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Ben



Are you telling me that I missed having a girlfriend with a nose ring by less than a month?" Sherri asks in that over-the-top, faux-stupefied voice she affects for these occasions.

Her eyes get big and her mouth hangs open, mostly a show for these friends of mine she is constantly trying to win over. They halfheartedly encourage her surprise at the image of me on the year-old work ID badge. Out of love for me, they are trying to find some common ground with her, some space for meaningful communication. Don't bother, I want to tell them, even I can't talk to her.

I nod in answer to her question.

What I don't say is that she could never have had the girl in that picture. The fierce-looking eyes set in the face full of jewelry would never have seen her. No matter how she loved the way the close-cropped hair—bleached with a quarter inch of dark roots showing—scattered itself across the top of that girl's head.

This relationship is borne of the unadorned face I wear now, of the straight, shoulder-length hair the color that genetics and age have given me. Sherri is something I've settled for, comfort at the expense of excitement or even real interest.

The girl who bleached my hair two years ago walks past our dark table in the bar, and I step between Sherri and one of my friends to touch her shoulder.

"Anna," I say to draw the girl's attention. From the corner of my eye, I see Sherri's face drop at the sound of this name. She knows I used to sleep with this girl, and it hurts her to see that she is so striking.

Anna turns and smiles, surprised, at my presence. She hugs me and whispers some benign reminder of our history, a line from a song we loved. She touches my hair and her smile turns nostalgic.

"I'd almost forgotten what color it was," she says. Her closeness reminds me of the feel of her plastic-gloved hands on my head that Sunday morning. Jeff Buckley played on the stereo as I sat shirtless in a kitchen chair and she massaged the darkness from my hair.

Quickly, she is rushed away from me by a wave of her friends, but she calls back that we should see a movie or a band sometime soon. I nod and return to my place at the table.

Sherri's eyes are boring into me desperately.

"That was Anna?" she asks, afraid of the answer. "The Anna?"

There is no the Anna. I am not in love with her and probably wasn't even when we were sleeping together. But something in me refuses to give Sherri that reassurance.

"Yes," I answer without really looking at her. "That was Anna."

***

Later, when we're lying too close together in the cramped twin bed pushed into a corner of her apartment, Sherri lifts strands of my brown and slightly graying hair gently with her fingertips. I can feel her comparing it to her idea of what it must have been like before she knew me—light and crisp with styling product.

"It's soft," she whispers, and it sounds like she's trying to convince herself not to be disappointed with what she's missed.

She kisses the top of my head.

"I like it this way," she says, this time to me; some kind of reassurance, I guess.

I don't care. I will be leaving her soon. Even the plain-faced, dull-haired version of me can't stand this situation much longer.

I stay quiet because I don't like the way the restlessness has crept into my voice lately when I speak to her. I don't want to be mean to her, but I seem unable to be any other way. Two nights before, when she sweetly, playfully asked for ice cream as we lay naked atop the sheets, I told her she didn't need ice cream. My voice was stern and reprimanding. I spoke to her like an angry father.

"Don't," I said when she cupped my chin to turn my face toward her kiss. I planned the way I would excuse myself to go home that night despite the sex we'd just had.

For a moment, my mind slipped out of my body and watched the scene as if it were a movie in which I was the bad guy. I rooted for her to tell me to fuck off. But she only sighed deeply and rolled over to pet the cat sleeping on the floor.

I can't stop thinking of that moment now as I feel her fingers in my hair as an irritation and not a comfort. I have to go, I say to myself, mouthing the words so that maybe she can even see them. I have to go and cut my hair.

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    Copyright © 2002 by Christy Zempter