The dull thuds of windswept rain sound against my umbrella as I do my best to withstand the storm. The sideways currents impede my vision as I nervously exhale streams of Camel smoke and consider another walk around the block, if only to calm my worried mind. My eyes wander across Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, and I try to find a confidence in the urban landscape; try to tap into a part of myself that fits into the brick facades that beg for wanderers to be something more than themselves. Before I can make up my mind a woman exits an Uber in front of me—tides of neon blue hair curve from underneath her ears like psychedelic bass clefs. My chest tightens with recognition, and some fear of the unknown makes me pause while I watch her walk away. She’s taller than her profile pictures; her posture’s more awkward than I would have guessed. These minor details send a ripple through the calm I try to posture. I fight the sudden anxiety and call out: “Beetle Boo!” She turns and a nervous smile collects beneath her thick-rimmed, black glasses.
“Mantis Man,” she says, and hands me a single red rose.
Our first conversation had been on Tinder’s familiar medium, but with new imagination. “Emmett,” she typed, “have you ever been curious about beetle sex?”
“With my every waking breath.”
She detailed to me the busy insect workings she had only learned of the day before from a podcast. I replied with an anecdote about a mantis shrimp radio spot I had heard, and our pet names were born as a joke, but they stuck.
We walk through Stories’ ad-hoc maze of shelves and yellow-page perfume, finding a small bench to sit on between stacks of books on the occult. She talks of literature and I barely register a word—I’m more focused on her thigh that kisses my own, on the implications that may or may not lie inside the spiraled cotton leggings. She pulls a book of Japanese death poems from the shelf and asks me to give her a number between one and two-hundred, the pages already parted at her finger tips. Having died once, you will not die again.
We’re soon uprooted by hunger and a nervous energy to keep our words fluid with the help of physical motion. We exit the bookstore and the rain’s subsided; we walk two doors down to a vegan restaurant that catches her eye. Inside we’re seated across from each other and she asks about my life. “Well,” I say. “I’ve seen a lot.”
“Usually the people who say that haven’t really done much.”
“This is true,” I say. And yet, I think.
Outside, phosphorescent orange bulbs hang above, and buzz eerie white noise reminders of how alone I can feel in Los Angeles at night. I wonder about lives nestled inside makeshift tents that surround us in the shadows. Sirens wail unseen and L.A. echoes the sounds of derelicts who scream to God or ex-girlfriends. The lake in Echo Park is off to our right, glistening like obsidian tar. We walk and discuss her poems and my essays; about former lovers and current desires. She tells me about her childhood in Vietnam—being robbed at gunpoint, missing her grandmother. I tell her about having a knife pulled on me in a McDonalds on Canal Street, and that my suburban formative years bled into one long wait to experience something more. As we continue to share ourselves we come across my Corolla parked on the street. “This is me,” I say. “You want me to read you that story I had published, at my place?” I feel a great relief when she says yes and opens the passenger side door. The Bluetooth kicks in and suddenly the car is filled with Le Butcherettes’ tinny guitar power chords and angry-at-the-world vocals.
“Well,” she says. “This is romantic.” I mumble a nervous apology and find the slow blues rhythms of a Black Keys song that cradles us the two miles home.
Melted wax is spattered across my apartment’s coffee table while the space heater’s low and constant hum distorts how much time has passed. My head is in her lap and I’m reading John Donne with the lowest tone I can muster, while candlelight wraps the two of us in this moment. Before, behind, between, above, below. I close the book and sit beside her. Her shoulders peek through the V in her black dress, and I venture a soft kiss on the nape of her neck. She talks about the death of the author while I hum agreement and hold her waist. She turns to face me and I hadn’t realized before how certain of myself I feel in her eyes.
Our momentum builds into something familiar like déjà vu. It’s flung itself through insecurities and cold, well-forged armor to a point where I am content to be near her, and tomorrow’s inevitable goodbye is not conscious in my mind. The lights are cast dim and suddenly our bodies are bare, braided together; all of our thoughts pour into the shifting shadows without asking to be seen.
