I had seen her walk up to the ice-cream stand before, the girl who always got the strawberry ice-cream cone. I was seated at a table on the pier, the bar not far behind me, trying to write as I had been for the past few weeks. The ice-cream stand stood on the boardwalk just to the side of the pier, so that it was easy to see this girl looking out at the ocean with her heavy eyes, with a futile hope for things past, slowly licking the dribbles from her strawberry ice-cream cone. She was lightly tanned, this girl, and she usually, though I had seen many of her styles, wore her straw hair pulled back. Whenever she would finish her cone she would look out at the ocean for a moment or two, sigh at the ever-changing face of the surf and float back down the boardwalk. She would walk with her shoulders back and her chin up, not in a haughty way but with a gentle confidence; a person all too comfortable with her surroundings.
I had gone to Seaside that summer to write. I was just finished with college and I had no intentions to immediately begin a career. I wanted to write stories and that was why I was there: the white sand and crowded bungalows where I’d spent my younger years held such potent memories of vibrant emotion, of the vivid clarity of teenage angst and the wild yearning to live free….
The past few weeks I had half written several stories, never finding the heart I needed to finish them. I felt I knew why I was having such an awful time but it remained foggy, vague; as if the reason was buried in my brain at just the place I couldn’t reach it. I had learned in college about the things inside which you can’t control: the need to sleep, eat, love and reproduce; desires if you will. These exist in you but are buried too deep, in some dark corner and you can’t understand them. And as it follows, quite naturally, what you can’t understand you haven’t the power to control; they, in a way, have control and find expression through you. Yet don’t they say that ignorance is bliss? That sometimes, even though you know you can turn it on, it is sometimes better to hold your hand from the switch and walk the corridor dark? I’m sure I’ve heard them say this.
I was having trouble staying focused on my work and I closed my journal, called to the bar for their cheapest beer. It all tasted the same and I sat there at the plastic table baking under the sun, not caring that my drink grew warm. I looked over at the tables in the shade but I didn’t get up, just sat there watching people walk along the boardwalk. I had lately become quite interested in watching people, thinking up stories of what I would say and even how I would act were I in their positions. This is what I did when I couldn’t write, this is the reason I ever noticed this ice-cream girl in the first place. And I know what you’re thinking, but honestly, the fact of the matter stands that I observed this girl with the same detached interest as I did everybody.
I gave up writing for the day. It was still the early afternoon but I knew I would get nothing else done. I gathered my things and didn’t bother to finish the beer. Then I walked over for an ice-cream. I got a small cone and stood against the railing not too far from this girl.
‘Hi. How are you today?’ I said this with polite disinterest as I ate my cone, didn’t even bother to look over.
She shrugged. ‘Not bad I guess, thank you.’ I didn’t say anything back because I wasn’t looking for a conversation, just being polite, but after a moment she said, ‘I’ve seen you over there, you know.’
‘Over on the pier. Quite the people watcher, huh?’
‘When I can’t write, I guess I like to unobtrusively watch people.’ I ate my cone and I saw her glance over.
‘So what, you’re not going to say you’ve seen me?’
‘No, I wasn’t going to. But since you mentioned it, why always the strawberry?’
‘It’s my favorite.’ The ice-cream melted onto her hand and she used a napkin to clean it. ‘So what is it you write about?’
‘Life, I suppose. Though it hasn’t been going well lately.’
‘Your writing?’ She finished her cone and looked quietly at the ocean. After a few moments, ‘Well, mister unobtrusive people watcher, I’m sure that I’ll see you tomorrow, maybe from our usual distance, maybe not. I bid you farewell.’
I watched for a moment as she walked down the boardwalk. Odd girl, I thought. I tossed my cone in the garbage and walked back to the house.
