By Michael Sadoff
I lived with a dog and a cat, neither of whom belonged to me. Jake was a lovable dope and a roamer who had probably impregnated every fertile bitch within eight miles of the place and came home stinking of the marsh and who knew what else. Yin was a young she-devil with crazy eyes who would slip out at night and wake me before dawn by mewing at my bedroom window.
It was the offseason. The Folly Beach rental house suffered from years of neglect. The walls lacked insulation and the furnace had a death rattle. The putty had crumbled from the window sashes and a constant draft seeped through them.
I tried to make the place livable. I covered the living room floor with a red shag carpet remnant and lined the windows with palm and fichus plants. Sunlight slanted through the dirty glass panes every morning, illuminating the airborne dust and dog hair. The screened porch, torn to shreds by the cat, sagged over the dunes, beyond which the gray ocean forever stirred.
I worked at a head shop in downtown Charleston. They paid minimum wage because I guess it was such a privilege to hang out there. My duties consisted primarily of reading High Times Magazine and The Source and hitting on college girls unsuccessfully.
It was here that I met Olivia. She and her friend Scarlett came through one afternoon to browse CDs. We stocked a small collection of reggae, ska and punk music, along with the obligatory jam bands. They selected The Specials’ self-titled.
Olivia had thick librarian’s eyeglasses, a silver hoop in her lip and dyed black hair with bangs. She used too much powder on her plain round face, and the powder was a shade too light. She wore Doc Martens and a miniskirt. She didn’t exactly turn me on, but it had been a while since any woman had paid attention to me.
Scarlett asked me to unwrap the CD and play it in the store. “A Message to You, Rudy” blared out with its trombone riff and cautionary words. We talked about music and they asked where I stayed. “No, I don’t surf,” I said about living on Folly.
“What kind of beach bum are you?” asked Scarlett. “I mean, if you don’t surf, what do you do out at Folly Beach?” She stood nearly to my height and studied my face with gravity. I feared she knew too much about me already.
I looked at the black gauges in her ears and her unwashed blond hair and then at her eyes, realizing she was only teasing. I laughed nervously. What did I do at Folly? I listened to old punk records on my turntable and read Tolkien. I got high in the morning and went for runs on the beach with Jake. I took moonlit walks alone and communed with the waves, the briny air a tonic for my withered aspirations. From midnight to dawn I slept in short deep snatches and woke to Yin, the wild-eyed black cat, crying to be let into the house, the house I had never banished her from in the first place, the house she had left on her own and the house she stalked all night while I slept dreamlessly.
“Mostly, I work on my six-pack and my tan,” I answered. “Sometimes I go rollerblading shirtless and listen to Vanilla Ice on my headphones.”
Scarlett smiled and sized up my muscles and tan, neither of which showed signs of development. Olivia squeezed my wimpy biceps and laughed. “Solid,” she said.
A college dork in a loose white button-down, khaki pants and baseball cap over wispy blond hair came to the register with purchases. He bought a refillable cigarette lighter and selected a glass water pipe from the locked case.
Other than the locked case, the store practically invited shoplifting. Airbrushed t-shirts, guitar strings and humor books for the taking. Posters and tapestries hung everywhere. Shirts packed so tightly on racks that shoppers had to push and pull forcefully to read the band names and bad jokes inscribed on them. When music wasn’t playing, you could hear the squeak of hangers on metal rods and the magnetic sensor going off at the door, unchallenged.
My shift ended soon and Olivia and Scarlett invited me for trivia at a nearby bar, assuring me they weren’t any good either. We played as a team. I could boast obsessive knowledge about graphic novels, slasher flicks and Swedish punk bands, but knew nothing about anything else. They were as ignorant as me and we bombed every category.
I drank as much draft beer as I could hold. After trivia, we went to a coffee bar with candlelight, arched wooden doorways and a wrought iron staircase, beneath which a young white guy played sitar.
“If there was anything you could change about your personality, what would it be?” Scarlett asked me.
I considered for a long moment. Damn near everything, I thought. “What I would really like is to have a witty, disarming remark for every awkward social encounter,” I finally answered.