Paris—she’s moving to Paris. Of course she is. She and her elastic eyebrows that do so well to punctuate seduction, or intimate a point on female erotic literature. Laura, a.k.a. Beetle Boo, and her neon blue hair that came to life when, in a fit of anxiety and the reckless want of catharsis, she took scissors to her ass-length black locks until they were just below the chin and introduced them to a bottle of dye. My mind is a fog of emotion when I think about the details that make up Laura. I had forgotten the feeling, had started to believe it could never live again.
I leave the next day for a trip to Cuba, and although she’s only going to Paris for six months, the two weeks we’re separated is at times unbearable. We text for hours each day we’re apart through spotty third-world Wifi—we plan our last night together once I return, and stitch aching passions into possibilities that feel like the closest thing to holding one another. Days pass before I wake up to bright Miami sun that refracts through airplane windows, and I think of her. I text her that I’m almost home; she responds immediately and my heart skips a beat.
I’m standing in line at Target with a box of tea candles held inside my palm, and a semi-conscious desire to recreate our first night together. My stomach’s been in knots since I woke up. I wonder if I’ve built up the idea of tonight too much—our second, and likely last, time together. I worry that I’ve made too much of an effort toward perfection in my head; if buying tea candles and condoms and her favorite bourbon is a self-cancelling act; if this pursuit of the ideal necessitates its imperfections. I’ve been looking to my phone every ten minutes with apprehension, half-expecting her to cancel last minute because this is all too much for the both of us; and what is the point, after all, if she’s leaving in two days? I wonder if she’s chosen to forget the cryptic romance she sewed together in poems about me since our first encounter. I worry the moments we shared together that implied who we really are will be lost to time and distraction.
I leave work early and analyze her texts, searching for new, ominous patterns in her syntax that tell me to put my armor back up. I take the slow lane through Beverly Hills, and follow the stop and go rhythms of the bus because suddenly every moment until I see her feels like freedom and safety, but most of all feels known. I pull up to Demitasse Coffee, unsure of what to expect until I see her exit the café in a striped turtleneck and vinyl skirt that shifts underneath the static gray light on this rainy day. I smile and forget there was ever a worry that ran through my head, now that abstract possibilities have surrendered to the here and now. She’s in the car and my hand rests awkwardly on her thigh. I’m unsure how to express physical intimacy with her after two weeks of texting, and one intimate night that feels two-dimensional after fourteen days. And then the light turns red, and I look into her eyes—there is a moment when words don’t mean anything because sound has been completely voided by the collapse of thought and reason. Our mouths pull together with furious instinct, and her fingers wander through my hair and pulse with the idea of being alive for the first. Life tumbles back into itself as a car horn blares from behind us and I look forward to see the light’s turned green.
Lonely guitar string reverb shakes through the amp like a ghost that doesn’t know it’s dead, and Mavis Staples pleads to the air in “Stand by Me.” Laura lies against me on my couch—the smell of Cuban coffee and bourbon wafts through the apartment. It’s nearly pitch black except for several stubborn candles. She suddenly speaks without taking her eyes away from some far off space she’s lost in. “I’m trash,” she says, and I think she’s trying to share all of her insecurities with me in two words.
I pull her tight and we kiss until I can’t breathe. “You’re not trash.” She pulls her face into innocent understanding and mischief.
“I just wanted you to kiss me.” Her face sinks again, and tears begin to stream down her lightly freckled cheeks. “If I wasn’t going to Paris, we could have grown together.” My heart spins with the newly remembered ache, but I’ve grown enough to know I can’t give in to its every beating want. I’ve learned more reason since the last time this feeling came around.
“We can’t know anything about anything. Life comes.”
“You’re a treasure.”
We watch each other as the candles go out, and I don’t care that time exists because this moment is still alive. At this time, imagined farewells and the pain-to-come evaporate amid shifting shadows. For an instant, the person I want to be is reflected in her bright brown eyes. For a moment, I forget to worry.
Photo Credit: Getty Images