They were always together, talking about how alone they were. They’d be in the lounge area of the Lenox Hotel, sitting on plushy couches, waiting for the waitress to bring them drinks.

“I’m scared it’s always going to be this way,” she’d say, her voice melancholy.

“I know,” he’d say. He’d look around to see if anyone was listening, and then lean in close and whisper, “And I’m almost thirty.”

“Yes,” she’d say, “but you’re a guy. You’re fortunate. Women sag sooner.” She’d poke herself in the stomach, indicating the layer of baby fat that she couldn’t yoga off. He’d gasp, very I can’t believe you just said that!, and pull on the loose skin under his neck. She’d grab the dangle of her upper arm, and he’d take a fistful of love handle at his side. They were two attractive people who felt self-conscious about stupid things, and saw no problem wasting hours in this silly one-uppance. Sometimes, though, they’d agree with each other. They’d lean back in the couch, arms linked, hands on knees, silly from the rum in their frothy drinks saying I know, I know, I know.

“I just don’t know how to approach someone.”

“I know!”

“Everybody makes it sound so easy, so hi there, you’re perfect.”

“I know! I wish someone would do that to me!”

“I know! Me, too!

They used great detail, like this:

“I’m getting desperate. I fall for men that are bad for me. Men who drink too much. Men who have girlfriends. Men who aren’t honest, like if I kiss them in the corner, the next time I see them we have to pretend like it never happened.”

He nodded, absently. He’d heard this one before, and wiggled his butt down into the couch cushions, looking for the perfect spot.

“And have you noticed,” she continued, oblivious, “all of them have tattoos? Like the guy with the Vonnegut tattoo. I think the only reason why I went out with him is because I loved that book. When, in all truth—”

He cut her off. He’d already listened to what he thought was a fair share of Guy With the Vonnegut Tattoo stories. “How about me?” he said. “At least you’re kissing guys. At least they’re falling for you. You’ve got options. When you get the look, you know it’s—”

“What look?”

“You know, the look.”

“No, I don’t know. Look at me with it.”

They sat up straight and turned towards each other. He looked at her very intensely, right in the eyes. Usually, when people look, they look at the bridge of the other person’s nose, or maybe the middle of their forehead. Right in the eyes was a hard business. It was more like right in the eye, because you hone your gaze onto one very direct place, one eye, one pupil, one iris in the pupil. You look so hard, if somebody’d ask you afterward what color the eyes were of the person you were looking at, you wouldn’t know. Your concentration would be so deep you wouldn’t have the effort left to remember what you saw.

He knew what color her eyes were, though. Green. He’d been looking at them for five years almost.

After a beat or two, he looked away.

“You looked away,” she pointed out. She wrapped a strand of hair around one finger and started tugging.

“I looked away after I looked,” he said. “After I transmitted information.” He put one arm over the back of the couch and leaned back, pleased with himself.

She leaned into his arm. “What information?”

“Any information. Like, with you, if I’ve been telling you for weeks about the guy with the funny nose, and then we’re at a party and I’m talking to the guy with the funny nose, and I look at you, and look at him, and back at you, I’ve just transmitted information. The this is the guy I’ve been talking about information. Whereas if I’m out at the bars, and some guy is looking at me, and I look at him, then we’re transmitting information, too, but a different kind.”

She found this analogy strange because he never went to the bars.  The capitalized, T-H-E bars, the gay bars. She thought he didn’t go because he hated them, when in reality he was just scared to go alone and didn’t want to tell her, because, probably, she’d offer to come, and what would happen then? Something growled in her gut that she should leave all this alone, and asked, instead, “What different kind of look?”

“See, that’s what I’m saying!” He was very excited. He sloshed some of his drink as he set it down on the low table in front of their couch. He needed to use his arms to answer this question. “If you look at a guy and he looks at you, the information you’ve exchanged is Hi there, hi, you’re cute, so are you, is it on? It’s on! whereas with me, I’ve got to go through all the Are you gay or not, or friendly or not, or attracted or not, or available or not, or is it okay that I’m even looking at you or not before I can even begin exchanging the It’s on! information!” He slumped back into the couch, exhausted. “You can never totally tell. It’s all fifty-fifty. Or actually, more like twenty-eighty, whatever the gay to straight statistic is nowadays. Do you know what it is nowadays?”

She didn’t. But she knew he was hurting so she took his hand and stroked it, and he put his arm around her again. They slurped their rum and felt sorry for themselves.

