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issue 39: November - December 2003 

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Who I Was
Supposed To Be

H.A. Fleming

 

The day before he was arrested I spent the afternoon sitting cross-legged on his bed listening to his latest interpretation of Bob Dylan’s 115th dream. I couldn’t really follow it so I just listened to the rise and fall of his voice and concentrated on making the lines on the knees of his corduroy cargo pants match up to mine. He let me smoke the rest of his cigarette while he made some minor changes, getting ready to repeat it later to this woman from Starbucks he wanted to impress.
     "...so stylistically speaking it really comes down to a Melvillian sense of the sublime intermingled with Emersonian whim," he said and lit another cigarette. He once had an article about folk music published in the Long Island Voice. My mother says he’s probably a friend of the editor.
     "I friggin’ love you," I said and smoked the cigarette down to the filter. The gray smoke curled up towards the discolored ceiling, intermingling with his. He looked at me real slow and grabbed my thigh hard.
     "I knew I could count on you to love it Una," he said and smiled as he moved his hand away and towards his car keys on the beat-up nightstand. They jingled as he plucked them from the mess of beer bottles, cartons of Indian food and an overflowing ashtray. I could still feel the pressure of his fingertips on my leg as if I’d been bruised or marked somehow. I flopped back on his bed and ran my free hand over the black lint-flecked sheets. I thought I could smell perfume but I wasn’t sure.
     "I’ve got to go. I’ll call you and tell you how it went," he said, his voice excited and soft.
     "Oh, so I can’t stay? I really don’t feel like going home; my sister just got dumped and you know what that means—she and my mom are gonna finish off a bottle of vodka and talk shit about men all night."
     "You can hang out here for a little while if you want, just don’t smoke any of my pot. Your mom would kill me."
     His long thin fingers pulled at his hair to make it go the right way, while his cigarette hung loosely from his lips. He let it dangle there until the ashes fell off by themselves into a tiny gray pile on his bed. He then brushed them off onto the floor leaving a streak of soot behind.
     "Whatever. You said you were twelve when you started, and I’m fourteen."
     "True, true, but you’ll have to buy your own then; I’m not rich. Okay, how do I look?" he said, smoothing out the front of his sweater.
     "Like a bum, or an intellectual. Take your pick," I said and stretched my legs into the air.
     "Thanks Unes!" He waved as he went out the door. I heard the front door slam and sighed. I watched him from the window walk across the lawn into his car.
     I carry a small black marbled notebook full of things about him in my back pocket instead of a wallet--things like how his hair is turning gray even though he’s only twenty-seven, and what kind of cereal he eats. I live next door to him and I can see my bedroom window from his. His house is a small Cape covered in white aluminum siding that faded long ago to a pale smudged gray. The layout of his house is exactly like mine, that’s how it is in Levittown.
     When he came over to my house for the first time and saw our matching kitchens, he whispered to me that it was both frightening and comforting. He then smiled at my older sister, who was standing at the counter putting ointment on the new tattoo on her hip.
     "She’s engaged," I said quickly, and made her show him the ring.

