My mother is sick at home, and I am downtown, full of beer, kissing a long-haired man in the pizza place next door to Ruby's Room.
His name is Dirk or Derrick or Dick. I make a mental note to find out which one before I let his hand into my skirt.
I met him at the bar next door less than an hour ago.
His hands are huge, one of them making its way to my blouse's top button.
It's early May, and even at this late hour the Southern California heat is something to talk about.
"It's hot," he'd said at the bar, fanning himself with one of those hands.
I watched the long fingers flip back and forth in front of his face. "You'd never even know it was night," I said.
"Too many people in here breathing all at once," he said. "Want to go next door?"
I shook my head no, but smiled at him.
"You're ambivalent," he said.
"I'm not," I said, turning away from him and looking out the front door. A girl with pink hair held a cigarette, leaned against a streetlight, and a skinny boy stood next to her, pulling on her sleeve. She brushed his hand off and shook her head. I turned back to Dirk or Derrick or Dick, who now spoke with a rubber band between his lips and was using both hands to gather his hair behind his head. "You know them?" he mumbled.
"No," I said.
He pulled the band from his mouth and put his hair back in a ponytail. Several dark strands fell into his face and he pushed them away. "Come on, let's go," he said.
"Bacco's?" I wavered.
"Isn't it closed at this hour?"
"I work there." He picked up a set of keys that had been sharing a napkin with his beer.
"No, really, I can't," I said.
It is my mother's second recurrence of breast cancer, a pesky piece of disease showing up in her hip, appearing two Sundays ago as an annoying limp, nothing more -- no pain, just a slight shift to the left, an inability to find balance in her body, which has become increasingly unruly.
My mother, on her way to the high school where she's been teaching twelfth-grade English for the past twenty years, wobbled out the front door on Monday with her book bag over her shoulder, wondering out loud, What is this limping about?
When she returned home, we sat together on the couch -- my mother full of optimism, me full of denial -- and discussed the possibilities: arthritis, muscle strain, perhaps even osteoporosis. Maybe she'd broken her hip and didn't even know it. "It happens," I said. Wasn't there some distant cousin who'd done just that? We pitched diseases against each other, feeble bones and constant joint pain -- nothing, when compared to what was actually happening.
Exactly how I changed my mind and ended up in the pizza place with Dirk or Derrick or Dick, I'm not exactly sure. I know my best friend, Angela, had run into an old boyfriend on her way to the bathroom and never returned to her stool. I know there were several tall glasses of cold beer involved, and I know that my new pal was talking about breast cancer, his mother sick too, good God, dying on some farm in the middle of Maine, and then an impassioned speech -- by me, of course -- about living in the moment, carpe diem, and all of that hooey.
Now, we're in the back of the restaurant, in the kitchen, my ass exactly where the pies had been earlier, where this man, all perfect torso and bad teeth, had stood in his white shirt and funny square hat, pounding the dough and spreading tomato sauce and sprinkling cheese and proudly scattering little rounds of pepperoni on five pies at once. The two of us are as ferocious and unconcerned about public safety as cancer itself, holding on and moving and panting and kissing and sucking as if we are each other's much-needed medicine, like we are the experimental treatment that might finally work.
Bare-chested in his boxers, he slips his hands inside my blouse, holds my breasts like they are the first and last breasts in the world, and all I keep thinking about is how breasts are the enemy, armed, dangerous, two ticking bombs, how my mother's are killing her right this moment, and he of all people should be afraid of them, should refuse them, slip them back inside the black bra from whence they came, but oh, oh, maybe Dirk's or Derrick's or Dick's thoughts are better, more accurate and optimistic than mine -- his lips and tongue and heat, they certainly feel better.
His fingers are making their way into my tights when I say, "Spell your name."
"Please," I say.
"You don't know my name?"
"Just spell it."
His name is Dirk. He spells it for me. "D-I-R-K," he says, rolling his pretty brown eyes.
"Dirk," I say.
"Your name is Rachel Spark."
"First and last. Impressive."
"You teach, right? Your eyes are green and you've got one dimple, on the left side of your face."
"Now you're just showing off."
Dirk reaches behind him and lets his ponytail free in one swift pull.
"What about you?" I ask.
"Story's messy," he says.
He nods and his hair falls to his bare shoulders. He looks at me and leans in. "Your mother is sick," he says quietly.
I reach for his chest. "D-I-R-K," I say. "Dirk," I whisper into his neck.
