To-Go Bag

He shuts her door, goes around the car and opens his, falls into the driver’s seat, then pulls the door shut. His keys find the ignition.

Before he can turn the crank, she asks where the to-go bag is.

It hits him like a vision, right-now and crystal-clear: the white plastic baggie, a styrofoam tub sealed inside, resting on the edge of the table. Noodles and fresh sauce inside.

“I thought you were going to bring it,” he says.

They’re parked in an empty lot at the base of a small hill. Above them some cars flush past, heading towards town. An orange haze fills the air. Rain has just fallen and leaves the weedy grass on the hill glistening like something beaded. A dress. A woman’s sequined dress in low lighting.

“You’re usually the one to. Why would it be suddenly up to me?”

He feels detached from her panic. “Do I go back and get it?”

Her hands lift her phone. Its screen glows, showing the time, then fades when she locks the phone with a quick squeeze.

The air inside the car sounds to him the way being underwater sounds, or when you cup your hands over both ears and hum.

“Are you gonna go or not?”

He says, “Do you want me to?”

She sighs. “Make a decision. Please. I don’t care. Honestly, this is the last thing I need right now.”

“Well,” he says. “What do you want?”

She looks at the dash. Her hands on the phone in her lap slide and squeeze. “I want this day to be over. I want to go home.”

“What about lunch tomorrow.”

“What about it?” she says.

“If you need lunch tomorrow, I’ll go. Do you?”

You asked for the damned to-go bag.”

“Because you said you loved the tomatoes and the fresh basil.”

She looks at him. “Jesus. I said I liked the way they roasted them.

He opens his mouth, hoping his throat will pop. He can’t remember a thing.

“It was twenty minutes ago,” she says. “Do you really not remember?”

“Do we need to do this right now?”

“Fight, you mean? I wouldn’t think so. But apparently you do. So.”

He opens the car door, thinking it’ll relieve some of the pressure in his head. He lifts his tongue against the back of his throat but inside his ears the pressure remains, like his ear canals have gotten knotted.

“You’re going. Seriously?”

He puts his left foot down on asphalt, then stands. The inside of his head loosens. “It’ll take one minute. Then we’ll both be happy.”

She says it’s probably too late. Probably the server has cleaned the table already, thrown the to-go bag in the trash.

“Maybe not,” he says, then shuts the car door.

A row of brick buildings blocks his view of the river. At one time the buildings had been warehouses. One now holds an art gallery, another a bank.

He takes a dozen steps toward the building on the end, beyond which is the little restaurant where they’d eaten dinner, when the horn goes. Then again. He turns and sees movement through the back window: she’s waving him back. Shouting. Again the horn goes.

“You’re crazy,” he says, just as she punches the horn a fourth time, its whine slapping his words quiet. The air softens a little. It’s enough he can hear her saying, “Will you please?” and see clearly her waving him back.

All of a sudden an ache splits him lengthwise. He holds up his hands in a what do you want me to do? gesture and says, not knowing whether she can hear him or not, “I’ll be right back.”

Inside, purplish candlelit clouds surround the empty tables against the windowed back wall. The hostess greets him with an end-of-shift smile. Her blonde hair's tied in a ponytail. The top two buttons of her dark work shirt are unbuttoned. Her pants cling to her thighs. He tells her about the to-go bag. Says he might have left it on the table, could she check for him? Or he could go back and check himself. Whatever’s easier.

He sits on a stool at the bar and watches her walk away to find their server. Her hips go from side to side like the chairs she passes are jumping into her path.

When the bartender lays down a napkin he starts to tell him he’s only waiting a minute or two. Then he thinks, Why not? and pictures through the back window of the car, waving, asking questions he can’t hear.

Maybe just a short one, he says.

Maybe a short one goes down easily. Maybe he pays with the ten in his wallet he’d been keeping back for coffee or pens or an emergency gas fill-up.

