Fiction | September 01, 1998
Casting a Circle
“Wasn’t Phillip the guy you said I would like?”
I didn’t have time to answer this. It was late, the bus was electric and stealthy, and Genevieve’s pupils were malfunctioning. She was walking ahead to keep out of Philip’s hearing, cutting in front of a parked van to cross the street and get to our car. Edging between bumpers, considering possible replies, I glimpsed her expression the moment she looked up and realized there was no time to get clear, the way she stubbornly lowered her head and aimed her shoulder at the oncoming grille, like someone breaking down a door. And then that horrible “Whump!” A sculpture of her in that remarkable posture, a posture I can only call heroic, was instantly cast in my mind, where it is still. Then the bus skidding to a surprisingly quick halt, and the few people inside standing up in the ghostly light. Poor Philip went flying away with his hands over his eyes, concussing himself on a street tree. He is an emotional genius, with his ability to instantly translate events into grief. I just stood there, thinking it through, eye to eye with a larger-than-life model reclining in his skivvies and wearing a totally inappropriate grin. The panicked driver was on the phone, squealing for an ambulance. The streets shone a shiny plum black, and a pretty arrangement of brown and yellow leaves lay pressed flat on the sidewalk. Genevieve was crumpled in front of the bus, on her side, but moving, it appeared, slowly levering herself onto her back. A few bus riders had gotten off and were standing quietly around with their hands in their pockets amidst the oblong reflections of light smeared in the wet streets. One kid with hatchet sideburns lit a cigarette. An old lady was peering out the front window, too arthritic to get down the stairs. I went to Genevieve and knelt, feeling suddenly heroic myself, full of dignity and competence, like men must ordinarily feel. She looked fine, rosy-faced, for once, no limbs irregularly angled. Her lower lip was split, and her eyes were closed. “The rain feels nice,” she said, looking on the bright side. It was misting. I heard Philip wailing and went to fetch him.
Later we were in an ambulance, city lights skating over blackened windows like atoms, Philip being taken to the hospital to have his head repaired. Genevieve had been whisked off by a different ambulance, the one that arrived first. She lived. Broken arm, collarbone, busted ribs. The bus was not going fast. Philip was out of it for a few days, but I sent roses under his name to Genevieve’s room, a few floors up, with a note that read: “Public transportation shall not keep us apart.” When he recovered, though, he didn’t seem to be interested in Genevieve, as though the bus had bumped her out of his mind. This was a massive disappointment, as their relationship had promised to be so wonderful, and I began to think that the premature discontinuation of it might also spell the end to my friendships with each of them.
Philip and I became acquainted after I survived one of his ludicrous infatuations. Briefly, he said he had seen my reflection in the display window, like an advertisement, and was so struck by it that he simply had to come in and learn more. (I was in my early twenties at the time, relatively bewildered—like most people that age—with regard to occupation, and had taken a stopgap position at a fabric shop, measuring out fabric by the yard. Debra, the stumpy, elderly woman I worked with, always said I was born for the job, meaning my wingspan of exactly six feet.)
“So pale!” Philip said, fiddling with a scrap of rayon. “So stern!”
“So why don’t you go hassle my reflection?” I asked.
Here he just grinned.
I’d never had to fend off unwanted suitors before, but I had had experience with bullying salesmen, unruly homeless, and preposterous relatives. Even as a child I’d had to slap tickling fingers away from my chin, so Philip didn’t immediately worry me. He was just a little fellow, slightly rotund, balding irregularly (alopecia nervosa) but plenty youthful. A dapper shine anointed his head and the toes of each wingtip shoe, and he carried about with him the faint smell of aloe. He looked like a collection of all the recessive genes, including blue eyes and blond hair.
The second day he came in, talking about my “lovely long arms,” saying that he had spent the last ten minutes watching me fold the “damask”—acrylic, actually—and that “those same arms might measure out much prettier material across the strings of a cello.” Then he presented me with a recording of Bach’s Cello Suites, which I already owned.
“I don’t like sweets,” I said, and again he smiled, to my annoyance. A few days later he came in to pick up thirty yards of material for the local opera company, for which he claimed to work, and from then on he stopped by fairly regularly, on the slightest pretense, once just to purchase a button.
