Photograph by Amy Sly
by Aneesa Davenport
You do not always have to be yourself. When you slosh down the sidewalk from the comic book shop to the café for the second time today, shredding your soles, wind-jostled, and momentum keeping you on—when the tips of your hair stick to the corners of your mouth and you think eight months now you’ve lived out here and you still can’t get a grip on the weather—don’t let go. The melancholy doesn’t have to settle in your lungs like a damp spot. Remember that you don’t duck away from pigeons anymore; you don’t avoid sagging El overpasses as if they were ladders. Marvel at the icy patches of snowcone snow, the salty gutters, the crisp brightness of the city. It’s Valentine’s Day.
Issue #42 soundtrack: Unquiet Nights "If I Could and You Ever Would"
Your lenses will fog up when you gracelessly swing open the door to the café, banging the handle against the wall, the wind making a fiasco out of the movement and shoving you inside. Your nose will run. Unwind your scarf.
You may not notice the server-girl with blue dreads smirk at the barista as he steps up to meet you at the register, wiping his large hands on a stained rag. This is for the best.
Be prepared for him to say, “Hey you,” and spread his lips disarmingly. Just smile tightly and swat your hair away from your face. “What can I get you?” he’ll ask.
Say, “Just a decaf. I can’t drink coffee past noon anymore.” Don’t let yourself think that even this small confession is too much. Don’t worry now that you don’t know anyone in the city, about finding someone else to talk to besides people who are paid to be friendly. Don’t dwell. The barista will act like he remembers you -- you spend half your days at the corner table, after all -- and this will make you feel as though you’ve made progress. You’re not allowed to be so reclusive anymore. But he won’t seem to remember your conversation early this morning, when you nonchalantly confided in him that you’ve stopped sleeping at night. You also don’t eat any longer.
Your mother has taken to calling at eight a.m. (along with the landlord and the temp agencies, but they don’t keep calling back when you don’t answer). It’s two hours earlier for her in San Francisco, but she’s consistently chipper and she always asks, “Have you eaten anything?”
To which you respond, “I just woke up,” even though you never went to bed.
“What are you going to have for breakfast?” she asks.
“I’m not hungry anymore. I have a headache.”
“At least have some coffee. Caffeine is the only thing for it.”
“I’ve given it up.”
“Do you have any yerba mate?”
Even as you re-explain that you can’t sleep, that caffeine is not a catch-all, mate’s not a miracle, she offers to stay on the phone with you while you make it. She succeeds in helping you feel a little less alone, less far away, and your nose starts to tingle with gratitude that she won’t give up. She puts you on speakerphone as she puts her own water on to boil.
But today didn’t follow the script. Early this morning she said, “Well, I’ve discovered why things are going so badly for you.”
“Saturn’s in Mercury. And it has been for two years.”
“It hasn’t been bad for two years.” You remember the beginning of this big adventure, this leaving home with someone you pretty much loved. Your ex had always felt the need to put distance between him and where he’d always lived, what he’d always known. You didn’t share the feeling, but who wouldn’t understand it? You didn’t take much convincing. You can even shut your eyes and re-experience the moment when he asked you to come with him, your shock at his sureness about you, how right it felt to believe in his belief.
Your mom said, “You know, you really shouldn’t have made any life-changing decisions before you were twenty-five.”
At this point a garbage truck outside your window started backing up. You got off the phone and headed down to the café.
“No prob,” the barista will say.
Tip big and slide your mug to the other end of the counter to watch him over the frames of your glasses while you fill in the Reader crossword with fake answers. For an eight-letter primate, put ROCKSTAR, noticing his rhinestoned belt buckle. Maybe he has a sense of humor. Have hope. With his ski-slope nose and bright pink polo, it’s hard to say if he’s gay or not—he seems to flirt with everybody, including the young homeless guys who shave in the restroom, the I Have A Foot Fetish man who leaves flyers everywhere, and the sexy tattooed waitresses. This lack of discretion would not normally appeal to you -- you have been known to overly cherish your discerning taste -- but now it makes you feel safe, like you could take a risk without taking a risk.
He will surely refill you with regular at no charge without being asked, leaning on one elbow so the cuff of his short sleeve stretches across his bicep near your breasts. This will make you alert in more than two ways.
