You really shouldn't smoke,
she says, emphatic. She unties her shoe and slides a tiny argyle
sock foot up my pantleg.
I know, I say.
I know you know, she says. I mean you really shouldn't.
She takes my hands in hers and says, There are two types of people in the world, two types of sets of hands. The ones that can smoke and the ones that can't. And she lights a cigarette.
I don't even know what I was doing when Charlotte found me. I mean I was sitting at one of the library computers, drifting around in the card catalog, but I don't remember what I was supposed to be looking up. The feudal system. The rules of chess. The life of Chuck Berry
. After video games and one-night stands, there is the phase of recovery where I remember how much of the world I have missed, how much I want to know.
You know how some study says that smiling on a bad day will make you feel better, somebody said two terminals away from me. I didn't look up. I assumed she was thinking aloud or talking to someone hidden.
I mean they say it doesn't work unless your whole face crinkles and the corners of your mouth just hurt, she says. Just hurt. Jay. Have you heard about that?
(She said, and I was back in Hotel California, Purgatory Charlotte; neither heaven nor hell; you can check out any time you want, but.)
Her eyes, dart-sharp little lasers,
shoot around the room, into mine. She takes my hand and seats us at the library lounge, pours me a cup of free coffee. I bum a cigarette.
You have calligrapher's hands, she says. Sensitive love-poem hands. She holds hers up to mine. Mine can stand to be yellowed; they are spindly, old-woman's hands; they can wither yet.
I take a drag and a sip of coffee. I have said very little so far. She has aged so well. She has always aged so well.
I used you, she said. Of course. I didn't have time to do anything else.
I open my mouth to say something. My instinct is to contradict her. I forgot how often we tangled and for how many hours, over and over, about Beastie Boys lyrics and lines in films. That our silences had been tired and long and furious as well as golden. Four hours on the relative merit of the word "cunt." I spent six trying to convince her that she wasn't a bitch, and she spent as many stacking up the evidence. I couldn't be convinced.
Until today. Maybe.
I am about to say, I think I used you too
but before I get word one out she says, Don't tell me you didn't. Don't tell me you won't be married in five years and overrun with screaming kids. And not to me. Don't tell me you won't run into me at Safeway and say, Nobody, when your wife asks who was that woman you just said hi to. Don't tell me you won't tell her later, There was this one hot month; we burst all over each other like pomegranate seeds. But that was college.
I am that one hot month for so many men now, she says. I know I'm not the marrying type. If you blinked you would have missed me, she says, and you'd have done yourself a favor. Do you think I enjoy that?
She ashes her cigarette, and we both take long silences, sipping our coffee, looking away. She sets her eyes out the window, at the kids in the sandbox.
The library lounge is black coffee, cream and two sugars, a brick wall, a barista who looks like my grandma. Such a Charlotte lounge. The sun floods the place, makes you blind.
You haven't said much, she says. I nod, finish my coffee and crumble the styrofoam cup. She's probably right about my hands but I cannot resist the temptation to blow smoke rings. Laughing. Not quite a polite laugh, not necessarily nervous. But not quite felt either. Not quite real.
I have been rehearsing this conversation for months. In the shower, at the bar, at the goddamn laundromat. Charlotte you. You don't. And I wanted to tell you. Did you know. Also, I saw this thing. Jesus. I could fill a book.
She asks again if I have anything to say, glowing. It was one of her famous sunbeam grins at first but the longer she sits, swinging her argyle feet, the more it looks like a painted-on Joker grin, a Harlequin mask.
Charlotte there was this festering hole of a club across town; you would have loved it but it closed right after I started going. Have you seen. Did you know. I forgot to tell you but.
Charlotte Charlotte Charlotte. I am too old to be undone by a woman of any kind. I am too old to be undone by a woman as young as you. Charlotte you float though my head like a half-remembered dream. I frequently wake up crying.
She stamps out her cigarette, puts her boots on. Well if you're not going to talk, she says, making the motions of someone about to leave, I have a full afternoon.
Maybe it really is like the second-run films we used to watch before they tore the theater down. Maybe all I have to do is kiss her and convince her.
But instead I open my mouth and say, I finally thought of something. To say. And I tell her goodbye.
I laugh again, and again it sounds sad and forced. But I walk home giggling, squinting in the sun. It's like riding a bike. It's like riding downhill.