spring/summer 2006, no. 7
by Jason Letts
Charlotte found herself sitting in an Irish pub, playing with the umbrella in her drink, late one Saturday night. Her eyes glazed over the men and women at the bar talking, drinking, and flirting, as she drifted off into memories of a few days earlier.
She had returned from her job in a gallery — where she worked to support herself while trying to make it as a painter — to find her boyfriend sprawled out on the couch watching trashy daytime TV. His eyes followed her through the room and into the kitchen. She had the fleeting thought that no loving boyfriend would take his girlfriend for granted so much that he wouldn’t even greet her when she walked in the door. She demanded that he come into the kitchen. After she called the second time, he rose and staggered over with a “yeah?” then adding, “honey?” after he had looked at her, already trying to subconsciously minimize the damage. She asked him why he wasn’t interested in her the way he used to be. His vacant denial sounded like the soap humming in the background.
“You didn’t even care enough to say 'hi',” she said. She thought back to the beginning of their relationship when he would rub her feet and make burned lasagna for her. Ever since she was young, she had loved those cheap, silly shows of affection. She thought often of ice cream with her father after soccer games and root beer floats with boys in the mall. It’s how she came to know the love was real. She looked at Lane and wondered where that energy was going.
Who else is there? Who else is there?, her voice rising. She had spent a year with Lane, she knew there could be no one else; which is why, she realized, there had to be. He scratched his head and looked pained. He muttered something about how he would never cheat on her, his deep, bass voice still ringing in her ears. That voice had held her together, it had sustained her, but now the only sound was of a lifeless sort of truth falling flat inside her head. She knew that he had not cheated on her and that he never would; he was too comfortable, too sedentary, which amounted to a stagnation (or leeching, as she now saw it) that he was unwilling to give up.
“Lane, I know you wouldn’t cheat on me. Every time we are together, you are cheating on her!”
She thought the emotional betrayal felt like swallowing a gallon of oil. The blackness was sinking through her center, dragging her down. His eyes widened and his mouth gaped. After investing so much time in this one, Lane had relaxed and got careless. Charlotte was already running about the house grabbing her belongings, not knowing where she was going to go next. She pulled clothes out of drawers and reached over a few photographs to pick up her sketches. Lane followed on her heels with a pathetic look like a dog waiting for table scraps.
Lane was lost in disbelief. He couldn’t understand why he was losing her; he had done nothing wrong. He didn’t mistreat her. He bought her things. He was following her around pleading and whimpering in desperation until he was ready to say anything. From the top of the stairs, he called: “But we never slept together, we never slept together!”
She was walking through the door when he grabbed her by the arm. She turned, expecting to fight, and saw the despair and agony clinging to his face. It would ruin his life if she left. He looked at her without saying a word, the look begging her to stay. She saw his jaw shaking and his eyebrows scrunched like he was about to cry. Those same features that told her that he could be the world were calling out to her again. She felt the connection between them. Her heart quivered; it would be so easy to drop everything and live out a life with Lane of moderate happiness and reasonable control to follow her ambitions. She remembered the endearing looks that first drew her to him and the spirit and depth of feeling that he had embodied. Inertia is such a compelling force, perhaps its only rival is entropy. What she wanted was neither easy nor moderate. She broke from him.
Charlotte looked around the crowded bar at the green hats and shamrocks. She was sitting alone. Although she hadn’t seen it at the time, when she looked back in her memories, she could imagine the faces of Lane’s father, grandfather, and every man that came before them wearing that same hang-dogged look with those pitiful, beautiful eyes. She wondered how many women had been duped just long enough for the expression to change to a subtle, wry smile, knowing their tricks had worked again and the sucker standing before them wasn’t smart enough to see it. She clinched her hand and crushed the umbrella in her drink.
An older man soon approached, took her by the hand, and started leading her through the crowd. He knew her name and was telling her to relax. He led her into the back room, which was remarkably quiet considering the nearby commotion. A group of fifteen people stood waiting for them.
A number of partitions were erected in the center of the large room with sets of chairs between each of the dividers, which had the effect of creating a circular series of cubicles. The older man stood from behind a small table with some papers on it and began welcoming the participants who were present in the room. Like a sixth-grade dance, the men were standing on one side of the room, opposite the women on the other. The old man began delivering instructions along with a few tasteless jokes.
Charlotte stole a glance at the men. They appeared to be approximately her age and class; they wore casual dress outfits, except for one man in jeans and cowboy boots. She would tell herself that this was why she noticed him, but it was his cheekbones and deep-set eyes she would look at, reproach herself over by placing her eyes on the ground, and glance at again, unable to restrain herself.
She wondered why they had to draw this out for an hour, why the men didn’t just write down the name of the woman they found the most attractive, the women follow suit, and forego the meaningless chitchat with the rest. The result would be the same, she reasoned, as if humans had never developed so many superfluous, silly rituals so they could believe it was something else. After all, sex is a physical act, so why would people expect anything else?