It was a small, run-down beach house we were sharing, I and a few college friends for the summer. I lay in bed that next morning, staring for a good while at the dusty sunlight on my ceiling. I felt empty, as if a part of my stomach had been surgically removed and no one told me. Then I got up to eat a bowl of Cheerios at the table in our Formica kitchen. Scott and his girlfriend, at the time, they were sitting next to each other on the couch holding each other in this half-embrace, having a heart to heart. I spooned my cereal and looked over the crossword. I could hear him apologizing to her for the night before, trying to placate this girlfriend of his and he was doing a good job too, she was eating it up real lovey-dovey. They had really been going at it the night before: him drunk and yelling, her drunk and crying. It wasn’t anything really, happens all the time; my roommates and their girlfriends are always arguing, always breaking up, then come the baby scares. But it had taken six of us to calm them down and smooth everything out. Well, I mostly stayed out of it all. Why the drama? I don’t need it. I pulled a warm beer from the fridge and swung the door closed, going back to my Cheerios.
‘That girl Annalise was asking where you were the other night,’ piped up Scott.
‘Yeah whatever. She’s goin’ to the show later though, her and Meghan are trying to hangout.’ I ate my cereal. ‘You gonna’ come?’ he added after a moment.
I shrugged without looking up, ‘I don’t know, maybe. I’ll see what’s going on.’
‘Why not? I thought you loved The Down Beats?’
‘Yeah, they’re alright I guess.’
I sat at my usual table that afternoon and ordered a few beers, letting them sit long in the sun before I drank them. It was very humid out and the patio was filled with men and women at little plastic tables, sharing drinks and cute ideas. I watched one couple for a while, both of them leaning forward face to face whispering to one another. He would smile and say something cute and she would smile and touch his hand. The patio was overcrowded and I felt penned-up, full of steam that couldn’t evaporate and the sweat rolled off my arms, puddled on the table. I don’t why I bothered going out that day because I knew I wouldn’t get any writing done. All of this was a giant waste of time and I don’t know why I bothered to get out of bed that day.
I gave up, closed my notebook and went for an ice-cream instead. I stood against the railing looking out at the waves while I ate my cone. I’ve always had this thing where I keep looking around me; maybe it’s nerves, maybe it’s self-consciousness or unconscious, I couldn’t tell the difference. But one of the times when I glanced behind me I saw this girl walking up to the stand, though she didn’t notice me catch sight of her.
‘You again?’ she said.
‘What, like you just happened to be here at the same time, again?’
‘Yeah, I always get ice-cream after lunch – So what’s your favorite game on the boardwalk?’
She smiled shy and looked down at her cone. She had a thin face. ‘Win Some, Lose Some – you know, the one where you spin the wheel and throw the darts. That one’s my favorite.’
‘Are you one of those people who play just ‘cus they like spinning wheels, but never actually win anything?’
‘Sometimes, I suppose. Why, did you ever win the game?’
‘Once or twice. But the prizes are so small you lose them after a few days. That’s why I play the games with the appliances.’
‘What, are you Mr. Good House-Keeping?’
‘No, but who ever lost a toaster?’ That one made her laugh. We kept talking after we had finished our cones and I learned her name was Cynthia, and I told her I was Robert. I continued to meet her at the stand over the next week, her always getting strawberry and me trying to keep some variance. We struck up a pleasant acquaintance, me and her, it was an easy, relaxed relationship, a sort of disinterested friendship we both knew would never be anything else. She told me how she and her friends rented a house every summer there, working jobs at someone’s uncle’s bar and grill. She also told me about her ex-boyfriend who lived a few miles inland, always stressing how she was so glad she’d ended it, how she felt it had wasted so much of her time and how he never took her anywhere. I told her how I was trying to write and living in a house with a few friends from school.
The next week saw a lot of rain; Cynthia and I a lot of movies. In the dark theaters we would kiss and pretend no one noticed. On the couch she would fall asleep on my shoulder and I would kiss her forehead. I knew I wasn’t emotionally attached to this girl, but rather satisfied with the idea of being with someone – as long as it didn’t become an emotional fiasco: I’ve never, never envied the shouts and tears.