“Nice dodge,” she said, “but I didn’t ask about super powers yet.” She let it slide. “Here’s one for you, Liv. If there was one thing you could change about your body, what would it be?”
“I would like to have less hair in unwanted places,” she said. “Waxing really sucks.”
Credit for honesty, I thought. She had put it on the table, take it or leave it. Did it turn me off that she had hair in unwanted places? Maybe. I wasn’t thinking we would become an item. Anyway, who didn’t have hair in unwanted places?
They knew the sitar player and he joined us after his set for bar hopping. We went to a nightclub, where we danced ironically to Top 40 music and spilled an entire fishbowl drink on the floor.
In a bar on Market Street, I picked a fight with an oversized frat boy for reasons that remain unclear. The bouncer ejected me.
I awoke past noon and didn’t remember how I had gotten home. I felt alright somehow. I had managed to sleep through Yin’s cries. The wind and surf sounded peaceful. I opened the blinds to a crystalline blue sky and waves that curled into perfect cylinders. A handful of bronzed people walked along the beach or lay on towels, basting themselves in suntan lotion.
I opened the kitchen door. In unison, Jake bolted outside and Yin darted in. The sight of my beat-up Honda in the driveway surprised me.
Yin paced around her empty bowl. I poured her some dry cat food and went to the porch, where I sat in a folding chair and gazed at boats on the horizon or the occasional aircraft streaming across the sky.
I wanted a sailboat or a seaplane. A way to get away from things. I knew this was ludicrous, given I had no funds and nothing really to get away from in the first place. No career, no property and no family, other than divorced parents, whom I was avoiding.
The phone rang at around two. Speak of the devil, I thought to myself, one of the parents. I answered the phone in the living room, relieved to hear Olivia’s voice instead of my mother’s. I asked her if I had driven home. She laughed. “You tried. We wouldn’t let you. Patrick drove your car home.”
“The sitar player. He doesn’t drink.”
“Of course he doesn’t. Drinking is sophomoric.”
“You were funny last night,” she said.
“Did I show you any magic tricks? That would have been bad.”
“At Wet Willie’s, you told some douche-y guys their mothers should have partial-birth aborted them,” she said.
Shame crept out of its hole. “Do I owe you for drinks or a taxi or something?”
“No way. You pitched in what you had last night,” she said.
My wallet lay on the counter. I confirmed it was empty. Over a week remained until my next paycheck. I checked the refrigerator and cabinets. Dog and cat food only.
Yin hopped onto the counter and I backhanded her. She yowled and ran away.
“What was that?” Olivia asked.
“You have a cat? That surprises me a little.”
“It’s not mine,” I said.
Halloween that year fell on a Monday. Olivia dressed as a dark fairy in silvery face paint, black eyeliner and a sheer leotard that exposed her nipple piercing. She had teased and glittered her hair and she walked barefoot all night on the grimy downtown streets.
I dressed as a “rude boy” in a porkpie hat, dark blazer and thin checkered tie.
At midnight, we strolled through an old downtown cemetery bustling with costumed youth. We sat on a tomb and drank red wine from paper cups.
A gathering of ghouls, pop icons and magical beings bantered nearby, their voices like saxophones and flutes, all playing different tunes.
Olivia set her cup down on the Anders family tomb and hugged her knees, smiling at me, quite amazingly, and quite foolishly, enamored. Her painted face seemed otherworldly in the moonlight and I nearly forgot how she looked without the costume. She shimmied her toes under my leg for warmth and adjusted her fairy wings on the stone.
The cluster of ghouls wandered off toward the next thrill or conquest, severed limbs and plastic weapons in hand.
We finished our wine and I helped her down, her thigh brushing against me as she slipped to the ground. I felt the supple fabric of her costume as she inched her body closer and batted her mascaraed eyes at me. She had chosen me and pursued me and I was flattered and a little mystified.
“Why do you like me so much?” I heard myself ask.
“Maybe you seem a little tortured and I can relate to that.”
I took this as a compliment. I had mystique. I was Dracula.
We threaded the narrow cemetery walks and exited through a wrought iron archway. After a stop for more booze, we arrived at her house, where her roommates were hosting a costume party. They lived on the wrong side of Highway 17 in a house with peeling paint and cracked plaster.
