Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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That summer I had been reading Steppenwolf, and at night I walked around town in cutoffs and a Hawaiian shirt, thinking about despair, not sure if I was actually in it myself, and one Friday night, on a whim, I ended up at J.P. Bullfeathers on Elmwood Avenue, where I drank draft beer at the bar and watched a dull boxing match on the muted TV above the cash register. Waitresses hurried by with steak tacos and chicken wings for the bikers on the patio. At 11:30, just as I was leaving, my old friends Cheryl and Carlos rolled in, drunk and laughing, with funny stories to tell, so I hung out with them, drinking beer and throwing plastic darts. Around midnight a troupe of modern dancers flapped into the bar like tropical birds that had migrated to the Rust Belt by mistake. They were still in their stage costumes — flowing dresses and head wraps — and I saw a guy I knew, John Cogan, grinning in the midst of them. The women disappeared into the back room, where there were tables, and John and I shook hands, stood by the front windows, and talked shit about The Cracked Bowl, a tiny local journal we’d both had poems published in, and after a while one of the dancers came up to him and said, “John, we’re all waiting for you in the back. We’re going to order food soon,” and he said OK, then he introduced me to Hallie. Buffalo is not a big city, and I had seen her around on Elmwood Avenue — long straight copper hair and a pale lovely face and a nose ring and skinny arms and legs and a walk that at times seemed more like hopping — and I had read a poem of hers in The Cracked Bowl, back when I used to study each issue in secret devotion, praying that someday a poem of mine would appear in it. So when John said, “Do you know Hallie Bang? She had a poem in the Bowl a while ago,” I said, “Yes, I know,” and recited a few lines for her on the spot. I remembered it, I don’t know why. She stared at me, frowned, and said nothing, then returned to her friends. An hour later I was pounding tequila shots with Cheryl and Carlos when Hallie came out of the back room, plopped down on a stool near me, and ordered a beer. We started shouting at each other over the music. Hallie flailed her hands and laughed as she talked, gray-green eyes, nose ring glinting, and I wanted to get her phone number, but she took off while I was in the men’s room. Later that week there was a reading for the latest issue of Portrait, and I was scooping some fruit chunks onto my paper plate, and John Cogan said, “You’re popular all of a sudden. Two women have been asking about you,” and I said, “Is one of them Hallie Bang?” and he said, “Yeah,” and I said, “Then I don’t care who the other one is.” I read my crappy poem that night, one that had taken me two years to write, and then John, Hallie Bang, her roommate Annie, and I went to the Old Pink to get drunk. We shot a few games of pool, and I told a story that made Hallie spit her vodka tonic onto Annie, laughing, but when John offered me a ride home with them, I declined. They all piled into his Monte Carlo, and I started heading back to my apartment on Lafayette and Grant, a half-hour walk. John slowed his rumbling car beside me. “You don’t want a ride, man? Hop in.” Hallie and Annie looked out at me from the passenger-side windows. I shook my head. “Thanks, anyway!” Now I understand that I was painting a confusing picture of myself in Hallie’s eyes — a man walking home alone with a depressing novel in the baggy pocket of his bermudas — but the truth is I was insecure and could conceal my awkwardness for only a few hours at a time. I had to get away from them, I thought, before I blew it and turned into a monster of unease. I went home that night and talked about this odd, brilliant, beautiful Hallie Bang to my roommate. There wasn’t much to say — I didn’t know her — but I managed to talk a lot. He yawned and wondered why the hell I hadn’t gotten her phone number. I was twenty-two years old and still couldn’t recognize when a woman was attracted to me. Any signs of encouragement were imaginary, I believed, just wishful thinking on my part and not to be acted upon. About a week later Hallie called me up and asked me out for coffee. That night I had plans with Jodi, the stoner who lived on the first floor of my building, but I said yes to Hallie anyway — hence our future joke that we both dumped our Jodis for each other. Her Jodi was actually named Steve. We agreed to meet at Pano’s, a Greek diner on Elmwood: four greasy booths and a cracked counter with nine squeaky stools. Intimate, grubby, perfect. I arrived first and tried to read my book, but I was too keyed up to concentrate. Then Hallie meandered in twenty minutes late, glowing in bright colors — orange and green and purple. Her clothes looked like they’d been knitted by a blind person. She wore a scarf on her head and yellow combat boots, and I would give anything to experience that same fear and