THEY WERE DRINKING milkshakes and talking about Gorbachev's birthmark. Charles's milkshake was too cold and when he drank it, his forehead stung like it had when his sister threw an ice ball at him. She'd caught him spying on her and Roy Stenson making out behind the remains of the snow fort Charles had built earlier that winter and Charles was so ashamed that, several years later, when the reverend told Roy Stenson to kiss the bride, he couldn't help but avert his eyes.
"Purple's the right color for a birthmark," Charles said, setting the milkshake down on the bench beside him and rubbing his temples. "If I had one, I'd want it to be purple."
"Certainly not light brown," the girl said. Her name was Ellen and there was a sideways tooth in front of one of her molars that she massaged with her tongue. On the night that she'd met Charles, he'd been sick with a cold and was sneezing, blushing bright red after each violent lurch. He'd started to apologize, but she cut him off. Check this out, she'd said, pulling her lip back at the corner to display the tooth.
Working on the spot between his eyes with his thumb and index finger, Charles eyed the passersby on the sidewalk, paying special attention to the couples. He'd been coming to this bench for months now to people-watch, though usually alone.
A girl and a guy rushed past with matching hickeys. They were laughing and poking one another. It looked like a game of tag. Charles thought about leaning over and kissing Ellen, but she seemed focused on the chocolate shake stuck at the bottom of her cup. "Ellen," he said. "I think we should hold hands more."
"Fine by me," she said.
"Okay, good," he said. "I should tell you though, my hands can get sweaty in the summer." He held his palms in front of his face, tiny beads of perspiration sparkling in the sunlight. He wiped his hands on his shorts and looked up to see if Ellen was watching.
"You know," he said, "My dad used to say birthmarks were God's failed attempts at abstract art."
Charles talked about God constantly. He was the kind who would say something like, "God's an atheist," in an attempt at being funny, and then think about it some more and decide it was profoundly true. He wrote poems about God as well, including one that ended with the line, "The world will end when God gets bored and loses his hard-on."
"God-shmod," Ellen said.
"I've got a poem called, "God-shmod," Charles said.
"Oh, shut up."
Charles felt his pulse quicken. "What?"
"I told you already, if you're not gonna let me read your work, I don't want to hear about it. You're a big tease."
Charles had never shared his poetry with anyone except for a dyslexic boy whom he had tutored in Latin American literature and, even then, he'd told the boy that they were the poems of his friend, Carlos Martinez. "I'm still waiting for the right time," Charles said. Actually, Charles had decided yesterday, when a woman handed him a flyer advertising an open mic that the right time had finally arrived. As Charles saw it, he had little choice--Ellen was growing weary of him and his timidity; the same had happened with the few other girls he'd known and he would not let it happen again. He had to be bold. He'd mentioned the open mic to Ellen and she'd said she wanted to go. He hadn't revealed that he would be reading. Charles told himself that he'd kept this secret from Ellen because the surprise would make it more romantic. He knew, however, that the true reason for his withholding was that he could now back out at the last minute and she'd have no knowledge of his cowardice.
"Sweet Jesus," Ellen said, clasping her hands together and closing her eyes, "please give Charles the strength to share his creative genius with me." She stared at Charles. She looked impatient, as if she were expecting the prayer to be granted immediately.
"Hey," she said, "I've got an idea." She reached into her purse and took out a pen and a pad of paper. "Let's write a poem together, right now."
"I'd rather not." Charles continued to rub his forehead though the sting had already dulled to a mild coolness that was not at all unpleasant. This was somewhat disappointing, since the pain had lent itself nicely to the self-pity in which he was trying to indulge.
"I'll start," Ellen said. She tapped the pen against her bottom lip a few times and then began drawing stars and cubes in the margin. "Ooh, I got it." She jotted down a couple lines and gave him the pad. "Your turn."
It read, They stood all around me, breathing in my ears,/caressing my elbows. I asked them to forgive me.
"No thanks," Charles said, handing the pad back to her.