We partied until the wee hours. I acted jolly and personable and people laughed at my jokes. I was best after a few drinks and it wasn’t just me who thought that. I was only likeable when drinking and so people preferred me that way and I too found myself more tolerable. I wasn’t an alcoholic. I was self-medicating. What exact illness I was treating, I couldn’t have told you, which I guess was the point.
We blasted hip-hop, funk and industrial music. Olivia and I rubbed our bodies together as we danced. We passed out on the couch, fully clothed.
My hangover the next morning rated an eight on a ten-point scale. My head pounded, but I could hope for partial recovery by that afternoon.
She lay curled under a knit blanket. Gradually, she awakened too and rose without a word. She left the room and returned with two mugs of black coffee. Sleep had matted her hair and rubbed off most of her face paint. The bottoms of her feet were the color of charcoal. She shrugged off the hangover blithely. “Oh my god. That was so much fun,” she said.
A shudder ran through my body. I sipped my coffee, but felt only a modicum of relief.
“How’re you feeling there, Donny? Or should I call you Rudy?”
“Rudy” was a reference to my rude boy costume. Donovan was real my name. I never liked it. “Did I make a fool of myself again?”
“At one point, you were in the corner crying like a baby, but other than that…”
“Damn. Nine Inch Nails gets me every time.”
“Don’t worry. We’ve all been undone by Trent Reznor at some point,” she said.
“We are joking about this, right?”
She set down her coffee mug. “I am going to take a shower.” She started up the stairs. “Do you need anything? Water? Advil?”
I shook my head, feeling queasy.
I went to the kitchen for more coffee, but the carafe was nearly empty. Cans and bottles filled the trashcan, and the odor of sour beer turned my stomach. My thoughts were like glass shards. I rubbed at them. Fragments of my imbecilic behavior cut me. A moment from the party, me popping yet another cold one in the kitchen, rubbing elbows with pretty people.
Girls much prettier than Olivia. Real head-turners.
What would it take to score a hot chick? A successful rock band seemed the obvious route. Even a not-so-successful rock band gave you better odds, but I had never thought to learn an instrument until it was too late. Fuck. People my age were signing with record labels and selling out nightclubs. I was selling glass water pipes and drinking until I blacked out.
I poured the dregs from the coffee pot into my mug and returned to the living room.
When she descended the stairs, bespectacled and free of costume and makeup, my mood fell apart completely. She had brushed her hair straight. Her bangs hung square across her forehead. Her face looked plain without the thick eyeliner and silvery sheen. She wore a big sweatshirt, comfortable jeans and black leather shoes.
I wanted the fairy back. She smiled at me. “I’ll walk with you to your car,” she said.
I didn’t want her to, but couldn’t bring myself to say no. I grabbed my blazer from where it lay on the couch and flipped it over my shoulder. Without another word, I plodded into the daylight in my porkpie hat and dark sunglasses. She followed. I couldn’t exactly remember where I had parked and didn’t know if I had enough gas to get home.
She took my hand as we made our way toward King Street. She seemed to think we were in a relationship. It had just happened somehow.
We located my car some blocks from where I worked, on a narrow side street, north of the old courthouse. We stood across from a popular seafood restaurant where well-dressed people lunched. I thought to myself, she deserves better. Someone who could take her out. Someone who wanted her.
I dropped her back at her house, the gas needle on E. I didn’t know how to say goodbye. My mouth tasted of booze and burnt coffee. She seemed nervous now, detecting my dour mood. She looked at her shoes and asked if I was okay.
“I just need some rest” was all I could manage.
I bought two dollars of gas and barely made it home. Jake nearly pushed me down when I opened the door. He licked my chin and then ran off to pee in the dune grass. Yin hopped down the stairs, stopping in the driveway to arch her back and hiss at me. She darted into the brush and disappeared.
Inside the house, I discovered that she had clawed the couch cushions apart and pulled the blinds down. The litter box made me retch.
I set the litter box outside and took a long shower, turning the water as hot as I could stand it. I got into bed after the shower and stayed there until late afternoon.
