“You can park behind me.”
He was standing next to his car, which he had left running. A 1983 Volvo wagon, the tail end mottled here and there with stickers. Her jeep rolled to a stop, the headlights settling on a faded cartoon of a raccoon with large, startled eyes. Block letters that dripped with blood spelled out the admonishment “How would YOU like someone to wear you?”
Not a very effective anti-fur campaign, she thought. The only person she could think of who would wear raccoon was Daniel Boone.
He stood next to his car, facing her. He seemed smaller, yet she knew he hadn’t changed. It was only her memory of him that had continued to grow and expand. How then was she to measure him now? She realized she had no construct with which to place him in comparison to everyone else. She had never thought of her boyfriends that way, as notches of measurement, each representing a certain, unchanging value. How had they measured up? How did they compare to everyone and everything else? She thought about how pennies are always used in pictures to relate the true size of something, how tumors are described in terms of which fruit they approximate. A grapefruit, an orange, a tangerine. What were the descriptive standards by which to depict boyfriends? They had all seemed completely average in the end. Skin, bones.
“I’ll pull forward so you can fit.” He spoke without moving. She knew he was being careful, afraid of betraying himself. She had agreed to follow him back to his place so that they could talk. He had driven so fast. She kept up reminding herself at every intersection that she didn’t have car insurance.
“Okay.” Then, realizing he couldn’t hear her she also nodded her head. He jumped back into his car with an alacrity that embarrassed her. Something about an eager man made her tired. He left his door open, walking his left foot along the ground as the car inched forward. She watched, arguing with the small coil of panic in her chest, pleading with it to loosen. His leg slowly walked alongside the car, a spindly appendage patiently guiding the hulking bulk of the car that teetered and rolled like a patient, cooperative tumor.
As a child she had been fascinated by the Elephant Man. She would stare for hours at the pictures of him naked, bulbous growths of skin that dripped, folded and draped, weighing him down unevenly giving his body a compassionate slant. His face seemed to represent his distortion in degrees, the outline of the left side suggesting what he might have looked like, the growths of skin and bone increasing in their drama as they moved across his face to the right side. He looked to her like a portrait smudged by the thumb of God before the ink had dried. A damaged masterpiece.
He was waiting for her. She pretended to search for something in the console between the seats. Maybe she wasn’t ready for this. She couldn’t tell. Her thoughts flitted in and out, each one only resting for a moment like a paranoid hummingbird. She fought to keep her mind on the present, but could not stop the memories, set off here and there like mini explosions detonated by things she thought she had forgotten. The park bench with the painting of a skull he had stolen years ago when he still drank. The bagged leaves that they had gathered after a fight, their anger fueling their work until the beauty of the yard made them forget it. His torn jacket crumpled on a stool next to the garage door. The same jacket he had refused to take off the day she made him take her to the beach. How can you hate the sun, she asked. People had looked at them, worried. She imagined them thinking, what is a girl like that doing with that man? She had enjoyed these looks, her love for him strengthened by the mounting consensus of strangers testifying to his unloveability.
She cut the engine and removed her glasses, placing them deliberately in their case. She closed the door and activated the alarm before turning towards him.
“Hey!” She said as if she had run into him unexpectedly.
“Hey,” He replied. He smiled, mistaking her awkwardness for a game. The boy meets girl game. Or maybe he wasn’t thinking about that at all. Maybe he was mocking her. She never could tell.
That had been the problem with them. It wasn’t the reason for the fight on the street, or why he left the next morning to stay with his brother, or why she decided to move out. It didn’t explain why she never returned his calls, leaving him to wonder. But, she had decided in the year since that the real problem was one of a fundamental misunderstanding. She simply did not know where he was coming from.
