You are reading Fiddleblack #14
Closer to nine, Jenny’d texted half hour after she’d called asking if I had anything going, if I was willing to come along for a helpful task—her words, helpful task. The first call was at quarter to seven, and at ten till ten she was nowhere and I’d finished the schedules. Windows open, end of March, day before opening day. Down the street at Longfellow’s, spring’s arrival was obvious: the place didn’t card, and the Nokomis Tech underclassmen who’d spent the winter sucking quick gaspers and pitching them to return to their buck fifty Schlitzes before the cherry’d even extinguished in the street now loligagged outside, taking their time.
I’ve told Jenny how big a deal schedule-making is, that it’s not enough to get the crappy freebie pocket schedule from the gas stations, that a real fan’s got to have some big, easy-to-see thing. For instance Greg: he buys a calendar at the mall, end of January, when they’re 75% off, and Sharpies the shit out of the thing. During the season he tracks player upswings in the margins, clutters everything with numbers. For instance me: I buy sheets of construction paper, the sort I’d as a 7th grader Rubber Cemented Xeroxed Encyclopedia pages about asteroids or planets onto. One broad piece for each month, and, on each day’s square, the name of the team the Twins’d be playing. The schedule stuck fridgeside I would, through the season, track scores, winning pitcher, and notable hits or injuries on each date’s square. Some people train dogs, some research the history of the biplane.
I heard honks out front and clear as an 8th-grade dare there was Jenny, behind the wheel of her electric blue 2004 Chevy Blazer. She honked again when she saw me in the window and I smelled popcorn. She didn’t try to kiss me on the cheek when I got in, which was a nice development. There was plastic wrap at my feet; in the backseat were stacks of padded envelopes, various sizes.
“Tone, you up?” She looked over, hungry and saucy—I’d seen her like this—as she pulled away, flicked her blinker, headed south. There was nothing wrong about Jenny—she’d gone to college, had okay teeth, and wore her twenty extra pounds well enough, and laughed a lot. She liked dubstep more than necessary, sure, but she was good for a beer, a trip to the State Fair or Target Field, and she lived lakes—she was a solid Minnesota girl. Still: there was something a little much about her, like she was always overcompensating.
“Up for what, exactly, Jen?” She was a receptonist at an ear, nose and throat clinic, and I glanced again at the envelopes in back. I swung a palm through them, just to see what happened—had to be three dozen. All that manilla and bubble packaging, that trapped air.
“Oh, you wait, Dialtone.” She’d called me that god knew how many times. She tapped the steering wheel with her thumbs and her horizontal-stripe red and purple shirt shook slightly with her movement. The windows were up and Jenny’s jeans were, as always, a pull too tight on her, recognizably last year’s model. She suddenly rubbed my thigh then clapped twice, like we were going to a party. We were at a red light and she blazed at me, 100% bright.
“You remember Jeremy?” She asked.
“Foosball?” I scratched the back of my neck, sure something’d just bit me. Jenny’s car was a constant flux, a place which always made you think it’d smell. Empty Diet Coke bottles clonked behind us and if I’d looked I’d’ve seen their red caps on the floor beside the bottles, dried last-sip puddles down in the southern reaches of the bottles—it was always thus. Jenny kept a bag of Old Dutch salted popcorn beneath the passenger seat; I’d literally never been in her car when it’d lacked popcorn, and she’d quit offering simply because she knew I knew what was available.
“Dentist,” she said.
“Right, Space Cadet.” She rolled her eyes when I said it and the light turned green, but she kept her stare for a beat before jamming the gas.
“He didn’t say either way for sure, just that it’s maybe not as clear as we think.”
What was impossible to ever ask Jenny was what the hell is going on. I imagine other people asked her this, but I could not. When she rubbed my thigh? When she’d, a few months back, told me about having gone out with a dentist who had, over dessert, explained the inconsistencies regarding the moon landing? When she’d call and ask me to come along on some task or errand left purposefully obscured?
