What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel. The working title was going to be What Have You Lost? but I’ve changed it. I can’t tell you what the new title is, for reasons that will be revealed when it’s finished and published, so for now let’s pretend What Have You Lost? is still the title. It’s about online vs real life identity and sexual obsession. It’s my first time writing in first-person, and that’s taken some getting used to. I worry that people will think the “I” is me. Which is ridiculous, except I read this excerpt recently in Portland and afterward a woman asked me why she’d never seen me working at the store where the narrator works. Um...because I don’t work there. It’s fiction. So...yeah... That makes me a little nervous, particularly given the content.
This is not a confession. This is a love story.
* * *
Back then I would walk through the city in the early mornings. I liked the quiet, the steely gray of the Portland predawn sky, and how it would lighten slowly, almost imperceptibly, through increasingly lighter shades of gray until finally there was enough diffuse light that it might be said the sun had risen. It would be pretty, wouldn't it, to say I walked along the river, but I-5 cuts the east side of Portland off from the Willamette and so I would find myself walking parallel to the highway. But the highway had its own appeal, and then there was also the hard rusted beauty of the train yards and the cargo trains gone still and cold, waiting, and the occasional train in motion, wending its slow robot-driven way through town, its mournful whistle cutting through the air, the gray heaviness of Portland morning even heavier with the weight of that train song.
I would walk through that, on the east side of the city, through the industrial stretches. And there would be the stink of diesel from the trucks rattling along I-5, and there would be trash caught in the scrub weeds sprouting up in the underpasses and I would just walk.
I wasn't sleeping well, is the thing. I would go to bed at midnight where Tom was nearly always already asleep, and I'd lie awake until one or so when I'd finally fall asleep, only to wake up at 5 a.m.—always five am, like a bell clanging—seized with some unnamed panic. Panic gripping my throat, tightening my chest. Like waking up mid-heart attack morning after morning. I would get up, pull on my clothes, get out. Our apartment got so small and close like that, the walls closing in on me and I would need to get out. Just to breathe, to settle myself down some. Miles I would walk, winding my way past rain-faded hulking warehouses and auto shops and lumber yards and then I'd push past them, just me and the trucks and the highway sounds and the river.
With the sun fully up my heart rate would slow and my breathing would feel more even and the tunnel vision faded and I would find my way solidly back into my body again, or something close to that. Something close enough to get by. The crows now awake, more cars than trucks in the traffic and the early-morning bike commuters zipping past in their complicated gear. I would make my way back home, second-floor apartment of a sweetly faded Craftsman a good ten blocks away from that industrial zone; close-in southeast of the city cut to quarters, our windows caught up in the surrounding elm trees, our treehouse, and in the full gray light of day it would feel whole and cozy again. Tom would be up by then and he'd make some coffee, good and strong, and we would eat toast with butter and jam and listen to music and the music would mix with the sounds of the family downstairs—our landlords and their three kids waking below our feet, the kids rambling down their hall, our floor their ceiling and their voices carrying sweet and high into our apartment, the words not discernible, but the intention there.
Coffee and toast and then out the door, Tom and I together if we were working the same shift, which we did more often than not back then, by design. We would climb into his old Nova, that wreck of a car that he loved, pearly lizard green and the ancient black fabric seats stinking of cigarettes. Tom's cigarettes, yeah, but also cigarettes smoked by someone who'd surely been dead for years already. Dead of those cigarettes or of time. Because there was a settled, soaked-in quality to the stink. The car smelled like the ghost of an old man. In we'd climb and the Nova coughing and rattling awake and Tom would drive us the two short miles to the supermarket where we both worked. We could have walked it. On days when our shifts didn't align, that's exactly what I did. But he loved that car, damnit, and he wasn't walking as long as he could drive.
Stubborn, my Tom. Always that.
My Tom. Ah, that's a complicated bit. Let's leave that for now. Let's just say Tom. His name was Tom, and he was, for ten years before this story, mine. Or let's maybe say that he's still mine. Let's not decide a thing now, when we're only just beginning. Let's not get ourselves boxed in when there's still so much possibility before us. A story wants to unfold as it wants to unfold. Are you with me?
* * *
Let's say the story begins one particularly gray March morning, me all full of coffee and toast and the morning sounds of children, and somewhat hopeful and dare I say almost buoyant as Tom and I got into the Nova and he thumbed the key in the ignition.
