Like Airplanes and Stars
Ronnie drove toward the boutique hotel where she would, ostensibly, sleep with a man she hadn’t met. She had downloaded one of his articles several months ago, she had pondered, she had written him. They corresponded on email, they commented on each other’s status updates, she snapped pictures of the flowering trees and the cover of his book and her cute ankles, and sent them. Still, they hadn’t spoken until she rang him from a dressing room in the quiet corner of a department store. She described the louvered white door, her position on the bench, and her glossy black boots in the mirror, before she asked him to guide her, as she termed it, “on a journey of self-discovery.” It sounded, at first, as though he’d toppled a glass of ice water onto a tilted drafting table, but in a cautious, paternal voice, led her through a series of manipulations so vanilla, so cardboard, she worried she’d have to offer him a false overreaction. It hadn’t ended that way, of course. He’d given her the one instruction she hadn’t expected, and at that, she dropped her phone onto the floor with such a clatter, the dressing room attendant inquired at a distance too shallow for casual suspicion. Ronnie broke for a red light. Europe, she’d once read, ended with the Rocky Mountains. America began to the west of them, and there, at the corner of Broadway and a numbered street, her car idled well to the west of where Europe ended and America began. Her cell phone woke beside the gear-shift, a message from her father, who had a fondness for texting her after tippling the rail scotch. “Your mother has a boyfriend,” he’d entered, in the first thought balloon, and in the second balloon, “Your mother’s boyfriend isn’t me.” A driver behind Ronnie tapped his horn. Ronnie drove through the intersection. She was and wasn’t married. She’d traded vows with her partner, Nick, at the courthouse, in front of a judge, but they had yet to file the official paperwork. She loved Nick and she didn’t love him, she liked Nick and she didn’t like him, she married Nick and she didn’t marry him, she would tell Nick the truth and she would lie. “I’m going to meet Jenny at the Mod,” she’d hollered, even as the writer-chap had flown into the city as one of the starred presenters at a conference headquartered in the boutique hotel. Nick’s loft had been featured in a trendy magazine, and in the depths of its exposed brick, enlarged tintypes, and rococo molding, Nick spat out toothpaste, “gurph!” He had opened a door just as she had closed one. If he’d said “See you later” his words had been diluted by the echo of her heels clapping the corridor tile. Ronnie broke for another traffic signal. Her father had thumbed in two more thought balloons. The first read, “I know I’m an ass but I’m a funny ass.” The second balloon clarified this observation: “A funny ass is the butt of many jokes.” There were a dozen seconds available to pedestrians in the crosswalk yet a redhead was leading a three-legged mutt, perhaps a boxer, in the kind of slow harmony that develops among long-term companions. The woman, tall and gorgeous, reminded Ronnie of a childhood friend, Go Show, short for Georgette Showalter, a junk-food vegetarian and redhead. She and Go Show had, one teenage evening, stowed away upon the public bus route, the 2 Bus North, which would carry them to a heartthrob teen idol concert. Halfway into the ride, a 50 year-old man sat beside them. He’d combed his sweaty hair from the left ear to the right ear, he wore a black raincoat atop a flannel snap shirt with very few snaps engaged. “Look here,” he’d said, unzipping a long duffel bag full of guns: thirty, maybe forty pistols. She and Go Show had closed their eyes—fragility trusting to a State of Benevolence in advance of any pleas to a vaporous deity. Ronnie had considered the severity of this moment many times as an adult, not just the implicit danger of the man, but what it would’ve sounded like, and looked like, if all the pistols had been fired. “Like airplanes and stars,” she thought. She idled at a parking meter, a block from the boutique hotel. She studied her mouth in the rearview mirror, its two squiggly corners. Ronnie had learned to cool the arrival of reason with the fluency of anger, and did so, twisting the tires toward the curb and wrenching the ignition off.
Dan Gutstein is the author of non/fiction (stories) and Bloodcoal & Honey (poems) as well as stories and poems that have appeared in more than 95 publications. He lives in Washington, D.C., works in Baltimore, and cheers for Swansea City in the English Premier League. His newest nickname is El Gringo and he blogs at http://dangutstein.blogspot.com/