2008 submission by Mel Wells :: 2008 Sledgehammer winner
Wanted: Friends! 27-yr-old female, recently moved from Colorado, seeks people to explore Portland with. Show me your fave spots, or we can get lost and explore new restaurants/galleries/parks/shops. Prefer nonsmokers, as I’m allergic. Thursdays only.
I confess, I watch for Ethan. I watch him maneuver his Geo into a tight spot in front of my building, watch him walk his deliberate pace up the crooked front stairs, watch him press two fingers on the buzzer. I step back from the window and push the button to let him in.
A few seconds later, he knocks on the once-white door to my studio.
“You don’t have to knock,” I say as I let him in. “I already buzzed you.”
He shrugs, keeping his hands in the pockets of his corduroy coat.
“Okay, I’m almost ready, give me just a sec,” I say, rummaging through my gigantic bag. “Can’t…find…my wallet.” I paw through a week’s worth of receipts, sketches on napkins, a pair of arm warmers, and a couple Clif Bars. “Do you know what Magpie has planned for us tonight?”
I turn to see him studying my latest project—a three-by-three-foot canvas with a tornado of black smudges painted over a blue background. It was inspired by last Thursday’s evening outside Chapman Elementary, where we spread out a blanket and ate Hot Lips pizza while watching a migrating flock of Vaux’s Swifts funneling into the chimney.
“Nice,” he says. “Magpie said to meet at Patti’s in St. Johns.” Hands in pockets, he walks out my door. I grab my wallet and run after him, swirling my scarf around my neck as I pull the door shut and try not to trip down the stairs.
Outdoors, the late-afternoon light is oblique and too orange. This is not the Egyptian July sun demanding worship; it is a wheezing great-uncle lurking on the periphery of a family reunion, sneaking swigs from a fake-wood flask and wishing things were over already. I imagine telling my awful metaphor to Ethan, wondering if it would make him smile. Instead I just say, “Thanks,” when he unlocks my side of the car first.
As we drive north on Highway 30, I wonder if this not-talking is only awkward for me. After all, the Thursday Social Club has been meeting for almost six months now. Damn. I know emotions are all in a person’s brain, but it’s my chest that pangs when I realize how long it’s been since I left Colorado. Ethan drums his thumb on the steering wheel, keeping time with the jangly pop rock on his car stereo. The music is sparking hot pink and yellow in my mind.
“Who is this?” I ask.
“The All Girl Summer Fun Band,” he replies. I think he’s trying to hold back a smile.
“That’s, um, unusual for you, no?”
He laughs, revealing deep dimples. “Magpie gave it to me. She’s broadening my horizons.”
“Well, now!” I reply. “Imagine that.”
Broadening your horizons is one of Magpie’s pet terms, along with Go big or go home and Moving on! Whenever Magpie is bored, or stuck behind someone walking slowly, or just interrupting herself, she yells, “Moving on!”
Magpie, Ethan, and I are the core of the Thursday Social Club, which stemmed from an ad I posted on Craigslist shortly after moving here.
In my past life, I lived in Colorado and worked as a freelance Web designer to support my new husband, who was in dental school. We were both devout Mormons, and our engagement had been typically short. As the weeks after the wedding rolled on, I was dismayed to discover that I’d married a stranger who was increasingly distant and critical. One night we had a disagreement about the Church’s stance on homosexuality, and he backhanded me for questioning the Prophet. I didn’t say anything. The next day, while he was at work, I calmly packed my Volvo wagon and drove toward the sunset.
When I stopped for food in Salt Lake City, I realized I had to make a decision. I flipped a coin between San Francisco and Portland. The universe gave me Portland. Within a week I rented a studio apartment in the northwest part of town, in a building that managed to be a seedy island in yuppietopia. I distanced myself from the Church and my family, and felt incredibly lonely. Freelancing is not conducive to making quick friends, so after a month of awkward, stunted conversations with strangers, I posted my ad. Magpie responded the next day, brought Ethan when we went to Powell’s the following week, and our little group quickly became a tradition.
