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Apr/May 2010 Fiction

Dawn

by Caroline Kepnes


Flax and Hillary are sitting outside at the coffee shop as if they're a couple, but they're not. She tries to make him like her, fingers her silver necklace, meaning to draw his eyes to her neck. Your hand could be here if you'd only let it. Sometimes she can't hide the way it hurts every time he doesn't touch her, but sometimes he says things. You're the only person I can really talk to. I like your skirt. Her friends don't understand why she sits around with him. He obviously doesn't like her, they think. That's not true. He's shy, he might be scared of losing me, he wouldn't keep knocking on my door if he didn't like me, friends become more all the time, it happens, the last guy I dated, we kissed the first night we met and where did that get me? He sounds like a jerk, they think. He helped me paint my bedroom, he was a boy scout until he was seventeen, he's never even smoked a joint because he likes to be present, he's from Nebraska, he believes in love at first sight, he can't have a girlfriend until he gets his career together, acting is so a career. What does she get out of this, they wonder. I have to go, he's here! It is always possible that a day like this will end with them in bed, his lips grazing her necklace. I've wanted this for so long, Hilly. So long.

"So how was your night?"

He shrugs, "I hooked up with this girl."

"Oh." She will not quaver. He is not her boyfriend. As a girl, she loved Miss Piggy the most. If only she'd preferred the detached, placid My Little Ponies. "That's cool."

"Whatever, I'm not into it." Relief. "But she was hot."

Is he trying to make her jealous? No. What she loves about him: he is blunt. What she hates: the force of a blunt object. She was hot.

She tries, "Well, as long as she was hot."

He rolls his eyes, "Whatever. She's not someone I'd ever wanna hang out with. She was too cool for school and all that. Anyway, I got a callback."

"You did? Yay!" Yay!

Flax is an aspiring actor, and Hillary is a casting assistant. It is her mother's belief that this boy—who sounds just terrible, he doesn't appreciate you, and what kind of a name is that?—only knocks on her door because of her job—and do you even like that job, Hilly, and does he even pay for your coffee?

"Flax, this is so great. What's the role?"

"It is great, I know. It's a sitcom, but I mean a good one."

"What's wrong?"

He shrugs, "I thought I'd be all pumped, but I feel… flat."

"It's your first callback. It's a big change. And, change is traumatizing. Good or bad, it's change, and it hurts."

He pauses, "That's deep, Hill."

"Shut up."

"I mean it. Not that you need me to tell you, but you're smart." Did you hear that, world, do you see? "So smart, yeah. It is change. It's like suddenly, I'm closer, and I hate being closer because I care. Like, I specifically care."

"Change is torment. But it's how we grow."

He smiles at her with his eyes and his soul, and the sun shines on them, and this could be the day he falls for her. He specifically cares.

They first met in the courtyard of the building. It was Memorial Day weekend, and in an effort to combat the sense of having no family, both Flax and Hillary had decided to grill a steak on the communal grill, a holiday meal for one. They were embarrassed at first, but then they had beers, they ate together, they talked together, they stayed up all night watching movies. It was dawn when she left him, a single long hug at the door, Hillary outside on the walkway, Flax's arms wrapped around her, his body inside, his bare feet on the carpet, her feet exposed in sandals, itchy toes. Anyone in a nearby apartment happening to peek out the window would surely have assumed that these two had been intimate.

"Whoa. Hello, purple tights."

Hillary sees the girl in the purple tights, flanked by three less attractive friends. She'd never go for Flax; she looks like the kind of girl who knows where the band is playing, and Flax, he likes '90s pop.

"You're gonna get this part. I have a feeling."

"Yeah, right."

"You, Flax Parker, are talented. You're massively talented. Massively."

He almost purrs. She knows the words that pull him—amazing, special, massively talented, just massively talented. Yet he isn't her boyfriend, so there must be more words, words she doesn't know, words that pull harder, all the way to Nebraska to meet his parents. Sometimes she might just ask him for the words.

He yawns, "So what's new with you?"

She lowers her voice, "We're casting a pretty cool movie."

"I can barely hear you. What?"

She leans in, "I don't want to offend our fellow patrons."

He nods. He gets his phone out of his pocket. "Yeah? That's cool."

"Do you want to hear what it's about?'

"Sure," and he's texting, but it's not a girl, so the situation is not thoroughly dire. Her mother's mantra: See the good, and if you don't see it, make it up.

