|Who I Was
Supposed To Be
The day before he was arrested I spent the afternoon sitting
cross-legged on his bed listening to his latest interpretation of Bob Dylans 115th
dream. I couldnt 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 hes 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 Id 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
"Ive got to go. Ill call you and tell you
how it went," he said, his voice excited and soft.
"Oh, so I cant stay? I really dont feel
like going home; my sister just got dumped and you know what that meansshe 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 dont 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 Im fourteen."
"True, true, but youll have to buy your own then;
Im not rich. Okay, how do I look?" he said, smoothing out the front of his
"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 hes 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, thats 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.
"Shes engaged," I said quickly, and made her
show him the ring.
I remember the day he moved in last year; my mother said she didnt "like the
looks of him."
"Hes sort of beautiful," I said to her and
went outside to say hello.
He just grunted at me and said "Gimme a hand will
I helped him carry his furniture in and afterward he let me
pick out a book of his as payment because he hadnt realized at first that I was a
"I didnt mind, really. Dont you think
its sort of sexist to assume girls cant carry boxes?" I said, lifting the
book off the shelf nervously. I took T.S. Eliots 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.
"Im Una. My mom thinks you sell drugs."
"Im a photographer, but for money I network
computers. Though Id make more selling drugs. Its 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 whos a grad
student at Hofstra, but he ditched me two days before we moved in. Dont 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? Ive never been in love. I dont think I would like it. Ive
never even kissed anyone," I said and got up to get more paint for my tray. I
wasnt really sure why I told him that.
"Cmere, youve 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! Youre 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.
"Dont 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. Dont 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, "Its lateI
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
Im just his neighbor. He beeps and waves when he passes by in his car as
Im walking to school, but never offers me a ride. He never invites me where he goes,
but he doesnt 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 hed 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 werent 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 hadnt. 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 wasnt 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 Id find the ones he took of me the day we painted each other, but I
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
I folded her picture between the leaves of paper in my
notebook and shut it tight. I wondered if hed know it was missing. I decided it was
a good thing that my pictures werent 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 oclock. 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 Jennifers 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
"Ma, its me, Im going to sleep over
Jens," I said holding my breath even though I knew she couldnt tell how
close I really was over the phone.
"Oh, all right. When am I going to meet this girl?
Im glad you are having fun though. Its been so long since you had a nice
girlfriend," she said, and I could hear her slurp her drink.
"You sure shes not with that guy?" my sister
shouted in the background.
"What guy, Una? Do you have a boyfriend?" my
mother whispered excitedly.
"No. I dont like anyone, especially some boy from
my school," I said.
"She says she doesnt know any boys from
school," my mother yelled back.
My sister picked up the line and said, "If he went to
her school I wouldnt be worried."
"Ive got to go, Jens 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.
"Its all right" I said and flicked it off.
"I like the make-over shows too. You should grow your
hair long and wear lipstick. Dont you care what the guys at school think? They call
you a dog. "
"I dont 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 dont think youre ugly, and youre
so thin. Youre lucky you got good genes," she whispered and turned towards me.
"Thanks I guess," I said and bit into one of her
"Im on a diet. I want to try out for Cheering but
not with these thighs," she said and slapped her leg. She wasnt fat but she
wasnt really thin either.
"You look all right. I wouldnt 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 dont 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 didnt 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
wasnt 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
"Shut up!" I yelled but she just said it again
even louder and they giggled. "Why dont 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 didnt know you were bulimic," Carrie
Blake, the Cheerleading captain, said to Angie, trying not to smile.
I got suspended, but at least I didnt 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, "Im 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 Angelas and there was a big poster of a naked Janis Joplin where Angies
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 didnt 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
"Im 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, youre 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 cant go, its not what you think," I
said and pushed her hand away.
"What do you mean its not what I think?"
"I dont know," I said and crossed my arms
over my chest.
"What is it then? Is he hurting you? Do you
think youre in love with him? Wait, does he even know youre here?"
she whispered quickly and shook me.
"Its 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.
"Ive got to leave. I, I dont 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 didnt 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
wouldnt turn over.
"Whats 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 wasnt 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.