“So you must live around here,” will be his line.
“Over on Beach and Ashland,” you’ll tell him. Then you’ll add: “Though as a Californian I don’t consider the lakeside a beach.” This will not be amusing. Just return his inquiry politely.
“Chicago Avenue, across the park.”
“Tough commute,” you’ll say dryly, watching yourself start to shrink back into sarcasm. Knock that off.
“Not as tough as yours.”
Now you must let yourself open: imagine your shirt is sheer, your pockets empty, your canvas primed. Be available. Why not? You lost your job downtown the day after your boyfriend left and you haven’t bothered to get a new one. A month already. He stuck you with the rent, but who are you kidding, you’d been supporting him anyway. Now you live off graduate student loans -- the paycheck of the career student -- but have quit going to class. You schedule your days around trips to the library, read art theory off the syllabi in the café. You try to save energy. The artists say: “We are who we pretend to be” (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.). You read earlier today: “Begin anywhere” (John Cage). Repeat this to yourself silently.
The barista has very white teeth.
You’ll have to admit, “Yeah, it’s rough.” This kind of sarcasm is okay. Laugh lightheartedly.
After another cup you can start to get up to go, because he’ll be sure to ask,
If you have one more sip of this stuff you’ll never sleep. Say this to him. Have courage. Let your eyes well a little with sincerity. Or maybe that’s malnutrition. Say this too: You’ve been taking these expired sleeping pills (you don’t have health insurance) but tonight you’ll have to combine them with shots down at The Beachwood. This will do the trick:
“No fair. I don’t get off till eleven.”
Twist your lips cutely. “I could wait till then.”
At home, do not take the front steps past the neighbor’s door; do not check the mail. It will be Valentine’s cards addressed to the both of you, mostly from college friends far away. Your old dormmate sent one covered with coarse glitter that brimmed with her bubbly handwriting. She was on Ambien at the time and three-quarters through she writes, “I’m seeing double now so I guess I’ll go to bed,” but keeps on for another page. If you read this now, it would only remind you of being in school: how she’d skip down the hall to brush her teeth and come back moments later tripping on the legs of her pajamas, listing in door frames and slurring her words. This image, in turn, might make you laugh aloud, but the apartment’s bare so the sound would seep straight through the floor. You feel too private now -- sensitive like a newly shaved dog -- you don’t want the downstairs neighbor to hear when you’re home.
The note another friend mailed two days ago is pink and homemade, sending love and imploring you to stick together in this time of war, to get out and protest. It blends the saccharine with the revolutionary in a way you would look forward to telling your ex-boyfriend about, which is dangerous, but not in a way he would find attractive. Almost immediately after he left, you started making lists of things to talk to him about on the off-chance he called. Things he would find amusing: the Valentine’s cards, the I Have A Foot Fetish man, the form letter you finally received from the president in response to your own, which the two of you composed together back when you cared about those things. Back before you noticed you hadn’t made any friends, that your boyfriend always walked two steps ahead of you even when you sped up to meet him, that your birth control pills were making you distant and feel outside yourself and cry all the time. Remember, there are plenty of topics of conversation which lead away from the point at which you start crying. From now on you will not start crying.
The mail will also contain: his phone bill, his own student loan forms, an issue of The Economist which he subscribed to by accident. The stack of his belongings on the floor by the door piles up with things which in the end he’ll just tell you to keep: a winter cap you crocheted for him, his favorite boxers, the books you both own copies of. The watch his father gave him, its long-dead battery, a can of chicken noodle soup.
If you must busy yourself, shower and change into an obvious skirt, overdo it with accessories and then peel them all off. In heels, the flat walk to the pub will be wobbly. Your legs will first rush with chill, then spread with warmth, then go numb. You miss the temperate fog you left, the concrete hills you used to hate. Everything’s level here. Everything’s square one. How easy this could be! You don’t have confidence, but you don’t have expectations either. When it begins to mist, each molecule will twirl in the currents before you. You could grow accustomed to it. The wind will whip you onward. Contain the door as you open it.
