A short story in progress. This is as far as I am, and now I’m at that point where I have to choose between endings before I go on; the complicated one that’ll turn this into a novella, or the easy one that’ll leave it a reasonable length.
I’ve done a first pass edit to fix typos and made minor re-writes, but it’s still raw.
My phone made an anemic beep in my back pocket.
I still smell like you, the message said. Not from any number I recognized.
It was signed xxxooo – Me.
I stared at it for a moment, trying to remember the last time I’d gotten a message like it, that was actually intended for me.
I touched the button for ‘delete’, and then my thumb hovered over ‘yes’ when it asked me if I really meant it.
I hesitated a moment, decided I didn’t, and touched ‘cancel’.
I put my phone away, and tried not to think about who it was that smelled of whom.
The bar-maid filled by glass. I thanked her.
“Don’t call me bar-maid, I fucking told you before”, she said.
“It’s better than ‘tavern wench’”, I said. She pretended not to hear me, but I’m pretty sure she’d spit in my next beer. With that mouth, though, I can’t say I minded.
I sipped my beer and tried to watch a ball game on the shitty old tv above the bar. After a bit, I pulled out my phone and laid it on the bar next to me. should have left it in the goddamned car, I thought.
I should never have a phone in my hand after my fourth beer. I’ve kind of learned that the hard way, several times. Would this be three beers? Or four? I couldn’t remember.
I picked up the phone, and then put it down. I couldn’t make out which team had the ball; honestly, I couldn’t even make out which teams they were. I don’t know any teams that use static gray as a team color.
I ordered another beer. The girl glared at me while she worked the tap, but I kept my mouth shut and just looked down her shirt. I dug in my pocket for money, but came out with three quarters and a mashed-looking joint.
She rolled her eyes and walked away.
“You don’t really like me that much, do you?” I said in the general direction of her ass, though I’m pretty sure she couldn’t hear me. I shrugged; I’d win her over eventually, and she’d be butter in my hands.
I sipped my beer, and began to play with my phone, flipping it open and closed, like a pocket knife. Click, click, click.
Someone was winning. Or maybe losing. The guys at the other end of the bar seemed to be following better than I was; one was swearing while the other one high-fived the bar maid.
My phone wasn’t flipping any more; I had it open now. I worked the menus without looking, and then clicked ‘call’. I have no idea why, really. Nor did I have any clue what I was going to say.
She answered after three rings. A girl voice, or a woman voice, I can’t really tell. But I good voice. Friendly, but in that businesslike way that said she’s checked the caller ID first.
I opened my mouth, still with no idea what was coming out. “So, who is it you smelled like, today?”
“What?” she asked, just stridently enough that I knew she’s heard me. She just didn’t want to have heard me.
“I’m just wondering,” I said, “Who it was you smelled like.”
There was a long pause. I could hear noise, traffic maybe.
“Who the fuck is this?” she said. Just a little angry, like she was trying to figure out who was punking her.
I told her my name, but it meant nothing to her, of course. I sipped my beer, and gestured at the bar maid to fill me up again. She did that pushing-her-glasses-up-with-her-middle-finger thing, but that might have been an accident.
“About 1:30 today,” I said, “I got a text message. It said “I still smell like you.”
I kind of liked the way she said fuck. It made me want to hear her say it in different context.
The bar-maid was screwing around at the far end of the bar. I decided not to get insistent about a fill up, because I didn’t really want her to spit in the next one, not that much.
”…So what I wondered was,” I said into the phone, and then put it on my shoulder and cradled it against my ear, “who was it you smelled like, at 1:30 this afternoon.”
She swore again, softly, under her breath, and then there was another pause. I could hear her breathing slow gradually.
“Ok, I don’t know you do I?” she said.
“No, I sure don’t think so,” I said. The barmaid had finally made her way over, and was filling my glass. She made a “money” gesture though, rubbing finger and thumb together. I fished for my wallet.
“…and I’m pretty sure I don’t know you, either. I know your phone number, though.”
“hmm,” she said.
“I think I’ll forget it though, or lose it as soon as I break my phone again. I’m hell on phones.”
She laughed softly. “Me too,” she said.
I let it hang for a minute, tossed several crumpled bills on the bar. The bar maid mouthed asshole at me, and fished out what she needed for my tab. I winked at her. Almost mine, I knew it.
I sipped, swallowed, and said “So, the thing is, you can tell me.”.
“Tell you what?”
“You can tell me – anything at all.”
I heard a slow, thoughtful intake of breath, and then a sighing release.
“You know what’s sort of fucked up?” she said. “Not that I think I could tell you. That’s just sort of odd. But what’s fucked up, what’s really fucked up, is that I want too.
I smiled, and then told her I was smiling.
“So? I asked. “Who was it?”
“That story is kind of long,” she said. “And I here’s my train.” There was a long pause, and I could hear louder background noise. Hear breathing told me she was walking.
“Tell you what,” she said - ”if you tell me your name, maybe I’ll call you back tomorrow, and tell you the whole thing.”
“My name?,” I asked. She didn’t remember I’d already said it.
“Tell me A name. I don’t care if it’s yours. I just need to think of you as someone.”
