SHORT STORIES: ‘Tall Girl’
When Melody awoke she was startled to realize that she had been dreaming about Paul’s ex-fiancée again.
She blinked her eyes against the gray light that seeped in through the rain-streaked window, the dream quickly slipping away, and let her vision focus on the familiar surroundings of the bedroom in her tiny apartment. The prints of Tamora De Lempicka paintings tacked to the wall, now only sleek lines of flesh and chrome in the pale morning light. Her laptop open on the desk in the dark, hazy corner, surrounded by a clutter of notebooks and oversize art books. The shadows of notecards tacked to a corkboard with the names, influences, loves, births and deaths of artists scrawled on them in Melody’s slanted, looping handwriting.
The rain pummeled down against the window in a steady beat as she stretched and slowly pulled herself out of bed, padding barefoot over the cold floor to the bathroom. She showered, brushed her teeth, and dressed. She puckered her lips in the mirror and coated them with candy-apple red lipstick, applied her mascara and eye shadow, and busied herself for class, gathering up her notebooks and laptop, pulling on a black overcoat and black beret before wrapping herself up into a purple scarf and ducking out into the rain, heading off for the campus, the dream and whatever it had meant as gone from her mind as gone can be.
But later that day, as she roamed the tall white halls of the art department, the image of Paul’s ex-fiancée kept returning to her: the coy half smile, the gleam of her tiny blue eyes, the dirty blonde hair feathered like an extra in an old, eighties sitcom. In the dark of the auditorium, the glow of students’ laptops filling the empty void with murky, blue light, paintings of Mark Rothko flickering on and off the huge screen as her professor droned on about “vibrations on the retina” and the influence of fourteenth century Italian art, that face, that smirk and those cynical eyes kept appearing before her. She couldn’t get them out of her head.
What was so strange was that Melody had never even met Paul’s ex before, had never once laid eyes on the woman. But she had somehow become friends with her on Facebook.
Before that, Melody had known practically nothing about Paul’s ex-fiancée. Just her name—Aimee Guinness—and that she and Paul had met in law school, that they had lived together but broke up after Paul had dropped out, or “took a sabbatical to get his shit together” as he liked to put it.
Now she knew so much about this woman. Too much. Favorite group: Cold Play. Favorite Song: “Hey Jude”. Favorite Drink: Cosmopolitan with a twist of orange peel. Melody knew that she had vacationed in Hawaii with her sister this winter. That she didn’t like America’s reliance on coal but was against fracking. That she was taking the bar exam in the spring. And that she was still single.
How had it happened? How had she become friends with this woman, her boyfriend’s ex-fiancée, on Facebook?
Well, one night, after maybe one too many glasses of Petite Sirah, when the names and influences of lesser known Dutch masters became a blur in her mind, she logged onto Facebook to get away from it all for a moment and suddenly that familiar name had appeared on the screen.
People you may know: Aimee Guinness.
She immediately recognized the name and froze for a moment, the wine heavy in her belly and swimming in her head. And then, with an icy sensation of thrill and shame, she hit the friend request icon.
The next day the request had been accepted and there were these pictures, likes and comments by this woman she had never met and didn’t know, yet who had been engaged to her boyfriend Paul. Had lived with her boyfriend Paul. Had slept with and shared a life with and awoke next to. There was her life opened up on the screen for Melody to scrutinize and examine, not unlike a painting, deciphering its themes, history and hidden secrets.
Of course she was too embarrassed to tell Paul about either the dreams or the fact that she had friended his ex-fiancée on Facebook. She knew he would never notice. He rarely went on Facebook and then it was just to check out some ridiculous page from Maxim or The Vine his buddies had shared for everyone to guffaw over.
Paul was a bartender but he still considered himself a law student. He was just taking a little sabbatical, he would explain, with that big smile, wiping the bar down with a white dish rag he then threw over his shoulder, to save up some cash and get his shit together. But Melody had never seen any effort by him to re-enroll.
Melody had met Paul within her first week of moving to Davis and her mother had immediately told her on their weekly two-hour Sunday phone call that it was a mistake to get a boyfriend so early. She had just moved from Baltimore to start an MFA program in art history, on a scholarship, so she had to keep her grades up, and she knew no one at the school or in town. She could hear her mother’s voice, still a trace of a Polish accent from generations ago: Honey, you need to make more friends first. Get to know the town, your teachers. It’s too early for a boyfriend. And don’t forget your grades.
