Every Friday night we will feature a short story, essay, personal narrative,
poem, spoken word, or short film for your enjoyment.
Helen Presents: a short story from Jennifer Gravley
Hot guys always have long hair, like Jesus. I tell Chloe this, have been telling her for months, but she never listens. Kris has short hair, and she thinks his being in a band makes it okay.
She says he’s going to write a song for her, Let It Chlo or Chlo Job or Punk-Ass Girlfriend.
I say he’s a drummer.
She says like you wouldn’t believe. She runs her hands over the pillow she has in her lap, pink like everything in her room.
I say I’m going to go clean the bathroom, right after I vomit. Chloe cooks, and I clean, and since we moved into a two-bedroom after graduation, we get along.
Luke calls and says he’s finished another piece.
When I get there, it’s not really finished. He glues stuff to canvases, CD cases, WWJD bracelets, ballpoint pens, used tissues, and paints black all over it. His dad says he has until he’s twenty-five to find himself, and then he’s cutting off the rent and food money.
I tell Luke it’s not black.
He tells me he hasn’t painted it yet. He wanted me to see it first. He’s never let anyone this into his head. He’s exposing himself, his art to me.
I say I don’t get it. Why paint over any of them then, ever? And why show me this one now? He always tells me what all’s under there anyway.
He says that’s it. He’s always wanted to let me in, and today when he woke up, he realized he really wants me in. He wants me underneath.
I look at the canvas again, thinking I should say something specific about something he’s glued on, but I can’t think of anything profound about a grape Kool-Aid packet and a cat collar, so I just say it’s nice. I never get it, but the paint leaves these little spots of black on his hands.
Luke smiles and calls me poet girl and pulls me into his bedroom and pushes me face down onto his boy sheets. I stay the whole night.
Chloe’s cooking a vat of spaghetti for the four of us when I come in from this week’s temp job. She says she can’t remember the last time we all actually ate at the table, but she can. It was two weeks ago.
I kick my closed-toe heels at her and go through to take off my phone-answering suit. I only have one of Chloe’s hand-me-downs, so I have to be careful. If I wore it for even five minutes around the apartment, there’d be no telling what spilled all over it, and I don’t take it to be cleaned that often. I yell at her that she’s turning into her mother.
She says it’s not so bad.
I throw on a t-shirt and sneak up behind her at the stove. With a drummer?
She says she wouldn’t mind being her mother with a drummer. I can tell she’s getting too serious, her ass swinging as she stirs the noodles.
I ask if Kris proposed or something.
She says no but looks dreamy, like she’s thinking caramel.
I have to break Chloe and Kris up. I think about it in the shower. She isn’t listening to me about the hair.
It shouldn’t be too hard. She likes boys. Boys like her. All I have to do is put her and some boys in the same room and watch them go.
I think about Cliff from the bar who likes to whack girls’ asses with pool sticks, his limp blonde hair falling thinly down to his shoulders. I imagine him with Chloe, her head with its short dark hair against his shoulder, but then as I’m putting the soap back up onto the pinks hower caddy, I figure his being named after a dangerous promontory is a bad sign. Boys like that always turn out good, tithing and weed-eating around the edge of the lawn.
So Gregg with that extra g at the end like his parents didn’t know when to stop. Jena’s always trying to fix him up with someone else so he’ll stop driving by her parents’ every night. No one who graduated high school in 1993 can resist a brown cloud of hair halfway down a skinny boy’s back. Maybe Chloe will go for him for a while—he’s in a band and everything, plays something unmanly like the trumpet or the triangle.
As I’m toweling, I hear her singing in the kitchen, her own song, something then spaghetti repeated five times. She’s taken such a serious turn lately, maybe I’d better bring out the big guns if I’m going to bring out any at all, something to knock those picket-fenced visions out of her, like a perverted redhead. There’s Angelina’s cousin who wouldn’t tell me his real name at her birthday party, kept telling me to call him “Red” even though he’d dyed the hair on his head black. That’s what Chloe needs: the halogen-lighted glare of red hair and red freckles and red moles against white skin and pink comforter. She won’t be so glad to be boiling spaghetti for the rest of her life after that.
Kris gets here first, so I have to talk to him while Chloe dances with herself in the kitchen. I stand by the CD player for a long time, swinging my own ass, thinking there may be another way to go about the problem.
Kris says to put on the mix tape he made for Chloe for her birthday.
I say I can’t find it because I don’t want to have to listen to it again. Chloe’s been playing it like a new Alice in Chains album for the last two months. But Kris sees it when I swing my ass to the right, and I have to put it on.
Luke doesn’t come until we’re sitting down at the table. When I let him in, his hair is shorter, now just barely below his shoulders. He hugs me like nothing’s happened, and we sit and eat with the lovebirds. I can hardly bear to have his right elbow bumping into my left one, but I try to concentrate on one problem at a time. I try to smile at Kris between each bite, but he’s paying no attention to me, just keeps looking at Chloe, telling her how great the sauce is.
I tell him it’s Prego, straight from the jar.