Let's say for sure that's where the story begins, because it started on the way to work one morning. And I know it was early March because the air was heavy with blooming Daphne, the neighborhood fogged by the sweetness of it. I remember that much.
I left the house buoyant and hopeful, as I said, but Tom thumbed the key in the ignition and the Nova didn't turn over. Nothing, not even a click or a cough. And he turned that key again, and nothing. He got out and heaved the hood up, he was cursing and mucking around in there and that was that. We were going to be late for work.
"I'm walking," I said pushing the heavy passenger-side door open.
"Hold up now. I'll get it going in a minute." He held his first cigarette of the morning in the corner of his mouth as he worked, and he squinted against the rising smoke.
I did, I held up a minute, sat on the stinking black fabric seat as I so often did and waited.
"Okay, try it now," he said, and I turned the key. Nothing.
"Babe, let's walk," I said. If we walked fast, we'd still get there and to the time clock before the stroke of 9am and we'd be fine.
Tom was stubborn, though, as I mentioned. He knew he could get it running and then we'd be at work in five minutes. He knew it. I knew no such thing. I walked on my own, leaving him to mutter and curse at the curb.
And so that hope I'd felt when we'd gone down the stairs and out to the car, it mostly drained away. Don't blame Tom for that, or even the Nova. The good feeling would have been mostly gone by the time we pulled into the New Seasons parking lot anyway. Blame the work, maybe. But not really. It's not as simple as that—never is, right?
But still, there I was, all the good I'd managed to shore up over the course of the early morning leaking out of me, and that small panicked feeling creeping back in bit by bit, spiked and insidious. I walked south on 20th Ave and by the time I reached Hawthorne Boulevard there was a dull, familiar buzz in my ears and my vision started to go white around the edges and I knew I was in for it. I managed to get across Hawthorne and past the 7-Eleven and ducked down an alley in Ladd's Addition, where the fancy houses hide their garages behind them so their smooth lawns are unmarred by driveways and cars. I leaned against a fence and crouched down, little animal, desperate hunted animal, and I breathed as best I could and waited for the fear to pass, waited to not feel like I was going to die.
There went Tom, rattling by in the Nova, which he'd gotten started after all. I could have run out and maybe waved him down, hoping he'd glance in his rearview and see me. But no. The thought of climbing into that old wreck, the thought of the stale cigarette stink in my nose, the thought of Tom, aging quietly but surely into a stale, stinking old man himself, beside me on the bench seat, made me want to retch.
I pulled myself up to stand, I shook my head as if to clear it, though it felt no clearer for it, and I walked on. Another car went by, the driver-side window open in spite of the March chill, music turned up loud. It was a song I knew well. It was Jason's band, Pin. And wasn't that a punch to the gut?
Jason Paynter. Great love of my high school life. You want to call him the one that got away? Go ahead. I do call him that sometimes. Because he was mine. And I let him get away. And I'd never stopped wanting him back, though I hadn't laid so much as a hand on him in more than twenty years, not since we were eighteen and half-naked and tangled up in the bed of his pickup on Mt. Tabor the last night of summer before we were both to leave for college—separate schools but we would stay in touch, we would stay together. (You can guess how that worked out.)—and we would never come back to Portland if we could help it. Portland was a sleepy town of dirty old men in raincoats and sour junkie strippers back then, a town we were both eager to shed. Though he changed and I changed and Portland changed, and he and I did both indeed end up back here again, though me sooner than him and only his return triumphant.
He's not the lead singer. That's what you were thinking, isn't it? That I heard my old boyfriend's voice calling from that car window and it unraveled me and I went all sad and undone right there on the sidewalk?
No. He's the guitarist. It was his guitar I heard calling from that car window. And yes it did unravel me, and yes I very nearly went all sad and undone right there on the sidewalk. I wanted him back. I wanted his long, lean teenage body in the back of his truck over mine again. I wanted my small, trembling, earnest teenage body beneath his again. Of course I wanted that. But I wanted him now, too, at forty.
