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Authors: Diana Wagman

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BOOK: The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets
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Lacy fingered her cell phone. Her guy would be at work. That was the disadvantage to an older man. He had a job. He paid rent. Still, if she got stuck somewhere he would leave work and come get her. If she called him, she knew he would come right away. Her hair was curling; she could feel it frizzing up around her face as the wind blew. There was moisture in the air, possible rain. The winds were picking up. She watched a leaf skitter across the sidewalk. She walked and drifted into her fantasy.

Her hair was long and straight. She stood on a street corner—no—in a parking lot by a 7-11 in a sketchy part of town. A red car filled with boys, maybe a pick-up truck, maybe a low black car with tinted windows, circled her. The boys taunted her, wanted her, called out things about her legs and her ass and what they would do to her. He came squealing into the lot in his silver Audi. Or his hipster classic car. Or his outdoorsy Subaru wagon. He fishtailed to a stop beside her and she leapt into the passenger seat.

“Thank you,” she breathed. A single tear on her cheek.

“I want to kill those guys,” he said. “If anything happened to you…”

They would lean together for a kiss. The first kiss. Her first kiss ever.

Next time they spoke she would ask him what kind of car he
had. She imagined a nice car, a good car, but she wouldn't care if he drove an old beater. He was a person to whom exterior, material things did not matter.

She had never actually seen him—not live and in person—only a photo he had emailed to her. That's all he had seen of her too, the one picture of herself she liked that she posted on her page. And the photo of the tattoo she wanted. That silly photo had brought them together. He'd thought it was really her leg—that she already had that tattoo. He left a comment, then she replied and they started to chat. She sent him a quotation Mr. Bronson had put on the board by some dead guy named William Durant, “Forget past mistakes. Forget failures. Forget everything except what you're going to do now and do it.”

He wrote back, “Yes! Today is the first day of the rest of your life!”

She had never heard that before and it struck her as amazing. It was so, so true. That was it. They were obviously connected. She wrote him that he had inspired her. He replied she had lifted his spirits, made him glad to be alive.

“Hey. Hey, Lacy.”

She was startled out of her daydream. Buster, a skinny loser she had known since elementary school, hung out his car window. His brown hair fell in his eyes. She could see the green T-shirt he always wore.

“Hey,” she replied.

“What're you doing?”

She shrugged.

“C'mere.”

She walked over to his car. His eyes were red.

“Wanna get high?”

She shook her head no.

“Wanna ride someplace?”

She couldn't go home, but she had to go somewhere. “Sure,” she said.

She went around and opened the passenger side door. Buster threw sandwich wrappers and magazines and earphones and clothes and a dilapidated notebook into the back seat.

“Sorry. This car is like my office.”

It smelled of old food and unwashed clothes. There was a shriveled apple core covered in dust and lint on the floor mat. Lacy cracked her window.

“Where to? Your chariot awaits.” He tapped his fingers on the wheel in time to music obviously playing only in his head.

Would Buster take her to Rose Tattoo? She wanted to get her nose pierced. Or she thought she did. The ring in her belly-button had hurt so much, but Roger at the place said noses were just cartilage. She had been thinking about it for a while, but she didn't really want Buster to come along. What if she cried?

“Got a cigarette?” she asked.

“Are you kidding? My body is a fucking temple.” Buster opened the ashtray and pulled out a joint. “I smoke only the purest, finest, organically grown weed.”

Lacy laughed. You had to laugh at Buster. He grinned happily. He pulled out into traffic without looking and a car coming up behind honked.

“Bless you, neighbor!” Buster waved his hand out the window. He lit his joint. “I know just where to go. I will take you to an amazing place.”

The SUV behind them pulled around and the driver flipped Buster off. Buster just shook his head. “Negative energy will get you nowhere, my friend.” Then he looked at Lacy. “What're you doing out of school? You're not a deviant.”

“My cell phone went off and Mr. Bronson kicked me out of class.”

“Those cell phones will give you brain cancer.”

“I usually just text.”

“It is a fucking gorgeous day.”

Lacy frowned at the gathering clouds, the palm trees bending in the wind.

