Allison, the girl who lives in the garage apartment behind the duplex I rent, had brought her own tool box. She sprawled her stuff out on my hardwood floor, sitting there cross-legged. I sat on my sofa watching her rewire my table lamp. She was barefoot in worn jeans. She wore an aqua sleeveless t-shirt and had her hair pulled back with what I swear was one of those thick blue rubber-bands they put around a clump of broccoli. She stripped the insulation off a length of wire with a special tool, and she did it with one deft motion. This is the sort of woman I’d normally be drooling over, but with Allison, there had never been any sort of connection between us. Even on those rare occasions when I’d see her with her boyfriend — whose name I could never remember — she seemed removed from him, like a gourmand tucking into a three-bean salad, dispassionately, methodically.
“So, you really fucked this up,” she said without looking up.
“I just tripped over the cord.”
I don’t think she was buying my excuse. It was almost true. I had been chasing a cockroach along the wainscoting, stomping and missing and stomping and missing, and when it darted behind the desk, I made on last lunge. Never did get the bastard.
The lamp is hideous. Allison made it for me as a gift, and I love it.
She’s an artist who works in that slippery world of mixed media. Sometimes two dimensional, sometimes three dimensional. But never call anything of hers a painting or a sculpture. Three weeks after I moved in, I attended her first opening — first for me, that is. The show was held in a gallery co-op over on South Flores. Her stuff was by far the best of about a dozen artists. My favorite piece was a bas-relief of Ross Perot done in joint compound and 73 garlic presses. I made myself a promise. I would keep an eye out for outrageous items (or, normal items in outrageous amounts) to pass her way. And so, a couple months later, while working a temp gig cleaning out a warehouse on the West Side, not far from Our Lady of the Lake University, I came across a room with about 200 mannequin heads. Male and female. Just the heads. They were all the resined plaster style of the fifties. The owner of the building just shrugged when I asked if I could have them. And that’s what I dumped on Allison. She almost gave me a grin. Two days later she knocked at my door with an unwieldy table lamp, looking like a totem pole from a Jack Benny skit. A wooden platter base, with four mid-century heads stacked. Boy, girl, boy, girl. And the top girl wore the lamp shade that came down to the bridge of her nose. “Isn’t it incredibly disturbing?” Allison wanted to know. I agreed, and I accepted the gift. I gave her an awkward hug.
And here she was now, trouble-shooting. Dispassionately, methodically.
I got up and went into the kitchen. I pulled a pitcher of hibiscus tea from the refrigerator. It was strong and super-sweet. I like to mix it half-and-half with Topo Chico, a brand of Mexican mineral water. Taking two large glass tumblers down from the cupboard, I mixed up the fizzing concoctions.
Allison didn’t look up when I placed the glass on the floor beside her. I sat down and watched her work. When she finally reached out for the glass and took a sip, she paused. She looked closer. Frowned. Sniffed. She took a deep swig, about half the glass, and returned to work.
Gina turned me onto hibiscus tea. It was last year. We were chosen (and I’m still not exactly sure why) to represent our graduate department for a symposium on bicultural media in Monterey. That’s Mexico. Four days. All expenses paid, with a per diem stipend.
Gina was fluent in Spanish and had been published in several journals. Why they added me, makes no sense. And to compound confusion, the family who hosted our lodging either assumed that we were a couple, or that we should become one. We were given the guest house, which was one huge room with a double bed, sofa, dining table, kitchenette, and bathroom. I played the gentleman to the hilt. Took the sofa. And maybe even went overboard with the professional relationship stuff. Gina and I had never spent much time together before. We were pursuing different interests. She was concerned with the tightly focused realm of early 20th century Mexican land reform, and I was dicking around with border fiction. Mainly, my own.
I was old. A returning student, being the euphemism. She seemed pretty bright, and I liked that about her. But Gina was just a kid. Giddy, and oh so serious. As I recall, she was cute. I found her moderately attractive. But there’s something that exhausts me about twenty-something intellectuals. What they have to say is usually just so obvious.
The only thing that stuck in my mind during the symposium is that Gina made me, every afternoon before siesta (which we decided to observe), a cup of hibiscus tea; what, in Mexico, is called Jamaica tea. I really liked it.
The following semester Gina transferred to a doctoral program in Nevada. She sent me a long letter (not email, it came in the post) explaining her feelings for me. It ran three pages, as protracted and sententious as her essays about the agrarian reforms of the Madero regime. Other than Gina’s missive, I have never received a letter from a woman professing her great love for me. It went into detail about my cold aloofness. She ended on some upbeat note, maladroitly dropping in a Ricardo Flores Magón quote; which I’m fairly certain wasn’t Flores Magón, but William Godwin. In short, she found me dispassionate and methodical.
Allison snapped the lamp on and off and on again. The light bulb was a-glowing! She placed it on the table next to where I was sitting on the sofa. I was transfixed with the way she swept up the shards of plastic insulation with her hands and dumped them into the rubber plant pot on the floor next to her. She tossed back the last of the hibiscus tea, and with a move from the younger Michael Jackson, she rose to her feet without using her hands, simply by shifting forward and scissoring her legs together.
“Wow,” I said, trying something out. “I really like the way you move.”
It was almost flirty. And I said it with a genuine smile. And, dammit, I’d given the woman 200 mannequin heads!
I took her to the door and decisively laid a hand on her shouldler as I said, “Thank you.” She flashed me half a smile and took the initiative: she gave me an awkward hug.
I closed the door behind her and sat on my sofa in the circle of light. I opened a book, but I didn’t feel like reading.