Me and Anna. New Brunswick, New Jersey 1979
Cheesy church parking lot carnivals. When you’re a student with less than a few bucks in your pocket and there isn’t much else to do you might find yourself with your friends prowling the midway, dodging hawkers in the garish yellow-green fluorescence, walking through gray clouds of burning sugar and grease, stepping past the crushed paper cups and waxed mustard paper, the endless tape loop of calliope music blaring from chipped gray loudspeakers in your ears as you follow groups of girls from one side of the fair to the other.
Once in a while one of them will look at you and giggle, hiding her face behind her hand as if to play the peek-a-boo you learned as infants. If I can’t see you, you can’t see me.
I see you.
My friend Chuck wonders what they’re saying. She must like him. Either that or they realize how funny he looks because they keep laughing.
Bill shoves him sideways into a trash can that tips and spills candy wrappers and mustard smeared paper plates. Chuck isn’t listening to us. He’s tracking them, radar locked. He’s a man on a mission and we’re following him like pilot fish waiting for the little leftovers that remain after the big kill.
When we reach the beer stand we peel off the line, calling after him, and he turns just in time to see us stop in front of the bright white and red banner where we get carded instantly by a fat guy with a five-o’clock shadow who doesn’t remember the drinking age is eighteen in this state, and doesn’t he recognize college men when he sees them? Five minutes of arguing for a sixteen ounce beer, half of which spills from our cups when we collide into each other in glee at the score.
Now where are those ladies?
Chuck spots them in the distance as they turn a corner and stop, still glancing backward at us. I say I hope they’re not high-school kids, they look so young and who needs statutory rape charges or an angry dad with a .357 magnum, but Bill’s not listening. He’s five paces ahead of us before we start after him. Five paces when something makes me look sideways.
A flash of something white. It’s flash of something between bright and blind, something soft curling between light and cool bed linens, the sound of the wind on a summer morning, a plane droning in the distance, cool water from the hose pooling on freshly unpacked nylon, pungent and slick, bright gored beach balls bounding in the wind.
She’s standing there, brown hair curling up at her shoulders, yellow top, white skirt, tennis shoes. Deep brown eyes and rounded features. I know her from somewhere, but that’s going to sound so cliché when it comes out of my mouth I pretend it’s not true.
They say there’s someone for everyone, and no accounting for taste. I’ve seen Chuck and Bill lust after women I wouldn’t think twice about if they showed up at our apartment in lace teddies, batting bedroomy eye lashes and begging for mugs of sugar. Who knows why they like the women they do?
This one, though. Dear God.
When I curse, it comes out like a prayer, “Oh God, this one…when you made women you were thinking of me.” And in my mind a picture I’ve never had before. I see her in white in front of me, a lace veil across her face, and I’m sliding a gold ring onto her third finger.
I’m going to marry this woman.
She and a small group of friends stroll past the arcade hawkers and the Italian sausage booths with me in their wake. My feet are on automatic, following my eyes and this strange feeling I have either to consummate or tear out of myself when I get back to the apartment at school. She doesn’t look back until something makes her.
Something makes them stop. They know I’m here.
She’s looking this way and freezing me in my tracks. When she starts walking toward me I know I’m staring, so I look at the ground for a second, then my shoes in guilt. And when I look up she’s coming right toward me. This is going to be a confrontation.
Instead of "Stop following us, jerk," I hear, “Can you do me a favor?” she says still approaching, and I act like I don’t know she’s talking to me, but I pray she is. “Excuse me, can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” is what I say when we’re toe to toe, and something in my stomach has caught fire. There is nowhere I’d rather be now, except closer.
And I watch the strands of her hair move in the air, the light tubes from the spinning rides reflecting in her eyes, and she’s talking to me but I don’t hear her. I’m lost on the smell of something flowery I’m sure is coming from the side of her neck, just under her ear, behind a lock of auburn.
“Is that okay?” is what I hear her say in conclusion.
Did she just ask me to change the tire on her car? What?
I’m sorry I just fell in love with you and my life came to an end.
I’m sorry I need to marry you now, do you have a few minutes?
“I’m sorry,” I smile and watch her tongue touch the ridge of her teeth as she returns my smile and looks away for a minute. “Wha…?” Great dialogue, Clark. Think of something more intelligent to say, will you?
