When I return home, Samuelson is still in the living room with his friend Jake. I hear them talking as I enter our apartment through the back door. They don’t know I’m home yet, as I had stepped out to “run a quick errand.” Removing my gym shoes, I inch down the hallway in socked feet, still hidden from their view. They are watching a basketball game, but I hear most of their words above the chatter of commercials. Maybe this is an invasion of privacy, but we all eavesdrop. That’s what I tell myself. We all eavesdrop. I met Jake a few minutes ago, just before I left for my “errand,” and I want to hear what he thinks of me, the girlfriend. I’ve helped out Samuelson a lot. We’ve only been together for about three months, but he’s now living here. I want to hear Samuelson acknowledge this. I’m also intrigued by the prospect of listening to some “guy talk,” like I’m a fly on the wall of a men’s locker room, bearing witness to a candor they’d never exhibit in the presence of a woman.
Commercial for Bud Light. Commercial for Tide. Chatter between Samuelson and Jake about basketball, about this player or that. Jake calls Samuelson “Sam.” As the girlfriend, I choose not to do this; I call him Samuelson. He is 26, two years my senior. He is living with me, but not in the sense that we split the cost of rent. He sleeps in my bed, keeps belongings in my closet and freely eats from my refrigerator. I allow him to do this because he is very good-looking. A former college basketball player, Samuelson is six-foot-four and lean. His clothing is athleisure. He is so tall that when he lounges on my tiny couch, he looks disproportionately huge, like a green plastic army man in the backseat of a matchbox car.
It’s what’s on the inside that counts—I’m conflicted by this platitude and whether or not I believe it’s true. Before I met Samuelson, I did not believe it. I’m a personal trainer at a gym, after all. The walls of the gym that aren’t adorned with windows are covered with mirrors. Pedestrians on the sidewalk outside can watch you working out, while you can watch yourself working out—all at the same time. There is a lot of watching going on, people checking out each other’s bodies, sizing up, comparing.
The face is an important part of the body, of course, but it’s also something I don’t have much control over. I wear makeup, sure, but there’s only so much I can do. You see, my face—it’s not good. I’m not asking for sympathy, I’m just being honest. I have a pronounced forehead and sunken cheekbones, and I should have had braces as a teenager, but my parents couldn’t afford them. When I was riding the bus home in middle school, a boy told me I looked like a young Christopher Walken but with long hair. It caught on with the other kids at school.
It’s counterproductive to think about this contrast—Samuelson’s beauty vs. my lack thereof. We have other things in common. For example, we both have nice bodies. I am smarter than Samuelson, so perhaps this compensates for my sub-par face. Also, I’m gainfully employed while he is not. In fact, I have more clients than any other personal trainer at the gym—almost all of whom are female. Women choose me as their personal trainer because they find my face disarming. They feel comfortable taking direction from me, grunting and pushing themselves. Like, they’ll be lifting weights, and their faces are strained from exertion, but they don’t feel self-conscious of this, maybe saying something to themselves like, “Even my strained face is better than her normal face.” I’ve accepted it for what it is.
My relationship with Samuelson is about balance. While he is good-looking but not-so smart, I am not-so good-looking but smart. This works for us. I think I am falling for him. I don’t say this lightly. I’ve had boyfriends before, but I’ve never lived with one. Samuelson and I have reached a level of intimacy that I didn’t know was possible. We make dinner every night, then eat it while we watch TV—either sports or Project Runway, which I sold to him as a sport. We go biking along the lake on weekends. Since he doesn’t have a job and is a self-professed germaphobe, he keeps our apartment tidy. He doesn’t just load the dishwasher, but unloads it as well. My girlfriends tell me he is great. “Don’t screw this up!” they say. “Or we’ll be the first in line!” They are jealous of my relationship with Samuelson; this is a new experience for me.
* * *
When Samuelson and I met, he was working at Brothers Auto Parts. He’d dropped out of college, following an ankle injury that kept him off the court. As it had been an unusually snowy winter, I needed to replenish the windshield-wiper fluid in my lemon-yellow PT Cruiser. A car like this would normally be associated with a person who has a sunny disposition. This isn’t me, but since no one wants to own a yellow car, I got a good deal on it.
Samuelson and I met this past February. He was working the register, and after purchasing the windshield-wiper fluid, I looked down at the bottle and made this sad, clueless face and said, “So, I, like, pour this into some kind of tank? In the car?” This tactic has worked for me in the past. The appearance of helplessness yields help from others. He came out to my car, popped the hood and poured in the neon blue liquid. He must have been feeling bad about himself—that’s the only thing I can figure—because he started asking questions about my car.
