• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
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  • 27. Proximity

    By Diana Spechler

    Diana Spechler, author of the memorable novel Who By Fire, writes about characters whose inchoate longings lead them to misdirection and mistake—yet her own eye for the details of human interaction is unerring. “Tell me what you’re hoping for,” one of her characters asks; it’s a line that might work in almost any story ever written.

    Saturday morning, Estelle doesn’t show up for treatment. In lieu of her presence is a note scrawled in magic marker: “It’s sunny out. I’d rather play than work on my ‘problems.’” Funny that she wrote “problems” in quotation marks, as if she doesn’t really have any. Estelle is twenty-one years old, stands at five feet eight inches, and weighs eighty-five pounds. She has a second personality (six-year-old Estelle), skin and hair the color of teeth, and teeth the color of sepia. Last week, she asked me to go into business with her, to collaborate on art projects and sell them at the Denver Farmer’s Market. By art projects, she meant her art therapy paintings—mostly primary-colored stick-figure families—accompanied by entries from my food journal. Eventually, she concluded, we’d have an exhibit at MoMA in New York City.

    “Very manipulative,” Dr. Rose says now, tapping the note with a long hot-pink fingernail. Dr. Rose, the shrink at the North Boulder Center for Eating Disorder Recovery, is what my mother would call “big-boned,” tall with powerful legs and a wide face. She teases her platinum blond bangs. She wears blue eye shadow. She looks like a glamour shot. But I always imagine the friends she must have, four or five other ladies with teased hair, giggling together at the food court in the mall, bright lipstick prints on plastic straws, fingers touching casually, cozily, over a cardboard boat of French fries.

    Dr. Rose used to be bulimic, too, two decades ago when she was in her twenties. Now, she says, if she buys a binge food, she’ll eat until she’s full (she’s learned, unlike the rest of us, what “full” feels like), then shove the rest down the garbage disposal. “Starving children in Africa?” she always says. “That’s lost on me. Hell if I’ll feel guilty about throwing away food.”

    The first activity of the day is to make lists of things we want. I write:

    1. J.D.

    2. Friends.

    3. To eat like a normal person.

    I cross out number two so Libby and Rhonda, the other two patients, won’t know I don’t have friends. Then I cross out number one because Libby and Rhonda think J.D. is my boyfriend. They think my life is perfect in every way. A couple of days ago, they ganged up on me about it: “You have a boyfriend!” they chanted at me like ugly cheerleaders. “And you’re pretty! And you just finished college!”

    Right. It’s not like I’m some supermodel. I wasn’t even decent-looking until I finished high school and left Durango and got it through my head to stop dressing like a sexless ski bunny in fleece pullovers and wooly socks, and to lose a few pounds.

    Also, J.D., the bartender at Sugar’s where I’m a cocktail waitress, would never call himself my boyfriend. If he did, believe me: I wouldn’t be here. What would I need with therapy, with food, with anything, really, if I consumed J.D. the way he consumes me? I think of J.D. all day, how he tips the pint glass beneath the tap to let the foam off, how he keeps a rag and a bottle opener in the back pocket of his jeans, how, when he yanks the rag out, the faded white imprint of the bottle opener shows on the denim. I think of the way he moves around behind the bar like no one’s watching, and also like the whole world’s watching (all two hundred twenty pounds of him, the muscles in his arms, the beer belly that he’s proud of); how he can crack a different joke with every customer; how he can say to a beautiful girl he’s never met, “What’s up, Slick?” and she’ll giggle and keep stealing glances at him for the rest of the night. Me, on the other hand, I never say anything funny. Sometimes I think funny things, but I’m never sure if they would sound funny out loud.

    I’ve known J.D. for only five months, but to quote something I wrote in my food journal, “he spackles the walls of my life.” When I met him, college had just ended, and my whole graduating class was leaving town for desk jobs and graduate programs, or heading to Vail to be ski bums. Only I couldn’t think where to go. I didn’t want to return to Durango, where my only childhood friend played the flute and called it “Flute Friend” and never really seemed to notice me, even when no one else was around. My parents wouldn’t have expected me to move home anyway. I would have startled them as much as a stranger would. My parents are more like grandparents; they’ve been old since they were young. They’re always noticing “a chill” in the room, and layering sweaters over their clothes and drinking tea with bony hands. They’re more likely to pore over photo albums from my childhood than they are to call me. “Kind, but detached,” Dr. Rose said once, which beats overbearing, in some people’s opinions.

    So I took a job at Sugar’s, not the coolest bar in Boulder, but not the least cool, either. And then I started waiting for my life to change. And then I met J.D.

    It sounds crazy, but I was twenty-two years old and had never been kissed. And suddenly J.D. was kissing me at least three times a week. Any time we worked together, we would leave together. Then he would touch me in the dark of his bedroom and whisper my name like it was something special. Until last night. Today I’m trying not to think about Georgia, the girl with the homecoming-queen body who comes into Sugar’s practically every night and drinks mud slides with her sorority sisters; Georgia whose hair is so blond it looks like the golden straw from the Rumpelstiltskin story; Georgia, whom everyone calls “Georgia” because she’s from Georgia. (Once, I overheard her say that her family owns five thousand acres of land. “Peach trees,” she drawled. “Orchards and orchards of ’em.”)

