by Paula Bomer
"See this," Lise said, showing me a beautiful, intricate tattoo of Asian design on her right forearm, just below her wrist."It's beautiful," I said without touching it, although I wanted to.
"This is my 'I'm never going to be a fucking bank teller' tattoo," she said, smiling. Her hair had recently been shaved into a military-like flat top and dyed white. Lise was much cooler than me. Her family had tons of money, so why would she ever need to be a bank teller?
I was her doormat friend. This was a good thing for me to be at the time, for various reasons. For one, it was the only way to be her friend at all. I treated her with adoration and she tolerated me and mocked me gently from time to time. As good as my adoration must have felt to her, it also felt good to adore her. It felt like love in my heart, like the unrequited love I once had for my older sister when I was seven and she was twelve. It felt a bit like my love for Ron, my boyfriend at the time, a drummer in a rock band, who wasn't a very good boyfriend.
Lise lived off of an enormous trust fund and had never held a job in her life. At the time, I was waiting on tables at an Italian restaurant on Newbury Street in Boston. I had come to New York to visit her. We had met years before, in a summer abroad program in Mexico during high school. Now, she lived in a spacious one bedroom apartment on the twenty-first floor of a doorman building on Sixteenth and 3rd Avenue. The windows held stunning views. I looked out at the fall sun, bright, but holding the chill of the air in it. I wanted to say, what's wrong with being a bank teller? But I knew the answer. It wasn't cool. It was being average. It was working for the man. It wasn't making your art.
"Well, it's beautiful," I said again, and I meant it. Mostly, I was jealous. I could never get such a tattoo. I needed to work and I had no idea what kind of work I would need to get in the future. Bank teller? It seemed better than sucking dick for a living. I was only twenty-two.
"Let's go shopping after I feed the cats," she said and put her coffee mug in the sink. She had two cats, one enormous, half blind cat named Dave and a little thing called Susie. I did the breakfast dishes while she tended to her pets, then we went out. It was a gorgeous day and the East Village was so different than Allston, the neighborhood where I lived in Boston. It was so much cooler, like Lise was cooler than me. It had a secret language I could feel, but couldn't decipher. I wanted more than anything to hold the key to its language. But in the meantime, I would have to walk around, craning my overly long neck around, absorbing the people and stores as they passed me by.
"Careful, Linda," said Lise, annoyed, as always, with my clumsiness. "You keep bumping into me."
The next time I visited her I was very sad. My boyfriend, Ron, had been treating me like shit. I'd been going out with him for two years and he was the first man to ever give me an orgasm. In fact, he gave me an orgasm before I ever gave myself one. And at that time, I still hadn't given myself one, so I was very attached to him. But he was an asshole. He had borrowed six hundred dollars from me and then hadn't returned my phone calls for two weeks. The last two days of those two weeks I had stood outside of his apartment at night, staring in at the light in his bedroom window, feeling thick with self-hatred. When he did call me back, he said he couldn't see me right now. That he needed his space. I had three days off in a row from work, so I took the Greyhound to visit Lise. She was good that way. She never turned me away. She let me visit.
"Check it out," she said, tilting her chin upward. She had a new tattoo on her neck in gothic style writing.
"Is that your name?" I asked.
"Yeah, man. It hurt so much. But it was worth it. It's so jail. No one is ever going to fuck with me now."
I tried to think of any time that anyone had fucked with her and I couldn't. She went to a posh private school, a Quaker school, in San Francisco. There were some stories of mean nannies. But still, her life always struck me as quite safe.
"Wow." I said about her new tattoo. "That is really rad."
Her live-in boyfriend, Dylan, who played in a punk band, was back in LA, visiting his friends from Crossroads, she explained.
"Crossroads," I asked. "Isn't that a rehab?"
"No, Linda," Lise said, like I was the dumbest person in the world. "It's the school he went to in LA. You know, Fred went there, and Andy."