Buster continued. “Life experience on a day like today is as important as anything you could learn in a classroom.”

Lacy leaned forward to look up through the windshield. “Maybe it'll rain.”

“Fuck no. Warm. Sunny. So Cal, man. So Cal living!”

Almost every day was warm and sunny in LA. The relentless sunshine depressed her. She was so easily sunburned. Her hair preferred air conditioning. And the weather was boring. She and her mother agreed on that one point. Her mother. Why was she such a bitch lately?

“Stop over there.” Lacy pointed at a bodega on the corner. “I need a pack of cigs.”

3.

Jonathan let himself in. He still had his key on the same ring Winnie had given him seventeen years ago on their honeymoon. If Jessica knew he carried the keys to their house and his Porsche and her SUV on the old ring, she'd run right out and buy him a new one, but she thought the sterling silver seashell was a souvenir from way back, before Winnie, from his surfer days. Even though it said Tiffany's right on it, like he would have been able to afford anything from Tiffany's back then. She wasn't the sharpest crayon in the deck—or whatever that expression was. She was cute and she was fun. Of course, if she found out he was hanging out at his ex-wife's house she would not be fun. No. That would not be any fun at all.

He took a deep breath. He could smell coffee, Winnie's good coffee. He went into the kitchen. He stood by the counter in front of the window, in the very spot he remembered Winnie standing when he told her he was leaving. There was her blue mug. There was Lacy's cereal bowl. There was the cutting board covered in scraps from Lacy's cut up apple and her peanut butter and honey sandwich—she never took anything else for lunch. He licked his finger and pressed down to capture a single tiny crumb. He put it on his tongue, swallowing the morsel of his ex-wife and only child.

The dog scratched to come in. Jonathan opened the back door.

“Hey, Buddy.”

He bent down to pet the black and white mutt. He and Jessica had a hypoallergenic designer labradoodle. Very sweet, but nothing but fluff between its apricot-colored, curly hair-not-fur ears. She was two-years-old and barely knew her name. Buddy sat down and thumped his tail on the floor.

“You waiting, huh?”

He took a dog biscuit from his pocket, hid it behind his back and switched it from hand to hand, back and forth. Then he put both hands out in front of him.

“Which one, Buddy? Which one is it?'

Buddy nosed his left hand. The dog got it right every time. Jonathan gave him the treat, also hypoallergenic and apricot-colored, plus organic, but Buddy seemed to like it just fine.

Jonathan made his rounds. He went upstairs, straightened a kindergarten photo of Lacy on the wall outside the bathroom, and then checked to make sure the faucet in the sink wasn't dripping anymore. He had fixed it last time he came; he was pleased he had done a successful job. He was a handy guy when he got the opportunity. He stepped into Lacy's room and shook his head at the mess. When she moved in with him, this would have to change. She needed responsibility. He was going to give her driving lessons, but he would not buy her a car until she proved she was ready for it. He walked past the master bedroom, but he couldn't go in. Today he even averted his eyes. He didn't want to see the unmade bed, the book on her nightstand, the dust on his.

He went back downstairs to his special chair. He had taken nothing when he moved out; Jessica didn't want any reminders of his old life. Except Lacy, of course. The give of the cushion, the scratch of the worn upholstery, the faint smell of dog, was all as it should be. He picked a piece of lint off his expensive
long shorts. They weren't particularly comfortable, but Jessica had bought them for him. They were what everybody was wearing and they made him look young. His shirt had the logo of a skateboard company across the back, even though these days the only wheels he rode were on his car and the stationary bike at the gym. Nobody would know that looking at him. He weighed almost the same as when he'd first met Winnie. Of course, his hair was a little thinner, and he had help keeping it this shade of blonde, but he had his fans. Plenty of them.

She was at tennis. She said she couldn't have lunch, so she was probably out for most of the day. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes and then opened them again. He wanted to see. There was the piano they had inherited from a friend who moved away. The dent in the coffee table where seven-year-old Lacy had dropped her roller skate. The ugly painting on the wall, a thrift store find she loved so much. Her old twenty-seven inch TV. His eyes caressed each. It was as if he had never seen them before and as if he always saw them, as if he carried these items in his pocket wherever he went.