***

I remember the day he moved in last year; my mother said she didn’t "like the looks of him."
     "He’s sort of beautiful," I said to her and went outside to say hello.
     He just grunted at me and said "Gimme a hand will ya?"
     I helped him carry his furniture in and afterward he let me pick out a book of his as payment because he hadn’t realized at first that I was a girl.
     "I didn’t mind, really. Don’t you think it’s sort of sexist to assume girls can’t carry boxes?" I said, lifting the book off the shelf nervously. I took T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. He smiled at me and took a swig of his beer.
     "What's your name neighbor?" he asked as he shelved the complete works of Herman Melville.
     "I’m Una. My mom thinks you sell drugs."
     "I’m a photographer, but for money I network computers. Though I’d make more selling drugs. It’s a sad, sad thing, Unes." He said my name like ‘Oons’ and I smiled over my new nickname and felt a rush of excitement in my stomach. I held the book her gave me tight to my chest.
     He invited me over to talk about The Wasteland and to help paint his living room a few days later. We painted the walls white, a blinding white that made everything else look dirty in comparison. He squatted shirtless on the floor painting the trim. His hands moved the brush slowly over the wood, careful not to drip any on the bare floor.
     "So why did you buy this house?" I asked, rolling the paint onto the wall in thick gloppy strokes. I had never painted a room before.
     "I rented it with my friend Jack who’s a grad student at Hofstra, but he ditched me two days before we moved in. Don’t know how long I can afford it though."
     "What a dick," I said and smiled.
     "Yeah, he is," he said and took a cigarette out of his pack on the floor.
     "Were you two lovers?"
     "No, what gave you that idea?" he laughed and brushed his hair out of his eyes.
     "Just asking. So have you ever been in love with a woman then? I’ve never been in love. I don’t think I would like it. I’ve never even kissed anyone," I said and got up to get more paint for my tray. I wasn’t really sure why I told him that.
     "C’mere, you’ve got a little something on your nose," he said and waved me back over. I knelt down next to him.
     "Yeah, right here," he said and touched the brush to my nose, covering it in paint.
     "Hey! You’re such a jerk," I yelled and smeared his cheek with paint.
     "I am?" he asked, and laughed, wiping the paint off his wire-rim glasses.
     "Yup, J-E-R-K" I said laughing, and painted the letters on his chest as I said them.
     "No, I think you are," he said and pushed up my shirt, writing the word jerk on my stomach. I giggled at the touch of the brush and the feel of his fingers. The paint was freezing and it dripped down my stomach and pooled in my belly button. We took turns writing insults on each other. We did it in a careful and deliberate way and after each word we looked at it and laughed if it was depraved enough.
     Afterwards we sat on the floor covered in paint and curses and drank iced tea.
     "So I read the book," I said, trailing my finger across the word ‘bitch’ on my arm.
     "Can I take your picture?" he asked, ignoring me. He took a sip of his drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, waiting for my answer. His eyes, pale and blue, looked hard at me as he tilted his head to one side.
     "Don’t you want to talk about The Wasteland?" I asked as he tipped my head back with his fingers. His face was close to mine and I stared at the reddish curve of his bottom lip.
     "Sure, right after I take your picture tell me everything it made you feel. Don’t move-- the angle of your chin is perfect."
     I sat there on the floor as he clicked the camera in front of me. I could feel the paint drying and turning chalky on my skin.
     After the roll was done he said, "It’s late—I think you should go home. Thanks for the help." We never did talk about the book.
     When I went home I rushed upstairs to wash off the curses before my mother found them. In the shower I watched as the milky white water ran down my legs and into the drain while I scrubbed my skin raw. I went back the next day to finish painting the room. After that I just kept coming back and he always let me in.
     Sometimes he calls me his ‘friend’ but mostly I’m just his ‘neighbor.’ He beeps and waves when he passes by in his car as I’m walking to school, but never offers me a ride. He never invites me where he goes, but he doesn’t have the heart to tell me to go home. Once I heard him on the phone whispering, "Something has to be done about Una."