Sometimes, they needed to take a break from feeling sorry for themselves. When they did, they played a game: she would sit with her back to the room, and he would face it. He would tell her what was happening behind her, and she had to guess if it was true or not. She could ask any questions she wanted, but she couldn’t turn around. One time, they were at El Chino on Milwaukee Avenue, drinking frozen margaritas out of plastic goblets. “Oh my gosh!” he said, staring over her shoulder and out the front window. “I can’t believe it!”

Instinct would have you turn around in a moment such as this, but she knew better. “What is it?” she asked, resisting the temptation and looking at him instead, and he spun a crazy story about the Jeep parked out front, and how someone had just broken into it, the wild police chase that ensued, and the whole time she just stared into his face, knowing everything she needed was right there.

Then the break was over. Time to get back to it.

“I’m so alone.”

“Me too.”

“I’ll never meet anyone.”

 

One day, he said, “We’ll never meet anyone here.” He swung his eyes around the interior of the Lenox: high ceilings. Gilded windows with heavy drapes. Waitresses in tuxedo vests and short skirts. Businessmen with expensive ties loosened at their throats, sprawled on soft couches, drinking brandy or coffee, talking in very loud voices about things that should be immediately followed by a cymbal crash. “The kind of people we want to be with are not here.”

She asked, very seriously, “What kind of people do we want to be with?”

They thought of some adjectives: Honest. Creative. Intelligent. Fun. Comfortable.

“Comfortable?” he said. “Comfortable like how?”

“Comfortable like this,” she said. She waved her hand around in the empty space between them. “I want it to be as easy as this.” She got a little worked up as she spoke, tears in her eyes and whatnot.

He patted her hand. “This didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “We’ve known each other a long time.”

They had. They’d gone to graduate school in the city, and had a night class together. Upon dismissing class the first day, the instructor instructed everybody to buddy-up on the el, safety in numbers and all, and they’d discovered they lived in the same neighborhood. The walk to the station was delightful: dark sky, gentle winter night, good conversation, the excitement of possibility. She’d just gotten away from yet another tattooed guy who was bad for her—one who drank too much, who had a girlfriend, who wasn’t honest—and was caught in that uncomfortable place between being distrustful with men and lonely without them. After a pleasant half hour of Not Lonely, she made a snap decision about which feeling was worse, and summoned all her courage.

“Do you want to have dinner with me?” she said, and then turned her face away as though anticipating a blow.  This was the first time she’d ever asked a man out on a date. She was from a small Midwestern town and had been brought up very old-school, very he holds the door open, he comes in to meet the parents, he makes the requisite phone call. But five years of liberal education—essays by Adrienne Rich, press conferences about Anita Hill, dormitories full of post–Gloria Steinem girls who spoke out loud about equality and in secret waited by their telephones—well, it had all confused the issue, for better or worse, and she crossed her fingers in her mittens. What would he say, what would he say?

“Sure,” he said.

Hooray!

And then: “I mean, I’m gay. But I’d love to have dinner with you.”

Shall we talk a little more about confusing the issue?

 

*

 

“Where do we go to meet people?” he wondered. Then: “Where did we meet?” He had no memory of such details; rarely do you remember everything about the first time you met a friend. She on the other hand, if pressed, could tell you about the orange waffle sweater he’d been wearing. She could tell you about how heavy his backpack seemed from all the books he carried, and the way the streetlight lit up the sidewalk, that he held the door open for her, and, after most of the things she’d said, he’d said, I know!

“Not anyplace like here,” she said. She looked around the lounge. It was so fancy, with big chandeliers, thick carpet, and little flip-books on the tables with all the drinks listed. No prices, though. Much too fancy for that. But with all the glitz came a certain sterility, like when you go to a place every day but are still never quite comfortable in it.

“Where then?” he asked. He was frustrated. “Like, people are always telling you to play the field, but they never tell you where it is! If I knew where it was, I’d go there! I’d pack a lunch!”

They asked the waitress for a pen, and on the back of a bar napkin they made a list. On the top of it they wrote: Fields. Underneath that, they wrote:

Bar (new ones)
Beach
Bikram class
Waiting rooms (doctor/ dentist)
Foot Locker (?)
Bookstore
Whole Foods
Dinner party (hosted by single people)

 

*

 

In the following weeks, they went everywhere on their list. Together.

They sat at bars with their heads together. They put sunblock on each other’s backs. They put their yoga mats side-by-side and exhaled nam. They waited. They sampled cheese and different hummus flavors, and all throughout, they never met the kind of people they’d want to be with, not until her sister Phyllis had a dinner party and promised loads of single men. “Loads,” they’d gloated over the phone the night before. “Loads!”

