If you are a 17-year-old boy and your sister who is 16 has a friend with long legs and big brown eyes, you’ll behave. Right? Damn. If you come home and they’re perched on the couch, you’ll be polite as something newly hatched, especially if your sister’s friend is gangly herself, a girl who hasn’t grown into her beauty yet, a girl who isn’t sure how to put her hands but knows how bright her eyes should go. It makes her interesting. A girl who can just adjust her volume but doesn’t know what music she broadcasts. Which is more than okay. She might not know it yet. But she will.
Heather was tall, four or five inches higher than me, her lunky laugh and her brown eyes like odd candy that’s good for you. She wasn’t comfortable with her height so she sat down a lot, and if she couldn’t sit down she’d keep her shoulders dropped, her back curved. If she could find an empty chair she’d sit in it. This story is from that time when she’s 16 and sitting down all the time and I’m 17 and want to discover something about life so new and surprising that even the world has never known it, a discovery that will make anyone else stop looking for what they were looking for. Especially my parents, who seem to have forgotten what they were looking for. I hate them for forgetting this. I swear I’ll never do the same.
I asked Heather to see a movie. She said yes. Once I’d danced with her at a high school dance, a slow dance, pulled her up from a chair and held her waist for the entire length of “Free Bird.” So it seemed natural for me to ask, and for her to understand why I wanted to.
When I reached her house, her mother was immediately apologetic. She was a handsome woman who liked to chat with me, and I liked the attention until I realized she was trying to convert me to Christian Science. “Heather isn’t going to be able to go out tonight,” she told me.
Heather was on the couch in the living room, her leg propped on a chair, her knee swollen and red, her eyes teared. She couldn’t walk, her voice faint. As she’d fallen from the horse, she told me, her foot got caught in the stirrup and the horse had dragged her a distance. They won’t get medical help, she said, and I can’t have drugs, not even aspirin. Christian Scientists don’t believe in it. We weren’t going to the movie, but selfishly, I didn’t mind–we sat on the same couch, nearly the same height. This might be good, I thought. Until I realized that her parents were not going to leave the room soon, if ever. In fact, they wanted to pray.
“Did you want to stay?” they asked.
At first I was shocked, but then I stayed, even read some Bible. During a break, while her mother and stepfather were fetching lemonade and graham crackers from the kitchen, I went out to my car, found packs of aspirin. When I returned, I felt proud of my arrogance, of outsmarting. Sitting next to Heather, I pushed my fist across the upholstery so that my hand touched her thigh and nearly went under it but opened and tucked the packages into the space between her thigh and the couch. She knew what I was doing. She smiled.
When I was in college, she moved to Canada, where her skinny shoulders became an asset and her misplaced hands found their places and before I came home for the summer she was working as a model. I haven’t seen her since. That was 15 years ago. She married a rock star and they have a child, a beautiful boy, my sister reports. Now Heather lives in a huge glass house on a windswept rock overlooking the mist and smashing waves of the Pacific. Her husband has hit records. She’s very happy.
This woman–the one I remember but haven’t yet met–used to be a girl whose bra straps were always slipping off her shoulders and her fingernails were always chewed. For the most part, this has been true. She was the kind of girl who arranged nematodes on popsicle sticks and collected them in shoe boxes that lined up under her bed, neatly like toes. Who on rainy days spread her stamps out to stack and count like a mogul. Who persuaded a gang of children to visit each house in the neighborhood collecting butter and sugar and then, in a secret basement clubhouse mixed them together, pounds and pounds of the mixture, and made the other kids eat it until they got sick all over each other. Incorrigible and sly she’ll be.
A girl more awkward than ungroomed, and fresh–not used up. She’ll run at swim practice, oh she’ll run all right, but only when she wants to. On the whole, nerdy is good because someday she will lose her honking laugh but keep her punchlines and her general smarts.