Here’s what had happened: I hit her bike, with my car, while she was trying to pass me at a red light. I was taking a right, she was cutting around me, there was a gap in traffic, I went for it and hit her, trashed her bike’s rear wheel, gave her a fierce scare. She stood on the corner dusting and re-dusting herself while I loaded the broken thing into my car, drivers honking as they ballooned around us. She said two, three times “My Jim gave me that bike,” before finally spitting out an address. She said she wasn’t hurt more than just the scratches on her knee and palm, the pain in her neck from bracing for the fall that didn’t come as she’d expected. We shook hands and I gave her my number when I dropped her off at her dingy place, 14th and 32nd—she lived in one of those old 4-plexes and, just standing there and looking at her—all nervous with her shaky hands and knees, her busted bike at her side—I could smell her apartment, a sort of shut-window dankness, like the inside of a plastic gallon of milk which’d been capped and empty, lying in the recycling pile for days.
When she called two weeks later and asked to get coffee, I figured it was to ask for money, tell me she was in physical therapy and I’d screwed her dreams of being an acrobat, and she was gonna sue, but instead we talked about old Jim Carrey movies and she wouldn’t shut up about how the popcorn at Riverview was the best movie theater popcorn in town. I didn’t look close at her when I drove her home that first time: it wasn’t that she was big—maybe 5’6″ and 160 on her best day—it was that she was thick. She didn’t carry her weight like a fat kid carries his double-sized slice of cake across a birthday party room, but tucked it, tried to keep it stuffed under her arms, tied across her back. That time at coffee she seemed uncomfortable in her own skin, her own body, like she was living in a rental while her real home was being remodeled. When we were walking out, she said she’d call soon. That was two years ago, and she’s the only person I know of who has made a friend through vehicular violence.
What I’ve never told Jenny is that I saw her coming. I didn’t try to hit her, but I didn’t try to miss her.
“That’s Greg’s,” Jenny said, pointing up at the Penn exit from 62. We’d passed the mess and crank of the construction corridor and were empty driving, nobody around—it was a Tuesday at 10:15. I’d cracked my window, saying I needed air, but it was mostly the scent I imagined or felt in Jenny’s car. She must’ve always been like this—the girl you got rides from, the girl you answered the phone for but never called.
“That’s Greg’s street,” I agreed. In winter, when it was all football and basketball and no baseball, Greg and I spoke occasionally and briefly, swapping Twins stories—trade rumors, hopes for the rotation, lies we’d tell ourselves about all the games we’d see. As of March we’d talk a couple times a week, and by opening day we were texting daily, planning trips to bars for games.
“Isn’t that funny how you both have Jennys? You’ve got me and he’s got his wife?” There was always something not right about Jenny’s face: even perfectly still and settled it looked smeary. There was an edgelessness to her that had everything to do with her deep need to appease. It wasn’t that Jenny lied or was hypocritical, she simply tweezed detail when she spoke. That first time, at coffee? Even after she’d sniffled and twice said that’s from my Jim about her bike on the afternoon I’d hit her? She swore, at coffee, that she didn’t even like biking, and that she’d had half a mind to hit bikers plenty of times, how they got in the way and cluttered up intersections, and not once did she mention any Jim. I was occasionally tempted to tell Jenny I hated her, just to see if she’d say sometimes I think that’s the right idea.
“I don’t have you.” She’d offered this before, how Greg had his Jenny and I had mine, and it scared me. She’d tried to kiss me once, and I’d pushed her away and, shocking myself, told her I wasn’t sure I was into women. What I minded was her desperate hunger for symmetry, neatness: only a 10th grade mind could so hopefully build a scenario in which two guys, whose friendship was based entirely on the local baseball team, were both with women of the same name, or that the fact of a shared name meant a damn thing.
“Tone Loc the heartbreaker,” she said, grinning, her brown curly hair a spazzy nonsense on her head. She’d never asked about dating, whether I was gay or bi-, after that first mention—we’d been a bottle and a half deep into red, it was four months after I’d clipped her bike. She never asked about any of it, and I always wondered a little whether she wanted to stay friends precisely because of my sexual ambiguity.
“You should get a dog,” she said.
“Name it Jen?” I wasn’t even thinking but she brightened, her curls springing.
“I’ll come. I’ll sit. I’ll eat treats out of your hand,” she tapped the steering wheel and play panted, then reached into the dark behind her. I tried not to look at her tongue, hoped she’d pull something to make clear what exactly was happening, but she just had a mini-bottle of Diet Coke which she set in the cupholder next to an already empty one.
