David Sprague had a clean mind, in some senses.
Every morning he stretched out on a foldable mat, the inch-thick blue gym class kind, in a routine of his own design, heavy on freestyle movements but always incorporating a yoga ball for the middle part. His dirty blue yoga ball was the perfect size for back bends: atop it, he could touch his fingers and toes to the mat but not his palms and heels. He was ready for the third part of the workout when he’d lengthened enough to touch his palms and toes, his fingertips and heels. He did plenty other ballwork besides the back bends, and also back bends without the ball; he basically coiled and arched along every bodily axis he could think of. When he caught himself narrating the imaginary viral video of his routine again (“Springtha,” he called the routine), he re-focused on his breathing, directing all of his thoughts down a drain of silence.
His eye contact with pretty much everyone was a sort of discretely implied searching, blank enough to leave you privacy but generally ready in a sleepy way when you looked or waited for it—though not always; more than your average person, he also just spaced out.
He liked to have sex with lots of pretty girls, mostly each in turn, following his heart. He was honest about his intentions, but factored in the flow of things, timing-wise, and wasn’t much of a worrier in general. He understood that his stress-free spontaneity was on the shortlist of what the pretty girls wanted or even needed from him. He could be loved: he’d be loved. He just made clear, generally somewhere towards right up front, that his best laid plans for how he’d best be laid did not include, or did not necessarily include (this “necessarily” being the word the pretty girls tried hardest to remember later, or remembered at everything else’s expense, sometimes with the thought that they maybe ought to quote it to each other), exclusivity. During the disclosure of intentions, if he witnessed the word “necessarily” exit his mouth, he knew he’d entered into an attraction that he might not really deserve. Physically, he felt this specialness, the possibility of love, as a leap, a simultaneous weightlessness and density. It thrilled him.
For a human being, David possessed an exceptional sense of psychological balance, probably, together with his unbalanced affinity for new pussy. This left him feeling generally off-balance, at a lean with what one might call a tailwind. So okay, one would not say he had a clean mind in the conventional sense. Yet it was all very hygienic and civil, all so motherfucking soulful. It was all, it really often seemed, as God planned it. Win-win- right down the line, minus the sense of it being any kind of competition, having losers or endings. This was more of a carousel, innocent and bright, Purel squirt-bottles everywhere.
What was perhaps cleanest about David’s mind is that he truly wanted to do absolute right, to achieve proper balance—if only for the view when the mist cleared, the post-calliope quiet. Into that silent vista came God, every time. God with His answers, couched in tender ribbing, right there beneath the questions, awaiting only David’s listening. So tenderly and so patiently awaiting: God, as David felt Him when he cleared the space to let himself, was Tenderness, was Patience.
David stretched, meditated, veggie stir-fried, made furniture, listened to international music and threw around compliments. He worked as a waiter, knew wine and food, looked handsome in black and white, the lines of him sharply composed. He drank water constantly and held it well. He wasn’t much cleaner than the average single man in his twenties. He cut his own hair or had almost any girlfriend cut it, keeping it neither short nor long. He loved every kind of game like he loved every kind of fruit, vegetable and tree. He got stoned two or three times a week and acted silly, then scolded himself for not taking himself seriously enough, then missed feeling silly; he called this routine “Balance.” Often, “silliness” only meant being real where it wasn’t appropriate, as when he stretched in supermarket lines. His medical marijuana card said “Back pain.”
His purpose, as he saw it, was to share himself. His choice was to fulfill this purpose mainly with pretty girls. He tried to see what a pretty girl needed and help with that, at least make a dent. He listened and watched, commenting minimally. He built his number one girlfriend two number ones ago a two-layer bed like a cake, the mattresses atop a drawer-filled wraparound step. Pretty girls that liked incense and candles were his specialty.
He knew exactly how full of shit he was, and how true. He told himself his aims were true but he took a little for himself, a vig, as if he were the collector and not the borrower this lifetime, a cosmic investment with big ideas. His indulgences were those of one special for what he gave, could give. And was there really another way for him?
