I sat across from Columbia at IHOP and gazed into her dark eyes. They were like two shiny, brown M&Ms. I could’ve stared at them all night. Damn fine, I thought, considering she’s blonde. My stomach tingled.
I’ve got nothing against blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls, but they’re to be expected. Run of the mill, as my mother would say. But blond-haired, brown-eyed girls? They’re a different kind of beast, as my father would say.
Life for them, I imagined, was an uphill battle. If you ask me, they’re victims of fate—prisoners of predetermination. I’m inclined to call them underdogs, but let’s get one thing straight about Columbia: she was no underdog.
“What’re you looking at?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I lied.
“You were looking at me really weird.”
“I’m sorry. Your eyes, they’re pretty.”
She smiled and said, “I know, right?”
Her teeth were perfect, pure white, immaculate. I could tell she never missed a day brushing them.
She shifted herself in the booth. Her collarbones poked through her V-neck like they were trying to escape.
I thought, What I really want to do is reach across and pull you over here.
“Why’re you still staring at me weird?”
“I’m not,” I lied.
I was a sophomore in college. Columbia and I had met up by pretty much chance. After we’d graduated from high school, we were strangers for two years. Then one day, while I was on my lunch break at the mall—I worked at Dillard’s—I saw her in the food court. She was two people ahead of me in line at Subway. I cut the line and stood behind her for a few seconds until she turned around.
“Oh my God!” she squealed.
After we paid for our sandwiches, we small-talked a bit, both of us all smiles. The whole time I kept wondering, Why don’t I have your number?
Then, when we hit a stopping point, I asked for her digits. “Would you like to go to dinner sometime?” I asked, a shot in the dark.
“Dinner?” she repeated.
“Yeah, like, can I take you to dinner? Unless you’re busy or something.”
“Whoa. Take me to dinner. That sounds like a serious proposal, sir.”
I stayed quiet, unsure how to respond.
Finally she said, “I’m messing with you, dork. Of course we can ‘go to dinner.’” Air quotes.
“Cool! Well now that I have your digits, I can call you soon? Does that sound good?”
I waited two days before I called her. This was carefully planned.
“Hey,” I said over the phone, “how does IHOP sound Friday night?”
“Um, yeah, sure, IHOP sounds… good,” she answered.
To me, IHOP was a more respectable option than McDonald’s, and much more affordable than somewhere overrated like Outback Steakhouse, which, on my sophomore budget, was out of the question anyways, even if I just wanted to go there solo.
“Cool. I can pick you up, if you’d like?”
There was a little bit of silence before she said, “Um, yeah, sure, that sounds good.”
“I mean, if it’s Okay with y—”
“I said yes, silly. Come get me at six.”
After our phone call, I entered her address on MapQuest. It said it would take me forty-five minutes to get to her place from my dorm. Damn, I thought, she lives in Djibouti.
When I got to her neighborhood, I was still surprised to find myself in a trailer park, in Devine, about thirty miles outside the city. I had no clue she lived in a trailer park, or Devine.
She was standing outside her home, looking absolutely fine in dark blue jeans and a low-cut T-shirt with a faded American flag on it.
Suddenly, an image of her draped in an American flag, with nothing else on underneath, popped in my head. I pushed it away quickly. “I had no idea you lived in a trailer park.” I had no idea how bad the words sounded until they left my mouth. “I mean, I wasn’t trying to say that—”
“It’s all good,” Columbia said, expressionless. “This is where I live. Surprise.”
“Hey, you look great,” I said, changing the subject.
“Not bad for a trailer park girl, huh?” She grinned like the devil. My face turned hot.
“I’m just messing with you, goofball. Jesus, don’t be so serious.”
“I’m not,” I said, defensively, childishly. Then I high-fived her to play it off.
On the drive to IHOP, we small-talked some more, and at some point, I played music from my iPod—I’d created a playlist for our date. Columbia and I had both loved punk rock. We’d spent many lunches at school talking about Green Day, Death Cab For Cutie, Dashboard Confessional, Panic! At The Disco, all them. Thus, I’d titled my playlist, “Columbia Records.” When I showed her, she looked at me with glowing eyes, like melted M&Ms.
At IHOP, we were intercepted by an ancient waitress named Doris. I counted legit ten thousand wrinkles on her face. Once Columbia and I had decided on a booth, Doris walked us over it, slowly, very slowly. She called us both “Honey” in a near-man’s voice. From the look on Columbia’s face, she was as amused as I was.
After Doris shuffled off to give us time to order, Columbia said, with a little smile, “Stop being mean.”
