by Mairead Case
I know Max’s face better than anybody else’s face. We sat together during freshman year chem and junior year English, senior year English, the taco drive thru and the taco drive thru and the taco drive thru. That one time he took too many mushrooms and locked himself in the bathroom, started crying. It was the summer after graduation and we were both ready not to be eighteen. We both thought the same shit sucked. We watched movies together, both wished we were French and pretty.
Max has freckles and caterpillar eyebrows and when he’s watching something, he sucks his teeth. Sometimes he’ll have a pencil in his mouth and it’ll turn his lips gray. Sometimes we’re walking down the street and I want to say Max, I love you more than anyone.
That summer we sat in coffeeshops, coffeeshops for hours, Max watching movies on his laptop and me looking moony out the window. God, Max loves movies. Because Max loves movies and talking about them, I know how people make monsters look huge. How they build puppets without showing hands or wires or seams. Max likes Technicolor when it was new, animals that are actually robots, and people bursting into song.
That summer he liked the girl at the coffee counter too. She was this little lacy whiff-thing with not hips, curly hair. These mint green umbrellas tattooed onto her shoulders. Finely inked lines, shapes bloused so full I could’ove puffed out my cheeks. Max watched movies and her, everyday. Watched her pour coffee, grab muffins with tongs. He’d saunter, be charming about rock bands or kid books, politics, whatever, but she wouldn’t care. She’d go outside and chain smoke and look up into the sky like something was coming for her.
One day it was sunny, even inside, so Max wore shades and I could see his movie in them. Plants and light and legs. Suddenly he whipped off the glasses, set them by his maple bar. “I should just give this up, huh?” he said, jutting out his chin at her, and I said I didn’t know. “No, you know?” he said. “If she was into it, she’d be into it.” “Yeah,” I said. I guessed so. But I never get that kinda stuff. I never date anybody. I got up for more coffee.
I paid, poured in sugar, and when I sat back down I saw she’d written her name, number, and a note on the lid. Emily, pen like loopy blue apples. Emily wanted to hang out after work tomorrow, maybe? Max saw it, said thank god finally. She wasn’t sleeping on me.
But I’d started to feel something blue, something warm in my stomach. “No, Max.” I said. “Max! She wants to hang out with me.” He wrinkled his nose. “For reals?” “For reals.” He looked at me a while, shrugged and then “alright,” he said. “Alright. Let’s go home then.”
On the way we just looked at trees and people and dogs. It’s nice because Max and I don’t always talk, but I never feel like that’s screwing things up. I never feel like he’s frustrated.
When we got to the driveway, Max looked at me. “She asked you on a date, you know,” he said. “Really?” I said, one eyebrow up. “Dude, maybe she just wants to see a movie with somebody or something.” “No,” said Max, scratching his ear and shaking his head. “It’s a date. Trust me.” So I did. I trusted him and I said good night and then I went inside for dinner.
* * *
Next day I felt like there were ants in my brain but I didn’t call Max. Maybe I’d never gone out with anybody because I was saving up, because this would be perfect. Maybe because I’d only ever thought about guys. But I didn’t know how dates worked, I didn’t know how to kiss anyone who wasn’t family. I stopped at the grocery store, brought a box of strawberry coconut ice cream bars for her.
When I got to the coffeeshop, it was locked and all the lights were off and I almost threw up. I found the lid with Emily’s number on it, dialed. Her voicemail sounded like violins in a tin can. I felt dumb and young and not good with time and my voice is stupid and I hung up. Whatever. Maybe Max wanted to microwave burritos, watch something subtitled. I could fall asleep on his shoulder.
But Emily called right back. “You came! I thought maybe you didn’t come.” “N-no,” I said all jaunty, like how could I not come? “I-I-I brought you ice cream.” “OK great,” she said. “I’m smoking out back.”
When I saw her I realized I forgot to put on lipstick. “Hey,” she said, grinding out her cigarette with green jelly sandals, the kind that melt to your feet in summer. “Let’s walk around the lake,” she said, and I said fine. The lake is wide and gray, full of mean gray birds. Kids in ruffle-butt swimsuits. The only people who make it around the whole thing are rich crazy joggers who go miles on the weekends. We said how hot it was and unwrapped an ice cream each. Ate while we walked. It felt dangerous but nice, eating while walking with Emily. Mom makes me sit down with a napkin.