“I know it’s a little forward of me,” she says, first looking at the ground then back into my eyes. “But he’s right over there.” She motions with her eyes over her left shoulder and I see a bruising hulk of a guy in sunglasses and a leather vest, his biceps are the size of my thighs and they’re emblazoned with a tattoo of a flaming skull under the wheel of a motorcycle. He’s balding, barrel-chested, and his arm and the tattoo are so big that I can see the spokes in the motorcycle wheel from where we’re standing.
She reaches toward my side and takes my hand in hers. Then stepping up to me, her chest touching mine, she cocks her head to one side and kisses me.
Slides her lips to my ear. “Come on, Rocco,” she whispers. “You can do it. It’s easy.”
And I will do anything. I will become anything. I will bring her anything she wants. Even if it means having the flesh flayed from my bones by Vinnie the crusher, there.
"What's he doing?" Bill's voice from somewhere.
This can't be good--the little voice in my head from the little man in my head I kill right then and there.
She tells me to smile as we walk down the midway and I’m the carnival clown I’m smiling so hard. I’m about to ask where we’re going when she steps up to a ride. The attendant looks at me with his hand out.
“Two bucks,” is what he says, which is great with me because that’s exactly what I have. Don’t even have to think about change, and I ignore the tickets he holds out to me. I pull the crumpled bills from my pocket and hand them to him, walk past him and get onto the disheveled wooden seat next to her. Paint peeling, worn and splintered. I don’t care the outside of the car is a fiberglass swan.
I don’t realize where we are until the moment the ride starts chugging on its chain and we get to the plywood doors. The words are dayglo pink. They flash through my mind as the doors swing open. A picture. Cupid on a white winged horse spraying the world with machine gun valentines.
“Never been on this one before,” I mumble. Never was a need.
She slides next to me, her hip against mine and as we move inside, her hand rests on my cheek, and then I feel the warm wetness of her lips on mine.
“It’s me, Anna,” she whispers when it’s dark and I can’t see.
I’m going to say, “I’m Mitch,” but she stops me in mid syllable, tongue against my teeth and the need to be close. The consuming need to be warm with her. My arm around her shoulders while she slides her hand on my thigh.
“I know who you are,” she says. “Don’t you remember me?”
I would remember. I can’t remember my calculus homework, but I would remember her if the world came to an end and I was floating in space with the earth blown to sand all around me.
“It’s okay, Rocco,” she says. “You will.”
"This can't be happening."
And she kisses me again, so close this time, her tongue on my teeth and lips this time so anything I was thinking to say is long gone. This is a dream. We're a dream together. For a time shorter than the beat of a firefly wing something comes to me. An image of something long past. Her hand in mine, I know nobody can see us when we’re together.
This is how we hide. No one can see us when we sit quiet and hold hands like this.
Except now there’s kissing.
I’m struggling to remember what I want to tell her when the doors burst open and the harsh smells and noises of the arcade blast onto us.
She looks around. "Good, he's gone." Leads me out of the ride onto the pavement. "Let's go somewhere else. Okay? Somewhere quiet?"
“Sure,” I say, my mind reeling. What the hell was that about? What was I thinking about in there? My mouth on automatic I say, “Who was that guy?”
“My boyfriend,” she says.
Now something sharp in my chest is slowing me down. I’m dragging my concrete feet in the gravel parking lot as we move from the lights and the dark surrounds us. Gravel crunches under my sneakers. I knew it was too good to be true.
“Wait a minute. That biker guy is your boyfriend?”
“Who?” she says, taking my hand and tugging. “Come on.”
“Woah,” is what I say when I stop. I’ve been here before. Been used by the best of them. It's always about someone else. I know what happens next. I get my arms broken and she and Manny the Mauler ride off into the sunset. “Nice to meet you. Thanks for the nice time but I gotta go.”
“Is that what you think?” she says, her hands on her hips.
“Is what, what I think?”
“You think I’m trying to make him jealous, don't you?”
“Don't have to be a genius,” I say. "Unless you're good at reading minds."
“Come on. It’s a little more than obvious.”
“Okay, look. He’s not really my boyfriend, okay. I was just saying that.”
“You were just saying that.”
“I was just saying that so you’d come with me.”
No sale. I’m standing with my arms crossed, knowing I should just turn around and leave but I want what I’m thinking to go away. Why can’t it just be true she wants to be with me?
