You and him and me
Joe drove up in the convertible, top down, then walked around and opened the door for you. As you twisted sideways and planted your heels on the pavement, your dress rode up to your thighs. Just for a moment I thought I could see France. I stared and you blushed, but I had a feeling that you were more pleased than embarrassed.
“Cory, you remember Miranda.”
You gave me a quick hug. Your body felt warm through your dress.
“It’s been awhile,” you said.
“Yes, it has.”
I looked at you, then Joe, then you, nodding stupidly. Here you were, back together. Five years later. Fifty miles farther north. The city was our new home. It was where we had to go to find jobs.
“How was the show?” I asked.
Joe held his hand out flat, palm down, and tipped it from side to side. You were more enthusiastic.
“She cried the whole time,” Joe said.
“Well, it was sad … but I liked it. You should see it, Cory.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t have a girlfriend and it just wouldn’t do to go alone.
I was waiting in line at my neighborhood quick-stop market one afternoon about five-thirty. It was one of those old-time places with a wooden floor, narrow aisles, and shelves so high that women sometimes asked me to reach things for them. There were fish-eye mirrors, too, so the help could see if anyone was trying to pocket a package of Twinkies.
My turn came and the cashier, an older guy with a feather-duster in his back pocket, looked up, bored, as I set a carton of milk on the counter. Then all of a sudden I felt someone’s long nails and playful fingers dig into my sides. I jumped.
“Miranda! What are you — ?”
Giggling a little, you slowly took your hand away.
“Guilty conscience?” you asked.
“You jumped a mile when I touched you.”
“Oh, uh …” I paid the cashier. “No, just … I am surprised, though. I hardly see you for years and now … twice in one week.”
“I got a job with State Farm. The office is five blocks from here.”
You placed a single bottle of ginger ale on the counter and passed a bill to the clerk, who smiled, no longer quite so bored. You were wearing a businesslike skirt and blouse, but it was nothing stodgy. In fact, on you, a conservative outfit only served to conjure thoughts of barely repressed urges — of button after button finally coming undone.
We went outside, where your car was not so much parked as simply stopped at an odd, I’ll-just-be-a-minute angle.
“I need to find a new place to live,” you said.
“I want a place of my own. No roommates. But there don’t seem to be any vacancies around here, not that I can afford anyway.”
As you got in the car I kept my eyes on your legs, but I didn’t get to see too much this time.
“Really?” I said, “I think a place just opened up below mine. A studio.”
“Oh, Cory, really? Where?”
“Just up the hill. I could get the landlord’s number for you.”
“Would you? Oh, I hope this works out.”
One of Joe’s friends had an old two-tone pickup we used to haul your stuff. You sat between us, both of your hands wrapped around Joe’s right bicep.
“You know I appreciate your doing this,” you said.
“No need to thank me,” Joe said. “It was Cory’s idea.”
“Yeah, well, I knew you’d never offer on your own,” I said. “Besides, your friend is the only one who has a pickup.”
“He wanted to rent it to me, can you believe that?”
You offered to pay whatever it cost, but Joe refused.
“I want to,” you said. “I know you and Cory are saving up …”
“Put your purse away,” he said.
You set it on the floor.
Then he stage-whispered, “You can show me your gratitude later.”
I think you actually blushed.
“Hey, don’t forget,” I said, “it was my idea.”
The apartment building was a two-story clapboard structure with wooden stairs and a gravel parking lot. Joe backed the pickup in front of №2 on the ground floor, and we started moving your stuff inside.
As Joe and I carried the cardboard boxes and the few pieces of furniture you had — sofa, table, chairs, dresser, double bed — you would tell us where to put them until finally you said, “Just set it anywhere. I’ll have to sort things out later.”
You wheeled your chrome and plastic TV stand to one side of the window.
“How’s that?” you asked.
I plopped down on the sofa to check out the view.
“Perfect,” I said.
Then Joe walked in lugging your oversized TV. He stopped on the other side of the room.
“Bring that stand over here,” he said.
You said you wanted the TV over by the window.
“No you don’t.”
You put your hands on your hips and looked at Joe with mild consternation.
“Hurry up before I drop this thing.”
I stood up slowly.
“Joe, I want it over here.”
“It’s my apartment. Cory, don’t you — “
Joe cut you off.
“I know that, Miranda, but your apartment has a hook-up over here.”
Sheepishly, you wheeled the stand over to Joe.
“Why didn’t you say so?”
“Why didn’t you do what I asked?”
On his way out the door, he motioned for me to follow him. The pickup was empty now except for the mattress, box springs, and bed frame. We started with the frame, Joe muttering under his breath.
“I’d forgotten how stubborn she can be,” he said.
I told him I hadn’t seen the hook-up either, but he just shook his head.
I remember feeling tired and weak during the next few minutes. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. At the same time I felt a sort of nervous energy I found disconcerting.
Once we swung the mattress into position over the springs, Joe plopped down on the bed, bouncing a little to test it out, then fell flat on his back with a deep groan. He evidently felt the same way I did. Maybe it was all the loading and unloading. More likely it was the fact that this was your bed.