Tonight when Ethan parks next to Patti’s Home Plate, I get that tingly, rehearsed feeling—something about the building being that specific brick, and on a corner. As I slam the creaky car door shut, I spin once, quickly, just to shake it.
“Déjà vu again?” asks Ethan.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Did you ever see Mr. Holland’s Opus?”
“Oh my god, you’re right,” I reply, glancing at the mosaic of ads posted in the windows. “This is kind of awesome.”
“Wait till you taste their fries.”
Inside, Magpie is sucking dark soda through a straw, tapping her high-heeled Mary Janes on the checkerboard floor. The vintage jukebox is blaring, and is possibly younger than our waitress. She lays down a couple more rumpled paper menus as we slide into the booth.
“Do you guys want to share a milkshake?” Magpie asks. “Because they have caramel marshmallow here, and I really want one, but if I eat the whole thing I’ll be sicker than a dog tomorrow.”
“Why don’t you get some of those lactose enzyme tablets already?” Ethan says.
Magpie sticks her bottom lip out and poofs her thick brown bangs with a puff of breath. They fall back perfectly straight. “Because, as you know, I don’t like medications.”
“I forget—does this have something to do with being a former jay-dub?” I ask.
Magpie had been raised in California in a strict Jehovah’s Witness family. They disowned her when she announced her bisexuality. She moved to Portland for college and began donating blood in a rather obsessive-compulsive manner. Her arms are dotted with tiny scars.
“No, they’re okay with most medications,” she replies. “I thought it was you Mormons who don’t use prescriptions.”
“Are you kidding me?” I reply. “Utah is the most coked-out state in the country when it comes to antidepressants.”
I’d been raised in Logan, Utah. My own family stopped talking to me when I left my husband, who was still in good standing with both them and the Church.
I watch Ethan watch Magpie as she jabs at the ice with her straw. She offers it to him. “Vanilla Coke?”
Ethan shakes his head.
I shake mine too.
“Well, you people are no fun.” She sucks the rest, until the straw makes empty slurping noises. “So? Milkshake? Huh? Huh? Who’s in?” She slaps her hand flat on the center of the table.
I smile. “Me,” I say, laying my hand on hers.
She turns to Ethan. He reluctantly pulls his hand out of his pocket and places it on ours. “Team,” he says.
“Woot, woot!” Magpie hollers, drawing looks from the couple across the room. She smiles and waves. They look away. She also gets the attention of the waitress, which is great. I’m starving.
We order cheeseburgers. Magpie gets a side salad, I get fries, and Ethan gets the homemade coleslaw.
“Ew, you eat that stuff?” Magpie says.
“Puts hair on your chest,” says Ethan, smiling and pulling open his collar a little. We laugh, because he’s always complaining about his sparse beard and hairless chest. “Excuse me, ladies, but I need to use the men’s room,” he says in his manliest voice, and leaves the table.
“You know, Ethan bitches at me for hating pills, but if he would have stayed on T a little longer, he could probably grow some decent sideburns,” Magpie says in a low voice.
“What? Why would…” I trail off as the realization dawns on me. His avoidance of swimming suddenly makes more sense.
“Oh, shit, did I just out him?” Magpie slaps her forehead. “Fuck, I thought he told you! Were you not there that night? When he told the club?”
“Um, I guess I missed that night. Should I pretend not to know?”
“No, it’s fine. Ethan’s usually pretty open about it. I mean, he’s been male-identified for about three years now, and, Jesus, it’s been three years already? Can you believe how time flies?”
“No, but you were saying about Ethan…”
“Oh, right, thanks. Didn’t he at least mention his work at PSU?”
“Yeah, Portland State’s Queer Resource Center. No?”
Magpie puffs at her bangs again. I can tell this is going to be her new tic. “Well, here’s to hoping he doesn’t mind.”
