by Kristi Coulter
Anna takes a big sip of wine and peers across the table at her mother, who is glaring at Suzanne, who is making a great show of asking the waiter if there is anything to eat that has not been murdered. Suzanne is seventeen and pretty enough to get away with these public displays of self-righteousness. Anna learned this lesson in her own teenage years: look good, in an acceptable way, and you can say whatever crackpot thing you want to anyone, at least for a while. She left veggie burgers and hemp sandals back in college, but has never forgotten, has made a point never to forget, that beauty is underrated as a tool of subversion, a "pow" sign hanging from a real live gun. Subversion's not on her mind at the moment, though; what's on her mind is getting through this lunch without making an enemy of either her mother or her sister.
"For God's sake," her mother is saying to Suzanne, "it's not a steakhouse. Why don't you at least read the menu before you go off making points?"
"I could come back," the waiter offers.
"No," Anna says. "I'll have a small green salad, please." She smirks at Joanne, who orders a Caesar salad, dressing on the side-explaining to the waiter that she's counting fat grams. He nods politely and turns to Anna, who has hardly glanced at her menu.
"Oh," she says. "The veal piccata, I guess."
"I'm not going to be able to sit at this table," says Suzanne.
"Looks like Anna will be too full for dinner," says their mother.
Anna has come home to Boca Raton for Christmas, away from her job at a household hints magazine in the Midwest. Snow delayed her plane four hours and she waited in O'Hare, reading a novel that was soon to be a movie and eating Lifesavers two at a time. When she finally emerged from the plane in West Palm Beach, it was dark and all the palm trees were lined with tiny white lights. She stood in the receiving area, clutching her carry-on bag and the parka she'd worn onto the plane, until the rush of people thinned and she spotted her parents coming toward her. Already she missed the airport, the safety of it, and the feeling of being known to no one.
"She moved out there last month," Joanne says, gesturing toward the pool cabana. "She said it was the closest she could get to moving out before she's eighteen."
Anna laughs. "What is she sleeping on, concrete?" It's dusk, just after dinner, and they are sitting on the patio drinking low-calorie white wine.
"Oh, she's got a nice little futon in there, don't ask me where it came from." Joanne sighs. "Is it me? Why do all my daughters run wild?" A glass of wine makes her feel expansive and lyrical. And morose. "I never did have my chance to run wild. I was too busy putting your dad through medical school."
Anna makes a noncommittal "Mmm." Her stomach is beginning to burn and she thinks of the vial of Xanax in her purse. Last year she left the bottle on her dresser and by Christmas Eve, the tablets had begun to get up and walk away by themselves.
The cordless phone on the end table rings. Joanne answers it and says "For you. It's a man." Anna waits until her mother has picked up her glass and gone inside before she speaks into the receiver.
"Henry," she says. "Please come take me away from all this."
While Henry is squealing "It's a man, it's a man!" across the table from her at Maxaluna's, Anna does her annual study of his face. Last year's goatee is gone, thankfully; otherwise, he seems to have settled into the same adult form he had last year and the year before. Also thankfully, she thinks. "You look almost normal," she says to him.
"Golly, thanks," Henry says, signaling to the bartender that they'd like two more drinks. "You do too, actually. Almost suburban."
Anna smiles. "It creeps up on me."
She took one look at him on the first day of their senior year in high school and broke up with her adoring boyfriend; that rashness amazes her now, eight years later, but Anna at seventeen believed in love as the only solace in a cruel and doomed world, and said so often. Henry had round wire glasses and a long muscled back and liked to buy his drugs in Little Havana even though he could get whatever he wanted at the country club. For a long time before Anna saw this as crazy and stupid, she thought it was sexy. All year she and Henry drove drunk, dropped acid at school while maintaining A averages, and fucked in empty parking garages. They almost got shot together, too, outside a Miami nightclub on a street that was busy and safe by day but by night was lined with men selling things even Henry and Anna didn't want to buy. That night in April they were standing outside, arguing about whether to stay or go, or about whether Anna was neurotic or Henry mean, or something. A small spillover crowd milled around them. When the mint green Buick crawled by and Anna heard the shots, she wasn't scared; she wasn't anything except flat on the pavement, yanking Henry down with her and staring hard at his face until the car pulled away just seconds later.