His phone shudders inside his pocket. He ignores it. The beer comes. The bartender asks if he wants to open a tab and he lays a ten-dollar bill on the counter. He watches the bartender make change. He watches on the middle of the three above-bar flatscreens a slow-motion replay of a female tennis player fist-pumping after slamming a forehand winner down the line. Her eyes purse as her lips widen into a yelling O. Every fiber of muscle from her chin down through her shoulder, elbow, and forearm tighten against the deep brown of her skin.

What must it have sounded like to her, yelling at him like that while alone inside the car? How would her voice have sounded, jumping off the upholstery and vinyl and glass? Powerful? Frightening? Dampened?

The tennis player launches another forehand winner down the line. The bartender leaves him his change. The beer he ordered leaves a rich, bitter taste on the back of his tongue as it occurs to him he’s about to cross a line. Maybe he’s already crossed it. He left the keys in the ignition, left her with the car, the keys, and a hard heart. She might leave him. She just called on the phone — that surely was her who’d called — and another sip of the beer does nothing to dissolve the bitterness. She might have been angry. She might have asked what was taking so long. She might have asked him why they were at each other’s throats over a to-go bag. She might have apologized.

He tries her back. She doesn’t answer.

“I talked to the server,” the hostess says, coming to stand at his side. She hoists the plastic bag onto the bar top. “She set it aside. She thought you might come back.”

He says, “It’s not the first time, believe it or not.”

She laughs, tips her head a little to the side, and says, “Yeah.”

“That’s why we don’t eat out often anymore.”

It’s just him and the hostess. The bartender lifted the section of counter that hinges down over the edge of the bar and disappeared back into the kitchen.

He used to feel this way — guts tingling, hands loose and stupid and about to fall off the ends of his arms. Surprised. Excited. Talking like this. To a woman.

He looks the hostess in the eye as she tells him she ran out after someone earlier for forgetting a to-go bag and wonders what it is about her — some eagerness catching fire, maybe. Or she’s anxious to be speaking to a stranger when she would rather be wiping down menus and thinking about what she’ll have to drink later.

“People do it all the time,” he says.

It’s easy to hold her gaze. Even for such a long moment. The women playing tennis slide across either end of the court on the screen above. Her eyes could be brown or hazel in the low light, he can’t tell.

“I think my girlfriend left,” he says. “Speaking of things that happen all the time.”

The hostess blinks.

“I just got ditched. She ditched me.”


“Things weren’t going well. I left my keys in the car. I bet she drove off.”

“She stole your car?”

“I should’ve seen it coming.”

“But you don’t know for sure? She could still be outside?”

He takes another sip of his beer then shakes his head. Would his phone ring again. Would he answer. Was it worth the trouble. Was he hitting on this girl, and if so, what the fuck and why the hell. These were questions he was startled to have suddenly popping into his head. He’d gotten up this morning and washed her to-go coffee mug, made her lunch. He’d gone to the office and hadn’t once thought of the evening ahead or about tomorrow.

Maybe she’s still sitting outside. Maybe she’s still waiting. Get up, go look. If she’s there, get back in the car and apologize and take her home.

“Are you okay?” the hostess asks. “Anything I can do…?”

He takes the handles of the plastic bag and ties a bow.

“Things always blow over,” he says. “Don’t they? Or am I losing it?”

When she says nothing he starts to think he’s maybe gone a bit too far. “I’ll need a ride home,” he says. “At the very least.”

“Did you take him home?” Lana asks.

The hostess shakes her head.

“Because the guy was a creep.”

“It’s not like you think.”

“Like he wasn’t trying to get in your pants?”

It is too loud. Her ice has melted, muting the sour-sweet and amping the whisky’s burn. She smirks, then turns to the crowd. Bites her lips. Tilts her head a bit to the side. The shirt she’s wearing is new and hangs loose around her waist. Her jeans don’t feel right, either. Loose, too. Tomorrow she has to work a double, and she has a paper to write. A proposal: something’s the problem; what’s the solution?