***

Since I knew he’d be out late with Starbuck, I decided to put on one of his sweatshirts and his extra pair of wire-rim reading glasses. I looked on top of the dresser but they weren’t there. I poked my fingers into the top drawer; it smelled like clean laundry. Inside were about 30 pairs of expensive multicolored boxers. He dressed like a hippie but wore designer underwear. I took out the marbled notebook from my pocket and wrote that down.
     I got undressed and looked at myself in the mirror, my clothes rumpled in a ball at my feet. I turned sideways trying to see if my breasts had gotten any bigger, they hadn’t. I pulled on a pair of dark blue Tommy Hilfiger boxers. I stood in front of the mirror wearing his underwear and smoking his cigarettes for a while. I pushed my short brown hair in front of my eyes like his.
     The carpet felt like little fingers beneath my bare feet. I sat down on the rug and pulled on a pair of his socks that I saw peeking out from beneath his bed. The toes were stiff like he had spilled glue on them.
     "Gross," I whispered and quickly yanked them off and rubbed my toes clean on the floor. I shoved them back under the bed and my fingers pressed against something cold and flat.
     I carefully shimmied out a large black metal box. It was dusty except for where I could see his fingerprints smudged all over the lid. I wondered if this is where he kept his pot, and maybe some better drugs too. It wasn’t locked, but I waited a minute before pushing up the metal clasp and opening it. I flipped open my notebook and wrote: ‘Major Find.’
     Written on a piece of masking tape stuck to the inside lid was ‘Ex Girlfriends and other Women.’ Stacked inside were dozens of 8x10 prints of women, some of them naked, all of them beautiful. The date and name was written on the back of the prints in black felt tip marker. The edges of the paper looked worn and I wondered if he showed them to his friends after they broke up. As I sifted through them I kept hoping I’d find the ones he took of me the day we painted each other, but I didn’t.
     I took out each print one at a time and spread them on the floor. Their black and white bodies looked like statues, hard and impenetrable on the glossy paper. I picked up a picture entitled "Starbuck"; she was lying on his bed with her shirt unbuttoned, smoking a cigarette. I could see his shadow hitting across her legs and stomach and fading out onto the black sheets of his bed. On the back was her real name, ‘Maggie.’
     I opened my notebook and wrote about how he might have touched her, what her skin might smell like, and if it was her blonde hair that I found on his pillow last Wednesday. Her eyes were large and sad like she had just finished crying. I wrote, ‘I wonder what her tears taste like and if she will ever make him love her.’
     I folded her picture between the leaves of paper in my notebook and shut it tight. I wondered if he’d know it was missing. I decided it was a good thing that my pictures weren’t in with the others. I imagined them somewhere else, maybe tucked away somewhere with his landscapes.
     The clock on his nightstand beeped on the hour and I looked up to a flashing red nine o’clock. I knew my mother would be beginning to worry, so I searched through the piles of his dirty clothes on the floor to find the phone.
     She thinks I made a best friend named Jennifer who goes to private school. When I told her that Jennifer’s family thinks of me almost like another daughter, she whispered in her tired, sad way "Oh Una, see I told you things would get better," and stopped looking through my drawers for drugs.
     She answered on the first ring.
     "Hello?" she said, and I could hear the TV loud in the background.
     "Ma, it’s me, I’m going to sleep over Jen’s," I said holding my breath even though I knew she couldn’t tell how close I really was over the phone.
     "Oh, all right. When am I going to meet this girl? I’m glad you are having fun though. It’s been so long since you had a nice girlfriend," she said, and I could hear her slurp her drink.
     "You sure she’s not with that guy?" my sister shouted in the background.
     "What guy, Una? Do you have a boyfriend?" my mother whispered excitedly.
     "No. I don’t like anyone, especially some boy from my school," I said.
     "She says she doesn’t know any boys from school," my mother yelled back.
     My sister picked up the line and said, "If he went to her school I wouldn’t be worried."
     "I’ve got to go, Jen’s Dad is taking us to rent Reservoir Dogs. Bye," I said and hung up.