I realized too late that I was scheduled to work that day. I had requested more shifts recently. My excuses fell flat and of course the manager fired me. Asshole boss could go fuck himself, I thought. Problem was, who would hire a burnout with no skills, besides a head shop or a music store?
My parents, who hadn’t spoken to each other in ten years, had set aside their differences to stage an intervention. They had said that they would pay for rehab and community college. Sorry, I told them, you don’t get to tell me what’s wrong with me and what I should do about it, when you’re the ones who screwed me up in the first place.
Maybe they were right about school though. I scanned the want ads, which listed every damn job in the world I was unqualified to do and/or would hate. Most required degrees and certifications. I could do retail, food service or menial labor and that was about all.
The following afternoon, I steeled myself for job hunting. I fed Jake and Yin and let them out. “Go chase tail,” I told them. I chugged a beer. I knew most people didn’t consider this a necessary step before job hunting. I got in the car and headed downtown in a flannel shirt and faded jeans. I arrived with no thought for where to park or which businesses to approach for work.
On King Street, I picked up job applications from bars, music stores and greasy food joints. I came to the block where Olivia worked and stopped in. She beamed when she saw me. “What the hell happened to you?” she asked.
“I got fired,” I said. “What a fucking dick.”
She delivered the lunch bill to a table of chino clad businessmen, who looked annoyed. She rolled her eyes as she turned from them and smiled at me conspiratorially. “You should work here,” she said. “You could run our deliveries.”
Her boss scrutinized me from behind the counter.
“Looks like I blew that job interview already,” I said.
Her shift ended in ten minutes, so I waited outside. I was finished job hunting for the day and passed the time reading personals in a free magazine. These interested me a lot more than job ads, even if I still lacked qualifications.
She came out of the deli with a takeout box. On the way to her place, she bought beer with her tip money.
Her house showed no trace of the mess from Friday night. They had cleaned out the garbage and ashtrays and had swept and mopped. The downstairs still smelled faintly of cleanser. From somewhere in the house, one of her roommates strummed an acoustic guitar.
I popped a beer and finished it quickly. I opened another before we settled onto the couch.
A pack of her roommate’s Marlboros lay on the end table and she pilfered one. “You seemed angry when you left here Saturday,” she said.
“You thought that was angry? You should see me at Christmas.”
She lit her cigarette and blew a line of smoke. “Valentine’s Day. That’s the one that gets me,” she said. “All that pink and red and the shitty flower bouquets.”
“You know what really makes me angry? Hootie & the Blowfish. Every time I hear one of their songs, I just want to fucking kill somebody.”
She stood and brushed a few ashes from her work pants. “Back in a minute,” she said. She went upstairs and returned a while later in a tank top and ripped jeans. She drew the curtains against the afternoon light. We polished off the beer and shared her deli sandwich.
Evening came. My eyes drifted to her tits and that’s when she led me upstairs. “Spend the night with me,” she said.
A white dresser stood in her room with a black candle and some framed pictures that I couldn’t make out in the dark. She lit the candle. Her mattress lay on the floor. The beer had made us both a little unsteady and we teetered into bed.
She kissed me and I began to feel doubt. It had been too long since her wax job and the unwanted hair she had mentioned that night at the coffee shop was on her upper lip. I felt the stubble, but tried to push it from my mind. I cupped a breast with one hand and unbuttoned her jeans with the other, trying to get excited.
She nuzzled her mouth against my ear and there was that scratch again, this time audibly.
“Wait,” I said. “I don’t know if we should do this.”
“We should totally do this,” she said with lust in her voice. She unbuttoned my shirt and I let her take it off. She reached into my pants, but I didn’t respond. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
“I’m not sure about this,” I said.
“If you’re worried about commitment, don’t. I’m not asking for that.”
“Um. Really. I’m thinking not tonight,” I said. I couldn’t fuck a woman with a mustache, no matter how much I liked her personality. What a disaster. I couldn’t believe I was turning down a willing lay. “I really like you,” I said. “I’m just … this isn’t the right time.”
She looked stricken when she realized what I was saying. She turned from me and covered her head with a pillow.