The waitress brings over our food, and we dig in. A moment later, Ethan comes back to the table, wiping his hands on his jeans.
“They’re out of paper towels,” he says. “Just a warning.”
Our waitress overhears him. “Stu!” she calls toward the back.
An older man wearing pants belted just below his ribcage comes out from the aisles, holding a pricing gun in his wrinkled hand. The back half of Patti’s is tightly packed with cluttered shelves, which are currently lined with cheap perfumes and discounted Halloween costumes. A few locals sit at the double-curved counter of barstools watching the chef flip patties and talking neighborhood gossip.
“Stu, hon,” says our waitress. “Will you stock the bathroom with more paper towels?”
“Sure thing, Gertie.”
They smile briefly—a second of familiarity and routine that I envy—and get back to work.
“What word do you suppose came first,” I ask, turning back to Magpie and Ethan, “family or familiarity?”
“I’m betting family,” says Magpie through a mouthful of lettuce. “By the way, Ethan, I just outed you to Cherry.” Magpie tends to deal with awkwardness by nonchalantly plowing through it.
Ethan pauses while reaching for the ketchup, then reaches anyway. “It’s okay,” he replies, squirting a circle of it onto his bun. “I usually assume people can tell.”
“Are you kidding me?” says Magpie. “You are the best trans male I know. I mean, you’re more manly than my ex-boyfriend.”
“That’s super, Mags,” he replies, replacing the ketchup.
“Okay, okay, I vowed not to talk about he-who-shall-not-be-named anymore. Moving on!”
There’s a brief silence, and I notice the jukebox again. It’s playing something by Elvis. His music always makes me think of turquoise.
“How does a person know if they have synesthesia?” I ask.
“You are so random,” replies Magpie, smiling. “My great-aunt always said she had synesthesia. My dad said she was just an alcoholic.” She chatters away about her family for a while as Ethan and I finish eating. Sometimes I think he and I like Magpie so much because we don’t have to work to keep the conversation going. She steals french fries off my plate and gestures with them as she talks.
“Aunt Faye always snuck sips from her bottle of ‘magic potion’ when we made holiday cookies together,” she says. “The ones she frosted would get messier and messier, and we would giggle until our bellies ached.” Magpie rubs her own belly—impossibly flat considering how much she eats. “What was in that little bottle, I’m just not sure.”
She sighs and crumples her napkin and burger wrapper into a tight ball. The jukebox clicks over to a new CD, and the door jingles as a hipster couple walks in. They’re both wearing white belts and faux mullets. Ethan picks up the check
“This one’s on me,” he says.
Magpie wraps her arms around him and kisses him on the cheek. “You’re a darling,” she declares. Magpie is terminally broke, probably because she’s made the slow pursuit of an undergraduate degree her life’s profession. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” she says with a drawl.
“You’re welcome, Blanche,” he replies and holds her hand as she slides out of the booth. Her heels make her at least an inch taller than Ethan, and a good five inches taller than me. I once suggested she could make some extra money modeling, but she pshawed me and said something about birthing hips. I think she’s beautiful.
In fact, as we walk outside and I breathe in the mossy, organic scent of Portland in the fall, with fog creeping over the red-tinged humps of the West Hills and bikers passing with their lights blinking in the twilight, I can’t decide who I’m in love with more: Magpie, Ethan, or this city.
After I climb in the backseat, Magpie directs Ethan to Cathedral Park—a grassy hillside under the St. Johns Bridge. We’re walking down the cement stairs, listening to the thuh-wump thuh-wump of cars overhead, when Magpie announces that it’s time for her to shut up and for Ethan to tell us a story.
“You two are the worst conversationalists in the club,” she complains, plopping down on the lawn and leaning back. “Whenever it’s just us three, I go home hoarse. So, you have to start talking, or endure awkward silences until I let you go home.”
