By Dana C Verdino
The young man with the tie exited the back of the café and into a sunlit alleyway that had a good temperature, despite the rancid smell from nearby dumpsters. He made his way up the alley, past low and high windows of apartment houses and stores, and air conditioning boxes that weren’t humming, because it was early spring. There was a chill in the air, but nothing too cold, and the sunlight warmed his skin. He’s had only one drink, a pint of beer, while he sat at the bar contemplating how he was going to talk to his beloved, Lola Jean. The name didn’t suit her. He thought the name should go with someone darker with dark features, but his Lola had pale skin, pale hair, and pale eyes. If it wasn’t for the curves of her chin and nose, and the dimmer shade of her eyebrows, she wouldn’t have any darkness. She wore light clothes, too, ones that flowed and swayed—wide pants and skirts the colors of tan and yellows, and tops with flowers or horses or birds. Her shoes were sensible and also light-colored, along with the camel-colored satchel that she carried her books in. The man rounded the corner onto a busier stretch of land with sidewalks and a fair amount of traffic, the occasional ringing of bells as people opened doors or answered their telephones. He was stocky and not too tall with a handsome face, perfectly oval with hazel eyes and a five o’clock shadow. His tie swung from his neck, a striped blue and purple tie that stood out on his white t-shirt. He worked in computers, so the attire was versatile and modern. He didn’t have to wear a tie or anything in particular, so it was just a fashion statement of sorts. He lit a cigarette and continued on up the avenue to where Lola worked as an account representative at a bank.
She could sense his looming presence before he even entered through the front door, which she was normally stationed by. She looked up and waited for him to come into view, and when she saw his spirit, she put on a dainty smile. He briskly walked to her and bent down and gave her a kiss on the cheek. You’ll never guess what happened to me today, he said, sitting in the chair on the other side of the desk. Lafferty gave me a raise.
That’s terrific news, Stevey. So, how much?”
“Two grand more a year. Not bad, huh?”
“I’ll say he could have done better, but we’ll take it, right?”
He took her hands, which were folded on top of papers, one grasping a pen, and he enfolded his with them. You know how much I love you, right?
Yes, Stevey, I know.
Would you mind if I showed you how much?
Now you’re sounding strange. What are you getting at?
I want to take you away on a trip. I was thinking somewhere along the coast of Spain, Picture it…
Oh, gee, I don’t know about all that. Seems rather decadent, given the meager raise. She had a way of being too sensible, and even if it hurt him to hear it, it was plain truth. She was still sweet, somehow, when she spoke in sensible, straightforward truths.
It aint the raise, Lola. I’ve been wanting to take you there since you mentioned it was a place in your dreams you’d love to go.
I don’t know what I dreamed, Stevey. I think it was Spain, but it could have been Miami for all I know, or some unknown place that only exists in dreams. I didn’t mean for you to take it serious.
Look, he said. My brother told me about this great hotel over looking mountains and sea, and it’s a great deal if we eat at the local places and take a bus to the markets. We can sightsee on our own without a guide. We don’t need a guide. There’s a palace that a king lived in nearby in Grenada. And there’s beautiful parks and a flamenco dancing show. You’d be into that, right?
It all sounds super great. How about, let’s not do anything rash and we’ll talk about it some more over the next few days. Ok?
He sighed at what seemed to be a defeat, though he remained hopeful and kept his smile. Ok, Ok. Tell me about your day. He let go of her hands and she shuffled some papers off the desk and into a file in the cabinet beside her.