The weather cleared up for the 4th of July and Cynthia took off from work; we were going to the boardwalk to see the annual fireworks display. Everyone was together, Scott and Pete and their girlfriends and Cynthia and I. The boardwalk was packed with people: families with their children, indignant teenagers with too much to drink and too much to spare; the goths and guidos, punks and low-down townies and all the office clerks and accountants; everyone was out and the boardwalk lights twinkled.
That whole evening is etched with unfading clarity upon my mind: the colored lights from all the games, wrapping us in warm excitement, the bells ringing and people cheering, the smell of fried dough and the balloons and giant stuffed animals that people would awkwardly carry around, not sure what to do with. I won Cynthia a stuffed dog by throwing darts a wheel. It was a useless thing, but she said she loved it and I figured she’d misplace it soon enough. We stopped for a while at a bar to have a few drinks. Bruce Springsteen was playing from the speakers, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’
‘Didn’t someone use this song in a campaign?’ said Pete. He was ordering drinks at the bar. ‘Anyone else for a shot?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘but I mean yes – Reagan did in the ‘80’s. I think someone lied to him about what the song was about, to use him for publicity.’
‘You mean they turned the tables!’
‘So Robby,’ piped up Scott, ‘You two official yet?’
I wanted to say no, that’s what I wanted my answer to be, but I looked at Cynthia’s wide hazels and I could tell what she wanted me to say: ‘Yeah, definitely,’ I said. It seemed as if she was about to add something, a word poised to burst from her cheeks. Instead, she looked down at her beer, waited a moment, and drank till the can was empty. What an awesome girl, I thought. I still wasn’t into her, honest, we just had a lot in common, and I enjoyed being able to spend time with her; though I dreaded when I would have to break it off, because I could tell she was really beginning to feel for me.
We walked around then, playing all the games, and Cynthia held my hand, smiling all the while. She looked so excited with her beaming eyes, taking in everything and so full of questions. The six of us raced to see who could fill a balloon with a water gun the fastest: that was one of the games. Cynthia won and jumped up and down, clapping as she collected her prize: a small ukulele.
‘This is the most fun I’ve had at the boardwalk, ever.’
‘You sure you get out much?’ remarked Pete’s girlfriend. She wore heavy lipstick.
Cynthia glanced over at her but didn’t say anything back. The look in her eyes I can remember; as if she wanted to scream some truth at her but decided it best not to. Cynthia and I split from the group then, just for a little while and we said we would meet up again for the fireworks.
We stopped at the ice-cream shop and Cynthia tried raspberry coconut for the first time.
There was a moment that night when the two of us stood against the railing, watching the waves break on the beach. We could see spots of light far out on the water, the lighted windows of a cruise ship. I put my arm around her and we talked about the stars in the sky because none were out. Then a long moment was caught, hanging so pleasantly, the perfect moment suspended between her eyes and mine – there was something I wanted, something I craved and needed like a desperate drink of water and a cloud of impulse suffocated my senses. I pulled her tight and felt her hair between my fingers, could taste the fruit on her lips.
‘I really like you,’ she said.
‘I really like you too.’
‘Where should we go to see the fireworks?’
I thought for a moment and looked around. ‘C’mon,’ I said, taking her hand. ‘We need to be quick.’ I hopped over the gate that led to the ramp down to the beach. It was closed, being after 6 p.m., but the gate was only waist-high. I took her hand; she was spry climbing over and down the ramp we hurried.
‘It’s a spot I used to visit in high school.’ We walked along the top of the beach, close to the bottom of the boardwalk so we couldn’t be seen.
‘Is this where you bring all your girlfriends?’
‘No, not at all. I’m not like that,’ I said sincerely. ‘We used to come here at night to drink and watch the fireworks, that’s it.’
The sand at the top of the beach sloped upwards, the boardwalk built on top of the dunes. Certain stretches were fenced off but I knew where the fence ended; several nights and several girlfriends had sort of etched the place into my head somewhere.
