Gretchen Johnson is an Assistant Professor of English at Lamar University. Her books, The Joy of Deception and A Trip Through Downer, Minnesota,
were published by Lamar University Press. Her poems and stories have appeared in The Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Spout Press, The Blue Bear Review, and others. She is the creative nonfiction editor of Amarillo Bay, A Texas Literary Journal.
“I’m coming over,” he shouted into the phone.
“Are you insane?”
“Probably...yes...I probably am, but I need to talk to you,” he said and looked out the window again.
“We’re in the middle of a fucking hurricane. Just stay where you are,” she urged.
“Exactly! The middle...we’re in the middle. I have like fifteen minutes before the other side of this thing hits again. We’re in the eye, and I’m coming over. I’m leaving right now.”
“Fifteen minutes? No. No. You don’t have fifteen minutes. It’s more like five.”
“It’s fifteen,” he shouted. “I remember. I remember from my science class in like eighth grade. Fifteen to twenty minutes inside the eye of a hurricane. I remember.” He shoved his feet into the old, stretched out tennis shoes, the ones that always stayed tied, and he wondered why he could vividly remember his eighth grade science teacher’s crooked front teeth but couldn’t remember why he wanted to see Jade again.
“And how do you know we’re in the middle of the eye? How do you know we’re not on the far side of the eye? You might not have as long as you think.”
“Trust me. I know.”
“Fine. Do what you want, but don’t blame me when you drive into a river or get trapped in your car because a tree fell on it. Don’t put that on me,” she said in that tone of voice he had come to recognize as pleasure disguised in the cloak of concern.
“You’ll see me in ten minutes,” he said, slammed his finger onto the end-call button, and flew out the door.
Outside the sun was shining, but tree limbs and bits of garbage were scattered across the pavement of his apartment’s parking lot. He couldn’t believe what he was doing. “No one else is stupid enough to be out here,” he said aloud to himself before getting into his car. “What the hell am I doing?”
And Jade was right. To drive across Beaumont was an idiot’s choice with the mess of mangled trees, downed power lines, and that first half mile where the standing water on the road threatened to meet his car’s underbelly and pull him completely off course. But the most terrifying part was not knowing how much time he had, not knowing if he would make it there before the other wall of the hurricane hit. In a pathetic attempt to control the situation, he opened his window to listen for that roaring wind he knew was approaching somewhere in the distance, but all he heard was the engine of his own car and the rustling sound of his left leg shaking beneath khakis.
Ten minutes earlier he had sat safely behind the concrete walls of his apartment, listened as the radio announcer warned that venturing out wasn’t a good idea, shook his head, and laughed at the idea of someone being so foolish, but that was before he saw it. That was before he made the mistake of checking to see if Facebook was up and running, before he went searching for new information about her.
“What the hell am I doing? She’s not even that hot,” he yelled through his open window to the empty audience of an abandoned afternoon road, but, of course, he was lying. The first time he saw Jade, he went home to call his brother and report the news. She had come in from the rain to buy groceries from Kroger, one of a dozen grocery stores in town, and slapped her basket down on the broken belt of checkout three, even though she was a few items over the fifteen-max limit. A gesture that normally irritated him, sometimes outwardly as much as inwardly, was somehow endearing when paired with Jade’s soaked short blonde hair and smudged mascara under huge brown eyes.
“Don’t judge me,” she had said.
“It’s okay. You’re only a few over.”
She put her hands on her hips, cocked her head playfully, and said, “That’s not what I was referring to. But thanks for being so on-the-ball with your job and all.”
He nervously scanned the items, paying attention to each swipe so as not to screw up, and forgot to ask her what she had meant.
“You’re a shy one, huh?” she asked when he handed her the receipt. “I always liked that—gives me more room to talk.” She hesitated as he watched the customer behind her getting impatient for him to start the next transaction. “You know what... Yep. We should probably try dating.” She took a few steps toward the door, stopped, turned back toward him, and said, “I’m gonna come back in tomorrow, and you’re gonna ask for my number and take me on a weird first date, maybe somewhere like Walmart or the laundromat. Seems fitting, huh?” and then she was gone.
He thought for sure he would never see this strange girl again, but she did come back that next day, and he did take her to the laundromat where she talked about things like the comical elements of economic recessions, conspiracy theories of soap, and the brief but messy affair she had with her tenth grade gym teacher.
