I fell in love with her and her best friend at once, but her best friend forgot me: Charlotte and Marlene, a couple of blushing 20-year-olds with the long skirts, cropped hair and pointy glasses characteristic of middle-aged to ancient librarians
. They were downing tequila, shot after shot, with no chaser, in the far corner of the sports bar where I worked, invisible and conspicuous at once, laughing heartily.
Charlotte, it turned out, was a regular at Max Wax Works, the record store on Fourth which shared the dubious distinctions of being my favorite in town and attracting my least favorite demographic: ratty, skinny 16-year-old punks who, in their struggle toward originality, succeed in nothing more than making caricatures of themselves. There were at all times five or six of them heaped on the pair of sofas near the back of the store, where Max had set up a coffee table and a stack of board games, and they were always engaged deeply in Risk or Battleship and talking loudly about pacifism and dissent and Chomsky and Rand and Rock and Roll High School. The boys straightened up their liberty spikes and the girls pulled compacts out of their lunch pails and vinyl purses, passed around flasks of Kool-Aid and vodka.
I might have seen Charlotte here a hundred times but the first time I was conspicuously aware of her presence, she was darning a pair of fishnet stockings
, again in one of the far corners, sometimes smirking at a bit of conversation but otherwise oblivious to it, and certainly not participating. She too was a caricature of sorts; studied or accidental, I could not quite tell. She had this pseudo-Marilyn Monroe
golden hair, just long enough that she had to blow it out of her eyes periodically, and her eyes themselves were flecked with extreme mascara, and long false lashes, which fluttered when she made a knitting mistake, or when her hair fell.
She was, under closer scrunity, old: crow's feet and stretch marks; she'd grown up quick. She was much too old for the baby punks at the record store and too young to even set foot in my bar, but she had a convincing fake ID.
When I did not see her for weeks, I learned that several months a year Charlotte wears nothing but pajamas.
Marlene wrote Charlotte's number on a dollar bill one night, and tipped me with it. I called.
Initially she struck me as inordinately bright and generous. She baked often and when she smiled, the crow's feet and assorted premature wrinkles deepened and spread over her face like rays of sunshine. At the conclusion of our first lovemaking session, she stole all the blankets and curled up in a happy, fetal ball on one side of my bed, the mess of her hair that much more drastic, a golden storm on my pillow. When the sun rose, she brought me four slices of blackened toast, knowing any more would be too much.
The hardest breath she had. Like chocolates, like diamonds: velvety and miserable.
It makes me cold.
She always was all tea and oranges that came all the way from China
, a song
, an abstraction
, who was technically called Charlotte but could just as well have been She, legally
. She was always just real enough to touch, and the rest a figment; for when she wasn't baking brownies and laughing heartily and drinking Jack and Coke in my breakfast nook
. she disappeared
, for days to weeks to months to nearly a year, older even than I had ever seen her, wrinkles as deep.
Not that I did not think to ask, though with Charlotte practical questions were more likely to slip my mind, nor even that she would not have told me. I was more like distracted by the frown around her cigarette
, the way she looked at me long and sadly, like a joke she was now ashamed to have ever found funny.
The jukebox in Tulsa was playing our song, she said, with a sad little smirk, and broke before it was through. By way of explanation. Then she threw some change on the bar and left, in a walk that was both stomp and strut. Charlotte had always been inordinately fond of metaphors, on those occasions when she spoke; I had to fight to get plain sentences out of her. And I had been warned early on. The change was Canadian, Mexican, useless; I flushed it.