He didn’t go into bars much, but when he did, there was Shannon, among others. Pretty, and she knew everybody, so drank cheap. She had an ass, thick thighs, tits, a neck that fanned into wings like a snake’s, snake eyes, a forked tongue that flickered in and out. He was into it. Her hair was straight and reddish brown, a little stringy, her face sarcastic, in alternating shades of white and pink. Her fashion sense was quirkier than it was good, mixing the new with the beat-up; she wore boots that looked like ice skates with regular heels instead of blades. With talk, she was quicker than him; with silence and basic eye contact, he could shade her almost red.
He always introduced himself as “David,” but had no problem with “Dave,” which most people presumed automatically. He didn’t mind that presumption either. There was absolutely nothing wrong with “Dave.” Still, he started himself off as “David,” and that’s what Shannon almost always called him, honoring or never getting past it.
Only three blocks one way and two another separated them, they learned one Saturday afternoon at the trendiest dive bar between them, which was named after its address, “2199.” He walked her home, a gesture for which she refused to stop making fun of him. He imagined the walk a line on a map, one side of it marked “Chivalry” and the other “Predation.” At her place, she played him a song called “Blow it Up”—something about a weekend, with hard guitar chords but what he thought of as kind of gay singing. When they danced, she tried to lead him, her feet surer now than on the walk. Clomping boots, music cranked, a shouted laugh: her house a zone of not privacy but freedom. They sat on her front steps when it seemed that he might leave and wound up walking around—being seen, barely, by dusklight. He didn’t mind being seen, even in his neighborhood, with pretty girls. Even when it was competitive, which it should never be (he hated the word “market” or “marketplace” to describe male-female relationships), it wasn’t the worst advertising. Yeah, this one now, he imagined different invisible neighbors thinking about each of them. Meaningless. But given that the streets not only watch but talk, he couldn’t help but consider, most in particular, Susana. “Susana” and “Shannon”—that was unfortunate right there. Susana, Indio-looking Texas-born Latina, semi-isolated and eager to be pleased; you hate to hurt anyone so sweet, especially one of a pair of twins. Not that there was or would be any need for anyone to feel hurt.
For their second hangout-session—which is how he encouraged his dates to think of their dates—David considered but decided against wearing a cowboy hat and suggesting driving Shannon’s car up to Rodeo, maybe camping out. Instead, he showed up stoned-loose and open-minded, let her walk him through her top-three-bar circuit. Outside again, weary of his own silliness, or improperly contextualized realness, and diagnosing her as needing to feel natural—to be fair to Shannon, this was his most common diagnosis—he got them into a ribbon of woods fringing a playground. If they were rushing, this would have been when to make out; he didn’t rush it. He climbed an easy tree, and she leaned against it beneath him. The ground was slanted, her feet braced against roots. He felt tired, buzzed, engaged with the thin aisle of woods air, and infatuated with or anyways hungry for this girl—woman—whose cleavage from above made a gorgeous gorge, whose head twitched like a bird’s between stillnesses, whose arms folded and stretched, fingers walking branches, peeling bark. He did a hanging stretch from a branch above him, pulled himself higher. When he asked how she liked her job, he noticed she could use silence to swipe away a question. Make nothing suffice as answer. Or maybe she was looking for the right words for a long time.
It was dark now. Birds were silhouettes, voices. Traffic passed, muffled by the trees’ simple presence. Back on the lower branch, he hung by his knees, arched, and she rubbed his abs, strumming the washboard. He dropped, gathered himself and gave a certain smile. The sarcasm in her little laugh was just a tic, a gesture. They walked out, the shared silent decision and first steps the familiar yanking and running magic of the setting hook. Pretty girl on.