Because Dylan was out of town, I got to sleep in Lise's bed with her. This was an enormous treat for me. I could run my hands over her bristly yet soft, closely shaved hair. She was on the zaftig side, and we would spoon and my hands could touch her bosomy chest. She was like a big, comfy pillow to my angles and corners, my straight, bony body. I savored the closeness: I was so hurt then, so mad at my boyfriend and mad at myself for needing him to go down on me to get off. Before we went to sleep, we tented the blanket over our heads like children playing a game. Suddenly our warm, damp bodies blossomed into the bubble the tented blankets had made. We had entered another world, like children do. Oh, the intimacy! The heat of our bodies, our animal selves, safe and covered! We heard a tiny meow above us, felt the tender steps of little paws. Lise opened the blanket to let the kitty in.
"Come in here, Susie Q, come here pussycat," Lise cooed, and in walked Susie. Purring, she slunk down to our feet and curled up. "You know, Dylan and I don't really have sex anymore," she said, her body a yellowish, hot fruit under the covers next to me. I felt her breathe. My eyes had adjusted and I could see her in that barely way.
"Really?" Ron and I fucked like poisoned beasts the times we were together. It was vicious. But we were seldom together anymore. "You two are such a great couple. Why do you think you don't have sex anymore?"
"We're like best friends. I don't know. We just have no passion or something. He's like my brother." She rolled over onto her back. It was getting stuffy now. It was the time when you throw the blankets off and feel incredible release. She turned back to face me. "Sometimes, I think it's because we started pooping in front of each other. Like that was the beginning of the end of our physical attraction."
"Wow. Maybe you should see a counselor. You two are so good together. Ron and I—we have sex. But we're horrible together."
"You're horrible together? He's horrible to you, Linda. There's a difference."
Then I threw the blanket off. It felt involuntary. The fresh air cooled my pink cheeks. Susie scurried out, gently rubbing her feathery self against my body as she went.
"You're right, Lise. You're right."
The next morning, we went shopping again. I never had that much money, but she had a credit card that her mother paid off every month and shopping was something she did sort of like I waitressed. It was serious work to her. I tried not to bump into her while I excitedly walked down the street with her. I couldn't help but crane my head around: The East Village mesmerized me. Lise bought a pair of dark, stiff jeans, a forest green cashmere sweater she claimed was for visiting her grandmother, and a vintage, yellow vinyl handbag. Then we stopped for lunch at a place on 6th Street that we'd been to before. It was downstairs and had a lovely garden. A piano sat in the back and sometimes someone was there playing, but not that day.
"I'm a vegan now, Linda."
"What's that mean?," I asked.
"I don't just not eat animals, I also no longer consume any animal by-products. No milk, no milk products, no eggs, no honey, no leather," Lise went on, "I still haven't decided whether to throw out all my leather stuff I already have. . ."
"Wow. That's intense. That's a real commitment. No honey? I didn't think honey was so bad." I ate my salad in silence. I was not a vegetarian, but I sort of pretended to be one in front of Lise. I didn't actually ever say to her, "I'm a vegetarian!" but I never ate meat in front of her. So, in my mind, I was only being half-dishonest, as if such a thing existed.
"It's a matter of principal. The bees produce honey for their own reasons, not for us. We think we own this world, but we need to share it properly with other creatures," Lise said, the wonderful edge of righteousness emanating from her very core. "It's up to each and every one of us to make this world a better place. That's what it takes. To end the senseless killing of animals by the selfish, hate-mongering rich people in this world."
"Right," I said, thinking of all the bacon I planned on eating when I got back to Boston and feeling so confused yet so in awe, in admiration, for Lise. She knew what was right! And she even had the good sense to then live in accordance with her knowledge. I knew nothing at that point, not even how to get myself off, so her convictions and certainties amazed me. I wanted to be her, in so many ways. I wanted to be rich and so secure in my righteousness, I wanted to have large breasts and a boyfriend who was nice to me even though he was a rock dude.
