“Get an extra room for me?”
“It’s been years since he worked in Houston. He won’t remember me.”
She said: Never date a guy who wears steel-toed cowboy boots. I was sitting in the last desk, east side, city desk; she was sitting, last desk, east side, copydesk. Maybe 20 feet away. Maybe. She was talking about me. I hated her. Hated her. She was talking about me. Bitch.
She loves a skinny artist. But she wouldn't say that. She'd say: crush. I have a crush on him. He's the bee's knees, she'd say. I percolate when he's around. She'd say.
She says lots of things. I say this: She's a cunt.
She was laughing into the phone. A girlish laugh. Ridiculous on a 34-year-old. But she doesn't look it. She looks 27. Perpetually 27. People tell her all the time: You don't look 34. This is how 34 looks on me, she says. She got that from Doris Day. Read it in a book. Someone once told Doris Day, you don't look whatever age. Doris replied: This is how whatever age looks on me. Or so she told me one night.
"No, I'm serious. Don't date a guy who wears steel-toed cowboy boots. Ever." She laughs. She is so self-centered it probably hasn't entered her head that I can hear her.
"Oh, sure, he's good-looking. I'll give him that. Yeah, he has good taste in music. But those boots should've been a tip-off to the lunacy lurking within. It's not like he's Dwight Yoakam. He's a reporter, for goodness sake."
More laughter. Shit. I hate her laugh. She looks gorgeous today. Like a milkmaid from hell. She's wearing a flowing chambray skirt, cowboy boots, an off-the-shoulder blouse made from feedsacks. Her grandmother made it for her when she was 17. Or so she told me.
"No, I am telling you. He is one sick kitty. He was waiting on my doorstep when I got home last night. Can you say sick?"
Shit. She doesn't have a clue. Not a clue. She doesn't realize anyone exists except those people in her tiny universe. Which is the size of a .22. Bitch.
I was just trying to be nice. After all, we work in the same newsroom. Shit, I've got to see her everyday. We should be civil.
"No, he didn't hurt me. He just wanted to bring me some roses and ask if we could be friends. How many times has he done that? How many times do I have to say no, no, no?"
Shit. Like she doesn't like the roses. Bitch.
"No, silly. Grocery store roses. And raggedy looking at that."
Doesn't she have any work to do? It's after deadline. She's just waiting for the paper to come off the presses, then she'll be out of here quicker than you can say Jack Sprat. It's a newsroom joke how fast she flies out of here every night after she checks the paper. Those guys on the copydesk hate her. She talks on the phone too much. She's always late. Never on time. She's shown up hung over. She's shown up tight. She's shown up coming down from L when her pupils were big as basketballs. Those nerds wouldn't know that. But I could tell.
His hand is on her thigh. His wife is sitting right across the table. They are bold. This is not the one she has a crush on. This is another one. I know them all. This one's name is Jack. She likes men with one-syllable names that end in a K. She told me.
I can tell she wants to fuck him. But she wouldn't say that. She'd say: I yearn for him. She'd say: When he touches me, I feel my stomach plummet all the way to China. She talks like that.
I can see her press her knee against his. Nothing on her face gives this away. She does not miss a conversational beat. Her ex-boyfriend, Zachary – Zack – gives her a warning look. She winks at him across the table. Is he as disgusted by her behavior as I am?
I have another beer, and wish I could hear what they are saying. She is wearing a black leather miniskirt, a black silk shirt, black suede boots scrunched down around her ankles. She is flirting brazenly with the married guy. That, I can tell. I can also tell by the look on his face he wants to fuck her. His wife is right across the table. Doesn't she see? His hand is still on her thigh. Her knee is still pressing against his. They disgust me.
I want to lick her thighs.
She has a huge picture of Marilyn Monroe in her living room. Not a poster. An original photograph by Milton H. Greene. Signed, numbered, matted. An ex-boyfriend gave it to her in college. Poor deluded sap. She is obsessed with Marilyn. Marilyn wanted to be a sex symbol and an intellectual. She says. I say: Look where it got her.
I have a one-syllable name that ends in a K. At our let's-be-just-friends lunch, she said sometimes it doesn't work, the one-syllable-K thing.