And her mother was probably right, was always right, but she was just a sucker for Paul’s wide confident smile; the way the first night she had met him, bartending at Poseidon’s, he had splayed his big hands on the bar and leaned toward her with that humongous grin of perfect teeth and asked, “What will it be?” And she had seen that flicker of attraction in his eyes and looked up into his tallness, his height, his size, and, inwardly shivering, knew she would sleep with him if that’s what he wanted. She would do whatever he wanted. Even if it was a mistake. He was just so tall. And so was she.
You see, Melody was a tall girl. Pretty. Some would even say beautiful, with chiseled cheek bones, large, almond-shaped hazel eyes framed in long, dark lashes, thick chestnut hair that fell down and spread over her shoulders in perfect ringlets with Betty Page bangs across her forehead. But she was tall. Very tall. Six foot three and a half. She was tall and so was Paul. He was a good six foot six. Maybe even six foot six and a quarter (she told herself it was the art scholar in her that made her notice these details).
She could actually look up at him and this pleased her immeasurably. To just be able to tilt her head back and gaze upwards into his downturned face: this was something she had always wanted from a man. To put her cheek against his chest and draw herself to him as he wrapped his long arms around her and kissed the top of her head. Always before it had been the other way around, her enveloping a boy with her height and lankiness, pulling him in and looking down upon him as he drew himself to her. It left her feeling not like a lover but a mother, a protector, someone a child would run to, crying, in times of trouble. She wanted to be the one who was held, rocked, caressed, and protected.
She always felt isolated by her height both physically and mentally. It challenged her perspective, having to look down, peering over heads, and she often found herself hunching or squatting a little, trying to lower herself, to put herself at the same level as the people around her. At the movies she always felt guilty, like she was blocking the person behind her and she would slide down in her seat, often leaving the theater with a cramped, sore back.
But with him it was different. Together their height lent her a feeling of power and even superiority. People were always saying how good they looked together. “Striking” was a word she often heard. What a striking couple you two make.
They went to parties and gazed out over the crowd, able to see all: who was where, who came, who left, who never moved but sat in the corner trying to smile but looking so alone. And they would point these people out to each other, snuggling close to whisper in each other’s ears and warmly laugh in the shared intimacy of their height. In the movie theater she didn’t feel guilty with him beside her, they sat in the middle row, two heads peering up over the others, like the entire theater was their own. And of course the sex was incredible. To not feel like this mammoth monster, a massive parasite feeding on some small creature. To be able to be held, and held down. To give in to his dominance and submit the way she could never truly do to the men who were always smaller than her, and weaker.
But she wondered if it was really meant to be. If it would last. Wondered and sometimes fretted.
He had no interest in art and she had no interest in sports or law (though the idea of being a lawyer’s wife did appeal to her: she, the eccentric wife whose affluent marriage allowed her to pursue her artsy interests).
She just didn’t like sports. Until recently she had always felt gangly and clumsy. Girls would always get so pumped for basketball, volleyball, softball, and they would assume her size made her some kind of great athlete, but she’d always flub. She couldn’t throw or hit or even run that fast even though her long legs should have given her such an advantage. She hated running. She liked to walk, to stroll, slowly and leisurely, so she could look out into the distance and get lost in her surroundings.
Paul was into sports: high school baseball and track champ. Playing basketball with his friends and professors every weekend when he was an undergraduate. He was still on a local softball league. Now it was football season and they gathered with his friends to watch the games (always his friends, because she still hadn’t made any yet in this new town), and she often felt like an outsider, even a freak.
Her dad and her brother had been big football fans and that had always been their thing, something she had never even wanted to be a part of. Art was her thing, the thing that made her different, that her parents prided her on and always mentioned when they spoke about her. Our daughter Melody, the artist. Well, Melody is in art school with a full scholarship. Now Melody wants to pursue a career as a museum curator and is getting her Masters in art history.
She didn’t know the names of any of the players they either cheered for or derided, didn’t even know the rules of the game. She would try to play along but it just felt so fake. Sometimes some of Paul’s friends’ girlfriends would be there, and they would be wearing jerseys just like their boyfriends, screaming at the television with raised fists while Melody ducked into the kitchen to make appetizers or “game grub” as they called it. She would toil for hours making gourmet treats like bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, caprese salad, prosciutto and goat cheese, and they would scarf it down while yelling and sucking on up-turned beer bottles, as if they didn’t even taste the delicacies she had worked so hard on. Watching them her mind would inevitably turn to Aimee, Paul’s ex-fiancée. Did she love football the way he did? Did she wear a jersey on game days? Did she scream and cheer and leap into the air at an interception or touchdown?
