Out West (Fred Leebron)

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  What's your name?"

He inhaled carefully on his cigarette, as if it were hot. He backed away, keeping his eyes on her. She thought he might fall, or at least cough out his smoke like a teenager.

"I'm Amber," she tried again. "What's your name?"

"I should." He pointed to the ceiling with his cigarette.

"Don't let me keep you."

He started backing away again, then turned and hurried for the stairs.

"Hey!" she said. He turned. She pointed to his cigarette. He looked at it. "You better not smoke on the job."

He smiled and bowed his head to her, then took a deep, extended drag on his cigarette. He held it in, smirked at her, and in one motion expertly pinched out his cigarette and exhaled, the smoke engulfing her face. She could hear him laughing, as he raced up the steps away from her.

She wiped her mouth and walked back to the laundry room. The whites still sloshed in the wash cycle. She ought to go upstairs to him, plant her backside on his desk and prod her breasts at him. She would have to wait until she was not thinking about him, and then it would come to her, unanticipated but ultimately expected, the perfect way to fuck with him.

She stabbed out her cigarette and hit the button for the elevator. When it arrived, she got on and rode it to the second floor, its cables clanking. In her room she locked the door and sat on the bed. She was having difficulty breathing. She could not seem to remember how it was done, it no longer felt instinctive, but as mechanical and tenuous as the elevator. Was breathing supposed to be shallow or deep? Where was the median between slow and fast? She just wanted to calm herself. Every guy had the potential to be Dean, but that did not mean she had to feel vengeful with every guy. With Dean, she had overwhelmed herself. She had seen his key in her apartment, picked it up, studied it, and suddenly she knew. She knew. She knew when he was in his apartment and when he was out, which café he sat in with his loud stupid laugh, which black jacket he wore to which café--leather to Warner's, cotton to the Highball, denim to Yosemite.

She knew the way his head tilted back when he laughed, and how his laughter came up from his chest, that hollow cavity, and echoed in the café as if the sound of it could not rest until it hit walls and came back at you. She knew his walk when he languidly rose to retrieve a second cup of coffee, a stalking walk, long strides as if he were used to covering great distances, though his greatest distance on his feet was the twenty yards between his apartment door and the bus stop. He used to say he was the only white person he knew who rode the buses in Los Angeles. His fingers, skeletal and thin, felt almost like taut cables against her shoulders. The stories he told her, that he told all his women. Dean's lore. "When I was seventeen, I found a wedding ring in the lining of a coat I bought at a thrift store on Venice Beach. It fit me." "My father is the CEO at a toothpaste conglomerate, but I never accept any of his money. He disgusts me." "I'll tell you this about me, I almost died. Twice. A friend was struck by lightning on the limb above me as we both sat in a tree waiting out a thunderstorm. He fell to the ground. His face was smoked. The other time? The other time it was so bad I can't remember it." Stories so narcissistic they had a pathetic charm to them. But she knew this about him--she knew he accepted money from his mother, that he had recurring venereal warts, that he ripped the knees of his jeans before he would wear them in public. His studio with the kitchenette and the bathroom the size of a phone booth smelled of feet and stale ashtrays; and he didn't have to work, he lived off money from his father funneled through his mother. For all the time Amber had lived with him, working her forty-hour weeks, they kept a little stuffed lamb and stuffed bear in their bed. They performed puppet shows for each other. The lamb learned to fuck the bear. In the evenings they'd smoke cigarettes and cook curry dishes over the blue flame of the gas stovetop, sip wine and do the puppet show. Wake to a night that still had possibilities, put on the right clothes, and go to Warner's or Noc-Noc to listen to music so loud it didn't matter it was canned. He liked to wear a black satin demi-cape that flapped like wings when he stalked down the street and made his Dean entrance into a club or cafe, his loud voice booming somehow modulated greetings to people who for the most part didn't like him. She loved him, she understood the lamb and the bear. They used handcuffs, rope, nothing. She learned, cultivated, rings of sensation to his penetration. They watched each other shit, pee, the door to the bathroom thrown open like an invitation. He would stand over her, naked, watching, his dick swaying until it rose and was in her face and she sucked him while she sat on the toilet, she learned to do two functions at once, and it gave her pleasure. It was natural.

He never held a steady job, the three years she lived with him. Sometimes he taught composition or literature at a private college run by Jesuits. He had never allowed her to come watch him teach, but she could imagine it, the booming voice, the stalking walk, how he wanted to make them cower and for the most part they did. The Jesuits kept letting him go after each quarter and then, a quarter later, rehiring him. He had an evangelical quality that they could not resist. Some students were terribly loyal to him, because he demanded loyalty, and in demanding it he was bound, occasionally, to achieve it. They followed him from course to course--composition to introduction to literature to nineteenth-century poetry. He did not sleep with any of them, although she knew that the loyalists were women, attracted to him ripping apart their writing, stripping it to expose their instinctive intelligence.

But he did not sleep with them. He would have told her.

