Entries: July 2005

Watching (exp.)

“You’re shy, aren’t ya?” Michelle asked, her chair squeaking as she leaned it forward on two spindly legs. I thought I heard her tongue falter on “aren’t,” like she was translating from the twang of her native “ain’t.” She asked the question in earnest though, and it wrinkled her brow.

I could only grin, but it felt more like a wince. The break room was nothing more than a converted closet, appointed with a perpetually-hissing coffee maker and a couple of derelict chairs. There didn’t seem room for an answer in such a confined space.

My job’s primary attraction had been that there simply weren’t many people around on midnight security. Yet now Michelle’s pale eyes were steady on me, like she was trying to see straight through me to the back wall. It was all I could do to avoid turning away. My arms felt exposed and leaden, and I couldn’t find a natural resting position for them, so I folded them across my chest. What an unfortunate confrontation.

She took my silence as confirmation. “Shy!” she said, this time with conviction. Michelle was a woman not given to subtlety, so I could find some comfort in her obliviousness to my discomfort. I’d often found myself studying her schoolyard caliber flirtations from across the employee office, where fewer than a dozen of my crew mates spent the last half hour of shift before turnover. The conduct there tended toward the aggressive, and bawdy jokes or sports bickering set the tenor of the mornings. I’d ascribed it to the forced intimacy, but I’d always felt a distance from it, like a transient at a family gathering. I could relate to my shift mates as far as the job went, and my work was something for which I was well-regarded. But the friendship of colleagues had never been a part of that. They were here, after all, more as a factor of necessity than choice. And now, face to face with the company’s most volatile personality, I felt positively awkward. Calcified. It was an indelicate reminder that I had succeeded only too well in distancing myself—the stolid observer had become more a fossil than anthropologist.

Michelle had probably caught me watching her now and again. She was an utter curiosity: rail thin body, bleached platinum hair parted down the middle and feathered around a dart-like face. Her joints were as unfettered as her mouth, and her gesticulations seemed tailored to draw the attentions of men. Truth was I often felt so dissociated from the shift proceedings that I would simply forget to look away from her displays, as if I were watching a praying mantis just outside the window sill. When I passed her in the corridors I avoided making eye contact for fear of just this kind of engagement.

She went on in her singsong, flirty tone, “Shy people are deep, you know that? But I’ve always liked them though. Most men? They act all macho; all, you know…” She puffed out her chest and moved her shoulders to and fro like a lumberjack. “But really there just isn’t much there, you want the truth.” The context of her soliloquy was clear then, if it had been merely implied before. It was an old story that I’d seen to its end before: The shy man, the novelty. A novelty which, if history was a lesson, would lose its charm in due time. “I dated this one guy, name of Hunter? He was a quiet guy too—before he met me, that is. I brought him out of his shell.”

I grabbed desperately for an out. “Out of his shell, in with Michelle,” I said, and regretted it before uttering the last syllable. My cheeks burned.

Michelle laughed. “You better believe that! You’re so bad!”

I felt tired and somehow humiliated, as if I’d compromised my… What? My self-image, perhaps. The stolid observer, all too easily flustered when confronted.

Giggling dramatically, Michelle returned to her refrain as my blush tapered off into a mild headache, “What’s Scamper up to?” she sighed. Underneath her breezy veneer was a perceptive lass, I thought. I was suddenly afraid that she could read my mind. Maybe this was my punishment. She gave me a friendly shove, and I took it as I stole a glance at my watch.

“Well I best get,” she said, and swung a reedy leg over her chair and tugged it around as she turned.

I couldn’t summon more than a half smile, and my cheeks flushed again. “Yep.”

Michelle sighed at me, arms akimbo. “Always the silent type,” she said, looking down at me from the doorway. “I’ll see you around, Scamper… ‘kay?”

Now that we’ve broken bread, I thought. “That’s where I’ll be,” I said noncommittally, unable to meet her eyes. As she left the break room she hit her shoulder on the doorframe and let out a giggle without stopping.

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Handy Man

Damned if my hands didn’t look good around Claire’s throat. But then, my inability to perceive an act so visceral with any subjectivity was the very reason I was finally giving my agent the throttling she deserved. It sent me into a rage that there was a part of my mind, even then, that wasn’t focused entirely on squeezing with every ounce of strength I could muster. I could just hear the photographer’s direction: “Now lace your fingers behind back there, and turn the hero head just a little so we can see your thumbs. Nice!”


It’s impossible for me to lose myself within any activity, particularly anything involving my exceptional hands. You’ve probably seen my hands—the tools of my trade—fondling various products over the past decade or so, though you’d never know me on the street. I am a plain man, it’s true, but my hands are widely-held as the finest the advertising world has ever known. My introduction to hand modeling came early, sparked by an off-hand comment during a visit with Mother’s best friend Claire.

“Will you look at that?” said Claire, swirling her martini glass so that the ice cubes tinked against each other.

