One day you’re moderately rich from your factory job. On the way to your freshman English Comp class, you pass a little vendor stand. It’s early morning and the girl behind it is very attractive, Nordic features with wispy blonde hair and an eager innocence like the teenage mall sunglasses vendors. And cold—her nipples poke through the thin cotton T-shirt her breasts are straining mightily against. You stop, sign some forms to get a free backpack. A week later, a credit card arrives in the mail. At the end of the year, you move out of the dorms and realize you can’t carry everything. You’re drunk and late for a party, so you leave your speakers and mini fridge on the curb. Circle of life, college style. You can buy more later. There is no force more powerful, no energy greater than a teenager with a new credit card. One day, you’re poor.
To protest my newfound debt, I got a job as a waiter at a shiny new restaurant downtown. I spent most of the day staring out the windows at the stands that sold beaded purses and incense. At the end of the day, we carried empty plates and clean silverware to the dishwashers. The manager was a cokehead and the owner was also a cokehead. It would have made a good sitcom.
One day in mid-October, my manager called me into his office. He informed me that due to reasons he didn’t want to get into, our restaurant did not have any condiments. This was a problem especially for the breakfast crowd. He needed me to go around to various restaurants and “liberate” (his term) ketchup, butter, and jelly packets until we could get back on our feet.
“Shouldn’t take more than two or three days,” he said. As I was leaving, he told me to wear a tie. Nobody would ask me any questions if I wore a tie.
This was about a month after I met Kate, my brother’s new girlfriend. She was amused by the restaurant’s predicament and since she wasn’t much for going to class, she put on her nicest dress to accompany me. We hit up all the restaurants downtown, then moved on to the Strip District, a section of Pittsburgh famous for its food: wholesale distributors, restaurant supply stores, markets, and restaurants. In the end, we were taking the little condiment baskets right off the tables. A few days into our liberation campaign, someone followed us out of the restaurant and down the street. We had to walk quickly and act normal, which was difficult, given the situation. My hands started to shake, and the contraband ketchup packets I carried suddenly felt cold and slick.
Luckily for her, Kate was wearing a denim baseball cap that day, which helped obscure her face, but she was also wearing black leggings, which made her somewhat more conspicuous. As we walked into Posvar Hall, she tossed the hat into a trashcan.
“In case they’re still following us,” she said. I tossed the ketchup packets.
I glanced over my shoulder, but the building was empty except for us. Kate’s sandy blonde hair was parted slightly to the side and there was something about the way the light struck it, the way her hair curled around her ears and reached down to her neck in nearly ragged strands that looked strangely elegant and made me think of tall thin grass and seashells, a fleeting childhood memory. She was wearing a new coat, a gray Zooey jacket. “It has a funnel neck, 100% cotton. The label says it’s ‘vapor gray,’” she said when I asked. She talked for a long time about the coat’s accessories and virtues as we walked. It looked comfortable enough to justify most of her description.
It was cold inside the building. Posvar Hall looks like a Neo-Brutalist concrete bunker, designed during the 1960s to be riot-proof. There are no central meeting areas, just hallways. Above one of the largest corridors hangs a metal sculpture made of spikes and triangular metal sails.
“In honor of shrapnel,” Kate noted. It didn’t look very well secured and I just wanted to get out from under it. Because Posvar Hall was built over Forbes Field, the Pirates’ old stadium, it makes sense that the building contains a replica of the old Pirates’ home plate. It does not make sense that above the west entrance hangs an antique airplane, about ten feet across with a canvas-colored bi-wing.
“In honor of flight,” I should have said. Kate, my brother, and I were graduating soon. None of us planned to stay in Pittsburgh. Somehow, that made her even more attractive. I suppose I associated her with randomness and chance, opportunity. Even if being with her wasn’t one of them. The landscape itself echoed my sentiments. Pittsburgh has often seemed to me like a sanctuary, a place for exiles to catch their breath before moving on. After all, few of my professors and even fewer of my classmates were from Pittsburgh. There was also the architecture—the Doric columns and cupolas of Carnegie Mellon University’s campus, Pitt’s Gothic Cathedral of Learning. Near Bellefield Hall, there is a lone medieval-style stone tower. It isn’t attached to the curved concrete-and-glass building next to it, nor are there any signs explaining its existence. It’s always felt to me like the buildings themselves were being temporarily stored, to be moved to their respective Gothic or modernist cities someday.
And it felt like Kate wanted everything at once, like she had a metropolitan sensibility bordering on cubism. She wanted to map out the fashion and architecture and culture in pretty layers—and somehow, she was able to synthesize all of it into her speech, into her closet. Kate was not quite my guide, but someone pulling me toward the strange and unexpected. My own unified theory of everything.
“I think we’re safe now,” she said. She paused in front of the doors. We’d both been thinking the same thing: What if the person following us had circled around and was waiting outside? But of course no one showed up. Kate paused to readjust her boots. We exited Posvar Hall and walked together under the arch of a lemon-yellow sculpture.
At the end of our week as condiment thieves, Kate discovered she’d run out of time for her art projects, all of which were due in a few days. She said it was partly my fault, and of course I agreed. This was the first art class she’d taken since she’d declared art as her major and she regretted she couldn’t finish it alone. But I wouldn’t be doing much. I would receive credit as part of her creative team. It was academically legal, she insisted.
Once, whilst high on mushrooms, Kate read me the dirty passages from Lolita. Humbert Humbert loved his child bride so much that he wanted to pull her open and kiss her internal organs: heart, lungs, spine (Nabokov phrased it better). But if Humbert truly wanted to see inside his love, he should have given her some crayons, sat back, and watched. Kate would have been too old for Humbert, but it was fascinating watching her mind at work, the sketching and calculations.
