A native of Cape Cod, Katie Cortese is currently a Ph.D. student in Fiction at Florida State University. She received her MFA from Arizona State in 2006. Previous employment includes grant-writing for a children's theatre company, writing articles about hot tubs, and feeding gastropods at SeaWorld San Diego. Her work is published or forthcoming in NANOfiction, St. Ann's Review, Zone 3, The Comstock Review, Zahir, Ampersand Review, and Passages North.
"English majors," Bradford said, digging through a half-price bin at Second Chance. His costume required something light and zip-up, light-colored too, if possible. Long-sleeved, wide enough for his broad shoulders, cheap. The jacket he was looking for didn't seem to exist.
Mash made a snorting sound through one nostril, a patented-Mash noise much imitated with little success. "We still got to get to Lowe's," he said. "Hurry the fuck up."
It was hot in Second Chance and what little light there was filtered through a series of high rectangular windows. Bradford picked out the scent of old cigar smoke, mold, sawdust, and under everything else, moth balls. At the bottom of the bin, his long, narrow fingers lit upon something cool and jagged, a zipper. The garment was buried under a mound of t-shirts, golf pants, unopened packages of pantyhose and one silk negligee, pilled and ripped along one seam. Bradford's fingers closed on the zipper and pulled.
"That'll do," Mash said, already backing up towards the door. "Let's go."
Bradford held the item up. It was a jacket alright, a pink, elastic number with white piping down the arms. "It's a woman's," he said, checking the tag. "Size small."
Mash was impatient. He disappeared behind a rack of dusty VHS tapes. "You know what they say about beggars."
Reflexively, Bradford patted his wallet. It was still there, still nearly empty. Now that it was summer, he didn't make as much behind the bar as he was used to. He'd gotten out of his shift for this party, had passed up the sixty bucks he could have pulled from the locals, but Rachel would be there tonight. It was her roommate's birthday and Bradford had somehow made the invite list. No doubt she'd just sent it out to her whole address book, forgetting he was still in there, but he couldn't pass it up. One last chance to make things right. But a Metaphor Melee party? He tried out Mash's snort of disgust and succeeded only in a thin whistle.
"Dude," Mash called from the counter. "What's the hold-up?"
Bradford fished out his wallet, brought the coat to the counter and handed it to the aging cashier where he was told it had been misplaced. "All the half-pricers have red tags," she said, holding up a spotless white price tag stuck through the jacket's ribbed cuff. She had rivers of caramel skin, prematurely wasted by who knew how many Arizona summers.
"I don't have eleven bucks," he said, opening his wallet and holding it out for her to see. The smell of moth balls was even stronger up here, as if she put herself in a crate of them each night and rose from them each morning—a last ditch effort at preservation.
"I don't give handouts, sonny," she said, and Bradford resisted pointing out that Second Chance was a thrift store, a place whose livelihood depended on those without money to burn. He supposed he didn't look very needy, standing there in Hugo Boss jeans bought during the school year when fleets of college kids kept The Fairway packed and swaying all night long.
Bradford called to Mash, who'd been rifling through a stack of dusty comic books. Mash replaced a copy of The Incredible Hulk, fished out a dollar and called Bradford a pussy. "No worries man, I'll just get it back from Rachel," Mash said, "Before she kicks us out." Mash made his snort of disgust again, and pushed through the frosted glass door with a merry jingle.
"Here." Bradford put his last crinkled dollar bills in the woman's hand and waved off her offer of a plastic Safeway bag. He wanted to add, "Fuck you very much," but didn't. It was this reticence, this politeness that had lost him Rachel in the first place.
"Yell at me, Brad," Rachel had said almost a month before. "Scream at me, anything. I never know what you're thinking." He hadn't screamed at her even then, but had bitten his tongue to keep back the tears. "I'm out," he'd said, stating the obvious and removing his toothbrush solemnly from its holder in the bathroom. She'd watched from the corner of the bed, still naked, fresh from her confession, crying so tears oozed through her fingers. After that, his calls to her went unanswered, emails unopened. Nothing, until last week's invite to this party. He would show up—in costume, as requested—and tell her he'd been doing some thinking, he missed her. His toothbrush missed her toothbrush, he'd say. He'd been painting again, was thinking of going back to school, and most importantly, he was ready to open up.