"I've got nothing to add to that."
She shrugged and started to write some more. Charles watched her lips move as she mouthed the words that formed in her mind. Her lips glistened with balm.
After she had filled half the page, Ellen placed the pad back in her purse, clicking her tongue with satisfaction. "I'm like a white Maya Angelou," she said.
When they finished their milkshakes, Ellen said that she was still hungry. They stood up and began walking to find a restaurant. Charles reached out and took her hand in his. There was a dog up ahead, tied to a parking meter. His tail started to wag as they came closer and Ellen broke free from Charles to pat the panting dog on top of his head.
"You look thirsty," she said, letting the dog lick her hand. "I'm gonna get you some water."
"It's not your dog," Charles said.
"I don't have a dog, Charles."
"Yes, I know."
"So I'd like to get this one some water."
They went into the restaurant across the street and sat down in a booth. Ellen called the dog's owner nasty names. She told the waiter that they would be needing a bowl of water for her dog and he nodded, too busy to care. He returned with a small, ceramic bowl, and Ellen headed outside, water splashing at her feet, asking Charles to order for her. He ordered garlic bread and two chicken Parmesan sandwiches.
He waited, drumming his fingers against the table. After a while, he decided that his nails sounded like hard rain on a window, his fingertips more like a heartbeat. He went to the bathroom to wash his hands. When he came back, the booth was still empty. He sat and looked around at all the other tables; he was the only person sitting alone. Nearby, an elderly couple shared a wedge of chocolate chip cheesecake, taking small, polite bites, encouraging each other to eat more. He stared out the window. It had gotten dark. The sun must have set while he was in the bathroom.
He thought about Ellen and wondered whether she could love him. She seemed to enjoy his strangeness, amused when he defended his mouse-like nose with the theory that people who looked like rodents were nicer than people who looked like birds. And after he'd given her the script of the Mexican soap opera, the one he'd downloaded off the Internet and translated into English, she'd read it twice and had it laminated.
And still, he could no longer be optimistic. When he'd first met her, he'd been aware of her flirtatious, extraverted nature, but he'd hoped it was merely a product of her loneliness, a way of combating her fear of awkward silences. The more that he got to know her however, it became apparent that she was a genuinely outgoing person, curious and brave, and he began to feel unnecessary, like suspenders on a pair of pants that already fit just fine.
He was contemplating going outside when she came through the door, the empty bowl in her hand.
"What took so long?" he asked.
"Virgil's owner showed up."
"That's the dog's name."
"Oh, come on."
"What? I think it's a cool name for a dog."
The waitress came with the garlic bread.
"Charles, don't be mad, but Virgil's owner is coming to the open mic tonight."
He broke off a piece of the bread and glared at it. "I thought you said he was a negligent fuck."
"Well, I was wrong," she said. "He's actually very nice. He's a poet too."
She pulled a strand of hair back behind her ears. There was a phone number written in blue ink on the back of her hand with the name "Vincent" scrawled below it, the letters crawling up to her thumb in perfect script.
"You're too trusting of strangers," Charles said, wondering what would happen if he grabbed her hand, dipped a napkin in his glass of water, and rubbed it against her skin until only a blue smudge was left.
"Relax, Charles," she said. "I just like talking to people."
* * *
T HE OPEN MIC took place at a bar called Sanctuary. It had been a church until the Depression, abandoned for fifty years, and then transformed into a hotspot for graduate students and artsy types. According to an article Charles had read in the paper, the management had refrained from making use of any Christian motifs so as not to make patrons feel guilty, though Charles saw plenty of evidence to the contrary. At the bar, for instance, there was a row of stools, each balanced on top of a metal pole with a longer pole connecting them, and Charles saw a series of crosses united by a single horizontal arm. The podium where poets read was a pulpit, and the benches at each of the tables were pews. Charles wanted to suggest that they invent a drink called a Jesus Fish and that the waitstaff dress in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms or as priests, but he'd only told Ellen.