“Shouldn’t you get more than the one, just in case?”
“Nope. We just need this one.”
He slid a dollar bill at me. I slid it back.
“On the house.”
He beamed, tucking the button into his vest pocket and scuttling out. The next time I saw him he was wearing the button on a thin silver bracelet.
My first thought was to simply let him try to kiss me. Unable to reach my lips, he’d be forced to acknowledge the absurdity of it all. But then one day he compared me to Rapunzel (“So high up, so unattainable!”), and I realized that his was the sort of infatuation that thrived on obstacles. “Go fetch a stepladder! Or let down your hair!” he piped. Not surprisingly, the observation that I had no hair to let down (pageboy) didn’t faze him. “Have another button and leave me alone,” I said, sliding him one. He picked up the button, reflected a moment, and then said, “To you it is just a button, but to me it is the beginning of a marvelous suit.” Then he primly turned, and tripped on the doorjamb going out.
I could never take him entirely seriously, and this, I suppose, is why I never got creeped out. He always seemed to be making fun of himself, expertly walking the line between crazed romantic and bumptious buffoon. Debra had overheard most of our exchanges and thought that I should “just go have coffee with the little guy,” as she put it. “You’ve got to convince him that you’re not the glamorous person he thinks you are.” This seemed sensible, so the next time Philip came in, begging me (on his knees, on the other side of the counter, obscuring everything below the nose) to go to the opera with him, I agreed.
When he picked me up in the limo I was ready with a tin of peanut-butter cookies and a bottle of Nyquil. The cookies I had concocted as the perfect antidote to his particular variety of romantic hyperbole. I waited until the limo was smoothly under way and Philip had started remarking on how lovely I looked (” . . . long as a dawn cloud!”) before I popped open the tin and offered him one. He accepted the cookie, briefly losing his momentum, and bit into it somewhat fearfully. We munched in silence for two blocks before he recovered himself and began going on about “the pageantry of love in La Bohéme,” at which point I handed him another cookie. When we got to the opera house, I excused myself and guzzled a third of the bottle of Nyquil in the ladies’ room. Ten minutes later I was asleep in my chair.
I came to admire Philip’s vulnerability eventually. He seemed to flaunt it, taking no precautionary measures against possible injury. He reminded me of those chaps who sally forth ahead of an army, equipped with nothing but a flag. There was something spectacular about this, something fanatical. My admiration was constantly skirmishing with my impatience.
Finally, he became one of those people you can only take in small doses. I didn’t hang out with Philip; I sampled him. I remained in his presence only until he ceased to amuse me, until the first impulse to smack him seized my arm, at which point I would politely take my leave. For the most part this impulse stayed dormant so long as I was never forced to take him seriously, so long as he remained chimerical. Taking Philip seriously meant wrestling with the thorny issue of whether or not he really existed. On the one hand, it was easy to see him as a buffoon, someone constantly in the process of parodying himself; but then maybe it was the other way around, and the parody itself was real, the “real” Philip just a prop.
For the most part I tried not to begrudge Philip his lunacy. We’re all a little loony, after all. For myself, I’m afraid of knives. I can’t look at a knife without thinking of massacring someone with it, not because I’m a killer but because that is what knives do. It’s the same with many things. I can’t walk by a ketchup packet on the street and leave it unexploded, and if someone hands me a crayon, there is little chance I will hand it back without having tested its mettle. As a child, of course, I would simply devour the crayon, and then sit there smiling with bits of wax between my teeth. I threw cats in snowbanks, dumped yogurt on the record player and microwaved my ballet slippers. Just this morning I sliced a bell pepper with a razor blade and drank water from one of its halves. I stood at the window, breathing ether on the pane, and watched two dogs, yin-yang configured, sniffing each other’s rear ends. I can’t help thinking like this, in terms of childhood infractions and abstract opposites.
Perhaps I am manic. I remember how enraged I once got at Philip when he surreptitiously threw out my old shampoo and bought me a new bottle. The old bottle—which, granted, I never used—was lime scented. I had left the cap off one day and when I next reached for it noticed that there were two flies suspended in the green depths. I found this so satisfying that I kept the bottle on the windowsill, where the sunlight could reach it and more flies might be caught.
“You’re so finicky,” Philip protested with a pained look.
This is the question that remains, with regard to Philip, the question of pain. It is a question that has dogged philosophers for centuries. Does the reality of pain depend on the reality of the thing that feels it? Does a dream feel pain? Does Philip?
Genevieve and I met at the window of a mutual friend’s living room, a dinner party underway behind us. I was coasting along on a frictionless buffer of wine, not minding much what we talked about—experimental schools I think it was—watching our phantoms materialize in the panes as the day darkened. Genevieve was beginning to bore me, and I was preparing to drift away on the next minor key, when it occurred to me what we must have looked like: I standing there, six foot one, with my narrow glass of white wine, nibbling a stalk of cheese, and she, at least a foot shorter, with her bulbous glass of red, nudging a stuffed mushroom around a cocktail napkin. The contrast was so severe as to be cartoonish, and I decided that for humor’s sake I would endure her a while longer.
A felicitous decision. Her patter continued, but as the wine dripped into her she began drawing upon more miscellaneous material. A story about a school in which the children are not allowed to be touched. And her detection, a moment later, of two distant clouds calmly and inexplicably drifting in oppostie directions.
“It’s the kind of thing my children ask me about,” Genevieve said.
“How many do you have?”
“Oh, twenty-five or so.”
Genevieve taught second grade. I’ve always been suspicious of people who work with children; I’m not sure why. There’s an air of conspiracy about them. I studied Genevieve’s reflection, one square down and to the right. She certainly wasn’t pretty in any conventional sense. Her hair was oily, her face was doughy, and bigger on the bottom than on the top, and she wore the unsexiest glasses I have ever seen, sort of a filmy Tupperware color, the arms dipping to meet the squarish lenses at their lower corners. She seemed shy but resolute, the kind of girl who would stoically work long shifts in a textile mill and then come home to take care of her dying father, her irresponsible siblings having vamoosed.
There was undoubtedly something poetic about Genevieve, but it was an incongruous kind of poetry, in no way effete. Dickinson was a favorite of hers, for instance, and we discussed this at some length that night, but I was left with the impression that it was the poet’s industry that most impressed her. Also the clouds, which appeared to interest her only in a meteorological sense, and yet there was something undoubtedly poetic about their mention. My first thought was that she was putting a cold exterior on a poetic nature, but this might be more descriptive of myself. I ended up concluding that Genevieve was simply practical and observant, and if you are practical and observant you can’t help being a trifle poetic. Returning with more wine, she began speculating about cloud formation, about the effect of sunsets on wind currents, and I noticed for the first time the quirky, helpless pedantry that characterized much of her talk. Perhaps she was not used to adults.
Genevieve had not come entirely willingly to the party but rather on the arm of a friend of hers, Mr. Filderer, a fellow teacher who thought he was doing her a favor by introducing her to more people. “‘Meeting people is an absolute good,'” Genevieve quoted him as saying, “‘because even if you don’t like them they can still introduce you to more people'”—”who in turn,” I interrupted, “can introduce you to more people you don’t like.” Genevieve’s escort, sitting across from us, overheard this remark and took out his displeasure on his food, cutting wickedly into a pork loin and scattering peas off the northwest quadrant of his plate. He was a prematurely stuffy man of about thirty, corpulent, with a curious crater square in the middle of his forehead. Genevieve reported that he taught in the classroom adjacent to hers and would often stick his head through the door upon overhearing the slightest ruckus.
As it turned out, our common misanthropy served as bond enough for the remainder of the night. Filderer appeared behind us at one point and took Genevieve’s wine glass away, purportedly to fill it, but it was never returned, so we passed mine back and forth and talked on, growing more and more maudlin. The topic was Genevieve’s hideous childhood. “I was the fat girl,” she explained. And then, after a moment’s thought, “It’s a terrible thing being different, not because you don’t fit in, but because you end up not wanting to.”
When the glistening moon appeared at the window, Genevieve asked me to picture her in front of it like a Halloween apparition. “I’ve got this queer straw hair,” she said absently, patting the air by her shoulder, and then adding, a minute or so later, “And pointy hat.”
A lull ensued as the plates were removed. Dessert bowls were distributed to all of us. No ice cream for the drunk girls. Bad, bad girls. I was probably going to get most of the blame. There was something redundant about blaming Genevieve.
“I’ve only read this one book,” Genevieve was saying, out of the blue. “But it seems like just the kind of thing I’d be good at. There’s no cauldrons anymore,” she needlessly assured us. “It’s all very modern.”
Everyone was endeavoring to ignore her, with little success, however, because the competing talk was so dull. Gradually a grave suspense descended on the table. The host appeared in the doorway with a half-gallon of mint chocolate chip and remained there, waiting. No one looked at Genevieve. Their gazes aimed off in oblique directions, but each ear remained carefully cocked. It was as though Genevieve held them all frozen in a spell. For herself, she looked more and more thoughtful, puzzled, like someone about to retch.
“Here,” she finally announced, lurching onto her knees and dramatically grasping one of the dinner candles. “I’ll show you. The central ritual of all witchcraft: casting a circle.”
Even phlegmatic Filderer showed alarm as Genevieve reached forward and raised the candle like a torch. The rest of the guests locked her in their stares and carefully slid back in their seats. In my mind’s eye I could see Genevieve turning them all into frogs.
“When the circle is drawn,” Genevieve intoned with extraordinary clarity, “all opposites collapse within its oneness, distractions are banished, and you may speak with the Goddess. Do not expect ordinary concepts of space and time to apply.”
Later, between hiccups, we made our way like two old ladies down the old Victorian’s treacherous steps, which were wet with drizzle and spotted with slippery oak leaves. We had already established a kind of humorous rapport between us, for when I hailed a cab with one of my long arms she remarked that I could “practically reach across the street with that thing.” Before getting in she asked me, eyes shining wantonly, if I would care to get together the following weekend, to go to a favorite bar of hers and “get tanked on mint juleps.” I agreed to juleps and saw her into the cab (I was within walking distance of home), and it was when she conked her head on the roof, uttering no exclamation, that I first thought of Philip.
While the plan was to set Philip down lightly, to open the door and let him leave the room of his own accord, as it were, instead of forcibly shoving him out, I was surprised at how easily he took it—and a little cross, frankly. Granted, he’d acted almost believably mopey after the opera. He’d had an usher wake me when it was over, not wanting to embarrass me, I suppose. Wiping the goo from my eyes, I saw him standing over by a marble pillar beneath the balcony, hunched in his overcoat and looking vaguely like Sartre. In the limo he’d instructed the driver to forget about the tour—whatever that was, something else he had planned, presumably—and head over to Slick Sal’s All-Night Pizza after dropping me off at home. “Try not to get sauce on your scarf,” I’d said, getting out.
Still, the next time he came in, two days later, to ask my advice regarding some new woman he had met (thus setting the tone for the next leg of our acquaintance, I gathered), I couldn’t help asking him about all the goddamn picnics. (When he was first making his suit, he had tried to convince me of all the fun we could have together. “Fun?” I asked. “What would we do?” And Philip had replied, “Picnics! We’ll go on picnics!” I could see the silly thing in his eyes: a bucolic hilltop, a big cheesy smile as he popped open another bottle of wine, a dragonfly alighting on my exposed knee. No doubt he saw me rigged up in some summery dress with a square-cut décolletage.)
Philip frowned, absently chewing his ice cream. “Picnics?” It was then that I began to change my opinion of him: he was not faking; he had never been real in the first place.
About a month later, I was sitting in Philip’s kitchen, with pearls on my neck and my long hand bent over the top of my wine, watching the nervous smiles appear in the doorway one by one, people trying to decide whether or not to hold on to their coats. It was a party, one of those deals where everybody dresses up in their best vintage gear and then doesn’t live up to it. Philip was an exceptional host, at his superficial best, and I was getting a kick out of watching him put people at their ease. Eventually, though, I began to notice that I was not the only one who thought Philip was somewhat absurd. He ran from guest to guest like a little yapping dog, fetching drinks and collecting pats on the head, and though he obviously relished the attention, I began to feel a trifle protective. After all, if everyone thought so little of him, why had they come? I was in the midst of mustering outrage at this hypocrisy when I realized something else, that most of the people there were women.
The next difficult half-hour I spent where I was, sitting in the corner of the kitchen, shooing away interlopers and studying, by turns, the sharp cheese knife and Philip’s manner with these various harlots. I will not try to express the rage and humiliation I experienced upon realizing that in all likelihood most of these women were ex-obsessions, that Philip had connived to carve out tepid little friendships with each of them, myself included, once his fickle passion had ebbed.
“You’re in the doghouse, pal,” I said to Philip the next time he swept by. He stopped and bent to catch my words. I was initially thinking that something along the lines of a sudden blow to the neck might be in order, but just looking at Philip drained me: his obsequious, frightened expression; his trembling right hand, endeavoring to touch my shoulder. I could never hit him. He was invulnerable. He was blessed, the poor fellow. I settled for emptying my glass over his head and calling him a cur.
“Out of the way, sluts,” was my exit line.
Did I hurt him? Does the creature feel pain? Is it . . . mortal? I walked home that night, shivering without my jacket. If it were real pain, I could almost forgive him.
Philip tiptoed through the door two days later, leaving the cowbells undisturbed and surprising me at the counter. He was dressed up like an English country gentleman, with a checkered jacket, bow tie, bowler and a handful of daffodils. His shoulders were wet from the rain.
“Beat it,” I said.
He tipped his head so the water on his hat sluiced forward and splashed on the daffodils. Then he placed them on the counter. Debra looked over and rolled her eyes.
“I came to apologize.”
“For the other night.”
“What about it? You’re the one who should be mad. I dumped wine on your head. What did you do?”
“I just want us to be friends.”
“Oh, you’re an idiot, such an idiot.”
This whole exchange took place in a very uneven fashion, as I was busy with a customer, a hippie chick with hair to her butt and a bolt of white cotton. She smiled condescendingly at Philip. I spread a wide curtain of the fabric in front of me to measure it off, preparing more abusive remarks, but when I laid the cotton back down he was gone.
“Where’d the little guy go?” I asked the hippie.
It was a nice exit. I arranged the daffodils in a cup and brooded about Philip for the balance of the day. Maybe he was just a romantic, a helpless romantic. You couldn’t blame a guy for that, no more than you could blame someone for being depressed: it was a condition. A sickness. Treatable.
Genevieve also turned out to be a romantic, which is what clinched it. She described it all to me over juleps. But first there was the moment I arrived at the bar and, with a familiar sense of treachery, looked around to find that almost everyone there was female—short-haired boy dykes with their chests strapped down beneath loose T-shirts, their heads tilted up to see from under the low visors of their baseball caps, leather dykes with bicep tattoos and silver chains leading from their belt loops to their wallets, and an enormous bull dyke behind the bar, cracking pecans in her left hand. Mounting a stool next to Genevieve, where green drink tepidly awaited me, I briskly unreeled the story of my last boyfriend, who told me that “the sea calls” and left me to be a deck hand on an Australian cruise ship (true), and another about the boy before him, a fellow so frightened of me that he dashed his fare-well on a supermarket receipt and left it beneath my windshield wiper (fabrication). I was babbling, I realized, and furthermore was setting myself up for the perfect come-on (“Women are much better lays, dearie”).
But Genevieve was not a lesbian, or anything else, as she eventually explained. “I don’t have time for any of that,” she said impatiently. “For the makeup and the manners and the clothes. I’ve never had an eye for clothes. I can’t be bothered.”
This was true. For the most part she looked as though she had thrown on a random assortment of clothes—some hers, some borrowed, winter clothes mixed with summer, male and female—for the sole purpose of covering herself, the kind of rough kit you throw together just to fetch something from the corner store. She had the puffy, sullen look of those ’50s closet pill-poppers. A great, mansion-like forehead, lank black hair held back with slipping pins, a hammock of fat hanging from the eaves of her jaw. No jewelry. She didn’t appear to own any mirrors, or to consider their contents if she did.
I think she might potentially have cared about these things, but she didn’t see the point. This estrangement was more than just “the fat girl’s reflex,” the force that drives fat girls to gobble Twinkies and ignore their appearance out of spite. Genevieve wasn’t spiteful, or political. She was not composed of beliefs. In fact, for all of her lumpiness, she struck me as rather waifish and unguarded: I could see straight through her to the little girl drinking milk alone in the lunchroom, the stoic target of flying peas. Some people have the gift of being able to bear colossal loneliness, and I don’t know how they do it. You see them now and then, sitting alone in the front rows of movie theaters snarfing popcorn, or at the beach trying to teach an utterly indifferent dog to fetch. They’re like camels. They go for months without talking to anyone, years without getting laid, and still they survive. Genevieve was like this. Philip, too, in his way.
“I am equally disgusted by male and female genitalia,” Genevieve whispered. “I am disgusted by the word genitalia.”
In her stubborn fashion, she was holding out for a third option, and claimed that, if it came right down to it, she would make it up herself if she had to, out of “tin cans and green ribbon or whatever is lying around.” Reaching the confessional stage of our inebriation, she likened romance to politics, in that you are generally given two crappy choices and compelled to choose the lesser evil. “So many lesbians are lesbians just because they don’t like men.” She thought this was sinfully passive. In college, she had wanted to study oceanography so she could work with whales, but had sort of let it slide, and as a result was now working with children instead.
“Children can’t compare to whales,” Genevieve said.
“Not on any level.”
“Whales are so magical and otherworldly. Children are dreary by comparison.” She said this with a slur and traced a wavelet in the moisture on the bar.
“Whales are larger.”
So the night passed. A booth became available, a thickly shellacked table between high-backed wooden benches, and we grabbed it, having been there long enough to start feeling proprietary. Genevieve ordered a bowl of pecans from the bartender (whose sister owned a pecan orchard in Texas) and showed me how to open them, squeezing one nut against the other. Soon the table was littered with shells. We were talking about love stories, considering various examples one by one, most of them taken from films. Genevieve was immovable, rejecting them all with a single word: “Hoopla.” Eventually I started throwing out examples of interspecies romance: a girl hugging a dog, a boy riding a dolphin, a girl kissing a spider.
“Better,” Genevieve said.
“Are your parents still together? Did you have a troubled youth?”
“I told you. I was the fat girl.”
“The fat girl. Right. Here’s to the fat girl.” We touched glasses.
“My grandmother and grandfather used to sit around and watch TV and adjust each other’s fake legs. That’s the kind of romance I want.”
“I’m not. I just don’t like all the hoopla.”
“You should meet my friend Philip. He’ll do all the work for you. You two would be perfect for each other.”
With that we achieved some sort of unspoken closure. I had switched to bourbon on the rocks by this point, and my mind was mushy. I turned in the booth and sat along it lengthwise, checking out the dykes at the bar and realizing that I had somehow become one of those lonely women all of whose friends are men. I held carefully still while this realization hideously dawned, and then reached blindly for another nut. How had this happened? What were the ramifications? What kind of person was I, that I’d only been fucked once, by some pinbrain who left me for an ocean liner? These are disastrous thoughts to have late at night, with seven mint juleps inside you.
With surprise, I felt myself toppling toward Genevieve, my one female friend in the world, up with sisterhood. So what if she was just, at heart, a fat girl, and would probably spend the rest of her life recovering from high school? So what that she was kind of creepy and tried to cast spells when she was drunk, that there was a fungal look to her skin and an aspiring brownish-blue mole on her neck? The very fact that we didn’t seem to get along terribly well, that she often misunderstood the tone of my remarks, and that I could rarely think of an intelligent response to hers, that she was short and lumpy and I was tall and spindly, that we were constantly aware of ourselves around each other, like two newly introduced cousins, that we were both sitting there, on opposite sides of the table, our breath equally minty and pecan shells everywhere, all of this seemed conclusive proof that we were meant for each other.
In the midst of these silly thoughts I glanced over at Genevieve, expecting to see her in the midst of the same, but she was not there. Naturally I assumed she was in the restroom, so I finished the bourbon at hand and cracked open another pecan. Then I noticed that her glass was missing as well, and I began to worry, thinking of her passed out in the back seat of a convenient convertible, walking into telephone poles, asking a mailbox for directions, all vaguely comic scenarios, for some reason. It wouldn’t do. Misfits had to look out for one another. After a minute or so I hauled myself up to go look for Genevieve.
Once I was vertical, the air around me assumed a fogged, minty hue, and I paused until it dispersed, breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth and reciting the names of presidents. The joint was emptying out by this point, a few dykes in jean jackets left at the bar, a group of giggly straight girls in the booth by the door, sipping peachy drinks and glancing nervously about. Behind the bar, the light from dying candles wavered eerily amidst trays of pint glasses. The jukebox had stopped, leaving only the sound of quiet chatter, the click of pool balls and the thrum of the dishwasher. I made for the restroom, thinking I would probably find Genevieve there, passed out. I was considering whether or not to wake her with a flush when I spotted her on a tattered green sofa behind the pool table. Another girl sat beside her, or rather across her, with her legs resting on Genevieve’s thighs and her back against the armrest. She was a little thing with short blond hair pushed up in a headband, jeans and white tank top, a few greenish seagulls floating around on her shoulder. They were watching the pool game and handing a beer back and forth. I stood there for a moment or so, waiting for Genevieve to notice me, but she did not, so I called her name. Infuriatingly, she pretended not to hear. The little blond poked Genevieve and pointed at me, then gingerly swiveled her legs away. Genevieve saw me and smiled.
“Hey,” she said. Then, noticing my countenance, “Whatsamatter?”
The two pool players had paused in their game. I sensed other eyes on me as well.
“Just c’mere a second, will you?”
Genevieve obligingly got up, the blond helping, pushing on her ass.
“Do you want to go?” she asked.
“I don’t like being left alone like that.”
Genevieve frowned, puzzled. I ignored this and marched back to our booth, but upon realizing how infantile it would look to just sit back down again, I grabbed my coat from the seat and walked out.
I was still mad at Genevieve in the morning, even though I knew I had little right to be. So when she called, I kept waiting for her to ask forgiveness, but she never did. I briefly assumed that she was trying to fake innocence, but it was soon obvious that she had forgotten the episode entirely.
“When exactly did you leave?” she asked.
There is only one thing worse than being treated poorly, and that is not being able to avenge yourself when you are. There is really nothing more perfidious than innocence. How can you blame someone for something they don’t recall? I muddled through these thoughts as I wondered how to respond. They weren’t thoughts, however, not at that hour, and my head a bass drum. Half thoughts, half emotions, or some inept combination thereof.
“You there?” she asked.
“I got another call. Hold on a sec.”
Marvelously, Philip was on the other line, and as soon as I heard his voice, a perfect course of action presented itself.
Philip fell for Genevieve immediately. It was more than I could have hoped for, and owing to circumstances I could not have foreseen. Genevieve’s ophthalmologist, it turned out, had mixed up his medicines. She had gone in for a routine check-up, and at the end of the visit, instead of undilating her pupils with formula X, he accidentally dilated them further with formula Y. The night that we all met for dinner, a night blurry to begin with after a day of roaring rain, Genevieve was taken up reporting on how oddly hallucinogenic everything looked: there were silver antlers on the fenders of cars, anemones growing from streetlights, and great pink rashes spread across the pavement. Philip was spellbound, especially as Genevieve seemed to immediately dislike him, the way he crowded her and kept trying to helpfully take her arm. “You have the face of a famous opera singer. Did you know that?” he asked.
Dinner went marvelously, with Philip and Genevieve bickering in a most satisfactory manner. I wasn’t listening closely, heard only tones: Philip’s obsequious patter, Genevieve’s irritable replies. They were made for each other. I had ordered only an appetizer and hadn’t touched my wine, content to catch its scent when the waiter breezed by. I rolled my head, relaxing my neck, and leaned back in my chair, feeling uncommonly serene. This is the horrible thing about meeting people, and friends in general: they unbalance you so thoroughly, and for weeks you feel like you’re walking around with a heavy suitcase, compensating for irregularities you hardly understand. I could almost pity Philip and Genevieve, who kept at each other all throughout dinner. It wasn’t until we were walking back to the car, moments before crossing the street, that Genevieve looked at me accusingly and said, “Wait a minute—”
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