The barista will be waiting at the bar, still in his pink shirt, his distressed jeans, his dark oiled hair. Some would consider him handsome. “What’re you having?” he’ll ask as you take up a stool.
“Shot of whiskey and an Old Style.”
That will give him pause.
“I’m not taking any chances.”
Expect to be self-conscious in front of the bartender, who’s only seen you in here with your ex. When you moved to this neighborhood -- to this inland state -- you’d made a point to come in here every day for two weeks, until you could stop by just twice a month and still be regulars. The place is woody and taxidermied, has a stained glass chandelier swinging low over the pool table and a swoony jukebox. Your ex would select “Centerfield” or “Brown Eyed Girl” or “My Way”; he’d lip-sync the lyrics to you dreamily until you danced. Gin and tonics in the cool reprieve of the dark pub got you through the summer heat.
Snap out of it. The barista is talking to you -- you’ll have missed every word he’s said. Finally think to ask him, “So, what’s your name?”
There’s nothing to say to that, so order another round.
Try: “What’s your sign?”
“Hmm… I’m not sure.”
Keep trying. “I think I have SAD.”
“Seasonal Affective Disorder.”
“It’s when you get depressed in the winter. Because of the latitude.”
Yes, you’re going to have to entertain yourself.
“I priced light therapy machines, but they’re pretty expensive.”
In a moment of desperation, you can always grab your purse from the hook at your knees and pull out a stick of wintermint gum. The barista will ask for one too. Luckily, you’ll be drunk enough to say without even planning to say it: “What, are you going to kiss me?” By now it will be clear that he’s getting a completely inaccurate impression of you. “We are who we pretend to be.” Good job.
He will kiss you even before chewing the gum. Place your hand near his crotch. Tight. After the kiss, you can be sure he’ll carry your bag and wrap his arm around your shoulders like an aristocrat and escort you safely home with him.
The five blocks to his apartment are so dark you’ll feel like you aren’t wearing your glasses. He’ll guide you, though, babbling. He’s tall. He probably works out. You’ll only be able to spot brightly colored moonlit objects like the new daffodils circling the saplings the city just put in. “How spooky,” you’ll murmur, and he’ll tug a whole clump out of the ground to present to you, bulbs and dirt and bony little roots and all. Don’t be embarrassed. You do not always have to be yourself. “Awww.” Shut your eyes the rest of the way.
Stoop with him into an underground garden apartment where someone is watching TV. His bedroom has blackout curtains over the windows but no door. There you’ll fall into a king-size waterbed which takes up the whole room. Any moment you will be seasick, meditating on wind-ripped cliffs and cold rain and waves warm over shock-numb legs as you float on your back and let him move you about. When he snatches a condom out of your purse, nevermind the unhung door frame and let your last lick of concern drift off just below the surface of the water. You’ve never had sex this unfathomably drunk before, never with a near-stranger, never with such intent. You’ll feel you have accomplished something outside yourself. You will sink into it; do leisurely, luxuriously little.
Wake late in the blackout room. You will have finally slept -- not even a hangover. Breathe deeply. You’re liable to be disoriented; search the ceiling first for some sign, like a mariner. Press your fingertips against your eyelids until they glow, like "Orange and Yellow" in the Mark Rothko room at the Art Institute. Your favorite place for a midwinter’s nap, the room is tiny and the field of color a whole wall tall. It throbs like the pulse of the sun, hot as a windowpane bursting with lava, a rubber start button, go go go go go. Now you keep it with your eyes closed.
Open your eyes. The barista will have left for work. Does it matter? What more do you want now that you know you can do it? You are not the you of the past four weeks; you are not the you of the sad, angry three months before that. You are certainly not the you your ex-boyfriend knows, maybe not the you your mother remembers. The world is new.
Forget the café. Forget the library. Your legs a bit shaky, as though unused. Take the way home through the park. Stepping over crumpled safety glass on the sidewalk, glance into a rifled glove box. Something has happened here. A guy in a ball cap will be doing the same on the other side of the car, hunching over to get a better look, but will stop short when he notices you. He has light eyes. Feel a slight shock of connection.