"Where's your new friend?" Charles asked, watching as a woman onstage pounded out an African drumbeat on a tom-tom while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
"I don't know. I don't see him."
Charles let out a breath of relief and dug into his pocket for the poem he'd brought to read.
"What's that?" she asked, watching him unfold a sheet of paper and hold it against his chest.
"It's my poem."
She wrinkled her nose in exaggerated confusion.
"I'm gonna read it," he said, looking down and noticing that his hands were trembling, "here, tonight."
"I'm not joking." He hid his hands behind his back.
"You? Mr. Nervous?"
He wanted to tell her not to call him that, but instead he said, "Just watch."
They sat up close, stage left of the podium, and ordered drinks. Charles had wrinkled the poem with his fidgeting. He tried to flatten it out, pressing it down with his palm on the wooden table. He looked up at the ceiling high overhead, half expecting to see stained glass, and instead spotted a giant disco ball. Ellen got up and said she was going to the bathroom. Charles watched as a man read from a piece entitled, "Immaculate Ejaculate."
When Ellen sat back down, she had a big grin on her face. "Get ready," she said. "I just put your name on the list. You're up after this guy."
"What? I'm not even buzzed yet."
He looked down at his poem and read it over in his head. It was crap. He was a loser. He could feel his genitals constricting with fear. There was a tap on his shoulder and he turned to see Ellen pointing toward a man on the stage in a green leisure suit. He was beckoning Charles to the podium with long simian arms.
"Next, we've got Charles. This is his first time reading folks, so let's all give him a big hand."
A few people clapped.
"Go get 'em tiger," Ellen said, tousling his hair. "You're the tops."
She sounded like his grandfather. Was she mocking him?
His legs lifted him, and he stumbled up the steps, the poem sticking to his palm. The man in the leisure suit reached out to shake his hand but Charles pretended not to see--he did not want to be mocked for his perspiration. When he reached the podium, he tapped the microphone and breathed into it. It was the loudest breath of his life. He backed away a few inches. At the table, front and center, sat the woman who'd given him the flyer. She was smiling a wide gummy smile. This was her fault. He hated her. He gripped the sides of the podium for support. It's not a long poem, he told himself. It'll be over soon. That is the most important thing. He looked down at the words assembled in little bunches on the sheet in front of him, random letters strung together. They were not even words. They were a series of designs. He began to read.
The poem was about a father-and-son golf outing gone-bad. He'd chosen this poem for its brevity, and also because he believed it to be the manliest of all his poems. There was no mention of loneliness or self-pity, just violence and discomfort. He read the lines about the father thinning a three iron into a gaggle of geese, the geese rising up into the sky like white smoke, and the wounded bird left behind to die. At the stanza break, he glanced up at Ellen. She was working her tongue against her sideways tooth, her cheek bulging slightly. He looked back down at the sheet of paper. His knees were shaking and he was grateful for the podium to block them from view. He read on, about the father reaching down and dislodging the golf ball from the still-breathing goose's stomach, but stopped when he heard the sound of a bench shuddering against the floor. A man was seating himself beside Ellen, cupping a hand to his mouth, whispering in her ear. The man set a book on the table in front of him, motioning toward it as he spoke to her. The dog owner's been published, Charles thought, and suddenly, he had visions of himself weeping in front of all these people. He took the poem in his hands and considered ripping it to shreds, but instead, placed it in his pocket and, with everyone watching far more intently than before, he spoke.
"I once met a man on a train who said that Jesus was telling him to spit the gum out of his mouth. For a long time, I wasn't quite sure what he meant by that, but I think I know now: 'Speak with the breath that God gave you.'"
He paused, gathering his thoughts.
"And so, it's time for me to be honest, to speak my mind with no minty disguise, to admit to you and myself, that love is the beginning and end of all things, that while mutual love gives birth to the greatest happiness, love in its unrequited form kills with an efficiency unmatched by bullets and bombs."