I told her again. I told her my real one, but laughed like it wasn’t, like I’d made it up.
“But what’s yours?” I asked her.
“Train, gotta go!” she said, and was gone before I could say wait.
I picked up the wad of dollar bills from the bar, and left the joint, along with a twenty dollar tip. I wasn’t above buying favor, from women or from bartenders.
I turned the page in my book, and then couldn’t quite get the words in focus.
My phone beeped at me.
I looked around. It wasn’t in my line of sight anywhere. I checked the clock on my bed side; 1:39 am. Normally when my phone makes noise at this hour, it’s someone who’s drunk, or someone who wants to score and is about five places down the desperate list of people who might be holding. I tend not to answer after midnight.
I made an exception though.
I found my phone was in my jeans, which were crumpled around my boots by the bathroom door. I got up, I fished the phone out, but made myself wait to open it, while I took a leak and then got back in bed.
“Why did you call me?” the message said, when I flipped my phone open.
I thought about it. She was thinking about me at 1:30. I guess that was a win.
I began clumsily thumb-typing.
I wasn’t quite sure.
becaus youre a mystery
I considered adding ‘and because I should never have my phone handy after four or five beers’, but it was too much trouble to type. I hit ‘send’.
The answer came back so quickly that I knew she’d had her phone in her hands.
And you like mysteries?
no like, need to solv, I replied.
I fucking hate those tiny telephone buttons. I’d meant to say that I hated mysteries, which is why i need to know the answers to things. Eyes and thumbs weren’t up to the task.
While I waited for her answer, I saved her number. mg, I labeled it, for ‘mystery girl’.
The answer came back a while later, after my eyes had closed but before I was all the way under. g’night! Was all it said.
I’d waited the entire day for my phone to ring. It hadn’t, of course, and I was sort of expecting that to be the end of it. I’d fiddled around in my office an hour and a half later than usual, just in case.
Around eight, I finally gave up and grabbed my coat and locked up. I was trying to decide between three bar options (bad, worse, and new) when my phone peeped.
Two missed calls, it said, from MG. Sure. Of course. Can you hear me now? they ask, I and always wanted to say, no, but maybe if I shove my phone up your fucking ass, I’ll get more fucking calls.
She’s left a two text messages. Sorry, said the first, Talk later?. The second one had been the beep I’d just heard, as I’d come out the door.
I almost lost my nerve. I wasn’t going to call you back; I almost deleted your number. But I need to tell a story. Can I call you after 11?
I was impressed with her dexterity and typing skills. Punctuation, and even capitals. I looked at my thumbs. “fuck you guys,” I said to them.
She’s signed it ‘xxxooo, Me’. Just like that first message.
I tried to type ‘absolutely’ but gave up after three tries and replied 0K 11!.
I decided against the bar.
I was on my third glass of screw-top red wine (it really goes startlingly well with a grilled spam-and-cheese sandwich), when my phone rang. I checked the two clocks in my kitchen, one of which said 11:17 and the other of which said 10:56, which means that it was exactly eleven.
“Hello,” the robot voice said, and would have begun warning my about my auto warranty that was about to expire if I’d let it. I closed the phone and explained to the glowing display on the front, that my car was bought for $375 at a police auction, and hadn’t been under warranty since 1977. The lights went out halfway through; nobody listens.
I checked the bottle for more wine, and then the cupboard for more bottles. Dry, and bare, respectively.
I grabbed my coat and went out the door, hoping the little bodega on the corner was on the same clock I have. When I got there, they were closing, and held the door for me. I splurged and got a bottle with a cork this time, the extra dollar just my way of saying thanks for the evil eye they gave me as they dug change out of the safe.
I ran a bath, and gave up on glasses after I dropped the last one I had that didn’t have screw threads.
I was on my third sip of wine when my phone rang.
“tell me your story, Mystery Girl,” I said.
“I’m sorry, am I calling too late?”
“mMy time is yours”.
She sighed. I could hear ice rattle in a glass.
“I don’t know where to begin,” she said.
I went for the obvious line; “The beginning usually works.”
She was quiet, breathing softly into the phone.
“…or the middle is ok,” I added.
“What are you doing?” she asked. I decided to go with honesty, for a change.
“I’m up to my shoulders in hot water and mister bubble. Also I’m drinking a very cheap chianti in an imitation basket, directly from the bottle.” I took a swallow for dramatic effect. The basket part was an embellishment; this honestly stuff was tough.
“you’re – you’re in – um.”
“in the bath, yes.” I made a little splashy noise and held the phone up up so she could hear. I almost dropped the phone in the tub.
“Oh god. I don’t know if I can do this if you’re in the bath. I don’t know if I can talk to you if you’re, you know.”
“Clean?” I asked. I wanted to wink at her but it was kind of a waste.
“Fuck you. Naked. You know what I mean.” She was on the edge of giggles as she said it. I heard ice rattle again.
“Ok, my turn. Two questions, and these are the easy ones. Number one. Ready?
She made a grunty noise, if you can imagine a grunt that’s cute and girlish.
“Ok, number one, here we go: what are you drinking?”
“It started out jack and coke.”