“I could maybe deal with a gerbil. Maybe a bird.” I’d thought about pets: anyone who lives alone thinks about ways to fill the rooms those nights they’re dangerously empty. When we were kids, my sister and I would sit glued to the aviary in our mom’s office, and I’d thought about getting something similar for the house, imagined passing in a towel to take a shower and watching small flying things, back-and-forth, considered how it’d sound to wake to bird song daily, to shower among such chirping.
“You like Greg’s dog,” she said, and she was right: I loved Stella, mostly because I could walk away from her, and because all she wanted was my warmth—whenever I was at Greg’s she’d clamber onto my lap and make a bed of my crotch. She was a tiny terrier, perky ears and a mini tail which, when she wagged it, moved like a double-jointed thumb.
“Everybody likes Stella, Jenny.” She flicked her blinker and we curved dark and quiet through the exit ramp and came to a stop. The street was completely dead but there was a catch of something in the air: nights had quit getting so cold, and the gray of yards and highway dirt was slowly getting replaced with the first tiny pokes of vibrancy. In a month the green’d be monstrous. Jenny leaned over the steering wheel and looked both ways down the road.
“Where are we going, anyway? What’s going on?” I watched her cheek as her tongue pushed it from inside and she eased out of the stop and headed left, though she looked around anxious, scanning for familiarity, assurance.
“Ton, lemme ask you: would you say I’m smoking hot?” She pulled on her Diet Coke as she accelerated through the dark, past single-story industrial buildings on both sides—light manufacturing, import/export, car repair/ I knew St. Louis Park as well as the next downtowner, knew where the bowling alley was and how to get out. The buildings—their corrugated sidings, their dumpsters parked hulking at their sterns—were lit by yellowy underpowered sodium bulbs that cast spooky, nefarious glows across everything. She looked over, waiting.
“You’re pretty foxy, Jen.” I hadn’t the faintest what she wanted to hear, but the fact that her mind’d been whirring on questions of sexiness made things suddenly easier to bear, slightly: that’s why the jittery fun, the giddiness, the thigh-slapping.
“It’s up ahead here,” she said.
“This about the dentist?” I asked. She nodded to the dark and sighed. I pulled the bag of popcorn from beneath my seat, tried to ignore the smeared fingerprints all over the plastic. I unrolled it, offered her some, dumped a handful for myself, ate it, waited. She took a right and a block in and we were cruising a residential stretch of nice little homes, front porches and all. I lived by where people drank, ate, bought lamps; out here they lived next to tire replacement shops, scrap metal venues, diners carpeted in old smoke.
“He said—he was being nice, I guess—he said I didn’t even know how hot I was. I think he was pretty drunk.” She shrugged and I wondered, not for the first time, how great Jenny’s need for affection was, what she’d put up with to get some. Any.
“That’s nice,” I said, and only on saying it did I realize what I said.
“I don’t mean, like, that’s nice that he said that, but that it sounds nice—him saying you don’t even realize how hot you are.”
“Nah-ah,” she said, slowed at a four-way stop, glanced around. If we were going to his house, I didn’t understand how she could be so lost.
“I made brownies, and I—don’t laugh—I put on lingerie and fed him some. This body. In the kitchen. I’m trying to be, you know, all saucy, moving the fork slow up to his mouth, pushing against him, and he stops me before he gets his bite. He looks down and goes you don’t know how hot you are.” She bit her lip, turned left. I wondered what she looked like in bra and underwear, how it’d feel to be fed by someone so hungry.
“Like I’m a kid. Like I’m a little girl playing dress-up, and he’s an adult, and he’s, like, you don’t get it, you don’t know how to be hot.”
“He’s very professional, Tony. He doesn’t even say molar, he’s got codes for that, letters and numbers. Cuspids and bicuspids.”
I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
“This was last week, Friday.”
I imagined saying that line, telling someone she didn’t know how hot she was, telling some guy. The authority of it.
“So we’re headed to his place now so you can tell him you know how hot you are?” She grinned as I hit the nail.
We drove a minute with nothing but music and air between us.
“Do you have a lighter?” She asked after a bit.
“No—you know that, I don’t smo—”
“Sh sh sh, this is it,” she said and turned off her lights and slowed to the curb and killed the engine.