She saw some footage on the news the next day: just another drive-by shooting, one wounded. Henry phoned and said, "Business as usual in South Florida." But by then she was scared, truly and for good, and it would be several years before she would be able to make anything but polite conversation with him.
"Suburbia," Henry muses now. "A few months ago I got drunk and I had this urge to call you a bunch of times and hang up, sort of like a communication experiment, like talking without words."
"You didn't do it," Anna says, "thank God."
"No. I thought you might get scared." The waiter brings their beers. "But I really wanted to hear how your voice changed and stuff."
"Oh, face it," she says. "You just wanted to hear my voice."
Henry looks at her-in a weird way, she thinks. "I was just kidding," she adds quickly.
He smiles. "Just wanted to call you and confess my love. But, I fell asleep. Or something."
They squint at each other for a minute. "Might be nice to have a shot of tequila with this fine beer," he says.
"Yes," Anna says. "Or even two."
Several hours later, Anna leans against a boardwalk railing while Henry paces in front of her, trying to explain the way in which he is going to change the face of music. "Wait," she interrupts, half-wishing he would just shut up and let her brain rest. "I don't understand what an accordion has to do with all of this."
Henry stops pacing. "Exactly! I'm taking the accordion out of its usual sphere-wedding music-and putting it into a pop context. I come on stage in, say, a clown outfit, with this accordion, and no one knows what the fuck to think."
I always forget he's a drunk with theories, Anna thinks, fumbling for a cigarette from his pack. "Fine," she argues, remembering that he always manages to suck her into his theories, too, at times when she is otherwise barely conscious. "But it sounds like all you end up with is a novelty act. You're Tiny Tim," she says, pleased with herself.
"Why does everyone write off Tiny Tim?" Henry asks loudly. "Tiny Tim had his reasons for everything he did." A teenage couple with a jug of Gallo pass by on their way to the beach. Anna nods at them.
"I know Tiny Tim had his reasons," she says more quietly. "I'm just saying. . . ." She stops. Henry is staring at her face. She stares back at his. In a small lucid sliver of her mind she thinks how odd it is that people never just sit and look at each other like this; it must be because there's nowhere to go afterwards with your dignity intact. Even now, when Henry has come over and begun kissing her, cradling her lower lip between his teeth, and everything in her shivers and hollows itself out, she knows the best part is over, that they won't look at each other in quite that way again, not until this time next year.
Anna likes going to the beauty salon with her mother; it's one arena where they feel at home together. Today, while her mother waits for her body wave to set, Anna sits next to her having acrylic nails applied. The manicurist is buffing them with something that looks and sounds like a dental appliance. Anna is a bit embarrassed to be so in thrall to her new hands, but they seem so elegant, the nails just long and round enough.
"I have Audrey Hepburn hands," she tells her mother.
Every time she visits she ends up doing something like this: buying a twenty-dollar lipstick, actually paying someone to wrap her in kelp. Silly as these things make her feel, they also make her regret the neutering effects of winter, of the Midwest in general. It's so easy, she thinks, to let one's bite go.
"What did you and Henry do last night?" Joanne asks.
Anna shrugs. "Had a couple of drinks. Hung out."
"Are you going to bring him to my New Year's party?"
"I don't know. He could be busy. It's not like I'm his guardian or something." Hello, regression, she thinks, hearing the tone in her voice. The manicurist has put a rack of polishes in front of her. "Mom," she says by way of making up, "what do you think?"
"Honey, it depends on what you're in the mood for. You can always take it off."
Anna shrugs. "In that case," she tells the manicurist, "let's paint them red."
"Blasted rain," she groans, lying on her stomach in Henry's bed and staring out the window. "How long has it been raining?" she says to Henry, who is rolling another joint on the nightstand. "Four days?"
"Three, I think," he mutters, concentrating.