Of course, there had been moments, like the time she told him that she was afraid he would get to know her and no longer find her very interesting. She’d sat on her heels looking up at him her right eye tingling in the early formation of a tear. He had dropped down beside her, focused with uncertainty. How could I ever feel that way about you? he’d said. You are amazing. He had placed an open palm over her heart for emphasis and said you again, as if he were trying to reach her through the thick of an unfamiliar language. It had occurred to her that so many meetings had gone that way. Tarzan and Jane, the pilgrims and the Indians, Helen Keller and her teacher. A touch, a press, you. Me. You.
She used to fantasize what it would be like to meet the elephant man. She imagined herself ducking into the side show tent, waiting with the others for the thick, velvet curtains to part. She would have been young, fresh-faced, small-waisted, with a forest of light curls contained by a criss-cross of ribbons. Her torso would sit straight and stubborn, sculpted by a lace-up corset until it looked wooden.
And then the curtain would be lifted. The Elephant Man. Women would faint, children scream. Yet, amidst this flurry of horror she would remain calm and serene. And because of this he would notice her, and they would lock eyes, she and the Elephant Man.
Sometimes that was all. Just a quiet moment of unspoken understanding. Other times she would imagine her steps strong and steady, walking onto the stage with a calm persistence that would hold him immobile as she took his hand. The normal one. Sometimes she would even softly graze his cheek with her smooth, peachy lips. I could do it, she thought. I could love him. I could love the Elephant Man.
For years, she wore this thought like a badge of bravery, and practiced her triumphant humanity with a litany of fat friends, volunteer work, and once, a year as a mentor to an exchange student from Mumbai with an arm like a twisty tie.
She grasped the window frame of the French windows and lifted herself into the bedroom. A bit of the old silk curtain had made its way into her hand along with a cobweb. She was surprised by how similar the two felt.
“Let’s just sit and talk for a while.” He sat on the bed, his hand lazily massaging the mattress in small, skimming circles.
“Okay.” She said it matter of fact, without hope.
The room was dimly illuminated by a table lamp. The red shade sat at a slant as if it didn’t quite believe something. There were brownish circles where it had gotten too close to the bulb. She counted them. Three. Three different times disaster had been averted. Had there been less when she had been there? She had never counted them before. She hadn’t been thinking about averting anything then.
The limp light pooled over a long yellow dresser whose orderly, closed drawers gave it an almost regal look amidst the mess surrounding it in the room. Clothes dotted the floor forming little piles that were indistinguishable from one another, but which she knew were separated into those two eternal categories: clean and dirty. She was surprised by the strong smell. It was his smell. She had forgotten how thick and musty it was with an unexpected sweetness. Like pears and oily hair.
The elephant man stank. A hot, wet stench that sickened anyone who came near him. A doctor, his only friend, campaigned tirelessly for him to have a permanent room at the hospital. The board wouldn’t allow it. Then the doctor discovered that if the patient was bathed twice a day the smell disappeared. The elephant man was accepted as a permanent lodger, disaster cleanly averted by a simple practice that would become commonplace just fifty years later. She never found any mention of whether or not the elephant man could smell himself. Not knowing that, she was unsure whether the story was one of acceptance or self-awareness.
He sat on the edge of the unmade bed. She stood in the French window frame scanning the room for evidence of what he had been doing. The room was strewn with clothes and water bottles. Here and there small, bright notebooks emerged from the lumps. Howard Hughes by Jackson Pollock, she thought. Or maybe she was just trying to find a pattern, some order, some reason.
“Come here.” He pushed aside a blanket balled up from a lack of or an excess of use. Unable to think of a reason why not to, she began to tiptoe her way across the room towards him over clothes, papers, notebooks. He wrote down the lyrics to his songs in them. He only used Sanrio notebooks with their glossy covers and colorful, printed pages. She stepped over a small pile topped with a bright pink notebook depicting Hello Kitty and My Melody on a picnic. Hello Kitty was offering her friend a small cake in the shape of a heart. Below them in pink letters dotted with daisies it read Friends Make the Sun Shine Brighter.
He said the Sanrio notebooks made writing more fun. It makes you take things less seriously, he’d told her. She’d considered the possibility that was all that writer’s block was; just taking things too seriously.