"You have so many good qualities," she said, as she sipped her third sidecar. "You're loyal, you're giving, you're good-looking, you're smart."
"You'll find someone else, someone who really appreciates you," she said, as she tucked her buttercup hair behind her eggshell ear. "A chick who really clicks."
It won't be her.
She is on the phone. Again. It is after deadline. Again. She checks her stoplight red lipstick, finger-combs her short, buttercup bangs, laughs her schoolgirl laugh.
"My horoscope said today is my lucky day. And I ate some Little Debbies. My Puck-luck charm. Every time I do, we run into him."
Puck, the skinny artist she's hot for.
"You think so? Really?"
A copy messenger slaps a newspaper down on her desk. She unfolds it, looks at page one.
"I don't know. Maybe." She shifts the phone to her other shoulder, continues perusing the paper. "You really think he likes me?"
Likes her? Sometimes, she is such a third-grader.
"I think he's delighted that I have a crush on him, but I don't think he reciprocates."
Crush. She is 34-fucking-years old, and she uses the word crush. Grow up. Bitch.
"No, I'll meet you at La Carafe instead. I need a glass of wine before we go to the party. You know I'm too shy to walk into a party stone cold sober."
The scanner crackles, honks. Damn it. A homicide. In a rich milk-white neighborhood. Shit. That means I'll have to go check it out. I'll have to drive all over town looking for her later to see what she's up to.
After deadline. On the phone. Yapping. As usual.
"No. No. I didn't sleep with him. Well, I slept with him, but no sex." She reaches under the desk for her purse.
"You know I don't have round heels. I never do it with anyone on the first date - or pick-up, in this case."
She pulls out her red mesh makeup bag. Takes out her compact. Starts the routine. Powder. Lipstick. Bangs.
"He held me all night, though. It was almost unbearable. I couldn't sleep."
Bitch. What is she doing spending all night with someone she barely knows. That's why I couldn't find her last night. Who? Where? She should be at home. She's 34-fucking-years old. She needs her beauty sleep.
"No, silly. That's not the reason. He has a space heater, and it was so hot, sweat was rushing down my skin like floodwater."
The way she talks.
Damn it. Who was she with?
"No, he didn't ask me out again. But he held me so tight all night, I couldn't move. That means something, don't you think?"
It means you wouldn't put out, bitch, and he wanted to impress you with his sensitive-guy act.
"But when we got up this morning, he seemed diffident, distant, eager to get me out of his house. He confuses me. I don't know . . . am I wasting my time?"
She powders her nose again. Peers at herself over her black metal harlequins, purses her perfect stoplight red lips at her reflection in the tiny mirror, clicks her compact shut, leans back in her chair.
"I love Puck's smile. When he smiles at me, I rise like a soufflé."
Puck. The skinny artist. The stupid skinny artist. So that's where she was. Shit. With him? Damn it to hell. I had him pegged for gay.
She is always quoting people. One of her favorite quotes is from Paul Newman. She said he explains his fidelity to Joanne Woodward like this: "Why go out for hamburger when you have steak at home?" I say: How can you fuck that married guy if you feel that way? She says: He has hamburger at home. He has to go out for steak.
I am sitting in my living room, surrounded by sleek furniture I chose for her. The Edward Wormley couch. The Isamu Noguchi table. The French geometric rug. She has never seen it.
She showed up at my house one night, last year, late, around 3. Very drunk. Crying. A mess. I dried her tears. I put her to bed. She passed out. I fucked her. She came to for a moment, responded, called me Puck, passed out again. But I was inside her. For the first time. The only time.
The next morning, I brought her breakfast in bed: mimosas made with fresh orange juice, an omelet, toast, fancy French jam that an old girlfriend had left. I watched her as she chewed each bite with delicate precision.
"Mmmmmmm. You're a good cook," she said. Then she laughed her schoolgirl laugh, shook her buttercup head. "But where did you get this furniture? From a bus station?"
I looked around. I had never noticed it before. It was furniture, to sit on, to sleep in, to perform a purpose, provide comfort, hand-me-downs from my mother, aunts, uncles. Faded chintzes. Nubby plaids.