    Of course, I can’t help it: I imagine her in J.D.’s bed, her noodly limbs all over him. Last night, she talked to J.D. for hours, standing at his bar where only cocktail waitresses are allowed to stand. And then, for the first time, I went home alone because J.D. said something about having to get up early, which didn’t even make sense because he’s on house arrest and isn’t allowed to go anywhere besides work, which doesn’t start until 5:30.

    Now, eight hours later, Dr. Rose is telling us to look at our lists and devise reasonable strategies for either getting what we want or gracefully accepting that we won’t, whatever that means.

    I look at my list. Impossible. All three. But I write, “I will show more of myself to J.D.,” because Dr. Rose is always telling me that I need to open up, to give people more credit. “People are generally sympathetic,” is the way she puts it.

    Well. I don’t know about that.

    I skip number two, “Friends.” I cross it out harder, making it invisible. About my eating disorder, number three, I write that I will think about beautiful women who aren’t skinny. I put the cap back on my pen and start thinking. I don’t know any beautiful fat women. Not a single one.

    Libby says, “All of mine are impossible,” and crumples up her paper. Libby is forty-six years old. She’s been bulimic since she was nineteen, hospitalized five times.

    Rhonda, the diabetic who purges by messing with her insulin, says, “Here we go. Drama-rama. It’s time for the Libby Show.”

    “Why are you such a bitch to me?!” Libby shrieks.

    Rhonda rolls her eyes. “Dr. Rose,” she says, “we all want to be normal eaters. We all want to be thin.” She crosses one thick leg over the other. She’s wearing a long peasant skirt, white socks, and Birkenstocks. “It’s impossible to do both,” she says. Rhonda’s the fattest of all of us. Estelle’s the skinniest. After Estelle, Libby’s a fairly close second. At five-foot-three and one hundred ten pounds, I’m third. If I included Dr. Rose, she’d be in between Rhonda and me.

    “It’s only impossible if you tell yourself it’s impossible,” Dr. Rose says, but Rhonda’s right and we all know it, even Dr. Rose, I suspect.

    *

    Saturday night at work, J.D.’s wearing a white baseball cap backward and a white undershirt. Through the undershirt, I can see the hair on his chest, and his nipples, big and dark as pepperoni. “What’s up, Slick?” he says when he sees me.

    “You call everyone Slick,” I say.

    “What’s up, Shit Brains?” he says.

    I smile. Tonight, he might pay attention to me. But an hour later, in comes Georgia and her entourage, a parade of broomsticks, all wearing the same kind of shirt—the front sort of shaped like a napkin, the back wide open—even though it’s October and freezing out. Everyone in the bar turns to look. They’re all looking at Georgia. She’s taller than all of her friends. Skinnier, too, but it’s natural skinniness. I can tell the difference. How vibrant life must be if you’re visible like Georgia is, moving through the world in neon lights. I’m only visible to people I’d rather hide from, like Rhonda and Estelle.

    Georgia and her friends are always inspecting each other’s teeth for stowaway poppy seeds, then peering up each other’s noses. Dr. Rose would say they’re “close.” She tells me I can have closeness; everyone’s entitled. But if I could be close to anyone, it would be J.D., and I’d rather gain thirty pounds than ask J.D. to look up my nose for boogers.

    My first customer of the night is a self-proclaimed “world-famous rock climber and movie producer.” He tells me he can make me a star. “There’s something about you,” he says, and I like that, because I’m pretty sure there’s nothing about me. The man has salt-and-pepper hair. Even though he’s sitting, I can tell he’s small. “You have secrets,” he says. “I can see it in your eyes.”

    I touch my right eyelid. I have a broken blood vessel in that eye, from throwing up three plastic bags full of chocolate-covered almonds.

    “It’s just the right look for movies . . . brooding. Here,” he says, pushing his business card across the tabletop. He’s wearing a wedding ring, a thumb ring, and a bracelet that looks like a thick silver vine. His attitude, his sureness, reminds me of Estelle, of what Dr. Rose calls her delusions of grandeur.

    When I’m punching his order into the computer, the other cocktail waitress, Brooke, whispers to me, “Those sorority chicks are such sluts. Georgia got”—she makes quotation marks in the air with her fingers — “‘raped’ at a frat party last spring. My friend’s in the fraternity. They lost their house because of it. . . . Fuck,” she says, blinking rapidly. “My contact just slipped.”

    “That doesn’t make her a slut,” I say, “does it?”

    Working with Brooke always makes me feel like a misfit, as if either I’ve outgrown Boulder or it’s shrunk, the way your elementary school feels when you’re grown up. Brooke’s from Cherry Creek, and she and most of her high school friends came to Boulder for college. Sometimes her friends visit her at Sugar’s, and it’s like they speak a secret shorthand.

    “Well, you can just imagine what went on,” Brooke says. “Hey . . . can you see my contact?” She stretches one eye open with her fingers. It just looks like a blue eye, surrounded by a lot of black makeup. I shake my head. I wonder if Dr. Rose would consider this closeness, or if looking for someone’s contact lens is less intimate than looking up her nose.

    I glance over my shoulder. Georgia’s leaning forward on her red vinyl bar stool, toward J.D. I can see the crack of her ass. She’s sipping her mudslide. Twenty-four grams of fat. Some of her friends look hungry. I can see it in the way they cross their arms over their stomachs or chew their nails. Some of them might be anorexic, but not like Estelle. They’re glamorous anorexic, counting calories and carbs and buying size-zero jeans from the boutiques on Pearl Street. They’ll outgrow it when they leave Boulder.

