By MARY POPHAM
FICTION HONORABLE MENTION
I walked into the party room of The Oceanic Apartments, hung up my coat, and noticed the shiny-cheeked girl from work headed toward me. At least, I thought she was looking at me as she threaded her way past empty chairs and tables of beer bottles and plastic cups stuffed with used napkins. I could barely see in the dim room, lit only with the glow of the overhead light at the bar.
The girl with the bobbing earrings, whose name I didn’t know, giggled as she touched my arm and tilted her head so that her bangle earrings bangled. “I heard you wanted to make out with me,” she said, resting her tongue on the top row of her teeth.
“Mickey Make-Out.” The girl was referring to my rotten nickname and I wished I’d never told my friends about my ex-wife’s final insult. I could picture Mary Carol Hughes laughing and telling every tenant in the complex as well as our fellow employees at National Electric to call me that. After she and Lola Fincastle had both let me know they had no personal interest in dating me, Mary Carol probably thought she was doing me a favor—giving me a reputation as a stud. The truth is, I don’t need the publicity, as I’m in divorce recovery.
I couldn’t remember if I’d ever met Shiny Cheeks. I didn’t want to encourage her but at the same time, I hoped she wasn’t turned off by my childish voice. “That’s just a rumor I started,” I said, speaking low to avoid my high-pitch. Twenty years after puberty, I’ve given up thinking my vocal cords will get longer. With practice, I’ve learned control over my throat. Some people take laughing for granted. Me? I have to concentrate not to giggle like a girl.
Shiny Cheeks looked delighted at my remark and took a step closer. Maybe women are turned on by a soft-spoken man, or maybe they like my red hair. I’ve been told it’s very thick and so are my legs from running track. In any case, she seemed to think that I was funny and I assumed I hadn’t hurt her feelings.
“I gotta get a beer,” I said and turned toward the bar.
Shiny Cheeks whispered, “If you change your mind, you know where to find me.” She moved into the shadows of the room where several couples danced close, swaying together to “Take My Breath Away” on the new CD player.
I was glad she’d left, but I have to admit I was flattered she still watched me over the rim of her beer cup. Actually, I’m surprised when a woman shows an interest in me. My skin burns in the sun and I’m six two, but Barbara used to call me skinny. Of course, she’d say that instead of slender.
I pulled a glass of beer from the beer pump at the edge of the bar and saw Lola at the door pleading with Armand, her flame of the month. Except he’s lasted more like three months, which would be three months too long in my opinion.
Back in high school, my buddies and I used to vote on the girls we chose with “Most Kissable Lips,” and “Best to be Stranded with on an Island.” And other titles murmured by my teenage self, which, at my current age of 32, I try to forget. Lola has curves front and back and wears her brown hair in a French twist. If I’d known her while at Northwest Cincinnati High, she would have gotten my votes for everything.
In fact, if I’d met Lola back then, I would not have married Barbara. I realized early on that Barbara and I did not make a good couple, but even so, I never expected to be divorced in my 30s and, after nine years, hear my wife repeat some absurdity like, “I want the opportunity to live with a new aliveness.”
Thinking back, it seems like the main reason we got married was because all our friends were doing it. A couple of years later, Barbara spent two weekends in a row with these same girlfriends at a sensitivity training seminar called “Landmark.” She began using buzzwords about an “expansion of the experience of happiness.” She bragged about “going with the flow” after “knowing what’s so.” And what was “so” appeared to be that she used jargon to dump me.
Lola stood close to Armand, and I could hear her voice imploring the sad-eyed man. He didn’t answer but shrugged off her hand, grabbed his jacket from a nearby chair, and left Lola standing at the open door. He didn’t deserve her—never gave her the attention I would if she’d seen anything more than a friend in me. I’m divorced, but I’m not dead.
There aren’t any secrets in this apartment complex. Armand’s former girlfriend had left the party with a younger man, and now it looked like Armand was still hung up on her. I stood thinking of life’s irony: Shiny Cheeks watches me while I’m watching Lola watch the man who is grieving over a woman who wants somebody else. Is this the way it goes for most people?
I didn’t want 1986 to be “The Year of My Divorce,” so I left Cincinnati, the city of painful memories, and transferred to the Louisville office of National Electric. My associates, Lola and Mary Carol, had taken over my social life, also talked me into getting an apartment in their singles Polynesian-themed apartment complex. I like it here, the fakeness of it all where the sidewalks are lined with tiki torches, carved wooden totems, and hot pink flowers. My one-bedroom unit in the Leilani Building sets next to theirs, The Frangipani.
I looked across the room at the crowd around the couch, holding drinks, laughing at Sherman Brightly, the clown of the complex, who held an empty paper towel roller to his mouth. “Is this thing on?”
He mimicked interviews with the tenants, some I know, some I do not.
“Oh, I heard you’ve been having diarrhea lately. Is this true?” he said to a young girl who hid her face behind her red cup.
Everybody laughed like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. I smiled too, knowing that when you laugh it actually makes you feel better.
“Is that your girlfriend or your mother?” Sherman asked the next guy. Which sent another uproar through the crowd.
Continuing with his one-man show, Sherman looked down and again tapped the cardboard mic. “Is this thing on?”