Suddenly Joe pulled himself together and sat up.
“Nothing I’d like better than to stay right here,” he said, “but I’ need to be at work in half an hour. Cory will be glad to help you unpack.”
“Thanks loads,” I said.
“You don’t work tonight, Cory?”
I shook my head.
On his way out Joe said, “Just don’t show him too much gratitude.”
You followed him out to the parking lot and around to the driver’s side of the pickup, where you put your arms around his neck and kissed him.
I stayed on the other side of the truck and looked the other way, but I heard you say, “There’s more where that came from.”
I closed my eyes and inhaled slowly until I could feel my lungs stretch. Then I let it all out twice as slow. My body felt hollow, and the nervous energy I had felt earlier was gone now.
Back inside, you sat cross-legged on the carpet and lifted the top off one of the sturdy apple boxes your grocer had saved for you when he learned you were moving. It was full of pots and pans, their bottoms blackened with smoke.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” you said.
“It’s OK. What can I do?”
You looked up and smiled softly, but you seemed sad somehow. Finally, you patted the rust-colored rug with your open palm.
“Sit down. Rest a minute.”
I lowered myself, a little stiffly, to the floor. I rubbed my lower back and there was a brief silence. I could see by the tiny crease between your eyebrows that there was something you wanted to ask me.
“Cory, does Joe ever talk to you about me?”
“What does he say?”
“I don’t know. The usual stuff. Where you went, what you did.”
You lowered your eyes.
“I mean, you know, uh, what movie you saw,” I said. “That kind of thing.”
You opened another box.
“How we fight all the time.”
“No, do you?”
You looked at me hard, out of the corner of your eyes. I shrugged. You and Joe had dated and broken up, dated and broken up, all through high school.
“We don’t fight all the time,” you said. “It just seems that way sometimes. Like now.”
“I know what you mean. He looked real upset when he left.”
“He was, wasn’t he?”
“Oh, definitely — he hates to go to work with lipstick all over his face.”
You smiled then, almost laughed. We sat in silence. The place smelled of new paint and carpet cleaner.
“It’s just that sometimes I feel like, I don’t know, like I’m not good enough for him.”
I put a finger in my ear and wiggled hard.
“No, really, Cory, I mean it. Even when I broke up with him … Remember? Before you guys went off to college?”
You were about the most insecure person I’d ever known and I could never understand why.
“You could have any guy you wanted,” I said.
You touched my hand and smiled. It was a warm day and a few strands of your hair were clinging to the damp skin of your cheek. You were so close I almost reached out.
The sun was filtering through my curtains, and I was only half awake. I wanted to keep dreaming — my head was full of images that were soothing and stimulating at the same time — but these noises kept intruding.
I finally figured out that someone was knocking at my door. I slipped on my jeans and a T-shirt and went out in my bare feet. When I opened the door, there you were, dressed for work and looking damn sophisticated, almost elegant, in a straight black skirt and a simple cotton blouse.
Surprised and a little embarrassed, I ran a hand through my unkempt hair and looked down at my wrinkled red T-shirt, the same T-shirt I had worn the day before and picked up off the floor moments earlier.
“I’m sorry to get you up. My car won’t start — and I’ve been late twice already this week,” you said, looking over your shoulder, then back at me. “You wouldn’t happen to have jumper cables, would you?”
“No, I don’t.” I opened the screen door and stepped out to look down at your car. “Do you have a manual transmission?”
“Is it a stick shift?”
“Maybe we can push-start it. Hang on, I’ll get my shoes.”
I put them on without tying the laces and followed you down the stairs.
“You must be upset with me, too,” you said.
“Why, should I be?”
“I guess Joe hasn’t told you.”
“Told me what?”
We reached the bottom of the stairs and you said, “It’s over here,” as if I didn’t know which car was yours.
“Told me what?”
“I wish I hadn’t brought it up now. You’re going to hate me.”
By now we were standing next to your ten-year-old Toyota.
“I really am running late,” you said.
You let out a sigh, then lowered your eyes and said: “I tried to talk Joe out of going on that three-month trek across Europe you guys keep talking about.”
“Oh, that,” I said. “Yeah, he told me.”
“And you’re not mad at me?”
“I’d be mad if you’d succeeded, but since you didn’t — “
You blushed and laughed.
“I tried real hard,” you said.
I remembered what I had been dreaming about — a warm breeze blowing through your dress, gently peeling it away as you smile and close your eyes. After swallowing with some difficulty, I told you I couldn’t blame you for trying.
“It just shows that you care and you don’t want to be apart. Joe should be flattered.”
I opened the driver’s door for you. You got in, rolled down the window, and closed the door
“I wish you would say that to him,” you said. “Would you?”
“Put it in neutral,” I said.
The car wouldn’t budge.
“And take the brake off!”
Each time I passed under a streetlight on my way home from work at night, I would watch my shadow come from behind and zip ahead of me as if it were another cyclist racing against me.
As I came around the corner of the apartment building onto the gravel I watched my shadow one last time, but then, on this particular night, I saw that the parking lot was tinged with red from the brake lights of Joe’s convertible. You and he were still sitting in the car — odd since you hadn’t passed me on the hill.