***

My mother liked the old family who used to live next door, the Pratts, who had a daughter my age who secretly threw up everything she ate. Her name was Angela and my mother used to make me hang out after school at her house until she came home from work. The last time I had to go over there we sat in her living room and watched TV without talking while she munched carrot sticks that got caught in her braces.
     "So," I said.
     "Ricki Lake is a pretty good show. I like it when she has the fat sluts on that think they look good," Angie said and laughed; a chunk of carrot flew out of her mouth and landed on my knee.
     "It’s all right" I said and flicked it off.
     "I like the make-over shows too. You should grow your hair long and wear lipstick. Don’t you care what the guys at school think? They call you a dog. "
     "I don’t care, they are just immature idiots," I answered and tried not to cry. I took a sip of my chocolate milk and wished I were home.
     "I don’t think you’re ugly, and you’re so thin. You’re lucky you got good genes," she whispered and turned towards me.
     "Thanks I guess," I said and bit into one of her carrot sticks.
     "I’m on a diet. I want to try out for Cheering but not with these thighs," she said and slapped her leg. She wasn’t fat but she wasn’t really thin either.
     "You look all right. I wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those stupid Cheerleader skirts," I said and smiled at her.
     "Do you want to practice kissing?" she asked and looked at me. Her lips were stained orange and there was an urgent look in her eyes. She leaned into me.
     "I don’t think so," I said and got up and sat on the couch. I placed the rest of the carrot stick on the flowered seat and rolled it over the fabric. She remained cross-legged on the floor twirling her dark blonde hair tight around her fingers.
     "I was just kidding," she said with her back turned to me. We didn’t say anything else until my mom pulled into our driveway.
     Angie told everyone at school the next day that I tried to watch her change through the louvered doors in the Gap dressing room last summer, which wasn’t even true.
     In the hall after lunch I heard someone whisper, "Dyke." It was Angie standing with a bunch of girls she never used to be friends with.
     "Shut up!" I yelled but she just said it again even louder and they giggled. "Why don’t you just go throw up your lunch like you do every day," I yelled and shoved her into the lockers. She banged her face with her binder and a thin trickle of blood like a red worm curled out from her nose.
     "I told you she was crazy," Angie whimpered, holding her binder tight to her chest, her knuckles white. She licked her upper lip searching for blood with her tongue.
     "I didn’t know you were bulimic," Carrie Blake, the Cheerleading captain, said to Angie, trying not to smile.
     I got suspended, but at least I didn’t have to go over to her house after that. I read in my room alone, or walked to K-Mart where my sister worked, and ate dinner with her on her break.
     When Angie moved away she came to my door and handed me a letter and whispered, "I’m sorry." I stared at her through the screen and watched her get into her parents’ minivan before I threw it away without reading it. The house was only empty for two days before he moved in.

