I walked home a little more briskly than usual, skipping McMillen’s again. I wanted to know how Amy’s day had been; see her safe in my apartment. When I arrived, I was relieved to find her sitting in my club chair, swirling brandy in one of my crystal snifters. On the living room table were a few dollars and some change.
“What’s this?” I asked, pointing to the money.
“Rent,” she said, smiling.
I scraped the few bills from the table and counted it.
“Twelve dollars and seventy-five cents? This is rent?”
“That’s all I have. They don’t tip well at Farid’s.”
I tried to give the money back. “Amy, you don’t have to pay rent, I –”
“I’ll pay what I can. Also, I’m going to need a key. I’m tired of breaking into your house. By the way, you need a new lock.”
“Great. Thanks,” I said, “If you’re going to have a key, I feel like I need to know more about you. I don’t even know your last name.”
“Pensiero,” she said.
“Does anybody else know where you are? Don’t you have friends?”
“No. Not anymore.”
“I just don’t want them to know where I am. My dad knows all their parents. Look, can’t we just—”
“Ok, ok. I’m nosy. I’m just concerned about you. Pensiero. Is that Italian?”
She rolled her eyes and walked back into the kitchen, her bare feet padding lightly on the linoleum floor, to pour out the expensive brandy.
“Why did you pour that out? That was 70-dollar brandy?”
“I just wanted to see what it was like to swish it around. Saw it in a movie once.”
“Let me buy you dinner,” I said.” No more questions, I promise.”
“Are we going to your sad little pub with the greasy fish?”
There was something about the way she looked at me in that moment that brought back memories of my former life. It was in the chill of early November, and I’d forgotten our anniversary. I was trying to make up for it by surprising Laura with a fish dinner. When we arrived at the restaurant, she turned to me and said, “Really? This is where you take me?” I brought her daisies every day for a week after that. She didn’t like greasy fish, either.
“How about Chinese?” said Amy. “You live a few blocks away from the best Chinese food on the west coast.”
It was getting chilly outside, so I grabbed my brown corduroy driver hat and my wool pea coat. I tossed Amy my scarf as she pulled on her Army jacket, and we stepped out into the night air to head for Hon’s.
“They have the best Dan Dan Mien. It’s kind of on the other end of Chinatown, but it’s worth the walk,” I said as we crossed Hyde Street.
As we walked in silence for a time, I couldn’t get Laura out of my mind. I never deserved her. I was a crappy husband at best, but she stood by me. She was the luckiest thing that had ever happened to me.
I stopped to dig out a pack of cigarettes from my coat with my good arm and lit up. I sucked in a tiny bit of smoky comfort and let it roll out of my mouth into the damp air. Before I could offer her one of mine, she had already lit hers.
“You shouldn’t smoke, you know,” I said.
“Go fuck yourself,” she said, smiling.
We both laughed and walked on. As we walked, we saw an old, long-bearded Chinese man smoking a pipe riding a bicycle. We spied on a young couple who’d ducked into an alleyway to make-out against the cold brick wall. I dropped a few dollars into a guitar case while a street-worn black man picked out an old blues tune. The smell of ginger, garlic, and fish sauce permeated the air.
Finally, we arrived at Hon’s Wun Tun House. People stood outside the entrance laughing and talking loudly. I opened the door for Amy, and she looked me in the eye as she passed the threshold. It was difficult to read what was behind her dark eyes. They were impenetrable.
The young hostess led us to a table in the back next to a fountain with a statue of fish spouting water.
“So, James. You’re not from around here are you,” she said, removing the scarf and laying it carefully over the back of her chair.
“Why do you think that?”
“Duh, your accent.”
“Oh.” I’d never had a strong Oklahoma accent, at least by Oklahoma standards. But what little accent I had, I’d tried to remove from my speech. I didn’t like people asking me where I was from because that question inevitably led to more questions.
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I kind of like it. So, where are you from?”
She fixed me in a stare. I couldn’t escape her. It was as if she’d cast a spell on me. And for that moment, I was helpless.
“Oklahoma,” I said, the word catching in my throat.
“Oklahoma. Like the song. OOOOOOOOOOOOOh-klahoma where the–”
“Yes, like the song. Look, how about you don’t ask me questions, and I won’t ask you either.”