Would the 15-inch biceps on that guy be the reason?
“Okay, look,” she says. “He wants to be my boyfriend but I don’t like him. Okay? He keeps following me just like you’re following me. Come here, will you?” she stamps a foot into the ground and for reasons that go completely against my sense of self preservation I follow her to a car I can tell is a red mustang even in the near midnight gloom. She opens the driver’s side door and commands, “Get in.”
If she wasn’t the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen I’d run. Maybe it’s my DNA--that irrational urge to procreate irrespective of the hazards. As I slide into the smooth leather seat I wonder if in the big wars people made love on battlefields while the bombs fell. Is it just me or am I hearing mortar shells whistle overhead?
The inside of the car is immaculate. The dashboard chrome glistens. A small MOMO steering wheel makes it look like a formula 1 race car, and the silver Hurst shifter gleams in the feeble starlight. Four on the floor. Blower on the hood. This car alone is a wet dream. The rest of it comes in the passenger’s door. A stamped metal bird hangs from the rearview mirror from a chain and swings when she opens the door and hops in.
“Let’s go,” she says, bobbing up and down in the seat, not paying attention as I raise my palms.
I suggest, “Keys?” and she points to the ignition. They’re already there. I tell her, “You really shouldn’t leave your keys in a car like this. It won’t last long in this town.”
“Okay,” she says, still bobbing. When I start the car the body twists under the engine torque and she reaches for the radio dial and turns it. We’re immersed in music that hums in time with the engine growl. “Let’s go.” She says it again.
Anna knits her brow and purses her lips for a second and I know she’s unhappy I need to be told. “Okay fine. Drive. Get on the highway. West. I’ll tell you where to turn.”
I ease the car out of the lot and onto the road. Anna’s looking around, impatient. “Go faster,” she tells me.
“You know, you really don’t want to screw up a car like this on gravel. It’s a total classic,” I tell her. And she looks at me as if I’ve burst into flames. “Look, I don’t know anything about you,” I say, but it doesn’t change her expression.
“You know everything about me, Rocco.”
“And what’s with this ‘Rocco’ stuff? My name is Mitch.”
“I know your name is Mitch-ell,” she says as if cursing. “Mitchell Dale. You really don’t remember anything, do you?”
“I’m sorry,” I say, now worried I’ve spoiled everything, sick and tired of apologizing. Got her mad at me. I should make something up, and what I make up is this: “I know I’d remember if I ever met anyone as beautiful as you.”
Her face softens as we turn onto the highway toward the darkness and the mountains near the state line. “And I will never forget kissing you back there,” I said.
“You won’t?” she says. “You promise?”
“Oh God, yes I promise.”
She looks out the front window and then behind us. “Go faster. Really. I mean it.”
The speedometer is at a forty-five degree angle to the right screaming that I’m already doing seventy in a fifty-five mile an hour zone.
“We’re going pretty fast…” I say when she puts a hand on my thigh and squeezes.
She says, “You gotta go a little faster, because when they send out the cops we want to be across the state line.”
Without much thought I accelerate to ninety and say, “Why would they send out the cops?”
She smiles, leans over, and kisses me on the neck, which is no small feat because she’s nearly kneeling on the bucket seat and I’m thinking—seat belts. But then she runs a tongue up to my ear and safety is no concern anymore.
Doesn’t she know what that’s doing to me?
We’ll die together.
She whispers, “Well, this isn’t exactly my car.”
And I can’t keep my foot on the gas. It shakes and comes off on it’s own.
“What?” I say, reasonably loud. So much so she jumps a little. “Who’s car is it, then? Your father’s?” That’s pretty much what I’m praying when she shakes her head, just enough so a few strands of hair fall in front of her face. She’s smiling when I say, “Your brother’s? Uncle’s? Sister’s? Please tell me somebody in your family owns this car and we’re not going to jail.”
“It’s Matt’s,” she says, and puts a finger to her lips. “Don’t tell anybody.”
And Matt would be that fucking axe murder of a guy she’s running from, right? “Matt’s that guy back there with legs for arms?”
“And when he finds out we took his car--then he hunts us down and skins us like rabbits?” I’m saying this, knowing it’s true, moving to the right hand lane to take the nearest exit. “Did you ever stop to think that cops have radios? They don’t have to chase us. They just call ahead and like magic one comes out in front of us without even having to warm up the engine.”