Mash put the car in gear and sped to Lowe's, where he picked up a two-by-four and small electric saw, rolling his eyes and snorting through the whole operation. "You owe me, big," Mash said. His hair was braided this month, the neat black rows stuck close to his head, and he ran his fingernail down one of them in a rare nervous gesture. "She's just going to fuck you over."
Brad shook his head, smiling. Couldn't articulate it, but he knew Mash was wrong.
Bradford didn't know the girl who answered the door. She was tiny, barely five feet, and dressed in a black cat suit complete with ears and a long, fluffy tail. Over the suit she wore tassled gold pasties, one for each buried breast, and a matching g-string. "Sex kitten," she said, sweeping one arm in a half-arc to indicate her outfit. "Let me guess," she leaned across the threshold and knocked on the giant wooden "T" glued to Mash's t-shirt. "You're 'hard truth.'" Originally, he'd wanted to string the letters on a chain and wear them around his neck, but the letters wouldn't stay in the right order and eventually he'd used Elmer's glue to affix them to an old Wu-Tang shirt and halfway down the leg of a baggy pair of jeans, ruing their loss the whole time. "Oh man, do you owe me," he'd said, putting pressure on the letter H so it would stick just above his right kneecap.
Brad had gone heavy on the Elmer's too, using a turkey baster to paint it over the jacket in strips and then dipping the fabric in a plastic tub of sugar. "Good enough to eat," Mash had said when the coat was finished. There were a few bald batches and Brad shed a fine spray of sugar dust whenever he moved, but the overall effect was impressive. The only real problem was how tight the coat was. Tight enough to constrict his breathing and emphasize the hollow of his bellybutton. It was too tight to wear an undershirt and so he zipped it over his bare skin.
"I wonder what Rachel will be," Bradford said, admiring his handiwork in the mirror. Mash was in there too, fishing through bottles in the cabinet for the right cologne. He turned though and Brad caught his look in the mirror. Sad, somehow, as if Mash knew something he wasn't saying, or didn't know how to.
"Beats me, man," Mash said, turning back around and selecting a bottle of Brute.
Now, at Rachel's house, Brad forgot himself and ran two hands down the front of his shirt as if to smooth it. Instead, he set off two small avalanches of sugar in a sparkling cloud. "Oh," Catgirl said, "Sugar coat." She winked, "Sweet."
She opened the door wider and Bradford let Mash go in first. It was mostly Rachel's friends from the Dillard's where she worked part-time to pay for her massage classes. She'd started the program seven months ago and would graduate soon and go for her license. Brad had helped her decide to go for it. When they'd met, she'd been a waitress at the Fairway and he'd encouraged her to stop just thinking about school and start applying. When she got accepted, she brought the letter into the bathroom where Brad was showering for work and slid open the shower door to show him. By the end of that shower, the letter had been a mass of pulp on the fiberglass floor and Brad had been late to work. Very late.
There were some people Brad didn't recognize, some tall guy was "dog days of summer," with three stuffed Pound Puppies attached to his belt and a cardboard sun stuck on his head like a halo. He thought the blond girl made up like a beauty queen with the noose around her neck might be "drop dead gorgeous" and the kid in the suit wearing a gorilla mask was probably "monkey business." No Rachel, at first, and no Selina, whose birthday it was. There were some neighbors he recognized though, and a couple mutual friends he and Rachel had met during their two years together. Brad crossed the room to talk to one of them, a guy they'd seen day after day at the dog park until he'd invited them to a Superbowl party, after which they'd grilled together every other week. Dawson was his name. At the same time, Mash made for Catgirl, who was digging a beer out of the cooler in the corner.
"Haven't seen you around, buddy," Dawson said, shaking Brad's hand with the usual overage of force. "Or Rachel. And where's that ancient mutt of hers?"