She says this to Ethan, which is amusing, because he would be perfectly content to sit in silence while Magpie and I started twitching and fiddling and eventually blurted something out. However, Magpie’s charm works, and soon Ethan is telling us about spending summers in a cabin in Yellowstone Park with his family.
As he talks about bears breaking into dumpsters at night, Magpie pulls at her hair and inspects it for split ends. I’ve cropped my blond curls short, and am reduced to poking at the grass and indirectly studying Ethan’s profile. The grass is damp and slowly soaking the butts of our jeans, but nobody minds.
“Then the bear tore through the screen door into the kitchen,” he says.
“Oh my god, were you terrified?” asks Magpie.
“I was screaming like a little girl,” he says, winking at me. I get butterflies for a second.
He continues telling the story, and I roll onto my stomach to think. If I am attracted to Ethan—not just his brown hair and sleeve tattoo, but his smile, and his dimples, and the way I feel safe around him—how does that affect my own sexuality? If he identifies as male, then I am still straight, right? I want to ask them, but it feels like such a stupid question.
Besides, he’s probably interested in Magpie. They’ve been friends forever, and it would be such a modern romantic comedy for them to get together. I yank the head off a dandelion and smear it on my arm, just to see the yellow. Ethan’s story ends, and we’re silent for a moment.
“Your turn, Cherry-tea,” says Magpie. She is the only person who can get away with using any variation of my real name—Charity. “Give us a story. Give us a tale of woe, of adventure, of life-changing epiphany.”
“Well, I saw a woman spit in a guy’s sushi the other day,” I say.
“What?” exclaims Magpie, dropping her hair to look at me. “This sounds good.”
I shrug. “Well, I was at that great sushi place downtown and there was this total douche bag in front of me. You know, the lawyer-on-a-cell type? Well, he pissed off that cute little chef lady, and she spit into his roll.”
“Oh my god, that’s awesome,” says Ethan, laughing.
“No one saw it but me. And I thought I was dreaming, until she looked me in the eyes and winked.”
Ethan is laughing harder than I’ve ever seen. “I know that lady. She seems so meek, but I can see her doing that.”
“Well, I think the best part was after he left, when she handed me my own sushi. She smiled really big and said, ‘Karma is bitch.’”
“Oh, I love it,” Magpie says, also laughing. “And my ass is ice. I have buttsicle.”
“Mine too,” I say. “Want to come back to my place for hot toddies? I just bought a bag of lemons and some cinnamon sticks.”
“Excellent,” says Ethan, tapping his fingertips.
“Smashing,” says Magpie. “Moving on!” Her voice echoes off the river below us.
We pile into the Geo and drive back to my apartment. Magpie plays the name-that-band game, where she flips through stations and refuses to change it unless you tell her who’s singing. It’s impossible when she gets to the Spanish stations, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.
“José Cuervo!” I yell.
“Los Quatros Hermanos en Fuego!” Ethan guesses.
Magpie is attempting to sing along. “God, my Spanish sucks,” she says. “I have an idea, let’s all take Spanish together! ¡Arriba arriba! ¡Ándale ándale!”
The fog is creeping around us like Sandburg’s cat tonight. I watch it bead up on the windows, occasionally combining to form a drop and dart away.
The DJ begins talking in rapid Spanish, saying something about disco azúcar.
“Doesn’t that mean ‘sugar disco’?” asks Magpie.
“I think so,” replies Ethan, as the next song begins.
“Moving on!” I yell from the backseat.
Magpie laughs and switches to a rock station. We can’t figure out which midnineties alt-rock band it is, and continue the debate all the way into my apartment. Magpie drops her bag on the floor and kicks off her shoes. I head to the kitchen—excuse me, the corner with cabinets—to begin brewing some tea.
“Cherry, this is a fantastic canvas,” says Magpie. “I didn’t know you painted.”
“Well, if we’re making confessions tonight, I also have one,” I tell them. “You know that art show I dragged you to a couple weeks ago? The one with the birds-on-a-wire paintings you liked so well?” I open the cupboards to get down three mugs.