She had set the whole arrangement up as “an experiment of eccentricity,” at first to hold his interest and later to justify outright cruel behavior, and there he was, driving sixty miles an hour in a thirty to outrun the force of nature lurking behind him, all to rush up the steps to her third-story apartment where she sat eagerly waiting for the storm. “I’m such an idiot,” he shouted again as he pulled into her lot and parked the car in the space way down at the far end of the building, the only place with vacancies when everyone was already home.
Just as he exited the car, it happened. The other side of the hurricane hit with all its force, hurling violent winds and a surge of rain that reminded him of standing under the manmade waterfall at an amusement park he visited once as a child. As he ran to her staircase, rain and wind and the occasional soaked leaf slapped him repeatedly across the face. He hated her.
He reached the awning, ran up the slippery steps, holding tight to the cold, wet railing, and pulled hard on her door handle. “Are you kidding me? Are you fucking kidding me? You locked the door?” he shouted.
“Oh, hey,” she said, opening it. “I thought you were joking about coming over. You’re insane.” She chuckled.
“I saw your Facebook post.”
“Oh yeah?” she asked, and there it was, that smirk that always accompanied her cruelty.
“How could you be engaged? We’re dating.”
“First of all, we’re not dating. Remember? You’re kind of the side guy. You said you were cool with that.”
“Is this a joke? Part of your stupid eccentricity bullshit? I thought he was the side guy.”
“Oh, sweetie, no. I’m sorry for the confusion,” she said and waved her arm playfully as though they were discussing what movie to rent.
He hated the way she trivialized things, but still he wanted to hold her in his arms, wanted to peel off his soaked clothes and her dry dress, wanted to press his face against that little bump above her hip before kissing her in that aggressive biting way that always got him sex, but instead he said, “Where’s the ring? I don’t see a ring.”
“He didn’t give me a ring. He gave me a laptop.” A tree branch banged against the window startling him, but she didn’t even react.
“A laptop? What do you mean? That’s not a real engagement.”
“I didn’t need any more jewelry,” she said, pointing at the emerald ring he had given her, a ring she wore on her right middle finger. “I needed a laptop.”
“That’s complete crap. That’s not a real engagement.”
“It’s an Apple,” she said smugly.
“I don’t care what it is. People don’t give computers when they get engaged. They give rings.”
“You should know I’m above all that sentimental symbolism our culture hurls at the idiot masses. I hate that crap. I’m a practical girl.” Practical? She thought she was practical? His mind raced back to their second date, a night of excessive drinking at the shit bar three miles out of Beaumont, a night when she had insisted on walking home instead of calling a cab, a night when they took her route back, traveling across drainage ditches and through the yards of strangers. Jade was in love with the act of making reckless decisions. It had taken him months to reach this revelation, to understand that he only served as a responsive audience to her impulsive actions, but even after this revelation, he kept coming back.
Normally he could have left, could have rushed back down those steps and back to the confines of his car where he didn’t have to look at her, but he was stuck. Outside the wind banged against her front door, a steady reminder that there was no escape from the conversation. He clawed his nails into that space where his back and neck met and wondered if she was enjoying the storm outside as much as the one picking up power inside the apartment.
“So...what...what if I had come over here yesterday and presented you with...this pillow,” he said and picked up the green shag throw pillow she always napped with. “Then what? We’d be engaged?”
“What if I had shown up here yesterday with a laptop and asked you to marry me? Then we’d be engaged?”
“What if I bought you an actual ring?”
“You did that.”
“No,” she insisted. “That’s not how I work. It’s not a first-come, first-served situation. This isn’t Kroger.”
“So what then? What scenario would have led to us being engaged?” he shouted.
“I don’t know. Okay? I don’t know. Plus, I don’t know what you’re even so worked up about. It’s not like anything will change. Mark and I are going to take our sweet time getting around to getting married. Hell, who knows? It might not even come to that,” she said and sat down on the sun-faded black area rug with her long legs stretched out in front of her. She looked straight at him with a noticeable smirk forming on her face.
“Are you even in love with me?” he asked.
“Of course, but love is mostly a necessity of sex. You know that,” she said while leaning back into what he assumed was a yoga pose invented to make men forget how angry they were. She seemed to sense him softening and added, “But it’s different with Mark. It’s more than sex. I love his mind. He entertains me.”