He collects old cars and toasters. He owns two Studebakers, a Nash, and a Sunbeam. He's thinking about buying a Triumph; there's one for sale on Fourth and Cherry. He owns more than one toaster that's older than his great-grandfather. "I've got a Triple Banger worth over five grand," he says, beaming.
A lot of vehicles, plenty of places to stick his sliced bread, but no home; Dirk lives in a shack behind the restaurant and bar. He uses the bathroom and sink in the restaurant when he wants to wash up. It's been this way for months, and he doesn't remember the last time he paid rent.
"I couldn't live like that," I say.
"It's fine," he says. "It's convenient. I practically live at my work. Who wouldn't like to do that?"
I picture myself living in a tent on campus. "Me," I say.
Earlier tonight I sat with my mother on her bed, sharing one phone. Our skulls knocked, our ears touched, and neither of us would let go of the receiver. "I'll hold it," I said. "I've got it," I whispered. "So do I," she whispered back. Reluctantly, we decided to share.
The doctor's voice was upbeat and straining to remain so, even when the words came: metastasis, diameter, radiation, and maybe some more chemo.
"Oh, well," my mother said when we'd hung up. She was smiling. "We know now what we're up against."
"Yeah," I said.
"I feel better," she continued, standing up. "It's good to know what we're dealing with." She paused. "And I didn't want osteoporosis anyway."
I shook my head.
"He said that there's a chance..."
"What now?" I said.
"A few zaps of radiation and I'll be fine, Rachel. Don't get all dramatic on me. Don't look at me like that."
"Like I'm disappearing," she said. "I'm still here."
"I know," I said.
"It's just my hip," she continued. "No one ever died from a sore hip. Do you know anyone who ever died because of such a thing?" She picked up a blouse from her dresser and held it in front of her face, checking for wrinkles. "Do you think I can wear this one more time?" she asked me.
"Probably," I said.
"Worry if it goes to my liver. They say that's when you're supposed to worry." My mother opened her closet and took out some hangers. She set the hangers on the bed next to me, holding on to one of them.
"That would be worrisome, yes," I said.
"They say you've got to fight. You've got to be strong."
"Okay, okay," I said, annoyed.
"They say a good attitude makes a big difference." She had the blouse on the hanger now and was putting it in the closet. Her back was to me.
"You have a good attitude," I said, "and it's recurred. What's your good attitude done for you?"
"Well, they say -- "
"Who are they?" I said.
"You know, them," she said.
"Oh, them," I said angrily. "Let's certainly listen to them. The invisible them."
Dirk's shack has a metal roof and a little metal door that he holds open for me. I stand leaning, torso forward, with my boots half in and half out, peering in, until Dirk insists with a gentle nudge of his hip that I move inside. He uses a flashlight to show me around. I get most of the tour standing in one spot. He has cats, three of them. Two look out at me from under a table, four glowing eyes, and one circles Dirk's pant leg. He's got an old mattress on the floor he calls a bed. There are toasters lined up on shelves like fat silver books. "Check them out," he says.
I step past Dirk and the cat. I bend down and feign interest. "Wow," I say. "Nice," I tell him.
Yes, he is thirty-six, but he's been grieving -- for nearly ten years. It's pathetic, sure, but behavior that I recognize and can empathize with -- the inability to move on, get on with things, foreseeable in my own future. In addition to the dying mother, Dirk had two sisters who'd come to visit him in California eight years ago and were killed in a car accident. It was Thanksgiving, and the three of them were on their way to Palm Springs to visit an uncle. Somewhere near that ridiculous dinosaur on Route 5 a woman swerved into their lane and killed the girls instantly. Dirk survived with a scratch on his forehead, a bruised hip, and a twisted toe. So, because of this, I'm guessing, he didn't finish college and he's never held a decent job, and once, he wants me to know, he lived for three months without a working toilet. This is all wonderful news and if, in my drunk and needy state, I'd had any intention of seeing Dirk again, the confessions are dimming the possibility, especially the bit about living without a toilet.
"I need to get going," I say, stepping outside.
"Now?" he says.
I look at my watch. "It's after three."
"I've got a class tomorrow."
"Let's sit on the curb and look at the moon -- it's full," he says.
"No, I -- "
"What time's your class?" he interrupts.
"One-thirty, but I've got to prepare," I say.
"Sure," he says, doubtful.
"I told you that earlier, remember?"
"But the moon's full," he says.
"It'll be full again," I say.