It was a scene you’d imagine with crickets or a light breeze to rustle the background portentiously but it was dead still and near silent, only the distant half-mushed sound of car tires. I thought of Jose, whom I’d recently met, and what Caroline had said, my college girlfriend: I’m not sure the shape my love’ll come in. We’d had sex like animals, upright and howling, filthy with spring mud one time; she pushed me to wear her underwear to dinner when I met her folks and whispered as I rang the doorbell I’m gonna fuck you like the naughty cunt you are when we get home. She’d explored before me, she said, and would, she guessed, after, and on the one hand, I appreciated the honesty—she was a sixth-year senior, I was in my second year with junior standing because I’d overloaded and entered with credits—but it left me twitching, how casually she could see through what we were in while we were in it, how she’d said after. When I turned down a threesome with her and another girl, she said what about another guy, and how she looked at me when I didn’t answer right away was still the image I carried when I wondered how I swung, who I wanted to hold, the shape my love came in.
Gay bars are absolute binary—in or out, lines so sharp and clear—but the threshold for being curious about your sexuality, for guys, is almost impossible to trace. I’d gone on plenty of dates with men, plenty of dates with women; I’ve had my share of goodnight kisses from all sorts of lips. At the bar during baseball season I’d sometimes imagine crouching beneath the table and going down on Greg, force myself to picture it, hoping for some spark to catch desire’s friction and clarifying burn.
I’d met Jose through his sister Pilar who’d intuited my clumsiness as closeted gayness, but Jose was all primary colors and aggressiveness: he was ready to stick his tongue down the whole world’s throat. I’d gone out with him twice, had enjoyed it the way I enjoyed Jenny occasionally blasting music too loudly when she drove, when I felt drowned beneath waves of beeps and thumps. I thought of him now, wondered if he was in someone else’s car thinking of me the way her dentist thought of Jenny: someone who didn’t even know.
Jenny pulled from her purse underwear and a bra, both bright pink and edged in leopardy lace, set them on her lap. After some consideration she said “You take this” and handed me the bra. She smoothed the underwear across her thigh then looked over.
“You gotta smooth it out if we’re gonna burn the edges right.”
“Burn the edges? This’ll melt, at best, if it doesn’t just go up like rice paper.” I felt a buzz against my leg and pulled my phone to find a text from Greg: Bullpens fuking beautiful were going all the way GO TWINS!!! I pocketed it to see Jenny looking worriedly down at the underwear.
“But don’t you think if I singe the edges it’ll be like, I’m so smoking hot I set my own underwear on fire? And I know it?” She ran a finger over the lacy edge of one of the leg openings and thought of how I never found out who Jim was, whoever’d given her the bike—she never volunteered the info and I always felt too bad to ask.
“Have to figure out where to burn the most,” she said, taking the bra back. Greg’s Jenny travels for work, is gone a week every other month, and Greg assures me Stella hates it when Jenny’s gone, that the tiny dog gets more despondent as the week passes. I was there, September last year, and Greg and I were watching the game silently, both bent to our scorebooks, and though Stella’d jumped and yipped glad when I’d come in, she was nowhere by the third inning. I got up to pee at inning break and, as I passed Greg and Jenny’s room, saw her lying in front of Jenny’s dresser, nose pressed to the light green carpet. Greg must’ve heard my pause.
“Jen stands there when she sprays her perfume. Stella likes it cause the ground smells like her—I’ve got down and smelled it, it really does smell like her perfume.” As he said it Stella looked up then rolled over, her tiny white paws punching helplessly in the air.
Jenny scoured the car and came up with a pack of paper matches and we talked about how it’d have to work. Leg opening, she said: that’s where the hotness had to start—it had to start with her pussy, otherwise it’d seem like her stomach was aflame. A singe at each leg opening, maybe one on the ass, then a touch of flame to the bra cups. I didn’t ask if the underwear was an old set or something she’d bought for the occasion, and we agreed that I’d hold the underwear and she’d be hold the fire.
“Turn the battery on for a sec” I said as we were almost ready to go. She stared.
“The window—if this catches, I’m’nna throw it.” Her eyes bloomed.
