Written by Paul Orlando Caggegi
Jennifer was still sleeping when I left her bed, yesterday morning. I knew what I was setting myself up for; I could taste the guilt in the back of my mouth, feel the slap on my face and hear those fateful words already: men, you're all the same.
But I had to do it, I told myself, I had to leave them before... what? Before they beat me to the punch? Is that the only reason I did it? The car seat leather felt lonely and cold as I slipped inside my car, and the seat belt hugged me with a freshness and a smile that said 'so glad to see you again, I'd thought you'd left me for good'. I looked out at the purple sky and immediately, I thought of Julia. All of a sudden, it was her I was leaving, and not Jennifer.
I sighed and left the unturned keys in the ignition. This always seems to happen - at least, since I had the misfortune of meeting Julia Salinger. Not the part about how every girl I date somehow becomes her, no, that goes without saying. I'm talking about the part where I am about to do something because I thought it would be good for me, and all I can think of is how Julia will see it.
I started my car - the engine roared to life, giving premature haste to the day - and I immediately turned it off again. Why should I care what Julia thinks? It's not as if she's here, let alone part of my life. She's with that... Griffin guy, after all. Married, for Heck's sake. Last I hear, in the process of divorce. Did I stand around in her head and cry 'I told you so'? No, I accepted it, and moved on. Just like I took it on the chin when she told me that she was happier without me (in enough words to fill a TV soap episode, no less).
A flock of pigeons flew across the sky. Kind of early for birds like that to be circling. I looked up at Jennifer's window. An image from five minutes ago superimposed itself over my vision, and I saw her sleeping: her long, dark hair fell about her pillows in curls and coils. A single strand was strung across her mouth like a gag. I was putting on my sneakers as she lay there. I wondered if she was still sleeping. The light came on, and a guy opened the window, and just then I realised that I was looking at the wrong floor.
Did I have time to rectify my error? Could I go back up there, undress myself and slip back under her embrace? Tom Cruise in "Mission Impossible 2" would not be capable of such a feat. I had gotten as far as my car, which meant I had two choices: one was leave and wait in fear for the one-sided phone call, or I could come up with a damned good excuse.
I was just about to start my car up again when Jennifer opened the passenger side door and got in. She was still dressed in her boxers and sport's bra. I was snug in my overcoat, and felt guilty as her lips were already blue.
"What are you doing?" I asked, incredulously.
"What am I...? No, you don't get to ask that, mister one-night-stand. Uh-uh. No fucking way."
Was she mad? "So what do I get to say?" I replied, trying to act oblivious.
"You get to kiss my ass, you no good, sorry son of a bitch. What the hell do you think I am?"
"No, you're not saying a single goddamn word, Justin! What you were about to do... no, what you are... no - what you did is gutless. And I just wanted you to know that. You screwed me and now you're taking off."
"If you'll just let me..."
"What did I just say?"
There was no sound but the silent vibrations of her fuming. The car now smelled of morning breath. I remember noticing that. I looked for the pigeons, but they were no longer in the sky.
"Why do you guys always do this?"
I paused before I spoke. "Am I allowed to answer that?"
She looked at me. Her lips were no longer blue, but a rich pink. A single tear fell from her eye. "I just came down here to tell you that you're scum, Justin. Just so you'd know. And just so you don't think I wanted to beat you to the punch, or anything, I'm not that type of girl."
And with that, she got out of my car, and went back up to her apartment.
Not knowing what else to do, I started my car again - this time I envisaged the disapproval of a thousand strangers rolling over in their beds, telling me to keep it down. I revved the engine and took off, down to the bay. There was place there, a place I knew would be open.
I parked the car about fifty yards up from it, then walked down. I must have looked like James Dean, strolling with my coat lapels up, my hair in unkempt vertical spikes - I didn't have a cigarette, and I don't smoke, but the early morning cold would have given the illusion that I did, as I huffed plumes of fog from my mouth and nose.
The bread guy was up, standing behind his nipple-high window display of hot goodies. I found him staring out across the street into space, but I was sure that he'd been staring ever since he'd finished the last batch of bread. If I had his job, I'd probably sit and read a book, knowing that no one but would show up until at least eight or so. Unless they'd just crawled out of some girl's bed.
"You're up early," he said.
"Jogging never did any harm at this time."
"You always jog in your coat?"
"Yeah, it's freezing."
He gave me a look that told me that it was too early for a wise-ass. "What'll it be?" he asked, reaching for a pair of tongs.
"I'll be happy to partake of one of your fine danishes." I said.
"English major, huh? You study up at the college."
"Yeah, how'd you know?"
"It's all over your face."
He was Italian for sure - portly and unshaven, put him in a suit and you'd watch your mouth for fear he'd pop a cap in your sorry, squealing ass. I liked him well enough, but for the moment, all I wanted was to drown my guilt in sugar and pastry.
"Parting is such sweet sorrow" I quoted as I handed him the money. I walked back to my car and sat in the driver's seat to nibble at my danish. I vaguely thought of a dirty joke Julia once told me a long time ago, about how many shots of vodka it takes to wash away the taste of phallatio. If it applied to guys, there had to be a sugar standard that could be transferred to danishes.
The Julia in my head was not impressed. 'What were you thinking, Justin?' she said to me. I could tell she was mad. 'I mean, you used that girl.'
"I didn't use her, Jesus!" I said, out loud, and immediately thanked God that no one was around at this hour of the morning. "We both knew it wouldn't have gone anywhere. I was just beating her to the obvious end."
'You used her for the sex, at least that's what it looks like.'
"Well it's not, Julia, you know it's not. You know me better than anyone else, damn it." I yelled. "I'm a guy, sure, but does that make me bad? I know loads of women who do the same thing to me all the time. Anyway, it's not as if I did it for your approval. I did it, fine, and you saw what happened! I did it, I'm scum; you think you're so perfect because you're a girl, because you get to lie there and take it? You think you're on the good side because you're a victim?" I yelled at the imaginary Julia Salinger who was sitting in the passenger seat, knowing straight away that what I said was so unfair.
She sat there - I could actually see her, dressed in Jenifer's boxer shorts and sport's bra, huffing a plume of off-white morning breath - and gave me that look of dissaproval I know so well. The one where she squints and shakes her head ever so slightly, then looks away. 'There was a better way of saying what needed to be said than avoiding it, Justin.'
Suddenly, the danish tasted sour, and I couldn't take another bite. I knew I couldn't go back to Jennifer's place - she wouldn't let me apologise, even if I was genuine. I couldn't go back to San Francisco, Julia didn't want me in her life.
Yet why did I feel as though I had no choice but to have her in mine? It began to snow. A memory played nostalgia - the lonely guy's favourite tune - and I remember Christmas in San Francisco with Julia Salinger, and how far away her laughter sounded.