"So the movie takes place at a coffee shop, kind of like this one, where everyone sits around just being hip, pretending to write, when really they're all miserable and they're just play acting. It's called Pretentious. Literally, that's the name. Great, right?"

He motions for her to lower her voice; he's not silencing her, he's protecting her. He cares, specifically cares. She grips the arms of her chair and scoots closer. He doesn't fight it; maybe he wants it. She starts talking again, but he's watching the man who's sidled up to one of the top shelf tables, a man who is more like a boy, aviators and untamed lazy hair and denim that fits him well in the way that suggests his whole life is in jeans, his whole life is a constipated Sunday morning, a blackout, and he's at least thirty-five, and he is a hands-free smoker, the cigarette dangling out of his mouth as he introduces his kitten—a fucking kitten, a kitten on a leash—to the girl in the purple tights.

Flax sits back, "Look at this jerk, he probably hasn't showered in a week, and he thinks this girl's gonna like him because of his stupid kitten. I hate when guys use props."

"I know. It's so transparent."

"And the sunglasses. It's not even that sunny."

"I know."

Aviators spits his lit cigarette onto the sidewalk and wraps the leash around his wrist, reaches for the kitten. Purple Tights cuddles the ball of fur. No, you're squeezing his neck. Aviators groans, but he laughs, loosens the leash.

"So the movie. What is it about again?"

But it was always hard for Hillary to finish anything, be it a story or a package of English muffins or a self-destructive friendship with a guy. Things were always rotting in her apartment, rotting and then festering because she was determined to learn a lesson and stop the bad habit of coveting rot, using the rot as a weapon for self-flagellation, the way a mother might leave her six-year-old boy's plate of half-eaten broccoli in his bed should he fail to bring the plate into the kitchen after dinner. Hillary reddens. Even her coffee. Here it is, the ice melted. Flax has his coffee on the part of the table that's shaded, ice chips still whole.

Aviators has shifted, leans forward, "Hey, asshole."

Hillary looks up; she answers to asshole. But he isn't addressing her. He's looking at Flax. "You got a problem?"

"Yeah, you don't throw lit cigarettes on the street."

Aviators laughs, even howls. Flax reddens. She can feel him shaking, puts a hand on his leg. He flinches, stands. "And you keep pulling the leash, and you're gonna hurt the kitten. The kitten looks like it's starving to death. It doesn't need to be choked, too."

"Fucking ASPCA, why don't you mind your business?"

Purple Tights nuzzles the kitten. "Is he neutered?"

Flax won't take his eyes off Aviators. "I doubt that."

Aviators drops the leash. Purple Tights clings the kitten. When Aviators stands, it turns out that he is a lumberjack, blocking the sun and taking down the trees, chop, chop, chop. Flax is just a flimsy birch, chop, chop, chop. They claw at each other like feral dogs. They fall to the ground. The kitten snarls, claws out, and Purple Tights lets go—she's not used to rejection, you can tell. The kitten flees, a grey blur bound for the street. Hillary runs. She grabs the leash and saves the kitten from an incoming Honda, beep, and she lies on the street catching her breath. The kitten hisses and claws, but it's just a kitten. A shadow hangs on her, and she looks up, wanting Flax, but no, it's Aviators. She looks at the sidewalk: Flax is a kitten now. Purple Tights has a leash on him—her hands, her napkins, did she really just softly kiss the bruise on his left cheek? Aviators takes Hillary by the hand and pulls her up. He smells like whisky. Oh, it's like that. He drinks. Oh, it's like that. Flax is walking away with Purple Tights, purple fucking tights, purple tights for fucking.

"Tell me you're not with that asshole."

"I'm not with him. And he's not an asshole."

"He was eye fucking that whore who felt up my cat, and he's got you sitting there wagging your tongue."

"Kitten."

"Huh?"

"Nothing. Semantics."

"Se-what-ics?"

"Nothing."

"Do you want to come over and listen to records?" She doesn't answer. "Or are you still lusting for the asshole?"

"It's not that simple. He's my friend. I should see if he's okay."

"Ah, baby, it fucking is."

He nods toward the coffee shop. Flax and Purple Tights are walking away, arms linked. He won't stop. "Do you wanna come over or what?"