    “Brooke?” I say.

    “Yeah?”

    “Um. Do you think Georgia’s interested in J.D.?”

    No one knows about J.D. and me. He thinks that’s best because people are so nosy. I always leave Sugar’s a few minutes before he does; then he meets me at my car in the dark. Every time I’m outside waiting, swallowed by shadows, I’m convinced that someone like J.D. would never come for someone like me. But after two minutes, maybe three, he appears, and then I appear, and then we’re riding to his house, to his big, soft dog and his big, soft bed.

    “Interested?” Brooke laughs. “J.D.’s been fucking Georgia for weeks.” She walks off toward the bathroom, holding her eye open.

    Weeks, I think. Weeks. Weeks. The word stops making sense as I repeat it in my head.

    The night grows crowded and loud, but my thoughts are louder; I’m thinking about how even though J.D.’s on house arrest for repeat-offense drunk driving, he manages to have sex regularly with at least two girls. Unfortunately, the realization fills me not with revulsion, but with awe: J.D. is wonderfully, beautifully conventional. I’m the repulsive one, the one with an addiction and a secret. J.D. just likes to get drunk and get laid.

    Dr. Rose says that being busy can prevent a binge, but I don’t know about that, because the first chance I get, I head through the kitchen to the walk-in fridge. There’s a cheesecake inside, cut into eight seven-dollar slices. I grab one slice with my bare hand and shove it into my mouth. The whole thing. The graham-cracker crust crumbles on my tongue.

    “Lissa?”

    It’s Brooke. I don’t turn around. I chew as fast as I can, and kneel down like I’m searching for something in the fridge.

    “What are you looking for?” Brooke asks.

    I shake my head, chewing, chewing. My heart is thudding. Brooke’s at least ten feet away from me, but I can feel her as if she’s climbed onto me, piggy-back style, and wrapped her fake-tan arms around my neck. She is choking me.

    “Some girl’s here for you,” Brooke says. “Some cancer patient or something.”

    I know immediately, with a sick feeling, that it’s Estelle. I swallow the cheesecake in one painful gulp, stand, and turn around. “Where?” I whisper.

    “At J.D.’s bar. Georgia and them are, like, staring. I’m like, ‘Chill, she has cancer.’”

    I walk to the kitchen door and peer out. Yes. It’s Estelle. Estelle in a tight purple shirt and purple leggings, like an anorexic grape from the 1980s.

    I don’t have to talk to her. She’s not supposed to do this. We have a pact of confidentiality, the girls. If we run into each other, we don’t have to say hello. Especially tonight, when the only thing I’ve ever hoped for has been diminished to nothing (as if, after all these months, I’m waking to find that what I thought was J.D. in my arms was really just my pillow), I don’t owe anybody anything. I certainly don’t owe Estelle. What is she to me? Just a girl I’ve been forced into knowing. So I ignore her. I ignore her all night. At one point I hear her call my name—her voice as thin as an echo—but I don’t even turn. Eventually, I see her leave, her string-bean arms crossed like she’s holding her heart inside her chest. Dr. Rose says that to have a friend, you have to be a friend, but normal people don’t have to resort to befriending deluded anorexics with two personalities, so why should I?

    *

    Tuesday morning, Estelle’s not at the Center. There’s no note, and Dr. Rose is visibly worried. “Eventually, she’ll remember that she wants to get well,” Dr. Rose says, but she keeps glancing at the door.

    When I have my one-on-one session with Dr. Rose, I consider telling her about seeing Estelle at Sugar’s, but the second we’re alone in her office, I burst into tears about J.D.

    Dr. Rose hands me a tissue. “There are a lot of things about you to love,” she says. She pats my knee. She’s wearing Lee Press-On Nails. “Someone will give you the love you deserve.”

    It doesn’t make me feel better, because I know she means that it won’t be J.D. The thought of not having him, of never having him, is unmanageable, especially when I think back to the beginning of it all, the night Brooke trained me at Sugar’s, the night J.D. watched me from behind the bar and then invited me to go to the lake the next day. I couldn’t believe he was even talking to me, this person who could fill up a whole room just by entering it, as if the world was tailored to his body. Even his dog was inordinately in love with him, and the feeling was clearly mutual. J.D. threw tennis balls into the lake and cheered like a football fan when the dog swam out to get them. Then the dog would come back and shake water all over us and J.D. would kneel down and hug the dog, and stand up with a big wet dog print on his T-shirt. And I kept thinking, This is how normal people act at the lake. This is how they throw a ball. This is how they show affection to animals.

    “The real question,” Dr. Rose says, writing something on her clipboard, “is how are you going to cope? Sugar’s is your place of work. It’s J.D.’s too. Are you going to sneak out to your car to binge every half hour?”

    “No,” I say, though that’s exactly what I did Sunday night, while Georgia hung around J.D.’s bar again.

    “You could quit,” she says, turning her palms up. “Find a different job. Maybe something not in the food industry?”

    I see her point, but I keep thinking of an experiment I learned about in my Social Psychology class: The subjects liked the strangers they saw every day on the bus better than they liked strangers they’d never seen. The professor displayed this slide on the projector:

    Proximity => Visible => Memorable => Appealing

    This is science. If I leave Sugar’s, I’ll never have J.D. He’ll forget me in a week.