“It’s okay,” Anna says. “He’s a cop.”
“Who’s a cop?” Pray she doesn’t say it.
“Matt.” Oh shit.
Now I’m screaming curses as loud and as fast as I can over and over, pounding my hands against the steering wheel, slamming my forehead with my palms, because I’ve never been so dead or so stupid in my life. My heart wants to pound through my chest. This morning I was a geek of an engineering student and now I’m going to jail to be raped by child molesters because I’m infatuated with a woman who has disconnected my cerebral cortex from the rest of my brain.
“What are you so worried about?” Anna says, and she’s still sort of kneeling on the seat, alternately bracing herself when I make the turns and doing that Playboy centerfold pout that’s making me feel like an ant the split second before he sees the word Nike coming at him from above.
“They don’t kill the girl. The pretty ones get to go free. It’s the boy that gets his liver pulled out through his throat. Haven’t you seen the movies?” The exit for some nowhere town called Perryville comes up and I take it. Get this damn car out of the lights and onto a dark road. Damn. Just get this car somewhere close to a train or a bus and I’m leaving it and going back to school.
“You know, it would seem the best thing to do in a situation like this one is to keep your head,” she says. And now she’s massaging the inside of my thigh. I grab her hand by the wrist and pull it away.
“The best thing to do in a situation like this is to never have gotten into it. What’s with you, anyway?”
She goes back to pouting. God damn, she’s beautiful. “Well you’re in it whether you like it or not, Rocco.”
“Well I’m getting out,” I say. “I’m parking this car in the nearest dark place and walking to town. I’ll take a bus home.”
“I guess you’re the one with money, then,” Anna says, as I turn into the driveway at a darkened supermarket shopping center. “I sure didn’t bring any.”
When I stop the car and shut off the lights I feel my pockets. Nothing. And I left my wallet back in the apartment.
“God damn it.” Pound the steering wheel with my palms again.
“Does that make you feel better?” she asks me.
When I look at her I can’t figure out whether to kiss her or run away. I have never wanted a woman as much as I want Anna right now. If I could absorb her into myself, I would. I’d do it and sit here and wait to go to jail.
“What the hell are you doing to me?”
She ignores my question, leans over the seats and pulls out a ragged blanket from the back. “I have a girlfriend who lives down this road a mile or so. We can get a ride home from her,” she says, and I’m wondering if she’s planning to kill me and wrap the body in the blanket. Maybe worse—maybe Matt the murderous cop is waiting for us here and he kills me.
”Down this road. This one right here?” I say.
Am I going to believe this crap? “I just randomly turned down this street and you have a friend who lives here?”
“Yup.” She leans over, turns off the engine and yanks the keys out of the ignition. Then she opens her door and gets out, dragging the blanket behind her like she’s two-years old.
When I get out I think to ask her what we do next but she’s walking across the supermarket parking lot, and when she gets to the end there’s nothing but trees. She throws the car keys into the woods.
“What the hell are you doing?” I ask her.
“Making sure you don’t drive away.”
“In a fucking stolen ’64 Mustang hot rod that stands out like a sore thumb? Why couldn’t we have stolen a Datsun or something a little less obvious? Our fingerprints are all over that car,” I say.
“Your fingerprints are all over me,” she says. “Come on.” And she leads me into the trees, stepping over branches and brambles. I complain about poison ivy but she ignores me, and when we come to a clearing she puts down the blanket, sits on it, and pats a spot beside her.
I’m thinking we should go find her friend and get a ride home, but I’m keeping that little voice quiet.
"What exactly are we doing here?" I say, because sometimes, when you're lost and angry, scared that being as helplessly in love as you are, you may forget to eat or breathe, and when that happens, questioning the obvious isn't a sin. God gives you a pass.
It's a state of grace. When the archangel descends from the heavens to save you, she knows her methods are incomprehensible to your feeble human mind.
Anna says, “I don’t want to wake my friend. We have to wait till morning. It’s nice and warm tonight.” And she slides an arm around my shoulders and kisses me.
“That really is your car, isn’t it?” I say.
But she isn’t talking. She pulls my shirt up out of my pants and kisses me on the stomach.
By the time I can see the red and blue lights flashing through the trees, I’m praying morning never comes.