‘Have you ever watched fireworks from the beach?’ I asked her.
‘Not once,’ she whispered.
We found a place near the pier and we could hear the roller-coasters, the screams and the clank-clank-clank of the cars on their tracks. We sat in the sand just beneath the boardwalk so we could watch the stretch of sky where the fireworks would appear. Light from the boardwalk flooded the beach and all we could see were the abandoned sandcastles, the empty stands of the lifeguards, the surf where the waves churned white and the cold sand. In a way the beach was the extent of our external perceptions, and beyond that, to us, was nothing: a perimeter of darkness. Even the beach itself sloped down beneath the waves, lost itself in the empty thoughts of a foreign ocean; foreign because we could not see it, but only faintly hear the waves beneath the sounds of vigor from the boardwalk above. And this was where we chose to sit: in the dark beneath the boardwalk, scarcely able to see the expressions on each other’s faces – and this was where we smiled our truest. In the shadows we laid bare our wants and desires, hidden from view where nobody, even ourselves, would ever see them; where deceptive romance would exist forever, unchanged because it was unknown.
The fireworks began to much applause, the fwa-oompsh of the rockets taking off and the red and golds bursting in the night, the sparkles drooping in the sky like branches of a weeping willow. We didn’t see much more than that; we kissed hard and passionate and she pulled me down in the sand – the finale timed perfectly.
‘I’m glad we did this,’ she said after a while.
‘Definitely something I’ve never done before.’
I looked at her.
‘Beneath the boardwalk, I mean to say.’
‘Oh. Me too.’
A few weeks later we were sitting on a bench on the boardwalk, eating ice-cream cones. It was damn hot out. Cynthia was enjoying some obscure caramel flavor neither of us had ever heard of, while I ate mint-chocolate. I kept looking over at her, I couldn’t help it: her thin features and supple nose, her wide hazels and even the smudges of sunburn beneath her eyes, the sweaty strands of hair tucked behind her ears. She would look back at me with her eyes bright like the sun, her lashes like rays of sunshine, and smile at me big and full and lovely and I would smile wider still, bigger than ever at the most precious thing to inhabit the Earth. It was a struggle not to constantly plant kisses on her cheek, so fertile as it was, though I knew something had already grown between us, grown and blossomed and that there existed no way in either Heaven or Hell to trim its wild branches.
She smiled up at me and I smiled back. ‘What happened?’ I said. ‘You don’t enjoy strawberry anymore?’
‘No, strawberry will always be my favorite.’ She had the most unforgiving smile.
Even when I was not with her, all it took was the thought of her smile to burn in my chest a strange unfettered joy. We spent time every day, and in the dark humidity of night we would lie in bed and whisper to each other, our skin still sticky with sweat from love, and she would spill herself to me, and I savored, believed with the fullness of my heart every word she ever spoke. What I loved most was the way we never fought: things existed with perfect balance between us, and I knew they would never change; it was too perfect, and I would never allow them to. I truly cared for this girl, I did, and I would never allow things between us to break apart.
‘Where’d you get that ridiculous hat?’ I said. It was fuzzy and white, with a flower on it.
‘You got it for me.’
‘Liar. I have much better taste than that.’
‘Well you did.’
‘Hm. I must have thought it would look better on you then.’
‘I kind of like it, I think I may start wearing hats.’
‘If you really don’t want me to, I’m going to anyway.’
We finished our cones and spent a while looking out at the ocean, not saying anything, just enjoying the moment. Then we walked to the Funtown Pier. We’d been going there a lot lately, only paying for the rides that unwound our stomachs. We’d been whirled in circles, spun upside-down, experienced free-fall and been swung on a bungee-chord off the edge of the pier. Our favorite rollercoaster had a dangerously sharp turn right above the ocean, so that every time you’d hope the car wouldn’t make the turn, and instead launch you off the edge of the pier and into the ocean. The rides were half-off during the day, and fortunately Cynthia always had a pocket full of coupons, because despite what she said, I was always the one who would pay in the end.