Lana does what Lana usually does: she starts thinking out loud. Didn’t it feel a little weird, him telling you all that? Wasn’t it a little weird to think some woman would go and drive off, stranding her boyfriend? Sounds like a fucking ploy, is what it sounds like.

If so, it hadn’t worked. Here she was, out, free, safe.

“Did you see him come in with someone?” Lana asks.

She shakes her head. Sets down her bar glass. Takes out her phone, pressing the circle button at the bottom of the screen so that it might look to Lana like a call has come through.

Turns out she didn’t need the ruse. She has a text.

What are you doing?

“You just don’t know about people,” Lana says. “You can’t know.”

She types, Drinking. With Lana.

Where? he texts back a second later.

“Let’s go back to the table,” Lana says. “I’ve been on my feet all day.”

A guy at the bar catches her eye. He doesn’t smile or nod or acknowledge her gaze. He looks at her. It’s calculating. Hungry. Then it’s over. A buddy taps his shoulder, a couple other girls pop up and he’s back inside his own familiar world.

Thinking about heading home, she texts.

Can I come?

An hour later she opens the door for him.

They sit on the couch and watch television. He cracks a beer. She asks for one and he hands one over reluctantly.

“I thought you were done drinking,” he says. “I would have brought more.”

“I have freezer vodka. If we need something else.”


What had he been doing?

Sitting at Cliff’s — “On the edge,” he says, chuckling — until it got to be late and everyone was headed out and he didn’t want to go and thought, I wonder what’s up with Amy…

If he were to ask her what she had been doing, she would tell him that when she’d left the restaurant out the back way and found her car, she’d felt for a second a deep shiver of fear. An echo kicked its way down from one of the parking garage’s upper decks. The river lifted itself against its banks and wheezed its muddy scent.

Then she shut the door, sealing herself inside her car. She started the engine, backed out of her spot. The feeling had left her loose-limbed and excited by the time she’d driven out of the lot.

She’d gone back for a refill of the spray she used to wipe menus and when she’d come back to the bar area the man had gone.

He’d left behind the to-go bag.

She’d taken it. Set it on the seat beside her. Why do such a sickening thing. She hadn’t been seen carrying the bag out of the restaurant. No one had been outside when she’d pulled into the parking lot at her apartment complex, locked up her car and carried the bag up the inside staircase to her third floor room. It was damp outside and humid inside the hallway.

If he asked was she really that hungry, she would admit she was not, not then or now.

A while later, when he asks her to take off her bra, she does so without question, and without first removing her shirt.

When he removes her shirt for her and grips her breasts with both hands she wonders for a second whether the tightening she feels is need or some reluctance of her own.

When he kisses her breasts she asks him how they wound up here.

He stops kissing her breasts and says, “What?”

“This. Here. What are we doing?”

“Watch a second,” he says. “Relax. You’ll figure it out.

“Or I can tell you.” He looks at her. Like suddenly this suggestion he’s made must happen. “Tell you what to do. What I want.”

The room softens. She doesn’t think, she simply says, “Stand up.”

He stands.

“Take off your shirt.”

He grabs the hem and shimmies out of it, elbows snapping to points to leave the sleeves. His head comes out last, his hair mussed. He’s smiling, and something about his smile flattens this feeling.

“I like the twist,” he says.

She can sit inside a classroom full of people and shudder with the need to speak.

It has been months since she last spoke to her father or any of her old friends from high school.

She can sometimes feel diners who come into the restaurant — men, boys, fathers —watching her, imagining what she might be capable of.

Tonight, she felt the man at the bar look at her like those other men had. Then he had quit. Surrendered. Fallen apart.

“Get down on your knees,” she tells him.

Inside the to-go container she’d found the noodles pooled beneath a partially congealed gleaming mess of diced tomatoes and chopped basil and whitish lumps of garlic. She’d closed it and thrown it away.

She watches him kneeling before her, watches his hands close into fists. His nipples have hardened in anticipation.

“What do you want?” he says. “Tell me.”

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