Later, we decided to go hear a friend of hers and Dylan's band, Inner Revolution, play at CBGB's. I was so excited. Seeing bands was the absolutely most favorite thing I did in Boston. And CBGB's was this historic club that I had never set foot in. How would it compare to The Rat, in Boston, that I frequented? I put on a pair of suede hot pants that laced up the sides and black vinyl (see! I was sort of vegan!), boots with chunky high heels. I'm sure I wasn't wearing a bra. I never wore bras.
Lise looked at me. "Are you sure you want to wear that?"
"Yeah, man! It's CBs! I'm excited. I've never been." Then I noticed her outfit. It consisted of dark-rinsed, baggy jeans, high tops and a plain black T-shirt.
"Wow, the style is really different here, isn't it?"
"I guess so. You look sort of tacky."
I didn't know what to do. Put on my jeans? I felt that would be no fun and I was desperate to have fun.
"I'm just trying to rock."
"Whatever. Let's go. It doesn't matter."
The inside of CBs was perfect. Stinky, dark, dirty, graffittied. I wanted to jump up and down and go, "Woohoo!" Instead, I began drinking heavily. The music was so loud I could barely hear the conversations Lise had with her friends. I didn't really know any of them and I was feeling a little left out, a little self conscious, but it wasn't messing with my joy with being at CBs. The music was different than the bands I frequented in Boston: it was more serious, less "fun". They were saying important things. They were making a stance. They all looked like Lise, but they were young men. It was, in a word, the beginning of Emo, but I had no idea what that was, I just liked to rock. I liked my music sexy and angry. I liked a band called Zug Zug, which meant "fuck" in caveman, according to the guys in the band. Regardless of my disconnect, I enjoyed CBs immensely, and drank many shots and beers. One of the bands ended and I stood, swaying, next to Lise and a couple of other people. They gave me the sort of look that when drunk, you ignore, but the impression is there, the pointedness of it, and the next morning, while hungover, you can't get it out of your head.
"Dylan went to a party in Silver Lake and had a great conversation with Thurston. His band might open up for them on a few dates during their next tour," Lise said.
"That's cool. That's very cool," said a hunched over, heavily tattooed guy next to her.
"Who's Thurston?" I asked.
"Thurston Moore?" The guy said. His voice lingered on certain syllables and he swallowed others. It took me a minute to recognize the "accent", but then I did: lockjaw. I'd met some other people from Darien or Greenwich with the same way of speaking.
"Who's that?" I asked.
"Uh, SonicYouth, dude?"
"I think I've heard of them."
Everyone thought that was funny and laughed. Then they started talking about Drew Barrymore and I did know who that was, but I decided to go to the bar instead of listen to what she'd been up to. I ordered another shot and a beer.
The next morning, hungover in bed next to Lise, I thought about the looks I got that I ignored but that had stuck with me so. I and tried to dissect it. Disgust? No, or maybe. Condescension, snobbery. Yes. Smug enjoyment? Dismissal? I felt forlorn. I felt as though I had failed. I looked down at the pile of trampy clothes next to my bed. I didn't feel ashamed, but I felt defensive. What's wrong with wanting to look hot? Why hide everything under baggy dark clothing? I missed Boston, where exuberance and mischief were not dead. I was many things; young, hopeful, lacking cynicism, and unbeknownst to me, still able to adjust and change to all sorts of circumstances. But a winner I wasn't.
Lise made coffee and brought it to bed. She snuggled against me and she felt warm and smelled sweet with only a hint of staleness. I wanted to recoil. I felt vile.
"Thanks," I croaked.
"You were pretty shitfaced last night."
"Hell, yeah. Isn't that the point of partying at a rock club?"
"Listen, Linda. A lot of my friends are into straight living. You know? The straight-edge scene? No meat, no booze, no drugs. I mean, that shit can ruin people's lives. It's not partying. It's just making bad choices."