“Where did it finish? And no, that’s not the second question.”
“So far it’s almost all jack with a sort of a hint of coke.”
I thought about asking if she was drunk. There was something unstable in her voice. She didn’t really sound drunk though.
“Ok, second question.” I put on a sort of a barry white voice. “What are you wearin’, baay-bee?” Actually it was more like if deputy dog and barry white had a love child. I could hear her choke, and then she was making a sound that might have been sobs or might have been giggles, but was punctuated with coughs.
“Hey,” I said – “you’re one up on me, you know I got nuthin’ on but bubbles. Fess up.
She caught her breath. “The worst sweats you’ve ever seen, with holes everywhere. An ancient Journey t shirt that’s two sizes too small, has coffee and wine stains on it. Fucking sexy, huh?”
I opened my mouth to make some joke; I hesitated between a riff on how that was exactly my fetish, and one on how I’d just lost my wood and that’s it, we were done. But I froze, and what came out was unedited truth. “That sounds absolutely adorable,” was what I said.
She hiccuped. “Hang on,” she said. I could hear the thunk as she put her phone down, and then the sound of her blowing her nose. I think that might have been where I started to develop the crush.
“ok, so is it my turn?” she asked.
“the floor is yours, m’lady.”
“ok, two things. First, can you get out of the damn bath and put something on? I can’t think about anything else now.”
The thought was so distracting – the idea that she was thinking about my naked body – that I barely got what was next.
“ok, and second, can you stop being funny? I need to get this out without you interrupting.”
“Done and done,” I said. “Can I call you back in ten minutes?”
“I’ll call you,” she said, and again was gone before I cold get a syllable out.
I showered the soap off and hauled on a bath robe, and was settling on my beaten down couch when she called back. I called her mystery girl again when I answered.
I heard ice rattle as she started.
”The person that text was for,” she said, and then hesitated with the pronoun when she started again. “sh, uh, hi, uh, he. Um. He, he’s married. I met sss, uh, I met him, at a work party…”
She stumbled through it, mumbling and stumbling at every pronoun. It quickly became obvious that she wasn’t telling me some key details. I let that go, but fished out the key details. Her married lover was the spouse of someone important, in whatever work it was she did. It sounded like something important, but also something staid, and conservative. The kind of employment where hints of wrong-doing on the social front spoil careers. Academia, was my first thought, though I amended that with the possibility of entertainment, law enforcement, or politics.
She described a party, a night of too much to drink, and then some sort of pills, and then some sort of orgy, or something like it, where she was an observer more than a participant. After, she woke up with the worst hang-over of her life, in a room she didn’t’ know, in the arms of a someone unexpected.
That was the opening event of a weekend of booze and sex, some sort of debauchery hinted at but never quire revealed. It ended with the usual “we must never speak of this” speech from the lover, and promises from my mystery girl to never, ever speak of it again.
This was the point in the story where I interrupted her.
“Ok, I get that this Person was someone important. And that this Person is married to someone maybe even more important. I get that this couple would not only tear themselves apart over this, but that they’d bring down whatever they’re part of, and that they’d quite likely destroy your career, whatever the hell that is. Am I on track so far?
“Um. Well. Yeah,” she said.
“By why the gender pretense?”
she made noise, and sounded like she wasnted to protest, to deny what I was about to assert. But she didn’t say anything.
“I mean,” I said after a moment, “I know this person you’re seeing is a woman. So can we get back to the correct pronouns and quit with ‘they’ and ‘them’ and ‘this person’?
“I”m not gay,” she said, defensively.
“You know, I’ll forgo the male fantasy part of this. Lets just stipulate that and move on. But even so, why would that make any difference to me?”
“Hang on,” she said. I could hear ice rattle and then nose blowing.
”I’m sorry,” she started, when she came back. “It’s just that – I’ve never said this out loud. I don’t even know what to call it in my head. I don’t know what it is.”
I let that settle for a moment to see if there was any more coming. There wasn’t. I wondered if there were tears on her face, and wished I could wipe them away.
“Do you love her?”
“Are you having fun?”
“I – oh. Fuck. I don’t know.”
“I think that means you’re not.”
“I was,” she said. “It was so – wrong. So forbidden. I’ve never been with a girl, and she said she hadn’t been before (though I think she was lying). But then it started to get so complicated.”
“He – Max – her husband.”
“He found out?”
“No, he – he started to try to seduce me.”
Whoa. That wasn’t where I expected that to go.
“I was around their house all the time,” she said. “He thought I was just shopping with her, lunches, the club. But he looked at me, always, like he was hungry. Like he remembered every second of that first night.”
“You don’t remember it?”
She told me a stumbling narrative; he began to corner her, touch her. It worked up to grabbing, and then kissing, and then, when she said no, threats. So she gave in.
“So – let me get this straight – you’re having affairs. With both of them.
She started to sob outright. I let her go for a bit then talked her down.
“Look, I know you just wanted to tell me all this. But I can help you.”
“No you can’t.”
“I can. What’s your name?”
“What are their names.”
“I have to go,” she said. “I can’t do this anymore.”
She hung up. I was starting to hate the way she hung up without warning.