At her place, they got intoxicated cautiously, chattily. They talked about him, and the comfort of old wordings made him nostalgic for an age when novelty felt fresher. After talking about his dad, he found himself filling a practiced silence with this different sadness. He asked her about high school. She returned a sad silence without the story. But she wanted to talk a lot just to talk. TV, movies, music, news. Her face blinked pink, dimmed to white. They related, he began to feel, on the meta-level of the hungry-and-deserving-of-happiness. The level of smart-enough-to-know-we-aren’t-living-up-to-our-potential-really. The level of effort and disappointment with both the effort and the results.
At some point they held hands; she let go first, to circle the room. She excused herself. He wasn’t sure what he was getting ready for, but he was pretty sure. When she came back, he searched her eyes for what he recognized and didn’t. She stood there thinking about him, too. With increasing nakedness, she considered him. He noticed she was shaking. “It’s nothing,” she said, voice shaking, and kissed him with a jousting tongue. She was as swoopable, he observed, as a little mouse in a field.
The next evening, with the time he could call Shannon, Susana or any pretty girl, really, passing and his phone turned off, David, alone in his room, straddled the ball, listening to dated hip-hop, looking out the window and holding his arms over his head. His room faced west, a heavy strip of burnt orange visible between the buildings and implied behind them. Bar code of a really cool color, against a spectrum of grays and blues. It was probably inspiring lots of people to do weird stretches. To a narrative by Too $hort, he leaned against his tightest tendons, standing, rolling his body, feeling them out. Like any self-respecting male free spirit, he was attracted to music on the urban playlist that referenced the pimp, but had to omit that music from just about every pretty girl playlist. Since he let the pretty girls, after a point, work his ipod, what he mentally called the “Pimp Mix” was labeled “Ironic Classical.”
He drunk-monked around the room, thinking about flexibility and positioning as momentum allowed. He wanted to be physically conscious in the sense of like everywhere on his body having senses, talking equally intimately to the same brain. He stepped on something sticky and didn’t know what it was. He arched backwards over the ball, walked his feet up the wall, wiped off the sticky foot there and pushed himself through a backwards rotation into a crouch, roll, and more drunk-monking. He considered himself something of a physical wit, an imp, though valued this less than the right kinds of stillness. Listening to his breath, he turned on a light. He got a kick out of sitting backlit in his window and bouncing on the ball. You never knew who was watching, who out there might need that.
About Shannon, he thought, bouncing: What the hell. It wasn’t really a call-right-away situation, but there was no reason, except other options, to wait on it. He could help her find that vibration she needed, maybe. From his end, he welcomed her wry, pink prettiness, but beyond that couldn’t be sure yet what she would bring. Well, if that was it, that was still enough, at least for now. Someone in the band needs to shake the maracas.
This got him thinking of the minor pretty girls of his past—led him, peering, into pasts lit with their flickering. The bouncing on the ball took on a different feel. Memory flushed and flashed. The names alone were fireworks: colliding feelings, drifting image-trails. A timeless madness even to recall. Life, what God intended plus the rest of it, was so much bigger than human logic could grasp. It read as crazy. There was no other way to read it, in fact, except through faith, which sometimes felt like its own madness.
Probably the craziest pretty girl story David had was: One time, he and a crazy buddy had crazy sex with these two crazy pretty girls while their crazy boyfriends were in the next room playing shooter video games, shots blasting. Then they, David and his buddy, had just slipped back out the third-story window, onto a thin ledge that led to a flat roof that led to a tree limb, when the boyfriends cut the sound on the shooter game because they thought they heard something. David’s buddy, wide-eyed not from craziness or fear but more like insisting, mouthed and finger-pantomimed to bolt from the ledge across the roof, which would put them in view of the shooters’ window, while David, slit-eyed and in the way, tele-insisted, Hold, ninja. They waited a minute, backs against literal wall, toes in space, then heard footsteps of one of the boyfriends stomping through the house, the other still holding, presumably listening. David listened to the listener, making sure he wasn’t creeping quietly but holding still, and to the girls getting the window closed and a conversation going while checking their tidying. The clomping crazy boyfriend reached the girls, yell-talked and left. David and his buddy could have hung and dropped or bolted across the roof, but just waited. Then two cars of the crazy pretty girls’ crazy boyfriends’ crazy friends pulled up. David’s buddy gave David a look like I told you we should have split, and David nodded that indeed, that had been the risk, a text message for back-up, and they reached and dropped from the tree just ahead of the first carload of back-up and outran everyone to the back fence and beyond, so the girls wound up giving up David and his buddy’s names and addresses, and that’s how David moved west.