    *

    When I get to work, I walk right past J.D.’s bar without saying hi and head into the kitchen. “Lissa,” he calls after me, and my heart speeds up.

    He catches up to me and says, “You didn’t tell me you met Carson Brezky.”

    “Who?”

    “Dude,” J.D. says. “Are you serious?” He takes off his baseball cap and rakes his big fingers through his thick brown hair. It occurs to me, the way it has a thousand times before, that everything about J.D. is huge. So huge, he could crush me. “Famous rock climber? Guy who made Aconcagua? That IMax? Remember?”

    “I remember that guy,” I say, picturing his wedding ring, his silver vine bracelet.

    “He told you to call him. He gave you his business card.”

    “I thought he had delusions of grandeur,” I say.

    J.D. laughs and puts his cap back on backward. “He called here looking for you.” He holds out a slip of paper with a phone number on it. “He’s still in Boulder. He wants to take you to dinner tomorrow night. He wants to talk to you about your career.”

    I reach for the slip of paper, and for a second, we both hold it, before J.D. lets go. “I don’t have a career,” I say.

    J.D. pulls the bar rag out of his back pocket, twists it up, and flicks my arm with it. “Well, now maybe you will. Maybe he’ll make you famous. . . . Call the guy!” he says, turning to leave the kitchen. “Shit, Lissa. Delusions of grandeur.”

    I touch the place where J.D.’s rag hit my arm. A welt will rise there. I don’t understand what kind of career a guy who made an IMax about rock climbing could jumpstart for me, but it doesn’t matter. If I call him, if I have dinner with him, I can tell J.D. about it. I’ll have something to tell J.D.

    *

    I threw up four times this afternoon, so the world looks fuzzy, as if I’m watching it from a glass-bottom boat. I’m waiting for Carson Brezky at Sushi Como on Pearl Street. I’ve decided that if I can’t have J.D., if the time comes when I know for absolutely positively sure that I’ll never have him—let’s say he proposed to Georgia and she came into Sugar’s every night wearing a giant diamond ring—I might have to consider doing something like having a career.

    Really, what else could I do? Revert back to the pre-J.D. days, when I spent every night locked in my bedroom, eating without tasting and staring at the wall like someone in a trance? I would have to move somewhere. Florida maybe. I wouldn’t mind spending a winter in Florida, like an old person. At least in Florida, I wouldn’t have to feel inferior every ski season for not knowing how to ski. Wouldn’t have to answer to, “How can you not know how to ski? You grew up in Colorado.” Men might be different in Florida. They might not all have dogs named after reggae songs. They might not pose as all-natural mountain men, then sleep with girls like Georgia who take three hours to do their makeup.

    When Carson Brezky enters the restaurant, he stands in the doorway, scanning the crowd. His salt-and-pepper hair is parted on the side and neatly combed. He is the oldest man in the room. And he’s short, at least a head shorter than J.D., shorter than my father, who is the same size as my mother, as if they came from one cookie cutter, my father covered in blue sprinkles, my mother in pink ones. When Carson Brezky starts making his way to my table, I’m not sure whether or not I should get up, if we should shake hands or kiss each other’s cheeks. I half-rise and he sort of leans across the table to embrace me, and we wind up forming an awkward arch over the water glasses and soy sauce dishes, like a wishbone that quickly breaks apart. He smells like shaving cream and manly spices. When we sit, he shakes out of his trench coat, and says, “Lissa with the brooding eyes.”

    The comment doesn’t seem to warrant a response, so I smile; then I worry that I’m being aloof, so I laugh, but it comes out delayed and odd-sounding. I wish I had that energy drink that Dr. Rose recommends for after purging, the one that replenishes your electrolytes and makes your brain work again. Right now, I can’t think straight, can’t think of one thing to say to this strange man. Luckily, he’s not at a loss for words. After ordering a bottle of cold sake, he starts talking about his IMax, about his climbing partner who died last summer on Everest, about how, when you’re famous, no one understands you and everyone’s hoping for handouts. I smooth my white linen napkin over my lap. I wonder if he thinks I’m hoping for handouts. I haven’t asked him for anything. He’s the one who offered to make me a star. I wait for him to acknowledge that, but instead, he opens his menu and says, “Let’s see. . . . Any food allergies, Lissa?”

    The question makes me laugh. I cover my mouth with the turtleneck of my sweater.

    Carson Brezky glances at me over the top of his menu. “You never know these days,” he says. “People these days. . .” He shakes his head, then reaches into the breast pocket of his Hawaiian shirt and extracts a pair of reading glasses, which he perches on his nose.

    I’m scared I’ll have to order first, and I’ll order more than he orders, and then he’ll know that my appetite is the appetite of a rock climber who just scaled a mountain, not of a twenty-two-year-old girl who weighs one hundred ten pounds. What is a normal order of sushi for one person? One roll? Two? I think of Dr. Rose showing me with her fingers how big one serving is. Not much bigger than a couple of quarters. My palms start to sweat.

    But when the waitress returns to the table, Carson Brezky orders for both of us, and what he orders doesn’t sound like enough food for one person, let alone for two. But it’s okay, I can eat something later, I can go to King Sooper and buy as much food as I want, as long as I get through this dinner first, like a normal person.