He heard someone shout out, "Bombs away," in the audience, followed by, "Kaboom." He ignored them and went on. "In fact, at this very moment, I've got love eating away my insides, hollowing my middle, and it will not stop until I'm no more than a jumble of clean bones."
He knew he needed a clincher, something fierce and true, to make Ellen see that a failure to return his love would be the equivalent of sacrilege. He tried to imagine what the room might have looked like as a church, but only a blank whiteness came to him, so he continued, "And it seems fitting that we are here, in this Sanctuary, a sanctuary with no God, only booze and bad poetry, fitting because it's in this place that I've decided I don't want to be an atheist anymore."
Crossing himself, he walked off the stage and out of the bar.
Charles stood outside, staring at the neon sign of the bowling alley across the street as it flashed, "Strikes and Gutters."
"Hey," Ellen said, coming up beside him and kissing him on the forehead. Charles had the sense that she was checking his temperature.
The dog owner was standing next to her. "Very unusual stuff," he said, gesturing with the book in his hand. "Passionate." He extended his hand. "I'm Vincent, by the way."
"Yeah, I know," Charles said, shaking the outstretched hand and squeezing it hard, looking at Ellen.
"You really are funny, Charles," she said.
"Well not laugh-out-loud funny, but still..."
Vincent smiled. "I think she means it was a little over the top."
"I was pouring my heart out."
"Of course," Vincent said. "That was quite clear."
"Good," Charles said.
"Only next time, maybe you could pour out a little bit less." Vincent laughed at his own joke. "Otherwise, you risk flooding the place."
Charles made a fist with the hand in his pocket. "I'm afraid I have to go."
He started to run. At a mailbox around the corner, he folded his poem over and over until it could be folded no more and then he placed it inside. He closed the chute and opened it again, peering inside to make sure the poem was gone. If only he'd put a stamp on it, perhaps it could have traveled the world, meeting ridicule wherever it went.
Sitting down on the curb, he watched as an ambulance passed slowly by. There was no siren, and the driver was blasting the radio, keeping the beat with a hand that hung out the window.
"Charles," Ellen called out. Soon he felt her hands under his armpits as she tried to pull him to his feet. "Vincent's gone," she said. "He went home."
"So what?" he asked.
"So, I thought you'd be happy. Isn't that what you wanted?"
He stood up and turned to face her. "Were you even listening?" he asked. "Did you hear what I was saying?"
"Don't be silly, Charles. I heard every word."
Drawing close, she started to rub the stubble on his chin, the other hand playing with one of his belt loops.
In spite of himself, he was becoming aroused.
"How about you come home with me," she whispered, "my sweet little Born Again."
And of course, he heard himself say, "Okay."
* * *
WHEN THEY REACHED her apartment, Ellen got a bottle of vodka from the freezer and two glasses. She poured a big shot into each and added some Sprite. Charles pretended not to watch her as she stirred the drinks with a spoon and took a sip. She sat down beside him on the couch and handed him one. Their legs were touching.
"I forgot to put on some music," she said, standing back up.
She browsed through her collection and he took a big gulp from his drink. He felt his forehead go hot. He longed for milkshakes. A song he'd never heard before started to play--a woman singing in French, repeating the words, l'ombre de mon coeur, again and again. Charles would have preferred Spanish, but anything was better than English, the language of his failure.
"It's strange," she said, "you hear a song once and that's enough. Fifty years later it'll still sound familiar."
Charles thought to himself that the same was true of smells and tastes, but he willed himself to say nothing. The silent treatment was the only weapon he had left.
They sat drinking for a while, Ellen getting up to refill their glasses from time to time and Charles balancing his chin on his fist, trying to appear pensive and distracted.
"You feel it yet?" she asked. "I've got a real good buzz going."
He half-nodded, focusing on the photo of Ellen's parents on the wall.
"You wanna know the most romantic thing I've ever seen?" she asked.
Ellen had her mother's olive skin and her dad's big eyes. She always looked like she was staring.