She had a point. "Sorry."
"Don't be sorry. But you might want to get your shit together."
Six months went by and my life in Boston got shittier week by week. I had begged Ron to take me back, on my hands and knees. I don't know what came over me. It was ugly. Pathetic? It freaked him out. But it didn't freak me out. I was proud to be so vulnerable, so honest. And I was a bit relieved to have made that one final effort. I felt so lost without him and I still couldn't get myself off, not that I ever tried very hard. I just wanted him. My mind was on him. Him, him, him. Then I heard he had another girlfriend and it was the thing I feared the most, the thing I had obsessed over—did he have someone else? did he?—and when I found out he did, it set me free even more than the begging on hands and knees. Now, this setting free was not a one-note sort of freedom. First it set me free of eating properly and taking care of myself in any way. Then it freed me to cry for hours at a time every day or so for about three weeks. But then—then!—it freed me in other ways. A lightness. I bought tickets to Buenos Aires. I was going to teach English there. And freedom has its high, even if you never wanted to be free in the first place. I was going to miss Boston, where people still ate bacon and girls at rock clubs dressed like they were going to a Led Zeppelin concert in 1971 and hangovers were savored slowly in bed all weekend long. Before going to Buenos Aires, I decided to visit Lise.
Dylan was in town so there was going to be no sleeping in her bed. I got off the bus and took the subway downtown from Port Authority. The doorman called up and I was "OKed" and so I took the elevator to her apartment. Lise and Dylan were lounging in the living room. It was summer, and even though it was 7:00pm, the light still shone through her gorgeous windows. I hugged Lise and then awkwardly hugged Dylan. I hadn't seen him in ages.
"So, how's it going Dylan? How's the band?"
"It's going well, really well," he said. He was quiet with me. He wasn't quiet with everyone, this I knew. I felt a supreme lack of interest in me coming from him, and it was visceral, like he was gay man who found women physically vile. Unfortunately, at that stage in my life, it made me pursue people all the harder. Like me! Like me! Find me interesting!
"Are you touring this fall?" I asked.
"Yeah, yeah, we got a van all lined up. It's gonna be tough. But it'll be awesome, too."
"Yo, Lise, check it out," he said. "I forgot to show you what I picked up when I was out earlier." He got up and walked out of the room.
Lise was lounging on her butterfly chair, her hair a brilliant white that elegantly framed her round head, her dress draping over her curves perfectly. She had one leg up on the side of the chair, which she kicked back and forth lazily. She gave me a look of excited anticipation and I returned it. Dylan was back in an instant, holding toilet paper.
"Look man, I lifted two rolls from the Kiev," he said. The Kiev was a diner around the corner.
"You are awesome, dude!" Lise said. She gave him a thumbs up.
"Yeah, stick it to the man!" They high-fived each other.
This was one of my lost moments. Stealing toilet paper from a diner run by working class Polish immigrants? What on earth does that have to do with sticking it to the man? Then I smelled something funny.
"Do you guys smell that?"
"No. What do you smell?," said Lise.
"I think I smell smoke."
"I don't think so," said Blake. "We're straight edge. Smoking is for idiots. Like drugs. Hey, you want to hear my new demo?"
"Sure," I said, trying to ignore the smell.
We all listened to a song. He sounded angry and the music was very fast and you couldn't hear the words at all. But it had real emotion. Mostly the emotion of anger, or that's the impression it made on me, but it felt real, not forced or fake. When the song was done, I stood up. I was nervous.
"I smell smoke." I walked to the door, and sure enough, right when I opened it, a fire alarm in the building sounded. The hall was smokey. We were on the 21st floor. I shut the door immediately.
"Oh, God, oh God," said Lise.
"We got to get out of here," I said. There was hysteria in my voice. Her apartment really smelled now. I could see smoke curling under the door. I walked nervously toward Lise and Dylan, who was standing silently next to her. "Let's go. Now."
