There were two ways he said, “fuck you” to her.
The first was his favorite, and it was said hard and fast, with a clear emphasis on the “F.” It was as if the look in his eye said it for him. The second was said nonchalantly, and it was accompanied with an eye roll.
They met at a party in the Valley. Their mutual friend, John, turned his parents’ Victorian home into a free-for-all during a house-sit. The houses on the block were all closely built together, and it was on a winding road that allowed no room for plush, green lawns. When she walked up to the door, she saw a group of boys through the front window. Some stood while holding beers. Others sat on the couch, glassy-eyed, as they nodded their heads and laughed.
The front door opened straight into the living room. The house was perfumed with cigarette smoke, and she followed the green carpet that had two parallel lines of silver in it as she lapped the party. She stopped in front of the window and looked outside, but she watched how the house’s lights reflected the party off its black backdrop instead.
“Horrible carpet, right?” a male’s voice asked. He had a beer in one hand and used the other to run his fingers through his thin blonde hair. “I’m Austin.”
“Reasonably the worst,” she said as he took a swig. “Sophie.”
They sat on the stained, woven fabric couch and laughed as the faint sound of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti played in the background. Even though Sophie didn’t drink, she accepted his beer when he offered her some, and took fake gulps, placing the bottle up to her mouth and stopping the flow with her lips. She watched his blue eyes looking at her. They were sweet. She liked him.
Austin and Sophie were on-and-off throughout their four months together. The fights started when she came home and noticed him sitting on her couch. He was a graphic designer, but hadn’t had steady work, so she found him eating snack foods.
“What did you do today?” Sophie asked.
He dropped a handful of popcorn kernels into his mouth. “Stuff.”
He was most unattractive when eating popcorn because he’d chew with his mouth open. One piece would go rogue and end up beneath the couch, next to the cashew he dropped and never picked up weeks prior. Austin would never look at Sophie when she asked him questions, and it infuriated her. He’d finish chewing and then he’d use his tongue to lick the salt from the creases of his lips before responding with a vague answer.
Sophie constantly sought out his affection. The only time she would get any attention from him was when they would fight. The break-ups started when they went to Café Med off Sunset Plaza Drive. They stared at the gilt-edged menu before deciding to split an order of Pizza Messicana. Sophie noticed his eyes follow a pale woman wearing a green floral dress with capped sleeves and no back to the table in front of theirs. He raked his hair, as if to look more presentable.
“The way you look at other women bothers me.” She blotted her mouth with her white napkin and dropped it on the table.
“I won’t lie. I do look.” He rubbed his palms together over his plate so the semolina from the pizza crust left his hands. “It’s not a big deal.”
She stared at him as he placed a new slice up to his mouth. He used his finger to grab the minced piece of cilantro that was stuck on his lip.
“I’m not going to put up with it.” She grabbed her purse and hit the table with her hip as she walked out, causing the silver pizza tray to jolt.
“Fuck you,” he yelled out, rolling his eyes.
The make-ups started when Austin showed up to her yellow duplex and climbed the stairs up to her unit. He held a bouquet of white tulips that had a soaked paper towel fastened to the stems with a rubber band, and knocked on her door.
“What do you want?” she asked. Her thin muscles flexed as she placed her left arm against the doorframe.
Austin put his hand in his pocket, and walked back far enough so his back was touching the iron railing.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His eyes moved between the ground, the stucco wall, and her. “I realize how horrible I acted, and I know I don’t deserve another chance, but I hope you’d reconsider.”
She crossed her arms and squinted her eyes. She breathed out of her nose heavily and reached for the tulips.
“Thank you,” he said. He pulled his hand out of his pocket and ran it over his shirt, smoothing it down.
When Sophie would take Austin back, she’d let him stay at her place.
She woke up early one morning because they’d planned on going to the beach. She watched as the sun came through her window and revealed the acne on Austin’s back. The clusters looked like constellations. She leaned down and inspected his skin to figure out if Cassiopeia had turned into Orion that month. It hadn’t, and a sudden release of air from her mouth caressed his back, causing him to wince, and she quickly got out of bed.
In the bathroom, Sophie applied sunscreen to her face while looking at her reflection in the vanity. Remnants of toothpaste and dried water droplets covered the bottom portion of the mirror. She pulled her hair into a high bun and heard the door creak from Austin walking in.