“The tiny cherry in the bottom corner,” she says, peering closer at my canvas. She turns her head. “That was you?”
I nod, putting one teabag and a stick of cinnamon in each mug.
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I wanted your honest reactions.” I do a small hop-twist to sit on the counter as I wait for the water to boil. “And, well, I wanted to make sure you guys thought I was good. I needed your honest opinions, not your opinions as friends.”
“Cherry, darling, friends should be honest,” she replies. “We’re the ones to tell you when you’ve got stuff stuck in your teeth. You know?”
Ethan walks over and leans on the cupboard next to me. “It’s true,” he says. “If you can’t be honest with your friends, you might as well be with strangers.”
“Listen to wisdom of wise Mast-ah Ethan,” says Magpie. “And seriously, I want one of these paintings.”
“Done and done,” I reply. “Ethan, will you grab the honey?” I point to the cabinet above the sink.
“Sure thing, honey,” he replies. I can’t help but smile, and I know he sees it.
Soon we’re all on my queen-size bed, sipping from our steaming mugs, listening to another CD Magpie brought over. When I close my eyes, I see deep turquoise with flecks of burnt orange. We each had a few shots of whiskey while waiting for the tea to brew, and it’s making me fuzzy. “I think I have synesthesia,” I say.
“I think you’re a wack-job,” says Magpie. For being so tall, she has the worst alcohol tolerance of all of us and is already beginning to slur.
“Definitely,” agrees Ethan. “And alcoholic to boot.”
“I think I’m still married,” I blurt out. For some reason, this makes my eyes water and my throat constrict. I take another sip.
“Well…you might want to take care of that,” says Ethan. He wraps an arm around me, and I snuggle against his chest. “But it’s kind of hot that I’m snuggling with a married Mormon right now.”
I giggle, sniffling a little.
“I agree,” says Magpie. “Let’s make out.”
She leans across Ethan and suddenly her lips are on mine, and her hand is on the back of my neck. I haven’t been kissed in months—never by a girl, and never like this.
“Ouch!” yells Ethan. “You just spilled on me!”
Magpie pulls away. “I’ll lick it off,” she says, and slurps the puddle off his jeans. “Nope, too wet—you’re just gonna have to take them off.”
“I don’t get naked on the first night,” says Ethan.
Magpie yanks off her shirt, revealing a lacy pink bra. She points at me. “Get naked and cuddle me, girlfriend.”
I shake my head.
“You people are no fun,” she says, removing her pants.
“Don’t worry,” says Ethan. “She does this with whiskey. Vodka makes her dance, gin makes her cry, but whiskey gets her naked.”
“Shut up,” says Magpie, pulling off her socks. “Cuddle me, you assholes.”
“It also makes her get poopy-mouth,” says Ethan.
I laugh, taking Magpie’s glass and putting both of ours on the floor. I’m finally persuaded to at least strip down to my underwear—damn Magpie’s charm—and we all climb under my down comforter.
“We’re like a little boat of refugees,” says Magpie. “Only our families abandoned us instead of our countries.”
I hiccup. Magpie is in the middle, with Ethan facing her and me behind, spooning. She falls asleep almost immediately.
“So, now that you know my secret,” Ethan whispers, “do you still have a crush on me?”
I can feel myself blushing. “Who told you that?”
He looks pointedly at Magpie, who has begun snoring softly.
“That little gossipy bitch,” I say, smiling.
We fall asleep holding hands.
In the morning, they’re both gone by the time I wake up. It’s raining, the old-man sun barely glowing through low clouds. The world outside is the hue of cement. The clothes I wore yesterday afternoon are lying in a black, twisted heap at the foot of my bed, like some burned-out wreck.
I make some coffee. I open my laptop. After reading through some e-mails, I go to my desk and twist the top off a tube of red. I paint three little cherries in the corner of my canvas.
© 2008 Mel Wells