Luke asks Kris how his band is coming along.
Kris says they’re thinking about throwing a concert at the new lead singer Michael’s house in a month or two.
I can’t imagine a concert at a house.
He says it’s maybe more like a party, a backyard party with beer, and they’ll play.
I ask what their name is again.
Chloe says I know what their name is. Deconstruction Fantasies.
Luke asks if I wasn’t there when they came up with it.
I was. I ask Kris how many milkshakes he made today. I ask him what Deconstruction Fantasies’ plan to make it to the big time is.
In my room, Luke asks me what I’m doing.
I don’t know what he means.
He says I shouldn’t try to break them up. Why would I want that, anyway?
I don’t know who I’m trying to break up.
Don’t I want Chloe to be happy?
Of course I do. Of course I only want what’s best for her.
I should go with him back to his place and give Chloe and myself a break from each other.
I don’t know if I want to go anywhere with him, with his hair all lopped off. I tell Luke I can’t go with him, that I have some important reading to do. I have books that are due at the library tomorrow, and I have to read.
He says I should come over later, after I’m done reading. Or before. He’ll read out loud to me. I can just lay back and relax.
I ask him if he really wants to read Adrienne Rich out loud.
He hugs me, and his shorter hair falls forward and down into my face, and he says he wants to read everything out loud.
I get to Luke’s around two in the morning and have to bang real hard on the door for a few minutes to wake him up.
I ask what happened.
He tells me he was asleep.
But it’s not that—it’s the hair.
He got it cut.
He just got a trim, that’s all.
But it’s plural inches gone, and now that that loss is right in front of me, I’m not feeling like a confrontation anymore, just feeling like going back home and crying. Everyone’s leaving me.
Luke sits on the couch and puts me in his lap and wants to know what the hell I’m talking about.
I tell him that’s it. Chloe and Kris are going to get married and move to Detroit and have drum babies. He’s going to become an accountant.
Luke asks when’s the last time I wrote a poem. He talks about poetry like it’s menstruation.
I just give him a look like hell.
He says he’s not going to become an accountant. He’s an artist, and I’m a poet. He tells me to bring something over tomorrow, something for his next piece. He wants me to be a part of it, a part of the creation, the vision. He wants me to add meaning.
Chloe and I pick at our macaroni and cheese on the couch in front of the TV. She has it on MTV and her mix tape playing at the same time.
She says there’s nothing wrong with being a shorthaired drummer. She says it’s better than pretending to be something that you’re not. Anything is.
I ask her who she’s talking about now.
She says I know who she’s talking about, and I better admit it before there’s nothing left.
Nothing left of what?
That’s exactly what she’s talking about.
Luke’s cut his hair again. I can tell over the phone, his voice not quite the same scratchy as we’re talking about grilled cheese sandwiches, this feeling like he’s deserting me. I drive over to his place, and it’s true.
I ask him what happened to his hair.
He says they didn’t take enough off so he went back.
I want to know why.
Because it’s fucking hot, and it’s his hair, and he’s the one who has to lug it around all day.
I want to know how much hair lugging a person who spends the entire day in bed or on the couch can possibly do.
Luke gets up and goes into the bathroom and slams the door.
I follow him and yell at him through the door. I don’t understand why he wants to hurt me. Does he plan on becoming an accountant? Why bother with all this art stuff anyway, if it doesn’t mean anything?
Luke wants to know why bother with me. He opens the door. It wasn’t locked. He says he never locks me out. That there’s always an in. He walks through the living room to the front door and opens it. He asks what I want, his hair or him.
I can’t believe he’s asking me that. I walk over to the door. I just barely slow down to inhale him, to check his hands for paint spots, as I walk through.
I offer to help Chloe cut up vegetables for a salad. She’s on a diet, popped over a hundred again. She thinks no one under five-four is allowed to weigh that much.
She tells me I can wash and dry the lettuce. She hates her hands getting all cold from the wet.
I tell her how Luke’s becoming an accountant.
She asks me what I think long hair means, if the longhairs are the only ones who get souls.
I say it’s a sign of what’s on the inside.
She says what’s on the inside is a sign of what’s on the inside.
I say there’s no way to tell.
She tells me that I’m a secretary just like her, that moving from building to building doesn’t make it any different. That it makes it worse, restless. That lying to yourself only makes it more true.
I say I have to eat.
She says I’m the one who’s all about outsides.
There’s no way to tell.
I have a one-day gig as a receptionist, but the office isn’t busy, so I write lists on the legal pad next to the phone. Busy work, lists of words organized by vowel sound. During my lunch half-hour, I walk around the block a few times. There’s a couple of teenagers on the bus bench making out like the bus is headed right for them. They’re there every time I walk around.
As I’m leaving the desk, for the day, forever, I grab one of the pink phone-message pads from the top drawer and drop it into my bag. I figure I can take it over to Luke’s. He can use it in his next piece. I figure I can make something up about its meaning.
Jennifer Gravley makes her way in Columbia, Missouri, where she studies library science. Her work has appeared in Paper Nautilus, Laurel Review, and other magazines.