The same day I met Zachary, my landlord installed a new bathtub faucet. All new pipes, too. I’m sure you’re thinking, “Oh, Joellyn, what does that have to do with anything?” To which I reply: Everything, baby, everything.
You see, the faucet in the bathroom had been leaking for months, and when the landlord— that cheap bastard from Diamond Bar—finally fixed it, a pillowy silence fell over the apartment. No more ghost creek behind the bathroom wall, no more rusted faucet that drooled water, drought be damned. No more guilt, no more nuisance; at least I could check those off my list. I was so pleased I drew a bath that afternoon.
It didn’t take me long to notice how great my tits looked in the shiny new faucet, the reflection rounded, as if I were admiring myself in a brass doorknob. My breasts from this perspective were big, far bigger than they were normally. They were girlish and womanly at once, the nipples wide-eyed, like they’d just walked into their own surprise party.
I know what you’re thinking: “All right already, Joellyn. I get it,” but the emphasis here is important. You must know that I stood up from the tub just as a woman with large, beautiful breasts would. If I’d had an avatar, you could say I became her. If I were an actress, and I had been asked to play a younger version of myself, in a flashback perhaps, my chest would have had to be bound, and it would have been very, very painful. You could say that.
I imagined this new body as I stepped out of the bathroom and threw on some clothes. I twisted my hair into a sloppy bun, which seemed like something I might do. Women who wear serious bras, outfitted with wire and clasps big as fish hooks, can’t be bothered with blow-driers. When I tie my hair into a knot, it dries so slowly. It’s how I wear it now, now that my body is changed. I think of it as a kind of training ground. By the time you’re born, those rituals will be sucked away altogether, along with sleeping through the night, and dining in dimly-lit restaurants.
It was in this mood that I went to the corner coffee shop. I refuse to say coffee house, because it’s nothing like a house; it’s not welcoming at all. It’s the kind of place with dumpy brown couches, a perpetually out-of-order bathroom, bad art on the walls, and a front patio littered with nineteen-year-olds who smoke cigarettes and braid suede belts to sell at Burning Man. Once, an insane man came in and threw the gumball machine across the room, and the guy behind the counter just looked up from the milk steamer, bored. I hate it, and I go there all the time. Or I did. After Zachary, I couldn’t go back.
We were both in line that day, one of those afternoons where only one person is manning the place and suddenly everyone wants a complicated espresso drink, or something blended, or, oh shit, two Sopressata Panini. We were waiting for so long we were bound to start talking.
He asked me what I was going to order. I was ahead of him in line.
“Drip coffee,” I said. “To go.”
Zachary nodded. A computer bag was slung across his chest. He eyed the room, and I knew he was after a table.
“Go ahead,” I told him. “I’ll keep your spot in line.”
He thanked me and rushed to deposit his bag on one of the two free tables. It was a black shoulder bag, dust clinging to its underside, and I thought I saw an insignia on the front pocket. The bag had been free, I decided; it was something you might get for volunteering, or attending a conference, a bag that shouldn’t really be used, not seriously at least.
“Thanks,” he said again, after he had deposited himself back in line.
A word about Zachary. He’s not ugly. This isn’t about symmetry; his face is fine. It’s more that he is bland, invisible in the way certain men in their thirties are. He has brown hair and brown eyes. He’s a little doughy in the belly. He is neither tall nor short, and his clothes are only distinct in that they’re completely indistinct. The first time I saw him, he was wearing loose jeans and a striped polo shirt. The requisite sneakers. When a man dresses like a boy, turn and run. That sounds like something a mother would say, doesn’t it?
The coffee shop boasts dozens of men like Zachary. They drink their coffee, they surf the internet, they work on their scripts, their cell phones waiting dumb on the table. Later, Zachary told me he went to the coffee shop occasionally, but if we’d crossed paths before, I don’t know. Like I said, he was invisible. Until he wasn’t.
On any other day, our interaction would have ended there, but remember, I’d recently had my bathtub faucet replaced, which gave me big lovely tits, even if they were only pretend. I’d practically glided into the place; I could have been wearing a bridal gown, or a sexy Halloween costume, or liquid eyeliner. I was pretty. I was reckless. I carried the conversation further. “You’re here to get some work done?” I asked.
He was looking for jobs. “I don’t have internet at home,” he admitted. He’d been a temp for the last eight months, he said, since moving to LA from up north, where he was from, and where he had also gone to college. He asked me what I did, and I said I was a freelance graphic designer. I wish it were a lie, but it isn’t.
“I’ve been thinking about going back to school eventually,” he said.
“Oh yeah? For what?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Not sure yet.”
“You’ll figure it out,” I said.
When I got my coffee, he gestured at the table and his sad shoulder bag. “You can join me if you want.” He blushed. “Oh, but you said ‘to go,’ didn’t you?”
I nodded. “Thanks, though.”
The next moment, he was slipping his hand in his back pocket, pulling out a business card. “If you want to…you know…get together.” I realized he still hadn’t placed his order; he was waiting for me to respond.
This guy, I thought, he has no idea how invisible he is. Meanwhile, I’m invincible. It’s funny how close those two words are. For a moment I imagined myself whispering into his ear: Why don’t you just follow me home, big boy? Sometimes I do this, imagine myself intimate with men I’m not attracted to. As if getting a loser laid would be a good deed on my part. And maybe it would be. I’m not conceited, I’m not a bitch. I’m a woman. I’ve slept with men because I feel sorry for them, and if any other woman tells you differently, she’s lying. You’ll do the same thing someday.
I know what you’re going to say: “That’s enough, Joellyn.”
And also: “Go on. Tell me more.”
I took the business card from between his fingers and I smiled. The smile is the most meaningless of gestures, because it can convey so much, and so little. I wanted Zachary to hold out hope that I might contact him, but I also wanted that hope to be shot through with doubt, even shame, so that if I did call him, he would be humbled. Humility is the height requirement to ride this ride, so to speak—I don’t mean to be crass. The point is, I smiled as I took his card and read it. It was plain white, with his name, Zachary Haas, written in a nondescript, serif font. Black ink, of course, and certainly not embossed. Predictably, his contact information was in the lower right hand corner. I figured he must have designed it online, or at one of those business card machines at drug stores. Do they still have those?
Before exiting the coffee shop, coffee in hand, I smiled once again. “Goodbye, Zachary Haas,” I said, and glided to the door.
If someone had asked me right then, “Do you plan on calling that guy?” I would have said no, and laughed big, my head thrown back. But I see now that there was something else tugging at me as I walked away from Zachary that day—a different intention, an opposite feeling. I won’t call it desire.