    The sake comes in a white porcelain vase. Carson Brezky fills two tiny mugs, lifts his (I lift mine), and says, “Kampai!” without actually clinking my mug with his. He pours his sake down his throat. I do the same. I’ve never had sake before. It tastes like a bad imitation of wine. Carson Brezky immediately fills both mugs again. “Kampai!” he says, and I’m careful this time to clink our mugs together.

    “You like it?” he asks.

    “Yes,” I say. My face feels warm.

    “In Japan,” he says, “they also drink vodka with dinner. Ever had straight vodka on ice?”

    “Yes,” I say, which isn’t true, but I’m not sure whether or not normal people have had vodka on ice, so I just guess.

    “Really?” he says. “Well, in Japan, they drink sweet potato vodka. You’d think you’d died and gone to heaven.”

    Died and gone to heaven. It’s something only an old person would say. It sounds off-key in this dimly lit college-town sushi bar, where even the sushi chefs are college students, where everyone wears black, where a DJ stands near the bathrooms playing techno music.

    Carson Brezky flags down a waitress who isn’t ours and asks if she has sweet potato vodka. When she says no, he settles for Grey Goose. “Two,” he says. “On the rocks.”

    “On the rocks,” I say, giggling. “Funny coming from you.”

    “Why?”

    “Well . . .” I giggle again. “Rocks?”

    Carson Brezky looks confused, then attempts a smile, and I realize that I just thought out loud. “I might get drunk,” I say quickly, by way of apology.

    “You won’t get drunk,” Carson Brezky says. “The food will keep you grounded. Relax, Lissa. Let me show you a good time, okay? You think old men don’t know how to have a good time?” He chuckles the way someone else’s father might.

    I take a deep breath and try to look relaxed. Of course, I have no idea how to feel relaxed on command, just as it eludes me at work when some male customer says, “Smile,” or “Turn that frown upside-down.” Sure, I can smile, but what’s the point if it doesn’t make me feel happy? What is it with men? Why do they care so much about how you look on the outside?

    “So,” Carson Brezky says, leaning back in his chair and steepling his hands. I wonder if they’re typical rock-climbing hands. J.D. rock climbs. Actually, he talks about rock climbing, but I’m not sure if he really does it, or really does anything besides get drunk enough to throw his cell phone into Boulder Creek or steal a shopping cart from the Safeway parking lot, but either way, his hands are big and strong, whereas Carson Brezky’s are sort of delicate. Hairy, but delicate. “Do you like waiting tables?”

    “Like it?” I laugh.

    I don’t know what to say. I wish I liked waiting tables, because if I hate my job, I’m no different from Libby, who works every day wedged into a cubicle like a letter in a mail slot, and cries about it to Dr. Rose, who tells her she’s self-defeating because if she hates it so much, she should quit. Besides, I took the job at Sugar’s because I wanted to like it, wanted to be the kind of person who could be a cocktail waitress among college students, who could talk to customers and blend into the crush of people, as if someone’s shoulder accidentally bumping mine were as insignificant as the cigarette butts I sweep from the sidewalk; as if I felt at ease with people who hug and sling their arms around each other’s necks. Same way every year of college, I put my name in the random roommate lottery and hoped and hoped and hoped for friends, for a different kind of year from the one before; then hoped when I met J.D. that I could be the kind of girl whose boyfriend took her out to dinner, the kind of girl who could share a dessert with her boyfriend without acting like she was competing with him. I even called my health insurance company as soon as I got home from the lake that first day, and signed up for day treatment three times a week at the Center. But J.D. never took me out to dinner, and now he never will. He’ll just stand in Georgia’s orchards, while she feeds him succulent peaches.

    “Lissa,” Carson Brezky says, “tell me what you’re hoping for.”

    “Hoping for?”

    Nearby, girls on stools pound on the sushi bar with their fists. Each of them has a glass of beer with chopsticks balanced on the rim, and a sake mug balanced on the chopsticks. The pounding makes the mugs fall between the chopsticks into the beers. They each drink the whole glass with the sake inside, then erupt into cheers. It’s not Georgia and her friends, but it may as well be—a row of graceful necks and beautiful jewelry. The sight of them depresses me.

    “I don’t hope for much,” I say.

    “I mean with me,” Carson Brezky says. “What were you hoping for when you called me? When you agreed to have dinner with me?”

    The waitress brings us our vodka and Carson Brezky orders more sake.

    I glance at the girls at the bar again, then back at Carson Brezky, who seems older than ever. Do those girls think he’s my father? Do they make assumptions about me, a girl out to dinner with her father on a perfectly good party night? “I wasn’t hoping for anything,” I say.

    “No?” Carson Brezky looks disappointed. He leans toward me, so close I see flecks in his gray eyes like liver spots. “This is the human condition,” he says, flicking his gaze from my face to my breasts. It happens so quickly, the glance, I think I imagined it. But then he does it again. “We can’t be honest.”

    “You and me?”

    “People,” he says. “In general. We all walk around lying to each other.”

    His eyes are latched to mine like fish hooks. I have a flash of terror that maybe he’s a stalker, that he knows more about me than I think. “I don’t lie,” I say.

    The vodka arrives. Carson Brezky drinks his whole glass at once. I follow suit. My head is spinning.

    “I think it’s more like you don’t talk,” he says.

    I look at the girls at the bar. They’re all leaning on each other’s shoulders, snaking their arms across each other’s backs. One of them is playing with another one’s red hair. “I love you,” the first one says. “I’m obsessed with you,” the redhead replies.

