Nobody’s Stranger

A Miami Noir love story. Part 2

Some months later, I married her. It happened as suddenly as our first dinner. I didn’t really think about it beforehand. We were out on a Monday night. She’d finished her business early, so we went to a restaurant in a mirrored strip mall down on U.S. 1. On the walls hung fake road signs and other boilerplate knick-knacks. The menu listed an array of fried foods. Seven weak American beers were on tap.

Before we ordered, I asked her, “How would you feel about getting married?”

She just said, “Okay.”

“Okay, now? Or okay in the future?”

“We could do it now,” she said, “but I think the courthouse is closed.”

The next morning, we stood before a Justice of the Peace and Mandy’s lips smiled at me when she said, “I do.” I was afraid to meet her eyes because I knew I would see nothing there. When we were pronounced man and wife, I looked anyway and found I was right. She kissed me lightly, no tongue, at the appointed time.

Back at her place she took down the hammock while I explored the other rooms. They were, to my surprise, worn and somewhat dowdy: a rickety brass sleigh bed, a bathroom with cracked tiles, white kitchen cabinets in need of paint. We put my couch beneath the spider. The armchair went in front of the window so familiar to me from the outside. I sat in the chair and she sat on the couch and the living room was so quiet I bet you could’ve heard crickets chirping, except we don’t have crickets in South Florida. Well, anyway, if there’d been a mosquito in the room, you would’ve noticed it whining.

When I offered to take her out for a nice dinner, Mandy didn’t want it. Nor was she up for a bar, or for dancing. We ordered pizza from Domino’s. They didn’t deliver the pie in thirty minutes or less, but I didn’t want to seem like a cheapskate on the first night of our life together, so I just handed the guy the money and watched him walk off counting it.

In bed that night, I tried hugging her. Mandy lay still, permitting the embrace but not returning it. “I told you how it is,” she said.

I couldn‘t argue with that, although obviously I’d hoped marriage would change things. We lay in that position, facing each other, my arms around her, while I worked up the nerve to respond. The clock ticked as each second passed. It was too dark for me to see her face. “Why do you only sleep with a man once, do you think?” I said, finally.

She sighed and turned her back. “Listen, it is what it is. It’s not some psychiatric bullshit I’m going to get therapy for.”

“Okay,” I said. “I get it. Sorry.”

“Okay.” Her voice was uncharacteristically soft. “That’s good.” She fell asleep quickly.

Except for our wedding night, Mandy still went out every evening. She’d stop in after work, eat some cheese and crackers and maybe an apple, and then put on a mini-dress, check herself in the hall mirror, and head off. She didn’t say where she was going, and I didn’t ask.

While she was away, my mind filled with questions, with things I wanted to know about her, things I wanted to tell her, but when she was in the same room with me I couldn’t imagine saying what I’d planned. Some nights I tried to write. Other nights I squandered on porn. Increasingly I went to bed early and waited, sleepless, in the dark, until she got home and slid under the covers. Even when she was lying beside me, Mandy seemed very far away.

One night as her breathing became even with sleep, I just couldn’t stand it. I hopped up in a rage. I tore down the blinds and kicked over the floor lamp and called her a whore. Carrying my notebooks into the kitchen, I sent reams of paper, piece after piece, down the garbage disposal. They dulled the blade and clogged the sink. When my anger was spent and I finally looked up, Mandy was standing in the doorway, watching. “Do you need anything?” she asked me.

“Not really.” I ran my hands through my hair, paced to and from the stove a few times. “Sorry I fucked up your sink.”

“Never mind,” she said. “I’ll call the plumber in the morning.”

In high school I’d hoped to be the next Hemingway or Graham Greene or Raymond Chandler. “Those guys had money,” I told my buddies. “They had charisma. They traveled the world, and they fucking got laid.” All this was true, and part of the allure, no doubt, but what I didn’t say is that I believe what people suspect about literary men is actually true: they write stories and hunt bears and glory and — forgive me — pussy, to rescue themselves from the passions that threaten to swallow them. They write to kill feelings with words.