Instead, he slept with another teacher; Amber did not even want to know her name, sometimes she had gone with Dean to young teacher parties and felt humiliated to say that she worked as an assistant librarian at a law firm. But Dean had told her who it was. He'd come home late, stalk-walked into the studio, sat down at the stupid little table where they shared all their meals. "I fucked Andrea in the faculty bathroom today," he said, lighting a cigarette--it was always the first thing he did when he came in, light a cigarette--looking at her critically, because he was Dean and he was allowed to say and do whatever the fuck he wanted, he was supposed to.

"Dean," Amber had said, feeling for a seat at the table.

"It was not a mistake." He offered her a cigarette across the little table. "I think I'd like to start seeing her."

"I don't believe this." Amber looked around the room, willing every object to confirm that she was here and that this was happening. The bear and the lamb lay across the pillows, turned in such a way that they could not see her.

"I'm not saying that we're over," Dean said. "I don't know about that. I can't say. I just have to follow this thing with Andrea, and then I'll know. I don't want you to be East Coast about this. You're just going to have to go with it." He twiddled his cigarette between his middle finger and index finger. She wanted to reach across the table and snap the fingers in her hands.

"You're an asshole," she said.

Dean laughed, that hollow laugh that he liked so much. "Hey, babe, you should know."

She had tried to hit him, but failed to crack his prominent cheekbone with her knuckles. She packed a suitcase, called a cab, and retreated to a Motel 6 out on Santa Monica. Within a week she moved into her own shoebox of a studio and, knowing his teaching schedule and pattern of clubs and cafés, she was able to retrieve the rest of her things without having to deal with him or anybody else. Pieces of the new woman were already occupying the studio--a plate she hadn't seen before, slippers, a towel. She tried to think of it all as relatively painless. She never told him where she had moved, and she kept her phone number unlisted so that she would not have the false and masochistic hope that he would call.

She had dreams about him, dreams where she was successfully tearing at his face, gouging at the mouth that emitted the painful laugh, and dreams where he easily batted her away, mocked her, let loose his laugh on her. She sat in her studio at night, idly watched the black-and-white television she had forced herself to purchase (reduced to a television! Dean would have never allowed it), and began to understand that she had to bring this thing with him to some closure, on her terms, before she could move on.

When the plan came upon her, she tried to rationalize it away. It was too easy, too extreme. It could not possibly work. Or, it could work but who was she to decide that he deserved it? She tried to nurture the plan, to develop it so thoroughly that by simply having fully imagined it, it would be enough for her, it would suffice. Everywhere, every day, men hurt women and women hurt men. Who was she to take such an offense at being cheated on and dumped? She had done it to somebody as well. But the way he did it to her, as if it were his birthright. She worked on her plan from the inside out, developed it and redeveloped it to an organic whole without any potential for dissolution or failure. At night, her dreams convinced her. He kept waving her off, his laugh pounding at her, whittling her away. She was no longer able to rip at his face, while he laughed at her, ignored her, and worked his wart dick into a willing Andrea. She woke five, six times a night, with hate, envy, fear. Weeks passed. She felt him fading away, escaping unpunished. At night his laugh shook her studio. She turned up the volume of the television. The downstairs neighbors knocked on her floor with broomsticks or tennis rackets, she kept turning the television down and then, without realizing it, turning it up again, until the neighbors knocked again like something kicking inside her. At work the librarian told her, unsolicited, that the only way out of anything was through the middle. She pondered what that meant. She had no idea, but by this time she had lived with her little plot so long it was no longer extreme, it was natural. Like baking bread. Like cooking dinner.

She kept the key to his apartment in a celadon-green ashtray that they had swiped together from a chic club. She knew his schedule, knew that the afternoon class on Wednesday led to a stop at a café with the other young teachers, then home for a late dinner, a fuck and a nap, out again to a club. On such a Wednesday he had come home to announce his realized interest in Andrea. Had he closed the lid on the toilet and sat, and Andrea then sat on top of him, or had he leaned her over the toilet, her hands resting on the water closet, while he entered from behind? Amber had been too demure to ask, "Dean, just which way did you fuck her?"

On the first Wednesday in May, six weeks after she had moved out from Dean's, and four weeks before she would move to San Francisco, she called in sick to the office. Her voice sounded strange and distant, as if she were talking to a large audience, and heat rose in her face.

"Are you crying?" the librarian said, lowering her voice to a whisper. "Is it an abortion, honey?"

"Just the flu," Amber said. "I'll be in tomorrow."

