“Is that a scar on your forehead?’ she asked him.
“No one’s asked me about that for a long time.”
She ran her index finger along the small groove on his third eye space.
“My sister opened the bathroom door into my face when I was a kid. It’s crazy how much the forehead bleeds.”
She told him a story about a little girl falling off the monkey bars at the playground and smacking her head on the equipment. You could see clear through to the bone where she’d been cut.
“We don’t have to have sex,” she said. Earlier he’d texted about not feeling well. They were lying on the bed because that was the only furniture in her tiny hotel room. There wasn’t even a bathroom, just a sink in the corner. It was steps from the ocean, that’s why she stayed there, to rise and set with the sun over the Pacific.
He looked over at her. Then he took her index finger into his mouth. He communicated best through action.
“I’ve talked to my therapist about chemical castration,” he told her as he was pulling his boxers back on.
“I just feel like if I took sexual desire out of the equation, it would save me so much anxiety and heartache.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. She didn’t think there had been any heartache between the two of them.
“You’re nearly fifty,” she told him, “don’t you think sexual desire will taper off at some point?”
“All the more reason to go for it,” he said, patting her leg.
“Why don’t you stay over?”
“You know how I feel about that.”
“Right,” she said, turning over onto her belly.
“Your ass though. Tough to leave it.”
He straddled her and placed his hands around the outside of her hips, burying his face into her backside. Some men were really fucked up.
“Will I see you again before I leave?” she asked him.
“Yeah, for sure. I think I have time after volleyball this weekend.”
“You know where to find me.”
“I made some cookies,” he said, opening up his backpack. “Chocolate chip. Just in case you get hungry.”
He placed them on the nightstand and kissed her.
He was the first guy to go down on her. She was a freshman in college. Not a virgin, but she might as well have been. She’d had sex with her high school boyfriend, but only to avoid going off to school without having done so. They’d only tried it once and it was a fumbling, uncomfortable affair. Noah was experienced. He knew what he wanted and how to get it. She couldn’t remember their first kiss all those years ago, but she did remember him making his way down the front on her body and the cool touch of his tongue ring on her delicates.
She found him again twenty years later. Kismet, you could say. She was still licking the wounds from her divorce. Her husband left her for a younger woman, someone he got involved with working on an opera. Noah was separated too, but that was all she got of the story. He was guarded. Or he was guarding her.
In two years, he’d only invited her over to his place once. It was a huge, dark Craftsman abutting the El Salvador community corridor in central LA. He gave her the keys, said he would meet her there after work. She was taking the red-eye home and needed somewhere to hang after checking out of her hotel. There were black and white photos of his ex on the wall in the guest room. Intimate scenes of a lazy morning. His ex was in bedclothes, nuzzling the dog. Moving on was not easy for some.
She decided, after wandering through the house, that it would be best to spend the afternoon outside. It was windy, but warm. He came out with beers for them around four-thirty. She was reading a book on the hammock.
“We bought the place ten years ago. The market was super soft then,” he was looking around the backyard.
“Would you ever sell it?”
It seemed crazy to her that he lived in that rambling space alone.
“Only to cash out completely and move to Thailand.”
She shook her head at him. This wasn’t the first she’d heard of his escapist fantasy. She guessed it was possible for a childless man in middle age to disappear, but she still thought it was ridiculous.
He pointed to a fence at the back of the lot. “That’s my only issue with this place.”
Every few months the Salvadorans behind him would have a celebration. They’d blast mariachi music from morning to night – so loud it made the window panes rattle. Once, he’d gotten fed up. A friend was storing an amplifier in the dining room, a space he’d never used after his ex moved out. He brought the amp outside and faced it towards the Salvadorans. Then, he plugged in his phone and turned on a Slipknot playlist, cranking it as loud as possible. She admired his creativity.
The morning after he left her with cookies on the nightstand, she woke at five with a slick of sweat between her breasts. She was still on east coast time. There had also been a dream, one she willed herself to wake from. She tried to suss it out as she came into full consciousness. There was a fire, a phone call, a car with manual transmission. She was in the driveway of his Craftsman. There was the knowledge of something dark and tragic. Then, a quick flash of him hanging from a belt in a door frame.