Cynthia was always excited at the pier, full of buoyancy and life and with a vibrant smile would say to me, ‘These are the amusements I like best!’ And I always agreed, I was the same way, and I couldn’t blame her for it, nor did it bother me because I knew she truly cared.
‘What about her?’ Cynthia pointed.
‘Eh… you’re still prettier.’
‘Really? I think she looks like a supermodel.’ Cynthia wasn’t ever jealous, that was another thing: I could be friendly with other girls and that’s another reason why things between us were so simple and perfect: love without jealousy.
‘Don’t say that, I could be jealous, Robert.’
‘Yeah! These other girls I don’t care about, but, if you were spending time alone with one of them, I’d be jealous. But I know you, Robert. Sometimes I think I know what you’re doing before you do, so I’m not jealous, just in control of things.’ I leaned over and put my lips to the soft color on her cheek. ‘But I have to go babysit now. I’ll stop by your house when I’m done.’ I wasn’t ready to go back to the house yet; I was bored and I didn’t feel like writing. I thought instead to walk around for a while.
Every house in town was pastel colored, with a little porch, A/C units in the windows and pebbles instead of grass in every yard. And they were all shoulder-width apart. I checked each bar and they were all over-crowded, with over-priced drinks and shitty ‘house’ music. And holy Christ! Why did everyone have to get the same haircuts with too much gel? And the girls! All of them with fake tans and giant hair! But when I thought about it, things had been that way for a while, at any rate.
I did though, happen to pass a maintenance crew working on the sidewalk. They had a long iron bar and kept jamming it into the sidewalk, into the little spaces, really wedging it in there because they were trying to lift a portion of the sidewalk up, or else trying to break it up into pieces, prying at the cracks, and they were really making a lot of noise. But I couldn’t really see what they were doing. It made me think though.
I went back to the house and Scott and Pete were in the living room with two of their friends, and Annabel-lise was there too. Apparently she had come over just for the hell of it, because she was bored and all, but when I walked in I noticed her eyes widen and she sat up straight on the couch. I sat down in the old armchair and didn’t pay her any attention.
‘Annabel-lise, what are you doing here?’
‘I came over for the hell of it. I was bored and all.’ She smiled her big white teeth.
The baseball game was on and Pete was explaining how he still truly cared for this girlfriend of his, but that she used and abused him and was more-or-less of the character termed ‘bitch’.
‘I don’t know what to do. She blew me off all night, finally showed up at like, two, drunk as shit, and of course I flipped out at her –’
And of course we had all heard the argument the night before, it was impossible to miss the yelling at two in the morning. And it so happened that the people who were listening to Pete’s story had been at the house the night before, had invariably gotten themselves involved in the yelling. I had stayed in bed, obviously, and I couldn’t understand how they could sit there and listen to the story when they had been there. They were so wrapped up in Pete’s words, involved, almost vicariously it would seem, in what Pete was saying, offering advice and inanities, consolations by the heap; pandering drama like serving cake to distended bellies. I sat quietly and watched the baseball game. The Yankees were up at bat.
Eventually Pete and Scott had to leave for work, and their two friends got up quick to follow. Annabel-lise stayed behind. I thought of telling her she too had to go, but I couldn’t see a good reason why I should. I wasn’t doing anything else and there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. She was good company and what would it matter in the end? I got up to sit on the couch, at the opposite end from her, but only so I could see the TV easier.
She was picking at her nails. ‘Is this all you guys do? Just hangout and watch sports all day?’
‘We do other things. Why, is there something else you’d rather watch?’
‘Just about anything. See what’s on MTV.’
‘I’d rather watch baseball. MTV has only those reality shows and then the Jersey Shore.’
‘Same shit as your baseball.’
‘Think about it – would you be so damn invested as to whether or not Posada drove this run in if you hadn’t a sturdy roof and more food than you could ever eat? That’s what I figure. There’s no danger or suspense anymore, we’ve lost the excitement.’
