Courtney McDermott received her MFA in creative writing, with a minor in gender studies, from the University of Notre Dame in 2011. She has been published in the Iowa Source Poetry Anthology, Italy from a Backpack, the Berkeley Fiction Review, Highlights Children’s Magazine, and online at the Raving Dove and the Daily Palette. She is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Lesotho, and currently teaches high school English in St. Louis, MO.
Through the Looking Lens
I met a man who searched for names of odd little towns on the Iowa state map. Jericho, Macedonia, Paris. Rome and Defiance. He looked at the alphabetical lists provided in the indices of atlases so that he wouldn’t know where – exactly – in the state they were. He’d imagine how they got their names and designed the downtowns of each in his brain.
I’d say, “I know where Jericho is!”
And he’d say, “Shh. Don’t tell me.”
Then when it was a spring Saturday, he planned to get in his truck and go to a few counties and see what weird-sounding towns each county had to proffer, a grab bag of funny hamlets and stolen European capitals. He decided he’d photograph the blessings of each, and I’d compile them into a book.
On Finding Conversation
Heavy with Guinness, we walked away from the Brewery, where he had shown me his black and white photos of crosses and migrants and a naked crazy woman on a street corner. Outside he eyed a girl. He asked if she was fashionable. She wore skin-tight denim pants with big silver buttons along the seams, a tight oddly cut grey tank and huge platform shoes. She had short, edgy platinum blonde hair. She was stylish, not fashionable.
“There’s a difference?”
“Yeah. Fashionable is trendy – what’s in style. But stylish is your own unique outlook.”
“So she was fashionable like ten years ago?”
“Sure.” I laughed.
His shoulders rumbled in his sockets with his chuckles. I wanted him to kiss me with his large lips.
Packs roamed the street around us: motorcycle gangs, Greeks and sluts, art freaks, cars. I thought about how I moved when we walked down the street. How my feet face forward, straight and pointedly, my hips swinging slightly, because that’s how I walk. And I didn’t know where to put my arms so I crossed them in front of me, covering my chest with my red shawl. Which probably looked like I was closing myself off. But it was cold.
Why do people search for conversations like memories (as though they have already been created) or like the buttons that come with new sweaters that I toss in a hatbox? I wanted to invent conversation so I talked about the log in the back of his pickup and the night moon and the apartment building with bursts of lights from the windows, and drunken boys leaning out of doorways calling to the girls (“Do you think they’re fashionable or stylish?” “Or slutty?” “That too,” he laughed.) I asked him questions. “You sound like you’re interviewing me.” Then I shut up.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Everyone pitied him when his heterosexual life partner abandoned him for a month of travel down South. He told everyone no worries, because he’d hang out with me. I heard this from a fellow teacher in the computer lab of the boarding school where we worked. I was in love with the idea that I was the only one he thought of.
And we did hang out. We watched movies and shared bottles of wine. We spent many an evening in bars. This is how we got to know each other. We were both artists, and discussed our art. We were both teachers, and discussed our ideals. We were both well-traveled, and discussed the world in that heady, searching, intellectual way of the young. And sometimes I just listened, because I liked to watch the words form from his lips, catching on them like hookah bubbles, he the big-eyed caterpillar, me the wondering Alice.
The Other Nicks
I’ve hung out with two other Nicks before.
One was a high school sweetheart who held me when we swam in a pond and we almost kissed, but intruding headlights cut the moment. He was shipped to Qatar weeks later.
Then there was the second Nick – half of a brother duo my girlfriend and I seduced. He was a failed model with greasy hair that wanted to be a baseball player.
Both of those Nicks had aborted dreams and complexes with women and drug addictions (one No-Doz, the other crack). They were tall and athletic and I didn’t love either of them.
I’m not saying that I’m in love with anyone at all. Ever. In a bar, after a reading, the third Nick asked if I ever wrote about love. “Only unrequited love.” I told him I had never been in love, and he said he had only been in love once. I asked what he liked about her: smart, clever, witty, didn’t take any of his shit. So she challenged him, huh?
The first two Nicks didn’t challenge me, and that could explain why I didn’t love them. I always felt up to a challenge.
So I challenged him to pinpoint the constellations in the open Iowa sky, as we drove away from the bar. He needed a telescope, and I knew there was one in my childhood attic, but that didn’t help us much. So we traced them with our pointer fingers. I always thought that stars were just faraway dimes to be gathered and collected, and counted out when my hands were full.
He left me empty-handed.
This was the June night of salsa dancing. He said ciao and kissed cheeks and did the chicken dance. Though he admired the blonde, and the exotic woman in the black dress, he danced with me and I felt his hot hands through my silk shirt. His cologne might be the smell of falling in love.