I lay there awhile not sure what to do or say. I knew how she felt. I had received this treatment a few times. I understood then why girls gave bullshit excuses. They just couldn’t talk about whatever deterred them.
I lifted the pillow from her head and kissed the back of her neck. “I’m sorry,” I said. I nestled my body into hers and she let out a sigh, either from sadness or longing or both. I still wanted someone in my arms and fell asleep holding her.
In the morning, she barely spoke to me and I regretted staying. I left as soon as I could, saying I would call soon, aware of how hollow it sounded and not sure she even cared anymore. I walked alone to my car.
My last paycheck arrived on Friday. I had only worked one week in the pay period and the amount fell far short of covering my overdue rent.
The situation with Olivia nagged at me. I asked myself, what was the big deal about some lip stubble? She had offered sex without strings, without so much as a dinner date, and like a fool I had turned her down. I had to try again.
I decided to call and invite her to my place. I didn’t think she would accept. She was guarded on the phone. “You don’t owe me anything,” she said.
“We can listen to ‘Rain Dogs’ on vinyl,” I suggested. She loved Tom Waits.
“Oh, well that changes everything.” Even with the sarcasm, I could tell she was caving.
“We can drink red wine and watch the sunset. We’ll have the beach to ourselves.”
“Fine. I’ll fucking come, but you better be nice!”
She arrived in a black leather jacket and blue jeans. We walked to the lighthouse at the end of the island, where the interlacing tides zigzagged across the water. At sunset, the clouds turned pink and we returned to the house, jug wine in hand.
We listened to music on the porch and ate cheese. The wine went down fast. When it got cold, we lit candles inside and huddled on the couch. The sky turned black and a strong wind rattled the doors and windows. We opened another bottle and things got fuzzy from there.
We undressed in the bedroom and slipped under the covers to escape the draft. I had washed my bedsheets that day, and they smelled of the cheap, no name detergent. I avoided kissing her mouth, and we had clumsy sex.
When I woke up, she was dressing hastily in the early twilight. Something wasn’t right. She was angry, incredulous. “Do you remember what you said to me last night?” she asked.
The usual stuff was all I could remember. I said grunge music was bullshit. I said that I had no right to feel unhappy, but did anyway, and therefore felt guilty about it.
“You said I had a mustache and that kissing me was disgusting,” she said.
I searched my mind for some recollection of this. I owned this thought, but couldn’t remember saying it. Couldn’t even imagine it. “Are you sure that wasn’t a dream?” I asked.
“It wasn’t a fucking dream!”
“Was I kidding around maybe?” I asked. “What was the expression on my face?”
“You were in bed and I was coming back from the bathroom. And you started talking about my lip stubble. Like you hated me for it. It really fucking hurt my feelings!” She pulled her shirt over her head. “You have serious issues.” She bent to tie her shoes. “Please get yourself some help, for everyone’s sake!”
“I’m sorry. I don’t remember at all,” I said.
“You know, I felt really confused when it happened,” she said. “This morning, I’m not confused at all. You’re a dick and I don’t want to see you or hear from you again.” With these words, she left my room, my house and my life.
Sometime around midday, I emerged from the hovel of my room and brewed a pot of coffee. I filled a thermos, took Jake to the beach and tossed a stick for him until my shoulder ached. The waves churned and the wind cut across the sand, pelting my ankles with its grains. A column of rain clouds loomed to the north.
I stood for a long time staring at the clouds without seeing. Jake crouched and waited for me to throw the stick again. When he lost patience, he started to whimper. His whimpers turned to yelps and yelps turned to barks and still I stood there silent and broken.
She would remember me as an insufferable asshole, and I couldn’t think of myself like that. I thought about calling or writing her to apologize for everything. Then I thought about swimming into the ocean and never turning around. I would probably do neither. One was too hard and the other too easy.
The rental company would evict me. That much was clear. I would move somewhere that I could afford. I would take my dog and I would take my cat. I would change and I would change and I would change.
MICHAEL SADOFF is author of the novel The Greatest Unit of Value. His short fiction has appeared in The South Carolina Review and Change Seven Magazine and his articles have appeared in The Charlotte Observer, Creative Loafing and Gaston Gazette. He has an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.