And he was here too. He was still here. He had painted the ceiling and missed those spots around the light fixture. He had bought that silver candlestick for Winnie the day he got the beer commercial. He stood on this rug and stared out that window as he practiced his lines for his first movie. It was all here. If there was anything new or out of place, he always noticed it immediately: even if it was just Lacy's socks and sneakers kicked off under the couch, or an empty glass on the end table, or those ugly bright colored pillows Winnie had bought for some unknown reason. What was different today? Nothing. Winnie had straightened up a little. The pillows were now in Lacy's room. It looked exactly as it did when he lived in this house, as if he was still here. And he was.

He breathed out, sucking in his stomach as he relaxed his shoulders. Jessica was a yoga teacher; she had taught him proper breathing for relaxation and rejuvenation. He started to look at his watch, then forced himself not to. He was here now. There was no rush to get over to his office. His show was on hiatus until after Christmas, but he still liked to make an appearance, to remind the producers he was the reason the audience kept coming back. He exhaled loudly and Buddy thumped his tail, once, twice.

“Good dog.”

Sometimes Jonathan craved this old house. Sometimes he ached for it even as he sat in the living room of his new, creamy mansion. Jessica had chosen the furniture, wallpaper, carpets, art, everything in the color of nonfat honey-sweetened organic yogurt. This house, the first house he had bought, was messy and mismatched, but it was so quiet. As if the shabby things had absorbed the noise and the troubles all around. He had begun here and in this room he heard his young self moving, going forward. Only in this silence. He was here. His best self was still here. This had to be the quietest house in America. In the world. In the universe.

4.

The heat was astonishing. Winnie expected it to shimmer off the wall-to-wall carpeting like a highway in the desert. The house was empty. There were no pictures or decoration, only a brown plaid couch and matching chair and an oak coffee table with nothing on it. It was all like rental furniture, ugly and sturdy. There was no television, not even a lamp, just the unbelievable heat. The tears evaporated on her cheeks, but the perspiration collected under her arms, slid down the back of her neck, pooled between her breasts.

He let her go. “Sit down.”

She did not want to sit on the couch or the chair. She would fuse with the fabric; her skin would melt into the fibers. He poked her in the back with the handle of the knife. She obeyed and sat in the chair. She caught the faintest chemical odor. It reminded her of a pet store, then of Lacy's first grade classroom. Cedar chips. Guinea pig cages. Despite the heat, her legs were trembling.

“Why is it so hot?”

He said nothing. He opened the little closet by the front door, took out the single hanger and hung up his leather jacket. His white shirt was small on him, the shoulders were tight, the sleeves too short. He closed the closet door. He took off his tie and looped it over the doorknob. He did it with such practice, like a ritual, like what he always did before he mutilated his victims.

“What are we doing here?” Winnie had to keep talking, to tell him she was human, she was real; she was just like him. “It's a lovely house. Really. I love this fabric. And everything is so clean and tidy. Not like my house. My daughter. What a mess she can make. Boy, oh boy.” She stood up. “What's the kitchen like?” She tried to sound friendly, to be his friend.

There was an open archway into the empty dining room. The swinging door to the kitchen was closed.

“Sit down.”

She did.

He unbuttoned his shirt. Underneath he wore a white sleeveless undershirt. She had wondered about the hair on his chest so long ago, in the car, before. It was as orange as the hair on his head and sparse; a hair or two curled above the scooped neckline. His shoulders were dusted with freckles, like cinnamon on vanilla ice cream. He hung his shirt on the doorknob and turned to her. The muscular beauty of his arms stunned her; the way his skin stretched over his biceps. She had thought he was skinny, now she could see how strong he was.

“What do you want?” she whispered.

“I wouldn't know where to begin.”

He sat down on the couch across from her. He stretched his arms wide. The orange hair in his armpits was damp with sweat. The hallway on the far side of the room was flanked with doors—to bedrooms, bathrooms, cozy dens—all closed. There were two locks and a chain on the front door. The large window behind his head was concealed under Venetian blinds closed tight.

BOOK: The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets
5.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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