And I thought his best friend was falling for me.
His best friend, Sam, and I had conversations over tea and ice cream. Sam with the dirty feet from the fields and a beard that hid the dip of his too-small chin. Sam was a better dancer than his best friend because he believed he was (and was a quarter Mexican, the Latin roots coming to the surface, he said). Sam sat closer to me, touched me more often. I didn’t want it to be Sam.
The next afternoon we talked about books and Sam mentioned White Teeth – shocked that I hadn’t read it. His mother committed suicide, but this was something he didn’t want others to know about. This might be why he couldn’t connect with women. Why he fell for them, slept with them, forgot about them. And yet, he connected with me.
Sam told me, “You’re the sweetest fucking girl,” but I’d rather it come from someone else’s mouth – the mouth with the sagging lower lip, the wide teeth – paperweights that hold down his smile, which he closeted into his chest.
Sam told me I look nice. “You’re wearing lipstick,” he said, and I love/hate that he noticed.
He – (the third Nick, not Sam) – replaced my air conditioner. And I imagine he came in – wearing overalls, naturally – with Dave the maintenance guy – and hoisted the appliance into my window, and took a look around at my air mattress and my boxes of things – the obvious clues to my impermanence.
He left a note on the foot-shaped paper I keep by the fridge, and wrote: “The air-conditioner fairy was here. You owe him a bottle of Irish whiskey.”
He owes me a reason for why he doesn’t like me. Why he let that last evening destroy the good thing we had. Being friends.
The fireflies mated on that last night. Their butts burned bright and they flashed like miniature cameras in the weeds by the pond.
Everyone was grilling out, though due to my nervousness about eating in public (a ridiculous habit I cultivated in years of public school), I didn’t eat.
I didn’t talk to him, but found the safe people. The single ones, the loud ones who made me feel I’m part of the conversation. It wasn’t until I stood on the periphery of a group – they talked of breaking beds and hook-ups and Latin countries – and it was dark and he said, “Come here and listen to this.”
And suddenly there were only four of us. He thought it’d be a good idea to leave (past midnight now) and head to a bar. Does he know any other destination?
But only – Lucy and I said – if we could ride in his pickup. I was leaving soon, and it had been on our list to stargaze from the back of a moving truck.
So we rushed under the stars and drank strong gin and tonics at the local dive. He wore the overalls and a white undershirt and it rode up and showed his stomach-skin. He touched my waist. “What should we do next? You’re the creative one here, think of something.”
I said: Dancing. Flashes of swinging in and out of his arms during salsa streamed through my head.
So he drove us there – Lucy and his friend (a man Lucy went to college with) cuddled in the back, being thrown around by the velocity of his intoxicated driving. There was only one place to dance at 1 a.m. Studio – the gay club. The only club, on an alley doused in blue neon.
He bought me a beer and we danced and I felt his bare arms and the smooth denim of his outfit, the defined shoulders. He leaned into me and kissed me. And my forehead in a tender, passionate way. His cheeks sucked in and he must have recently shaved – I stroked my hands against his jaw, the spaces where he once wore sideburns. He didn’t grope me. He held my hand and led me out of the club, where I thought he was going to fight a gay man when, for some reason, he spoke to him in Italian (the language he picked up when studying photography in Rome) and asked for a cig.
We left, Lucy bleeding from a drunken accident. His friend turned green and vomited in front of the Dairy Queen. Lucy and the friend crashed at her place.
I thought he would drop me off at home, but we went back to the pond. He brought whiskey and asked me to sit on his lap. He kissed my arm – on the pillowsoft part – and my neck where it dips.
I smelled his unwashed hair. The base naturalness of this made me feel close to him.
He wanted to talk and I let him. “I admire you.” Most people don’t speak like this. “You work so hard. You go after something and you get it. I just feel stuck.”
I rested my cheek against his.
“You’re going to leave soon and meet someone great. You deserve someone great.” He smiled. “You’re one of those women who push guys away that like them.”
“That’s not true.” I quickly thought of Sam.
“It is. Think of all of those boys you teach.”
“They’re 17. They don’t count.”
“They do. You don’t know how attractive you are.”
I told him, “I like you.” Who ever said women should be straightforward with men?
Simply put, he was stunned. “I’m flattered,” he said, looking out over the pond, his large dark eyes drunk. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
“I can’t believe I said that,” and covered my face.
“Don’t do that. Don’t cover your face.”
“I have to go.”
“It’s late. It’s early.” It was five a.m.
He held onto my hands as I stood up. “Don’t go.”
But I did. And he didn’t follow me.
