I gasp. My eyes fly open and drink in the stucco ceiling. My mind is slow to wrench the shadows of my dream apart from reality, and I shake my head to loose them, blinking sweat away from my eyes. It’s still dark out. The only light in the room is the pale light of Jenny’s cell phone on the charger, which paints the whole room monochromic blues like a detective comic. I peel myself slowly from the leather sofa. I remember it being red, but now it looks utterly black. I can’t remember the dream I was having, but I feel out of breath and panicked. I suck long draughts of the stuffy air into my lungs, letting the lingering scents of passion sink back into me, calming me. At some point during the night, Jenny relocated herself to the floor with the blanket we were sharing. She’s so beautiful, even though I can only make out the silhouettes of her curves. She’s lying on her back with the white blanket curled around one leg, draped across her belly, and over one breast. Her right arm is lying above her head so it looks like she might have been in the middle of doing the tango when she fell asleep.
My eyes drift around the room, landing on the hard edges of objects that catch the phone’s pallid radiance. The room is full of the quirky little things she’s picked up on her travels. She’s collected dozens of carved, wooden fish that are painted with the cheerful colors of a slew of different countries. There are carpets, scarves, and sarongs of every hue and pattern imaginable tacked to the walls. They all try to tell stories that I can’t understand. I’ve never been to those places.
My clothes lie strewn about the room, and I grope about in the dark, trying to tell mine apart from hers. I wrestle my jeans on and sit in the dark, wiping the sweat off my forehead with the palms of my hands. A sigh escapes me. I slide off the couch to the floor, and lie down next to Jenny. There are some women in the world who are so beautiful, it seems like you’re doing something dirty just by looking at them. Jenny is one of those women. I reach a hand out carefully, and trace her forearm with my fingertips, barely grazing the fuzzy, little hairs that grow there. In the soft light of the glowing cell phone her dark skin looks pastel, and her wavy auburn hair is pitch black. I gently rest my hand between her breasts and feel her heart beat beneath her slow, shallow breaths. She’s just about the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. My hand slides up slowly to her necklace. It’s made of hemp, laced with black and turquoise clay beads. It reminds me of being at the beach.
I met Jenny in Chicago during the spring. I was in college then, and I was depressed. I rented a small apartment in a tall building on State and 8th St., only a block away from Michigan Avenue and the riveting sunsets there that paint the lake in brilliant yellows and oranges, then reds, purples, and deep blues. My roommate was a junior at DePaul named Adam, and he was an alcoholic. I found myself taking any excuse to get out of the apartment and away from the stress of partying and drinking as the handful of students living in the building tried desperately to pass the days away. They drifted from floor to floor like gypsies, often stopping by our room to bring news of the other floors and drink whatever we had in the fridge that would keep them buzzed. Beer, vodka, soured milk, whatever.
I started using the CTA to take me places I’d never been before. Every day, I would take the El farther and farther out of the city in a different direction. One day I headed northbound on the Red Line to Evanston, about an hour’s journey I guessed. I took a blanket, a sack lunch, and a bottle of water in my backpack, and passed the time reading some Isaac Asimov book I’d picked up from the library. I got off the train when it ran out of tracks in Linden. I walked to the coast in a daze, and found myself standing on a beach that stretched for miles in either direction. I realized I’d never seen anywhere so magnificent since I moved to Chicago.
That’s where Jenny found me, eating a crushed peanut butter sandwich, sprawled out on my big, plaid blanket, watching clouds march endlessly over Lake Michigan to the horizon, crying over the stress and tragedy of it all, wiping tears from my eyes with the backs of my wool mittens.
“Hey,” she said, “mind if I join you?”
She wore a blue and grey striped beanie, a sea-green hoody with light blue dolphins on it, loose-fitting, khaki cargo pants, and a hemp necklace with little black and turquoise beads. Somehow, none of it managed to hide her contours, her perky breasts, slim torso, or toned thighs. She smirked sideways at me and raised an eyebrow as I blinked incredulously at her. The wind swept her neck-length auburn hair across her face, and she pushed it back behind her ear, her breath clouding in the cold as she smiled openly at me.
“Sure, yeah, please,” I managed, sniffing back my runny nose, and breathing into a mitten. She lay down beside me and looked at the clouds for a minute. She smelled a little like fresh cut flowers, and I could feel her breath on my cheek when she turned her head to the side to look at me.
“You know, life is beautiful when you get right down to it.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” I agreed, resting my sandwich on my chest.
She looked back up at the clouds, “I’m pretty sure you must be gay if it makes you cry though. That’s why I’m guessing it’s safe to sit down and talk to you.”
I looked over and crinkle my nose up at her. She glances askance at me with her eyebrows raised.
“I’m not gay, it’s just been a long day. And what makes you so sure I’m safe to talk to? Maybe I’m some psychopath.”
She locked her big, brown eyes on mine for a moment, and then hid them beneath long, black lashes and grinned widely at me.