“I’m not being mean…honey!”
“Oh God, don’t even start.”
“Seriously, how many packs of Camel do you think she’s put away in her life?”
“You’re evil,” Columbia said, grinning that devil’s grin.
Doris was back and Columbia’s stern gaze seemed to order me, You better not.
She ordered chocolate chip pancakes.
“And I’ll have the Belgian waffle with scrambled eggs,” I said in a heavy smoker’s voice. I couldn’t believe I pulled it off.
By a miracle of God, Doris seemed not bothered one iota by my little stunt. After all, the woman had lived through several world-shaping wars, and Eisenhower and Tricky Dick. She’d probably had a litter of children, all grown now. And lots of grandchildren. Me? I was just another punk ass kid she had to serve on a Friday night to get a halfway decent tip.
Still, Columbia kicked me good in the shin, and not without another glare from her beautiful brown M&M eyes.
The food arrived quick. My eggs were warm and fluffy. The waffle batter practically melted in my mouth. I scarfed down everything fast, like a wolf. Columbia had only taken a few bites of her pancakes when I finished.
“Good lord,” she said. “You’re not that hungry, huh?”
“Nah,” I replied. “I had a big lunch.”
I could only watch as Columbia ate. Surprisingly, she didn’t make a stink about my food voyeurism, like a lot of girls would. She chewed each bite about fifteen times, real methodical. Her lips stayed close shut, real mannered. I imagined her looking up at me and saying, Not bad for a trailer park girl, huh?
In between her numerous chews, Columbia made conversation with me, said she’d been going steady to one of the community colleges in town—one that was a Venus flytrap for all the slackers from school. Columbia said she’d also been working part time at a children’s daycare. She loved the job but hated going to school at the same time and was considering taking a year off. College was too much like high school, she said. I wanted to tell her right then and there to not unenroll, to stick with it. Otherwise she’d never go back, But I didn’t.
I just nodded my head and listened.
“And you?” she said. “You planning to finish on time?”
“That’s the plan,” I said. “Two more years and I should be done.”
“You totally will. You’ve always been smart like that.”
For some reason, her comment rubbed me the wrong way. I’d always felt I did exactly what I was supposed to do. I was no different from her.
At some point, I broke up our serious talk by doing an impression of Michael Scott from The Office. Why? Because Columbia and I had both loved The Office. And I was good at impressions.
“Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me,” I intoned Steve Carrell.
Columbia almost spit out the last of her pancakes in my face.
“Oh my God, yes.” She pointed at my mouth. “That was really good. And that was a fucking amazing episode.”
Doris was back. As she picked up
our plates, I noticed she had the sourest expression I’d ever seen on a human
“You’re a doll,” I said to Doris, in my Doris voice.
“You’re welcome, my honey,” Doris said, unleashing a frightening smile that revealed a few missing teeth.
Before I could clown again, Columbia kicked both my shins.
She didn’t like me making fun of old people.
As we waited for our check, I glanced around the restaurant. Except for an old couple sitting behind us, there was nobody else. The graveyard shift had begun. People had better things to do on a Friday night.
I turned back toward Columbia and caught her picking her teeth with her pointer finger.
“Oh my God, don’t judge me,” she said. “I get food stuck all the time.”
“I’m not judging,” I lied, waving her off.
“This is like, totally inappropriate for me to ask, probably, but can you check to see if there’s anything else stuck in my teeth?”
“Gladly,” I said.
She flashed those perfectly straight, immaculately white chompers at me. Damn, I thought, she could be a toothpaste model.
“Let’s see what we’ve got in here,” I said officiously.
I focused in on one of her teeth. “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”
Columbia’s hand shot to her mouth. “Oh my God, shut up. For real?”
“You’d better go see for yourself. Looks like something’s stuck in there pretty good.”
“Oh my God.” She rushed off to the bathroom at a pace that would’ve broken Doris’s hips. Before she disappeared, I did notice Columbia’s jeans spread tightly against her ass, which wasn’t big, but perfect nonetheless.
My stomach tingled.
When Columbia returned, she punched my arm playfully. “You freakin’ jerk.”
“I’m gonna press assault charges on you.”
“Well you deserve it.”
The old couple behind us—I glanced back at them again—both glared at me. They found nothing funny about our company. Perhaps we’d disturbed the final moments of their peace on Earth. For a quick second, I pictured Columbia and me as them, lived past our expiration date.
I nodded at them and they both quickly looked away.
“What the heck are you up to now?” Columbia said.
“American Gothic twelve o’clock, right behind me,” I whispered. “Don’t make it obvious.”