“So, do you feel like a mobster when you drive around?”
“The design—it’s 1930s, right?”
“Oh. Yeah, I do.” I nodded. “Just like Al Capone. I have a zoot suit, and then I play that song ‘Zoot Suit Riot.’ There’s a body in the trunk, if you want to see it.”
Samuelson and I went on some dates. There was an ease to our conversation, and I liked how I felt when I was with him, the sour glances from other women as they whispered to each other, “Why is he with her?” I liked the disdain attached to this. But as time wore on, our dates became less and less extravagant. I suppose this is normal—that you eventually stop trying to impress and resume responsible spending habits. Maybe our decline was more rapid than usual, but once Samuelson quit his job at the auto parts store, he didn’t have any money. It’s not ideal, but it’s fine. Relationships are all about balance. That’s what they say.
* * *
From the hallway, I listen to a trailer for a movie, then a commercial for the Channel 4 News. “Thunderstorms are on the way! Get your full forecast at 6 o’clock!” The news commercial is louder than all of the other commercials, as though to jolt viewers from their TV-induced stupor. The next ad is for Staples, and its normal volume sounds like a whisper in comparison. I hear my name. It’s Jake talking. Here we go.
“She seems nice and all. But I wouldn’t peg her as—” Jake pauses, “I don’t know, your type, I guess.”
I feel my cheeks grow warm. I know what Jake means by “type.” I’ve seen Samuelson’s Instagram profile, the photos of him with girls he dated. They have good faces.
“She’s all right,” Samuelson says. “She’s nice, funny. In the bedroom, though.” I hear him laughing—not snide laughter, but bashful, embarrassed laughter. I picture him shaking his head, maybe even blushing. “She just gets on top of me and goes to town.”
“Yeah, like, she does all the work. I just have to lay there. It’s pretty great.” A blast of music from a commercial drowns out Samuelson’s voice. There’s more laughter, then, “And I can close my eyes. So, there’s that.”
Their laughter is now jocular. I’m hearing the “guy talk” I’d wanted. I’m that proverbial fly on the wall of the men’s locker room, listening as two bros slap each other with towels and talk pussy. Samuelson can close his eyes while I go to town on him. This takes a moment to sink in. He closes his eyes, so he doesn’t have to look at me. While I go to town on him. Because I’m not his type. Which means he thinks I’m ugly.
I’m suddenly that girl again on the bus in middle school. I’m surprised by how much this hurts. I’d secretly harbored the belief that Samuelson found my face cute or at least quirky in a loveable way. Loveable. Love. Is that what this is about? I’ve attached lovability to beauty.
I retreat into the bathroom and sit on the toilet seat. Staring down at the baseboard, I notice how dirty it is. It surprises me, that Samuelson hasn’t cleaned the baseboard. The self-professed germaphobe has missed a spot. I tear off a square of toilet paper and run it along the top edge of the baseboard. This has minimal effect, as the baseboard is caked with dust. I wet the square of toilet paper with my tongue and run it over the baseboard.
What’s so wrong with wanting to be pretty? Or at least not ugly? I suppose it’s a futile desire, but I can’t help it. Like the calisthenics I do at the gym, I’ve been trained to want to be attractive to men. It began in middle school, when I first became cognizant of my face. I started working out in high school—at least my body was something I could control—and this attracted attention from boys. Not that they wanted to date me—or even fuck me at that point—but they had respect for how I took care of my body. When you join a gym, you become part of a culture centered around self-improvement and visible results. It’s a form of narcissism, to be sure, but what’s so wrong with wanting a healthy body? When you look good, you feel good, right?
Even though my body looks good, I do not feel good. It’s because of Samuelson. I thought he liked me, but can he like me if he doesn’t find me attractive? I feel like the answer is no. He’s with me because I go to town on him. I’m sure my gainful employment doesn’t hurt. I’m being used for both my body and my money.
I feel like I should go out there. It’s my living room, after all. My apartment. I get up and flush the toilet as a means of alerting Samuelson and Jake of my presence. There’s my face. I catch a glimpse of it in the mirror as I wash my hands. I wouldn’t say that I resemble Christopher Walken but maybe Christopher Walken’s younger sister. Or half-sister. Or cousin. This still isn’t good. I reapply my lipstick. This helps differentiate my face from Christopher Walken’s.
