I scoured the bathroom looking for her middle name. Only: toilet paper, q-tips, toothpaste, boxes and boxes of pregnancy tests. No prescription bottles. I never forget middle names. You’ve looked through people’s things—especially here, in this private place. You’d do the same for someone you just met.
She invited me barhopping with her friends. Outside the sound bar, a guy from her entourage came out and put his arm around her and said something about Patron. We were introduced. He went back in and she said they met at a football party, but don’t worry I don’t like football. She told me she raced cars. Not blockbuster film illegal racing, but the kind in the dirt. She pretended to put on racing gloves with her cigarette arm when she said racing. Yet it was a more fluid motion, Hepburnesque with an elongated filter. She stubbed her cigarette on the trashcan’s rim. She looked over her shoulder into the bar window. I rubbed my cigarette between sidewalk slabs like writing in big letters on sand.
We ended up at her place, an apartment with furnishings out of a catalog that I would never own. Everything new and not our age. Clean: the vacuum’s tracks incised like initials carved in tree bark, the couch that no one sits on, for guests. Everything unopened, still sealed. I didn’t think we could ever be this careful.
The friends and I loitered until the point in the party where the host is uncomfortable, yet can’t tell anyone to leave. I stood next to my shoes, still-socked, a dumbass in the doorway. Arm-around-her guy told her they had to talk and they disappeared into her bedroom. They would be engaged next spring.
I took the elevator to the lobby. Quiet. A cherub should have been urinating in the still pool in the center. My only message from her months later: Hey! I’m in FL!!
His friend was there, waiting.
‘He always does this,’ he said.
The crossword puzzle on the glass table was finished; the comics weren’t funny. I parked a twenty-minute walk away. I wasn’t going to drive home through the snow, even sober. I had to know her bed.
—You make it home okay?
—Still in your lobby
—Want to stay here?
—What’s your room number?
I was in the doorway again and she told me I could take my shoes off. I sat on the couch that could fold out into a bed. She put her pajamas on, closed the bedroom door. Her sweatpants had writing on them. Earlier she had told me she wrote, even had a novel but who does that? so she went back to school for nursing to make real money.
‘You don’t have to wear all that.’
She pointed at my vest, shirt. I took them off like the doctor’s office and placed them on the ground folded, as neat as a geometry proof. We lay down and she told me we couldn’t kiss, only cuddle. Her TV looked as large as a drive-in screen. I have never been to a drive-in. It floated there like something on the cover of genre fiction, all vaguely void, reflective, like it should be controlling an indigenous space people. She held up two plastic cases:
‘Nature, or music?’
We did not kiss, like she promised. Our faces were close and I inhaled her breathing. We held each other. I heard lines from the show in and out of sleep. The narrator said that some animals wait at the mouths of caves to eat other animals. Mountain goats slip and die where they live. Their hooves aren’t good enough.
It was half-morning and gun-in-your-mouth obvious when she told me to leave and I stumbled over my clothes to the door. I thought of her middle name again. It was tucked in between the sugar and flour, the translucent orange bottle on the granite-topped kitchen island, subtle as a lighthouse. I found it when she was changing. I heard there’s this one guy who still throws messages in bottles, thousands of them. He has received replies. I wanted to break all the bottles, read every reply. But you can’t make the sounds of the ocean when it’s lying in pieces all around you. Some replies float and float and float and float.