Bradford looked around for Chomsky, the doe-eyed beagle mix Rachel had adopted in high school, but saw no sign. "Maybe that's his metaphor," Brad said. "Dog-gone-it."
"Good one," Dawson said, laughing too loud. Brad couldn't figure out what Dawson's metaphor was supposed to be. The man was wearing a red shirt covered with the kind of wax lips kids wore at Halloween. All the mouths were open in what looked like permanent screams. At Dawson's waist was a billy club.
"What's yours?" Bradford asked. Dawson picked up the club and started swatting at his own chest, beating the melting lips.
"Still no?" the man asked. He shrugged, "Laugh riot."
Brad laughed, carefully. The man had a pit bull, he guessed it made sense he owned a billy club too. In the corner, Catgirl was now perched on Mash's lap. Brad watched him run the girl's tail through his fingers, then hold it up to tickle her nose
Brad moved away from Dawson, leaving a crunchy trail of sugar granules behind him. Selina was on the balcony. So, for that matter, was Chomsky, who wore an Italian flag as a neckerchief. Puppy ciao.
"Happy birthday," Brad said and the several people smoking at the railing turned to stare.
Selina studied American Lit at the university. She kept a straight face. "I told Rachel you'd come." She tapped the cherry out of her cigarette, but kept the dead stub between her fingers. Her metaphor seemed to be "Fuck me," or else "Crack whore."
"Where is she?" he said, ignoring the hostility flooding each of her syllables. "And what's with the fishnets?"
"Thread-bear," she said, turning to show him the small teddy bear affixed to the waistband of her tights. Though it may have been placed there for modesty's sake, it didn't leave much to the imagination. Her torso was covered from the ribcage up by some sort of loose-knit sweater that clearly showed her nipples. Bradford thought maybe Mash had zeroed in on Catgirl too soon.
The others at the railing had gone back to their previous occupations, sipping at smudged wine glasses, producing smoke rings, contemplating the effect of falling the sixty feet into the complex pool below. Some allowed the impact of falling would be fatal, some said death wouldn't happen until one's head struck the pool's floor. "I really need to find Rachel," Bradford said. More of his coating was getting sloughed off by the light wind, and he felt his confidence blowing away just as tangibly. What would he say to her? She was the one who'd cheated on him, after all, then confessed in a cloudburst after making love to him in the middle of a Monday afternoon. A one-time thing. But still, she should be begging his forgiveness.
"It's too late, you know," Selina said, seeming to hear his thought, or perhaps seeing it written across his face. "She's with someone else."
Bradford had considered this possibility. He had a contingency plan for this too. In fact, he'd been almost hoping for the chance to show her he could be active instead of passive. It wasn't in his nature, but for her, he could try. A pleasant stage fright settled in his mid-region, like liquid static electricity. He would use his fists on his rival, put on the show she'd claimed she wanted. And if it backfired, if she was turned off even further, he would be no more alone than he already was. Brad nodded with a firm jaw. "Is he here?"
Selina's eyes focused on something behind him, through the sliding glass door into the packed apartment. She'd, perhaps, mistaken his excitement for desperation. "Don't do anything crazy," she said. Which he took as a yes. Behind him then, rose a series of high-pitched greetings. And above them all, the achingly familiar peel of Rachel's lovely laugh.
Bradford didn't know the guy she was with. He was shorter than him, though stockier—unless that was the effect of his costume. And his hair was the shiny, translucent black of a blank television screen. The mystery man and Rachel were two halves of one metaphor. The man wore a black trash bag filled with newspaper, and Rachel's simple jean shorts and black tank top were covered all over with silver loops of chain. Ball and chain, a marriage joke, here in the living room where they'd had sex for the first time on the couch after seeing a free concert at the park—Cake—and then had fed each other a homemade banana split standing up in her kitchen. It had only been a month since their breakup and he hadn't even looked at another woman for all that time. This was what their two years together amounted to? The anger Brad had hoped to pretend came real and fast and frightening.
"Happy birthday, Rachel," Bradford said through his closed teeth, sliding open the balcony doors.