In the living room, I sit on the couch next to Samuelson. Jake is on a club chair in the corner.
“When did you get back?” Samuelson asks. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I’ve been home a little while. It was a quick errand.”
We stare at the television. The commercials are over, and the game is back on. I like basketball, but not as much as Samuelson thinks I do. He wraps his arm around my shoulders and smiles at me. I ignore him, staring out the window. It’s only 3 p.m., but it’s getting dark outside. The tree on the parkway, blossoming with springtime buds, twists in the wind. The newscasters were right; there’s a storm blowing in. I glance at Samuelson in the darkness. The white light of the television casts his blank, sports-absorbed face in a sickly pallor.
I take a swig of Samuelson’s beer. As the girlfriend, I’m entitled to this. The beer is warm, bitter. I want something harder. I get up from the couch and clank around in the liquor cabinet. I find bottles of RumChata and Fireball and pull out a stainless-steel shaker. I scoop ice into the shaker and pour in the alcohol, the scent of cinnamon stinging my nostrils. I shake the liquid and ice with flair, like a flamenco dancer with a pair of castanets. I stand in front of the television as I do this. I know my body looks good; I can see my reflection in the darkened windows. It is taught—arms flexed, a definitive line running the length of my thighs. Samuelson and Jake laugh.
“Opa!” Jake says.
This doesn’t make sense. “Opa” is what you say when you break something, like a dish or a glass. I laugh anyway. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. But Jake’s not the enemy. He’s just watching out for his bro. I don’t know why I’m thinking this. I don’t even know Jake. I literally just met him 30 minutes ago, and he’s already implied that Samuelson shouldn’t be with me because I’m ugly. Maybe he is the enemy, after all. Look at him, sitting on my club chair with his shoes off. He’s a little too comfy. He’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt along with a team hat. Is it disrespectful to wear hats indoors? This is a rule of an earlier era, but still. My house, my rules. I create a new rule: No hats in the house.
“Hey, what’s with the hat?” I ask, pointing to Jake with one hand while I continue to shake the shaker with the other.
“I’m supporting my team.”
“You’re not going to take it off?” I ask.
“I wasn’t planning on it.”
“But we’re indoors. It’s a little disrespectful, don’t you think?”
He smiles at Samuelson. “She’s joking, right?”
“Why won’t you take it off?” I say, suddenly suspecting that Jake is bald or balding underneath. Or maybe it’s less of a suspicion and more of a desire. I want him to be bald underneath his hat. That would make me feel better, provide some balance in the world, like he’s a jerk because he’s angry he’s losing his hair.
“She’s just kidding,” Samuelson says to Jake. Then to me, he says, “Whatever you’re mixing, I think it’s thoroughly mixed.” He wants me to move so they can see the game.
“It’s Fireball and RumChata,” I say. “And for the record, I wasn’t joking.”
“It’s just a hat,” Samuelson says.
“It’s fine.” Jake pulls off the hat. “Not a big deal.”
His hairline is receding a little, but not as badly as I’d wanted. He pats the top of his head with his hand, as to flatten any recalcitrant hairs.
“Thank you,” I say. “Now, you guys want a shot?”
“I have to work in the morning,” Jake says.
“So? I do, too. It’s Samuelson who doesn’t have a job.”
Samuelson flinches when I say this. It’s a cheap shot, but it feels good. I want him to hurt like I’m hurting. Then, I want us to both say that we’re sorry, even though Samuelson doesn’t know he should apologize.
There’s a flash of lightning outside the window, followed by a roll of thunder. The lights flicker, and the cable goes out. The television screen is blue with text that reads, “NO INPUT.”
“Damnit.” Samuelson gets up from the couch. He fiddles with the cable box and cords behind the TV.
In the kitchen, I pour the liquid through a strainer into three shot glasses. Samuelson and Jake are now both trying to fix the cable box, and I carry the shots to them.
“Bottoms up,” I say.
We clink glasses. The shot burns as it slides down my throat. We all make ugly faces, as though alcohol is indeed the great equalizer. I picture the three of us getting trashed, the three of us lounging on the tiny couch saying the stupid things that drunk people say. Maybe I brush Jake’s thigh with my hand. It seems like an accident. Sorry. My bad. Maybe the three of us fall into one another in a tangle of arms and legs. I know that’s a big leap—to go from “accidentally” touching Jake’s thigh to a threesome—but I’m not exactly sure how these things begin. I suppose one thing leads to another. This way, I can use them for their bodies. A revenge threesome. I’ll go to town on them, all right.