Columbia peeked at them, registered their presence, then said, “Oh my God, you’re so evil.”
Suddenly, her expression changed. It was as though she was contemplating something heavy, something sad. A black cloud drifted across her eyes.
“You know,” she said, “I love old people. I really do. But they also make me really sad for some reason.”
“What’d you mean?” I said, legit confused.
“Like, it sucks to know that’s it’s all gonna end one day, sooner than we think.”
She snapped her fingers.
“What’d you mean?” I asked again.
“Okay, like, here’s life,” she said, holding out her hands about a foot apart from each other, palms facing inward. “You live for all this stuff in between, then before you know it, you’re here,” she said, shaking her right hand.
I was taken aback.
“What the hell did they put in your pancakes?” I said. “Did you go and snort something in the bathroom?”
Columbia didn’t smile.
“I’m kidding.” I straightened my back. “Look, I think the point of life is to really enjoy all the in-between stuff—like really enjoy it—so that when this comes,” I said, shaking my right hand. “You’re good with it. Cool with it. At peace with it. Know what I mean?”
Columbia looked out the window, to a mostly dead parking lot.
“Yeah,” she answered softly. “I guess. It’s just…I don’t know, I guess I just see things differently. It’s hard for me to explain. I don’t really get to enjoy all the in-between stuff knowing the end’s coming. I’ve always thought that way. I enjoy things to a certain point, then I don’t. For example, I love going to the movies. Like, I love watching people do weird shit in the snack line. I love the smell of movie popcorn. I love picking out the perfect seats in the dark. But at the end of the day, all the lights will come on and I’ll have to go home. And then, later, all the lights will shut off for good. Do you know what I’m saying? I don’t know…I should just stop talking.”
I wanted to bust out another Michael Scott impression, but it was like the water in my funny well dried up. I had to dig us out of there.
“Listen,” I said. “I get what you’re saying. I totally get it. And I hate knowing all that stuff too. But I think when things are going well, when you’re having a good time, we should just stop and enjoy the moment. Like now, for instance. Let’s enjoy how stupid you looked with all that pancake in your teeth.”
The edges of her lips curled up.
“You know what else?” I added. “Sometimes you make my head hurt, so I reckon you knock it off, lil lady, or else.” My Hollywood cowboy accent was always a hit at parties.
“You’re nuts,” Columbia said, grinning an angel’s grin this time.
If I could’ve frozen time, the minute that followed is what I’d’ve froze. Comfortable silence, satisfied stomachs, infinite possibilities ahead.
“Just so you know, I baffle everyone,” Columbia said, breaking the silence. “That’s probably why I don’t have a lot of friends. People think they know me, but they really don’t. I guess that’s my schtick.”
“Your schtick?” I said.
“Yep. My schtick. Funny word, ain’t it? Schtick.”
“Schtick is a funny word,” I agreed.
At the cash register, I told Doris to put it on one check.
“It’s OK, I’ll pay my half.” Columbia reached inside her purse.
I gently grabbed her wrist. “I got it.”
“No, it’s Okay, but thank you.”
“No, it’s Okay. I got it.”
“So one check or two?” Doris said impatiently.
My earlier charm meant nothing anymore.
“One check,” I answered definitively.
Columbia squeezed me hard in the area where a love handle hadn’t grown yet.
In my ear, she whispered, “Jerk.”
There wasn’t as much small talk on the drive back, so, pretty quick I played the same playlist. The Ramones. The Sex Pistols. Rancid. Black Flag. The Clash. blink-182. All them.
When we got back to Columbia’s, it was super dark. All the lights were off everywhere. Pitch black. For all I knew, I was in another country. And I practically was: in Devine, the hill country. Country living was a different kind of beast, I thought in my father’s voice.
Then I remembered a time in high school when, during one lunch, Columbia had told me that her mom had grounded her once for two months because she forgot to bathe her baby sister. I did the math in my head quick: two months was one-sixth of a year. I soon realized how Columbia had only mentioned bad things about her family. It didn’t seem to me, then, that a girl like her could come from her family.
“Thanks for tonight,” she said. “And for paying. That was really sweet.”
“No problem,” I said. “I had lots of fun.”
Though I could barely make out her face—I’d killed the headlights when I got to her home—the moonlight painted a shape I knew belonged only to her.
That thought made my heart race. My tongue was suspended until she spoke again.
“Y’know,” she said, “I never did thank you for that one time you lent me your shirt junior year.”
“What?” I said, once again legit confused.
“Your shirt. Junior year. Remember? So I wouldn’t get expelled.”