He is too tall, too drunk, and she doesn't know how to say no, and they walk, and he doesn't know how to stop talking, pouring it all out there: he went to culinary school but hates to cook; his mother died of toxic shock syndrome when he was eight; he has multiple sclerosis; he takes drugs—it's fine, it's not dramatic and shit; his dad is an alcoholic; his dad beat the shit out of him and then one night called the cops on his own son; his name is Aaron—he has a name, common and biblical; he's been to prison—been to prison, yes—weapon: ceramic bowl is what it said in the local paper. And then he was on a path—Fucking benders, man, I'm coming down right now, heroin, meth, anything that gets me away, you know? No, she doesn't know. Flax was a boy scout, and this guy probably beat up boy scouts for fun. She should not go into his apartment, his apartment that is only one room, because he only works occasionally—Jobs, man, they suck the life right out of you and then you're fifty. No way, man. He is not Flax. There is no push pull, he only pulls at her and she can't push him away. She doesn't want to, and it isn't fair that it feels good, holding the hand of the man who says heroin, meth, anything that gets me away, you know? This is not her boyfriend, cannot be. But here she is, her necklace unhooked—Get this thing off, don't need this crap in the way.

Salem. He named the kitten Salem. She wants to slow his hands. "Why Salem?"

He looks like he might punch her, riled. Why not Salem?

"No, really, why did you name him Salem?"

He rolls over and lights a cigarette. I dunno, cuz it's got witches and shit?

Salem preens and eats her skirt. As Flax noted, he's not neutered. But it's okay. Tomorrow Flax will call her, and they will get together, she horrified by her weakness with witches and shit, he horrified by his momentary collapse into the Purple Tights, and they'll be in a new place, choosing each other over se-what-ics. At last.

Of course Aaron snores, so he doesn't hear her when she dresses, so afraid he'll wake up and still want her. No message from Flax appears in her phone. Salem yelps, and she picks him up. She can't let go. Flax didn't reach out. Flax is still with Purple Tights, and Aaron's apartment smells like a men's room on a highway. She takes Salem to a veterinary clinic. They neuter him. Women have cats because I dunno, cuz it's got witches and shit? and the way a front door can be so cruel—Flax never knocks anymore—the way a phone's silence can be a whip, slaying your backside—he never texts either. But Salem mews. Hillary cannot pinpoint the moment at which he is a cat, but she can say he is a kitten no longer.

Sometimes she feels like a savior. Salem rubs his torso against her thigh and purrs. She rescued him from the man who wouldn't neuter him. Sometimes she feels like a thief. Salem sulks by the window, disgusted. She kidnapped him from the man who wouldn't neuter him.

Flax finally calls. He's been busy, it's been crazy, and there's this girl, it happened so fast, love at first sigh. Purple Tights has a name, Jessica, Jessie baby. Can you believe that lunatic that day? The only good thing about him though, he brought me to Jessie. What a weirdo. And I heard he's a druggie. That poor kitten, I wanted to take it away. It's probably dead by now, poor thing. So, do you have a boyfriend or anything? Flax and Jessica make plans to have dinner with Hillary. They will never have dinner with Hillary.

A new coffee shop becomes Hillary's home. It's not cool like the one she used to go to with Flax. Aaron appears on a Wednesday afternoon—what is he doing in a place like this?—and there is nowhere to run. You have to ask for a key to get into the bathroom, and there is no time. Her blood vessels constrict, and she doesn't know what to do with her hands. She's too shaky to keep typing. She imagines what happens next: lots of screaming, gesticulations, beads of saliva. He's going to call the cops. Fucking cat thief! She'll defend herself. You tell me all this scary shit when I don't even know you. You can't take care of that cat. You're a mess! And suddenly they're making out and then they're fucking and then they're in bed nuzzling Salem and then everything bad about him is in the past and he has a job he doesn't hate and they're so happy when they're out grocery shopping together that they don't even notice Jessica and Flax, who, by now are bored of each other. And Flax wants to go to her, but he doesn't. She looks too happy.

He approaches. It begins.

"I'm sorry," she says. "I can explain, really."

"Me, too."

"I never should have stolen your kitten. I don't blame you if you hate me."

"Fuck no. I couldn't even afford cat food. You did a good thing."

Will she ever get to have the power? Will she ever take anything from anyone?

He grabs his hair, jumps up and down. The man is fourteen inside, "I gotta just fucking say it. Just say it." He takes her hands. "I have it."