Mary Carol and Lola want to set me up with dates, but I turn them down. “I’ll fix on somebody one of these days. I’m just not ready, yet,” I say trying to control my high voice and hoping I sound sophisticated-cool.
I met Mary Carol first. By 8 a.m. we call-takers should be signed into the company’s computer system and have our headphones in place, yet Mary Carol seems to always run a few minutes late, holding a cup of coffee in one hand, her purse and a couple of magazines in the other. She’s short. That’s why she keeps her face tilted up, and she has a habit of standing close and touching your arm with her pink painted fingertips. “‘Dancing in the Dark’ is my color,” she told me that first day. Then she introduced me to Lola.
Mary Carol and I came into Lola’s cubicle and stood behind her, and I heard her voice before I saw her. She is a master of customer service—let the customer complain, give sympathy, keep your promise to settle the problem. Warm and sweet as honey, she said, “I understand … yes, ma’am, we’ll make it right … may I call you back with an answer in 15 minutes?”
Now I watched Lola stand in the doorway of the party room watching Armand’s car lights disappear. Again I pushed the pump on the beer keg, and the thin spray put mostly bubbles into my cup and I set it down. I wanted to go to Lola, yet I hesitated. What if she tells me to get lost. or to mind my own business?
I was feeling more than friendship, but I stalled. Even if she wants to be with me, am I ready? Would I ask her out or would I act like a scared high school kid?
My divorce made me reluctant to find out. For so long I’d felt that nothing about me is worthy of love. I needed to see kindness in Lola’s eyes, a look that says she wouldn’t mind if I touched her hair, held her arm, whispered some little joke in her ear. I would’ve been happy to just hold her gaze across the room with no promise of what it might mean.
The divorce was my own fault. I had spoiled Barbara, and she took advantage of me. One Christmas, with Cincinnati snowed in, I had spent 30 minutes digging my car out of our icy driveway to bring her a picnic. She appreciated the cheeses, salami, and crackers about as long as it took to eat them.
“Go along to get along,” I said to the mirror the following St. Patrick’s Day. I wanted to stay home and watch John Wayne chase Maureen O’Hara in “The Quiet Man,” but Barbara wanted to go out drinking.
“If you don’t go with me to Tralee’s, I’ll go by myself!” Barbara said.
So once again, I watched her kiss strangers who wore a “Kiss Me I’m Irish” button. After a few green beers, she kissed men without a button. Every time I gave in to her, she lost more respect for me.
The beer keg was empty, Sherman had disappeared, and I watched Lola still standing in the open doorway as if she didn’t feel the cold air.
What I like most about Lola is that, even with her stunning looks, she’s a simple kind of girl who drinks beer from the bottle and beats me in Scrabble at least every other game. And she never calls me “Mickey Make-Out.”
This past month, we hung out in the laundry room and talked about our childhood. One memory of mine almost matches hers.
I was 8 or 9, and our family was coming home from a drive-in movie when I put my head out the back window and looked up. The dark sky with all those bright stars across it filled me with some kind of joy I couldn’t explain, strong enough that I promised myself, I am going to remember this minute forever.
Then Lola had told me her memory. When she was 14, she’d looked out the upstairs window of her bedroom across to the next field lit up in moonlight. In the same kind of magic moment, she’d dreamed of what her future husband might be doing while she was imagining him.
I heard Mary Carol yelling from a corner where she sat on a guy’s lap in front of a dark TV: “Hey, Lola! Shut the door! Are you trying to heat up all Louisville?”
I felt the cold air push through the party room from where Lola stood shivering, her eyes watering.
I rushed to the coat rack in the hallway and grabbed my coat and Lola’s red parka and neck scarf. I didn’t know where I would take her, and she didn’t ask as I guided her to my car. I drove without a plan, circling the complex.
It excited me to have this lovely woman on the car seat beside me, but mostly I wanted to take away her suffering. Surely I can make her happier than Armand can.
Should I ask her to my apartment, fix her a cup of the herbal tea she likes? Or would she rather go to her own place? Will she give me a sad smile and say, “Go on home, Mickey. I just want to be by myself.”
I pictured the beige carpet in her living room, where the two of us, along with Mary Carol, had lain so many times on pillows drinking wine, talking, and listening to music. Maybe tonight Lola would want only my company. She’d put on her favorite CD, Bonnie Raitt’s “Nick of Time,” and we’d lie on the floor in front of the gas logs while its light trembles in the fireplace. If she wants to talk, I’ll listen. If she needs a laugh, I’ll be funny. If she wants me to hold her, I hope she won’t hear my heart thumping.
As my car pulled into our shared parking area of the complex, Lola raised her eyes. Her voice was soft, low. “Come in for a while, can you, Mickey?”
I didn’t speak and tried not to smile as we walked to her front door.
“‘We’ll play some Bonnie Raitt,” Lola said, and she put the key into the lock.
Mary Popham holds a master of fine arts degree in writing from Spalding University. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, and book reviews have appeared in The Courier-Journal, New Southerner, Appalachian Heritage, and The Louisville Review. She has done many readings and has facilitated several writing workshops. Her essay “The Kindnesses We Give Each Other” appears in This I Believe: Kentucky, and her novel Back Home in Landing Run was published by MotesBooks. She is currently writing a sequel and a collection of short fiction.