else could hear. Sometimes the other Erica was there too, laughing appreciatively at something he said, putting her hand on his arm to encourage him or hold him back.
This time it was an email, just one line. It arrived at eleven in the morning: “Hey. I’m leaving town, but tomorrow at 3pm, I’ll be at Jackson Cafe. Maybe we could have a quick coffee, keep it light?”
The notion that this was her last chance to see him filled her with alarm. Immediately, she wrote back: “ok.” She looked at those two tiny, pathetic letters for a long time. It seemed excessive to use a period when she had not spelled the world out in its entirety, or capitalized it. She moved her cursor over to discard the draft, but then impulsively, she clicked, “send.” She stared at the option her screen gave her to “undo” the action of having sent her email. Then it disappeared, no longer available. Now she could only “view” what she had written to Jon Pope. She didn’t want to do that, so she shut down her computer and turned off her phone.
The next morning, Erica woke up ten minutes before her alarm. She tried to fall back asleep, but couldn’t. She had showered and eaten breakfast by the time in the morning when she was usually just managing to shut off the snooze and force herself out of bed. She looked at several of her paintings, but couldn’t figure out what to do with any of them. It was horrible that she had ever thought they were good. Now they were a reprimand, like a hangover that reminded her how hollow the previous night’s pleasures had been.
She was going to keep her word and meet Jon Pope at the diner. She didn’t want to fail at that too. She went over to the make-up mirror she kept near the industrial sink and washed and moisturized her face. She curled her eyelashes and applied and removed her mascara three times before she had it the way she wanted it, without any clumps. She put on a belt. A belt was like a watch. It made a person look professional and pulled together. It was 2:40 when she slipped into her ankle boots. She had plenty of time to take the bus there.
She was just about to walk out the front door when she decided to go back to the sink to get a glass of water. In this heat, it was very important to stay hydrated. She drank one glass of water and then drank another. Now it was 2:45 and she was going to be late. She realized that after drinking that much water, she had to stay where she was until she had to pee. In the best of circumstances, the bus rattled a person’s bladder. She wouldn’t want to have to come into the diner to meet Jon Pope and head straight to the bathroom. He would think that was strange.
She drank another glass of water. It was 2:50. She drank a fourth glass of water and walked over to the futon. She lay down across it, still wearing her shoes.
It was three o’clock. Jon Pope would be arriving. He would glance around the dining room in case she had arrived early. He would take a seat on one of the red and chrome stools at the counter. He seemed like the sort of man who would not be seated without her. He would say, I’m waiting for someone. The waitress, peroxided, middle-aged, would be jealous of whomever he was waiting for.
It was 3:05. He would be looking around behind him every time the door opened. But it would be rare for the door to open. It was three o’clock in the afternoon in Bakersfield. He would probably be the only one there.
She realized she could call him and tell him that she was late. She could influence the scene. She could reach into it, as though it were a diorama, and change the future. But her phone was by the sink and she felt melded to the futon now. Even if she wanted to get up now, she couldn’t.
Her laptop was lying on the ground within arm’s reach. She could email him. She pictured herself reaching across the floor for her laptop. She saw it with such clarity. There were self-help gurus who said that if you could visualize something happening, you could make it happen. Erica found that this was not the case with her and her laptop. The more that she pictured her hand reaching across the carpet for it, the more impossible it seemed for such an action to occur, the more it seemed that such an action had left the realm of the actual and moved permanently into the domain of her imagination.
At 3:20, she thought Jon Pope had probably realized that she was not coming. I’m embarrassing myself the way I always did in this town. She wondered how much longer he would stay. She saw him seated beneath the big wall clock. His fingers tapped on the laminated menu. He looked back up at the clock and not even a single minute had passed. There was something incredibly touching about the idea of him staying there even after he knew that he was not going to have company. The whole room would change for him. It would transform from the location where he was planning to meet her, back into a large space where most of the booths were empty and grease had been building up for years on the grill. His clothing, his hair, his shoes, all of it would stop being significant in the special way in which things were significant when you were doing them for other people.
The waitress would give him a sympathetic look. Take your time, honey.