I could hear your voices as I coasted up behind. Then my bike slipped sideways on the gravel. You looked around. Joe opened his door and stepped out of the car.
I waved feebly as I went by and he gave me a nod. Then he walked around the car and opened the passenger door for you. But you remained motionless, staring straight ahead. I didn’t have to see your face to know it had turned into ice. Ice that could easily crack and fall to pieces if you weren’t careful.
Finally you lowered your gaze and stepped out of the car. I turned my back and started chaining my bike to a tree near the stairs. I could hear your soft but urgent whisper.
“I want you to come in.”
Joe said no.
I snapped my lock shut and started up the stairs. The two of you were standing in front of your door. You touched his arm.
“Joe — “
For a moment he appeared to weaken, but then he took his arm away.
We all went in different directions.
I looked down from my tiny balcony to the narrow strip of lawn next to the swimming pool. You were lying on your stomach, the top of your red-and-black bikini untied. Scattered around you on your beach towel and on the grass were a bottle of suntan oil, a fashion magazine, a cassette player and tapes, an empty ginger ale bottle, and your keys. You were listening to a tape of old Supremes songs. You played it often and I was really starting to like it, but what I liked even more was your every lazy movement.
I decided to go for a walk. Coming down the stairs and around the corner, I pretended to be surprised to find you there in the courtyard. You had turned over by then, your top retied, and were propped on your elbows, surveying your surroundings. You waved me over.
“What’s up?” I said.
“Not much. My car’s in the shop.”
You turned down the music.
“Sit down,” you said. “How have you been?”
“I’m doing alright,” I said, sitting cross-legged on the grass.
“I notice Joe hasn’t been over lately,” you said. “I wish he wouldn’t feel like he has to avoid me.”
“Oh, he’s been over. You just weren’t around, I guess.”
You shifted the position of the strings that tied behind your neck — a move that jostled your breasts and made them quiver momentarily, the tanning oil adding a shimmer that was almost cruel.
“Cory, what am I going to do?”
I rubbed my neck and tried to remember what we were talking about.
“You mean about your car?”
“No, about Joe. Did he tell you what we fought about?”
“No, he never did.”
“It doesn’t matter,” you said. “It was silly. But I don’t know what to do.”
In the grass I noticed clumps of coarse, light green blades growing among the finer, darker ones, and there were little circles of bare dirt where someone had pulled up weeds.
“I don’t know … There are other guys, you know, besides Joe.”
You said nothing, your eyes downcast. I was beginning to sweat out there in the sun, and the grass was making my legs itch. I needed something to do with my hands, so I picked up your empty ginger ale bottle. I wanted to leave and it gave me the excuse I needed.
“I was just on my way to the store. Can I get you another Schweppes?”
“That would be nice.”
When I came back, you didn’t ask any more about Joe, and I found it hard to think of anything to say that didn’t concern him in some way.
The next time I saw you, you were driving a new car.
“How do you like it?” you asked.
I walked around the car, an old Buick Riviera, very slowly with my hands in my pockets, nodding appreciatively. The silver paint job looked to be fairly recent. It was a nice car — I’d noticed it parked in various places around the neighborhood with a FOR SALE sign in the window — and I showed extra appreciation for your sake. You seemed pleased with yourself.
“Pretty sharp,” I said. “When’d you get it?”
You were wearing shorts and a little top that exposed your belly button, and I noticed your skin was red from too much sun. Getting back to business, I looked the car over some more, even kicked one of the tires. Then I peered inside. The backseat was curved on either side like a love seat.
“Nice and roomy,” I said.
I gave you the blank, innocent look I was so good at.
“I knew you were going to think that!”
Were you blushing or just sunburned? I couldn’t tell. In any case I decided to let you off the hook for the moment.
“How’s it run?” I asked.
“Great. Would you like to go for a ride?”
“In the front seat or the back?”
You put your hands on your hips.
“Just kidding,” I said.
We got in and you started it up.
“Where should we go?”
I let myself sink into the black vinyl upholstery, put my hands behind my head, and stretched out my legs.
“I don’t care. Anywhere.”
Your voice had a thoughtful, almost tentative quality, but you handled the car with assurance.
“Do you think Joe would be at home?” you asked.
I didn’t answer right away.
You looked at me, then back at the road.
“Yeah, I thought we might stop by,” you said.
When we got there — a three-bedroom house Joe was sharing with two other guys — you pulled into the long, sloped driveway and honked the horn. You looked at me like you didn’t know what to do next. I got out of the car; so did you.
When Joe appeared on the front steps, it was clear that he was not expecting to see you. You were the first to speak.
“How do you like my new car?”
Joe said, “What was wrong with the old one?”
You put your hands on your hips.
“It was falling apart and you know it.”
Joe cracked a smile, or half of one anyway.
“You think this one will last any longer?”
“It’s a good car. You want to drive it and see?”
The keys were on a giant ring that you held between your thumb and forefinger. You jingled them in front of Joe and he snatched them away.
I don’t remember where we went. It was like I wasn’t there.