In the alley Dirk holds my hand and leads me toward the Studebaker -- a big, ridiculous car. Salmon pink. He painted it himself, he wants me to know, when his girlfriend threw him out.
He leans down and puts the key in. "Color's classic -- titty pink," he says, smiling, opening the door. "It's the only door that works," he tells me, "and sometimes it gets jammed. Then I've got to use the window." He climbs over the passenger seat and emergency brake and sits huffing behind the wheel. He pats the seat next to him. "Come on," he says.
We drive up Pine Avenue and down Broadway and he chats about the toasters. He loves that Triple Banger and his Toasterlater Model #7, which is one of the most unusual toasters made, he informs me. It has a sawtooth conveyor belt that jiggles the toast through and a porthole for viewing progress.
"Does it make good toast?" I ask.
"Hell, no," he says.
"It's a merciless burner."
I laugh. "What about the porthole for viewing progress?"
"It doesn't matter."
"You'd think it would matter," I say, getting serious. "If you could see the bread burning, you'd think you could save it."
He shakes his head.
"I mean, the bread's moving along and you're watching it, right?"
"Push stop, hit a button, do something."
"Not that simple."
At a red light we sit silently. "Oh, yeah," he says, remembering, "there's even a darker/lighter control switch that adjusts toast travel speed in seven increments, but still you're left with a charred mess."
"The light," I say.
Dirk pushes the gas pedal and we lurch forward.
"Make a right here," I say.
He turns onto Ocean Boulevard. "What do you teach again?"
"Journalism, that kind of thing?"
"At the University."
"Damn," he says. "A professor...you don't act like a professor."
"Maybe not," I say.
"I thought maybe you taught high school, maybe grade school -- but college, huh? A professor," he says again, clicking his tongue.
"A lecturer, actually."
"What's the difference?" he asks.
"Never mind," I say wearily. "I'm tired."
In front of my mother's high-rise, he turns off the engine. We look at each other. "Must be nice to live by the ocean," he says.
"I like the way it sounds more than anything," I say. "I mean, looking at it is fine, but listening is the best."
"I went surfing once," he says.
"Sometimes that's all there is -- the one time," Dirk says, leaning toward me.
I kiss his face and neck. I touch his hair, which smells of sweat and tomatoes and yeast. "Good-night," I tell him.
"Yeah," he says.
"Good luck with the Triple Banger and Toasterlater #7." I turn to the door and try the handle. It won't budge. I try it again, then again. For a moment it is funny -- a woman like me, a teacher, a writer, stuck in a pink Studebaker with a toaster-collecting man like him -- and then it isn't funny, and I am pounding on the door, wanting suddenly to get out of there, wanting to get to my mother's apartment, up the elevator and down the hall, into her room and warm sheets. Suddenly I want to hold my sick girl more than anything, and I begin to whimper.
Dirk is nervous, saying, "Shh, wait, sometimes the door jams, remember?" He reaches over me and rolls down the window.
"Fuck," I say.
He gently nudges my thigh.
"No," I tell him.
"It's easy," he says.
"I'm not climbing out that window," I say stubbornly.
"Come on," he says.
"I can't, I don't..."
"I'm sorry -- about the door, I mean. I wish it worked."
"So do I."
"When it's just me -- I climb in, I climb out -- sometimes I use the window without even checking the damn door. You can do it."
"Don't tell me what I can and can't do." I am crying now and shaking my head.
"It's not. It's too damn much."
"I won't look," he says. "I'll face the building across the street. Pretend that you're alone," he says.
"I am alone," I say.
"I'll cover my eyes. See?" he says through open fingers.
I make him turn around. I make him promise. I make him keep his hands in front of his face, those fingers closed, and then I take a deep breath and hoist my leg, one black boot, then the other, moving my hips and torso and shoulders and head out of the car window and into the night, making my way back to her.
Copyright © 2004 by Lisa Glatt
A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That
Ella Bloom, an adult student in Rachel's poetry class, has aspirations beyond her work at a local family planning clinic. But she spends her nights wondering why her husband kissed one of her colleagues and whether it will lead to a full-fledged affair. She is also preoccupied with one of her repeat patients, Georgia, a teenager whose frequent clinic visits speak volumes. What they all have in common is their desire for love, despite its many obstacles.
A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That is a novel rife with wit and compassion. A provocative, assured new voice in literary fiction, Lisa Glatt eyes the yardsticks by which we constantly measure our world and ourselves -- devotion, lust, forgiveness, and courage.