‘You’re crazy, you know that?’
‘Well, what’s that say about you and Jersey Shore then?’
‘They’re all outlets – I’m saying they’re the same things. They’re entertaining, but still….’
There was a knock at the door and I got up to let Cynthia in. She placed her bag on the table and kissed me hello. She smelled like cigarettes but I knew she didn’t smoke, so I thought nothing of it. I followed Cynthia back into the living room and she sat in the middle of the couch so I could put my arm around her. I introduced her and Annabel-lise and they seemed to hit things off quite well.
‘It’s a pleasure to meet you,’ said Cynthia. ‘So what is it you do, Annalise?’
‘It’s Anna-BELL-lise,’ she politely corrected. ‘And I’m a masseuse at The Captain’s Day Spa.’
‘Oh? I know of that place. How is it being paid to touch people?’ Cynthia meant it as a joke and she gave me a funny look, so I laughed. Then Annabel-lise too gave me a funny look and I realized we should all hang out more, we had common humor between us.
‘What I do is a legitimate form of healing. A practice recognized around the world as a respected method for relieving stress and making people feel good about themselves. But I guess you wouldn’t know about that.’
‘I had a step-dad that saw people for stress relief. Funny, I don’t remember him referring to them as masseuses.’
‘That says something about your family, doesn’t it?’
Cynthia gave me another funny look, so I smiled at her. It was quiet for a while, though I noticed Cynthia and Annabel-lise kept looking at each other, probably thinking of gossip to talk about. Oh, and Posada loaded the count.
‘So Annalise –’
‘– you must be dating one of the guys in the house then, since you’re hanging around and all.’
‘No, I’m not dating anybody. I just like to hangout here because all the guys enjoy my… company.’
‘Really?’ Cynthia sounded deeply interested. But then she glared at me, grabbed her bag and the screen door slammed shut. A moment later I realized and got up to chase after her.
‘Where are you going?’ I caught up to her at the end of the driveway.
‘Really Robert? Really? Who the hell is that girl!’
‘Who? Annalise? She’s just a friend.’
‘It’s AnnaBEL-lise. How long have you been seeing her Robert!’ Cynthia’s eyes were already glassy.
‘What? No! She’s just a friend, Cynthia.’
‘Oh, like I would believe that – Screw you Robert!’ She held her purse by the strap and it dangled by her feet. Her hair fell flat around her head and her posture had sunk.
‘Serious Cynthia, you’re the only girl I’m interested in!’ The simple implication of anything to the contrary welled up a heat in my chest, a boiling anger from the disbelief of being accused.
‘You expect me to believe that! After I walk in on you two by yourselves? How long have you been seeing her, Robert!’
‘I’m not Cynthia! She was hanging out with Scott and Pete and they had work! Stop making a big deal out of nothing!’ I could feel the heat pooling around my eyes, my senses lurid as if it were a heightened state of mind.
‘Oh, so you just kept her around when Scott and Pete are done with her, is that it?’ she was yelling now. ‘And that’s not a big deal, Robert! I told you I was jealous, why would do that?!’ Her words became more and more animated, her arms flailing and her facial expressions twisting.
‘You’re being nuts Cynthia! You know I want nothing to do with her, you know you’re the only girl I care about!’ She stared at me with her jaw clenched, and I felt something surge through me, a clarity, maybe. I stepped forward and reached my hand out.
She yanked her arm away. ‘Get away from me, Robert! How the hell could you do that to me in there! You couldn’t even bother to stand up for me –’
‘What do you mean ‘stand up for you’? What was I supposed to say!’
‘I’m leaving, Robert! Perhaps we should stop seeing each other!’ She turned to walk away.
‘Get back here Cynthia! What the hell’s your problem?’ I followed her into the sidewalk and she quickened her step.