Then she started noticing that distant look that would sometimes come creeping into Paul’s eyes. An unfocused coldness, as if he were distracted by something in the distance.
She had first seen it when they had gone camping in Yosemite.
It was late when they got to their camping spot and they had leisurely set up the tent, made a fire, and drank some wine. It was a warm, moonless night and the stars shimmered above them as they sipped Pinot noir and laughed over nothing. When they had finally gone into the tent, stumbling and giggling from too much wine, he had made love to her sweetly, holding her tenderly, and she had fallen asleep entwined in those big arms of his.
But in the morning he was different. He was up early and ready to go. Stretching. Re-tying his hiking boots tighter and tighter as she sipped her Earl Gray tea, struggling with a foggy and slightly aching head.
“Ready?” he had asked after she had finally finished her tea and gulped down some freeze dried eggs heated on a skillet over last night’s coals.
“Sure,” she mumbled, and he took off without looking back. At first she had been happy to have someone whose gait and stride could match her own, his long legs stomping down the thin trail. But he never seemed to let up, to take in the scene, the beauty of this magnificent place, the towering Firs and steep rock faces. She called to him to slow down and when he turned to her she had seen it: that cold distance in his eyes. Worried something was wrong, she asked him what he was thinking about.
He shook his head, breathing heavily, not meeting her eyes. He stared past her, out into the distance of the clear sky. “The next ridge,” he had replied. “Just thinking about the next ridge.”
I need a robe, Melody told herself as she scrolled through Amazon’s bath section, huddled before her laptop in the corner of her bedroom, telling herself it was important to look at the robes and towels, compare their thread counts and stitches and not an excuse to get away from the paper she was writing on the Arte Povera movement of the nineteen-sixties. She needed something warm, soft and comforting, something to wrap herself into when she stepped naked from the humid heat of the shower into the frigid air of her apartment.
Buy now with one click—done.
She clicked back to her paper, the irony not lost on her of using an Apple MacBook Pro and the internet to research a “poor and impoverished” art movement that often used rocks and earth as a reaction against the modernists.
She wanted to go on Facebook, wanted to see what Aimee was up to. But she resisted the urge. She even thought about unplugging the internet and finishing her paper offline so the temptation would be gone. But her thoughts kept returning to Aimee, this woman she had never met but couldn’t get out of her head and was now in her dreams at night. Then, with an inward sigh and the euphoric rush of guilt she assumed she probably shared with drug addicts and constant masturbators, Melody clicked on the Facebook icon.
Pictures of cats and puppies in strange places and poses her sister insisted on sharing. Selfies of her brother dangling from a ski lift, a snow covered mountain in the distance. Foodie pages. Art pages. And then, there it was: Aimee Guinness was tagged in this photo.
Melody blew air through her teeth and clicked to enlarge the photo, studying it while at the same time trying to reason with a guilty flush of anxiety.
It’s true, she told herself, she hadn’t been with Paul that long, but she couldn’t help but to be curious about Aimee. They were engaged after all , right? They had lived together, for God’s sake! But he never mentioned her. Around his friends it seemed like this unmentionable thing, the elephant in the room, and when Melody pressed Paul about his ex, about Aimee, his former fiancée, he always grew cold.
“Why did you break up?” she would ask. “I mean, you lived together. Was it you or her?”
His eyes would grow distant and he would stretch those long, thick fingers over his face and begin to move them up and down, as if trying to warm some inner part of himself and mutter, “Look, Melody, it just didn’t work out. Okay?”
She would quickly drop the subject, scared of the cold look in his eyes, scared to push him too far. Scared that if she pushed him too far he would grow angry. Maybe even leave her. And then she would have to settle for someone else. Someone shorter.
Melody squinted and focused hard on the enlarged photo. It was a grainy selfie of three girls in a barroom, obviously done on an older, cheap phone. She recognized Aimee right away as the girl on the far left, head cocked sideways, that coy grin Melody had learned to recognize.
What were they laughing at? Melody wondered. She found herself staring at it with the same quiet intensity she used to study paintings. Who was facing whom? Who was touching whom? What did their body language say? What did it all mean? Was that Neptune’s they were in? Was Paul working? She strained to see the decor, but could only make out the dim image of the bar, a twinkle of bottles in the distance. She became so immersed she hardly noticed when an hour had passed. Shit. She was supposed to meet Paul at Neptune’s where he had arranged to get off early so they could go to dinner together.