“And I don’t?”
“You amuse me.”
“Isn’t that the same?”
“No,” she said and sat up again, feeling the fibers of the rug for fragments left behind by her run-down vacuum cleaner. “It’s not the same.” He wanted to leave. He had once told a bar full of strangers that he would kill his own grandmother just to kiss Jade, but he felt the wind of her words beating against those walls that had protected his infatuation. It was all falling in on itself, and then he saw it: the laptop.
He thought momentarily of throwing it through the sliding glass patio door or using it to smash the porcelain duck collection she had been working on since childhood, but he couldn’t do it. He wondered how he, a guy who panicked when the gas light came on, had gotten himself into such an emotional disaster.
“Well? Don’t you have anything to say?” she goaded.
Just then the electricity went out. He looked at her, but all he could see now was the shadowed outline of her figure and the dark passages of her eyes and mouth. He wanted her.
“Don’t you?” she pleaded.
“Are you really going to marry Mark?”
“Probably. I’d give it a sixty-three percent chance.”
“Oh, much less than that. Maybe twelve percent...something like that.”
“I don’t see Mark here? Where is he? He didn’t drive through a hurricane for you,” he yelled.
“It’s barely a hurricane. The news people were still quibbling about whether or not it was a category one or a tropical storm just like an hour ago. Don’t give yourself so much credit.”
“I just don’t understand you. What the hell are you trying to do? How don’t you know the ending? It’s your own damn life,” he said.
“How could anyone know the ending? There is never any sense of knowing until you’re standing there. Like right now...we don’t know what will happen with this storm...what will happen with your car...what might be happening right now. There could be a huge tree trunk sprawled across your car. Maybe you can’t drive away when this is over. Maybe you stay the night. Maybe you stay a week. Maybe forever. Who knows? Maybe Mark is fucking that waitress he was eyeing at Logan’s right now. Who knows? And isn’t that the part we all like the best, the not knowing?” she said and moved to the couch, first on the opposite cushion from him but only as an opportunity for the dramatic shift of her sliding over to his side.
“I know the ending,” he lied.
“Well, don’t tell me,” she said and pinched the flabby skin under his armpit, a little too hard to be interpreted as a lighthearted gesture.
He felt himself losing control again, the way he had lost control when he saw so excited to finally be engaged to Mark on her Facebook wall before driving over, the way he had lost control the night she talked him into having sex under the slide at the playground he frequented as a child, the same way he felt that first time he told her he loved her, knowing full well she wouldn’t say it back. He was thirty-one and wasting his time with a woman who saw him as nothing more than an amusement, but he felt himself hoping the hurricane would last longer than forecasted, even briefly thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be so horrible if his car was destroyed. He needed a new one anyway, and he had kept the full coverage despite its old age and lack of reliability. She grabbed his thigh and kissed him hard as the wind picked up outside.
“You kiss so much better than Greg,” she said in that half-whisper tone that had ruined his life.
He stopped, stunned, sat up, and said, “Who the fuck is Greg?”
“Oh, just this guy I’ve been kind of playing around with. Nothing to worry about,” she said and leaned back on the arm of the old couch.
“You’re seeing more guys? It’s not just me and Mark?” He tried to yell, but it came out as a whimper.
“No, not seeing...playing around with. You worry too much, Sean. Can’t you just enjoy the middle?” And he thought about the way it had felt driving over, right there in the middle of the storm, momentarily the only man minutes away from entering Jade’s apartment, the only man moments away from that beautiful contrast of her thin upper lip to the full bottom one, the only man who would be stupid and brave enough to risk getting caught driving in a hurricane just to confront her. He considered it all, pulled hard at that patch of thick hair at the back of his head just under the place he was starting to bald, and decided maybe he could.
“I don’t know,” he said and shrugged.
She smiled and shrugged and slipped the orange sundress over her head to show him what the middle of the storm had led to. He followed her to the old mattress in the corner of the next room, that place where she had taken him and Mark and Greg to keep them in the game she had invented. As she giggled and unhooked the blue bra she wore often, he wondered who else had seen it and whose hands had felt the flesh beneath it, but he couldn’t get himself to care. He was there, and the rain rushed down the roof and walls covering them, and he didn’t want to know when it would end.