"It was the only time I'd ever seen my parents drunk. We were having dinner at one of those fusion restaurants, French and Japanese, I think, and my dad hadn't said a word all night. I'd heard them fighting before we left and I figured he was still mad. He just sat there looking at my mom and drinking the wine that she kept ordering. They went through at least a couple bottles. Then after dessert, he got down on his knees and asked her if she'd join him under the table. She started laughing really hard. I thought she was laughing out of embarrassment, but then she got under there with him, still laughing. They didn't fit all the way, and I remember looking down and watching their feet rub together outside the tablecloth. I couldn't believe those feet were attached to my parents--it was like there were strangers under there."
Ellen was wiggling her toes. Her big toe was shorter than the one next to it.
"Can I have your foot?" she asked, holding out her hand.
When Charles did not respond, she bent down and lifted his foot with both hands. She stared at it for a while, circling his ankle with her finger.
"Come on," she said, standing up and holding out her hand. She dragged him off the couch, and they walked to her kitchen table. She crawled under first, and, after some coaxing, he followed. It wasn't a large table and their legs jutted out, unsheltered nearly up to their waists met its edge. Charles let his eyes glaze out of focus until Ellen's features began to blur and double. He couldn't help but shiver with pleasure at the idea of being loved by two Ellens.
"It's less dramatic without a tablecloth," she said, crawling back out. "Here, I got an idea."
She went to her bed and removed the comforter, bunching it up against her body until none of it was touching the ground. She brought it to the table and he watched her fling it in the air, holding two of the corners, then letting it fall so that it lay draped over the table perfectly, forming a tent. For a few seconds, loneliness reverberated in his stomach. He let out a low moan, but then saw the comforter rustling beside him, and soon a hand peeked under, and then a face. Looking at her looking at him, Charles thought to himself that he might be writing poems about this moment for a long time.
"Hey," Ellen said, ballooning her stomach and raising her shirt. "I'm pregnant."
Charles jabbed her softly in the belly.
"The baby," she said. "You're killing the baby."
He laid his hand over her stomach. "I don't feel anything," he said.
"He's not a kicker," she said. "He's a quiet baby."
Charles bent down and placed his ear against her bellybutton. He imagined there really was a baby inside and smiled at the gurgling of Ellen's stomach.
"I think I'd be a good father," he said.
Her stomach began to deflate. She laughed and his head bounced with the vibrations.
"What's so funny?" he asked.
"Come on, Charles," she said. "You, a father? The baby would end up having to look after you. "
She brought her face close to his, letting her forehead rest against his lips, her bangs tickling his nose. She touched him over his shorts.
"Is that what you really think?" he asked.
"It's okay, Charles," she said, reaching behind her back and unhooking her bra, unzipping his shorts with the other hand. "You're still young."
"We're the same age," he said.
She lifted his T-shirt and kissed his chest. "Here, bend down a little bit," she said, pushing down against the back of his neck, "and raise your arms."
He watched as she brought his shirt up over his head, her hands brushing the underside of the table. His spine was pressed against one of the table legs, the cold metal giving him goose bumps.
"And then there's your genetics," she said, removing her tank top and letting her bra fall into his lap. "That's something too."
She brought her knees to her chest, sliding off her shorts and underwear.
She straddled him, her weight forcing him onto his back. She lifted herself up, balancing with her palms on his chest, hovering just beyond the tip of his erection.
"Well yeah," she said, tracing his ribs with her fingernails. "I mean, what if the baby looked like you?"
He swung himself up to a sitting position, jostling her body on top of him. "What'd be wrong with that?" he asked.
He held onto her waist, digging in his fingers, and started to roll her over, the comforter catching under her body and tumbling down on top of them. With the tent destroyed, he noticed that her breaths started to grow quieter. She was staring up past him, at a piece of gum stuck to the table. Embarrassed, he shifted his gaze to a dirty sock by her head. His legs were slimy with sweat, his arms were shaking, and it was over. Slumping down, his nose pressed against her shoulder, he thought about how much he wanted sleep, a sleep so wonderfully heavy that she'd think he was dead.
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