She quickly started getting herself ready for dinner, trying to ignore the feeling that she was clinging to something too tightly, trying to hold on, a chasm of emptiness beneath her, within her. What was she trying to hold onto? She really didn’t know.
Melody pushed open the heavy, black door of Neptune’s and stepped off of the cold and rainy street and into the warm air and dank scent of spilled beer and popcorn. She took off her rain-soaked beret, gave it a little shake, unwrapped herself from her long scarf and hung them with her coat on a rack in the corner, all the while gazing about for familiar faces. She didn’t see any.
It was early and the place was only half full, mostly students talking distractedly to each other, and there was no line for drinks, no rush like there would be later tonight. She could see Paul at the corner of the bar, slicing lemons and talking to a small, blonde woman who was pushing her arms into a bulky pea coat.
As she approached, Paul caught her eye and looked up at her with that warm smile of perfect teeth, and the woman he was talking to turned to her as she lifted her coat up over her shoulders and began to button it shut.
Melody tried not to gasp. It was her. Aimee. Paul’s ex-fiancée.
At first she almost didn’t recognize her. She was different then the pictures on Facebook: her hair was much longer and much blonder. In the photos she had seen, her hair always looked a dirty blonde but as she swung her head around and her hair caught the light she could see it was a gleaming gold. And she was short. Much shorter than she had realized. And she found herself wondering, did he like short girls?
Paul leaned over the bar, inviting Melody in for a quick hug and she gave him her cheek to kiss, glancing down with satisfaction to see that Aimee was much too short to have ever pulled off a stunt like this.
“Melody, this is Aimee,” Paul said, pushing aside the lemon slices and starting on a lime.
“Nice to meet you,” Melody said, extending her hand to the small girl with the icy eyes.
“Same,” Aimee said, then tilted her head curiously. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
“I … ah… don’t think so…”
“Yeah, I know who you are. We’re friends on Facebook. You sent me a friend request.”
Melody could feel her face flush, could see Paul staring at her, the knife in his hand poised over a lime.
“You guys are friends on Facebook?” he asked, bringing the knife down through the green flesh so that it struck the cutting board with a dull thud.
“Yeah, I… ah, you’re right; we are friends. I’m new here so I’ve just been hitting the friend request icon like crazy lately, trying to get to know people. You know, it’s, ah, such a small world.” She nodded and realized that she had never mentioned Paul on her page, never put a photo up of him, and had never updated her status from “single” to “in a relationship”.
Aimee pulled a pair of brown leather gloves from her coat pocket and began to slip them over her hands. She gave Melody a quick, furtive glance before running her tongue over her thin lips and asking, “And you guys are together now?”
Melody looked at Paul, her mouth soundlessly going up and down a moment before she found some words. “Yes. Yes, we are. Together now.”
Paul shook his head affirmatively and picked up another lime before turning his attention back to Aimee.
“Come on, Aimee, why don’t you stick around for a minute and have a drink. You still like Jack and Coke?” Melody wondered why he would want her to have a drink with them—to show his little, blonde ex off? to make some kind of statement?—then immediately felt guilty.
Aimee shook her head and pulled her coat tighter, her gloved hand clutching the navy lapels tight around her neck, though it was warm inside the bar. “No. Like I said, I’ve got to get going. I just wanted to stop by to make sure we had that straightened out. Nice to meet you, Melody.”
“Nice to have met you, too,” Melody managed, wincing at the awkwardness in her voice and trying to hide her flustered feeling with a big smile. Aimee gave her another strange, inquisitive look, then, as she turned toward the away from them, she gently grazed Paul’s hand with the tips of her gloved fingers, a gesture Melody wasn’t sure if she was meant to see or not.
“Oh, Aimee,” Paul called after her. She paused, swung her head to toss her golden hair from her face. “Good luck on the bar exam.”
She nodded, squinted. “Thanks, Paul. You take care.” With that she turned back towards the exit and was swallowed by the heavy black doors.
Melody smiled at Paul but he kept his gaze on the knife and the limes. As she watched him ready the knife over the pitted green skin, she wanted to ask him what it was that Aimee had needed to clarify—just what the hell she wanted from him and what she was doing there in the bar to be precise. But as she studied him, his eyes firmly fixed on the lime, seemingly ignorant of her very presence, as if she were as absent from this place as Aimee now was, she knew not to. So instead she asked, “So where are we going to dinner?” smiling with what felt like an idiotic grin and twirling a lock of hair on her finger.
