Where had she gotten the impression that she was coming with him when he departed for the Coast? He slid out of the armchair, stumbled to his feet, and strolled into the kitchen, where he leaned against the kitchen counter. The sense of foreboding didn’t go away until he’d pried the cap off his bottle of beer. As he drank, he envisioned the course of his life as it would unfold without her. He would leave the city earlier than he’d intended, without mentioning the change in plans to Jenny. She’d become a royal pain in the ass.
“Here, take one,” he said, when he returned to the central room of the warehouse, with a bottle of beer in either hand. She was approaching him, lips pursed, eyes wide. He felt himself recoil from a foul atmosphere she was generating. He thrust the beer at her to deflect her embrace.
“No, thanks,” she said. “I stopped drinking.” Her eyes telegraphed some new message.
“When did that happen?”
“I gave it up as of last week,” she said in a determined voice. “I gave up drinking. For a while. I gave up alcohol when I got back from the health clinic.” She opened her hands and examined a fingernail, painted black, which had broken.
It would be easier to leave than to break up with her. He pictured himself on his motorcycle, alone, driving through Arizona, the dry, flat landscape, with its dramatic rust and red hues and its molten sunrises. Nothing felt as good to Christopher as leaving. He loved to leave. He loved to leave without considering anyone else’s feelings, without asking anyone else’s permission. He loved to leave in a hurry, like a wanted man, throwing a change of clothes and a toothbrush into a bag and skipping out. He was terrific at leaving because he got a lot of practice at it. He’d been leaving for years. He’d been in first grade the first time he’d left. He’d simply walked out the classroom door while his teacher’s back was turned to the blackboard. He’d ambled down the hall to the fire exit, which no one was supposed to use, and he’d pushed open the door and he’d walked through it onto the sidewalk. He’d walked down the block to the candy store at the corner. He’d bought himself a Snickers bar and a water pistol. He had given no thought to any of this. After playing with a stranger’s children in a courtyard, he had arrived home to 82nd Street. He had been perplexed to find his mother collapsed in a heap beneath the crucifix in his father’s study. The housekeeper had been putting his toys away, as if Christopher had been flattened by a passing truck.
Now it was time for leaving Jenny. Christopher had done it before, acquiring a fresh girlfriend, becoming intoxicated and running off without saying goodbye. Girls glommed on to Christopher and he was never entirely sure why. The less he needed a girl, the more she’d suck up, attaching herself to him. Jenny-the-blow-job-queen, Jenny-the-exhibitionist, Jenny-who-liked-to-fuck-in-doorways. He drank from his bottle of beer and smacked his lips. He considered himself the victim of false advertising. She just wanted to entrap him in some crap ranch house on bland flat stretch of land. He’d be bored after a month. She wanted to cook for him and play house and be the mother to his… Well. He wasn’t falling for it.
Now she turned away from him, picking up a paintbrush from out of the jar he kept them in. She squeezed tubes of acrylic onto the palette, dabbed the brush in, then painted a stroke on the wall, a work-in-progress, picking up the pattern from where she’d left off the last time. Neither of them said anything while Jenny painted a female figure shaped like an hourglass.
“Hey,” he said, to change the subject. “I’m going over to Lenny’s studio in a couple minutes.” He didn’t invite her, though he didn’t explicitly exclude her, either. Christopher hadn’t taken Jenny out with him in weeks. He’d been avoiding her.
But in the warehouse, she put her arms around his neck and began, too gently, to kiss his chest.
“Stop it.” He pushed her face away.
Jenny’s eyes shone with injured pride. She raised her hand, lashed out and, before he could make out what was happening, her sharp nails had scratched his neck.
It came out of nowhere, wanton, unstoppable. “Get off me, witch,” he said. The feeling was unnervingly similar to arousal and, as he gave her a shove, his head swam with it.
She slapped him in the stomach.
“You stupid cunt.” A hand collided with a cheek. A human head shielded itself from the blows which rained down upon it. No one had done this. It was being done. Incredibly, Christopher was the one beating her up. Again, he struck her, not quite where he’d aimed, decking her on the jaw. Her head was flung back from the force of his smack. She was turned away now, looking over her shoulder. She stayed like that, the round shoulders shaking, then becoming far too still, transformed into a statue.
The space between them had expanded, as if Jenny had sped away from him on a conveyer belt. There had been a fine line drawn between them and he’d crossed it. In the past, when he’d hit, she’d hit him back. She’d growled and punched him out and, afterwards, neither of them was ever sure who the hell had started it. They’d just licked each other’s wounds, they’d just laughed at it. They were being animals.
This time, Jenny kept her back to him. It was taking too long. Something was different. Nothing was okay, nothing was funny.
“You’re good,” she said, at length, each word brittle and distinct. “At ruining things.” Still, she wouldn’t look at him. She was standing up, she was stomping over to the door, carefully brushing off her dress. Her gestures said: I have worth. I have limits.
Too late, Christopher noticed the sweet pink rhinestone barrette in her hair. Now he saw the frilly dress, the care she’d taken to prepare herself for him that day, like a vestal virgin. Jenny’s harder edges had been prettified and softened. Ordinarily bed-rumpled, her blonde hair had been neatly combed when she’d arrived today. It had formed ringlets that brushed her cheeks and curled upwards, like a duckling’s tail, at her neck. And what the fuck had happened to her face? How had failed to see all this before? The smeared black-eyeliner was gone. Her skin was naked, except for a shimmer of lip gloss. She’d arrived here looking beautiful, on purpose. But a crimson line ran down the side of her mouth and bright red blotches spread over her nose and cheekbone where he’d struck her. A black eye threatened to appear; he’d messed up her daintily arranged hair. He studied all of this distantly, objectively, his eyes mechanical as cameras. With a shudder of recognition, he perceived the pitiable romantic hope she’d nursed for him.
He wouldn’t allow himself to acknowledge any of this, not to Jenny. “May I take your picture, now, like that, before you go?” he heard himself ask. His voice sounded artificial.
She put her hand on the brass knob and yanked the door open. While she stood on the threshold, Christopher observed the two spots of perspiration on her lower back, noting how the fabric wrinkled, clinging to her sweaty skin.
“If you leave now, Jenny, you can’t come back.”
She slipped through the door and down the corridor. He saw her head bobbling up and down as she maneuvered down the staircase. He listened for her response, even a “Fuck you!” But he only heard her footfalls, climbing down the steps, and then the sound of the door as it creaked open on the first floor. He imagined the rest as if he were watching a movie. Slam (the first door had closed with a rattle of frosted glass). Thump (the second door had shut). He pictured her, still just a few feet away, on a doorstep in a lifeless Brooklyn street, a low-rent beauty on a summer’s day, illuminated by the sun, gaining her freedom. She would march up the block with her angriest and most assured gait, barefoot, navigating the broken glass and the bottle caps, limping slightly because he’d stepped on her toes during their altercation. She’d left her sandals beneath his window. They were the same sandals that, a year earlier, he’d seen her filch from the Benedicts of Fifth Avenue.