By Katherine Lien Chariott
Featured Image: Icebound by John Henry Twachtman
Here is the beginning. I’m walking down the sidewalk and then the curb, sidewalk and curb again, under a sky full of tiny sad stars that light up this city as well as they can, but not as well as the neon signs all around me, not as well as the rainbow glitter of the Strip, just five miles away. I’m walking with the glitter and the neon and the stars, in front of the Sav-On Drugstore and then past it, towards the Dottie’s—video poker and snacks, cheap smokes and booze, twenty-four hours a day. I go into the Dottie’s, with money in hand for two packs of Reds, and a hey there to the man working security. I’ve seen him before, know that brown skin and that smile, so I can look at the carpet instead of at him while I tap my hands on the counter, waiting to be rung up. He’s watching me, I think, and when I look at him, I know, just like I know he hasn’t seen or doesn’tcare that I came in with someone.
Because I’m not alone, out on this walk, and he isn’t bad, this man working security, but there’s another man by the door, waiting for me. He stands with his hands in his pockets and nothing on his face, and I wonder if he can tell: here’s someone who’d like to be with me. I don’t think he can tell, but I can’t be sure, and then it doesn’t matter, because we’re out the door, walking next to some woman with a grocery cart jam-full of junk, one of those crazy homeless people you see everywhere around here. That woman stares at me hard, shaking her head, and (oh God, I can’t help myself) I step into the street to get away from her. The man with me follows without saying a word. Five minutes later, we’re outside the Ninety-Nine Cent Store, just one block from his house, a question between us that’s too difficult to answer. Finally, he reaches for my hand. I let him take it, even though I shouldn’t. I’m thinking about the other night, when he sat right next to me on the couch, while his friends opened the phone book to read out loud those ads for girls from China and Vietnam, massage parlors and call-out services, everyone in the room looking at me and laughing the whole time. Everyone, except for him. He sat there perfectly still, his face a complete blank, and his blue eyes seeing nothing, exactly like now, as he stands here next to me on the sidewalk, the both of us shivering from the cold, and him telling me he’s sorry, at last.
That’s Bachelor Number One for you, and of course the number one implies a series or at least a pair. Here’s the other half of that pair, or the third point on the triangle, if you include me, and why not include me (this is my story): my ex, my boyfriend, my friend, the one who’s the man in my life even when he isn’t, now that my father is dead. We’re in his car together, cruising the Strip, and it’s one of those days, one of those perfect spring days, with the sky above such a soft blue, like the gentle color of painted-on ceilings in casinos, and the sun in that sky painted perfect as well. Oh, it’s one of those days, and we’re one of those couples: people always stop us on the street to tell us how great we look together and how we should have kids, like the sight of two people who match turns everyone to thinking about babies. And we do match, me and Bachelor Number Two, and not just our looks: we belong together in a way that me and Bachelor Number One never could, never will. Such a perfect match, maybe that’s why we keep coming back to each other, even though it’s clear, we’ll just keep breaking apart. Too perfect a match: maybe that’s how I know he can feel it, the ghost of another man with us, trying to force the question no one wants me to answer. Oh God, that question, it’s right there between us (you should see his brown eyes) when he pulls into the parking lot of the Sav-On, and reaches for my hand. But I’m out of the car before he can ask it. I run into the store and, five minutes later, I’m buying two boxes of birth control, one for each man I shouldn’t be with. Then I head out the door, moving so fast I almost bump into her, this crazy homeless woman I used to see all the time, back when I shopped at the Ninety-Nine. I almost bump into her, but I manage to stop, and then we’re both still, and staring at each other, me trembling just a little, though I couldn’t say why. Finally, she takes my hand. Here, she says, and she puts two pennies on my palm; then she turns and walks away. Me, I stand where I am, thinking about her voice (it was too high and too sweet) and looking at those coins without really understanding them, until Bachelor Number Two comes over to get me at last.