“Osteria Fasulo,” he said without looking up.
“Oh. I’ve never been there. Is it nice?”
He looked up at her, knife in hand, his face an expressionless mask. “Yeah. You’ll like it,” he said, and severed the lime in two.
Of course he brought it up that night at dinner.
They had a good seat by a window and candles flickered between them. She felt he had taken her here for a special night but now this weirdness hung in the air between them. As they were poking at their appetizers, fried oysters and crab balls, he broke the awkward silence and brought it up.
“You and Aimee, you’re friends on Facebook?”
“Yeah, well, you know. It’s strange, isn’t it? It just, like, happened.”
She tried to give him a silly grin but faltered as she saw that distance grow in his eyes. He lifted a fried oyster up to his mouth with a tiny fork, and brought his square, white teeth down on the tines. She remembered their camping trip. The next ridge, he had said, the next ridge. He sighed, ran a napkin across his lips, and squinted into the distance.
“Everything all right, Paul?”
“Well, it’s weird.”
“Yeah, weird.” He lay the napkin back in his lap. “Let me tell you a story. When I was in high school my girlfriend’s best friend was a cop. So, one day we’re hanging out at her friend’s house, drinking beers and smoking dope. Well, there were these handcuffs lying there on the coffee table, real cop handcuffs, so I jokingly grabbed ‘em and locked myself to Sue, my girl. It was a lark, right? Kicks. And for a minute it was fucking hilarious. The audacity of it. The absurdity, you know? But then we all stopped laughing and suddenly it hit me. Like, what the fuck did you do? And I was stuck. There was no getting out. And we had to wait and wait for dude to show up with the key. We had to wait like four hours and every second we waited I just grew more aware of how stuck together we were and it really started freaking me out, so that when he finally showed up with the key, and we finally got apart, I just wanted to get the fuck out of there. Get away from her.” He sighed, put another fried oyster in his mouth, sipped his beer, and started talking again. “And it was the same way with law school. I was trapped, and I wanted out. Had to get out. But, fuck, now that I’m out I feel trapped again. Same way with….”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then what? With me?”
He stopped. “Melody, I didn’t say that. Don’t. Don’t put words in my mouth. I just…. I just…”
They stared at each other in silence.
What was he saying to her? Was he breaking up with her? She felt tears blinked to hold them back. She was embarrassed. Why had she hit the friend request? But she was also pissed: the nerve of him to get so upset by this. It was such a nothing thing, and she had a right to be curious about this woman. Every right. He was being shallow.
She patted her lips with her napkin and looked away.
“What are you trying to say, Paul?”
He was silent. She sipped her wine and blinked again, trying to steady herself, and when she looked back at him she could tell that he could see the tears brimming in her eyes and he smiled. He fucking smiled. What was that? What the hell? Was he being cruel? Was he a cruel man? A cruel man who liked short, blonde women? And just fuck him anyway. Who was he? He had never reapplied to law school; she couldn’t even see him going back at this point. What was he going to be? An old bartender? And she saw herself as a bartender’s wife. Was that what she wanted? What her parents had worked so hard for? Would her mom like this arrogant guy? She saw her dream of a lawyer’s wife suddenly swiped away. She had been so foolish.
But then he stretched out one of his big hands and wrapped it around hers and—oh—it felt so good to have that big hand envelop her own. Every other boyfriend she ever had had hands smaller than hers. And what did she see herself as now? A curator in a dusty old museum. Alone. Looking after ancient paintings. Trying to keep the dust and grime off old, forgotten art. To curate, what did it even really mean?
Then he began to speak, his confident gaze focused on her eyes, his hand still resting on hers. “Look, you’re taking this the wrong way. I’m not saying anything. I’m just talking. You’re getting all emotional about nothing. Just relax, would you? Everything is still the same. I like you. I like you a lot.”
She nodded and he lifted his other hand to caress her face and then leaned his lanky frame across the tiny table to brush his lips against hers.
“Okay,” she murmured, forcing herself to smile, his words echoing through her mind. I like you a lot. What did that mean? What was he thinking? And suddenly she realized that she could never know what he was thinking. She could never know what went on behind those distant eyes, what the next ridge was to him.
But there were things she could know. She could know how he liked to watch golf on Sunday mornings in his boxers. That he loved eggs benedict. She could know his body, his weight, the contours of his face, the hard calluses and the soft spots of his hands as they roamed over her body at night. She could know his height. And in the end, knowing his height would have to be enough.