“I remember. I’m just wondering what made you think of that?”
“Because I didn’t thank you, and now, I’m taking the opportunity to thank you. That’s all. Got a problem with that?”
“No, it’s just…you baffle me.”
Her moonlit mouth expanded into a smile.
You kissed me on the cheek outside the computer lab, remember? So you did thank me.”
“Well, I don’t remember.”
“Harsh. You’d make a great lawyer one day,” I said.
“Oh shut up.”
There was silence. This time less comfortable.
After a while, I don’t know how long, Columbia said, “Mr. Jenkins would’ve kicked me out of school, Mom would’ve killed me. All for a blouse. I didn’t even have boobs. I still don’t.”
“We all knew Mr. Jenkins had a hard-on for you,” I said, trying—and failing—not to think about her chest. “He just wanted you to notice his little porn ‘stache.”
“Oh my God, gross. Don’t even joke like that, weirdo.”
“Everything turned out fine, calm down.”
“I guess so.”
Outside my window, I saw the dark mass that was Columbia’s home. Inside was her mother—her mother, in bed fast asleep, or perhaps waiting for her daughter to come inside so she could trap her in a cage.
“Well,” Columbia said, breaking my thoughts, “I’d better get going.”
“Call me again sometime?”
“For sure,” I said. “I’ve got your digits now.”
Another moonlit smile—an orb that shined through the darkness.
“Hey, 1999 is calling. They want their lame lingo back.”
When our eyes met again, different information was passed between them. Damaging, in the wrong hands. My heart pounded through my throat. My brain drilled a single command into me, repeated over and over.
Do it. Do it. Do it.
I put my hand on her lap—she didn’t push it away. My other hand raised her porcelain chin. Her breathing was heavy, labored.
She pushed my seat back and climbed on top of me.
She clasped my face and bit my bottom lip soft, then hard. My hands slid up her shirt. Then down. She slapped me.
“Nah ah,” she said.
Holding both my hands, she forced them slowly south, her control, her pace. She leaned into my ear and breathed hot air into it. “Good boy,” she whispered.
Some things you promise to keep to yourself your whole life. What happened then is one of them.
Back in my car, my windows fogged up, Columbia smoothed out her hair in the passenger mirror.
Silent, I watched her, studied her slender fingers slide across her curls like she was playing the harp.
When she flipped the mirror up, she said, “See ya later, alligator.”
“In a while, crocodile,” I said.
She stepped out of my car and sauntered toward her front door as if she was never gone. She didn’t turn around to wave me goodbye.
I waited a few seconds, hoping, somehow, she’d come back to send me off with a kiss, but no. She didn’t. There was nothing left for me to do but leave, so I left.
Not once did I look at my rearview mirror. I didn’t play one song on the drive back to my dorm.
I waited for a call, a text, that never came. Three days in a row I texted a single question mark. Three question marks were stacked, one on top of the other. All unanswered. Soon, her voicemail message disappeared, replaced by a robotic voice informing me that the person’s voicemail inbox was full. Sorry, goodbye.
What’s the right way to go about thinking of somebody disappearing?
A terrible car accident? Lost phone? A hatchet buried in her skull, by her mother?
I came to understand something about being dead.
There’s more than one way.
Basically, I never heard from her again. Not really.
After I graduated from college, I saw this girl named Priscilla. Dark skin, short, big mouth, super Catholic. We’d met in undergrad, but we really didn’t know each other.
A game of twenty-one questions on Facebook led to me asking her out to dinner. It was that easy.
Our first date, I remember her saying, “If I ever caught my husband watching porn, that pig would be out of my life so fast his balls would spin.”
When you’re younger, red flags don’t mean as much.
We dated a few months, did the things all young people do fresh out of college. One night, I’d planned to pick her up at her apartment so we could go out for steak. I’d gotten a little bonus at work. I made reservations two weeks in advance. When I got to Priscilla’s place, I called her but she didn’t answer. I called two more times and still no answer. I waited a few minutes before I tried again. Straight to voicemail. I don’t know how long I was out there with my car stalling, my cologne seeping into my nostrils. I got fed up and left.
Halfway home, she called me back.
“I’m sooo sorry.” she said. “Oh my God, I totally crashed after I got home from work. I’m sooo sorry.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You’re not mad, are you?”
“Why would I be mad?”
“Hey, like, I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t be. You’re tired, right? So rest up. Have a good night.”
She immediately called me back.
“You hung up on me? Like seriously?”
“What do you want me to say?” I said.
“You know what, Okay. Have a safe drive home.” Click.