At seventeen I published a tritely brutal story about a kid whose father beats him half to death in a bathtub. The redheaded editor of our school literary magazine threw a party for that issue, and afterward she took me out to the little sliver of Key Biscayne near the Rickenbacker that overlooks downtown Miami. I’m embarrassed to admit that I recited Thomas Hardy as we walked up and down the beach. “Your eyes were on me,” I said, “as eyes that rove/Over tedious riddles solved years ago…”

The editor grabbed my hand before I could finish. Her cheeks were flushed with the wind or excitement, or both. “Your story was so awful and beautiful,” she told me. Then she spread out a towel and took off her clothes in the light of what used to be the Centrust building. I still remember the dusting of freckles on her thighs, the orangey thatch between her legs, the slight slope of her breasts, soft, but gritty with sand. As the editor pulled me more deeply into her, I remembered writing my story. I’d picked up the pen to keep myself from picking up a razor. I hoped she didn’t notice my tears spilling onto her shoulder. If she did, she didn’t say.

A few years later, the editor had graduated from Oberlin and I’d dropped out of community college. I was working in bars, drinking excessively, accumulating a fat folder of rejection slips from our nation’s finest literary periodicals. One came back, all marked up, signed by the editor. She was studying at Iowa now.

“All this raw talent,” she wrote, “but still no direction. Do think of joining a workshop!”

It was the exclamation point that killed me. I quit writing for a good long while — until one drunken night a couple years later, when a friend of a cousin of Dave Barry’s agent urged me to try my hand at mystery novels. I did, what the hell. I sent them to the agent, who forwarded them to a packager, who coordinated with an editor, who signed me up. Together we invented Scarlett Minaretta and came up with the template I followed until the recession hit and my audience dropped off. After that I’d written a more vanilla mystery, not so gender-pitched, under the name Lane Daisy. It had sold 1877 copies and neither the packager nor my agent had been in touch since then.

But Mandy reignited my literary ambitions. She made me think I could write something meaningful. After all, I had suffered. I had suffered a whole fucking lot. I was married to a woman who fucked other men every night but wouldn’t fuck me. What greater suffering was there?

Even if I’d never rise to the level of Hemingway, I should at least be able to cobble together something in the vein of Carl Hiassen, something funny and unsavory and set in South Florida, perhaps featuring strippers. But the words wouldn’t come. Instead I catalogued Mandy’s belongings. I inspected her underwear and searched for photos and steamed open her bills, but learned nothing. She didn’t bring anyone home. Neither, for that matter, did I. I didn’t talk to anybody anymore. Not Patience, not the poker gang, and definitely not my parents, who would have found nothing to like in Mandy.

Late last month she came in with a black eye. I sat her down on the sofa and brought her some ice. I touched her hair, her neck, her cheekbone. She didn‘t pull away but stiffened slightly. “You’re still sleeping with strangers?” I asked her.

She looked right at me, through the eye that wasn’t swollen shut. “Yeah?” she said, shrugging.

A hot wave of bile rushed up my throat. I swallowed it back and fingered a strand of her hair. “But you don’t bring them home?”

“Even I have enough class,” she said, “to take them to a hotel.”

Turning away, I gazed out the window and remembered the carnival barker bleeding through his pink dress shirt, his fists clenched, his mouth twisted up funny at the corner, as he stalked to his car. “Why don’t you bring them here from now on?”

“Here?” She gestured around the room and snorted. The ice hadn’t helped her eye. She was working on one mean shiner.

“I mean it,” I said, not at all certain I did. “You’ll get yourself killed running around all over town like this.”

She studied her hands. “You wouldn’t like this idea so much if I was with some guy on your couch.”

Here I was sacrificing my whole goddamned life to a woman hell-bent on fucking other men and she wouldn’t even do it where I asked her to. I slammed my hand on the table and got up and paced. Breathing deeply, I ran through the prepositions: inside into like near of off on over… After a few minutes, calm descended. “Won’t you do this for me at least?” I said at last. My arm ached where it had fractured once and never healed properly.

“Okay,” she said. “Suit yourself.” She held the ice pack against her eye and went to lie down.

The following day I bought the tent. As evening came and the air grew cooler, I started to set it up. Mandy walked outside in her robe. She put her hands on her hips, watched me drive in the stakes. “Camping out?”

“I just like to sleep under the stars sometimes.”

“You can’t see stars through canvas.” She lowered her voice toward the end of the sentence, in a way that suggested she might be sad. But when I looked quickly her eyes were—and I’ll stop saying this now—impassive.

“Figured you might like a little peace and quiet from time to time,” I told her.

“I don’t mind you sleeping with me.”

I laughed, not nicely.

“I mean, I don’t mind when we sleep in the same bed,” she said.

I kept setting up the tent. Finally, in as light as tone as I could muster, I said, “So you like me alright?”

“I wouldn’t have married you if I didn’t,” she said.