She had drawn attention to herself, calling in sick. But she could not use cabs, and what she planned required more time than her lunch hour. What choice did she have? She hummed inanely to herself, did the few dishes in the sink, made her bed, showered, shaved her legs, reread her acceptance letter from VISTA, and waited. At noon she went out. The weather was absurd, at least ninety-five degrees. She walked quickly away from the apartment building, as if she had stolen something. She walked five blocks, turning corners, getting as far away from her place as possible, as necessary. At Kirkland she drew out from her pocket a scarf, silky and deep blue. She unfurled it and tied it around her head, put on a pair of cheap mirrored sunglasses she had bought for the occasion. Last she pulled on a pair of black stretch gloves, stylish and affected enough so as not to attract suspicion. She felt like a tawdry Gloria Vanderbilt as she drifted through the midday heat another seven blocks, to the bus stop, passing the sad little sun-drenched bungalows of West Los Angeles. At the bus stop she waited twenty-seven minutes, and when the Thirty-nine came, it wheezed to a halt, beeped, and knelt for her as if she were an old woman. She got on gingerly, gave up her money to the machine, and took a seat by the middle door.

It was almost two by the time she got off eight blocks from Dean's apartment, the scarf and her head damp with perspiration, her eyes swimming in a mist of haze. She crossed to one block parallel to the bus route, and walked a street of stolid adobe houses and occasional stunted palm trees. At Dean's cross street she stood out on the corner, hooding her eyes against the sun so bright it seemed to penetrate easily both the scarf and the sunglasses, and waited until the next bus passed. Then she started up the block to his building.

It was a four-story apartment complex with twenty units. Because of the insulated, mutually entwined life she and Dean had lived, she could not recall what any of the other tenants looked like or did, she could only dimly recall seeing U-Hauls and Ryder rent-a-trucks parked in the usual seasons on the street in front of the building, bringing in or taking away the unfamiliar faces and bodies.

She strode briskly up the paved walkway to the door, and let herself in. Her step was light on the wooden staircase, but it did not matter. She had the clear and almost happy sensation that no one was around, in the middle of the weekday, in the middle of such heat. The landlord prohibited air conditioning due to faulty wiring.

At Dean's door she was tempted to knock, but the noise seemed unnecessary, and if for some reason he were in, then it was fate, and she could accept fate. Or at least she would try to hit him again. She let herself in, quickly shutting the door behind her.

He--or they--had changed things around, but the one thing that had not changed was his obsession with the windows. They were all shut, despite the heat. He distrusted air. The bed sat like an altar in the middle of the room, up on its four legs. The little table now had a cloth over it, black of course, with matching black mugs still half-filled with coffee. Inside her gloves her hands were sweating. The shallow closet had some of Andrea's clothes; she favored metallic knits and leather and stirrup pants. On the floor of the closet, underneath a pair of ankle boots, was the stuffed lamb. It lay on its side, one eye staring up at her. She wanted to pick it up, to hold it to her. She shut the closet door.

She looked through the drawers of his rickety desk. He and Andrea had compartmentalized--his students' papers in the top drawer, her students' papers in the middle drawer, departmental correspondence in the bottom drawer. They had fallen behind in their grading.

She checked the windows again. As tightly shut as she could have hoped. She had to get on with it, but where was the bear? She wanted to check on the bear. Almost frantically she searched the apartment, the little kitchenette, the bathroom. She would not be able to bring herself to finish if she couldn't find the bear. Finally, she saw it. It had fallen behind the bookcase, and lay face down on the floor, its round butt and stubby tail pitched in the air. She wanted to see its face. She remembered it had the most simple expression--so flat you could not tell whether it was mournful or serene. She reached for it, caught herself. Sweat was streaming from her. When she wiped her face her glove came away damp from the pressure inside and damp from the perspiration of her face. Quickly she crossed the room, around the centerpiece of the bed, to the kitchenette. She opened the door of the gas oven and made sure no improvements had been made in her absence. She turned it on to see if it would light. She waited ten seconds, fifteen seconds. It did not light, you still had to light it yourself. She shut the door, leaving the oven on. She waited another thirty seconds, then checked again. Still no flame, no pilot light. The sound of the gas was like a last, endless exhalation. She again shut the oven. It was three-thirty. In four hours Dean and Andrea would return, fresh from class and the cafe. They would come in, shut the door, perhaps she would slip off her shoes. But the very first thing he would do, would be to light a cigarette.

Perhaps Andrea, more observant than Dean, would remark on the smell of the gas when they came in, but Amber thought not. She had come to terms with this uncertainty. She could live with it either way. It would at the very least scare the shit out of him. She had found closure.

As she walked back down the street parallel to the bus route, she finally shed her gloves. She could have wrung them out. Five blocks from Dean's building, she dropped them in a garbage can. Her hands were free. Three blocks later, she crossed back up to the bus route. The world viewed through her sunglasses seemed like an aquarium, green and watery. The bus came. Again, it knelt for her. She climbed on nimbly, and blithely fed the machine precise change. She swayed, almost swaggered, to the back of the bus. She took a seat by the window, slid it open, and let the damp afternoon wind come in. She smiled in it, a face hidden by sunglasses and scarf, a woman of indeterminate age and sanity, on her way home from the business of the day.

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Excerpted from Out West by Fred Leebron. Copyright © 1996 Fred Leebron. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.