    When our food arrives, I decide not to eat any of it. If I start—and this I know, this I’m sure of—I won’t be able to stop. Under the table, I touch the roll of flesh above the button of my jeans. I touch the place where my thighs meet, then cross one leg over the other.

    “Eat,” Carson Brezky says. “Eat, eat.”

    “I had a big lunch,” I say, thinking of the Honey Bunches of Oats, the box that belonged to my roommate, Sheryl, with whom I’ve been living for fourteen months and have barely exchanged ten words. I started in on the cereal innocently enough, then finished it, then went to the store to replace it, then finished the new box. I went to three different grocery stores, bought three different boxes. Carson Brezky has no idea how big my lunch was.

    He pours sake down his throat like water. I try to keep up. Across the table, he almost seems to grow taller and wider, like one of those spongy seahorses children keep in goldfish bowls. It occurs to me in a great rush of affection that he’s not a stalker. I’m just acting guarded, like Dr. Rose says. Carson Brezky is incredibly fun. I tell him so.

    “Thanks,” he says, reaching across the table to brush my cheek with the backs of his fingers. “That’s what people tell me. But it’s refreshing to hear it from a youngster.”

    “A youngster?” I start to laugh and can’t stop. I laugh into the turtleneck of my sweater, until Carson Brezky reaches for me again and pulls my hand away.

    “You’re beautiful when you laugh,” he says. “You shouldn’t hide it.”

    I remember Dr. Rose’s prediction that someone will give me the love I deserve. I wonder if Carson Brezky is falling in love with me. I wonder if I’ll ever love anyone who isn’t J.D.

    “Those girls,” I say, pointing to the bar. “They’re bitches.”

    Carson Brezky glances at them. “You know them?”

    “Nope,” I say. “Don’t have to.”

    “Maybe they make you feel insecure.” Deftly, Carson Brezky clasps a tuna roll with his chopsticks and lifts it to his lips. “Otherwise,” he says, swallowing and wiping his mouth with his napkin, “you wouldn’t have to say that about them. You think they’re talking about you? Saying mean things about you?”

    I think of the girls from my freshman dorm, girls like the girls at the sushi bar, girls like Georgia, whom I hoped for four years would notice me, befriend me. Girls who didn’t know each other any better than I did at the beginning of freshman year, but somehow, mysteriously, united within a few weeks, walking into each other’s rooms without knocking, sitting together in the cafeteria, a whole knot of friends that I couldn’t untangle.

    “Are you going to make me a star?” I ask.

    “I wish you wouldn’t ask that,” Carson Brezky says. He looks hurt, but not genuinely hurt. More like a guy whose drama teacher told him to make a hurt face. “I don’t want you to be just like everyone else,” he says.

    I feel his knees press against mine beneath the table. They’re bony knees. The bones make me sad. How sad that everyone is like everyone else, that Carson Brezky has a body like all other bodies, that needs to be filled up and emptied out. Sad that Carson Brezky tries to portray himself as exotic, that he chose a sushi restaurant because he thought it would impress me, like saying “kampai” instead of “cheers.” But really, all it’s done is remind me of the depressing fact that everyone in the world, even in Japan, has to eat. People love food better than they love each other.

    Twenty minutes later, the hood of Carson Brezky’s rental car is cold against the backs of my thighs. I sit perched like a goddess sculpture on a ship’s prow, and he stands between my knees, his mouth on my mouth, his rock-climber hands in my hair. I can feel his whiskers, so unlike J.D.’s smooth face. His tongue tastes like soy sauce. Now his hands are on my hips, on my back, on my breasts.

    “Let’s go,” he says. “I have a great room at the Boulderado.”

    I pull away and hiccup, look into Carson Brezky’s liver-spotted eyes, and I see a man who isn’t J.D., with whom I’m doing one more thing that I can’t tell J.D. about. He’s staring at me, seeing me as J.D. never does, in full color. I imagine myself lying on top of him in the Boulderado, suffocating him with my weight. I slide away from him, vodka and sake and emptiness roiling in my stomach. Carson Brezky won’t bring me closer to J.D., or replace J.D., or even distract me from J.D. He’ll only make me hungrier for him.

    “I have to go,” I slur, and I hop off his car. “I totally forgot. I’m meeting my friends.”

    “Now?”

    “We’re going out for mudslides,” I say, backing away. “It’s a tradition. I can’t miss it. It’s like, this big deal. They’d kill me if— But thank you,” I say. “It was nice to meet you.”

    I walk away, and then I start to run, and I hear him calling after me, but I don’t turn or slow down. It occurs to me as the gap between us widens that he doesn’t stick to me the way J.D. does. J.D. clings to me like a hug, whether he’s there or not.

    I know J.D.’s not working tonight. I run the whole mile to his house, and arrive panting and sweating. I want to show myself to him, to make him see me, to break the cycle of gorging myself on him at night, then feeling empty all day. This filling up and emptying out—it has to stop at some point.

    I knock. No one answers. I go around the side of the house to his bedroom window. I knock and press my ear to it. The glass is cold on my face. I hear a sleepy groan through the pane. J.D. slits the blinds and looks out.

    “Lissa?”

    I pull my face away from the glass.

    “Go around to the front,” he says, gesturing with a finger.