Anna cat-stretches down the length of the bed. "When I lived here I loved rain. I thought if it rained enough all the snowbirds would go back to Long Guy-land and leave us alone. Now I am a tourist," she muses out loud, rolling onto her back, "and I hate rain. But why? I don't play tennis and I don't sunbathe, so why do I care?"
Henry smiles at her. "I don't know. But you ask very searching questions when you're high."
Anna is thinking hard through all the busy blood in her head. "I think it's because I have certain expectations. Because it's a profound cultural myth that Florida is warm and sunny."
Henry lies down next to her. "Well," he says, "it is warm. It's a fucking waffle iron." He strokes her hair. "You're stoned, dollface."
"I never smoke this stuff anymore. I've lost my tolerance." She wiggles closer to him. "Have I ever told you that you are monumentally great in bed?"
He laughs and maybe even turns a little pink. "Well, speak your mind. Don't be shy."
"And much better than you were way back when. Though it's not like I knew the difference." She watches the rain bead on the window. It's nearly four o'clock; they should at least get dressed soon, before Henry's mother comes home from work. Though they are both free to have overnight visitors of the opposite sex, it's hard to stop sneaking around like teenagers. "Henry," she asks, "do you ever think about when we got shot?"
Henry sits up on his elbow. "We didn't get shot."
"You know what I mean."
"Almost getting shot is not the same thing." He looks angry, and Anna suddenly thinks she might cry.
"Fine," she says. "Do you ever think about when we almost got shot?"
He's definitely mad at her. "What do you think?" he says. "Of course I do."
"Well, what do you think about?"
"Besides you blaming me in some weird metaphysical way?" He stops, looks at her, softens his tone. "Whenever I think of you, that's how I always remember you, down on the sidewalk with me. I can't help it. That's how you come to me." Anna closes her eyes. "It was important, what happened to us," he goes on. "There was something important about it."
"I know," Anna says.
Late that night she looks out her own bedroom window and sees a light in the cabana. A trail of smoke from the window is tinted blue by the colored floodlights around the pool. She puts on a robe, goes outside, and knocks lightly on the cabana door.
"Open," Suzanne says. She's sitting on her futon, an open notebook in her lap. "Hi," she says, looking surprised to see Anna.
"Were you expecting someone else?" Anna says.
Suzanne shrugs. "People drop by." She closes her notebook and sticks it under the mattress. "Where's Henry?"
This family is obsessed with Henry, Anna thinks. "Home asleep, probably. Or playing the damn accordian." She looks around. Posters of Kurt Cobain are tacked to the walls, and vases of dried flowers rest here and there. "You really have moved in," she says.
Suzanne nods absently. "Had to get away, you know?" She pauses. "So Henry lives in, like, Portland, right? Do you guys ever talk about living closer together? So you can visit more?"
"No," Anna says. "No, it's not like that. I think that would be a little weird." Suzanne gives her a strange look. "No, really. If I even mentioned something like that he'd fall on his face laughing, and then I'd never see him again." She's not making her point. She wonders what point it is she's trying to make. "When I think of Henry," she says, almost to herself, "I think of bad things happening." A pause. "Do you have a boyfriend?"
"Off and on," Suzanne says. "Sometimes it's just not worth the trouble."
"That's exactly how I feel," Anna says, relieved. "About Henry. It's just trouble to love Henry, you know?"
"I guess," Suzanne says, looking at Anna like she's nuts. "That's cool, though. I didn't know you loved him."
Well, I didn't say that, Anna thinks. But what she says, much less eloquently, is "Well, love. Whatever." She fakes a yawn. "I don't know how you stay up so late."
"My youthful energy," Suzanne smiles.
"And your meatless diet," Anna says, heading for the door. Her sister looks suspicious for a minute, but then she smiles about that, too.
"Come back sometime," she says.
