Issue 206, Fall 2013
On our first date, he bought me a taco, talked at length about the ancients’ theories of light, how it streams at angles to align events in space and time, that it is the source of all information, determines every outcome, how we can reflect it to summon aliens using mirrored bowls of water. I asked what the point of it all was, but he didn’t seem to hear me. Lying on the grass outside a tennis arena, he held my face toward the sun, stared sideways at my eyeballs, and began to cry. He told me I was the sign he’d been waiting for and, like looking into a crystal ball, he’d just read a private message from God in the silvery vortex of my left pupil. I disregarded this and was impressed instead by the ease with which he rolled on top of me and slid his hands down the back of my jeans, gripping my buttocks in both palms and squeezing, all in front of a Mexican family picnicking on the lawn.
He was the manager of an apartment complex in a part of town where the palm trees were sick. They were infested by a parasite that made them soft like bendy straws, and so they arched over the roads, buckling under the weight of their own heads, fronds skimming the concrete surfaces of buildings, poking in through open windows. And when the wind blew, they clattered and sagged and you could hear them creaking. “Someone needs to cut these trees down,” my boyfriend said one morning. He said it like he was really sad about it, like it really pained him, like someone, I don’t know who, had really let him down. “It’s just not right.”
I watched him make the bed. His sheets were a poly-cotton blend, stained, faded, and pilly pastel landscapes. What was supposed to keep us warm at night was a spruce-green sleeping bag. He had an afghan he said his grandmother had knit—a matted brown-and-yellow mess of yarn that he laid asymmetrically over the corner of the bed as a decorative accent. I tried to overlook it.
I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood. It was a shadowy, crumbling collection of bungalows and auto-body shops. The apartment complex rose a few stories above it all, and from our bedroom window I could look out and down into the valley, which was always covered in orange haze. I liked how ugly it all was, how trashy. Everyone in the neighborhood walked around with their heads down on account of all the birds. Something in the trees attracted a strange breed of pigeon—black ones, with bright red legs and sharp, gold-tipped talons. My boyfriend said they were Egyptian crows. He felt they’d been sent to watch him, and so he behaved even more carefully than ever. When he passed a homeless person on the street, he shook his head and muttered a word I don’t think he could have spelled: ingrate. If I turned my back during breakfast he’d say, “I noticed you spilled some of your coffee, so I wiped it up for you.” If I didn’t thank him profusely, he’d put down his fork, ask, “Was that okay?” He was a child, really. He had childish ideas. He told me he “walked like a cop,” which scared off criminals on the street at night. “Why do you think I’ve never been mugged?” He made me laugh.
And he explained something he thought most people didn’t understand about intelligence. “It comes from the heart,” he said, beating his chest with his fist. “It has a lot to do with your blood type. And magnets.” That one gave me pause. I took a better look at him. The texture of his face was thick, like oiled leather. The only smile he ever gave was one where he lowered his head, stuck his chin out, and pulled the corners of his mouth from ear to ear, eyes twinkling up idiotically through batting eyelashes. He was, after all, a professional actor. “I’ve been laying low,” he explained, “waiting for the perfect time to break out. People who get famous quick are doomed.” And he was superstitious. He carved a scarab beetle out of Ivory soap and mounted it with putty over the door of our apartment, said it would protect us from home invasions and let the aliens know that we were special, that we were on their side. Every morning he went out front and blasted the bird droppings, which were green and fluorescent, off the front stoop with a high-pressure hose. He hated those birds. They circled overhead, hid in the palm fronds when a cop car passed, screeched and cawed when a child dropped a lollipop, stood in thick lines on the electric wires, stared into our souls, according to my boyfriend.
“And also,” he went on, putting his hands in his pockets, a gesture meant to let me know that he was defenseless, that he was a good boy, “I have to pick up a package at the post office.” He made it sound like he was going on a secret mission, like what he had to do was so difficult, so perilous, required so much strength of character, he needed my support. He slid the pick-up slip from the postman across the counter as proof. “You’ll do great,” is what I said, trying to belittle him.
“Thanks, babe,” he said and kissed my forehead. He looked down at the kitchen tile, shrugged his shoulders, then lifted his chin to show me a brave grin. I left him alone to clean the floor, which he did by picking up each little crumb with his fingers, then dotting out stuck-on dirt with squares of paper towel he wet in the sink. He had a theory about how to stay in shape. It was to tense your body vigorously during everyday activities. He walked around with buttocks clenched, arms rigid, neck and face turning red. When I first moved in, he ran up the stairs with my suitcase, then stared down at me as though I would applaud. And once, when he saw me glance at his arm, he said, “I’m basically an Olympic athlete. I just don’t like to compete.” He had a crudely drawn tattoo of a salivating dog on his shoulder. Underneath it was written, COMIN’ TO GETCHA!