The next morning he asked me to breakfast when I couldn’t go, then later didn’t answer my call. He walked where I could see him, but forced himself not to see me, even though I was dressed in a dizzy array of color, like newly washed fruit drying in the sun.
Four days later he changed his summer plans and headed to Honduras. To photograph the Revolution. He didn’t say goodbye.
He was the man who drove to Chicago. Planning to fly to Boston, help friends move apartments. He changed his mind, and drove halfway back. He had called Sam to meet him in Nowhere, Illinois, to bring him his passport and a bag of clothes. Sam was a good friend and even brought a toothbrush. He slept in the airport for two days.
Sam told me he was back from Honduras. He avoided me. I watched him mow the lawn and stand on a ladder in those dreaded overalls. And only because I was drunk on a bottle of champagne could I call him and thank God I got his voicemail to save me that embarrassment.
“He’s an asshole,” the two Persian engineering students assert when they hear the story. Their eyelashes flutter over serious eyes. I am two states away from him now, sitting in a bar with new people I have just met. “No,” I say, because he wasn’t, but this is how he sounds to other men. And men would know.
He called back when I was still in my home state. Said he wasn’t sure if we could hang out. Something about dinner with his parents. “Don’t make your plans around me. I’ll call if I have time.”
Certain he didn’t want to see me, I dressed in my nightgown and made popcorn to watch a love movie by myself. He called. 10:30 and only now he wanted to get a drink. “Meet me in 45,” he said, so that when I arrived he was halfway done with his drink.
He wore a white button-down with the ease of the good-looking. He didn’t really look at me. Was distracted by Ultimate Fighting on the TV screen. Flirted with the overweight bartender. This didn’t make me jealous – we both knew her well – and she gave us free drinks. The problem was he wasn’t overly nice. There were the numerous “hmm”s and the “Don’t chew your fingernails” comment. He was impatient, like with a child.
We talked around that night. Pegged it as “crazy.” He told me “Ciao” when we left and kissed me absently on the cheek.
I went home and cried, preventing myself from breathing that night.
Drinking Up Adieus
This was my good-bye party. I celebrated with my girlfriends and their girlfriends, because my friends are few.
We dined at Devotay and I wore a sexy grey dress and black heels and felt pretty – this was the face I wanted the city to remember. Lucy called and invited him. And she told me, “He’ll meet us at the bar. He wants to say goodbye.”
He came and sat as far from me as possible. I was tucked into the corner of the booth. Everyone talked about sex and played Would You Rather. I nursed my Guinness, silently.
Lucy’s friend liked him, and he flirted back. I was almost not jealous, but sad that he didn’t look at me. And my voice didn’t get to say words over the other drunken voices clamoring for his attention.
I got up and went outside to sit near the smokers, and told myself it was a good thing I was leaving.
Lucy came out and sat with me. I tried to leave without saying anything to him, because he’s made it clear he wants nothing to do with me. That he didn’t ever think of me as a friend. And that he regrets that night.
But he called after me, gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek and told me “Good luck.” I was gracious, smiled, said, “You too, with the new job and all.” And he smiled and I hate that.
He left with two of the other girls, their laughter on either side of him. And now all I can do is sigh.
When These Events Are Walking Ghosts
He sits now, in an apartment with his brother, drinking whiskey. He might have a drinking problem, but the glass is a fixture and it makes him seem “artsy” and “brooding.” He teaches consistently now – Spanish and special ed. He sulks that he’s still single (though he always has the option not to be. Plenty of women who meet him, want him.) He might be insecure, but aren’t we all? I can overlook that because he’s a) an artist, and b) good-looking. He’s slowly not feeling like an artist anymore, and if he loses that, well… he’ll become what he hates. Mediocre.
I sit now on a campus, gargoyles and godsheads everywhere. There’s a crucifix in every room. Many men that are my Fathers. The victory march is playing in the distance. And I think of him, and wonder if he’s thinking of me.
I sit by the library window, reading about Mass Observation. The little table I sit at is engraved with secret messages and faded names and dates: 12/9/06 B. Quinn loses Heisman /NO FAT CHICKS /k.s. +r.n. /DON’T WASTE YOUR LIFE. A thousand histories carved into wood. I’ve added my lonely initials beside them.
What would he take a picture of? He likes photos with people, but the only person here is me, bent over a table. Maybe he’d flip through the pages of unread books and find words and names to photograph and map out. Maybe he’d find our names in the same book.
Or maybe he’d just look out the window and take a photo of what I’m seeing from the eleventh story: there is the stadium – silent and empty on a Wednesday – and one tree on the quad has burst into burnished red. A Goodyear blimp cruises by, making a turn at Paris, flying through Defiance.