Anna finds the keys to her mother's Camry on the kitchen counter and leaves the house without bothering to put on shoes or regular clothes. When she turns the car on, the music is so loud that she jumps and has to put her hands over her face to calm herself down; clearly, Suzanne was the last person in here. Over drums and not much else, Polly Harvey sings "I'm gonna wash that man right out of my hair" over and over again. Anna sits in the driveway until the song is finished, then rewinds the tape and listens twice more on her way to Henry's. She drives past a park decorated with a giant fake snowman in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses. She drives past what everyone thinks of as the town slum. Actually it's the town's one blue-collar neighborhood and not slumlike at all, but Anna was twenty-one before she realized that. Most of the houses are covered with lights.
When she reaches Henry's she walks around to his room at the back of the house. Just before she knocks on the window it occurs to her that he might not be there, that he could be doing all the things they do together with somebody else too, that maybe he has been for years. She picks up a small rock from a flower bed and considers hurling it at the window. Instead she puts it in her robe pocket and knocks loudly. A moment later, Henry squints out at her.
"Let me in," she says. "No. Come out here."
"Just a second," he says. He comes out in a pair of jeans, barefoot, and without speaking they sit down on the grass. Henry picks up a couple of fallen key limes and rolls them around in his hands.
Anna watches him for a minute. "I love you," she says. "I really, really do." Once said, it poses in the air, elegant.
Henry looks up from his limes. "Did you just figure this out?" he says.
"No. Not exactly."
"Well, why do you look so upset?"
"Because I'm afraid of you," she says. "I don't know what would happen if we knew each other in the real world."
"This is the real world," he cuts in.
"Henry," Anna says, "this is the past."
He stares at her. "You're a fucking nut, do you know that?" he says. "You are really out of your goddamn tree." He throws one of the key limes at a nearby hibiscus bush. "I don't even know what to say to you." He gets up and walks toward the house.
"Where are you going?" Anna asks, suddenly alarmed.
"I wait for you all year, you bitch," Henry calls over his shoulder.
She takes the rock from her robe pocket and throws it at his back, but it lands in the grass several feet away from him. Henry stops and looks at it, then looks at her. "Are you coming in or not?"
She looks back at him in disbelief. "What?"
He throws up his hands. "Don't give me time to think about it. Are you coming in?"
She stands up, feeling a little sick. "I guess," she says, walking toward him, then stopping halfway across the lawn. "Wait. Are you fucking with me?"
"I'm not sure yet," Henry says. "I don't think so."
"I'm sleeping on the floor."
"I don't give a damn where you sleep."
As it happens, he sleeps there with her.
He shows up after dinner the next evening with a big bunch of lilies. Anna knows it's him when the doorbell rings; when she snuck out of his room at six a.m., she left a note saying he should come by if he felt like it. When she and her mother went out to lunch and then shoe shopping she was embarrassed by how much she wanted to be at home, just in case he called, so embarrassed that she invented excuses to stay out even longer.
"I'll get it," she says, running to the door. Henry is wearing chinos instead of jeans, and a shirt she's never seen before. "Hi," she says. "Are those for my mother?"
"For you," he says, pushing the flowers at her.
To her irritation, she blushes. "You shouldn't have."
"No doubt," Henry says. "I came to take you to the movies."
The last time Anna and Henry went to a movie, they were seventeen and the only ones in the theater. He went down on her before the first corpse had been discovered. She thought it was one of the best movies she'd ever seen. "Well, come on in. Let me get presentable."
"Henry!" Joanne says. "My lord, you look like a man." Anna realizes she hasn't seen him in several years. "I'm not sure I can trust my baby girl with you."
Henry grins and starts to make a remark, then stops. "I'm looking forward to your party tomorrow," he says instead.
"Well, I'm glad," Joanne says. "I couldn't get word one out of her about whether you even knew we were having a party."
"Not true," Anna tells him. "I just told her I wasn't your guardian." She goes upstairs and puts on a sundress and her new shoes which make her two inches taller than Henry.
"Geez," he says when she reappears. "Good thing I'm so secure in my masculinity."
"She made me buy them," Anna says, jerking her head at her mother.
"Yes," Joanne says, smiling. "I forced her. You know how easy it is to push Anna around."
"Like taking candy from a baby," Henry agrees.
Anna pulls at his arm. "Can we go, please?"
Henry kisses her as soon as they are outside. "It's windy out," he says, looking at her dress. "I hope you're wearing underwear."