elation again, the feeling that we were starting something new together. Hallie drank her coffee black, one sugar, but she peeled back the lids of two half-and-half containers and tossed them down her throat as if they were shots of whiskey and she were a sailor on shore leave. I laughed. “What?” she said. “You’ve never done this before? It tastes like melted vanilla ice cream.” She made me take a shot and watched my reaction. “Like melted vanilla ice cream,” I said. “Right!” she said. “That’s what I think, too.” I ordered chicken souvlaki and Hallie got a buttered pita bulging with scrambled eggs and feta cheese. Halfway through the meal I ran out to buy a bottle of red wine at the liquor store down the street. While we ate, people kept coming up to the table and talking to Hallie. Every time it happened, I had a mouth full of souvlaki. She introduced me to Yousouff, Suki, Elise, Dagoberto, Amy. I couldn’t keep the names straight. Even the short-order cook acknowledged her with a nod and sent over a flaky brick of baklava. “Where do you know all these people from?” I asked her. Not one person had come up to the table to talk to me. Hallie shrugged and said she hadn’t thought about it before. She lived in a small world full of people who loved her, people who made squealing noises when they saw her. Nobody received more hugs in a day than Hallie Bang. Our waitress, who also knew Hallie from somewhere, didn’t seem to care that we sat there for two hours drinking and even gave us empty coffee mugs for our wine. So I bought a second bottle and poured a mug for the waitress, who hid hers under the counter. When I paid for our meals, I left a 100 percent tip, pretending money wasn’t an issue. Money was definitely an issue for me. Outside Pano’s a palm reader sat behind a card table, and I paid for two readings. I can’t remember a single thing the fortuneteller said, though I do remember tipping her five bucks before Hallie and I wandered in the general direction of her apartment. Whether the creases in our palms had correctly predicted our futures or not, I couldn’t imagine a better purpose at that moment for my right paw and its elaborate framework of bones, muscles, and nerves than when it grasped Hallie’s small hand, linking us for four blocks while we practically skipped down the sidewalk. Outside her apartment I said good night and offered her a hug. “Really?” Hallie said. “That’s what we’re doing? Try again.” So I pressed her up against the wall and kissed her. When our tongues met, her hands rummaged beneath my shirt, her hot fingers on my lower back. I kissed her neck just under her ear, both of my hands in her hair, and then I followed her up the creaking wooden stairs to her fourth-floor apartment. Her mattress was under a dormer window in the living room. Her roommate, Annie, slept in the apartment’s one bedroom, which you had to pass through to use the slant-ceilinged bathroom, and everywhere on the hardwood floor and the cluttered countertops were the props of their interesting lives: paintings on canvas and wood, stretcher bars and sketches, tackle boxes filled with charcoals and pencils, books, a cheap acoustic guitar missing its low E string, cracked pottery, and dirty plates. “Who plays guitar?” I asked. Hallie grabbed the back of my head and kissed me. She sucked on my lower lip and pushed me against the couch and straddled my hips. I had been with only one girl before, my high-school girlfriend, but this felt different to me. I scooped Hallie up — her body vined around mine, her arms wrapped around my neck, her ankles crossed behind my thighs — and I carried her across the room and flung her down on the lumpy mattress. We undressed each other. She bit my shoulder, hard. When I kissed her belly and continued to descend, she took hold of my head and almost tore off my ears, bucking her hips into my face, and I thought, Tear them off. I don’t need ears. I don’t need eyes. You can break my nose, because I want to feel it all, and I’m staying right here until you’ve had enough. Her breathing turned crazy. Finally she rolled away from me, twitching, before turning back again. She climbed on top of me and guided me into her. Then she jabbed the heels of her hands so hard into my shoulders, and she rocked, her eyes closed, thinking whatever. I held on to her. Eventually her eyes popped open, and she looked down, as if she was surprised to see me there. When she lowered her face to mine, I thought she might ask me who I was. Instead she kissed my cheek, my neck, where I felt her breath, her tongue and lips, and for the first time I trusted that there might be something real between us, but I couldn’t quite say yet what it was. Afterward I wound a strand of copper hair around my wrist while she talked about her half sister, and I could hear the way she felt about the people she loved. The only downside to any of this was her jealous cat, General Sow. He patrolled the perimeter of the apartment like a sadistic prison guard hoping that one of his inmates