Well, the doctor is in, and he’s snooping around, making sure our ducks are lined in a row and what not. The doctor was the president of the bank. All the employees secretly referred to him as the doctor because he liked to diagnose problems, and never had a positive thing to say. He’s just say what the problem was and flit away like a king on a magic carpet in his shiny suit and gelled hair. Regardless, though, of his provincial attitude, Lola found him exceptionally handsome. By all accounts, he was way beyond a typical appearance, even a pleasant one like Steve’s. He was tall with a medium, sturdy build that was evident under the fitted suit, a man about forty—forty two, clean shaven with a five o’clock shadow on his upper lip and chin, something of an old time ad exec you’d see on t.v., but only real and in the flesh. Lola would sometimes imagine the roughness of his freshly shaven face as he kissed her neck and the area between her thighs. Any woman might think the same thing, so it wasn’t shameful, but for the sake of Steve, she would talk poorly about the man, although he wasn’t all that poor in character. There was a time he brought her a coffee from the shop next door. He said they messed up his order, but he remembered she liked vanilla flavored coffee because he smelled one day at her desk, and he thought of her. She thought a man who was overly narcissistic wouldn’t remember such a thing, would even take a notice of a minute detail such as that. There was something careful and serious about him, but also tender. Any man who could show a bit of thought for another person, albeit a near stranger, was capable of love, and not the kind of love that was for oneself. Actually, she thought about him often and perked up when he came into the banking center. Every bit of her perked up and part of her wept in a drizzle down her inner thigh as she watch him glide by in a grey or black suit that fit him just perfectly and he’d give her blink and a kind, “How are doing this morning?” He never stuck around to make much small talk, but she’d watch him here and there talking business with the other higher ups or close his door to work alone or make phone calls about important matters. Although he never had a positive thing to say, he never a negative thing to say either. He was matter of fact, and Lola could appreciate that. Why sugar coat? If someone thinks you’re a mean person because you don’t sugar coat, then they don’t understand what a truly good person is.
Later that evening, Lola and Steve went to the pub for beer and sandwiches. Lola got a grilled cheese with ham, Steve ordered a steak and onion sub. Lola joked, “You’re not staying the night, are you?”
They talked about work and politics. Steve was a libertarian and he spoke passionately about economic and social topics that always seemed to come back around to one sole ideal, which is that every human being should be provided the very same things. It was a noble opinion, Lola thought, but certainly one of fantasy. There were too many other things to get in the way of his garden of eden. He would talk about welfare, immigration, the inequity of classes, but there was never a solution that made any sense to her. Do we just give people what they don’t earn? Do we dilute wealth? Do we let in every foreigner? What will happen to jobs? To her job? Will she able to afford a penthouse, or will there be any more penthouses? She listened with all she had to everything he said, and she asked questions, but never showed her doubts, because she wasn’t well-educated, nor well-opinionated. She liked poetry, Keats and Yeats were a few of her favorites. She carried several volumes of their poetry with her, and the lines would give her comfort throughout the day. When she’d read Yeats’ Isle of Innisfree or Keats’ …., she could lighten up and the stress would fade, because life is just love, and that’s really just it at the end of every day. This is how she and Steve could understand each other. At the end of the day, it wasn’t about politics; it was about the heart, the soul, the pursuit of happiness, the sorrow of loss, the ultimate desire of love, that every human deserves.
That night at her apartment, they lay on the floor in the center of the studio apartment, among colorful pillows, and they drank cheap wine and listened to Steve’s ipod mix of alternative music. Sounds from the nightclub below her apartment came through the walls on every side and filtered in from the street out front. “I wish I could get out of here,” she said, swigging the tumbler of pink-red wine.
“I told you, babe, give me another year or so and I’ll have us in one of those swanky brownstones you love so much. Personally, it’s a bit too high brow for me, but if it will make you happy, that’s what will be.”
“Oh, Stevey. You think everything is too high brow and bourgeois.”
“It’s boor-zhwah, honey, not boo-zhah.”
“And I just don’t think we need those things to be happy. What we need is a revolution and not more rich people being rich.”
“Oh, Stevey. Don’t you think it would be nice to have pretty things and good wine and fresh fish every night for dinner? And, a maid too. Because cleaning is for the birds! Don’t you think?”