“Somebody’ll see,” she whined, and I glanced around: we’d been sitting ten minutes on a quiet street. If someone was going to see, it’d’ve already happened. At one corner Jenny’s lips stuck together, skin dryly adhesive, and she looked terrible because of it—weak, klutzy, pieces that’d never fit right. I raised my eyebrows, really?
“I don’t want third degree burns,” I said, wanting to add just so you can prove a point. Her eyes jabbed at mine for a bit, then she looked down, around, and then she smacked the arm rest. Diet Coke. There were maybe two sips left in the thing.
“I’ll douse it!” Her eyes were scary: she was gone on this idea. She’d start the fire, she’d put it out if it came to that. I decided I’d toss the burning lingerie in the backseat, get the hell out and walk home if things went awry, then took the pair of underwear by its corners, held them up.
Scentless. They were new, display-case smooth. The pink and leopard mix was garish, a hypergrowling meowy sexiness, and imagining them on Jenny—her full body filling curves, creasing corners—heated me. Just the idea of her sitting in a chair, knowing she was wearing this underwear beneath her clothes: something about her sitting and looking at me made me need to shut my eyes as she struck the match.
“Relax, Tony, you won’t burn,” she said. I opened my eyes. She was inches from the lace, fire throbbing at match’s tip, her fingers poised for the silkiness. I wanted to blow the match out, not playful but from fear. The lace caught, blue flame seeming to lick instant across the fabric, it was a tiny spot then half an inch then an inch then two then three just like that, a breath, a snap. I was ready to drop the underwear or throw them at Jenny when the flame went causelessly out. The song on the radio had a quiet verse and a throbbing, hammer-dropping chorus and moved from one to the other as we both looked at the not-burning underwear.
I wondered what her dentist looked like.
“That’s perfect. That’s smoking hotness.” She nodded, some mental vision confirmed, dropped the used match in the Diet Coke bottle and immediately pulled another one, scraping it to life and bringing it to the left leg opening and touching the leopardy lace the same as last time but the flame leapt large now. I waved the underwear like a flag almost instantly, surrender, blowing, and Jenny blew too, and then it was just as suddenly as last time over, my heart a seismic thudding insistence.
The panties were misconfigured, clumpy, the material moved into wrongly new shapes. I could imagine what Jenny wanted—touches of ash, an undergarment which’d given up its ghost in a desperate attempt to holster hotness. I pictured racks and racks of shiny boxes of briefs at Macy’s. I could never not get hard walking through the underwear section, not because I wanted cock but because of so much presentation, such shapeliness—sculpted bulges on headless mannequins, trios of tight plaster asses jutting jauntily atop display cases. It really wasn’t, isn’t, about dicks or pussies, guys or girls, the uniqueness of plumbing: I felt the same deep need to inhale walking through Victoria’s Secret, or walking past the oversize, flesh-tone bras for Target’s largest customers. What I couldn’t get hard thinking of, though, was any of those undergarments actually worn and washed, then eventually dingy, and, even later, threadbare.
I waited for Jenny to say something. The underwear I held was strange, a calculation of sexiness solved for the wrong variable. A car drove past but nothing changed and Jenny kept looking at the underwear.
“You think it works?” She whispered. Jeremy’d been right, whoever he was—she didn’t know. There’d’ve been something sweet to the innocence had she not been bucking so hard against it.
“They’re certainly hot,” I said, not falsely. I still didn’t know the actual plan; I assumed she was going to put the underwear in one of the padded envelopes and leave it in the guy’s mailbox. It neither did nor did not make sense. For some reason I checked my watch, and thought at this time tomorrow, I’ll know if the Twins won.
I stood outside while she changed, trying to not think about how she was maneuvering the undergarments into place. She’d ended up deciding not to burn the bra—wanted first to try on the scorched panties to see if they achieved the desired effect. I scanned houses, wondering which belonged to Mr. Jeremy Teeth, and if he was there presently—eleven on a weeknight—and if so with whom, and if not who he thought of when he was alone. I wondered if he was married; Jenny was absolutely a woman who’d have an affair, not for any home-wrecking impulse, just that the impossibility would’ve attracted her, would’ve given her pre-cover for when it all fell apart. She knocked from inside the car and I turned to see Jenny’s hand against the glass, one finger come-hithering. The door was closed and I was all sat down before I realized she wasn’t wearing pants.