For the projects, she wrote several pamphlets suggesting that we build concrete trees to replace old-growth forests and arguing that the slaughter of aborigines was okay as long as we preserved their likenesses in wax museums. In addition to the pamphlets (which had several grammatical errors she refused to correct), she drew large cats on orange stock board.
“Panthers,” she said. We cut them out and connected pairs of these little orange cats with Scotch tape and twine. Then we walked around Pittsburgh, and it was my job to throw the orange cats in the air so they wrapped around the power lines like pairs of shoes. This was surprisingly difficult and we eventually had to attach rocks as weights. When I was down to the last pair of cats, she bought a bouquet of plastic flowers and laid them down on the street. She took a photograph and we were done.
The second project was slightly more illegal. After we’d pilfered the day’s quota of ketchup packets from Eat’n Park, I drove her back to her apartment to prepare for the last project. I didn’t change out of my shirt and tie, my thick black work pants. She changed into a business suit, black stockings, and a pair of boots. On the back of her blazer, she’d draped a blue cardigan-like garment that fell down her back like a cape. She carried several rolled-up posters under her arm and in the other she carried a wooden T-square. I drove and she directed me to a multiplex full of outlet malls and chain restaurants. I parked in a grassy section on the edge of downtown where there was a junction of four billboards facing the freeway. She grabbed her art materials and walked to the billboards, sizing everything up. I picked up her camera and took pictures of her as she looked at the billboard, which she seemed to like. There were thin vines snaking their way up the billboard frames and the entire area smelled of gravel, pee, and sickly yellow weeds.
“Move the car over here,” she said. She climbed to the car’s roof, grabbed the billboard’s hanging ladder, and pulled herself up with an impressive display of strength. My job was to remain on the ground and document the entire thing, so I just kept taking pictures. Kate used the T-square to hold a sticker in place at the top of the billboard and smoothed it out as it unrolled.
The click of the shutter. Grass and gravel. Five more shots from different angles. Kate, determined and staring across at the other billboards. Two of them featured a 50-year old, frizzy-haired realtor. One featured an accident lawyer and the fourth simply declared, “Babies are meant to be breastfed—Ad Council.” I took a close-up of Kate using the T-square thing to survey and size up everything. Her signs read, “You don’t need” in the same font as the billboard. Just like those “hammertime” stickers you see on stop signs. After she finished, the sign said, “You don’t need a dedicated realtor who will work hard for you.”
I yelled up that I didn’t get it. “Just keep taking pictures,” she said. She had to hang from the lip of one billboard to get to the other sections and she moved slowly, hand over hand. At one point she got stuck. I ran to help, but she said, “Goddamnit, keep taking pictures. Even if I die.” Eventually, she made it to the other side and managed to pull herself up, chest heaving. I took her picture as she stood in front of the lawyer billboard with a dejected, confused look on her face. Despite my prompting, she refused to have her picture taken in front of the breastfeeding billboard.
She climbed down, breathing heavy, her hair teased a little from the wind. She lit two cigarettes and passed me one. I stood next to her. She didn’t say anything. Maybe she’d had a profound moment up there, risking her life amidst the soaring typography of capitalism to deliver her crypto-Marxist message. Or maybe this was just another day in the life of Kate—stealing ketchup packets and then some daredevil stunts. She brushed a strand of hair out of her face as she exhaled a thick stream of smoke. Camels, those were her favorite brand. She noticed me looking at her and smiled a little, making her hand into a fist and pushing it into me. This gesture meant, Not bad. We make a pretty decent team, don’t we? But she left her fist on my shoulder for a few more seconds, then leaned into it to push me away. My chest swayed back a little and I instinctively stepped forward. I could feel the blood pounding in my head as I realized this was the first time we’d touched.
There was something in those few seconds where her hand lingered. It felt less like electricity and more like an impression. The fabric of my coat would easily reassume its form, but I knew something had changed. I leaned in toward her because I had to. Her expression didn’t change when I turned my head, only inches away. I could feel her breath, quiet and calm, on my face. I could smell her shampoo, the almost-invisible drops of sweat on her neck. She raised her hand to lightly touch her temple, maybe to brush away a stray hair. Sunlight flashed off the glass-bead bracelet on her wrist.
Weeks later, I drove by the billboard. I’d been avoiding that section of town. That year, the Ad Council aggressively ran one ad campaign, and whenever I’d open a magazine to see “BABIES ARE MEANT TO BE BREASTFED,” I’d quickly close it, my face hot with shame. Anyone watching me would have thought me a prude. I stopped watching television because the commercials for realtors or accident lawyers reminded me not of Kate, but of that day. I didn’t kiss her, of course. I leaned away and the cloth of our jackets touched, our weight leaning into each other before I gracelessly turned and sort of bounced off of her in slow motion. I mumbled something about getting lunch.
As far as I know, Kate never told my brother about that moment and we never talked about it. The space between us was clearly delineated and we could grow comfortable with it, we told ourselves. But as I looked up at the billboard (I had to), I saw that air pockets had formed beneath the words she’d added. They warped her words, themselves a distortion of the billboard’s message. It wasn’t much, I told myself. It was a near-kiss during a weird art project beside a highway. It wasn’t even that awkward when I drove Kate home a few minutes later. But there was something about that day. It wasn’t a weight that one carried around like a coat. What was left unsaid was more like a strange buoyancy inside me. I knew I could push my feelings deep, knew they would thrash and quiet. I was old enough to understand that. And I was old enough to know they’d resurface eventually, and I couldn’t predict when.
“You don’t need,” the billboards above me said.
This is an excerpt from Robert Yune’s debut novel EIGHTY DAYS OF SUNLIGHT, a coming of age story that brings the city of Pittsburgh alive in a deeply dark and engaging manner while exploring themes of guilt, loss, and betrayal.