They see a movie about British people fighting over houses, but Anna can't focus on it. About half an hour into the film Henry produces a pint of scotch from the leather bookbag he carries everywhere. It hurts going down, which Anna likes. Soon she's feeling warm in her stomach and wishing these silly Edwardians would argue on their own time. She leans over to Henry: "Why are we here?"
He whispers back, so close that his mouth touches her ear and sets off several alarms in her crotch: "I thought we'd try normalcy." That sends Anna into a fit of giggles she didn't see coming and can't control. Almost immediately she gets the hiccups, for which Henry offers her the pint of scotch. That seems even funnier than his normalcy remark. She gets up and makes her way gracefully enough to the restroom.
At the sink, she drinks water from her cupped hands until the hiccups slow down. Not wanting to go back into the theater, she leans against the wall by the paper towel dispenser and looks at herself in the mirror. It's something she likes to do when she's drunk, look at herself with herself and try to locate the gap. "You think you can get away with anything, don't you?" she says out loud to her reflection, and answers herself in a squeaky puppet voice: "Yes, I do!" Lord, Anna thinks, see how I have fallen. She reapplies her lipstick and goes out into the lobby, hoping the teenage ushers will be absorbed in their video games and she can pass them by unnoticed.
Henry's leaning against the candy counter waiting for her. "The old lady got the house," he says. "Are you okay?"
Anna nods. As they walk to the car, she says, "I feel like I'm wasting you when we're just sitting in a room looking at a screen. We don't get that much time together."
"It was a dumb idea," Henry agrees, unlocking her door. Inside the car, they sit and look at each other for a minute.
"Something is wrong with us," Anna says. He doesn't argue.
The next part of Henry's date plan turns out to be a nice bottle of white wine, in a cooler in the trunk, and two glasses. "More normalcy," he explains sheepishly, but Anna is sure he can tell she's pleased. They drive to the beach and park on the street. Anna gives up on walking in her new shoes as soon as they hit the sand, and carries them by their straps. "Look," she tells Henry. "I'm *normal* height again."
They sit on the sand just above the tide line and kiss. Anna wonders where the line is between wanting a man's hands all over her and actually wanting him inside her, where she barely even has nerve endings. She's old enough now to be wary of having sex in public; it's not the nakedness that bothers her, just the possibility of being arrested. "Henry," she murmurs. "Let's go somewhere."
"Okay," he says, surprising her. "But I need to sober up enough to drive." He used to insist he drove better when he was drunk, and in some ways he was right. "Let's go in the water," he says, already taking off his shirt.
"No way," Anna protests. "Look how rough it is. Plus, it's freezing."
"The point is to sober up, right?" he says, yanking off his jeans and underwear in one fell swoop. "What are you scared of?"
"Nothing," Anna says. "I just don't want to. Anyway, why do I have to be sober if you're driving?" She stands up, ready to walk away from him.
"Is it because sharks attack at night?" he asks, grinning.
"I'm not afraid of sharks," Anna says.
"Really? I am," he says, creeping toward her. "But there hasn't been a shark attack in at least three days." He grabs her around the waist and tickles, chomping on her neck and humming the theme from Jaws at the same time. Finally she breaks away from him.
"Damn it," she says. "Unzip me."
She wades in up to her knees; Henry dives into the deeper water and disappears. As soon as he's gone, Anna figures she's done her part and makes a beeline for the shore, where she spins around a few times, trying to air-dry before she puts her clothes back on. Thirty or forty feet out, Henry emerges on a sand bar. It's odd to see a naked man ankle-deep in the middle of an ocean. Anna waves to him. "Come on," Henry yells. "Come play."
"You come here," she shouts back at him. She's not sure he can hear her, but he starts swimming back anyway. She watches until he's made it to shallow water and is walking in, then turns around to get her clothes. When he screams he doesn't even sound like a person, and if Anna weren't prepared for something horrible to happen, she might not have turned around so fast.