In mid-May, David met Shannon outside her house, and they walked. She wore jeans and a hoodie, old blue Puma sneakers, lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, earrings, bracelets, perfume that actually smelled good. At the end of her street, they slowed up before the little yellow Korean church, with its two-story steeple and aura of emptiness. “Do you like having a church at the end of your street?” he asked.
“It’s good. Except too bad or maybe thank God it isn’t Catholic.”
“I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms–like, the name of it.”
Her laugh was kind of a punctuation mark, the usage of which he almost understood. “I only mean I might be tempted to go there.”
“Want to go anyway?” he asked.
The church sign’s letters were hieroglyphics, but the numbers for the mass times were clear.
“Or to a Catholic mass, if you’d prefer,” he raised it.
“You’d take me to church,” she asked, “in my neighborhood or even before God?”
So: eight days later, high noon outside St. Peter’s, him dressed as a waiter, her a churchgoer. Assorted parking happening; her pointing out the old building’s cornerstone. Hearty tolling clearing their heads and the bell tower: pigeons on wing, on wires. It was his second Catholic mass. They’d crossed the city for it. Inside was as roomy as outside and nearly as chilly. They were the youngest people there except for some children. David found the entire ritual stimulating, though the sermon catalyzed no genuine epiphanies for him. Given the odds against his return, you had to call that a lost opportunity for the priest. It wasn’t like the place was packing people in. Anyway, the windows were cool. Why weren’t more, or most, windows in color? And Shannon in profile, sitting or standing just ahead of the curve; kneeling, opening her eyes to regard him frankly. And the crucified Jesus, life-sized and well-painted, not the least bit smug at having not only lived but died better than anyone in the room ever could. Which thought or message didn’t offend or bother David. He had zero problems with anyone’s Jesus, with any kind of Jesus whatsoever.
At her house, they lay on the bed and listened to the playlist he’d made for more or less Shannon’s kind of pretty girl. It was inevitable that she would grab his ipod eventually; she lasted about eight songs. That was fine. There were no songs on it he didn’t like, just moods he wasn’t in the mood for. What he was really wondering about her was the mood stuff, anyway. What were hers? His were that sometimes he had a temper, but mainly he had one mood, his mood, the mood of him, which got stronger or weaker and sometimes sadder. So when he was at his worst, he was weak and sad with a temper. This, he figured, was pretty bearable, compared with what you got the sense some people were dealing with.
They beat cool evening in the house back with a light sweat, her head heavy on his shoulder but the balls of her feet planted and working. Between them, he marveled, they had not one tattoo. “You’re all ripply,” she told him. “You’re like a waterbed.”
Afterwards, he caressed her faintly, a different background music occasionally escalating in certain regions to light massage. “You have to go,” she said. Tenderly, he did.