"You have what?"

He lets go, backs away. "You know."

"No, I don't know. What do you have? What? What is it?"

He puts a hand on her shoulder. "Let me get you some juice."

She sits. He gets in line. He has it, something powerful, bigger than a stolen kitten. She can tell by the way that Aaron shakes the juice—vitamins and pulp, not caffeine, juice. Whatever it is, it is not good. Her headphones lie there by her computer, and she can hear faintly, Jewel, I got my AIDS and my pancakes, too. She mutes the volume. She doesn't want Aaron to know she likes '90s pop. Calm down, calm down, that's not even the way the song goes, it's, I got my eggs and my pancakes, too. Maybe it's not AIDS, maybe it's se-what-ics? Aaron pats her on the back. Here it comes, love. There it goes, life. The upside: Flax will come back into her life. She'll lie in her AIDS bed, and he'll bring her blankets and tell Purple Tights that he needs to be here. Across the room, an alone girl, all eyeliner and unreturned phone calls, watches Aaron rub Hillary's shoulders, and then she buries her head in her computer, as if the one she wants to want who wants her right back is gestating in the keypad where her fingers try for beauty, tap, tap, tap.

"What do you have? What is it?"

"I didn't mean to. I wasn't thinking clear, and shit, I just, I don't know."

"Either you have AIDS or you don't have AIDS. You're not even making sense."

He stops touching her. He storms to the other side of the table, sits. Slam, his pupils engorged, "AIDS? Who the fuck said anything about AIDS? Are you fucking kidding me right now?"

"I thought you did."

"Fuck, you don't have AIDS, do you?"

"No. God no. I just have your cat."

He raises his hand. "Sweet. High five to no AIDS."

She high fives him. Weapon: ceramic bowl.

"So what was all that stuff when you came in? You said you had something?"

"I have your necklace."

"My necklace." She reaches for her neck. Her mother gave her the necklace the day she graduated from college. It was wrapped in a little blue box, and Hillary protested, Mom, this is too much. And her mother said no, it wasn't. A young lady should have one nice piece of jewelry. That's how men know to give you more. Props, Hilly. They send signals. Hillary had assumed she had lost it in the days after Flax disappeared, when she had her own bender, kept waking up on other peoples' couches, unsure of how she got there, dismantled, fighting the urge to reach out to him so hard that she couldn't keep track of a necklace, could barely get it together to feed Salem.

"I'm sorry, Hillary. It was a shitty fucking move."

"My necklace."

She had thought it was just gone, and she's been trying so hard to pretend it was never even here, that it had always been a ridiculous figment of her imagination, like AIDS and pancakes, like Flax's struggle to stop himself from showering her with kisses and adulation.

"I been carrying it around for like months. I knew I'd see you. I fucking had to. Fuck yeah. I'm so fucking happy right now."

"Why did you steal it?"

As if the answer is so obvious, "I was gonna pawn it."

"Oh." Naturally, the answer is also I dunno, cuz it's got witches and shit. "But I didn't pawn it. I fucking held onto it. And I got my shit together, kind of."

"Can I have it?"

He reaches into his pocket, "Fuck."

"What?"

He shows her the hole in the lining of his pocket. "It's gotta be here. Fuck. I bet it just fell out. Fuck."

"If you're making this up, you can tell me. I'm just happy I don't have AIDS."

"I told you. I am not an asshole. I told you that when I fucking met you. I am not that little shit friend of yours. I may be a fuck up, but I don't fuck with people's heads. It's here. It has to be."

And then he's on the ground, a baby learning to crawl, heading for the door, casing every inch of the tile. She could stand up and leave. She should leave. The odds are that Aaron—Jobs, man, they suck the life right out of you and then you're fifty—is a liar, covering for the fact that he pawned the necklace and blew the money on heroin, meth, anything. But she believes him. She can't stop watching him, on all fours, pawing and prostrate, his forearms are flexing, his butt crack exposed, his back arched, as if the necklace might be hiding one square foot away, under the trashcan, shimmering. The right thing to do: Walk over there, lean over him, tell him to stop. Tell him the necklace is gone, that looking for it won't make it appear, that it may as well have never even existed, that's how gone it is. But she wishes that Flax were here. If he could see Aaron down on the ground like a dog, he might see Hillary in a whole new way. In purple tights. Worthy.

 

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