***

After I hung up with my mother on the phone I went downstairs to get a beer. Before leaving his bedroom I took a cigarette from the pack lying on the floor next to the doorway and lit it with the silver lighter that he never takes anywhere. The air was cool against my bare skin and gave me goose bumps. His living room was brightly lit and empty except for a TV on a crate and a black leather recliner. I touched the chair and shivered; it was like ice. His kitchen was small and had only a single bulb hanging on a string from the ceiling. It reminded me of the depressing Russian films he always asks me to watch with him. The Pratts had taken the ceiling fan light fixture with them. The only things in his fridge were a six-pack of Heineken, an orange, and thirteen diet sodas. I reached back for my notebook, forgetting what I was wearing.
     "Diet soda," I whispered.
     I grabbed two beers and drank them while looking at the rest of his pictures on the floor in his room. The walls were still purple from when it had been Angela’s and there was a big poster of a naked Janis Joplin where Angie’s picture of a chestnut horse used to be. I pushed the empty bottles under the bed and they clinked against the wall without breaking.
     I climbed into his bed and picked at the leftover Indian food. It was cold but good. I drew the blankets up around my shoulders and stretched out on the bed. I pulled up the blinds and turned my head to look out the window towards my room. The light was on and my mother was in there vacuuming. I pulled the blankets up over my head and clutched my knees to my chest. I ran my fingertips over the soft down on my calves while watching my mother from a small opening in the sheet. Her figure, small and wearing only a T- shirt, moved around my room cleaning with an unlit cigarette in her mouth. For a moment she looked out the window and I could feel her eyes on me. She stopped and walked over. The vacuum was standing upright still running and I held my breath. She frowned, yanked her T-shirt down over her thighs with one hand as she reached up and quickly pulled down the shade with the other. I touched my fingers to the glass of his window and exhaled as she disappeared.
     I woke up a few hours later when he came home late and drunk from his date with Starbuck. He didn’t notice me as he got undressed and fell into bed. I could hear someone in the bathroom running the water as he began to snore. I grabbed my notebook off the floor and crept out into the hall without waking him. The bathroom door was half open and Starbuck was brushing her hair in front of the cracked mirror. She scrunched her lips together as she smeared on some Chapstick. I could see myself, small and dark, standing behind her in the mirror.
     "Shit, you scared me," she laughed and swung around pulling the door open. "Who are you?" she yelled when she realized I wasn’t him.
     "I’m Una," I said and stuck my thumb in the waistband of my boxers. She was prettier than her picture and only half as drunk as he was. She quickly snatched up a pink condom from the counter and put it in her pocket.
     "Oh my God, you’re that weird little girl he talks about," she said and covered her mouth. "How long has this been going on?" She asked and touched my bare shoulder.
     "Years," I said.
     "We have to get out of here," she said, her eyes desperate and wide. I thought of going with her, of driving away in the front seat of her car listening to the radio and maybe getting breakfast at the diner where she would tell me everything was going to be all right.
     "I can’t go, it’s not what you think," I said and pushed her hand away.
     "What do you mean it’s not what I think?"
     "I don’t know," I said and crossed my arms over my chest.
     "What is it then? Is he hurting you? Do you think you’re in love with him? Wait, does he even know you’re here?" she whispered quickly and shook me.
     "It’s this," I said and handed her my marbled notebook. She flipped it open and saw the half-naked picture of herself. I had forgotten it was even in there.
     "I’ve got to leave. I, I don’t need this," she said, putting her hand over her eyes. She pushed past me and walked slowly down the stairs with my notebook in one hand and her picture in the other. She stumbled on the last step but didn’t fall.
     "Wait!" I yelled from the top of the stairs but she was gone.
     I heard the front door slam as I picked up her hairbrush; it was full of lint and blonde tangles. I dropped it in the garbage and walked back to his room. The open door to his bedroom cast a pale gray light across the wall and I could see his chest slowly rise and fall as he slept. I got into bed with him and closed my eyes.
     "Maggie?" he mumbled and sighed. I sighed for her too. I could hear Starbuck out in the driveway trying to start her car. The engine wouldn’t turn over.
     "What’s that noise?" he asked pulling the pillow over his head.
     "Shh," I whispered, my hand on his thigh.
     I inched closer to him, feeling the heat from his body and touched him lightly, sliding my palms down the curve of his body, and running my fingertips over his skin. I imagined my fingers were writing on his body, marking it. I traced my name over his hip, over the hollow of his throat. His breath began to quicken as I kissed his shoulder. His skin was soft and smelled like soap, sweat, and alcohol. He smelled like a memory.
     As I opened my eyes I knew everything was going to be different. I wondered if Starbuck would get the cops, and what my mother and everyone at school would say if she did. I wasn’t afraid. I leaned my head against his chest and I heard the sound of his pulse soft in my ear as he put his arms around me.
     I looked out into the gray early morning light of his room and I could slowly begin to see the soft outline of my clothes entwined with his on the floor, dark and indistinguishable from one another.
      

H. A. Fleming 2003

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author bio

H.A. FlemingH. A. Fleming lives on Long Island. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College where she studied creative writing. Her short stories and poetry have been published in or will soon appear in Carve Magazine, Literary Potpourri, Word Riot and other journals. "Who I was Supposed to Be" is a part of a series of related short stories that she is working on called Island Girls.
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issue 39: November - December 2003 

 
Short Fiction

Jesse Shepard: First Day She’d Never See
Heather Imani: Martini
Nick Antosca: Where You Can’t Go Again
Marc DuBois: Match End
H.A. Fleming: Who I Was Supposed To Be

   picks from back issues
Irvine Welsh: A Fault on the Line
Pinckney Benedict: Dog

Essay

Josh Capps
Pa Don’s Troops

Quiz

18th-Century English Literature
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Book Reviews

Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes
The Last Summer of Reason
and The Watchers
by Tahar Djaout

Kids’ Stuff by Henry Sutton
The Long Haul by Amanda Stern
Back Around the Houses by Amanda Boulter
Bliss Street by Ken Kenway

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