Health food store vitamin aisle. Alex with his girlfriend—short blond, wrinkle ossifying between brows. Blender whirs. Brewer’s yeast and protein powder flake the air. A chalky, mineral overlay. He nods toward me at the register. “Can we have a threesome with her?” Between customers, I lean on the wooden bar corralling me. Out the door, tar glitters. I can’t eat enough to keep nerves steady, blood sugar even. Sometimes, when a customer approaches, a little panic starts. A very attractive customer, like Plaid Man or the chair of the community college Science Department, and I can white-out.
I’ll shake as I hit register keys, bag groceries, handle cash. It’s the customer’s direct stare. Watching. A friend said, “Grab a pack of bran muffins, eat those.” But the manager, an older woman with birdseed eyes, flares up if I leave my post.
Early summer when I ring a quarter pound, Saran-wrapped Havarti cheese for Alex and his frowny girlfriend. His messy black hair has the same flatness as Plaid Man and the Science Chair, spikiness of fingers run through, brow sweat. My sight whitens. “How’s it going?” he asks, leans one elbow on my counter, chin in palm. Eyes my tangerine capris, watermelon T. Voice in the deepest registers of masculine. My opposite. Looks without looking away, with approval. My breathing calms.
“No. She’s too pretty,” his girlfriend said.
At night, the manager’s gone. Dark glass windows front the store. Three hours no customers. Roam empty aisles. Dab a little wooden stick of apricot oil near my jugular. Neck slick with orange mandarin, vanilla. Cleavage jasmine. Try all except mothy patchouli. Moisturize my sunburned legs with coconut lotion. I release handfuls of carob almonds that fall loudly from the bin, candy hail. Mouth full of sweets, red lipstick tester in hand when Alex walks in alone.
We date. He develops rules—no silk at punk rock shows, no looking at others as if I’m conducting a sociological experiment, no looking into his eyes during sex as if we’re in a movie, no writing poetry two nights in a row. Stuff like that. We watch so much porn, I don’t even see bodies anymore. In a lecture on drawing, an artist said she doesn’t draw a mountain, but a curve. The artist sees the shape of landscape, not trees. After awhile, all I see are shapes.
Went to the woods to write for three weeks. Alex at my apartment. I had a crush on a musician. My heart elsewhere. Back home I find Alex on the couch watching a Belushi movie, pizza cooking, counter scattered with white seeds from cleaved green pepper. “Hey-ey,” he said, eyes wide, reaching.
Years later, Laurel, who cashiered at the store, calls me on a mountain, west coast. “Eric and I were in the library waiting for Paul on those blue space couches by Check-Out. Playing backgammon on my iPhone when who breezed past looking very handsome and mature but Alex. Or ‘Smalex’ as Eric nicknamed him, short for ‘smart Alex.’ It’s like that Kevin Bacon game, you know, where all roads lead back to Kevin… only in this case, you. How is she? Have you heard from her? What’s she doing? Told him you’d written a book. His response, so adorable, so typically Alex: ‘A book? You mean like another poetry book?’ with politely controlled disdain. I told him, no, a novel. His eyes broadened—you know the look.”
Next day, Alex’s email arrives. Subject line: “You wrote a great book!!!!”
“I’m going to read a couple excerpts on my radio show Saturday night. It would be much better if YOU read them.”
Saturday, a couple hours before the interview, we talk. I’m hoarse from a cold. “Yeah, but I can hear the core of you.” He mentions his co-hosts: Juan Juan and The Toaster Oven. “Our show’s described as mixing NPR with Beavis & Butthead. I won’t ask how you started writing poetry. That’s for a literary show.” My vision pops with white circles like soap bubbles. “Sorry I was a horrible boyfriend.” Why are we talking about this? I’m as lonely as in the health food store days. But older. Aren’t I on for the book?
“Who are your co-hosts?”
“Oh, they just got out of prison.” Laughs. “No, old friends of mine. There won’t be any surprises.”
Few minutes before I’m on, tune in. Surely he won’t mention I’m his ex-girlfriend. “Yeah, my ex-girlfriend wrote a novel,” he said. Consider not answering the phone. “Hi, this is Juan Juan. Ready to rock ‘n’ roll? 20 seconds?”
Alex said, “I really enjoyed your book. A good read.” My book full of darkness, alcoholism, abduction, murder, cancer, the death of a child. A good read. I read the book’s first paragraph aloud. Silence. Some co-host burbling: “Fantastic. A way with words.”
Alex said, “Yeah, I’m sorry I told you your poetry was depressing. Sorry I drank so much, all those beers on the couch.”
I read the excerpt he suggests. Homeless shelter scene. Alex, whose show name is Jimmy Wasabi, JW, said, “Okay, now the guys want you to talk about the part based on me, the part your editor cut.”
“It’s just a fragment,” I said, sorry I’d mentioned it. I don’t say that I’d based it on a scene in my apartment. On a conversation about my own son who’d died a decade before. That Alex had said my son could still find me. See me. He’d said “Mothers wear light blue.”
“What do you mean?” I’d asked.
“I don’t know.” Confused, like a child himself, almost crying.
“Now it’s time to put you in The Toaster Oven,” Alex said. A surprise. “So how would you rate Alex as a boyfriend?” Toaster Oven asks.
At first, I’m too stunned to speak, the three guys make jokey background noise. “I won’t rate him,” I said. “But I have fond memories.”
“Fond memories!” Juan Juan said. They’re delighted. “That’s a 7 or an 8!”