I carried out a lantern and a sleeping bag and a cooler, and I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t watch Mandy with the men she brought home. I’d be on hand to protect her if things turned violent, but otherwise I’d just be out here, writing by the light of the lantern, three or four of her cats crowded around me for company. Never mind that I hadn’t written a goddamned thing in months.

All the stories I tried to write started with a girl much like Mandy, but more and more the stories focused on the eyes, as though the eyes themselves could be a story, as though the eyes really were the whole story. And that didn’t make any sense. I tried omitting the eyes entirely, but without them I couldn’t explain the attraction, why a man like me would crave a woman like her. I couldn’t explain it anyway, but intuitively it made more sense if I left them in.

Last night I ordered some honey chicken from Canton. The delivery kid pulled up in a thumping Scion while Mandy was still at the bar, and I went through the house, out the front door, to pay him. Though it was a clear, breezy night, the old twinge in my arm warned of bad weather coming. I sat in a lawn chair and wolfed down the whole carton while pretending to watch the ballgame. No sooner did I finish than a heat rose in my gut. A chill swept over my neck. My hands went clammy. It wasn’t until Mandy and her man showed up, though, that I realized I was gearing up for a nasty case of the runs.

I tried to hold out, but you know how that goes. I dashed through the back door and got to the bathroom just in time. No sooner did I drop my drawers, connect my ass with the pot, than the clown she’d brought home decided to get verbal.

“Oh baby,” he said, “The gun between your knockers drives me wild.”

Knockers? What was this guy, a motherfucking middle-schooler?

Mandy murmured something I couldn’t hear. The couch banged against the wall with a rhythm that was slowly, sickeningly speeding up. I hummed to myself to drown out his grunting.

The tent was visible through the window, so I tried to focus on that — to envision the sanctuary I had there: the lantern hanging just so, the flask of whiskey under my pillow, the last third of Brighton’s Rock still unread. Finishing, I wiped and flushed, slapped some soap on my hands and ran the water over them. When I opened the bathroom door, the couch was slamming against the wall so hard it sounded like they’d worn through the upholstery. As I started for the back door, he cried out again, “You little slut. You like it rough, don’t you? You can’t get enough —”

I grabbed the bottle of toilet cleaner and ran out to the living room. Just as the guy was immobilized with orgasm and Mandy was raking her claws over his chest, I squirted the stuff in his eyes. “Get the fuck off my wife,” I yelled.

The man screamed and blinked at me through the sting of the chemicals. He was a well-hung, hairy little bastard who could have beaten my ass with one arm, but I suppose the Pissed-Off Husband is a powerful archetype to contend with when you’ve just banged an impossibly hot woman in a strange place and been blinded as you’re coming. He leapt off of Mandy, scrambled for his clothes and raced out the door.

As his car screeched off, Mandy pulled her dress on. “Well, that’s the end of that,” she said.

I set the toilet cleaner on the couch. “Of what exactly?”

She went into the bedroom, shut the door, and locked it.

“I’m sorry, Mandy,” I called.

There was no answer.

I knocked.

Still nothing.

The rest of the night I shuttled between the tent and the bathroom, queasy and shivering, as sick from her silence as from the bacteria in the food I’d wolfed down. It wasn’t until the sun came up that my system finally calmed down enough for me to sleep.

When I woke up around noon, Mandy was gone and a tropical depression was setting in. The skies went dark; the tent whipped and roiled. I patched up a place where a small tree branch pierced it. For a while the weatherproofing kept the rain out, but then the zippers started leaking, and then the seams.

Now my feet are clammy and prunish from marinating in rainwater. My skin is slick with condensation. Every time I move, the sleeping bag makes a wet slapping sound, frightening the cats. But the rain’s slacked up while I’ve been writing. The wind is dying down. The mosquitoes, drunk with blood, are eager to be released into the night.

I should go inside and shower and change into dry clothes, but I’m afraid of what I’d do if Mandy came home. I keep imagining that I’d follow her into the bedroom and force her down on the comforter and tear her dress, not for sex — although maybe for that, too — but just to see her eyes change when she looked at me.

But then, who am I kidding? I’ll probably just stay in the tent. There are crackers out here, and nuts and raisins. Before lying down this morning, I fashioned a sort of bedpan from an old crockpot. I’ve got a fresh t-shirt and pair of jeans, and a towel and an old sweater, each sealed in a large Ziploc. Everything I need, apart from the occasional hot meal, is stored in these plasticized canvas walls. And I’ve never been one for theatrics.

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