She arrived first, and kept herself busy helping Phyllis chop cauliflower for the veggie dip plate. Three different men approached her as she chopped and asked if she needed help. “I mean, how many people do you need to chop a cauliflower?” she asked once he got there, breathless out of the night. “Seems to me you’re doing a fine job on your own,” he said, pouring her wine. Nobody approached either one of them again until she went off to the bathroom, and a tall guy in a polo shirt came up and said hello to him. He said hello back, and then they talked about other things until she returned. “I’m back!” she announced, running into the kitchen, wrapping her arms around him from behind. The polo shirt looked her up and down and left. She chatted away, not noticing that he was watching the empty hallway that the polo shirt had just disappeared down. Eventually, he looked back at her and asked, “Do you think—?” and stopped.

“What?” she asked.

“It’s too silly,” he said.

“Tell me,” she insisted.

“Do you think people never approach us because they think that we’re… together?”

“No!” she exclaimed, then wrinkled her eyebrows as if she wasn’t quite sure.

They had to realize it eventually, I mean, come on. They’re smart, well-educated people. It was just a matter of time.

So they devised a plan. It was called “Oscar and Veronica” and it worked like this: if either one saw a man they were attracted to, they would start calling one another Oscar or Veronica. This was the signal that they were brother and sister, and should immediately begin talking about brother-sister things as loudly as possible, while still seeming nonchalant. That was the trick.

“Did Mom call?”

“I’m going to visit Grandma next week.”

“Dad just infuriates me!”

These were all acceptable lines of dialogue in the Oscar and Veronica game, and they had a great deal of fun practicing. So much fun, in fact, that it was months and months before they ever got around using it.

When they finally did, it happened like this:

They were drinking cappuccinos at a place in the Gold Coast. They’d added Gold Coast to their list, right there under Dinner Parties, thinking that maybe the kind of people they wanted to be with were grown-ups, and maybe grown-up meant financially secure, and financially secure meant Gold Coast.

She stood at the counter, trying to decide what kind of milk to add to her coffee: whole, two percent, skim, soy, vanilla soy, so many options in the Gold Coast! That’s when she heard it: “Hey, Veronica. Can you grab me some sugar?”

She turned back to the table where Oscar sat waiting. It was small, only two people could fit, and next to it was another small table with a guy. A very good-looking guy, but not so good-looking he was intimidating. He was Not Good-Looking enough to still take home to your parents. You could spill milk on your shirt in front of him. He was real, in a nice blue sweater and nice Jack Spade bag and nice MacBook Pro set up on the table, which he was very busy not looking at because he was busy looking at Oscar.

Veronica felt a little kick in her chest. Then she went to the table, sitting down with her back to the guy, facing Oscar, who had a look on his face that she’d never seen before.

It was a look that transmitted information.

“Did you talk to Mom?” he said, loudly, but not too loud. It was a small coffee shop; his voice would travel to the table behind them. Veronica saw that he wasn’t really looking at her—he was looking at the space just to the side of her. He was looking past her, and he was smiling. When did smiling become part of this? Had the transmission been accepted? What was happening? She longed to turn around, but knew that wasn’t part of the game. The game was staring straight ahead and saying, loud enough, “I did talk to her. She asked if you were coming for Christmas.”

He smiled again, but, this time—the first time—not for her.

She had to realize it eventually, I mean, come on. She’s a smart girl. It was just a matter of time.

MEGAN STIELSTRA is a writer, storyteller, and the Literary Director of Chicago’s 2nd Story storytelling series. She’s told stories for The Goodman, The Steppenwolf, The Museum of Contemporary Art, The Chicago Poetry Center, Story Week Festival of Writers, Wordstock Literary Festival, The Neo-Futurarium, and Chicago Public Radio, among others, and she’s a Literary Death Match champ. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Other Voices, Fresh Yarn, Pindeldyboz, Swink, Monkeybicycle, Cellstories, Perigee, Annalemma, Venus, and Punk Planet, among others, and her story collection, Everyone Remain Calm, was released in October 2011 from Joyland/ECW. She teaches creative writing at Columbia College and The University of Chicago.

One response to “Oscar and Veronica: Excerpt from Everyone Remain Calm

  1. I loved this moment:

    They had to realize it eventually, I mean, come on. They’re smart, well-educated people. It was just a matter of time.

    – the writer addressing the reader. Oddly, I usually dislike straight-to-camera addresses in films and TV programmes, but I liked being taken into your confidence there. OK, you’re also saying to me Hey, we’re smart too, we know the score, right? and maybe I’m easily won over, but hey. Pfft.

    And look! My favourite sentence connects to the closing sentence.

    I looked up Jack Spade, as I could do with a new manbag. Ouch, spendy! Nice though.

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