“We can afford sushi, and you have pretty things. Just look at the painting right there.” He pointed to a Vrubel print hanging above her bed. In it was a woman made of rectangular pieces of purples and blues and she is holding a dagger. “It’s quite beautiful, actually,” Steve added.
“Oh, I know. I do love that painting, which happened to only cost me eight dollars at the Once New shop. Do you remember Mr. Slimy?”
“Of course—Mr. Slimy.” They had called him that after meeting him by the old dishes and books in the back of the store. He said he likes to buy old plates and use them to make his art. He was sweating profusely, his shirt stained in the pits and chest, and his hair appeared to have a melting gel in it, or it could have been some art supply he used to create his art. This wasn’t the strange part. When they inquired about his art, he proceeded to tell them that the everliars were coming, that he was preparing for their arrival and the dishes and glassware would be made into daggers and spears, which was like kryptonite to the everliars. He told something else about a time machine and asked if they wanted to join his legion and prepare for their coming. They politely declined, blaming other obligations as the cause, and they wished him good luck in his pursuits. As they walked away, ever so slowly from the area, they glanced back at him and saw him reach inside his pants to scratch the front of himself or to do something else entirely, right there before the old dishes and vases. Lola gasped, then covered her mouth with her hand, so not to alert him, as if he were a lion and they were his prey. They held their laughter until they were outside.
“I wonder if Mr. Slimy ever go the help he needed.”
“How does one function in the world? It makes you wonder if he had a home at all. And, if he did, what was it like?”
“Well, he seemed harmless,” Steve said.
“I wouldn’t take my chances, “ Lola said, pushing her body up from its indian style position to pour more wine. “You want more?”
“Absolutely. I mean, he wasn’t that bad. Just eccentric is all.”
“Oh, Stevey, he was bat-shit crazy. C’mon now.” Lola thought about the doctor suddenly, and thought that he’d appreciate such a story and would agree with her about him being bat-shit crazy. She was thinking more and more about the doctor these days. Now it was getting precarious. She didn’t like that he came into her thoughts when she was with Steve, but it was not something she could control. He would come into her mind like a warm breeze or déjà vu.
After the wine was gone, they made love in the dim light of the apartment, there on the floor, as the people danced below and Steve’s ipod buzzed with nasaly voices of indie rock bands. He loved the fullness of her body and how the curves were so severe he could sink his mouth into the crevices and taste her skin. Flawless, milky skin. She wrapped her legs around him tightly and held his face in her hands as he made small circles with his body above her, grunting and calling her name, as if she wasn’t completely there and he was calling her back.
For several more months, their life together goes on similarly and without incident. As the tide comes in high every night, so did their nights roll over with ease and insignificance.
Then a day came when Lola called out sick to the bank. She had, by all accounts, had purpose to go there when she woke up that morning. Her and Steve had a breakfast of eggs and orange juice, whereby he left to go tinker with computers and she took her shower. Later in the day, Steve called, left her a message. She got busy at the bank sometimes. But when an hour had gone by, then two, then three, he began to worry and stepped out of work to make his way the five blocks to the bank to check on her. Her station appeared untouched, so he inquired with the manager if she had left early, and he said she never came in at all. Steve pretended to remember then, as if embarrassed that he wouldn’t know such a thing, given his status as her boyfriend. The manager, Becca, asked if she could send a message. “I’m sure she’ll be in tomorrow,” she said.
“I’m Steve,” he said with a surprise mirrored in disgust.
“Steve,” she repeated. “Steve what?”
“Steve, her boyfriend Steve.”
“Oh, well, ok then, I’ll let her know you stopped by.”
“No need,” he said. I’ll be seeing her later.”
“OK, then.” That was peculiar, Steve thought. He’d seen Becca many times at the bank. While he never spoke to her, he was sure she would have remembered him, the visits, the kisses on the cheek. Was he that forgettable?