“We should get going before the freeway traffic hits,” she said.
Austin nodded and yawned, and he used one hand to wave her off and the other to lift the toilet seat. “I know.”
Sophie walked back to the bedroom to put on her bikini. She reached for the white tunic folded over the desk chair, and slipped it over her shoulders. Her orange bandeau and yellow bottoms were bright and visible through its thin fabric.
“Austin, come on,” she said. She sat down cross-legged on the edge of the unmade bed.
Austin walked into the bedroom with a granola bar resting in between his teeth and his hands tying his swim trunks.
“Can you relax? I’m ready,” he mumbled.
He slipped on his blue Vans halfway and struggled a bit using his fingers to get them to cover his heels.
“Fine,” she said. She let out a deep breath.
The freeway was packed with Friday early afternoon traffic.
“Christ,” Austin said. He weaved his body around to see how many cars were ahead of his.
“I told you to wake up early,” she said. “You never listen to me; nothing I say gets through to you.”
When they merged onto Kanan Road, the car picked up speed.
“Fuck you,” he said, hard. “We’re going to the beach, aren’t we? It doesn’t matter when we leave.”
Sophie stared at him. A school bus shot by, swaying the car.
Austin zigzagged through tight turns and stopped at a red light on Pacific Coast Highway. The sound of the turn signal and breeze filled the car. He turned right, and Sophie glanced at the ocean through his window.
“It’s twenty dollars for parking,” Austin said.
He inched closer to the beach’s entry. “So, going to the beach was your idea.”
Sophie followed Austin’s eyes as he gazed at two girls walking up the steps from the beach, his focus on the one with blonde hair. The pink material of her bikini bottom was wedged into her ass, and she had sand stuck to the left side of her upper thigh.
“What?” he asked. He gave Sophie a double look that meant he didn’t hear her.
“Take me home,” she said. Her voice was firm.
“What the fuck, Sophie?”
“Take me home now.”
Austin waited until the car in front of them pulled up just enough for him to turn out of the parking line.
Sophie watched him as he snaked in and out of two lanes of traffic.
“You rely on my affection too much,” he said as he stared out the windshield. “The more you want, the less I want to give.”
“You don’t show me any affection.” She pushed her body against the seatbelt. “How else am I supposed to feel?”
Austin’s face was flushed, and he moved his sun visor to the left to stop the sun from shining on it.
“I don’t know what more you want me to tell you,” he said. He flipped through the radio stations because all the presets were on commercials. “If you don’t like how I treat you, then you can leave.”
Sophie pulled her visor down and stretched her torso straight against the leather seat to avoid the sun.
“How you don’t realize how hurtful you are is an issue,” she said. She looked at herself in the visor’s mirror and used her finger to wipe the lines of sunscreen from one corner of her eyelid to the other. “I’m leaving on that fact.”
Sophie moved hair out of her face, but the wind from the open window blew them back. “Slow down.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.” He had shifted gears and floored a left turn through a yellow light, and she felt her seatbelt press against her chest as her body slid closer to the door.
The southbound freeway traffic was sparse, and the air that flew through the car blew through Austin’s strands, causing his thin hair to separate and make the pale of his scalp visible. Sophie knew his concerns about his premature hair loss, and she enjoyed watching him from her couch as he’d lean over the bathroom sink to get closer to the mirror to touch his hairline. He’d use both hands to style his hair, but the only thing that ever looked good was the look of concern on his face as he did it.
Austin pulled up to the curb a few duplexes down from Sophie’s. He kept the engine on, but clicked the radio off.
“I need my apartment key back,” she said.
He shifted forward and rummaged through his center console, and Sophie saw the acne on his back. The clusters were red and resembled a rash. She wondered for a moment if they hurt.
Sophie held out her hand, but he threw the key through her open window onto the sidewalk instead.
“Thanks a lot, baldy,” she said.
Austin’s eyes shrunk half their size, which made his mouth go crooked and a heavy breath sound escape his lips. “Fuck you.”
Sophie opened the door and peeled her thighs off his leather seat. She felt nothing but the sweaty sting. Austin’s car sped off the curb and picked up speed down the street.
“No, fuck you,” she said.
She picked up her key and smiled.