I know this like I know gravity: Nerdy will keep her nose clean, her skin soft and white, and her sarcasm stropped like a razor. And it will be her own brand of sarcasm, a sassy incredulity always ready to show that razor and slice some sorry thing clean open with a flash. No TV-irony, though–mass media gets cut to the core of its bloat. Vapid commercials and sitcoms whose implausible plots revolve around single misunderstandings also stagger away, holding in their guts. She lopes and jokes at afternoon practice at the stadium track, last across the line, last into the team van, but in a real race, that is, where she pretends that someone else’s stakes are hers too, she churns her legs, her hair loose and flying. Then she laughs because she wants to win and here she is winning; that’s the biggest mischief of all.
As a woman she has science fair trophies and silk scarves and an illustrated copy of the Kama Sutra and bowls of polished rocks from the mountains she’s climbed without oxygen. How interesting, how nonstop. Feet with high arches and legs on the verge of speaking for themselves. A woman who could be a sidekick of Doctor Who, as played by Tom Baker. Wears plaid skirts; down with multidimensional space travel; unfazed by space creatures and bad special effects.
I know the kinds of women I like. Women who sprout big laughs: a burst, a yip, a chitter yitter falling down chirpy pow. Women who cook lamb stew. Whistle through their fingers. Who stay up all night talking and then want to make out on the dock as the dew falls. Who read The Economist and Vogue. Perform delicate neurosurgeries wearing no underwear and sing in a rock-n-roll band. Or she will speak Russian and run sub-three marathons and theorize about subatomic particles, then in underground laboratories build machines intricate and sensitive for locating these particles in the vast universe. Capture one for a single hot nanosecond and brutally interrogate its checkered past. Also, she will heal fast and she will remember her dreams.
Okay, so maybe not Russian. But it’s okay to dream.
Women who charm me: You’re lovely and long. When you enter the room, spies and priests duck. Your presence halts assembly lines. Cantors mumble, lose their places. Inert gases oxidize. A man would blurt passwords into your eyes; against your ruby lips his vocations would escape him.
You get me drunk in the fake Irish pub after I tried to persuade you to write a book with me. Remember? Still smarter than me, you refused, making me slur to you all the reasons why I can’t do it alone. I need your help, a collaboration, we could write it together, but you, too smart a fish to be merely stubborn and too polite that night for your usual modes of escape. On the walk to the car you volley my appeals, and then, no longer rapt with my chatter, you swooped me coolly off the sidewalk into all the darkness along the buildings, confirmed my secret ardors with your lipstick lips. I’d been had. I liked it. And the book? Funny how it never came up.
You wore glossy black shoes and asked me out for a drink and afterwards invited me up to your apartment to look at your Exner’s Rorschach test clinical guide, to which I said yes for the simple charm of the invitation’s transparency. After the two-minute tour of your one-rug apartment, we turned to each other and kissed with the force of something held apart for a long time. While the cat watched. Took turns pushing each other against the refrigerator in your dark kitchen. I discovered: more glossy black shoes stacked in the closet.
You’re the red stripe in the candy cane, the bright glossy color twirled in the mundane white. Every six months or so, you appear in town, take me to dinner; in the morning I don’t remember the drive from the airport, I don’t remember the drinks or the grilled mahi mahi, but I do remember the moment when we’re alone for the first time in months, when we have no explanations to offer for that gap in time. There is no gap. It’s erased by that moment I remember, of your body’s singular regard for mine.
Rut this is how it really happens. What it comes down to in the end: She recorded her voice on my computer when I wasn’t looking, I guess before she went back to her husband. Why did she go? Because she’d figured out I didn’t deserve her.
The other day I was cleaning old files off the machine and found her gift. It came loud and clear, like a small bomb in the middle of my day. Her lilt and pressure, “Michael, I am loving you.” Her gentle drawl. I haven’t seen her in two years, haven’t talked to her in one. I probably should have made her stay with me but how could I have known that at the time? Still, it was such a pleasure to hear her voice, a shock and a pleasure.
“Michael, I am loving you.”
I mean the fidelity was incredible. Of course I didn’t want to erase it, but of course I did.
Michael Erard is a writer who lives in Austin. He can be reached via email at [email protected]