By Laureen Vonnegut
“You’re in that other galaxy,” I say.
Nicola has a fragment of a smile on her face until she looks at me and realizes I’ve spoken.
“I know you didn’t hear me. I’ll repeat it. You have a whole separate universe inside your head, complete with conversations and street names.”
She shakes her head and looks out the apartment window. A garbage truck lumbers toward us, stopping in the middle of the street. Two men in orange jumpsuits and clear plastic gloves step off the bumper and empty trashcans into the back, clanging them against the chute. Her hands clutch the countertop, she leans forward.
Once I met this girl during a vacation in Mexico. For a full week we spoke no more than a dozen words. I can’t remember if I ever knew her name. We sat silent on the beach for hours, listening to waves and gulls and shouts of children in the sea. We let handfuls of sand trickle through our fingers and fall into soft piles. Sometimes we would find a small sea shell which we placed on the other’s leg, moving it around and pressing it into the skin until a scallop shaped indentation appeared.
It ended when I returned to Los Angeles. She etched her phone number in the wet sand with a piece of dried kelp and I memorized it. But how could I call her, talk into a hard plastic receiver?
Nicola looks upset now. I can’t help thinking a walk on the beach might merge our two worlds into one of sand and serenity.
“Breakfast.” I jingle the car keys. “We’ll eat at Lois the Omelet Queen.”
Her face relaxes a little. I find her coat and wrap her in it and we leave.
We walk by the side of our apartment and I notice the red bougainvillea vine we planted a year ago, one bright afternoon, has begun to drop its blossoms. Tissue thin flowers skitter across the road and under our footsteps. She bends over and picks one up before sliding into the car.
I gun the accelerator around a corner causing my sunglasses and a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary to skim off the dashboard and hit the passenger door. Nicola’s body lurches sideways in her seat belt, I slow down remembering she once compared being in a car with me to sailing on a rough sea; everything had to be tied down. I glance at her. She is holding the fragile bloom up to the light, tracing the crimson veins with her fingertip.
Autumn has moved into Los Angeles. A few trees have turned amber, but most of them simply dropped their leaves onto the concrete sidewalks. The sky is grey and has been grey for so many days now I can’t visualize it ever being blue.
She has withdrawn into her galaxy before. I never know what might precede the retreat. Last time I found her staring at an ant feebly trying to climb the white walls of our kitchen sink. It would get half way up the slippery ceramic and then glide back down toward the drain.
This morning she was rehemming the cuffs of my tuxedo trousers which had belonged to my deceased grandfather. She pulled the thread from the hem and discovered decades of ash-like dust lying in the crease. I found her staring at it, unable to bring herself to brush it away.
I park the car next to a group of boys shooting hoops through a bottomless crate hung on an electricity pole. She sets the blossom on the dashboard and we walk toward Lois the Omelet Queen.
Inside the restaurant, Lois spies us from the kitchen and yells, “Two a my fa-vor-ite white people. Come on in and sit yourselves down.”
We sit and Nicola immediately lights a cigarette even though she doesn’t smoke and Lord knows where it came from.
“Hello?” I say.
She knocks the ashes into a ceramic ashtray painted with red starfish and gazes out the window. A sharp breeze blows off the bay. Three gulls battle the wind, their wings flapping and flapping.
I try to remember the last time she smiled at me.
The waiter brings us coffee and the steam drifts up between us. I spoon sugar into both our cups and when I pour in the cream, it separates into small white clouds. Nicola sneezes, reaches for a napkin to blow her nose and knocks over the coffee.
Sticky coffee runs over the table congealing around a glass vase with a daisy in it and the painted ashtray. She stares at it and waits for the liquid to run over the table top and onto her white skirt. A thin stream trickles over the edge before I can jump up and move her to the counter. She sits while the waiter and I clean up the spill, but I see her looking back over her shoulder at us. I move our utensils to the counter and sit next to Nicola as she relights her cigarette. With her free hand she picks at the brown coffee splotch on her skirt.
Lois walks toward us and puts her hands on our shoulders and says, “We’ve got our regular dishes and two specials, you can read about ’em there.” She points a finger at the chalkboard above our heads.
“How’re you two doing?”
Lois looks at Nicola and she can see how she’s doing. “Aw, honey,” she says, “eat one of Lois’ famous omelets and everything’ll be better.”
Nicola keeps rereading the menu, so I order for her; a four cheese omelet with home fries on the side and a glass of milk. Her eyes are black, so dark I cannot see the pupils. She looks straight at me. I reflect in her eyes in a way that frightens me. We stare at each other until the food arrives.
She takes a bite, but not much and I see a tear slip out and fall into her milk. I am chewing the first bite of my spanish omelet when Nicola sets her fork down and eyes the people in the restaurant.
“They’re just eating breakfast. Don’t worry.”
A man next to us with a big belly spilling over his Levi’s stares back and narrows his eyes. Two guys with shaved heads, pierced eyebrows and black workboots nudge each other and laugh. Across the room a woman wrinkles her forehead, adjusts her chair so she cannot see us.
I take Nicola’s hand. With my other hand, I dig money out of my pocket and leave it on the table. Lois twists her fingers together, her mouth turns down, she blows us a kiss. The waiter crosses the room and counts the money. I lead Nicola out the door, put her in the car.
Without telling her where we are going, I drive to the beach. At an intersection, a man walks in front of our car eating a foot long frankfurter crammed into a short bun laden with mustard. He has long, greasy dreadlocks matted into a nest on the back of his head and he wears sunglasses that wrap across his eyes. With each step the tip of the frankfurter wags like a mislaid penis. A large daub of mustard slides out of the bun and lands on top of his shoe. He stops walking and contemplates the yellow splotch.
