Vertigo

by Ann Hillesland Read author interview July 25, 2010

Most guys got over their high school girlfriends, but John never got over Cady. They’d meet up when he was home from Stanford, grab burgers, see a movie, and spend the night in bed. Though John had slept with other women, even had a girlfriend or two at Stanford, there was no one like Cady, with her glowing freckles, her red hair that scrunched just right between his fingers, and her breathy, goosebump-raising laugh. He never asked if she had slept with other men; she never talked about it either. In bed with Cady, he didn’t do any of the wilder things he had done with the college women. They went back to when both of them were virgins, undressing for the first time in her parents’ basement rec room, with her father’s buzzing collection of neon beer signs for mood lighting and her mother’s avocado green afghan leaving yarn marks in his palms.

John had always planned to return to Minneapolis after graduation, but all his Stanford friends were becoming millionaires, so he took an unbeatable opportunity at a San Francisco green tech startup. Cady would come around. All he had to do was convince her to leave the snow for California. When he’d suggested moving, she said, “I need to think about it.” So he waited a couple of months before sending her plane tickets for her birthday.

As he drove up 101 from the airport, he kept stealing looks at her. She was a half-stranger, her familiar face wearing a close-lipped smile he couldn’t read, a new purple sweater hugging her breasts. He felt strange himself, wanting to touch her, unsure and stiff and stupidly eager. His hands strangled the steering wheel, bloodless and tingly. “I have a surprise,” he said. “I’m taking you on your own private Vertigo tour, places they shot the movie.”

In the basement, they had turned on the television, masking their sounds with AMC. She loved all Hitchcock, even the sour ones like Frenzy and the softballs like Young and Innocent, but she called Vertigo a masterpiece. When Jimmy Stewart kisses Kim Novak for the first time, the waves crashing behind them, she always moved closer to John.

“Sounds like fun,” she said, shaking out her hair. She’d grown it longer since he’d last seen her, long as in their prom picture, where she’d carefully twisted a lock to spill over her shoulder before the camera snapped. Now she let the wind from the open window tangle it.

San Francisco was polished clean by wind and glittering in the sunlight. He went to the Legion of Honor before the fog could come in. The fountain blew cold spray. From the overlook the Bay looked smooth, the Golden Gate Bridge glowing against the blue.

“This is the museum where Kim Novak goes to visit the portrait. The picture was just a movie prop, so we won’t go inside.” When he took her hand a ring pressed into the tender web between his fingers. He stared at the ruby set in a gold oval. “New ring?”

She nodded without looking away from the view.

“Where did you get it?”

“It was a birthday gift.”

Her hand shifted, but he didn’t let go of her cold fingers. “From who?”

She shrugged. “Just a friend.” The cold wind made her cheeks pink, so he couldn’t tell if she was blushing. Didn’t know, anymore, if she would blush.

Next, Fort Point, at the base of the Golden Gate, where Kim Novak pretended suicide so Jimmy Stewart could fish her out. From here the huge bridge cast a wide swath of shadow over the Bay. The wind smelled of salt and decay. He took her in his arms and kissed her. Her lips were soft, wind-cool. Behind them, waves smacked against the shore. Not dramatic crashes as in the movie, but enough. He’d planned for their first real kiss to be here. “I’ve missed you,” he said. He took deep breaths of her hair’s citrus and fur scent and kissed her again. She opened her mouth to the kiss.

“I’ve missed you too.” She smiled. Missed him terribly, missed him as just a friend? Did she tell other men that he was just a friend?

“Move out here.” He hadn’t planned to ask her yet. He’d planned to wait till the last day, till he’d shown her Fisherman’s Wharf and they’d walked across the Golden Gate and he’d been so deep inside her there was no one else, ever.

“I told you I need to think about it.” She narrowed her eyes and faint lines appeared at the corners of her mouth, lines he’d never seen before. He felt dizzy, the breath smacked from his chest.

He drove without stopping past Jimmy Stewart’s apartment on Lombard Street and the building where the brunette Kim Novak lived while Jimmy Stewart made her over as a blonde againor tried to remake her. Cady turned her head when he pointed them out, but said nothing. They stopped at the small, whitewashed Mission Dolores.

“I thought it had a tower,” Cady said. She tipped her head up, the angle, her slightly open mouth reminding him of how she looked up at him in bed. When she was close to coming, she shut her eyes, but he kept his open, failing to decode from the color of her lips, the trembling of her eyelids, just when she started to come.

He wanted to kiss her again, to wind his hands so tightly in her hair that he could drag her back to the basement, to the afghan, back to when he was sure.

“This is where she visits the grave,” he said. “The tower where Kim Novak dies is supposed to be at San Juan Batista, but there’s no tower there. If there was, I’d take you.”

About the Author:

In addition to SmokeLong Quarterly, Ann Hillesland's work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in many literary journals, including Descant, Fourth Genre, Sou’wester, and Corium. It has been selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions and presented onstage by Stories On Stage. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte.

About the Artist:

Robinson Accola creates artwork for SmokeLong Quarterly as needed.

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