I called her right back. Straight to voicemail.
I had a wild dream that night. It was the middle of day, Africa hot. I was on horse, passing through the middle of somewhere like a desert. Then, at some point, I arrived at a small town, Old West style. All the buildings were wood, blackened by the sun. The townspeople were lined up in two rows on both sides of the main dirt path. I wasn’t sure if they were welcoming me, but I wasn’t scared of them. Halfway through my crossing, I hocked a loogie.
“I own this chickenfinger-lickin’ town,” I said out loud.
Next thing I knew, I was no longer on horseback, but standing with the townspeople, watching along with them as the mysterious horseman passed by. The horseman wore a large black hat, a duster, and golden spurs that sparkled. The sun was in my eyes, so I couldn’t make out the horseman’s face. When he got up close to me, I was shocked to see that he wasn’t a man, but a large ball of weeds. A huge tumbleweed. Where his face should’ve been was just brown tangles. He didn’t have eyes, per se, but I could feel them stripping me down to nothing. Stopped in front of me, the horseman said, to me and only to me, “Best look the other way, pardner.”
Priscilla and I never really recovered after that night. We squeezed two more dates out of each other, and the last one, we were both on our phones the whole time.
What can I say? It wasn’t meant to be. Life moves on.
Christmas season, Friday night at the mall. My old stomping grounds. The best time of the year. Yeah, right.
I walk around. I think, Nothing’s changed. The gray floor tiles are lifeless as ever. Dirty, too. Where there used to be an Auntie Annie’s is now space for rent. Waldenbooks is gone. Hardly a soul around. They must have better places to be on a Friday night.
I stop in front of Dillard’s and stare up at the glowing white sign. My old life, I think.
I pull out my phone and type in “Dillard’s” on Google. A CNN Money article pulls up, about the impending downfall of shopping malls, the catastrophic financial health of JCPenney and Macy’s, the zombie-on-life support that is Sears. The American Dream, I think.
Then I look up. I see a woman in the distance, walking with her toddler. She’s holding the child’s hand. They move closer to me. I take note.
Suddenly, a new organ seems to grow in the space between my heart and stomach. It’s the size of a bowling ball, and it’s dense as a motherfucker.
She bends down to tie the girl’s shoes. Says something in her ear.
What immediately comes to mind is, Who’s the dad?
Then, the command comes.
Do it. Do it. Do it.
You bolt across the mall like Forrest Gump after his braces come off. You hit your stride fast. You’re smiling like an idiot.
Why are you smiling? You’re disturbing the graveyard peace of the mall. You don’t look back. Not once do you look back. That’s the important thing to remember here. You’re at the opposite end of the mall. You’re sucking for air. How sweet and painful the oxygen is. You realize how ridiculously out of shape you are. You’re wheezing, and as you’re wheezing, a strange thing happens: your stomach growls. Loud. So loud you wonder if you farted. You realize you’re starving. That you can eat a cow. Then, a hot stab pierces your right knee, the one you hurt playing league basketball years ago. You grab it, wincing. The pain spreads down your leg. You’re sweating. Blood rushes to your head. You’re losing weight now.
The lights go out. So do you.
I wake to gentle taps on my chin.
“He’s alive,” shouts the little girl. “I knew he was playing dead, Mommy!”
From the ground, I study the girl’s face—not long enough to find the similarities—then I turn toward her mother, who’s kneeling beside her.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hello,” she says. “Are you Okay? Do I need to call an ambulance?”
“No,” I say. “I’m fine,” I lie.
A pause. A sentence forms in my head then bum rushes out of my mouth like a Hurricane Katrina looter.
“It’s nice to know you still have a phone, though.”
She stares, baffled, then her expression softens into something unreachably sad. Before she can say a word, her daughter taps my chin again.
“Are you a monster? Is your name Fwankenstein?”
“Hey, do you think you can be ready in fifteen minutes?” I ask my wife over the phone.“What?”
“I’m going over to get you. I’m hungry.”
“Aren’t you out shopping right now?”
“Yeah, but I had a little accident and I just want to go eat.”
“What happened?” “Ran into a brick wall called the Past.”
“Are you OK?
“Yeah, I’m OK. Everything’s fine.”
“You’re acting weird.”
“Well, I’m not ready right now. I need at least thirty minutes.”
“Thirty minutes? You got it. How does IHOP sound?”
“IHOP sounds good.”
“Cool. I’ve been craving waffles and scrambled eggs lately.”
“Are you pregnant or what?”
“After last night, I might be.”
“OK, be ready in thirty.”
“You know, you’re very annoying sometimes.”