I look at Nicola to see if she has noticed his predicament. She is staring at the bougainvillea blossom in her hand, twirling it in slow circles by the stem.
The light turns to green with the man still standing in the middle of the intersection, gaping at his shoe. A car behind me honks. The man bends down, scoops up the mustard using the hot dog bun as a shovel and continues on his way.
The parking attendant is asleep in his chair, which is tilted precariously backward on two legs and propped against the ticket booth. I honk my horn and the chair flies forward propelling him on the asphalt onto his knees. Both he and Nicola look at me as if I’d committed a murder.
“Hey, man, was that necessary?”
“No,” I say, “no it wasn’t.”
He hands me the parking ticket. “You know, I coulda had a heart attack.”
We park and walk along the boardwalk. A skinny man, wearing an orange t-shirt, has a TV tray set up in front of a kaleidoscopic concrete wall full of graffiti. He stands completely still, gazing at the ocean with a distant smile stretching across his narrow face. The corners of his lips stick out from underneath a drooping moustache. On the tray in front of him are two blue plastic bottles filled with liquid the color of a bright summer sky.
“Sir, Sir and Madam,” he shouts to us before we even reach him. Suddenly he is a whirlwind of movement, jiggling his knees together, bobbing his head. “You need to witness this miracle.”
He is surrounded by a menagerie of random colors too intense for me to contemplate this particular moment. I take Nicola’s arm and lead her away, across the sand toward the ocean.
“I can see,” he yells after us, “I can see the young lady’s problem. I can help. Come back.”
The sea is a monotonous green. The waves are big and frothy, hitting the sand hard. We stride along the shoreline passing only an old man struggling in the sand with his decrepit terrier dog. Jellyfish lay scattered across our path, melting into the beach.
The tranquility I’d hoped to have is shattered by the crash of the waves and chill of the wind. Nicola walks beside me, arms dangling at her side, trailing the tips of her toes across the sand.
“What is in that damn galaxy of yours that is so fascinating?” I shout into the gusts. “Dragons and gypsy wagons? Palm trees and goddamn rainbows?”
We trudge back toward the boardwalk and near the man with the TV tray. Two stout women in comfortable shoes stand in front of him watching through their black sunglasses. He smiles wide, gestures with both arms and draws an X, with a felt tip pen, on his shirt, right over his heart. He notices our approach and throws a shot glass of oil onto his shoulder with so much exuberance half of it hits his neck and slides under his collar. His movements are speedy and remind me of the rotations of a hummingbird. He is still smiling that distant smile.
“Lipstick. Which one of you young ladies is daring enough to wear a nice bright red?”
The women giggle and one of them shakes her purse.
“I knew it. How about if I borrow just a little?”
She produces the lipstick which is more of a petunia pink and he takes it in his hand, holding it high, looking directly at Nicola and I.
“For those late nights,” he says to me and the corner of his eye spasms.
He draws two lips over his right nipple. Tiny spit bubbles form in corners of his mouth.
“Now, the most amazing creation ever seen in Venice Beach, ta da.”
He shakes a bottle of the liquid into a frothy sea foam before opening it and pouring it onto a grey rag. The grey turns purple as he rubs it into the lipstick stain over his shirt.
“Look at this lipstick – Gone. You’d never know I was out last night.” Hee, hee.
Nicola slows down, watching the man. I put my hand on her elbow and push her toward the parking lot.
“Don’t leave now, aw, I’m just getting to the good part.”
Our car is parked diagonally across two spots and Nicola’s door is closed, but not all the way. It looks abandoned. We climb inside and she picks up the bougainvillea flower from the dashboard. Once again, when we approach the parking lot attendant, he is asleep with his chair titled back. We pull up opposite him and Nicola suddenly opens the car door, jumps out and slams the door. The boy starts and his chair flings forward, but this time he catches himself before he is ejected onto the ground. He rubs his eyes and watches Nicola run across the parking lot.
“Jesus…this job’s gonna kill me.”
“Sorry, false alarm. Go back to sleep.”
I throw the car in reverse and drive around the periphery of the lot. No Nicola in sight.
I park the car and run to the beach almost colliding with the two ladies in comfortable shoes, each of them carrying a bright blue bottle. The beach is deserted except for a flock of seagulls nested within sand mounds. I turn to the boardwalk and see Nicola seated on the concrete wall next to the stain man.
The stain man is inert again, staring out to the sea, smiling into the horizon. She stands when I approach and holds out her hand to me. The blossom. Before I can take it, she flings her hand into the air, crushing the blossom in her fist. Red pieces whirl around us, rising above our heads. Her skirt whips around her legs and I see a flash of lace underwear. The coffee stain is gone from her skirt, in its place is now a damp mark. She sees me looking at it and flaps the white silk in the wind, laughing out loud.
She’s back in my universe. There is a pale piece of thread or something stuck on the sleeve of her dark jacket. I lean closer, it looks like a worm. A worm from another galaxy.
Laureen Vonnegut is an American writer living between Romania and Mexico.
June 2011 her novel, TWIN LIES, was released by Skorpion Press. Her previous novel, OASIS, was launched in New York by literary press Counterpoint/ Perseus Books.
In the United States she has had over a dozen short stories published in five different states. In the UK, she has had a short story in the VIRAGO anthology: THE NERVE – BOOK OF WRITING WOMEN and two excerpts from her novel HANDS DO LIE. In addition to a short story in STAPLE magazine and a script, CROTCH PIT, published in EM3 magazine, she was shortlisted for the Ian St James Award.
Currently she is workshopping her theater play, THE PORCINI TEST.