“Fine.” She began to study the menu, her dark hair falling across her face. There was something about the way she did this that made me think of the first time I had met Laura.
I was walking to class at Norman High School with Bijan, my best friend, who was trying to convince me to join the choir. He said, “What are you worried about? That everyone’s going to think you’re a faggot if you join? Because everybody already thinks you are.” He laughed.
“I don’t really care if people think that about me. What if I suck?”
“Dude, they don’t care if you suck. They just need guys. Think of it like this. There are like twice as many girls as there are guys. We’ll be taking trips, going to contest. You’re like a six in the general population, but you might be an eight in Choir. Who cares if you suck? This is an opportunity for you. Except for church camp, what kind of action have you seen?”
“Exactly. Just do this with me. Consider it a favor. It will be fun. I promise.”
So, I signed up for Choir with Bijan.
He saw Laura first and asked her to the fall dance, which surprised me because although he was interested in my dating needs, he was generally shy around girls himself. On the day of the dance, she, Bijan, and a couple of her friends went out to Sooner Dairy drive-in for burgers at lunch. Laura was leaning up against Bijan’s silver Ford Tempo, which his parents had bought for him on his 16th birthday that summer. She chatted easily with us, laughing and making eye contact in a way that made me take notice of her.
Most of the girls had poofy bangs and teased out hair, but Laura was different. Her golden-brown hair flowed naturally. As she asked me about what I thought about Choir and the choir director, she brushed her hair away from her face so naturally that she was probably not aware she was doing it.
“So,” she said to me, looking directly at me with topaz eyes and brushing her hair aside again. “Are you taking anyone to the dance tonight?”
“Nah, I’m just going to hang out at home.”
“Come on, James,” she said, touching my arm, “You’re seriously cute. You could get a date easy.”
Bijan began to fidget as he did when he was uncomfortable with something and walked away from the conversation.
In passing period, Bijan found me and said, “Hey, listen, I’m going to tell Laura I’m getting sick. Do you want to hang out?”
“Why?” I said.
“I dunno, she’s just really forward and flirty. It’s a turnoff for me.”
I nodded and said. “Sure, yeah, let’s hang out.”
All the while, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way she had touched my arm and the way she had looked at me. In choir the next day, I decided to approach her. Wearing tight jeans that hugged her hips and a pink silk blouse, she was talking to one of the other sopranos.
“Hey,” I said to them.
She broke off her conversation and said, “Hey, James! We really missed you guys last night. I was sorry to hear about Bijan. Is he feeling better today?”
“Yeah. He’s taking the day off, but I think he’ll be ok. I guess it is just one of those twenty-four-hour deals.”
Her friend said, “Hey, I gotta get to class. Talk to you later!” and left us.
Laura brushed her hair off her face, and it was just me and her eyes.
“Um,” I said. “So, I was wondering. If Bijan’s gonna get sick and all, maybe you’d like to get some pizza with me Friday night.”
She laughed and said, “Oh, is that the way it is?”
“I just think he’s feeling a little too shy with you.”
“And you?” she said, eyebrows raised.
“I think you’re perfect.”
She stepped close enough to me so that I could smell her perfume, and she put her hand on my chest. “You’re damn right I am. Pick me up at seven.”
I watched Amy eating with chopsticks like an expert, but she didn’t scarf it down as she had at McMillen’s. She slurped her noodles a bit at a time, occasionally tossing her hair back.
Next to us was a young couple in their twenties. The man was speaking passionately about the plight of the refugees coming into the country from Syria while she ate, perhaps tuning him out a little. He stopped only occasionally to take a bite of his Kung Pao chicken.
The waitress, a sparkly-eyed, young Chinese woman, stopped to ask if they needed refills. He never stopped talking. His date, however, asked for another tea.
“How was work?” Amy asked.
“Just another day in paradise. This new-age dude told me that my accident was some sort of karma. I told him to go fuck himself,” I lied.
“Oh yeah? You said that? So, what do you think?”
I took a bite and said, with food in my mouth. “I think he’s full of shit,” I lied again.
“James, I don’t fucking believe you. You believe you deserve your crappy life. I don’t know why, yet, but you’re going to spill the beans eventually.”
“There’s nothing to spill. I just want him to keep his guru away from my karma.” Laughing with a mouthful of noodles, she said,“Yeah. What a fucking asshole.”