A few of the women flanking her were wearing more make-up, higher heels, and more elaborate hair than her. Charlotte looked at the ornamentation of some of these girls and wondered what street corner they came from. How did men come to develop such a preference for artificiality? If women have the sexual power to choose between potential mates, why aren’t the men painstakingly applying mascara and shaving every inch of their bodies? She was snapped out of her daydreaming by the older man, who called all of the women up to the table. She received an envelope and was told to take a seat in one of the cubicles. The men would rotate among them after every two minutes. She sat down and opened the packet. It contained a sheet of paper with a list of the men’s names and a decorative four-leaf clover. She thought she would try it on to see how it looked, but she managed to stab her breast with the pin in the process. She decided she would rather wear the flimsy piece of plastic than let the tiniest drop of blood show through on her dress. So much for the moral high ground she had over the others. She rued the moment when she let her friends convince her to do this. She did not need her mind to be taken off of Lane and she didn’t need to be dating again so soon, especially in such a degrading manner. The door looked more appealing than any of the men.
The men were now making their way towards them; they might as well have had shopping carts. The man in the jeans went somewhere to the right. She was beginning to think that one of the men had decided to bail instead of meeting her when one guy popped out from around the corner and took a seat.
The man’s hair was greasy and slick. He ran his hand through it a few times as he leered over her. He had the general presentation of a used car salesman who, at present, was eyeing a piece of merchandise, not a customer.
“Hello there, sweet cheeks” he said, “I’m Samuel.” Charlotte gave her name and shook his hand, trying not to whince. “Have you ever been to France? I didn’t think so,” he went on, “I just came back from the Rhone valley. I found the Burgundies to be particularly delightful especially compared with American…” His speech had the cadence of her grandfather and she was immediately lulled into a state of semi-unconsciousness. It was not until he asked her if she knew anything about wine that she was brought back to the present. “Yes,” she blurted out, not entirely sure what was asked. Having validated his subject of conversation, Charlotte realized that she would need to play no further part in their conversation. She instead looked at him and wondered how a man could inflict this sort of passive torture and have any hope of success. Maybe Samuel was lost in the oblivion of his voice too. At the end of his pitch, Samuel felt pleased with how much he impressed her.
“I think a new restaurant opened up on the south side of town touting an extensive cellar. How would you like to check it out with me sometime?”
“That sounds great.” Charlotte would have liked to tell him that she would never degrade herself so much as to be seen with him, but she found lying to a person’s face to be a more civilized method of rejecting undesirable propositions.
“Splendid! Why don’t you write down your number and I can call you,” said Samuel. Charlotte explained that she couldn’t do that because she didn’t have a pen. “Of course you do. They gave you one in the packet.” Charlotte was hard pressed to find a suitable response to that.
At that moment, the bell rang and the men were to change seats. Samuel, taking no heed, continued to make sounds like her grandfather. Another man appeared from the right and told Samuel to move along. After Samuel ignored him, the man picked him up and shoved him to the left. Although Charlotte abhorred physical violence, she wouldn’t have cared if the guy had picked Samuel up and thrown him out of the window. This man’s name was Seth. He worked in construction and he appeared to be very strong. Charlotte looked at him and thought that he could probably eat a steak very gracefully. To the left, Samuel was audibly telling the exact same story to the next helpless victim.
Charlotte was curious about Seth’s emotional capacity, so she asked him about his home life. He told her about his 5-year-old son. “This is going to sound corny, but I still believed in Santa Claus up until I had to make a Christmas of my own for my boy.” He said that the boy’s mother had died in a car accident a few years ago. This was not the entire truth, but Seth still felt those details were too personal and so he begged her pardon. They continued talking until the bell rang, when they exchanged pleasantries and Seth got up and headed to the left. Charlotte sympathized with him and appreciated his honesty; she checked the box next to his name.
Seth sat down across from a red-haired woman named Victoria, who was wearing a light purple sweater and jeans. If a survey were given to one hundred people who only heard her voice, none of them would say she was above fifteen. Victoria looked at Seth and imagined how hot he would look wrestling a bear. Seth looked at her glasses and her prim appearance and was convinced that Victoria was prudish, and he committed himself to getting a rise out of her.
“Hey sweet thing. Can I ask you a question?”
“Look, I ducked in here to avoid the pigs out on the street. So if you see any undercover agents coming in through that door over there, you have to let me know right away, okay?”
“Undercover agents? Why do you need to watch out for undercover agents?” she asked, with a slight laugh. Seth leaned in close to whisper in her ear. She thought his scent was extravagant and enticing. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I have a little import business from Colombia.”
“Colombia! I heard that—”
“Shh, not so loud.”
“I’ve always wanted to travel to South America. I’ve heard it’s so beautiful with the mountainous jungles and the —,” she said.
“Yes, but coming back with a few souvenirs can be,” he paused, “dangerous.” He tried to imitate all of his favorite mob movies with a bad Italian accent. “It’s just business.”