‘Stop following me, Robert! I mean it, I’ll scream!’ The neighbors were outside watching. I stood in the sidewalk and the colors of her skirt were so bright, the sun so hot, clear, I could feel the sweat on my brow, and all the colors of the signs on the boardwalk rising up in front of her as she walked away. I could feel the blood rushing, some heated vigor I thought no longer existed. I stomped back to the house and struggled with the screen door, almost ripping it off. Annabel-lise was still on the couch.
‘You should leave,’ I said.
‘But the Yankees are about to take the lead –’
‘I don’t care, please leave.’
It was obvious to me that couples who fought together, stayed together – I know I’ve heard that before. We’d made amends, sewn our holes and were closer than ever. Lying in bed at night I’d tell her I loved her, and she would smile and whisper back. We talked a lot, and we decided this was real, that this was something meant for and wouldn’t ever be a different way. I truly cared for her and never wished bad between us.
‘Why do you always have to touch everything?’ It was impossible to take her anywhere.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Well it’s annoying. Kids do that.’
‘Oh, so I’m a kid now?’
‘Yes, that’s exactly it.’
We stopped for lunch at a Japanese restaurant. Cynthia had mentioned her mood for sushi and I, having never tried sushi, could not have agreed more. But as we looked at our plates of raw fish it was apparent neither of us knew what we had gotten into. We ate choosingly, and Cynthia would take a large bite, chew timidly with her face squinced and swallow with a gulp.
‘I enjoyed it,’ she said as we were leaving. ‘It was new and exciting, but I don’t think I’ll ever try it again.’
Cynthia gave me a funny look, a very suspicious brow. Then she reminded me she had to babysit, kissed my cheek real quick and told me to call her in the morning.
I walked over to Cynthia’s house around noon the next day. I knocked on her door and she threw her arms around me, gave me a kiss. We went inside and I sat in the kitchen at the table while she made tea.
‘How is it?’
‘It’s alright,’ I said.
‘What would you like to do today?’
‘Meh, I don’t know.’
‘You can take me for ice-cream. I’ve always wanted to try butter pecan.’
‘We’re always trying ice-cream. Let’s do something else.’
‘I haven’t had lunch yet, let’s go get some real food.’
‘I can’t, I have to babysit in a little while.’
‘So what? We’ve got plenty of time.’
‘I can’t, Rob. I need to make sure I’m on time.’
‘What, but you have time for ice-cream?’
‘It doesn’t take nearly as long to get a cone. Would you like me to make you something here? I cooked dinner last night, we have plenty of leftovers.’
‘No, it’s alright.’ We sat quietly and slipped our tea. ‘How come you have to babysit so much anyway?’
‘It’s my job. They need me and they pay very well.’
‘Yeah, but everyday? Didn’t you just babysit for these people last night?’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You’re always running off on me to go babysit. We don’t spend time like we used to.’
‘You’re being ridiculous, Rob.’
‘Oh, I’m being ridiculous?’ These were completely valid points I was bringing up. ‘You’re always bailing on me to go babysit. What do you need two jobs for anyway?’
‘Oh, I have never bailed on you! And sorry that some of us have to work Robert. We’re not all so lucky to get to sit around all day.’
‘You’re bailing on me right now! I thought we were going to have lunch!’
‘Stop being a piece of shit, Rob.’
‘How am I being a piece of shit? Because I want to spend time with you!’
We had gotten to screaming at each other again and I couldn’t understand why it had all started. I was angry because we weren’t spending time like we used to and she called me a needy asshole. She began to cry and I told her she was a stuck-up bitch. She told me to leave after that, and I did, I was livid, and for the life of me I could not understand why we were fighting like that – And the games on the boardwalk, the colors were so bright. And when I walked past the stores I could smell the air conditioning in the stifling heat. And I never ate a cheesesteak that tasted so good. And I made some new friends, waiting in line at Midway for that cheesesteak. We all got drunk afterwards, and I told them I was newly single. Then the prettiest girl in the whole bar kissed me.