Now that you’ve met both of them, the two men I sometimes wish I’d never met, it’s time to introduce you to my sister. She’s here in Vegas on alast-minute visit, and we’re at the Vonn’s, buying some groceries for my empty cabinets and fridge. She walks the aisles slowly, holding a list in one hand, and pushing our cart with the other. (She’s concentrating on both just a little too hard.) Me, I walk with her, and then ahead, with her and then ahead again, not wanting to be that close to her, but not wanting to truly break away. This goes on until we make it to the checkout, and we’re trapped by the line, just inches apart, with no room to maneuver at all. But, still, we don’t really speak, and we don’t really look at each other either. She looks past me, at the slot machines at the front of the store, while I watch this skinny crazy woman behind us sweet-talk no one in particular. That woman flashes me a smile, and blows me a kiss; then she’s laughing so hard I can feel it shaking inside me, and I have to get away. I push past her, out of the line; run to the car and lock myself inside. I’m shivering, just a little, even though this city is burning up—120 degrees in this desert; 120, or more, in this car. Five minutes later, my sister is in the seat next to me. She puts the key in the ignition, but doesn’t pull out of our space. Instead, she sits looking at the Sav-On, her face so serious (oh God, those tragic dark eyes of hers) that I already know everything she willsay when she turns to me. And I can’t bear to hear it, not now, not again, but still I don’t do anything to stop her. Finally, she reaches for my hand, holds it tight, and there’s a question I don’t want to answer in her touch. Listen to me, she says. But I won’t. I stare past her, across the street at the Ninety-Nine Cent Store, where all the crazy homeless people hang out. I’m thinking about that woman in the Vonn’s, and I’m thinking about those weeks in Taipei, when I locked myself in my apartment, convinced that taxi drivers and neighbors were plotting to kill me. Those god-awfulweeks, after Bachelor Number Two left me, and the very worst part of it all: the look on my sister’s face, when she came to get me at last. That face of hers: it was just like it is now, here in this burning hot desert, as she weeps and begs me to come home.
We’re done with my sister, which means that I’m almost ready to end this, so I’m going to take you back to the beginning, or as close to full circle, anyway, as anything in this life ever is. Here we go: it’s four in the morning, and I haven’t slept yet, and I don’t want to, because this is one of those nights, one of those perfect, perfect nights, when I feel like the world is a present, just waiting to be unwrapped. This is one of those nights, when the whole world is my present, and I’m back at the Dottie’s, smoking a cigarette, and trying to figure out the best way to open it. What I decide is this: I need someone to help me. The only problem is that I can’t think of who, because Bachelor Number One is out with his friends, and Bachelor Number Two is off with his family. They’ve both left me to myself, and this is the worst time to do it, because there’s a tingling all over my body, and that’s a feeling that’s meant to be shared. Maybe that’s why I keep looking at the people around me. I’m looking around me, and I’m looking hard, but there’s no one here worth a minute of my time, except for the man by the door, working security. He stands there with his face a complete blank, staring down at the carpet, and tapping his fingers against his own legs. But every now and then, his brown eyes slide in my direction. They ask the same question I’m asking myself, again and again, until I get up from my seat, ready to answer us. I’m across the room from him, and then I’m by his side, talking and laughing, as he takes my hand. Five minutes later, we’re locked in the bathroom, my whole body shaking, and my heart pounding so hard I’m sure it will explode. Then—just like that—it’s over, and I’m out on the sidewalk again, and alone. I’m standing under a sky that’s almost totally black, not a single star in sight, staring across the street at the Ninety-Nine CentStore. There’s a crazy homeless couple in the doorway, lit up by the neon signs all around them. They face each other in the cold, without movingor speaking; stay perfectly still, for the longest time. Finally, he reaches for her hand. And something about the way they are now (so very perfect to- gether, it’s heartbreaking), they look like a painting to me, or maybe a tableau vivant—one that makes me want to weep. Instead, I close my eyes, and I keep them closed. I let the sky hang so dark and sad above me, let this desert freeze itself towards winter all around me, refusing, for now at least, to see anything I don’t want to see; refusing, at last, to see anything at all.
Katherine Lien Chariott has published fiction, essays and poetry in a number of journals. She is based in China.