There’s a little left in the shaker, so I pour it into my shot glass and throw it back.
“It’s pretty bad out there.” This is Jake talking. He’s given up on the TV and is staring out the window. It’s so dark outside, the streetlights have turned on. Rain pelts the windowpanes. After a few minutes, a clap of thunder jostles the apartment, the lights flicker and darkness takes over the space.
Maybe this is how threesomes occur. During power outages. Samuelson is now standing at the window with Jake, and I stand between them. I touch both of their forearms with my arms. I feel comfortable touching Samuelson, but touching Jake is new. His forearm is warm and hairy, like any other forearm, but touching it is still foreign. He pulls away from me. He probably thinks it was an accident.
“I should get going,” Jake says.
“Not now—it’s pouring outside,” I say. “I’ll make more shots.”
“Hey, isn’t that your car?” Samuelson asks.
At first, I think he’s talking to Jake, but then I see my lemon-yellow PT Cruiser parked on the street below. It’s near the end of the block, right before the stop sign, where the pavement slopes down toward a drain that’s a couple feet in front of my car. It clogs when it rains. Even though it’s only been raining for a few minutes, a small pond is forming, water slowly inching up toward the front end of my bumper. I imagine my car floating down the street like a giant rubber ducky. This could be bad.
“Your car’s going to get flooded,” Samuelson says. At the closet, he rummages through the shoes. He doesn’t own rain boots, and his gym shoes are all expensive basketball shoes. He slips his bare feet into a pair of Adidas sandals and grabs my car keys. “I’m going to move it further up the street.” He leaves through the front door.
Jake and I are alone in the living room. Even though the power is out, he fiddles with the cable box, while I pour more liquor and ice into the shaker. I will get things going with Jake, so that when Samuelson comes back up, he’ll have no choice but to join in. Or maybe he will be jealous. I can use this to my advantage. I will apologize. Let’s all resolve this with a drink. Then the three of us are on the tiny couch again. One thing leads to another.
“Guess you’re stuck here,” I say. Jake doesn’t respond. I sit on the couch and pat the cushion beside me. “You’d might as well get comfortable.”
Jake shrugs and sits on the opposite end of the couch. As I slide the shot glass to him on the coffee table, I slide down the couch so that we’re next to each other.
“Salud,” I say.
I throw back the shot. I expect Jake to do the same, but he doesn’t. He’s staring out the window, watching as Samuelson approaches my car. It’s parked in a puddle the size of half a basketball court. Samuelson opens the door and gets into the driver’s seat. The water is not quite high enough to enter through the open door but it’s within inches. He cranks the key in the ignition, and I hear the engine sputtering through the window, but it doesn’t turn over. Samuelson gets out. He hesitates for a moment, staring down at the water. It’s the color of diarrhea. Then he steps in. I cringe. I’m not a germaphobe, but I would not submerge my foot in that water. Who knows what’s in there. Motor oil. Fecal matter. Mutant bacteria. He has on shorts, and his foot disappears along with his ankle as the water rises up to mid-calf. With his hands on the hood, he tries to push the car backward away from the drain, but it doesn’t budge.
“Maybe I should go help him,” Jake says.
“Don’t be silly.” I pick up the shot glass and hand it to him. “He’s very capable.”
“I’ve got to get up early tomorrow for work.”
“What do you do?” I ask.
“I’m a loan officer for a bank.”
“An officer,” I say. “That sounds exciting.”
He laughs. “It’s not.”
Jake swallows the shot. This is a good sign. I place my hand on his thigh. He looks down at it as though it is a strange insect. I lean into him, squeezing my elbows against my chest to create the illusion of cleavage. Then I place my lips over his lips. His mouth is taught, a thin incision in his skin beneath my tongue. I explore the stubble of his chin, the two folds that connect his nose to his upper lip. His face tastes of cinnamon and shaving cream, with a hint of Cool Ranch Doritos. He pushes me away.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“What do you mean?”
“You can’t just kiss me. You’re Sam’s girlfriend.”
“Well, I thought we could—” I pause. I don’t know how to end this sentence. It doesn’t matter, because Jake gets up off the couch, grabs his hat and shoes and is out the door.
It is dark in the apartment, as the power is still out, and silent.