She’d agreed to try his method. He’d taken her to the Sanrio store in the mall, weaving masterfully in and out of impossibly packed shelves dominated by pink and purple. Picking up various notebooks he had explained the different characters waiting for an emotional connection of some kind, as if she were adopting a puppy.
“This is Pom Pom Purin. He’s kinda like a dog. All he does is sleep and he’s always confused.” He pointed to a drawing of a rotund dog-like creature the color of dried mustard lying against a large pillow, little question marks floating above his smiling, blank stare. “And,” he’d said excitedly, snatching the notebook from her and flipping it over, “he even has a little asshole.” She looked to where he was pointing. Pom Pom Purin was splayed on his back, his stubby legs up in the air. He looked as if he had been gunned down by a firing squad, the happy question marks bobbing over his head suggesting that even he was unsure as to why. “See?” His nail poked at the dog’s butt, where a perky little asterisk sat. “A happy little asshole,” she’d offered. He’d turned away, taking it personally.
She finally decided on a notebook depicting a sorrowful looking rabbit wearing a calico dress. The rabbit looked old in a smooth, cartoon way, and did not have the same vapid smile the other characters seemed so fond of. Its name was Maroon Cream.
“Maroon Cream,” she’d tried it out loud. “Sounds so sexual.”
She had tried with the notebook later that night, her pen hovering over the sad calico rabbit, waiting. Don’t take it so seriously. While the silliness of the notebooks seemed to have solved his struggle, it created a new and oddly legitimate fear in her. She felt the notebook made all of her ideas seem trite and silly. How could she write about all the moments she’d lost hold of with rabbits and smiling fungi happily glaring up at her like some kind of down-syndrome peanut gallery?
Sitting down next to him she wondered if her Maroon Cream notebook was still stuffed into the small shelf next to the bed where she had left it. Had he gone through everything, throwing out any sign of her, or was he the type that stored his memories snugly in a shoebox? Both scenarios depressed her. Confined or abandoned.
“Are you regretting this?” She hadn’t thought of that, but she did feel the crestfallen weight of a momentum not easily diverted. Regret was proving to be a poor match for inertia.
“No. Why would I?” She hoped that he might come up with something.
“No, you wouldn’t. I just want you to know, I meant everything I said.” She knew that he had. It was the only reason she had agreed to follow him home. He had been so sincere, his hands deep in the pockets of the dirty jacket occasionally darting out to swipe at oily tears that fell fat and quick from his eyes. The contortions in his face made her own eyes sting. But now his eyes were dry. Her upper lip felt wet.
It happened quickly, and afterwards, lying in the dark, she realized that was exactly how it had always been. Somehow in her mind she had lengthened the process, their year-long separation slicing the moments into tight intervals which she narrated with long, sensuous memories of other moments, other people, other ideas. She felt the cold creeping up her limbs inching its way to her center. She remembered reading in some magazine, the kind that mixed fashion and personal advice, that it was a good idea to lay a towel down before sex so there was no fighting over who had to sleep in the wet spot. She had never been good at planning for the aftermath. Andy Warhol had said that the most exciting thing was never doing it. He was right. Of course, there was no way of knowing for sure until you had done it. It was impossible to compare anything until you had felt both of its extremes.
“I was afraid.”
Her mind raced to understand. Was he referring to a particular moment? She considered for a moment that he might have been afraid of her. She was attracted to the idea, but admonished herself out of a reflexive desire to be modest. Of course, he meant he was afraid to love her completely. Men were always talking about being afraid of emotions.
“I know.” She shrugged and rolled onto her side. Suddenly, she was tired.
“No, you don’t.” He pressed himself against her and snaked his hand around her waist cupping her low belly making it feel to her like a lump of delicate dough. The word fecundity fell through her thoughts. He propped himself up, cradling his head in his other hand.
“Remember the day we fought outside on the bench?”
“You mean the last time I saw you?” She knew it was a stupid question. There had only been one argument fought outside on a bench.