"The cats!" Lise said and went into the kitchen.
"Fuck the cats!" I screamed. And in that instant, I was full of regret.
Lise had grabbed two cat carriers from on top of the fridge. Tears moistened her round, round face. She stood there, shocked, confused. I grabbed one of the carriers from her and looked wildly about for a cat. I saw the big one, Dave, and grabbed him by the back of his neck and shoved him into the carrier with a forcefulness I didn't know I had.
"Stop! You're hurting him!" Lise wailed.
"Dude," Dylan said, "Not so rough."
"Fuck you, you fucking eunuch!" I screamed at Dylan. "You're just standing there, waiting for the staff to do everything!"
I dropped the carrier and looked about. Lise was holding Susie and the carrier was in front of her and she was trying, and failing, to get the protesting cat in it.
"Come on Susie, sweetie, that's a good kitty," she cooed.
I grabbed the cat like it was a sack of garbage and slammed it into the carrier, locking it.
"Let's GO!" I screamed.
Dylan was holding Dave and Lise held Susie. We opened the door and there was smoke everywhere. Collectively, we didn't try the elevator. There were two sets of stairs and we went to the nearest one and opened the door. The smoke was white and thick and curled and moved. We ran down a flight, blinking, choking. Then we ran down another flight but the smoke was thicker and hurt our eyes, our lungs.
"Let's try the other stairwell," Dylan screamed over the fire alarm.
We exited on the 19th floor. The floor wasn't as bad as the stairwell and the relief of it almost calmed us for one, sweet moment. We ran to the other stairwell. This one was smokey, but not nearly as bad, not nearly. And so down we went, all the way to the ground floor and out and down the street, two blocks, until we were sitting on a bench in a tiny New York City Park, dusk just falling around us.
Silence. Relief. And for me? Shame, shame, shame. The fresh, pointed stab of living in the moment that shame can bring. Everything else fades away, no more boredom, no more doubt, no more worrying about the future, the past and Ron, just a drenching in self pity and the now. In that moment, everything was about me and my wrongness. It's a sort of baptism, when the floodgates of regret let loose.
"I'm sorry," I said. It was the right thing to say. For the first time, I noticed streaks of blood on my forearms; swollen and burning: cat scratches. The pain was a tonic for all my shame.
Lise sniffled and hugged her cat carrier. Dylan stared off into space. The stench of cat urine was comforting and mortal.
"I was scared," I said. And it was then that I realized she had finally seen me, me, me, her doormat friend. Her tacky friend. The one who walked too close to her, who didn't know what Crossroads or Sonic Youth was. I had finally made an impression on her. An ugly one, but an impression, nonetheless.
This was before I knew that we all live on this planet, driving in the cars of our own little minds, our own self-contained worlds. Yes, this was before I knew that, when I thought I mattered, when I thought that people saw me, deep into me, saw all my love and excitement at being alive, saw the very glistening, running-overness of my aliveness. But we only matter when we do something awful. Then, someone sees us and only then.
"Wow," said Dylan. "That was intense."
We were safe. The sky darkened, like it does suddenly and dusk was over. The lights in the tall buildings everywhere were pinpricks, little holes in the world, the holes of a safety net all around us. A time in my life was over and it had ended pretty badly. And yet, what a beautiful thing, to be young, to not yet even have discovered my own body (which hours under a bathtub spout eventually changed), to be at the mercy of others, to have so much ahead of myself, and to so easily disappoint another person.
Paula Bomer grew up in South Bend, Indiana and now lives in New York. Her collection of stories, BABY, is forthcoming in 2009 by Impetus Press. Her fiction has appeared in The Mississippi Review, Fiction, Open City, The New York Tyrant, The First City Review, Sub-lit, juked, Storyglossia, Verbsap, Best American Erotica (S&S;) and elsewhere. She can be reached at http://www.paulabomer.com.