“I’ve been lots of places, and I’ve met lots of people in the world. I think all of us are just looking for someone to hold us. You looked like somebody who needed a stranger to come tell you things would be okay.” I watched her stare at the sky through closed eyes.
“My name’s Jenny,” she said as she took my hand off my chest and held it in hers between us, “I think me and you should be friends.”
Jenny and I didn’t agree on very much, and maybe that was the point, but the sex was amazing. She was a graphic design major at some school nearby Evanston in north Skokie. I was interested in astronomy at that point, although I decided to major in mass communication halfway through my sophomore year. She liked soccer, and I liked rock climbing. I listened to alternative and grunge, and she was obsessed with country music. I would take the express line up to meet her on the weekends, and we’d stay in her apartment and make love until we were too tired, hungry, and sore to do anything but order Chinese food and watch movies. We’d take turns picking a movie that the other would have to watch. It would always end ugly when whoever’s turn it wasn’t to pick the movie said something snarky about the main character and we’d get into a wrestling match over it.
“How can you even say that about Robert Redford?” she says, leaning over the kitchen counter to give me a look of disbelief while she’s pouring us drinks, “The man is a legend! Did we watch Three Days of the Condor yet?”
“Look, I’m not saying he’s a bad actor, he’s just dull compared to Brad Pitt. If I wanted to watch a heist movie, I’d watch Oceans 11 is all. I don’t see how you can even stay awake for all these crappy old movies.”
I hear the bottle of whiskey hit the counter and see her appear in the kitchen doorway. She stands there with her legs akimbo in nothing but a T-shirt and some red striped panties and looks at me like she might kill me. Then she leaps across the room at me, tackling me into the covers, trying to pin my arms over my head.
Robert drones on in the background, “You know me. I'm the same as you. It's two in the morning, and I don't know nobody.”
“Oh my god, bo-ring,” I mock.
“There wouldn’t even be an Oceans 11 if it weren’t for The Sting, you fuckhead!” She tries to say more, but I get her flipped over and stuff a pillow in her face, laughing.
Holding onto Jenny was like holding onto fish out of water. No matter how close you tried to hold her, she’d slip right through your fingers. Rent got expensive, working so much took it’s toll on my grades, and so I began to spend less and less time on the Red Line to Evanston. I ended up moving to St. Paul, Minnesota and getting a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the U of M. I married a woman named Heather who had long, blonde hair that curled and bounced, and framed her face nicely. She made me happy, and we had a lot of things in common. Our love was safe, convenient, and comfortable. We moved to Michigan a year later, and now we maintain a quiet, reasonable relationship in a quiet, reasonable neighborhood. We get along well, despite the thick coat of mediocrity that smothers us. I work as a small time contractor, and she works at a local elementary school teaching 5th graders. We spend the evenings reading books and quietly describing to one another what slightly out of the ordinary things have happened to us during the day.
When I first met Heather, she’d never even touched herself, let alone been touched. For months after we’d first started dating, she wouldn’t let me see her naked or change clothes in front of me. Our relationship was an exercise in patience and humility. She refused to have sex with me until we got married, and anytime it came up while we were being intimate, she’d finish me quickly and go to bed without another word. After we got married, I grew to resent this quality about her, not just in the bedroom, but in all walks of life, that her sense of convention was so firm. The more I dwelt on it, the more I thought of her as being prudish, and the more my thoughts drifted back to Jenny. The way Jenny smelled when we were trapped under the covers together, the way Jenny tasted, the way Jenny’s hair would spill over her face so all I could see was her smile, how she would grip my stomach when she was about to come, the arch of her back, and the slow, soft kisses she would run up and down my body.
I drove to Chicago in the summer, on business, and called Jenny from the Linden stop parking lot. We met on the beach, but didn’t stay there long. We drove into the city to a Thai restaurant near her new apartment, and talked about our lives. Her hair was longer now, just past her shoulders. She wore brown slacks and a white tank top. Everything about her was still stunning. She worked for an advertising firm now, and wrote poetry in her spare time. She described her position as being a bit of an advertisement for her company, since it was always her that seemed to be shipped off to make a good impression on potential clients. She’d visited more countries in the past year than she had in her entire life up to that point. It’d been hard on her love life, though, and admitted to me that it got lonely.
She bit her lower lip and stirred at her soup, “So are you in town for a little then?”
“I don’t know. I’ve got a couple days. I’ve got to pick up an order of special tiles for this lady’s bathroom on Tuesday.” She smirked one corner of her mouth at her bowl and glanced furtively up at me.
“You could stay at my place if you don’t have a hotel or something.”
“That’d be nice.”
She grinned at me and flipped her saltines into my glass of water.
“Real mature, Jenny.” Her laugh was intoxicating, and she tried to hide it behind one hand, while she reached out and held one of mine in the other.
“I missed you,” she whispers in the dark. The blue light touches the corners of her mouth as she smiles. She rolls into me, pressing her warm breasts to my stomach.
“I missed you too.”
“You know I have to.”
She runs her fingers through my hair, and traces my left temple, “You could stay.”
I run my hand along the small of her back and smile into her dark hair.