She started to laugh again. "You've got the wrong girl," she said, turning. When she saw him, her laugh cut off as if someone had slammed a door between them. A CD paused between songs in its player and the party considered them, as if trying to work out their metaphor. Sweet links, chain-cane, full-metal jacket? None of them made sense. The next song poured out of the speakers, Hendrix, and the ball portion of Rachel's figure of speech came forward. "Do we know each other?" He leaned forward, over the ball, to grasp Bradford's right hand firmly.
"Not yet," Brad said. "I'm an old friend of Rachel's."
Rachel crossed her arms over her chains. He watched the plains of her cheeks flatten, her eyes well up and redden at the rims. The ball looked at her and she held one hand out flat. "Arnold, this is Brad," she said. Brad could see red marks on her arms where the metal chains had impressed themselves in her flesh. "Brad is just leaving," she said.
Instead of shaking Arnold's hand, Brad wanted to yell in his face, "That's my woman you're fucking." There was a terrible anger rising in him, filling the spaces between his ribs. Then it was Rachel he wanted to shake. He wanted to ask her what she was thinking, moving on so quickly, then spit on the floor and exit grandly, with Mash. Dimly, he saw Chomsky trot by, pawing at the flag around his neck.
"Can I talk to you outside," Brad asked Rachel, hating the waver in his voice. He turned and headed for the balcony, hoping she'd follow. In the glass door, he saw the partygoers casting glances at each other, especially their mutual friends. He saw Mash standing by the door, shoulders squared, hackles raised in case he was called upon for backup. As Rachel gently closed the door behind them, Mash leaned back against the far wall, listening morosely to something Catgirl was saying, his chest deflated somehow as if his own "hard truth" had finally sunk in.
The balcony was empty except for Brad and Rachel. Six floors below, the water in the pool looked blue, though he knew it was just an illusion, that the pool's walls were blue or else the chemicals. It was the same thing with a clear day's blue sky. All those atmospheric layers combined to give the appearance of blueness, which made the sky itself a kind of metaphor.
"You called this meeting," Rachel said. "So why am I talking first."
Brad knew what he wanted to say, but instead he reached for her, as if to draw her in for a hug. "No," she said, bringing her arms up in between his and pushing him away. He thought it was ironic, her refusing to touch him. She was a masseuse who valued words over touch and he was a bartender who valued touch over words. On paper, they would be the perfect pair. Why couldn't he say that to her, now, at this—his last stand?
He opened his mouth, thought of Dawson's chest full of silent screams. "I love you," he said, staring at her feet. These too, were adorned with tiny silver chains, one per ankle.
"Why?" she said. Her arms were crossed over her chains again. No one had thought to pull the drapes inside and he could see the ball conversing with Dawson.
"I'm going back to school," he said, "for painting. I've been thinking a lot, missing you. You're everything to me, you know that. I'd do anything for you."
"Say something," she said, "that means something. Name one thing you miss about me."
He felt as if someone had shoved a podium in front of him, switched on a spotlight. Below them, the summer solstice moon appeared on the pool, orange and perfectly round. He considered making a grand romantic gesture, ripping open the slider and lifting The Ball in a fireman's carry and tossing him over the side. A cannonball would be the safest landing, he thought. But even if he could pull it off, that was just another kind of metaphor, and she wanted straight-talk. He was going to lose her to The Ball who was ricocheting from guest to guest as if the room was the inside of a pinball machine.
She tried her hand at Mash's distinctive noise of disgust—snorting and throwing her hands skyward. "Look at you, Brad. Look at your costume. Have some self-awareness for Christ's sake. Just say what you mean. What are you thinking? Aren't you angry that I brought someone else tonight? Don't you wonder why I haven't called?"
She wanted him to redeem himself, he could see that now. She wanted him back—had never, maybe, wanted him to leave in the first place. But she also wanted him to speak words from a script he'd never studied. It was a quiet night and their breathing was the only sound.
He would never be the person she needed. He was too much himself. "Sometimes actions speak louder than words," he said, and watched her face plummet from hope to understanding. Then he waved goodbye, though they were standing close enough to be heard at a whisper.