White Russians in salsa jars. Snow crusted on a fire pit, three shitty throwing knives and an iced-over Cottonwood.
“Here’s your problem, Clara.”
Jesse is holding the butt of a knife, aiming at the tree less than four feet from where we stand on the porch. Beside us, a purple dog leash, a flower pot ashtray, frozen hiking boots, and a boxy air-conditioning unit littered with mugs. Our two wooden lawn chairs, ingeniously converted to rocking chairs, are still swaying. They’re the same puke green as the house behind them. My house. A crooked thing with a linoleum kitchen and hookah-burned carpets. The living room is posters, books, a paisley couch and a milk-crate coffee table. As a bonus, there’s a moldy basement with an old PC, a single crutch, a box full of receipts. Last week, I pulled the door open to meowing. A black cat in a sealed-off basement, the latest unresolved practical joke.
Outside, my front yard: clumps of overgrown weeds, a single dying tree that almost has me praying every storm, a broken plastic table, the fake fire pit my former roommate bought at Home Depot. The whole square of paradise is protected by a glowing white picket fence—my landlord’s sense of humor.
Jesse throws the knife at the sick tree’s trunk. It twangs off through the fence into the empty street. The milk of my drink is beginning to separate—leaving a slab of syrupy Kailua at the bottom. I jiggle the jar, clinking the ice cubes from side to side. A satisfying sound. I stare at the whirlpool of brown like I’m in an eighth grade science classroom. If I could raise an eyebrow at Jesse’s statement about “my problem,” I would. Instead, I wait for him to continue. He picks up another knife from the porch.
“Here’s what I think. Now, I’m just gonna give it to you straight out okay? No bullshit, right?”
I roll my eyes at him, even though it is dark and he’s not looking at me. I say, “Lay it on me.”
Jesse and I are aspiring writers. Actually, Jesse calls himself a writer. I’m “aspiring” because I’m not ready to admit that I want to be lonely and broke for the rest of my life. I’m also terrified of failing. A failed writer is worse than an aspiring-writer-now-bartender. Jesse wants to marry his high school sweetheart, build a hut in the mountains of Colorado, climb and write every day, bask in the sunshine with his two dogs and make love to his wife under the stars. But right now, he’s stuck on this porch with me in Arizona, both of us drinking our way through writing classes and screwing each other out of boredom.
Jesse continues, “You just think that all women want to be tough. Like these knives.” He holds one up to me. I cross my arms over my chest, which is difficult with the puffiness of my jacket. “It’s badass. You have them. You wanted them.”
“Yeah, well, when in a red state.”
I pluck the knife from his hand and chuck it at the tree. It bounces off and lands somewhere in the jungle of weeds.
I don’t feel like being ranted at. Ever since I criticized one of his stories for being unrealistically written from a female perspective, Jesse has had a tendency to throw his feminist skepticism at me after a few drinks. I’m tired. I just want the warmth of his body in my bed. No talking. Maybe some mint tea, a cigarette and that Led Zeppelin song—“Tangerine.”
“Okay, but listen. You think that a girl doesn’t want to be perceived as weak, right?”
It’s too late. I’m too drunk. This conversation is already happening.
I say some variation of what I always say, “I just think that a human would have a more complicated response to something that made him or her feel vulnerable.”
In his story, a girl (a fictional version of his high school sweetheart) climbs a mountain in a thunderstorm with a boy (his fictional version of himself). The story isn’t bad; he’s good with descriptions. But someone struggling up a mountain with an inhaler wouldn’t admire his or her lover’s calf muscles without a tiny morsel of envy. So I told him. No bullshit.
“Look Clara, you’re one person. One girl,” Jesse says, putting his rant tone on. “But I know there are girls who want to be vulnerable. Or not vulnerable. That’s not the right word. But, women who want to be feminine. Soft. You know. Pampered. Romanced. Doors opened for them. Flowers. Breakfast in bed. The whole nine yards.”
I gulp my drink down. The bottom is too sweet. Thick sugary stuff that sticks to the roof of my mouth.
“Who says I don’t want that too?”
I set my empty jar on the ground and walk into the weeds to search for the knife. He twirls the third knife between his thumb and index finger. It clangs at his feet. He picks up his empty drink.
“I know you do. That’s the point. You’re so wrapped up in this self-hating head space that you don’t know how to get what you want because….” He pauses, putting on his irrevocably profound voice. “Because you don’t even know what you want. And even if you did, you wouldn’t admit it.”
I squat down in the grass, thrashing through the weeds. I muster up some sarcasm. “Well, you just got me all figured out then, huh?”
Jesse is suddenly next to me, above me, too close. He has this look on his face that makes me want to gut him. Like he’s realized he does have me all figured out. Like he’s trying to touch souls or something.
He sighs. “I’m going to make another. You want one?”
No. I want you to get the fuck out of my house. I want my tiny throwing knife so I can gouge your eyes out.
He leaves me knee-high in weeds. The kitchen light flicks on. The pitch night leers at me from beyond the picket fence. I realize that I am shivering. Body jittering, jaw clamped, stomach twisted and hollow like I’m twelve hours into an acid trip. Barefoot on the frozen ground. My jeans soaked up to the knees, suctioned around my calves. I push the damp sleeves of my jacket back around my elbows. Shake my head, and peel the whole thing off, tossing it aside. I get down on all fours, face in the wet green. Hands groping for metal. I find the knife. Stand up triumphant. I look around. I need something to slice into.
In the corner behind my one tree is a half-rotted, uncarved pumpkin I stole from the front of Safeway on Halloween. I rush over to it and jab it. The knife pierces the hard shell and slides nicely into the fleshy center. I pull it out. This time with two hands, I give it a Shakespearean stab. Orange fluid seeps from the wound. I stab again.
Jesse is back with the drinks. He leaves them on the porch and scampers towards me with the other knife in hand. He pounces on the pumpkin and slices sideways on it, a flesh wound—tiny chunks of shell fly into the air. He twists the knife and plunges it back down, into the center cracking it into three different fault lines. I holler and attack, splitting off a third. He waves his knife in the air. We both giggle like maniacs and carve up our prey until there is orange pulp everywhere. A pumpkin massacre. Our hands splattered with guts and seeds.
We retrieve our drinks and rock back into our chairs.
“It’s cold as fuck,” I say.
“Yep,” Jesse says.
We sit there and finish every last drop without a word. The stars crawling out across the sky, the two of us shivering, slurping, and not looking at each other.
Back in the house we don’t bother turning on the lights. We just leave our clothes in a pile and climb over each other. Bodies still icy and sticky, reeking of booze and pumpkin. Within minutes, Jesse is asleep, too drunk, arms around me, snoring in my ear. I curl against his body, close my eyes, and let the alcohol spin across my eyelids.
Outside, the third throwing knife is still in the street, the yard is smeared with pumpkin, and the night creeps by in silence.