She hated these nightmares. They always felt real. She wasn’t standing outside of herself observing, as it sometimes is in dreamscapes. She used to have these dreams a lot in the years before her marriage ended. There was one that recurred, usually the first or second night after her ex had left town to go on tour. In the dream, he comes home from work to tell her that he’s fallen in love with a musician in the orchestra and that he’s leaving her. For years it was just a bad dream, until it became reality.
She got up and turned on the light. She unrolled her yoga mat and stretched for a while, aimlessly, more to kill time than to actually practice. She spent a half hour on her back twisting, opening the hips, moving her legs around at different angles. When it got late enough, she went to shower him off of her.
Venice was waking with a hangover. Some people were still out from partying the night before, ambling about, unsteady. There were empties strewn around. Takeout containers with half-eaten sandwiches and soggy fries littered the parking lot by the beach. She walked to the shoreline and perched on her heels for few minutes, listening to the waves roll in. She loved the ocean for its vastness. She loved knowing that she was at the edge of something, the end of something.
A few months earlier, she was having brunch with Noah somewhere south of the city. Crenshaw, maybe? He’d driven her out to the Watts Towers. They walked around the sculptures and he told her about the neighborhood. He’d been teaching high school there for quite some time. He drove her through a housing project and showed her the line between gang territories.
She ordered eggs to eat but kept reaching across the table for bites of his pancakes.
“Have you always been anxious?” she asked him. It was outside of her wheelhouse.
“I think so,” he adjusted the rim of his baseball cap. He liked to have his head covered. Even when they had sex, he wore a knit shirt sleeve around his crown.
“When I was a kid, maybe seven or eight, we had to do this project…build a kite. I was always into art, so I put a lot of time into it. My kite was a butterfly. I did a really good job with the symmetry and the colors – I was happy with it. But then the night before we had to show them to the whole class, I panicked. I woke in the middle of the night freaking out, terrified that my kite was too girly. I went to my mom and shook her awake, telling her we had to go to school and fix it. I must have really made a scene because she drove me there an hour early so I could change my kite. I think it started then.”
She looked at him for a long time.
“That’s your story,” she finally said.
“That’s your story. I think we all have a little anecdote that we use to define ourselves. That’s yours.”
“Interesting. I guess so.”
“I’m not telling you mine,” she said, grinning.
She didn’t hear from him again that weekend in Venice and for once she knew better than to reach out. It was her last night in town for a while so she decided to take herself out to dinner. She put on a backless romper and headed to a Japanese place on Abbot Kinney. There was one seat left at the bar.
She started to get into it with the bartender. He was very cute. She guessed him to be about ten years younger than her. He tried to talk her into a third glass of wine, but she didn’t want to get sloppy. When she signed the bill, she wrote her name and phone number next to the total.
She went back to the hotel and took a precautionary shower. Then, she waited. He texted her that he would come by after work, that was usually midnight, but he’d be in touch sooner. There wasn’t much to do in the hotel room, and she was tired after all the food and wine. She kept checking her phone, just in case she’d missed something. She watched the quarter hours pass by. Finally, around eleven, she gave up. She turned her phone off and went to sleep.
She woke feeling sheepish. Housekeepers were in the hallway speaking Spanish to each other. She’d forgotten to take off her makeup, and it had settled into the creases around her eyes. She wanted a good story to take home with her, about a one-night stand with a sexy young bartender. There was still a chocolate chip cookie on the nightstand. She took a couple of bites of it, letting the crumbs fall onto the hotel bedspread. She would be off to New York in a few hours. She left her suitcase at the front desk and walked out to the ocean one more time. The marine layer was slowly pulling off of the coast. She looked north to the Santa Monica pier, where Noah was most likely spiking volleyballs. Maybe she should stop trying to orchestrate fate.
She heard about it on social media. Someone created a page and she saw a link to it through a friend of a friend. At that point, a couple of months had passed with no word from him. The incident happened in the middle of the night. The Salvadorans were partying. Apparently, he’d mistaken the sound for firecrackers. There wasn’t anything sinister about it. Just one drunk asshole trying to pick off beer bottles. Noah went out into the yard to investigate. A bullet hit him square in the gut. The gardener found him in the morning when he climbed up onto the roof to trim the bougainvillea.