Pass a courtful of disorganized after-care kids playing basketball; one with white wings silk-screened to the back of his sky blue T-shirt. Circle the fountain, hover at the edge of the field deciphering the limits and variety of the dog park. Turn back to the fountain and settle on a bench next to a middle-aged man with gray hair and a gray beard. It will be warm -- unseasonably warm -- and humid, overcast but vibrating with light. Is it still February? Strollers will park and children run up to the fountain, poke their index fingers into the water, then run away. Stay-at-home moms will gape at the weather, their luck that they’re not stuck inside again today.
The man next to you will be tall, his legs extending far past yours, crossed at the ankles. He’ll wear well-worn, flattened moccasins, his dark heels cracked and ashy. He’ll be reading; pull a paperback from your purse to avoid seeming creepy.
This book would be too dense for the breezy outdoors any day but especially today, now that you’re alive. It’s the type of thing you should be underlining in pencil or mouthing to yourself. It’ll say: “……………….” And without sunglasses, you won’t even be able to look at the page, the clouds, the rilling water. Your skirt will cling as you cross, uncross, cross your thighs; oval spots on your knees warm pink.
Watch as girls dip the tips of their braids into the dappled pool and slap each other with them. Before you can think, step out of both shoes at once, dash up and into the fountain, and splash. It is like ice. Slump back into your place on the metal slats. Reopen your book.
“Refreshing?” the man will ask, turning toward you, still holding up his hardback. He looks kind. You’ll remind yourself that that means nothing, then forget.
“You gotta do what you gotta do.” Smile friendlily.
“Can you believe this weather?”
“No. I cannot believe it.” Don’t be afraid to hold his gaze.
He’ll nod toward the worn cover of your book. “Any good?”
“Who can concentrate out here?”
Then he’ll rest his book in his lap, revealing a hand-drawn announcement on his white sweatshirt.
What the hell? Ask him: “You’re the I Have A Foot Fetish man?”
“The very one.”
“You have a foot fetish?”
“I do indeed.”
“And you’re proud of it.”
“You could say that. Certainly not ashamed.”
Consider this, taking in the rest of the park. The strollers, the children, the pets, the daffodils. The businesswoman crossing briskly past the fountain in her wool suit, just off work. She didn’t know what the weather would be like. She must be burning up.
And then you’ll blink and won’t catch the stranger as he grabs the woman’s purse. You won’t know if her grip was tight or if he hit her or if she lost her balance, but she’ll be flat on her back; he’ll be jogging away. Running so slowly, how did he get so far so fast? You’ll wonder this.
Your fingers will wrap themselves around the strap of your bag. You will eventually think: You have a cell phone; call the police. Dig for it. This sort of thing has never happened to you before. You’ll suddenly feel very lightheaded and hungry. Where is your phone?
As you stare curiously at the silent scene, muted by the humidity, the man will slow and circle back, joining the woman—now upright—and two other people around a video camera. They’ll huddle, discuss, replay the take. The sun will brighten, the drops of water in the fountain fall discretely.
Turn to the I Have A Foot Fetish man. “Did you just see that?”
“Yeah, I saw that.”
“That was weird.”
“I share your sentiment.”
Think to yourself: yes. Yes, you do. Yes, we share a sentiment.
Aneesa Davenport is a Pushcart-Prize-nominated poet living in San Francisco, where she toils away for a book publisher by day and scavenges the landscape for material by night. Her work has appeared in Fringe, Fanzine, The Santa Barbara Independent, The South Carolina Review, and elsewhere. Find her at paragraphed.wordpress.com.
Amy Sly lives in Brooklyn, and works for BuzzFeed as their Visual Designer. She moonlights as a book designer, photographer, and co-creator of CoverSpy. She keeps the daily cellphone photo blog for you, not them (which the above photo is from), art directs Slice literary magazine, rides a motorcycle and vrooms her engine for little kids. Visit Amy online at amysly.com.
Unquiet Nights is Belfast-based singer/guitarist Luke Mathers, drummer Rodger Firmin, and the bassist John Rossi. The band has been featured in Under The Radar magazine's Best of 2010 edition and played venues including Scala London with Bloc Party. Their new album 21st Century Redemption Songs is the band’s maiden release, and is the result of 18 months of intensive recording and self-production. For more, click to unquietnights.com.