    I hiccup, and stumble back toward the front of the house, tripping on rubber dog toys. For a second, I wonder if I should leave, run to King Sooper, to the bakery aisle with the nameless birthday cakes, or run home, let J.D. think he dreamed me at his window, but even as I think these things, I know they’re not options. I can’t do anything but be at J.D.’s house.

    He opens the door wearing plaid flannel pants and a T-shirt that says Lloyd and Roberta’s Wedding. His dog is barking behind him, wagging his tail, delighted. J.D. looks confused. “What are you doing here? Did you have dinner with Carson Brezky?”

    “Can I come in?”

    “Well.” J.D. glances behind him.

    I step over the threshold, smell the familiar smell of pasta and stale marijuana smoke. I step closer to J.D. and bury my head in his broad chest.

    “Are you okay?” he asks, but he doesn’t put his arms around me.

    “I have to tell you something,” I say, breathing him in, grabbing two fistfuls of his T-shirt. “It’s a secret.”

    “Are you wasted?” he asks.

    I nod against the soft fabric, my forehead pressed to Lloyd’s and Roberta’s silk-screened faces.

    “Come in and sit,” he says. “Look at you. Getting drunk with Carson Brezky.”

    “Listen,” I say, letting him guide me to the dog hair-covered couch. He sits beside me. I want him to sit on top of me. I want to cave beneath him. “I have to tell you something.”

    “What?”

    I don’t answer for a minute.

    “You don’t have to . . .” he says.

    “I do have to. This is the human condition, my not telling you. I should tell you things.” I take a deep breath. “I’m . . . sick,” I say, and then I’m crying, unable to stop. I drop my face into my hands. Usually, I can feel tears coming, but this time, they hit as suddenly as an explosion. I wonder if J.D. can tell that I’m different now, can tell that I kissed Carson Brezky. I wonder if he knows that, in my mind, Carson Brezky will always stand between us, invisibly, like one of those dog-shocking fences, because even though I know that J.D. has been with lots of girls, and even though he has no idea that he was my first and probably wouldn’t care, and even though he likes Georgia now and not me, I still wish that J.D. was my one and only.

    I feel him move away from me. The dog jumps onto the couch and licks my hand.

    “What . . . what do you mean?” J.D. asks. “Sick. Like . . . you have an STD?” He stands up and the weight on the couch shifts, so I’m sinking into the cushions, as if into quicksand. I raise my head. He’s wiping his palms on his flannel pants and looking down at me like I’m a great big communicable disease, sitting on his couch, threatening his sex life.

    “No,” I say. “My god.” I stand, and feel like my knees are going to give out. I grab hold of the arm of the couch.

    J.D. pushes his fingers into his hair as if to keep his head from bursting. “Do you have . . . cancer?”

    “Cancer?” I step toward him on wobbly legs and reach for him again. I can’t tell him now. Bulimia sounds petty, held up beside cancer. It’s like telling someone, proudly, to guess how many miles you ran, and they say ten, and then you have to admit that you only ran three. “I don’t have cancer,” I say.

    J.D. knots his big arms tightly across his chest, and glances over his shoulder again. Then he looks at me, his brow crinkled. “Will you be okay?”

    “Oh,” I say, opening and closing my fists at my side. “Yeah, I’m a tough girl.” A tough girl? Did I really just say that?

    J.D. moves around me toward the front door. He opens it. From the warm light of his house, the outside looks impossibly dark. I take a step toward him. Even though he’s not touching me, he’s pushing me back. I can’t reach him.

    The dog jumps off the couch and waddles toward me. I kneel down and stroke the dog’s head, bury my face in the fur of his neck. When I glance up, J.D. is watching me like I’m an old home movie.

    “Rocko loves you better than anyone, you know,” he says. There’s a little tremble in his voice, a plucked guitar string.

    And then I’m outside, and J.D.’s inside, and there’s so much darkness, I can’t even see my own empty hands.

    *

    Thursday morning, there’s a whooshing, rattling windstorm, the kind you don’t see outside of Boulder, where Dumpsters turn over and trees fall on cars. The North Boulder Center for Eating Disorder Recovery is trembling, and there’s an urgent whistling sound, like we’re inside a teakettle. Dr. Rose is looking out the window as she says to us, “There’s something I have to tell you girls.” She interlaces her fingers in the lap of her long gray skirt, and closes her eyes. “It’s about Estelle.”

    “Oh my god!” Libby shrieks. “Is she dead?”

    Dr. Rose opens her eyes and turns to Libby. She frowns. “No.”

    Libby blinks rapidly, her fingers splayed across her lips.

    “Libby,” Dr. Rose says. “Take a deep breath. No one said anything about dead.”

    Rhonda snorts.

    “I spoke with Estelle’s brother,” Dr. Rose says. “Libby, breathe.”

    “What did he say?” Rhonda asks.

    Dr. Rose turns from Libby to Rhonda. “Estelle seems to be missing. She went to her brother’s house Sunday morning. She acted like nothing was wrong, then . . . just . . .” Dr. Rose flings her arm out to the side “ . . . disappeared. She’s gone. Nothing’s missing from her apartment. There’s no sign of a struggle . . . .”

    Libby gasps and bursts into tears. Dr. Rose pats her on the back. “It’s my fault,” Libby wails. “I was going to call her when she stopped coming, but I took it personally. If I had just called her . . .”