And he was short. I had never dated a short man before. The thought crossed my mind: Perhaps I am learning humility. Perhaps this man is the answer to my prayers. Perhaps he’s saving my soul. I should be kind. I should be grateful. But I was not kind and I was not grateful. I watched with disgust as he unpacked a box of books he’d found in the trash, squatting down rhythmically to place each one on the shelf. These were his constant calisthenics. His legs were iron, by the way. His hamstrings were so tight he could barely bend at the waist. When he tried, he made a face like someone being penetrated from behind.
“When I get paid,” he said, dusting the mantle, “I’m going to wear my yellow sports jacket and take you out on the town. Did I show you my yellow sports jacket? I bought it at a vintage boutique,” he said. “It was really expensive. It’s awesome.”
I’d seen it in the closet. It was a contemporary, size 8 woman’s blazer, according to the label.
“Show me,” I said.
He ran, tucking his shirt in, licking his palms to slick his hair back, and came back with it on. His fingers barely poked out from the cuffs. The shoulder pads nearly hit his ears, as he had basically no neck. “What do you think?” he asked.
“You look very nice,” I said, masking my lie with a yawn.
He grabbed me, picked me up, pinning my elbows, twirled me around, making pained faces from the effort, despite his Olympic strength. “Soon, babe, I’m gonna take you to Vegas and marry you.”
“Okay,” I said. “When?”
“Babe, you know I can’t really do that,” he said, putting me down, suddenly grave and uncomfortable, as though the idea had been mine.
“Why not?” I asked. “You don’t like me?”
“I need my mother’s blessing,” he said shrugging, frowning. “But I love you so much,” he confirmed, stretching his arms demonstratively above his head. I watched the plastic yellow button on the blazer strain and pop. He gasped, went on a mad search for the button on his knees, smushing his face against the base of the couch while he grasped blindly with his short arms under it. When he stood up, his face was bright red, his jaw was clenched. The look of sincere frustration was refreshing. I watched as he sewed the button back on with blue thread, grinding his teeth, breathing hard. Then I heard him in the bathroom screaming into a towel. I wondered who had taught him how to do that. I was slightly impressed.
He came back from the post office two hours later with a large, oblong cardboard box.
“I got hit by one of those birds,” he said, turning his head to the side to reveal a bright green smear of bird shit along his face. “It’s a sign,” he said. “For sure.”
“You better get cleaned up,” I said. “Your agent called.”
“Did I get an audition?” he asked. He came toward me with open arms. “Did she say what it was for?”
“A beer commercial,” I said, backing away. “Your face,” I pointed.
“I’ll fix it,” he said. “Babe, we’re gonna be rich.” I watched him peel off his clothes and get into the shower. I sat on the toilet and clipped my toenails.
“The trick to acting,” he said from the shower, “is you really need to give it one hundred fifty percent. Your average actor gives maybe eighty, at most ninety percent. But I go all the way and then some. That’s the secret.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, flushing my toenails down the toilet. “Is that the secret to success?”
“Yeah, babe,” he assured me, whipping open the shower curtain. His body was a freckled mess of jerking muscles and stubble. He shaved his chest almost daily. He had a scar on his rib cage from where he told me he’d been stabbed in a bar fight. He had all kinds of stories. He said back home in Cleveland he used to hang around with gangsters. He spent a night in jail once after beating up a pimp who he’d seen kick a German shepherd—a sacred animal, he explained. Only his story of burning down an abandoned house when he was sixteen had a ring of truth.
“And you know what else?” he said, squatting in the bathtub and slathering the towel between his legs. His towels were all stenched with mildew and streaked with rust stains, by the way. “I’m handsome.”
“You are?” I asked innocently.
“I’m a total stud,” he said. “But it creeps up on you. That’s why I’m good on TV. Nonthreatening.”
“I see.” I stood and leaned against the vanity, watched him wrap the towel around his waist, pull out his bag of makeup.
“I’m a face-changer, too,” he went on. “One day I can look like the boy next door. The next day, a stone-faced killer. It just happens. My face changes overnight on its own. Natural-born actor.”
“True enough,” I agreed, and watched him dab concealer all over his nose.