I napped and slept off the liquor and went back to Cynthia’s later that night. I felt bad about what had happened, I really truly did, but I wasn’t angry anymore. I’d a good day despite everything, the best in a long time, actually, and everything was so clear and vibrant.
I stopped and bought a gallon of strawberry ice-cream, picked up a book by Cynthia’s favorite author. I was going to make it up to her, because I truly cared for her and felt real bad, just terrible about our arguing. I was whistling as I walked up her driveway, found the spare key and let myself in. The house was dark and Cynthia wasn’t due back from babysitting for another hour. I turned on the kitchen light, looked through the cabinets to see what they had. I thought I would have dinner ready when she got back.
I was about to put the ice-cream in the freezer when I heard a voice in the other room; her roommate was watching TV in the guest room, apparently. The hallway light was off, but the door at the end was slightly open and I could see the light behind it. I knew where the light switch was, but I didn’t bother to turn it on and I left the hallway dark. I could hear soft voices at the end of the hallway, could feel the carpet beneath my feet and I ran my hand along the wall; the paint was smooth, cool. The dark of the hallway seemed so comforting, unbreakable and permanent and for a moment I thought that, perhaps, the light there never worked. I was about to turn around, I’d yet to meet Cynthia’s roommate and I didn’t want to disturb her. But I figured I should let her know I was there. Gently, so as not to startle her, I pushed the door open, slowly letting light into the hallway – and I stood there, the light from the room hitting me, seeing her straw hair splayed out on the pillows, her thin face beneath a pair of broad, bare shoulders. I dropped the gallon of ice-cream. Then I heard Cynthia whisper help.
I ran and tackled the guy off the bed, landing on the other side on the floor. I tried to punch him and I missed and he hit me in the eye real hard so that I fell on my back and didn’t get up.
‘Stop!’ yelled Cynthia. She stood in the doorway and turned the hallway light on. She hadn’t bothered to dress. ‘This isn’t what I wanted. I mean it is, but –’
‘How could you do this to me!’ I yelled.
‘To you! What about all the crap you put me through this last month?’
The naked guy in the room wandered over by Cynthia and picked up the ice-cream. ‘Look, our favorite.’
‘Who’s this guy?’ he asked.
‘Okay, I’ll save our ice-cream for later.’ He kissed Cynthia’s cheek on his way out.
‘What the hell, Cynthia!’ I yelled.
‘What, like this is all my fault?’
‘How this not all your fault! How long have you been seeing him, Cynthia!’
‘I don’t know, three, four years.’
‘What! You’ve been sleeping with your ex this whole time!’
‘Well, technically he’s not my –‘
‘Oh, Jesus. You used me this whole time! You never gave a shit about me, did you?’
‘Don’t you ever say that, Robert! I cared, I really did, but I was confused and I didn’t know what I wanted. And you! You’re impossible to be with, Robert! Always with the drama! How could I ever expect you to be honest with me if you can’t even be honest with yourself!’
‘Honest with myself!?’
So I drank a lot over the next week, spent much time thinking and Scott and Pete were very helpful, supportive. So too was Annabel-lise. We spent an entire afternoon getting drunk while they listened to me talk about everything. They listened with intent, giving me advice and consolations and it felt good to share the story, to share all the pain and drama I’d suffered because it was all very new to me. I knew Cynthia had lied to me with the sole intent of using me, and if ignorance be the blighted tool of deceit, well, than she had wielded it with surprising acuity. Well I hope those amusements were fun! Quite cheap and painless, no? But I couldn’t stay angry with Cynthia for long, she was partly correct. She knew whole well what I was doing and I sort of wish she’d told me earlier, I hadn’t realized. All told, I had gotten myself a toaster by making a toaster out of myself. That made me feel sick for a while, more so than Cynthia. But it had worked, very well, and one morning I work up fresh and early with the birds and garbage men, went to the pier with a brand new notebook, and at the top of the first page wrote the title, ‘The Summertime Ice-cream Girl’.