“Ooo. I know what you mean. Airport security is such a pain in the you-know-what.” Seth found himself to be a bit perturbed.
“And there is always the threat that the police will catch you with the merchandise.”
“Wow, you must be really wealthy to do so much traveling.” Seth couldn’t help but roll his eyes.
“One time,” she leaned in, “I was coming back from Jamaica with my dad and the police cut open my teddy bear that I’ve had since I was two. They thought I had stuffed it with grass. I said even if I did, it wouldn’t grow anymore!”
Seth sat in his chair and looked through Victoria as if she were the most vapid expanse of space that existed in the world. He made no attempt to reply, he just sat and thought about how only in today’s society could someone live without any survival skills. He was deeply perplexed at how someone could develop into a mature adult without any practical knowledge at all. She wouldn’t last a day outside of her insulated niche in society. If she had been born a hundred years ago, he thought, her farming family would have left her to the wolves. Seth didn’t understand the purpose the floozy has in modern society. Men weren’t interested in her for her brains. Eventually, the time ran out and Seth got up to move on. Just before he was out of sight, Victoria called to him and said, “Good luck with your fake drug dealing. Try not to wear a jacket that says ‘Contractor for Celtic Construction’ next time.” Seth had to chuckle at that.
Charlotte had sent the last man on his way, when the man with the cowboy boots came around the corner. He didn’t need to do anything special to attract her, his worth was written all over his face. He smiled, shook her hand, and said "it’s a pleasure to meet you." It was Charlotte who savored the touch of his skin, got lost in the sound of his deep voice, and watched him intently as he took a place in his chair. What else are fitness indicators for? Without trying, he had convinced her that he was exciting, reckless, had good genes, and that he didn’t give a damn about her or anybody else.
“So what is it you do, Mr. Cowboy?” she asked, knowing that the answer didn’t matter. He told her that he was a representative for a popular product-testing firm. Prospective clients take him out and try to convince him to recommend to his company that they should approve a particular product so it can be marketed.
“Basically,” he said, “people suck up to me as hard as they can and I berate them until they are so desperate to get what I have that they’ll do anything — plus usually a little something for me on the side. Just last week I was at the Chateau Marquis and this guy ordered a glass of pinot grigio. I said, ‘if you wanted water, there’s a glass right in front of you.’”
“Especially if it was from California,” Charlotte said, “because I wouldn’t feed that to my dog.” Suddenly Samuel’s drivel had a little more value. “Probably kicked in ten grand on that comment alone. But that’s enough business, let’s get down to business. What does a fox like you do…during the day? And skip over the boring parts.”
She glanced at the floor and a smile broke across her face.
“Well, I’m part-owner of one of the art galleries downtown; I paint and I need to be around creativity. I wouldn’t normally be caught dead at one of these, but the fish in my pond, though creative, aren’t terribly lively. Why would you do speed dating?”
“I like it. I figure all you really need to know about a person you can learn in two minutes anyway. Even then you just burn most of the time talking about nothing important.”
“That’s exactly what I think!”
“But the worst thing you can do is let its rules confine you. Look, before we know it, our time will be up and I’ll be stuck with some airhead and you’ll be stuck talking about computer processors. Let’s get out of here and find someplace a little more relaxing than this dingy back room. Unless that’s too lively for you? I mean, you look like the type of girl who likes a little adventure and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Am I wrong?”
“No!” she jerked. She had been watching his mouth and drifting off inside the sound of his voice. The bell rang and Mr. Cowboy took her hand and pulled her out of the seat. They were walking off when the next guy, confused, asked, “What am I supposed to do?”
“Play with yourself.”
Mr. Cowboy slapped twenty dollars down on the table and told the old man that they were leaving. They had exited the building and made it out onto the street when Charlotte stopped him.
“Why don’t we stay and have a drink here?” He turned and looked at her, a little annoyed with her comment.
“You wouldn’t have walked all the way out here, almost to my car, if you wanted to have a drink in there. There’s plenty of booze at my place and this place is a dive anyway. Come on.”
Charlotte thought about how her friends would react if she went with him. They would call her a slut, laugh, and ask for more details. She mused for a moment about the paradox between a woman’s right to pleasure and the archaic social conventions dictating how it should be attained. For her friends, at least, it was only about how juicy the story was, and how good could the story be if a few rules aren’t broken.
Her mind drifted back to Lane, his disrespect, and his apathy. It’s not that she didn’t see the similarities in their deep voices, self-centered attitudes, and condescending behavior, it’s that she wasn’t going to let all that ruin her night out. She knew he didn’t have a future, but that’s not what she wanted him for.
“Come on.” <
Jason Letts is in the MA English program at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where he works as a teaching assistant. With his class, he explores questions pertaining to evolving self-perceptions in relation to social influence and past experience through a variety of scientific, theoretical, and religious frameworks. "Come On" represents his first attempt to ponder these issues in fiction from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.
Copyright © 2006 Entelechy: Mind & Culture. New Paltz, NY. All rights reserved.