“What’d’ya think?” She stretched, tucked her feet under the driver’s seat, tried to straighten her legs, and I stared at the burned pink underwear, the triangle of her sex. I looked at her chest, her purple vest and white t-shirt, looked hard, and the air in the car got strange as Jenny grabbed herself, pushed her boobs together from the sides, like a stripper. It suddenly occured to me to wonder if this dentist actually was real, if this whole thing was a set-up and I the target. I didn’t look her in the eye, and she dropped her hands, and I scanned her crotch and the underwear, trying to find something to say.
Above the left leg was a small gathering of stretchy fabric, at the right leg the leopard-print lace was burned off in spots like teeth knocked from some smartass’s smile, and the result was strangely hot—the bright presentation of hot sex now messed and heated. I could hear Jenny breathing, the hint of a wheeze. For some reason the fact that she was wearing a vest and pink underwear and that beneath her feet were empty Diet Coke bottles made all the sense in the world. This was the world.
“It looks great.” The common advice for men who fear they’re nearing premature sexual climax is to think of baseball or the Queen of England. Staring at Jenny in her ruined-but-better underwear in her car’s backseat on a quiet dark street, I thought of the schedules I’d made that night. I tried to look on dispassionately as Jenny set her butt back on the seat and stopped modeling, and we sat together, just like that for a second until she heaved forward, flashing her rear, reaching for and pulling the Diet Coke from the front console and only as she was about to drink did she seem to remember she’d dropped a match in the thing not ten minutes earlier. She exhaled loudly, looked out the windows, around the neighborhood. I looked at her legs and decided she must’ve shaved two days ago—tiny hairs were just again visible on her wide, creamy thighs.
“Think he’s here?” She asked, a big sigh. My desire for her to put her pants back on was half and half. I wondered what would happen if I kissed her, asked if I could singe the bra’s edges while she wore it.
“You’d know,” I said, hoping she would. She was staring at some house, absently held the bottle of Diet Coke in her right hand and, with her left thumb, tapped her front teeth.
“Usually here, afterwards,” she mumbled. Had it been anyone else I’d’ve wondered if what had been spoken was said absently, not fully aware. Given that it was Jenny, I had to consider that she was gaming me into asking a question, begging into her nervousness. Afterwards.
“He works nights?” There was a long pause.
“Nah, he’s…” Instead of saying more, Jenny looked over and shrugged carelessly, a blank look canvassing her eyes in the same way there’d so recently been electricity. Some fight went out of her, a decision reached: she looked as if she’d just decided the whole thing—the underwear and burning—was too much, perhaps not worth it. She reached into the back and pulled one of the packing envelopes. I supposed this meant she was ready to prep the deposit but she looked again at me, held the glance for maybe three, four seconds; longer than comfortable. It felt like I’d mail this to you, something. She looked like what she was: a woman without pants, holding an envelope, hungry for someone to offer her package to.
“I’ll wait outside,” I said, figuring her about to change, and as I reached for the handle she said, almost under her breath, “you don’t have to.” I paused but didn’t look back.
Two minutes later she hustled to the house she’d been eyeing, snuck the screen door ajar a peep, stashed the envelope inside. It was an older house, had a mail slot instead of a box; if this had been my project, I’d for sure have shoved the package inside. Jenny stood a moment on the front step, looking through the darkened front window of the house, and I waited for a light to blink on and end whatever this was, but nothing happened: she clopped back down the walk, and on the drive back she asked about who I was going out with, what I’d been up to, when I had time to get dinner. We parted the same as ever, see you soon, sort of meaning it, sort of not. I wanted to tell her I was dating boxes of underwear, that I was hungry for plastic love.
Three days later I got a text from Jenny saying She got it! and another hour after that text she called.
“Jeremy’s pissed, he’s so mad, an’ I’m like: you didn’t think I had it in me. You practically dared me!”
“Wait, what? The dentist is pissed?” I was home, reading, listening to the season’s start. Twins had gone 1-1.
“Um, yeah,” she said, so thick with sarcasm I wanted to hang up, “I left burned lingerie at his girlfriend’s house with a note saying Think you’re this hot?”