Mother looked up from her nails, “Mm?”

“The boy’s hands,” she said. Just like that: the boy. “They’re like little porcelain spiders.”

I looked down at my hands as if I were wearing them. At the time I was holding the chocolate bar Claire had brought me, still wrapped. It had melted in the summer’s heat, and I’d been squeezing it between my fingers, enjoying the fluid resistance within the candy’s foil sheath.

“Jeffrey, don’t play with your food,” said Mother. “It’s rude.”

“It’s not food, it’s candy,” I said. I put the bar in my pocket where, incidentally, it would melt even more.

“The boy could be a hand model,” Claire said. She turned to my mother. “I’m serious. Have you ever thought about bringing him in?”

I didn’t like the sound of that. In my limited experience, “in” was not a place to be brought. The thought of small severed hands on black conveyor belts had me massaging my wrists.

Mother shook her head. “All children have perfect hands,” she said. “You forget. That’s what hands look like before you’ve worked a job, or done your drugs, or been divorced-“

Claire chuffed. “Maggie, stop.”

“I’m serious, Claire. My hands used to look like that. ‘A pianist’s hands,’ that’s what Daddy used to say.” Mother held her fingers up for Claire to see. Then, after consideration, “I could be a scar model, what do you think?”

Claire rolled her eyes. “Look at the boy’s hands for a second, Mag. They’re positively… cherubic, like doll hands. They’re like alabaster flower petals.” I was feeling quite self-conscious by then, but I was afraid to move my hands from the table. I picked out a hangnail.

“Jeffrey, stop that,” Mother told me. Maybe Claire had something, is what she was thinking. She wasn’t about to let me spoil it.

“His fingers are long, for his age, you know? And vein-less, too. The photographers at the studio call that ‘vascularity,’ and it’s one of the most important things.”

“That so?” Mother was lost in thought.

“Look, let me ask around,” Claire said. “Why not? I don’t have any real pull, but we have photographers in all the time for product shots, and it couldn’t hurt to put a bug in their ear.”

“I don’t know, Claire,” said Mother, getting up to retrieve the ash tray from the counter. “Another martini?”

Claire leaned toward me and I noticed that her eyebrows had been drawn on. “All you would have to do is hold things, the things that people desire,” she said seductively. “And then we take pictures of your hands, and those photos go into the catalog where we sell those things. How would you like to do that?”

“Does it hurt?” I asked her.

Ad agents exclaimed that they had never seen such hands as mine, and one of the photographers burst into tears when I swiped his fallen lens cap from the studio floor. As I held it out to him he took a step back as though coming too close might set him ablaze. It put me in a curious state of mind, as if I had awoken one morning and realized that I had two wondrous, if ungainly, white wings sprouting from my back. That might have been preferable, in fact, since I still had to use my hands for such mundane tasks as sharpening my pencil, or zipping up my zipper, or picking my nose. These are the other things that hands do, I thought.

While most kids my age were digging holes in their yards in which to bury Barbie heads, I was combing Barbie’s hair in front of a white cyclorama. While my friends burned ant colonies with magnifying glasses, I held saucers of cereal and white glue under hot studio lights. All the while I was fawned over and preened, each hair tweezed from my proximal phalanges as I drank my Hi-C. My instinct for presentation was something that couldn’t be taught, they told me, and once that thought fully took root I forgot what it was like to grab things just to have them.

This methodical tactile dissociation was physical as well as psychological. During breaks I wore moistening gloves that whispered whenever I touched something. Mother made me shield my precious hands from the sun at all times, and they became ghostly pale as the weeks drew on. My hands no longer seemed like they were mine. When I touched my own things I felt like I was stealing them. And when I bore my mother’s casket years later I felt I surely must be selling it.

Though my hands, bathed in lotions by night, and artfully lit by day, had become the things of legend, they were prone to all manner of deviant practices when I was left to my own devices. Yet my actions were those of a desperate man, always. In time I began to shoplift—an inevitable act of treachery, one might say—but always with the hope of regaining some feeling of visceral causality. The fact that I was never caught made me feel even less responsible for my own actions, however, and I eventually abandoned the practice. In the years that have passed I’ve never yet managed to break through the cold assessment with which I regard anything that my hands come to rest upon.

This brings us to this morning, and my little altercation with Claire. For a moment I was hopeful that there would be poetry enough in my act—in suffocating the woman who’d set me on this path—to allow me to reach back through the years, if only briefly, to more intimate times. I wanted to feel a splinter after clambering over the neighbor’s fence, I wanted to touch a dried out cat corpse stuck in the sewer drain. But as the tips of my thumbs disappeared into the old woman’s neck, I could only admire my perfectly-maintained cuticles. In her last gasp for breath I could hear her telling me that it’s the fine details like that, and not knowledge or experience, which really sell a concept.