There was a bench every fifty steps, I counted, and some of them had shiny little plaques with names. For Dad or I Love You or RIP. Once said “Zippy’s” and another, THE OPERA. We made up stories about people who bought benches for each other. I liked how Emily combed back her hair with her fingers. She liked things in her hands. Cigarettes, popsicle sticks, flyaways.
“I’m in a band,” said Emily. “We’re Green Mice. I play drums.” I looked at her arms, which looked like pipe cleaners wrapped with pipe cleaners. “For our album cover, I wrapped my chest in fur and took a photo on the street in the dark. It wasn’t dumb. Sometimes when people do that it’s dumb, but this wasn’t.” “Cool,” I said, and I meant it and I liked her.
Sometime I’d say I lived with my parents and had just finished high school, but by then we’d have routines so it wouldn’t matter. Emily and I walked by some apartments near a library and I thought how nice that would be, living there with her. Reading. Watching people reading. “Let’s go to my place,” she said. “I’ll drive you.” There was coconut on her cheek. It looked like skin flaking.
“So what do you do?” Emily asked. Her dashboard was covered with straw wrappers and hard candy. A bobble dog. “I guess I write,” I said. “I dunno. Max and I go back.” We were at a stoplight and she looked at me around her glasses, which were big and dark and plastic painted gold. “Wait,” Emily said. “Wait. How old are you?” Oh god. “I’m old,” I said. “I’ve been around.” I figured she was, like, twenty-four or something. Didn’t want her to think I was a baby. She shrugged, nodded. Made a left turn.
Where Emily lived had folding chairs on the porch and plastic flowers in buckets and curtains made from Saturday morning cartoon sheets. It smelled like the inside of an old beach bag, but as we walked down the hallway to the kitchen it smelled more like popcorn. I saw the clock, thought about my mom and Max and how it was dinnertime. I wanted to sit on the counter and just wait to see who came in the room.
There was a pot without a lid on the stove. Oily meat inside, plopped into something like rice. “I have three roommates,” said Emily. “But two are in love and quiet so I don’t see them unless we’re all waiting to pee or something. The pot’s probably Kasey’s. He’s trying to learn.” She didn’t say what.
“Wanna beer?” “OK,” I said. I guessed so. I was leaning against the refrigerator door. It was jammed with magnets, magnets as decoration not to hold things. Birds, cars, skylines. A tree. “Here,” Emily said, scratching her ankle with her toe. “They’re by the milk. Let me show you.”
She came towards me, arm out, arm the color of pearls and throats and milk, bones thin like bug legs. Those umbrellas, her shoulders. I didn’t move away. I looked her dead on and her lips and I parted mine and I came towards her, too. “Oh,” Emily said. “Oh!” She went back and made a noise like honking. “Oh honey geez, that’s – that’s not me.” Oh god oh god. I wanted to be liquid. To pour myself down the hallway. Her face was different but it wasn’t mean, just thinking.
“You know, actually I didn’t eat so it would be dumb to drink. Do you want cereal instead? We have cereal and string cheese.” “No,” I said. “It’s late. I should probably just go home.” “Alright,” Emily said. “I’ll drive you. I’ll just hop in the bathroom first.” While she did I grabbed one of the magnets from the fridge – a fish – and put it in my pocket. Then I texted Max, told him we couldn’t go to that coffeeshop anymore. He was pissed but he’ll live. You can watch movies anywhere.
Mairead Case lives in Chicago. She’s written fiction for THE2NDHAND, The Dil Pickler, and featherproof; interviews and criticism for Pitchfork, The New York Ghost, The Stranger, Punk Planet, and others; also Gainsbourg/Birkin comics for Light in the Attic Records (with David Lasky). Mairead edited The Journal of Ordinary Thought, Proximity Magazine, and the books section at Venus Zine; taught teens and adults in Chicago libraries and Indiana JJCs; coordinates volunteers for Young Chicago Authors’ Louder Than a Bomb; and put together a radio show about dreams for Neighborhood Public Radio at the 2008 Whitney Biennial. She thinks you’re doing a great job.