So, olive oil on tits, et cetera. Walks home and some pick-ups, too. Over the summer, he experimented with home brew, and she got into that. Springtha lessons. Back-arching spread eagles. She made him feel like that was all he wanted the ball for: to tell girls to arch. All the dirtiness she assumed, she granted. It was something else she wanted, something not material and maybe not real; they left it unnamed. Her tits were a pair of martini glasses with broken-off stems. You could poke both eyes out—so something Oedipal? Her thighs equine, natural wonders. She stopped kicking him out after sex by June, slept hard with her back to him, snored some nights like a fat old man. Anywhere, she would compulsively punch his arms, whale on them. She called him “FagBuddha” for drinking water cross-legged, saying “please” and “thank you” for the glass. She mocked incense but went along with candles. Sometimes he thought of her as his puppy. Yipe! Yipe! Get the fighting out in play; let her run around the park for a while. Next thing you know, she was big-eyed for days on end in his orbit. Shampooing his hair before cutting it, wine glass on the tub rim. Playing his ipod on shuffle, nodding along to a pimp track. Eating at his restaurant, drinking at its bar, laugh splicing the room. Nights, slithering under covers, tongue hissing. Her voice in his ear a creaturely wind, unbottled genie. Pure freedom. Finishing herself with his hand in a way that seemed it might hurt both of them. What was not to like? He started the list.
She claimed a side of the bed. One. Should it be numbered? This wasn’t about numbers. Life is not a bank. There was a balancing—even a balancing of the balancing. It was tricky, gyroscopic. They did backbends, spun on each other’s hips. She had him smelling like her five kinds of ways, a cocktail drifting through his days. Her, as he bridged: “God, I could kick your nuts right now.” Him: “If that’s what you want to do with them.” Her poising a boot heel, nudging. The physical . . . and then some. Meaning and agreement grew from there and spilled over. Plenty of glasses literally spilled, too, stained the bedding and carpet. Two. Occasionally, when he looked over at her, she just seemed to be suffering. But he assumed he helped as much as anyone could. Overall, the list was barely worth making. It was pretty much win-win, proceeding according to God’s plan and David’s intentions. Intentionality.
He was careful to leave gaps, room to each be themselves. She insulted meditating, then tried it, but not really. With few details and an almost conversational affect, she confided, in his bed, that her first sexual encounter had been rape, a family friend. She had awakened to it, her first time drunk. The disclosure raised more questions than it answered, probably. There were nights he just held her, though none where he didn’t hope for more. His inquisitive caresses were answered quickly or not at all. Low-amplitude, long-duration static–but anyway, contact. She drank coffee, made him tea. While he meditated, she just sat. But she took to stretching. The word “necessarily” had yet to be called for. It wasn’t In a Relationship, but it wasn’t It’s Complicated; it was It’s Simple. Him and her: David and Shannon, when there’s time. Just add music.
And then Mike G and his boys burst in like the gang of Broadway thugs they are. It was at 2199. Drinks for all, then David and Shannon holding hands in their shadow, with the sensation that Mike G had been saying “What’s up?” in every possible way for hours. Mike G asked Shannon to speak to him alone, she declined, David stood, and The G shook him. David maintained eye contact and his balance but didn’t raise a hand, just bonelessly wobbled. Mike G was tall and horse-faced, with restlessly amused eyes and no jaw, just neck. He had three companions, all tall and unhandsome, all there for whatever the show would be. One had said “Hi, Shannon” to Shannon, and she had called him “Cal.” As he released David, Mike G’s grin bordered on shit-eating. David didn’t sit or move, but leaned into Mike G, confusing everyone. Along the bar, the row of on-call barbacks turned their tattooed necks. The bartender was Dayshift Karen, and Javier the Manager wasn’t around. “Fine,” Shannon said, standing. You couldn’t miss her shaking. “Excuse me,” she said to Mike G’s boys and possibly David. And to Mike G: “Come on.”
He followed her. She turned. “Oh, David, this is Mike G.” David knew Mike G was an ex, and that was all. He stayed where he was. “Shake?” Mike G asked, and laughed. Mike G’s boys waited at the bar, near the door.
Shannon and Mike G went outside and stayed out a long time. When they came back, David was ready to go, with or without her. She looked flustered but okay. She told him nothing about her talk with Mike G, and he didn’t ask. Walking her home, he concentrated on both of their breathing, said good-bye at the end of her driveway. “I don’t care that you didn’t fight him,” she told him, misunderstanding.