He decided to check her apartment. There was no answer to his knocking and buzzing. He called, listened for a phone ringing on the other side of the door, to no avail. He didn’t have the key; it wasn’t something they had discussed yet; it wasn’t something she offered.
Just after 4:00, Lola finally called. She had not been feeling well, she said. I stayed home to rest and I must have been sleeping when you called.
“You slept all day? I came by your apartment and buzzed and knocked. I called three times. You were sleeping?”
“Yes, Steve, I’m really not feeling very well. I think it’s the flu.”
“Poor thing. I’ll come over and bring you soup.”
“No, I just want to go back to sleep. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, ok?”
Steve assured her he would not be a bother, that he just wanted to help, but Lola was in no mood. He would have to understand. Being sick was for the birds, and he’d have to let her ride it out in peace. He heard no hide nor hair of her over the next two days, and beside the time he spent at work encased in his cubicle programming codes, he couldn’t go five minutes without a thought of her supple lips or the way she held his hand sturdily. Her long, strong fingers entwined with his. And, why didn’t she need any soup? What was she doing for food? He finally broke down and called on Saturday morning. He wouldn’t be going in to work and had nothing planned for the day. Usually, he and Lola would do some grocery shopping, take a walk to the river, chat about the people they watched go by, imagining their stories, and sometimes they’d talk about Spain. For dinner, they might meet with friends at a Thai House or a hamburger joint, which they were all hamburger joints for the most part, and by the time they went home, they’d be drunk on food and wine and whiskey.
This time, when he called, she answered right away, as if waiting for his call. She said she was doing much better, though still quite lethargic. “I miss you,” he said. “I miss my Lola.”
“Oh, Stevey, I miss you too,” she said. “I’m going to fix myself up, so that I’m presentable. Then, do you want to come over. Nothing crazy, just some flicks and food?”
Later, at Lola’s place, they sat quietly on the small sofa and watched an old western movie that Lola found on television. It bored him slightly, but he was comforted by her presence, by sharing the same air as something so beautiful.
“I just love the sounds,” she said. “All the sounds of these movies. The galloping of the horses on dry dirt, the spurs on their boots. The crackling of the fires in their cozy, wood homes with the creaky floors. It feels so good, doesn’t it? So warm.”
“Oh, Stevey, you can’t relate, I know. You have no idea what I mean.”
“Sure I do,” he defended himself. “The sounds. They’re old, like these movies are old.”
Later Stevie took the train to her favorite Chinese eatery to get take-out. A pint of lomein, a pint of fried rice, and the crab Rangoon. He got the sweet and sour chicken, and on the train, he sat with the hot bag in his lap, steam seeping up and out of the plastic bag wrapped in the paper bag. She could always eat it lukewarm, not cold. Never cold. An older woman sitting beside him commented on his treasure. “That must be good chinese if you’ve taken the train to get it.”
“Something like that,” Steve said.
“It’s a girl, then,” the woman said. “She has a craving and nothing else will do.”
“She’s been sick. I’m taking care of her, spoiling her really.”
“I see,” the woman added. “You love her more than she loves you.”
Startled by the comment, Steve said, “What?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Just forget about me over here.”
“You don’t know anything about me…or her…or us. Who are you, lady?”
“I’m nobody. Just forget me.”
“Stay on your meds, okay?” He looked toward the front of the car and across the aisle at the man, wife, and child, wondering if she was right about them. He laughed to himself after she got off the train at the next stop. He shook his head. It’s fuckin’ Chinese food, he thought. He jerked his shoulders up then down. She fuckin’ likes this place, he thought. It’s only three stops and two blocks. He threw his head back. One way.
About the Author:
Dana Verdino‘s work has appeared in Fiction at Work, Boston Literary Magazine, Camroc Press Review and Heart Insight, the magazine of The American Heart Association. Dana is an English Instructor for Gaston College and lives in South Carolina with her husband and four children. She has an M.A. in English, and an M.A. in Education.