Erica was glad this had happened on her day off. She could not afford to miss a day of work and she had never been surer of anything in her life than she was sure that she could not leave the futon. She listened to the sounds around her. She heard the mini-fridge struggling in the heat. She heard the distant traffic on the avenue, rushing and then stopping as the light changed. A screen door down the block opened and then slammed shut.
An hour after Erica was supposed to meet Jon Pope at the diner, she felt safe enough that the event had passed that she reached for her laptop. In her inbox, sent just two minutes before she checked, was an email from him.
Her instinct was not to read it, but it didn’t have a subject line, so she could already see the first few words of the first sentence. She clicked on them and a window opened to a long block of text. She looked away from it, out the window.
One of her neighbors was watering his brown lawn. Everyone told him that it was a waste of water to use the hose or sprinklers at midday, but he insisted on doing it anyway. He was shirtless and his chest was nearly purple with sun exposure.
“Come out here if you wanna talk to me!” he was shouting through the window at his wife. “I don’t wanna talk through the house, dammit!” He kept watering and shaking his head. “I don’t wanna talk through the house!”
Erica looked back to the email. She attempted to tell herself that she was going to skim it and read it later, but once she began, it was difficult not to become engrossed. She had been expecting a series of questions about her whereabouts, or at least an accusation about her absence. Once she saw that that seemed not to be the case, she relaxed.
He wanted her to know that he was very sorry that, clearly, he had misread the situation. He didn’t know what she must think of him. He must seem very pathetic. It must just be that being back in Bakersfield had made him feel things that weren’t really there. He hadn’t been home in a long time. Aware that she might not even be reading, that she might not even want to read this far, he couldn’t stop himself from explaining, he wrote. The reason this had cut so deep was that he had spent so much of his life in his own head, he wrote. The chasm between how he felt and what he said had been so wide for so long. Different and conflicting parts of himself had been in such close and constant dialogue with one another that, like incestuous siblings, they had never been able to really meet anyone else.
He had torn himself out of this state. It had been the struggle of his twenties, the struggle of his life. First there was Alcoholics Anonymous, but he wasn’t really an alcoholic. Then there was psychotherapy. There was sexual experimentation. He had been reckless and gusty. He had acted against his better judgment. He had done everything he could do to break out of the totalitarian regime of his self-consciousness. It was what he thought he had to do as an artist.
But for all of that, even as he yelled and kicked and screamed in the public eye, at cops, at professors, at rules and at art critics, even as he cried out against repression of all kinds, he could never shake the feeling that the power of his imagination, the quality that had made him want to be an artist in the first place, lived and would always live in that corrupting, inbred relationship with himself. How to reconcile that feeling with love was something he had never been able to contemplate how to solve, not really. And then he met her. Then he met Erica.
He just wanted her to know that he only got so crazy about this because he believed that something profound and mutual had occurred between them. Their night together, however brief and misunderstood, had made him believe in something he had before only wanted to believe in. And he was aware of what a self-absorbed asshole he sounded like, aware of being a narcissistic male artist, aware that internet feminists would have told him to shut up a long time ago. But he had to thank her. Even though he was clearly insane, somehow because of her, he didn’t feel anymore like he was too fucked up to fall in love. He wished her well, in her work and in her life, and assured her that she would not hear from him again.
Erica shut off the air-conditioning and the heat took over the room again. It was amazing how quickly all the work of the air-conditioning was erased. It was frightening almost, to think of all that heat, always just outside the door, and what a thin, temporary defense the thermostat was.
She lay on the daybed and watched the minute hand of the old wall clock crawl a small fraction of the way across its face. Suddenly, she laughed. There was something funny to her suddenly about Jon Pope. He seemed absurd to her now, and so did everything she had ever felt bad about not having. She looked around at her sordid little studio, and she loved it. Every dirty, cheap detail was a dirty, cheap detail that belonged to her. Even Blake didn’t seem so bad for a second. She stood up, gathered her wallet, phone, keys, and sunglasses, and opened the front door. She needed to go tell Blake that it was over between them, for good. After she spoke to Blake, she would come home and begin to work. She had a new idea for a piece. She almost skipped out of the door on to the street. What was wrong with her? She felt stronger and happier than she had in years.
Lucy Teitler is a contributing writer at VICE. Her work has also appeared in the New York Observer, New York magazine, and (s)zine. Her play, "Engagements," will be produced at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York in March 2015.