We'd run into each other around town a few times over the years since he moved back—small town that Portland still is—and he was cordial, if distant. Each time his wife's eyes glazed right over me, dismissing me as another hopeful fan or remote childhood acquaintance. If he ever did tell her who I was and what I'd once been to him, it didn't show in his face or hers. His eyes dismissed me, but I'm not sure as what. Dismissed me as the queen of the high school literary magazine who'd left Portland for NYU but came back home without a degree? Who worked as a cashier in a supermarket at forty, well past the point where it could be said I was working there while I built some sensational secret artistic career? And that had never been the case. I wasn’t building a damn thing.
Since I'd come home after those first two (and only) years of college, I'd been marking time first at Safeway and later at New Seasons. I'd been waiting for something to happen. But it wasn't something I was actively working toward, like so many of my coworkers who were in bands or painted or wrote novels or made intricate sculptures out of roadkill squirrel bones or whatever the hell else they got up to when they weren't at the store; the stuff they claimed was their real life, the stuff the work at the market supported. (Though I often suspected that was just a line most of them fed themselves and others as a way of getting through the day, of accepting the decidedly unglamorous positions they found themselves in. Just as we all tended to take secret pride in the fact that the New Seasons stores were known for hiring the most attractive, most spectacularly overqualified staff in town.) But not me. No secret aspirations tucked away. I was waiting for something to happen, and I didn't know what it was. Isn't that awful?
Ah, but that was then. And I know, now, what I was waiting for. And no, it never did arrive. Or maybe it did, but by the time it came around I was waiting for something else entirely. That's not what this story is about. But wait. Oh, wait. I do have a story to tell.
* * *
I got to work late that morning. Of course I did. Tom was on time, already buttoned into his long white butcher coat when I walked past the meat department and into the back warehouse to clock in. He followed me back, as I knew he would. Even though we'd been together ten years already at that point, he would still sniff me out like a dog. "I've got it bad for you, girl," he'd say. Though the thrill of that was worn out for me long ago, and I'd smile only from habit or maybe duty. Marking time.
"Got her running," he said, flashing that toothy grin. I patted his scruffy cheek and he pulled me in for a kiss too deep for public and a grab of my ass and then he went back to work, the last moment of the day when the stench of blood and meat wouldn't cling to him. I could barely stand to be near him at the end of the day, even after he'd taken the gore-smeared white coat off and dropped it in the hamper. Butchers look and smell like a crime scene at the end of shift. There's no avoiding it.
I drifted through the morning, sinking into the repetition of my work: the smile and greeting to a customer, the scanning and bagging, the handing the receipt, or change on the rare occasion when cash was used. And then the next customer and another smile and greeting, scanning and bagging, and on and on. Music played, an endless loop of safe alt-rock mixed with classic rock, and none of it did a bit of good to crowd out the bright wail of Jason's guitar that had caught me on the walk that morning.
I was in the back of his truck; and I was on the old plaid couch in his basement with his parents both at work; and I was bent over him in my childhood bedroom, nervous and awkward and eager, taking him into my mouth for the first time. And then it was now and we were adults and I was with him in that Ladd's Addition alley, but it was nighttime and dark and he would press me hard against that fence and slide my skirt up my thighs; and I was hovering over him, naked in my own bed, Tom gone to work or out with friends, me poised to sink down onto Jason's grown man's cock; and then I was on my knees on his band's tour bus, taking him into my mouth again. And all the while the smiling and greeting and scanning and bagging, with the desire for Jason, the thoughts of him riding a steady buzz just under the automatic rhythms of the day.
He was so much in my thoughts that it didn't come as a surprise when he walked into the store that afternoon, toward the end of my shift. Of course he was there. It was like I'd conjured him, my need and want and regret thick enough to draw him, unknowing, to me. Few things are more powerful than that kind of need in a woman. I believe that, now more than ever. There was a strength to it, almost a purity, to want him so bad. To want him and need him, to hold my memories of him so close, and to never have him, not to have him, to know he would never be mine again, that my time had come and gone, and I'd squandered it. He was lost to me. Yes, there's a power in that. Hunger is a force. Loss is a force. Believe it.
Cari Luna is the author of The Revolution of Every Day, published by Tin House Books. The Oregonian named Luna’s debut novel a Top 10 Northwest Book of 2013. She is a graduate of the MFA fiction program at Brooklyn College, and her writing has appeared in Salon, Jacobin, PANK, Avery Anthology, failbetter, Novembre Magazine, and elsewhere. Cari lives in Portland, Oregon.