In one ear was Jenny’s expectant pause and in the other I heard someone down the street singing Let’s have a toast for the douchebags, let’s have a toast for the assholes. Sometimes the best move is simply to sit, quiet, waiting. Jenny’d asked me to dinner once, and when I’d arrived with a bottle of Pinot Blanc she’d mentioned that she’d hired a private chef, the sous chef at Alma—which happened to be one of the city’s best restaurants, which she didn’t mention, just knew I’d know. She looked simultaneously excited and entitled, half dismissive when she told me. The point wasn’t to share a delicious meal (the best salad of my life, duck breast with comfit, smashed and roasted potatoes, some pear thing for dessert he lit on fire) or to enjoy the strange fantasy of having a great chef cooking privately in her kitchen, no: the night’s reason seemed to show me how easily Jenny could take such amazements in stride, something. I left feeling like I’d been invited to feel up some famously stacked woman’s fake boobs.
“Huh,” I said, finally, another voice down the street joining the first and the words going unclear. Suddenly Jenny’s sense of being lost made sense, that unfigurable afterwards from before came clear. What was I supposed to ask? Jenny sighed melodramatically.
“I just, you know—thanks for the help, I guess is all, why I’m calling. Thought you’d want to hear the results of our little mission.” The forced jocularity masked what felt like resentment. Of course the guy had a girlfriend. Of course it wasn’t just Jenny wanting to send him naughtiness.
“This Jeremy guy—you’re dating? Like, his go-to?”
“His girlfriend’s a harpy—Molly, he doesn’t talk about her much. I think she’s Polish. He says needs someone like me—he calls her Potatoes sometimes. Plus he’s really, you know, good.” I could just picture her in her kitchen looking down, not even hearing the sadness of that phrase, needs someone like me. Jose’d called twice, yesterday and earlier that evening, though I hadn’t answered.
“He a good dentist?” There were no more voices in the street. The last guy Jenny’d dated had been the general manager of a gym in Woodbury, a LifeTime Fitness, and whenever she talked about him she spoke of how she was sure there was some slimmer woman inside herself and that, with enough love from this guy, that lady’d be revealed.
“Look him up—Jeremy Gravers. Office in St. Anthony. He’s got the best Yelp rating of any dentist in Minneapolis.” I wanted to tell her no more Jose—he moved fast enough, those two calls’d be the last I’d hear from him. I wanted to tell her it was okay to be alone and that being wanted didn’t really have any math. I wanted to tell her I’d seen her in my rearview and hadn’t tried to avoid her because—I didn’t know; she’d worn a goofy helmet, and she looked insecure, anxious. I remember the thought racing through my head as I made my turn: she expects this—you could tell she was the sort who left the house sure that if she made it back it’d be with something broken, something ruined, the sort who ordered food at a restaurant and expected it to come out with a hair, or not warm enough, and that she wouldn’t send it back, would just suck it up and deal with it, pushing the hair to the plate’s edge and saying, again and again, it’s not that big a deal.
“Glad to help,” I finally said, and we hung up.
I already had a dentist and wasn’t due for a check-up for two months, so I scheduled just a cleaning. In the waiting room I thought of the schedules on the fridge—I hadn’t, in fact, stopped thinking of them since the night with Jenny, seeing her so vulnerable and open in her backseat, desperate for affirmation in her burned underwear. The schedules were always eclipsed fun: I tracked averages and made notes for the first months, sometimes, but by June I’d only catch up on note-taking over weekends, if that, and I’d wonder what the hell to do with the earlier months; inevitably, each November, I’d pull the baseball season from behind the refrigerator and recycle the lot.
“Anthony Taylor,” said a hygenist from the doorway and I followed, got in the chair, was levered back and watched her curly hair crowd her shoulders as she flossed my teeth and took the crooked hook to my gums and enamel and, on finishing, said everything looked great and the doctor’d be in shortly. A TV played video of brightly striped tropical fish swimming druggedly slow in highlighter-blue water. I suppose I just wanted to see his face, how big his hands were, if he smiled, whether his voice was haughty—maybe Jenny’d been wrong about his intonation to begin with. Why I felt I needed to secretly vet her private life, I haven’t the faintest. Why the protective impulse reared now yet hadn’t when I’d taken my Volkswagen’s bumper to her person was something I didn’t even want to consider. The curly-haired woman walked back in, tending files.