There's a trail of blood from the water to where she has dragged him. She thinks he might be going into shock and has covered him with all of their stray clothing. "Henry," she says, hoping that if she keeps talking she'll keep both of them from passing out, "I have to get this thing out of your foot." It must be from a sting ray, she thinks. She had no idea they could do so much harm.
"Go away," Henry moans. "Get away from me."
"Henry, just shut up," she says. "I'm going to yank this thing out of your foot and then I'm going to take you to the hospital." She examines the sole of his foot. Pull upward, she tells herself, head spinning.
"I'm fine," Henry is saying. "Leave me alone."
"Here we go," Anna says. She grabs the stinger and yanks hard. What looks like all of it comes out, along with a lot more blood. She ties Henry's t-shirt around his foot, working from vague memories of junior-high first aid. Henry is quiet now, though still awake. "Henry. We have to at least get your jeans on you," she says loudly. "Okay?"
"Take me home," he says.
"All right," she says. Somehow she manages to get him into his jeans, then pulls her dress on. "Let's go to the car. Can you help me stand you up?" She looks at his foot and decides he can't help her at all. She carries him on her back halfway up the beach, but even with the extra adrenaline she's not strong enough and finally has to sort of drag him behind her. "Okay!" she calls brightly over her shoulder once they're in the car. "We're on our way!"
"Okay," Henry says. "Thank you."
She makes it to the hospital without any major mishaps, follows the signs to the emergency room, and parks in the yellow zone. She leaves the car running while she drags Henry out of the back seat. He's still bleeding, but it's slowed down some. An orderly spots them through the automatic door and rushes out with a wheelchair. "What happened?" he asks.
"I'm fine," Henry mumbles.
"Sting ray," Anna says. "I think. Here." She pulls the stinger from her dress pocket. The orderly looks dubiously at it but takes it from her. Anna goes back around to the driver's seat. "I'm just going to move the car, Henry. I'll be right there."
She gets the car into a parking spot before she crumbles. She leans back in her seat and tries to breathe deeply. God, she thinks. The man is chaos. She considers leaving: taking the car to Henry's house and telling his mother what happened, then going home in a cab to sleep through the rest of this trip. But it's not really an option. Anna rubs her eyes, looks in vain for the shoes she left on the beach, then gets out of the car, brushes herself off, and goes inside to wait.
Henry says he's having a good time at her mother's party, but Anna thinks that's just the Tylenol 3 talking. It's ten o'clock and fifty people are scattered throughout the house and patio, drinking and eating salmon mousse and dancing to Johnny Mathis. Anna has been sitting quietly by the pool with Henry for most of the evening. He's too doped up to say much, and she hasn't slept at all since the hospital. Right now, she thinks, they're both a little dazed. "How's your foot? Does it hurt much?" she asks.
"I'm getting kind of used to it." He pauses. "I didn't think people really got attacked by sting rays. I thought it was another profound cultural myth." They sit in silence again for a few moments.
Anna takes a deep breath. "Maybe you should write to me sometime."
"I already did," he says. "I was going to wait till I got home to mail it, though, so it wouldn't have a Florida postmark." Anna doesn't know what to say, so for once she keeps her mouth shut. "I've never been to the Midwest," Henry continues.
"There's probably a good reason for that," Anna says, trying to be funny. Then she thinks maybe this isn't the time. "You could come visit me. I mean, that would be fine."
"Might be a nice sightseeing expedition," he says.
"Auto plants and unemployment offices," she says. "But I'd be happy to show them all to you."
Henry nods. "You understand that I'm not going to come stalk you, right? It would just be good to see you. In your native habitat."
Anna rolls her eyes at him. "I know you're not going to stalk me."
"Just trying to be a little bit reassuring." Henry sits straight up as the opening bars of "Fly Me to the Moon" come over the speakers. "I'd ask you to dance," he says, "but I think it would hurt way too much."
"I'm happy just sitting here," Anna says. "You know, I think Florida is technically my natural habitat. It's where I was born. It's where you were born, for that matter. And where we met."
"Well," he says, "we'll just have to rise above it." They close their eyes and think that over until the song fades out and a new one begins.
Write "Ellavon" at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Released: January 31, 1998