"I dreamed I had sex last night," she said, "with this artist with an amazing smile that I saw in a magazine."
I said, "It was just a dream."
When I was inside her, I understood cliches. Completely. I exploded inside her like a million Roman candles going off at once. Over and over. One of my old journalism professors would say fireworks, sex, that's a cliche, don't use it. But I say this: Phrases become cliches for a reason, because they are true.
On the phone. After deadline. Yapping.
"He hasn't called. It's been three days."
Why is she fretting over this guy? He doesn't deserve her. He doesn't even have a real job. He makes his living off of grants.
"I don't know what to do. I so want to see him."
Why? He's just a skinny artist. His art sucks. I mean, cowboys boots in concrete? Shit.
"Let's meet at La Carafe after work. Sometimes, he goes there on Tuesdays."
She props her baby blue vintage cowboy boots on her desk.
I can see up her leather miniskirt, glimpse her white cotton panties. So can every other male in the newsroom. I want to go over and put her feet firmly on the floor, conceal her legs underneath her desk. Sometimes she is so unladylike. Didn't her mother teach her manners?
"I hate Lola's. It's noisy and crowded, especially on Tuesdays."
The copy messenger slings a paper on her desk. She picks it up. Peruses page one.
"Oh, all right. Lola's. The drinks are just a buck on Tuesdays. And if we have Lizzie get them, that bartender that has a crush on her will make them superstrong. And Puck might be at Lola's. After all, everyone goes on Tuesday."
Lola's, too. It's loud. It's nuts-to-butts people. It'll be hard to track her there.
She is a poet. She sneers at journalism. She says it is filled with lazy yuppies scared to offend the power elite because then they might not get invited to the upper-crust parties. I say: We make good money. The work isn't bad. It's better than driving a dump truck. It's better than being an accountant.
She argues: Journalists are supposed to be smarter. We are supposed to know. That is not the case today. Look around you. Look at the city editor, she says. He did not know that elegy was a word. Look at the book editor, she says. He did not know that Sylvia Plath was married to Ted Hughes. How can you make it to 45 and not know the definition of elegy? How can you be a book editor and not know that Sylvia Plath stuck her head in an oven when she was married to Ted Hughes? Who we love defines us. What we know defines us. She says.
I say, she is full of shit.
I am outside Puck's house. She is inside. With him. Bitch. First, the Spanish Flower for food. Then here. She has been inside an hour and 38 minutes. The lights just went out. Cunt.
After deadline. On the phone. Yap, yap, yap as usual.
"I don't understand. It's been five days. No call. He was so warm, so cuddly, so tender when he kissed me goodbye. I don't understand. He took me to my car at Lola's, followed me home, walked me to the door, and kissed me before he left. Doesn't that mean anything?"
She sighs. Rests her chin on one scarlet-tipped hand.
"I don't know if I want to go to Lola's or La Carafe. What's the point? We could just go to my house. I have two bottles of fume and some gin."
Yes, that's it. Forget this loser. Go home. I'll bring roses in the morning, not from the grocery store, from the best florist in town.
"No. If we run into him, and he smiles at me, I'll feel like the bubbles in a glass of champagne. Then if he doesn't call me, I'll feel as flat as a sheet of cellophane."
She reaches for her purse, pulls out her red mesh make-up bag, snaps open her hand-shaped compact.
"Oh, all right. Maybe you're right. Maybe he does like me."
A flick of her stoplight red lipstick, a fluff of her buttercup bangs, a moue in the mirror. She is ready to roll.
No wonder those copydesk nerds hate her.
I have one of her bracelets. She left it at my house that night. It's sleek. Expensive. Sterling. Signed and numbered. Elsa Peretti. Tiffany & Co. She thinks she lost it at La Carafe. The lush. She is so careless.
I keep it on my bedside table. Sometimes I hook it around my johnson and masturbate. I think of her, with her buttercup hair and baby blue cowboy boots and shoulders as white as cocaine.
She is at a poetry slam. She looks luscious. Fragile. Sexy. She breathes:
I am a temptress in a bottle
Clad in lipstick leather
Floating in Wild Turkey.
If you cross me, hide your husband.
I will clutch him to my bosom
I will allow him no closer
But you will never know.