“Can I ask you something?” I could hear she didn’t look up when she said “sure.”
“You like working here, for this guy, Mr. Gravers?” I could almost feel her scanning me, checking my shoes.
“We don’t have any openings right now,” she said after a beat, slow.
“No—I don’t want to work here, I’m just curious.” I cleared my throat, trying to offer some new view of who I was. “He’s got these great rankings on Yelp, I just thought—” She came around and stood so I could see her now. The line of her chin was almost comically gorgeous: bold but not aggressive, sharp but slightly delicate as well. Her chin seemed proof of good craftsmanship, like a cornerstone. She opened her mouth and closed it.
“It’s the same everywhere—looking at strangers’ teeth. I like Dr. Gravers, but at the end of the day, I floss people—here, wherever.” She shrugged and sauntered off as Jeremy came in.
Dr. Givens was small—maybe 5’9″— with black hair tufting thickly from his cuffs. Ringless fingers Dark eyes, hair boringly combed back, etc. He moved his hands in that vaguely aggressive style of doctors who believe only they know how to grip the weaponry of health correctly, and he said we, as in “I see we’ve had a few fillings back here, hm,” and he said hm to end sentences, and he of course smelled like minty plastic gloves. He wore a mask, meaning I couldn’t see his lips, meaning suddenly there was just Might be good to switch to an electric toothbrush, help these second molars, hm. He announced, after spending a few minutes poking around, that everything looked just totally fine, and asked if I had any questions. We stared at each other, his eyes large and black and somehow moderately menacing. Had I the balls I’d’ve asked how many girlfriends the average dentist has.
“Can you settle a bet? This friend says if you’re gonna brush just once a day, you should do it after lunch—that it’s actually better then than before you go to bed. He read it somewhere.” He was writing in my file and his eyes narrowed as I spoke, some part of him getting off on casting light in the darker reaches of dental ignorance. He pulled his mask down, scribbled one last thing on the clipboarded pages, and he had a soul patch, which both shocked me and made all the sense in the world. Of course a dentist with a soul patch bangs two girls. He probably played bass in a 90′s cover band.
“After dinner’s best—once a day, after dinner’s best. I mean, after lunch is fine—it’s just math, 24 hours and whatever—but let’s say dinner’s just, you know, Twizzlers on the couch at your girl’s place while you watch a movie? That’s no good.” His smile was both patronizing and clubby—hey, we both have nights of bad dinner, amirite? though maybe you more than me—then he pressed the button and the chair converted back to a chair from the cot it’d been, we shook hands and both left.
I walked out buzzing. I wanted to ask which girlfriend like Twizzlers, if he even brushed his own teeth. I took my time through the parking lot, not sure what I was looking for til I saw a late-model Lexus with DRSMILE plates on it.
At the CVS across the street I toyed with just getting a regular envelope, but relented, finally, and got a four-pack of bubble mailers and, on buying them, asked where the bathroom was.
“Ain’t have none,” the girl behind the counter said, the bright pink gum in her mouth a shade away from what Jenny’d half-burned.
“Even if it’s an emergency?” I twinkled my eyes; I wanted the sincerity and the come-on-be-kind both. She chomped a couple times.
“Specially if it’s an emergency,” she said, then pointed behind the refrigerators, and I snuck back, locked the door, and was breathing hard before I knew what I was doing. I took off my pants, then my briefs, then stood there, sock-footed in a public bathroom, and stuffed my musty undies into a package. I grabbed a paper towel and scribbled I hope you know what you’ve got, stuffed the note in the package, and sealed it all before putting my pants back on.
I thought about it as I crossed the street and stuck the envelope under his windshield wiper. I’m still thinking about it, weeks later, think about it every time I hear from Jenny, waiting to hear if her dentist has told her about a pair of men’s underwear that showed up on his car one otherwise noteless afternoon. Maybe it wasn’t even his car, and maybe I do have Jenny, regardless of what I think I want. As I drove away it felt so strange to wear pants but no underwear, how exposed but not, charged and fragile, and I wished someone was next to me, someone I could keep it a secret from.
Weston Cutter’s from Minnesota and the author of All Black Everything and You’d Be a Stranger, Too. He teaches at the University of St Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana.