Fiction | September 01, 1997
She said, “You have no character. I see right through you.” She leaned across the table, closer to me, her eyes glittering a little, as if she had just told me I was cute.
I tried hard to appear amused. We were seated in a high-backed booth in a Tulsa, Oklahoma cafe. I hardly knew this woman. I had met her maybe an hour earlier in the airport coffee shop, where we were both killing time, drinking coffee, stranded by a snowstorm–and beyond the cafe’s big plate glass windows, snow continued falling thick and slow, floating to the ground in big flakes that seemed almost to rock like little boats as they descended. I looked around the cafe, embarrassed by the turn in the conversation. There were five other people in the place. Three old guys with big guts and gray hair, in cowboy hats, were seated at one of the round tables in the center of the room. They were silent, looking down at their coffee cups. Behind the counter, a waitress in a black uniform with a white nametag pinned to her breast wiped a saucer with a dishrag. Behind her, the cook stood over the grill with his arms crossed, looking down at the metal surface as if something were cooking there, which nothing was. They were listening to us. They had been watching us and listening to us since we walked through the door. I said, “What do you mean I have no character? What kind of a thing is that to say?”
“The truth,” she said. She pushed her hair back off her face. She had crimped blonde hair that fell over her forehead and cheeks. She was young, maybe twenty-five, twenty-six. I figured about ten years younger than me.
“Why is it the truth?”
“I mean,” I said, “why do you think I have no character?”
“Just listen to yourself.” She crossed her arms under her breasts and leaned back. She still had that bright look in her eyes that seemed to say she didn’t really mean any harm: she was just noting something fascinating. “You’re talking like me,” she said. “You’re picking up my inflections, my tone, even my mannerisms. You’re a blank slate. It’s as if you’re turning into my image as I watch.”
I laughed, but it was an obviously uncomfortable laugh. I thought about just getting up and walking out. Unfortunately, there was no place to go. We had taken a taxi from the airport, and I’d have to walk over to the phone, which was in plain view against the opposite wall, call a cab, and then wait. Meanwhile, the place was still as a closet. The cook was a big, heavy guy and you could hear him breathing. I said, “You’re an interesting woman, Jessie. Here we were, talking amiably about things–and then suddenly: I have no character. Did I say something wrong?”
She looked at me a long moment, as if deciding how she should continue, as if measuring me and trying to determine what she could tell me and what she couldn’t. At the airport, I had joined her at her table because she was pretty and seemed nice, an ordinary attractive blonde with crimped hair, wearing bright sneakers and blue jeans and a green suede shirt with the top two buttons open, looking dreamily out the window at falling snow. I knew myself to be a good-looking man. I had been told so all my life by women and by men. I was tall and muscular, with a squarish, rugged-looking face. I knew I could walk up to most unattached women and start up a conversation and my advances would be welcome. As a salesman, my looks were my chief asset, and for that reason I kept myself in good shape, working out an hour every day with weights, jogging two miles every morning.
From a distance, Jessie had seemed nice–attractive and nice. And she had acted that way too, sharing pleasant, friendly conversation with a stranger stuck in an airport during a snowstorm, though her eyes did seem to probe, and she had hesitated often before responding, as if feeling me out. Still, it had all been good until the character remark. There was something about her that I liked and I was hoping we might get back on that easy-going track. I sat quietly on my side of the table and watched her watching me. Finally, she said, “Didn’t you ever meet someone and have the urge to tell the truth? I look at you and I see someone without any real identity beyond what can be absorbed from others. You’re like a sponge, an absence waiting to be filled. You’re–”
“Excuse me, Jessie,” I said. “I’m not interested in this conversation.” I picked up my coat from the bench and tried to take the bill off the table, but she pulled it away.
“On me,” she said.
“No thank you,” I said. “I’ll buy my own breakfast.” I went to the counter and paid for my meal. I wanted to strike up a conversation with the waitress, but she wouldn’t meet my eyes. Nor would anyone else in the room. The cook was looking at the back wall, and the three cowboys were still staring at their coffee. I thought, “The hell with this,” and went to the wall phone and dialed the airport taxi, only to find the taxis weren’t running. Too much snow. I asked, “How am I supposed to get back to the airport?” and the voice on the other end suggested I should worry about how to get to a motel, since I was certainly going to be in Tulsa at least another twenty-four hours. “Oh, great,” I said, and hung up. I looked toward the waitress. “No taxis,” I said. “You allow camping here?”
One of the cowboys looked up from his coffee and tipped his hat in my direction. He said, “I’ll give you a ride, Pardner. If you don’t mind waiting till I finish my coffee.”
My first thought was, given the rate at which he was drinking that coffee, waiting out the snowstorm might be the better bet. My second thought was that he really looked like an asshole in that cowboy hat. I said, “Thanks. That’s very kind of you.” And then, there I was, just as I had feared: standing next to the phone with my coat over my arm in a room that was like an empty stage–and I felt like I was on stage. I felt as though Jessie and I were actors in an impromptu theatrical production, and everyone was waiting for the climax. In a few seconds the silence grew overwhelming. I thought about joining the three cowboys, but that would have been like walking off the stage and taking a seat in the audience.
The quiet wasn’t broken until Jessie shifted around in her booth. She turned to face me and stretched her legs out across the bench. She spoke as if I were still sitting across the table from her. “Tell me if I’m wrong,” she said. “You had a parent who overwhelmed you as a child. Someone who crushed the character out of you.”
The cowboys, the waitress, and the cook all looked at Jessie for a moment and then turned and looked at me. It was beginning to occur to me that I had found myself a genuine crazy woman. I thought, “The bitch, the cunt, she’s a lunatic.” I put my coat on, taking my time sliding my arms into the sleeves, and then crossed the room to Jessie, not really knowing what I was going to do until I did it. I walked to her table with my eyes on her eyes and I leaned into the booth and put my lips close to her ear. “Jessie,” I whispered. “Fuck you.” Then I walked out of the caf‚ and into the snow.
Except for a single pickup truck, the parking lot was empty. A couple of inches of snow had accumulated already, erasing the yellow lines that divided the blacktop surface into parking spaces. As I crossed the lot to the truck, flakes of snow stuck to my hair. I jammed my hands deep in the pockets of my overcoat and waited by the passenger door of the pickup, where I had a clear view of the interior of the cafe. After only a minute or two, the cowboy said a few words to his buddies and then picked up his coat and came out to give me a ride. Jessie had turned around in the booth again, and was sipping her coffee as she stared out the side window toward a snow-covered field. I yelled “Thanks! I really appreciate this!” before the cowboy even reached the truck. He nodded and climbed into the driver’s seat, and I climbed in alongside him.
“Name’s Bob,” I said. “Bob Resttler.”
He nodded, without looking at me. “Pleased to meet you, Pardner.”
I said. “Do you believe that woman? I never met her before in my life.” I made a face that I hoped suggested my amused disbelief at her behavior.
“Don’t know her at all?”
“I don’t know that woman from Adam. I met her an hour ago in the airport coffee shop.”
He seemed to think about that a moment and then shook his head.
“Unbelievable, isn’t it?”
“Well.” he said. “Women . . .” And he shook his head again, as if sorry for the state of the world.
I thought he might say more, but that turned out to be it. For the whole ride. When I got out at the airport, I thanked him again. I said, “I really appreciate this, Pardner. Thanks again.” I slammed the door and walked away, and it wasn’t until I was inside the airport and approaching the airline counter that I realized I had said Pardner and that was why he had given me such a funny look right before I closed the door. He had sort of stopped midway in a nod and given me this strange look. I tried to laugh at myself–but someplace not very deep at all under the surface I was bothered. I said aloud, “Fuck him.” Then added, “Fuck her, too.”
Luckily, the airline people were friendly. They arranged a decent motel room for me and even found me a ride–and I know I should have been more appreciative, but I was in a seriously sour mood. I think I might have been able to just laugh the whole thing off if I hadn’t called that cowboy Pardner, a word I had never in my whole life ever even considered using. By the time I got to my motel room, I was wondering about the things Jessie had said to me, how much truth there was to them. It was the case, I was willing to grant, that I had a tendency to pick up other people’s speech patterns. Put me in Mississippi for a few days, and I’d be talking with a drawl. Put me in Vermont and I’d become taciturn. But so what? That didn’t mean I didn’t have any character. I was a salesman. I sold financial software to mid-size businesses. I had probably just learned to pick up local speech characteristics as a way of relating to people. Why did it have to mean anything bigger than that?
Still, by the time I got settled into my motel room, my sour mood had only deepened. I made a quick phone call to my parents’ house and left a message on their machine, telling them not to worry, I was stuck in Tulsa. I’d give them a call tomorrow. I didn’t give them the motel number because I knew my mother would call as soon as she got the message, wanting to be sure I hadn’t really been in a plane crash and just wasn’t telling her. Then my father would bitch at her for making a long distance call for no good reason, and when I got back he’d bitch at me for not calling, for only leaving a message, knowing my mother would then have to call back. I’d tell him she didn’t have to call, and we’d be off, at each other’s throats, same as always. My life was nothing if not predictable.
For a while after I hung up the phone, I sat on the edge of the bed and debated calling back and leaving my number so that my mother wouldn’t worry–but eventually I decided against it. I had other plans, which didn’t involve talking to her. I got up and pulled the curtains. I stopped up the bathtub drain and ran the water nice and hot, and then stripped out of my clothes and popped open my suitcase and pulled out a brand-new, unopened bottle of Jack Daniel’s. I unwrapped a tumbler from the bathroom sink, filled it halfway, and slid my body down into the hot water. There. I was feeling better already. The hell with Jessie I-Have-No-Character. I was in a nice warm motel room with a bottle of whiskey and cable TV–and nobody calling to check and make sure I wasn’t drinking. Life was just fine.
I settled back in the tub and lifted the tumbler of whiskey to my lips, savoring the sharp aroma of the bourbon–and just as I was about to take my first sip, someone knocked at the door. I pulled myself up out of the tub, wrapped a motel towel around my waist, and went to the window, where I peeked out through the curtains. It was Jessie. She was standing in the snow without a jacket. I opened the door a crack. “You’ll freeze,” I said.
She moved closer to the door in order to get a better look. “Got more clothes on than you.”
“That’s because I was in the bathtub. Did you come to apologize?”
“No, not really,” she said. “I came to take you up on your invitation.”
“Right before you left the restaurant. Wasn’t that an invitation you whispered in my ear?”
“I said, ‘fuck you.'”
She nodded and smiled. “I’ve been looking forward to it ever since.”
I opened the door and let her in. She came into the room and looked over the matching beds and then up at the fake oil paintings centered over each headboard. They were both seashore paintings, copies of some French painter, people in old-fashioned bathing suits carrying umbrellas, a crowded beach. I hadn’t noticed them until I saw her looking at them. “Well,” she said. “Which bed?”
I said, “I’ve got a feeling I’ll regret this.”
Her eyes brightened. “You don’t need to fear,” she said. “I’m not crazy, I promise. I’ve never been your standard-issue human being, sure. But I’m not dangerous.”
I said, “And I don’t have any condoms.”
She pulled a crushed box of condoms out of the pocket of her jeans. “I had the driver stop at a pharmacy on the way here. Haven’t the airline people been really nice?”
“Amazingly so,” I said. “Did they just direct you to my room?”
“Same guy drove me as drove you.” She tossed the condoms onto the center nightstand, and then sat on the bed closest to the far wall. “This one okay?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said.
“Good, then . . .” She unbuttoned her blouse and undid her belt buckle. “Do you like to watch?” She patted the edge of the second bed, across from where she sat.
“You’re very attractive,” I said. I sat across from her.
She yanked the bottom of her shirt out of her jeans, undid the cuffs, and took it off. “I should be,” she said. She took a strand of her hair between her thumb and forefinger. “The crimp is artificial, of course. So is the color. I’m naturally a dingy shade of blonde, a sort of sandy blonde. No luster at all. But, for a significant amount of money and with bimonthly treatments, we get this: pretty, bright blonde hair.”
“Very nice,” I said. “It’s worth it.” She had me feeling good again, as she had when we first met. The stuff about my character was fading out of memory. I was beginning to concentrate on the fact that I had an attractive, entertaining woman in my motel room getting undressed for me.
She took off her bra. Her breasts were lovely. “You like them?” she asked.
I adore them,” I said. I reached across the space between us to touch them, letting the warm flesh rest in the palm of one hand while my thumb traced the circle of her nipple.
“Umm,” she said. “But they’re not real unfortunately. Saline implants.”
“No kidding?” I squished a breast in my hand. “Feels real to me.”
“That’s what counts,” she said. She leaned forward and kissed me on the bridge of my nose. She pointed to her own nose: “This isn’t the original model either: resized and reshaped.” She pointed to her green eyes, which were one of the first things I had noticed about her, how strikingly the green of her eyes picked up the green of her suede shirt. “Contact lenses,” she said. “They’re really brown.”
“Your eyes are brown?”
“Brown,” she said. “Plain old. See? I should be attractive. Look at all the effort.” She summed up for me: “Dyed hair, colored contacts, breast implants, redone nose.” She stood up and kicked off her shoes and then shimmied half way out of her pants and underwear before falling back on the bed, onto her elbows, smiling wickedly and putting her feet in my lap. I pulled her pants off the rest of the way and then climbed onto the bed with her. She kissed my chest, hungrily. I kissed her breasts. They felt great. They felt like real breasts. She pulled back the blankets and slid under. I joined her. “One other thing,” she said. “Before we commence.”
“What?” I was worked up and breathing hard. I had only one thing on my mind.
“Nothing,” she said. She smiled revealing perfect teeth, white and straight–but she looked, somehow, worried suddenly. A little frightened. “Condom,” she said. She handed me the box from the nightstand. “Can’t forget.”
There had been something in her look that worried me, though I couldn’t place it. It felt as is she had started to tell me something and then changed her mind. I said, “I don’t have any diseases. You don’t either, do you?”
“No,” she said. “I’m healthy.” She pointed to the condom, and the casual, playful look returned to her face. “But you still have to wear it.”
“Sure,” I said. I put on the condom and we made love. It took me maybe at most a minute and half and then I was finished. This had happened to me before, more than once. It was one of the reasons I wasn’t really all that into sex. I pulled myself away from her. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I . . . I just.
“What is it?” she said. She touched my chest, her eyes alive again with that sparkle.
I looked around the dark room. The curtains were pulled and the lights were off. I was tempted to reach for the remote control, which was bolted to the nightstand, and see what was on the tube. I thought about my tumbler of bourbon on the rim of the bathtub. “Excuse me,” I said, and I scurried out of the bed, the condom dangling from my dick like a misplaced elf’s cap. I peeled it off in the bathroom, flushed it down the commode, and then fortified myself with a couple of solid swigs of bourbon before returning to the bed.
Jessie was sitting up, her back cushioned with pillows. Her knees were pulled up to her chest and her arms were wrapped around her legs. She said, “Want to see a picture of me?”
I pulled the covers to my neck and lay on my side, my head propped on my elbow. “Sure,” I said.
She reached down between the beds and pulled a slim wallet out of the back pocket of her jeans. From the wallet, she carefully extracted a photograph and handed it to me.
“Who’s this?” I said. I dropped the photo on the bed, as if I were worried about catching something from it.
“It’s me,” she said. Same smile. Same sparkle.
I picked up the photo again. The girl pictured in it was terribly ugly. She had the flat, dingy hair of the poor, and a hooked beak of a nose that was just plain unnaturally long. Without question, the longest nose I had ever seen. It looked like it had to be a gag: a fake nose stuck on top of the real one. It made her look freakishly ugly.
Amazingly, that wasn’t the worst feature of the girl’s face. The worst feature was her teeth, which were gnarled and twisted in what appeared to be double rows. She looked like she had two rows of teeth and they were all fighting with each other for some space to grow. A couple of the teeth stuck out almost horizontally, useless and freakish. Several of the teeth were discolored and appeared to be rotting. “This is you?” I said. “Was you?”
“It’s still me,” she said. “Only with the benefit of cosmetic science and a lot of money.”
I looked at the photo again. I studied it. It made me feel weird to think that this might really be the same woman I had just had sex with. “I don’t believe you,” I said. I tossed the photo to her. “Who are you? You are crazy, aren’t you?”
She didn’t answer for a moment. She watched me with that searching-out look again.
I said, “I just hope you’re not dangerous.”
That made her laugh. “Why don’t you believe it’s me?”
“Because!” I said. “Look at this!” I snatched the photo up off the bed. “Look at this girl’s teeth!”
“Ah,” she said. “Teeth.” She smiled brightly, showing off her perfect teeth–and then she blew up her cheeks and made an odd motion with her jaw and she pulled her teeth out of her mouth with her thumb and forefinger. She placed the teeth on the nightstand beside her.
I got out of the bed. I stepped back, away from her.
“Teeth,” she said, sounding suddenly like an old woman.
“Put them back in,” I said. “Please.” I turned my back to her.
“They’re back in,” she said, her voice normal again. “Turn around. Look at me.”
When I turned around, she was posing. A sultry look about her face, a corner of the sheet held sexily to her breasts, hiding just enough to emphasize her beauty.
I touched my fingers to my forehead. “I’m feeling a little dizzy,” I said. I sat down on the edge of the bed and dropped my head between my knees.
She knelt behind me and rubbed my back. “The teeth,” she said. “They’re a shocker, no?”
“Slightly,” I said.
She leaned over me, shaping her body to mine, holding me in her arms. She kissed the back of my neck. She said, “Do you not find me attractive now . . . because of the teeth? Because you know how I used to look?”
“No,” I said. “It’s not that. But it is . . . disorienting.”
“I can understand that,” she said. She nuzzled against me. Her cheek was warm against the back of my neck.
We were both quiet for a while, me with my head between my legs and her with her body wrapped around me. For a while I kept seeing in my mind that picture of her looking so ugly, and then I kept going over the pure weirdness of seeing a young, attractive woman reach into her mouth and pull out her teeth and place them on a nightstand. Her body felt good against my body, and I knew if I turned around I’d see a beautiful young woman–and one generous enough to not make a big deal out of my pathetic sexual performance–but I was having trouble getting past the picture and the teeth. It was as if, somehow, she wasn’t really who she appeared to be. I saw an attractive young woman–but it felt as if that were a mask, as if it weren’t real. I tried to think of something to say, but no words came. Then she pulled away from me, and when I sat up and turned around I saw her peek out the curtains and then pull them open, filling the room with daylight. When she turned around she appeared solemn. She said, “Do you want me to leave now?”
Beyond the window, the snow was falling thick as fog. A moment earlier, I think I would have asked her to leave. But seeing her standing there by the window, her body so lovely, her face so attractive, I didn’t want her to leave. “Not if you don’t want to,” I said.
She said, “I don’t want to,” and came and got into bed with me again.
I leaned back against the headboard and put my arm around her shoulder, and she laid her head against my chest. I said, “How come you showed me that picture? I mean . . . Why?”
“Because,” she whispered. “I don’t know. I just wanted to tell you. I don’t really know why.”
“You don’t know?”
She looked up at me, amused. Then I heard myself say, “I’m an alcoholic.”
She said, “I’m not surprised. I figured something like that.”
I didn’t say anything right away. If she wasn’t surprised, I was. I had never said those three words out loud.
Jessie turned her body toward mine and nuzzled up against me. “Do you mind if I go to sleep?” she said. “I’m deliciously tired.”
I stroked her forehead. “But I’m curious about you,” I said. “I want to know how . . .”
“We’ll talk about it later,” she said. “We’ll go into details. Both of us. I’ll tell you all about my transformation.” She turned away and snuggled up with a pillow, and I watched her face relax and her eyes begin to move around under her closed eyelids. I kissed her on the shoulder, and then I went to the window and stood in front of it and watched the snow fall for a long time. In my head, there were words floating: transformation, Tulsa, snow . . . I could see the parking lot and a sloping hill and then beyond that the highway and a long line of trees–and all of it, except for the trunks of the trees, was covered with snow. Then, when I turned around and looked at the room again, everything was different. The colors, the textures . . . everything. It was as if something inside the substances of the room had been altered and now all the surfaces looked different. It was very strange. I kept staring at everything: the soft brown wood of the headboards, the blue cotton fabric of the blankets, the white sheets–and the surfaces seemed almost to glow. The colors appeared to pulse and shimmer. It was beautiful, but it was also frightening. I had no idea what was going on with me. Not really. I went to the big mirror over the bathroom sink and looked at myself. At first nothing seemed different. It was still me. Just me. Same muscular, healthy body. Same rugged looks. I stared at my own eyes staring back at myself and then I guess because I was staring so intensely, the room disappeared out of the background. I gazed into the mirror and it was just my body, with a kind of light around me, as if I were floating. I closed my eyes. I extended my arms and tilted my head down, and then I felt as though I were plummeting, flying. For a few moments it was as if I had no body at all. What I sensed, it was ominous. I was a dark spirit, dense and hard, rock-like, but soaring like a crow, gliding though a pitch-black place, looking for something . . . like hunting, like I was hunting.
When I opened my eyes again, everything was back to normal. I lay beside Jessie on the motel’s mattress as if I were climbing into my own bed. I pressed against her. “Jessie?” I said, even though I knew she was sleeping. I looked at her face and tried to imagine under her attractive features the old face with the twisted teeth and a beak for a nose. I touched my face to her breasts and closed my eyes, and I settled toward sleep thinking not about Jessie, or how she had once looked so different, but about myself, my life, what there was of it, and just before I fell asleep that sense of being a small dark spirit returned, something hunting and angry. I lifted Jessie’s arm from where it lay at her side and draped it over my shoulder. I pressed closer to her, pushing my body into hers, anxious to join her in her sleep and inexplicably grateful to be lying next to her in bed, in a Tulsa motel, with snow falling beyond the window.
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