    Rhonda rolls her eyes. “Real tasteful, Lib,” she says. “Let’s make this your problem.”

    “We’ll still have a regular day,” Dr. Rose says. “Estelle wouldn’t want us to stop our lives on her account.”

    Actually, she probably would. She’d enjoy knowing that we were worrying about her, that Libby was having a hysterical fit, that we were all feeling (whether privately or publicly) guilty. I think of her sitting beside Georgia at J.D.’s bar—Estelle like a hopeful, shriveled, purple birthday party balloon, and Georgia and J.D. like sleek silver needles, ready to pop her.

    “We’ll make cards for her,” Dr. Rose says. “For half an hour. And then we’ll start our day. All right?”

    “Where will we send the cards?” Rhonda asks.

    Dr. Rose hesitates, unsure. “To her apartment. Maybe she’ll come back and find them. Maybe they’ll convince her to stay.”

    “All right,” Libby sniffles, wiping at her face with her wrist, and curling up into a ball at the end of the couch. Outside, a branch breaks off a tree and slams itself against the window like an unsuspecting bird. “At least we don’t have to be outside today,” Libby says.

    She and Rhonda start making cards with magic markers and construction paper. I spread Estelle’s art therapy paintings out around me, and copy excerpts from my food journal onto the paintings with colored pencils. Today I ate fourteen Cadbury Eggs. . . . J.D. counted my ribs this morning and I liked it. . . . Maybe I’ll go snowshoeing this winter. Maybe with J.D.?

    Rhonda keeps stealing glances at my open journal. On her card, she has written, Estelle, get your skinny ass back to treatment. She catches my eye and asks me, “Do you remember that story Estelle told us? How when she was hospitalized for dehydration, she and all the other anorexics played strip poker?”

    Libby giggles without looking up from her card.

    “Yeah,” I say. “They were naked, except some of them had feeding tubes.”

    “Oh, goodness,” says Dr. Rose, dropping her face into her hand.

    “I always think of Estelle’s story about the parade,” I say. “Where she was on that float. . . .”

    “Wearing a tiara!” Rhonda shrieks. “And someone tried to steal it!” She giggles into her hands. “That had to be a lie,” she says, shaking her head at me.

    “You know,” Libby chimes in, “Estelle wanted to disappear.”

    Rhonda and I stop laughing. We’re quiet now. We start working on our cards again, the only sounds in the room the swish and scratch of markers and pencils on paper, and the loud static of the wind outside. Finally, Rhonda says, “Who brought Debbie Downer?”

    “I’m just saying!” Libby says. “God! Can’t I talk? This is therapy.”

    Dr. Rose lets out a heavy sigh. “Is that really what you girls want?” she asks. “To disappear?” She’s massaging her temples with the heels of her hands. “You know better than that, don’t you?” she says, and something pushes hard against my chest from inside.

    On a whim, I reach for Rhonda’s hand and cover it with my own. Her skin is cool and dry like frog skin. The bones of her fingers tense in my palm, but I don’t let go. “I like your ring,” I tell her. It’s a mood ring, the cheap kind from the mall that leaves a green reminder of itself on the flesh. “It’s cute,” I say. The word feels funny in my mouth, like it doesn’t belong to me. It’s a word Georgia and her friends use: How cute are you! Oh my God, nothing has ever been cuter.

    “What kind of mood are you in?” Libby asks. She sets her marker down and moves closer to us.

    This time, Rhonda doesn’t snap at her. “Something mild,” she says. “Something gray. I’m in between.”

    Libby touches the stone with one skinny, nail-bitten finger, and we’re all touching it, the three of us, like women consulting a crystal ball.

    With her free hand, Rhonda smoothes her skirt around her wide legs. “I’m just wearing it for fun. I don’t believe in it,” she says. “Anyway, it’s not magical. The changes have to do with body heat. Contact.”

    “Can I try it?” I ask.

    “Then me,” Libby says.

    Rhonda pulls the ring off and slides it onto my index finger. “It’ll change colors,” she says, and we all watch it, even Dr. Rose. “Just give it a minute,” Rhonda says.

    I sit perfectly still, hardly breathing, listening to the wind storm. Once, during another storm like this one, I was on the Pearl Street pedestrian mall, and I watched a vendor cover her eyes and scream as her jewelry cart tipped over and slid across the cobblestone. I almost went to her to help, but I felt too shy. The person who went instead was a man with a long ponytail and sturdy-looking sandals. As they scurried around, rescuing tiny silver toe rings and crystals strung on leather thongs, they kept meeting eyes, smiling at each other, and I watched their fingers touch as the man put things in her hands.

    The wind was blowing so hard, everyone else on Pearl Street was running for shelter, eyes down, heads tucked into hoods, but I stopped and watched the two strangers, who weren’t going to be strangers anymore, who were going to go somewhere warm together for coffee and watch the storm, and then on a sunnier day take a drive up Flagstaff into the mountains and have a picnic. It was the beginning of college, and I remember thinking I could go back to the dorm and knock on someone’s door, ask someone to go to the cafeteria with me for dinner.

    “It’s changing,” Rhonda says. “Do you see that?”

    I look down at my hand. The wind cheers in the spruce trees. I am thinking of all the colors I know. I am waiting to become them.

    *

    “Proximity” © Diana Spechler. Used by permission of the author. “Proximity” also appears in the Summer 2009 issue of Glimmer Train—catch her there!

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