While he was at his audition, I walked around the apartment complex, kicking trash into corners. I sat in the concrete courtyard. There were birds everywhere, pecking at trash, lining the balconies, purring like cats between the succulents. I watched one walk toward me with a candy-bar wrapper in his beak. He dropped it at my feet and seemed to bow forward, then extended his wings wide, showing me the beautiful rainbow sheen of his jet-black chest. He flapped his wings gently, with subtlety, and rose from the ground. I thought maybe he was trying to seduce me. I got up and walked away, and he continued to hover there, suspended like a puppet. Nothing made me happy. I went out to the pool, skimmed the surface of the blue water with my hand, praying for one of us, my boyfriend or me, to die.
“I nailed it,” he said when he came home from the audition. He shrugged the yellow blazer down his stiff arms, laid it on the back of the bar stool at the kitchen counter. “If they don’t hire me, they don’t know what’s good for them. I really hit a home run.” I kept stirring the spaghetti. I nodded and tried to smile a little. “And I saw the other guys that were auditioning, and man,” he said, “they were all the worst. I’m a shoo-in. My agent call yet?”
“No,” I said. “Not yet.”
“I should go rub my crystal skull,” he said. “Be right back.”
I had a bad feeling about what my boyfriend had brought back from the post office. The box sat on the couch, unopened. He stood at the sink, vigorously scrubbing the plates from dinner, buttocks clenched and vibrating. “What’s inside?” I asked.
“Open it up, babe,” he said, turning slightly to make sure I caught sight of his devilish grin. It was the same grin he gave in his headshots. “Check it out,” he said.
I licked my knife clean and cut through the packing tape. The box was full of Styrofoam peanuts. I fished around inside and found a long shotgun padded in bubble wrap.
“What’s it for?”
“To shoot the crows,” my boyfriend said. He held a plate up to the light and polished it frenetically with a paper towel. I thought for a moment.
“Let me take care of it,” I said. “You need to focus on your career.”
He seemed stunned, put down the plate.
“You do enough around here,” I said. “Unless you would actually enjoy shooting those birds?”
He picked up the plate and turned his back to me.
“Of course not,” he said. “Thanks, babe. Thanks for your support.”
He slept that night with his phone next to his ear on the pillow and didn’t touch me or say anything at all except “Good night, skully,” to his crystal skull on the bedside table. I put my head on his shoulder, but he just rolled onto his side. When I woke up in the morning he was staring at the sun through the smog from the balcony, holding his eyes open with his fingers, crying, it seemed, though I wasn’t sure.
I still hadn’t cleaned the vacant apartment by the time the couple showed up to see it in the afternoon. I found them wandering around in back by the pool, sharing a huge bag of Utz potato chips. The man was younger, maybe midthirties, and wore a button-down shirt much too big for his wirey frame. The shirt had rectangular wrinkles in it as though it had just been taken out of its packaging. He wore jean shorts and sneakers, a red Cardinals hat. The woman was older, very tanned and fat, and had long salt-and-pepper hair parted in the middle. She wore a lot of turquoise jewelry, had something tattooed on her forehead between her eyes.
“Are you here to see the apartment?” I asked. I had my clipboard with the requisite forms, the keys.
“We love it here,” said the woman frankly. She wiped her hands off on her skirt. “We’d like to move in right away.”
I walked toward them. That tattoo on her forehead was like a third eye. It looked like a diamond on its side with a star inside of it. I stared at it for a second too long. Then her boyfriend chimed in.
“Are you the manager?” he asked, thumbing his nose nervously.
“I’m the manager’s girlfriend. But don’t you want to see the place first?” I jangled the keys for them.
“We already know,” the woman said, shaking her head. She moved gently, like dancing to soft music. She seemed sweet, but she talked mechanically, as though reading off of cue cards. She stared resolutely at the stucco wall above my head. “We don’t need to see it. We’ll take it. Just show us where to sign.” She smiled broadly, revealing the worst set of teeth I’d ever seen. They were sparse and yellow and black and jagged.
“These are the forms to fill out,” I said, extending the clipboard toward her. The man continued to eat the chips and walked to the edge of the pool, stared up at the sky.
“What’s with the birds?” he asked.
“They’re Egyptian crows,” I told him. “But I’m going to shoot them all.”
I figured they were weirdos and nothing I said to them mattered. From the way the man nodded and dove his squirrel-like hand back into the bag of potato chips, it seemed I was right.
“Now listen,” said the woman, squatting down with the clipboard on her knees, breathing heavily. “We’re selling our estate up north and we want to pay for a year’s rent in advance. That’s how serious we are about renting this apartment.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll tell the owners.” She stood and showed me the form. Her name was Moon Kowalski. “I’ll let you know,” I said.
The man wiped his palms off on his shorts. “Hey, thanks a lot,” he said earnestly. He shook my hand. The woman swayed from side to side and rubbed her third eye. When I got back to the apartment there was a message from my boyfriend’s agent saying he got a callback. I went back to bed.