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Once More

I met Tasha late last year at the rec center pool. I was doing my usual laps, and forcing myself to remain submerged as long as I could bear it. When I surfaced at the pool’s edge, her ankles were the first things I saw. Tasha stood there with a look I could only interpret as expectation, like she was close to remembering me from somewhere else, and only hoped that I would make it easier by remembering first. I could only shrug. “Sorry?” I said.

“No,” she said. “I was just admiring your submarine-like abilities.”

“Ah,” I said. “Yeah, it kind of runs in the family. That and a copious bladder. None of the men in my family urinate but once a week.”

“Which makes you excellent pool material all around, I’d say.”

We hit it off right away. Our rhythm was curiously free of the usual newborn fawn clumsiness, and I felt not the slightest hesitation when she asked whether I was hungry. “Your people do eat, I assume?”

“Of course,” I said. “But I eat only things that I’ve caught and shaken to death in my own teeth.”

“I can’t wait to meet your family,” she said.

It was about a week later, when work week poisons had attained dangerous levels once more, that I paid another visit to the rec center. My routine there is fairly regular, more ritual than relaxation. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised to see Tasha there again by the pool’s edge as I surfaced from my last lap.

She had that same look on her face—it’s unique to her, somewhere between private humor and deep confusion—and I didn’t have it in me to spoil the drama. So I shrugged. “Sorry,” I said.

“No, I was just admiring your submarine-like abilities,” she said. I felt that momentary mental tug that happens whenever I’m pitched out of the moment. That’s pretty much what she’d said the first time we’d met, wasn’t it? And I was immediately won over.

“Oh yeah,” I said. “It kind of runs in the family. That and a copious bladder. None of the males in my family urinate more than once a week.” I hoisted myself up and tilted my head to either side to clear out the water.

“Which makes you excellent pool material all around,” said Tasha. So this is how it would be then.

And I was more than equal to it.

That second time around was more an unspoken challenge than anything else. Could we pull it off? An entire afternoon, repeating our first conversation word for word? It was unheard of, but how thrilling it was too! Twenty minutes later, as we entered the restaurant’s air conditioned dining area, there was no longer room for any nervous sense of mystery, save for a sort of performance-oriented curiosity. I knew what she was going to order, but how rigidly could she stick to a script? What if the salmon were off? What if there were someone at the table we shared last time?

“Window or aisle?” I asked.

“Hm. Well, the emergency exit has more leg room,” she said.

“True, but you have to be able to pull the latch.”

Getting to know each other took on another dimension. We were still getting to know one another, but it was no longer about the stories we told, but rather the way we told them; how gracefully they came, and what words we chose.

And the thing I ask myself is: Why didn’t I see it then? Surely I had enough information to anticipate that ours was the type of friendship that could, without transition, reveal itself as an inescapable prison. Possibly it was too improbable a situation for me to imagine until the fifth or sixth time, but that’s exactly what happened.

“I was just admiring your submarine-like abilities,” she would say, her enthusiasm not at all dulled. Or, “I’ve been admiring your submarine-like abilities.” Or sometimes she’d say “skills.” Occasionally, between sentences, my mind would wander, and I wondered if there were a code in the variances themselves. I wondered whether it might be possible, if I concentrated hard enough, to divine a pattern in her very word usage, and therein yet another level of communication. What could she be saying to me under the surface? “Help, I am trapped in a perpetual encounter!” Or perhaps merely, “Here be dragons.”

Whatever her motivations, I simply couldn’t break out of the cycle. Flirty banter had become dogma, and our chance meeting had become scripture. I went swimming every Thursday with the sure knowledge that we would spend three hours meeting each other again for the first time, and while the thought of it struck a note of fear in me, it was only the fear of the misplaced word. I feared what might happen outside the confines of our traditions.

“How about Crossroads?” Tasha would ask. “How about Crossroads?” And again, “How about Crossroads? They have a pretty good menu there, from what I remember.”

After all, I rationalized, how many other things in life do we do just to pass time? We swim laps or play the same new song fifteen times in a row or greet the same strangers at the elevator, all without the prospect of varying from the routine. And still we continue happily to punctuate our days with routine tasks. The only things that distinguish our days—the only things that bear remembering—are the infinitesimal instances of change between the vast gulfs of repetition. But those times are like suns in the depths of space.

“True, but you have to be strong enough to pull the latch,” I would say.

And how long would it be before others noticed? Someone who happened to be in the same place two weeks in a row, their curiosity piqued after seeing the same thing both times. How long before we had our own little audience who followed us around, thereby becoming a part of our self-styled cult? And would they make the same comments to each other? “He changed that one word there, but the nuance was the same,” one of our acolytes would whisper to another.

But until that day there is little change indeed. I meet Tasha to this day—today, in fact—and we have our little afternoon lunch. I neither dread it nor look forward to it at this point. I only miss that initial promise of something more. Or less—I’d take either at this point, if I had the mettle to change it.

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