I know I should feel embarrassed or ashamed, but all I can think about is the term “girlfriend.” Samuelson told Jake that I’m his girlfriend. He acknowledged our relationship publicly to his friend. I try to reconcile this acknowledgement with Samuelson’s comments about me going to town on him. I want this to mean that he likes me for reasons beyond my sexual prowess, but I can’t be sure this is true.
I watch from the window. Carrying my ice scraper from the PT Cruiser, Samuelson wades through the water to the drain on the corner. The wrought-iron grate is invisible beneath the water, but he jabs at it. When this doesn’t work, he drags the ice scraper over the drain like he’s raking leaves. He scoops gunk and debris and tosses the clumps onto the parkway.
Jake joins him at the curb. I assume Jake is telling Samuelson about my advances. When Samuelson confronts me, I will confront him about closing his eyes while I go to town on him. Maybe he will admit that he thinks I’m ugly, that he’s been using me for my body and money this whole time. I steel myself for this, waiting for Samuelson and Jake to glare up at me in the window, but they don’t. They do a bro-ish little handshake and half-hug before Jake takes off down the street. Samuelson turns back toward the drain, continuing to jab and scoop. After a while, he stands on the parkway, watching as the water funnels into the drain. I lose sight of him as he comes back toward the building.
“The engine wouldn’t start, and I couldn’t get it to budge,” he says, walking through the door. He brings with him the eggy stench of sewage. “I opened up the drain, so we’ll just have to let it dry out.”
I nod my head. Jake didn’t tell on me. I don’t know why he chose to do this. Perhaps he felt bad, wanted to spare me another round of humiliation. Or maybe this was for Samuelson’s sake; Samuelson knowing that his girlfriend made a pass at his bro would only hurt him. I should thank Samuelson for saving my car, but his chivalrousness feels disingenuous. Maybe Samuelson realized I was home while he’d said those things about me, and by wading through the nasty street water, he was trying to absolve himself.
I hear Samuelson turn on the shower in the bathroom. I picture him scrubbing his toes and feet with soap, getting into every crevasse with the precision of a surgeon. Maybe he will scrub so hard he’ll bleed.
When Samuelson joins me in the living room, he sits next to me on the couch in a white T-shirt and pajama pants. The power is still out, though the sun is peeking through the clouds.
“That was intense,” he says. “I’m going to have nightmares about that water.”
“It’s pretty gross,” I say. I stare at the TV, which is still black.
Samuelson leans into me so that his face is at my stomach. The smell of sewage is now masked by the scent of shampoo. Lifting up my shirt, he nuzzles his nose into my belly button. This normally makes me giggle, but I push him away.
“Are you all right?” he asks. “I did just rescue your car from a torrential flood.”
“So, you want me to reward you? By going to go to town on you? Is that it?”
“You know, so you can close your eyes while I go to town on you—a ‘thank you’ for saving my car.”
He shakes his head. He’s silent for a few moments. Then he says, “I didn’t think you were home. We were being stupid. Jake’s a dick.”
“You said I was ugly.”
“You close your eyes while we have sex so you don’t have to look at me.”
He grabs my hands. “We were being idiots. It doesn’t mean anything.”
He rests his head on my stomach. This cuddling doesn’t feel like affection; it feels like guilt. I close my eyes. He admitted it. My ugly face is ripe for their bro-ish fodder.
There is a wash of light through my eyelids, and when I open my eyes, the power is back on. The TV displays its “NO INPUT” message. I take this quite literally. Samuelson’s face is still nuzzled into my stomach, but I pull away from him and get up. His look of surprise is ugly—knitted brow, snarled lips. It’s like he’s saying, “How could you reject me?” I realize that this is what has kept Samuelson with me for so long—the belief that I would never reject him. He sought refuge here, the safety of a woman who would never do any better.
I retreat to the bathroom, where I sit on the toilet seat and stare down at the floor. I start to cry. He can deny it all he wants. At least now I know. Knowledge is power, right? That’s what they say. Loneliness is starting to sink in, like there’s a void forming just beyond the door. Through it, I listen as the television roars back to life. The game is still on, though it must be in its final moments. The sportscasters are shouting over the cheers of the crowd. Samuelson’s team is losing. “From half-court,” the sportscaster says, “he shoots—” The last attempt at a basket I surmise is a Hail Mary. I imagine the ball floating through the air with the slow-motion grace of an action flick. Camera flashes. Crowd members’ mouths form anticipatory O’s. The smack of the ball as it hits the rim before bouncing backward onto the hardwood. Samuelson groans as the crowd cries in anguish. I cry along with them.