Doubt will poison your marriage,
DDT in a goldfish bowl.
I am a temptress in a bottle.
A sidecar is my sceptre.
Held aloft in a black-gloved hand,
Wrist shackled in X's and O's.
You will knock on the door.
He will send you away with a whisper.
He will hold me so tight
Sweat will not let me sleep.
I will feel imprisoned in his grasp.
I will not remove my pantyhose.
But you will never know.
Applause cloaks her. The women want to save her with their love and their friendship. The men want to save her with their lust and their dicks. Don't they know I am the one? My love, mine alone, will mend this wounded sparrow.
She curtsies, sashays to a table where Zack and Jack sit. Zack hugs her. Jack envelops her, kisses her calla lily neck, cups her cantaloupe ass, whispers in her eggshell ear.
His wife is nowhere in sight.
He has gone out for steak.
Deadline. Phone. Yapping.
"I am in despair," she says.
She looks lovely tonight. She is wearing a hot pink suit that follows every curve from top to bottom: Big, little, bigger. Hot pink stilettos encase her tissue-white feet. This is business attire for her.
"I called him today. A mistake. We chatted a few minutes, I asked him if he'd like to go on a picnic. He asked me why I was chasing him. Can you say humiliating?"
She studies her scarlet-tipped fingers.
"No, don't. Don't make me feel better. Don't keep hope alive. He said we'll never be more than friends. Never. It's over. Over."
A copy messenger slaps a paper on her desk. She stares at it.
"All right. La Carafe. Just for drinks, though. Not for a possible Puck sighting."
She picks up the paper, eyes the headlines, lets the paper fall back onto her desk.
"I feel so humiliated, so ashamed. I ache. A calf being eaten alive by maggots."
Now she knows how I feel.
Tomorrow, I'll send her roses. Not from the grocery store. From the best florist in town. Lavender roses, her favorites. I'll spare no expense.
I'll ask her to lunch. Brennan's. She loves their strawberry shortcake. I'll order that pricey champagne she likes, the one with the orange label. What the fuck, I'll order two bottles.
She says, never date a guy who wears steel-toed cowboy boots. I say, they aren't steel-toed. They're silver-tipped. It's not the same. It might make all the difference. After all, my name is one syllable, and it ends in a K.
Denise Calhoun and I have been friends and colleagues in work and art for perhaps longer than either of us is willing to admit. So I was in the privileged position of being able to encounter the women in She Says at the moment of birth, in a manner of speaking, as they were being conceived and created. That year and a half to nearly two years of white-hot creativity was as exciting for me as it must have been exhausting, if exhilarating, for Denise because I never knew what the day’s email might bring. One day I might be laughing at the wry humor and cock-eyed optimism of the woman at the center of Todd Stottlemyre Is My Higher Power or fighting a Twilight Zone frisson at the dark obsessiveness of She Says. Some days would find me side by side amid the fingerling potatoes with the protagonist of And the Starlight . . . or on the open road cruising for connection with the wild womanchild of Swan’s Beak. And as those weeks and months passed, I came to expect – indeed, eagerly anticipate – certain things from a Calhoun creation: prose that popped off the page, written in a voice that was uniquely, distinctively Denise, and characters who weren’t just memorable but whose grace amid the pressures of modern love sometimes startled me, never failed to move me and, indeed, haunted me for days and weeks on end.
I’m a poet myself, which means that in my own writing the pleasure and the challenge come from compression: saying the most in the fewest possible words. So it was utterly marvelous to me, as the seasons passed and Denise kept writing, to see that outpouring of words, to watch the unfolding of scene and scenario, to encounter that parade of smart, sassy, wounded, wondering women. She made it look fluid and effortless, that act of the imagination and the will, but only Denise fully knows the burdens under which she made her art, the reserves she drew down to their dregs, the sacrifices she made with barely a whimper. I have a small notion of what was involved, and she has all my admiration. I’m consistently humbled by her commitment and her example. And frankly, I’m thrilled that she has chosen to share the She Says cycle with the world in this way. These stories – these women – deserve a hearing. I know you’ll enjoy getting to know them – and learning to love them – as much as I did.
The Goddess of Gumbo