would step out of line. More than once I turned to find this fat cat stalking me, creeping up on me to slash my balls with his dagger claws while I lay naked in bed. But I made it through the night without injury, and the following morning Hallie and Annie sang and played guitar, and I knew then that they could cut an album if they’d only write more songs, but they had five songs, that was it, and they were beautiful, and we spent another day in bed while Annie worked her shift at the co-op, and that evening when Hallie made dinner she asked me to help and I didn’t know what to do with an eggplant, but I faked it and maybe it was endearing, who knows, and we started spending whole days together, loitering on Allen Street or in the park, and when it got too hot outdoors we crashed at her place, listening to her Phoebe Snow and Roberta Flack albums and napping in that bed under the whooshing trees. A road crew showed up outside her apartment every morning at 8 AM, causing Hallie to whisper in my ear, “Oh, the chirping of the jackhammers fills my heart with joy.” Sometimes Hallie knew what I was thinking before I did, recognized when I was wandering off into the wilds of my mind, second-guessing myself — “turning into a pretzel,” she called it. She would poke her finger against my forehead and say, “Dzzzzt,” as if to change the frequency of my brain waves, a perfect gesture that never failed to bring me back to the present. “My parents were lunatics, Hallie. Totally incompetent. Why did they even have kids?” Dzzzzt. Finger to the forehead. “Look at this, babe. I’m definitely going bald.” Dzzzzt. Right between the eyes. It’s no small thing to say why you love someone. I have always thought it a worthy goal, however impossible. Sometimes Hallie counted my ribs or compared the circumferences of our thighs with her hands. Constant physical contact, breath-sniffing closeness, seemed crucial to her. Four days a week I rode my bike to work thinking of Hallie Bang and the things she said, and all day I couldn’t wait to get back to her apartment, where there was no TV, so we played Hallie-invented games like “Wear It!” which meant you had to heap as many items on your body as you could, including T-shirts, sweaters, winter coats, scarves, clip-on key chains, clothes hangers, and whatever else was within reach. Other nights we sat cross-legged on her bed in our underwear and played card games like Crazy Eights, or I read my favorite authors to her, and then we looked at her penis sculpture for a while, which was always followed by intense, ardent sex — sweat shining on sunburned skin, her sheets braided on the floor — and Hallie knocked on Annie’s door once, saying, “We’re going for a walk now,” and Annie joked back, “Can you guys walk after that?” and we headed toward Delaware Park and got stuck in the rain and it didn’t matter and the smell of grass is in my mind now and I’m sniffing the air as if I can still smell that summer and I have never wanted anyone to love me more than I wanted her to. In July she went to North Carolina to dance at the American Dance Festival, but we talked on the phone almost every day, and one weekend I flew into Raleigh-Durham Airport to surprise her and rode around Duke University campus in a green-and-white cab for thirty minutes until I found the address she had given me, where I hurled peppermints at her window in the run-down building where she was staying with five other dancers, and for two nights we shared a mummy bag on the cement floor until I was politely told to leave by a stern, gray-haired woman named Mrs. Turco. That August Annie went to Chicago for graduate school, so Hallie moved into my apartment and we cooked meals together and drank coffee at midnight and walked around town, and she pointed at things and made up stories about them, and once when I came home from work on my bike, she had organized the neighborhood kids to ambush me with water pistols, and they piled out of bushes and nearby garages and drenched me to the skin while Hallie sat watching from our porch and laughed, and I began to think about marriage and children of our own, thoughts that didn’t scare me at all, and I gave her two drawers in my dresser and half my closet, and we had sex everywhere in that apartment — on the floor, in the shower, in my bed, on my roommate’s bed — and we lived in three more places together, two in Brooklyn and a hovel in Paris, where she had a difficult abortion, not wanting to jeopardize her dancing career, a decision I supported, and I took a job at a bar called Le Violon Dingue, where I drank for free every night and got paid under the table, and she fell in with a different crowd, the two of us staying out nights, lying to each other, bored with each other, fighting about nothing, until one morning we passed each other in the kitchen like any two strangers on Elmwood Avenue might, and that was that.
Greg Ames’s writing is raw and, at the same time, eloquent. I read his short story “Hallie Bang” [April 2017] four times.