It had crept up slowly on them, disguising itself as the calm banter shared between a comfortable couple. There had been a late breakfast on a sunny veranda, which their waiter had zigzagged with a mounting frenzy and diminishing results. Her eggs had been cold. His coffee was never refilled. But they were calm and smiled at each other over their mutual decision to tip him 20% anyway. They had strolled the shops, clutching to-go coffee cups and each other’s hands. But he had persisted in gently punctuating the afternoon with questions that seemed rhetorical, but for which he demanded an emphatic answer. Do you love me? Are we happy together? She had felt compelled to accompany her answers with short modifiers, themselves rhetorical in their own way. Of course I do. I haven’t changed. Yes, but who’s to say what happiness is anyway? He had persisted, needing an answer, but refusing to tell her which one.
They had settled on a bench outside the library. The bench looked old as if it had spent its life on the beach. Weathered, torn, romantic. She sat on the edge, aware of splinters and the shortcomings of shorts. He was talking about their need to make a real commitment to the relationship. Are you trying to say you want to get married? Her tone suggested that he shouldn’t ask. He didn’t. He left the next morning before she was up. A note on the bathroom counter said he had gone to his brother’s house for a few days.
“I didn’t want to pressure you. I just needed to be sure.”
“It doesn’t matter. I probably reacted in a really immature way.” She grinned in the darkness. He couldn’t see, but she needed to convince herself. Don’t take it too seriously.
“I was really scared that day.”
“You mentioned that.”
“I had started peeing blood.”
“Why?” She breathed shallow hoping for something simple.
“I didn’t know. Dave had set up a meeting with an oncologist friend of his at the hospital.”
Good ol’ Dave, she thought. Responding exactly the way an older brother should. Making appointments, arrangements, while she kicked a bench and screamed asshole in public.
“What did he say?”
“It was strange. I knew before he told me. Cancer. Stomach.”
Her thoughts smashed up against one another as they rearranged her memories. The look of worry he’d had on his face, his eyebrows forming a pup tent over his moist eyes. The way he’d hugged her outside a shoe shop and whispered yet another rhetorical question. What would I do without you? He hadn’t been afraid of losing her. He’d been afraid of losing himself.
“Is it gone?” After she said it she realized that cancer was never talked about that way. Cancer did not go away. It went into remission. Like alcoholism. There are some things you can never get rid of.
The Elephant Man knew this. He lived the remainder of his short life in the hospital knowing nothing could be done about his condition. He would always be misshapen. His skin would always fold and slide as if it had been squeezed from a tube. He would always stink. The best he could do was temporarily remove himself. Put himself into remission. From his self-imposed seclusion he wrote beautiful, florid letters inspiring Queen Victoria herself to forget what he looked like, smelled like. He could not rid himself of his reality, but he could conceal it. Put it away.
“I had preventative surgery and did six weeks of chemo just to be sure. I have to get checked now every six months.” His voice was clear and precise the way tragedy appears from a distance.
“For how long?”
She considered his life, laid out in six month increments to the dead end. He was silent. She was aware that he was allowing her to absorb the information.
“I’m gonna hop in the shower. You comin’?”
“Yeah, in a minute.” She pulled the blanket up around her shoulders and pretended to be cold as an explanation.
She could hear the water pelting the black marble of the shower interrupted by moments of silence as he ducked under the stream. Flipping onto her stomach, she scanned the small bookshelf. It was still there. Her brown, shiny notebook with the sad rabbit. The writing stopped on the second page. In the upper right corner of the page the sorrowful Maroon Cream was standing in front of a country garden, clutching a bundle of root vegetables. The writing was her own. I can’t think of anything to say.
Driving home she told herself that she really did want the best for him. He would be fine. He’d already made it through the worst of it without her. And this time she’d left a note.
De Anna Joy Brooks recently completed her BA in Liberal Arts at AULA. She has lived in Los Angeles since 2002 working in the entertainment industry.