In July, they went to a spa together for a weekend away: camped two nights in his tent, hung around naked outdoors with other people passing, had sex in and out of the hot tubs. As they kissed under a full moon, chest-deep in mirrored heat, he reminded her of his intentions, used “necessarily.” What they had was what they had, she agreed. Simple. She hadn’t started believing they were exclusive, even if she didn’t have or want anyone else. She wasn’t “a fucking charity case,” she said, turning angry. He looked at her with red eyes from the water and a running nose from allergies in that place. She changed back, kissed him hard, leaned away and said he’d never looked handsomer. Her skin was pure pink and goosebumped above the water. He put his head on her shoulder and came close to falling asleep.
When they returned, she felt weak and sore, and her fever kept climbing. It took two days for him to drive her in her car to the Emergency Room, where they diagnosed her with a UTI that had “climbed” to her kidneys. She spent the night there burning up, in agony, then three weeks at home clammy, lethargic and in pain, which David couldn’t tell if that was all the condition or partly the medication. He stayed over her house every night for a week, sixteen days for the month, cooking, cleaning, stretching, not complaining. He felt married, noble. Life felt particularly real. Her refrigerator overflowed with leftovers from his shifts. He picked her public flowers. That Sex Life Plan B offered her little but the gift of giving was awkward in or out of conversation.
A month later, she had the same or a new infection. He built and stained her a nightstand that stood on four corked wine bottles holstered in braces; the top was a grid of cork coasters. He had the energy to channel, he told himself, disliking the tone of the thought as it came. Doctors cut a pinhole in her abdomen, sent a scope in, and two days later, Shannon’s fallopian tubes were in a medical waste bin. The fever stayed. She had bouts of shivers that looked exaggerated. Her work held her position but stopped paying her; she’d used up her sick days.
Her mother came out. She was a short, thick, freckled, simple-seeming redhead who kept a tissue balled in her hand. She was nice to David, made soup, made meatballs, walked the neighborhood, shopped, did laundry, scolded Shannon like a child, cried in the kitchen, insisted David get some air. Which was exactly what David needed, for starters. He was tired and felt off-balance in a way that wasn’t correcting his normal lean but threatening to topple him.
The infection and fever went away. Shannon’s mother did, too. At the time of year when it was supposed to be warmest, there was a cold snap, a week of frosted mornings and heavy coat afternoons. Shannon’s zone of healing held a soft opening for David he was reluctant to attend, or attend to. Then Susana got pregnant–revealed herself to be seven weeks in. In other words, what could have gone wrong, did. She didn’t keep it, and pretty much no one but her twin knew yet, but it wasn’t a scenario to just let pass. It was another call for live-in consolation. David’s heart, with everything, had grown heavy and strained, he realized; he imagined he felt middle-aged; he meditated on his death, its context. He called his regret over the terminated pregnancy “grief.” He visualized meeting, at various ages, his ones that live. He wasn’t sure what to tell Shannon. The fertility symmetry at play added cosmic insult to injury for her. He coiled and held the ball shape, squeezing, pretending to be stuck. Anywhere, he felt sudden gripping urges to bridge. He decided to shave his head, stop looking in mirrors altogether for a while: something about vanity was a problem tied up in this. As soon as he had money again, he’d travel. Maybe India or Thailand. Japan. Somewhere with temples, different pretty girls.
What David wound up doing never felt perfect, but nothing really could have, if you thought about it fairly. It was in the name of Balance, then, the very biggest picture, basically, that what David did was he stepped up his restaurant shifts; was honest about everything; made Shannon some playlists of music to hold her over until whatever they wound up becoming; paid the balance of her rent not covered by her parents through September, with the pledge that if she needed more help later (she never did, thank God for both of them), he could work out some payment plan, like 25% for six more months; and he sincerely hoped it, what they had been, were, and would become, was cool.